Over at “Why Evolution is True”, Jerry Coyne has made a post I’m deeply disappointed with and would like to rant on. It’s about a new book that, it seems, provides the standard (Scholastic) proofs for god, focusing on the arguments from Contingency (god must exist to support the existence of all other things) and an argument from Divine Simplicity (God exists because good, beauty, etc. exist, and god is identical to them). Coyne is actually responding here to another atheist (?), Oliver Burkeman, that scolds atheists for not facing such arguments and pointing to the new book as something they should read to contend with them. Unfortunately, Cyone demonstrates in his response precisely why Burkmen is right. So I’m going to write this post to demonstrate and bemoan this fact.
1. Anthropomorphism vs. Theology
Cyone begins his post by noting that the theologian’s god isn’t the normal believer’s god.
“The vast majority of believers don’t even read theology, and are barely aware of the arguments for God made by Sophisticated Theologians™. So is it our real duty as atheists to refute those arcane theological arguments, or to prevent the harm done by religion?
Well, that depends on your goals. If you want to have social impact – sure, go ahead and demolish the less sophisticated and common views. But all people also want to be right. If you want to believe in the right thing, and you believe in atheism – then you need to look at the best arguments for god, not at the most common views.
I want to be right. It’s what draws me to philosophy. And delving into theology is fun, too, as Coyne says. So this is why I vote for going after the theologian’s god. (As well as the common one, of course; we can do both.)
There is another point to be made here, however. I don’t believe most believers are as shallow as Coyne makes them out to be. He points to polls showing great belief in demons, for example, as evidence against belief in Sophisticated Theology. But I think many believers – theologians and laypeople – do both. A religious person might think of “demons” and hold rites to exorcise them, for example