Wednesday, January 5

God does not exist.

I've not said anything about the tsunami, because... well, what's to say? It's appalling, obviously. Quarter of a million killed in a few minutes, for no particular reason, selected by luck. Nothing anyone can say can do justice to that — as is evident from the sickeningly awful prose ITN's reporters have been using. I feel sympathy, pity, and horror. No point in dressing them up.

However, over at Harry's Place, Brownie discusses religious faith in the light of the tsunami. This is something I will comment on.

A year or so ago, a friend of my wife had a daughter born with anopthalmia. That’s no eyes, to you and me. I recall asking how a just and merciful God could allow such a thing?

Six months ago, my wife gave birth to our second child. Two eyes, two ears, 10 fingers and toes and, it has transpired, no known affliction, defect or disease. I look at my new daughter and cannot be anything other than convinced of the existence of a greater power.


Kind of surprising to see that on a supposedly Socialist, egalitarian website, I have to say. The fact that your child was given an advantage over your friend's confirms to you that a higher power must be at work? Have you explained this to your friend? "When I look at my perfectly formed child, and I look at your child, with no eyes, I realise that there must be a kind and benevolent God at work." If a mere politician dishes out arbitrary and random punishments to the innocent, the bloggers at Harry's Place are — rightly — first in line with condemnations. But God did it, so it's OK.

Faced with such a human calamity, my preference would be for a colossal hand to have reached from the Christmas night sky to cup each wave and assuage the fury of the sea. But is this truly the role of an Almighty? To intervene wherever and whenever disaster beckons?


No, the role of the almighty would be not to cause the disaster in the first place. It's a bit of a get-out for Christians, that, isn't it? According to their religion, God controls the universe. Humans may have free will — and I certainly see their point when they explain why God should not prevent human evil — but planets don't; tectonic plates don't. Christianity has, for many centuries, been at the forefront of the battle against purely scientific explanations of natural phenomena. Then something like this comes along, and suddenly it's just a natural catastrophe, not caused by God, but merely potentially preventable by God. At the very least, this is a climbdown for the Christians. Does your God control the universe or not? The Bible says he does. The Bible says that he is perfectly willing to intervene when it comes to smiting enemies with vengeful wrath, no matter how many innocents may get caught in the crossfire. But, when it comes to intervening to save innocents, you want to make excuses for why he shouldn't have to bother.

Or must the world be rid of all sorrow before religious faith can be rationalized?


We're not talking about all sorrow here. We're talking about sorrow caused by God. According to your religion, that is.

There are many decent arguments against the existence of God, but the disaster that befell SE Asia in early hours of Boxing Day is not one of them


No, it isn't, but it is a logically unassailable argument agaisnt the existence of a merciful, benevolent, kind, omnipotent God. Kind or omnipotent? Pick one.

For every victim who blames God, there is a lucky survivor thanking Him and a desperately searching family member praying to Him.


Again with the selfishness. "Hey, God wiped out your whole family, but saved me. Isn't he wonderful?"

In the comments to Brownie's post, Polyanna reels out the usual stuff about ineffable plans:

If there is a God, why assume that he's benevolent from our limited standpoint? Might he not have plans for his creation which transcend our preferences, especially if (as the likes of Dawkins maintain) homo sapiens is only one current vehicle for the transmission of genetic information? Our species of large mammal is too egocentric sometimes.


This is a perfectly good argument for why the tsunami doesn't disprove God's existence, but it raises another issue, which Christians always seem reluctant to address: if God is acting in the interests of some greater plan that might just involve our extinction, why on Earth would we worship him? When a human behaves like that, he's a tyrant: Saddam had greater plans for Iraq that didn't involve the survival of individual Iraqis. Those silly Iraqi rebels, complaining about being tortured to death: couldn't they see that Saddam's plans transcended their preferences? They were just so egocentric.

If God can't do anything for us, I see no point in bothering with him. If God can help us, yet chooses to use that power to wipe out millions of people, then he is a despot, and we have a moral duty to rebel against him. According to the Bible, he wants us to believe in him and to worship him. That sounds to me like a bloody good reason not to.

God does not exist. But, if he does, he can fuck off.

20 comments:

andy said...

Amen.

Ian Grey said...

I've been reading "The Religion Wars" by Scott Adams, the Dilbert Bloke. He proposes the catchphrase:

"If God is so smart, why do we fart?"

su lizhen said...

As you know, your last two brief sentences sum up my thoughts exactly, too. And the ones I was brought up with, thankfully.

Anonymous said...

There have been various posts over the last week or so on whether the tsunami proves that God does, or doesn’t, exist. But really it doesn’t work that way round. I knew a zoologist at university who told me he had reasoned to his own satisfaction that God doesn’t exist, because of a particular insect that lays its eggs inside the host body of a caterpillar of a different species – the larvae then hatch and eat the living host away from inside. My friend told me that in view of this fact, he had decided, by a chain of logical deduction, that he couldn’t believe in God.

But Sir Alec Guinness, in his memoirs, mentions the exact same caterpillar, admits that he has always found it very horrible and disturbing, but goes on to say that he remains, in spite of this knowledge, a devout Catholic.

In short, in the words of that quote from “Another Country”: “You are not a communist because you read Karl Marx – you read Karl Marx because you are a Communist.” The revelation is the part that comes first, and it’s the justification that follows. You’re not an atheist because of your take on the tsunami, ST … your take on the tsunami is a consequence on your being an atheist.

Hilary Wade

Squander Two said...

Of course I'm not an atheist because of my take on the tsunami. I've been an atheist for over twenty years. But that's a fairly patronising attitude for you to take. Plenty of devout Christians have become atheists in response to disasters down the years. What you're saying amounts to claiming that they were never really Christians in the first place. And, clever though that quote may look at first glance, I have to inform you of the obvious fact that Marx's writing has actually changed people's minds from time to time.

If your zoologist friend told you that he made his decision as the conclusion of a chain of logical deduction, then he knew what neither "logical" nor "deduction" meant. (I suspect that caterpillars don't believe in God.) There is no logical reason why God cannot exist. But to suggest that God is both omnipotent and kind towards humans is a logical fallacy, unless you broaden the meaning of "kind" so far that I may demonstrate my kindness towards the victims of this tsunami by refusing to give to any charity that might help them.

Ian said...

It doesn't have to be a major disaster either, if you can believe in a benevolent god after that one.

Anonymous said...

Did that sound patronising? It’s not meant to, and I’m sorry if it did. Essentially I was trying to argue that one can’t necessarily expect metaphysics to act as a subset of logic, using a couple of anecdotes to show the way that people can hold opposing religious beliefs in the face of the same evidence. I was being ironic about the zoologist’s “logic”. I’d hoped I’d made it implicit that he was justifying, as it were, after the event.

I didn’t mean to suggest – does it read that way? – that people are created as believers or unbelievers, and remain that way, immutably, throughout their lives. Of course they aren’t. People lose their faith, or have epiphanies, or go through periods of doubt or extreme certainty one way or the other, until the instant they die. Indeed, without the possibility of flux and change, I’m not sure whether you could actually have the option of free will. And obviously the exercise of free will is heuristic - because learning is a process of change.

What I should like to say, though, is that there is not necessarily a correlation between being on the direct receiving end of what looks to outsiders like a malign blow of Fate, and losing one’s faith. Over the years I have now and again met people who are suffering in ways that I hope I never do, and it is not at all apparent that they then tend to become atheists, as you suggest, in direct response to their experiences. Sometimes, indeed, the reverse appears to happen. As I have no way of scientifically detecting whether people are genuinely in a state of grace or just deluded I can’t say that this proves the existence of God one way or the other. What I can say is that I have had the experience of meeting people who seem to be in this state, not necessarily because Fate has been especially kind to them over the years, and although it is not a scientifically quantifiable phenomenon, it is also not an circumstance that I find it easy to dismiss or overlook.

Hilary Wade

Stephen said...

I'm not a Christian but since the Christians have sort of adopted our God I feel somewhat as though your comments on Christians are directed at my faith as well. I'm not a rabbi either so this is based on my own bound-to-be-imperfect understanding:

God does control the Universe, and while it's true that tectonic plates and planets do not have free will, they do behave in accordance with natural laws. If these laws were suspended on a large scale it would have a major impact on the free will of the humans who witnessed the suspension. As I understand it, the whole purpose of the Universe is to hide God from us, so that we can exercise our free will and try to grow. Our souls choose to descend to the physical realm, as someone once put it, like a person moving from a Fifth Avenue penthouse to a urine-soaked slum, precisely because it is only in the physical that growth is possible. The Universe is a mask, kind of like the Matrix, that we need to see through to see reality. Whatever challenges are given to us in this life (or that we choose, according to some opinions) are precisely the challenges we need in order to develop and grow our souls. Once we return to the higher worlds we have only the growth that we have achieved in life: further development is not possible (although returning to life seems to be an option according to most opinions).

So it's not what God can do for us: it's what we can do for ourselves in the tasks we have set for ourselves in the physical universe. If we had wanted to continue experiencing oneness with God and all that that entails we would never have chosen to leave the higher worlds: it's the very bitter harshness of the physical that makes the struggle meaningful and the growth worthwhile.

Obviously I can't condense a centuries-old tradition into a few sentences without it sounding a bit potted (or even potty), but that's kind of where I'm up to in trying to make sense of it all, for what it's worth...

Squander Two said...

>> Essentially I was trying to argue that one can’t necessarily expect metaphysics to act as a subset of logic, using a couple of anecdotes to show the way that people can hold opposing religious beliefs in the face of the same evidence. <<

Well, you're showing a total misunderstanding of logic, then. Yes, metaphysics does have to obey the rules of logic, because the rules of logic are that basic and fundamental. God either exists or doesn't; he does not both exist and not exist at the same time. That's logic. If God is omnipresent, then God is on my desk. That's logic. Showing that people can draw different conclusions from the same evidence tells you plenty about humans and absolutely nothing about logic.

We can't logically prove or disprove the existence of God (or trolls, or talking goats, or leprechauns, or plum fairies), but we can make logical arguments based on definitions. Like I said: omnipotent or kind — pick one. We know what omnipotence is; we know what kindness is. The existence of both an omnipotent and kind God and the recent tsunami is simply a logical impossibility. I am genuinely keen on hearing any theist way round that problem. The usual one is the ineffability argument, which is another way of saying that God just treats us as disposable pawns, which inclines me to fight him, not to worship him. Got any others?


>> Over the years I have now and again met people who are suffering in ways that I hope I never do, and it is not at all apparent that they then tend to become atheists, as you suggest, in direct response to their experiences. <<

I didn't suggest that. I said that plenty of, not most, people have lost their faith in response to disasters. If it were the general trend, Christianity wouldn't have survived the Middle Ages.


>> I have had the experience of meeting people who seem to be in this state, not necessarily because Fate has been especially kind to them over the years, and although it is not a scientifically quantifiable phenomenon, it is also not an circumstance that I find it easy to dismiss or overlook. <<

No argument with you there. Religion certainly has a profound effect on many people's psyches, and I don't doubt that it helps many people to get through this sort of tragedy. If people want to believe in their gods, let 'em: no skin off my nose. But there's a big, big difference between comforting and correct, and between useful and correct. And, while I don't go rushing into churches looking for an argument, if someone wants to post some quite appallingly offensive nonsense about how God must exist because he only hurts other people, and we shouldn't criticise him because we're not important enough to complain when he arbitrarily kills our friends and families, then I shall respond. I don't actually care whether God exists. What Brownie posted was disgusting regardless.

As an aside, I'll say that none of this applies to Hindus. Religion fits far better into the observable world when you believe that gods are (a) merely powerful, rather than omnipotent, and (b) sometimes bad.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Stephen, that's a philosophy I probably know far too little about ... and on first impressions find somewhat disquieting.

In response to Squander's suggestion that the nature of God is subject to "logically unassailable" arguments, can I just add that the best essay ever on the limits of Logic was actually written by an ordained clergyman, and can be found here:

http://www.angelfire.com/nj/niniane/tortoise.html

Hilary Wade

Squander Two said...

Stephen,

All fair points, and not what the Bible says. According to the Bible, God has at times pulled stunts such as knocking down the walls of entire cities and even stopping the sun from crossing the sky. That would surely make faith pretty easy.

As for natural laws, well, God created the laws and God is omniscient, so any result of those laws is according to his intention.

Stephen said...

You're right, in the time of the Bible God was far more active in interfering with the laws of nature. There are various reasons given for why this has changed, but I probably won't do them justice, so let me just say they exist and leave it at that.

The omniscience problem is a problem not just for natural laws but for free will as well: I'm reading an interesting book at the moment that looks at it, but I don't feel I have a good enough grasp of the argument yet. One thing that has a bearing is the issue of God being outside time (time being an attribute of the Universe).

Squander Two said...

Hilary,

I'm a big Carroll fan, but that is certainly not that brilliant an essay. Since Carroll was so fond of clever logical proofs, I very much doubt that he would have written that if he'd lived long enough to read Godel. What the tortoise is saying in that essay applies to arithmetic, but not to first-order logic. That being said, I have to say that it's a bit rich for the religiously faithful to attempt to criticise a belief system on the grounds that it relies on unprovable assumptions.

So, do you have any explanations of how to reconcile kindness with omnipotence? It's a genuine question, which, so far, you've just avoided.


Stephen,

Yes, omniscience is a huge problem for free will. You can get out of it by claiming that God is outside of time, but that time is a property of the universe is a discovery of modern physics that completely contradicts the account in Genesis.

Anonymous said...

Squander,

I’m afraid you’re a bit ahead of me here. I’m very pleased that you are a Carroll fan, but I think the original essay and the “Godel-Escher-Bach” tribute riffs are just completely brilliant, and there is no way I could have produced them. I just admire. My own understanding of the significance of Carroll’s essay was that, in order for logic not to get into self-referential loops of the sort that traps Achilles, you have to treat it in precisely the same way as arithmetic, i.e., as a formal system. You’re saying this isn’t the case, I think? Plus, does this mean you think that, if the – correct me if this is hopelessly wrong – modus ponens hadn’t been exposed and refined as a result of Carroll’s article, could Godel have devised his famous system at all? I write not as an expert logician but as an interested layman who thinks discussions like this one are the best thing about the Internet.

Anyhow, really, my own standpoint at present comes from Hofstadter (so there you are, it’s now open to attack) - that is, if God is everywhere, he’s not only on your desk but in even more unlikely places like Hell (one of the Psalms I think) and in paradoxes and nonsense and Zen koans, and if God chooses to be bound by a set of formal rules (“nothing that implies contradiction lies under the omnipotence of God”), what that means for us mortals is that we can take it as an act of faith that miracles will be rare, the impossible won’t become possible – Babel fish won’t spring into existence, black won’t become white – but we can’t go on to deduce that it is the nature of God to be circumscribed by those rules, because that implies that they are being imposed from outside by some kind of meta-Deity. And that would be God as well, by definition. And that would be ... etc. That’s what I mean by metaphysics not being a subset of logic.

I don’t have any comforting answer about the kindness/omnipotence question, I’m afraid. Actually I thought it was a bit off-thread, as I was trying to stick to logic and stuff, though if I was going to be picky I’d point out that “omnipotence <> kindness” does not have the Boolean austerity of “omnipotence <> non-omnipotence” because it requires us to make assumptions about the definitions of God, omnipotence, kindness etc which are the assumptions you reach in your conclusion, and ought not to be included in your premise. (Which is what I meant about justifying after the event). However, if you’ve not read it already, I suggest that one place to start is the “Omnipotence” chapter in “The Problem of Pain” which talks about more or less this difficulty – Lewis revised his ideas later on, but it’s an interesting place to start. Alternatively, find an educated clergyman! Good luck.

Hilary Wade

Squander Two said...

Hilary,


>> My own understanding of the significance of Carroll’s essay was that, in order for logic not to get into self-referential loops of the sort that traps Achilles, you have to treat it in precisely the same way as arithmetic, i.e., as a formal system. You’re saying this isn’t the case, I think? <<

No, I'm saying that Carroll's insight was later investigated further and refined, and it turns out that very simple logical systems can be proven valid from within themselves. Carroll is pointing out a truth that does apply to arithmetic and to the more complex logical systems, but first-order classical logic is simple enough to escape the problem. Hence, in its modern version, Achilles would be able to escape the loop of constantly refering back to the same assumption by refering to the other assumptions upon which it rests, until he ended up with something inherently provable, which is more difficult for the tortoise to disagree with. (More precisely, yeah, the tortoise can still disagree, but would be generally regarded as idiotic for doing so.) I think Carroll, had he read Godel, would have incorporated the distinction between complete and incomplete logics into his essay — how could he not? (And yes, of course Godel might not have written his work were it not for Carroll. Then again, he might.)


>> if God chooses to be bound by a set of formal rules ... we can’t go on to deduce that it is the nature of God to be circumscribed by those rules, because that implies that they are being imposed from outside by some kind of meta-Deity. And that would be God as well, by definition. And that would be ... etc. <<

No point arguing about this one, really, as it's unprovable either way, but I completely disagree with that. I don't see logic as a set of rules; it's a description of reality as is. If what you're saying is true, then we have to accept that God is not God and that God is God. Regardless of his existence, that's just nonsense — and, yet again, contrary to the Bible.

But, even if we accept that, so what? You're saying that God is infinitely kind but reserves the right to tell us what "kind" means, even to the extent of telling us how kind he is while he tortures us to death. If that God exists, I won't worship him.

The kindness/omnipotence question is hardly off-thread: it's central to the entire post.

>> it requires us to make assumptions about the definitions of God, omnipotence, kindness etc which are the assumptions you reach in your conclusion, and ought not to be included in your premise. (Which is what I meant about justifying after the event). <<

No, you're confusing two separate arguments here: the definition of kindness is, yes, the conclusion of one argument about kindness; whether God meets that definition is another argument. Indeed, in my first response to you, I pointed out that redefining "kindness" is one way around the problem. Feel free to claim that God is kind in an arbitrarily-killing-millions-of-innocent-people sort of a way. Fine. I would say that (a) you've misdefined "kindness", in that your definition would be recognised by no-one with any familiarity with the concept, and (b) even if that is some sort of genuine kindness, it's a type which earns no respect from me.

You could try redefining "omnipotent", but I think it's too definite to be defined away. Either you're all-powerful or you aren't. If God has the power to do anything, he has the power to stop earthquakes.

And, like you said, you could certainly redefine God, and, like I said, non-omnipotent non-kind gods don't run into this difficulty.


Enough of this rambling. I'm going to blog about something trivial.

Anonymous said...

Bother! You're so wrathful that I really think you have the potential to become really devout, probably far more so than me. Is this discussion over, then?

HW

Squander Two said...

Cynical and devout don't mix.

I was refering to my own rambling, not yours. Comment all you like. It makes my blog look popular. But I'm unlikely to respond for a while, as I have to tame The Garden Of Doom.

Cheers.

jo

Anonymous said...

Your error here is that you are defining kindness in human terms on a human scale. If you are going to argue Christian theology, you need to deal with all of its premises, not just the ones that happen to support your case.

The key one here that you are missing is the immortality of souls. With that axiom, death simply isn't a big deal. Moreover, any finite time scales we can think of are effectively equivalent. I.e., there's not much difference between 1 second of suffering and 100 years after, say, 10 billion years of after life. It's like a kid wrecking his RC car. He's very upset about it but he'll get over it and you're hardly an unkind parent because you allowed it to happen.

e m butler said...

so dilbert thinks farts disprove god??

I understand rats cant fart but die from the entrapped gasses...so farts are a good thing and are just a social disgrace... Earthquakes are earth farts... the alternative might just be much worse..

Squander Two said...

>> Your error here is that you are defining kindness in human terms on a human scale. <<

My definition of kindness is roughly the same as the one given by Jesus in the New Testament.


>> The key one here that you are missing is the immortality of souls. <<

No, I didn't miss that, thanks, which is why I addressed the issue in my post. I'll just add that your point is the reasoning used by Christians down the ages to justify murder and torture; that's what the Inquisition said.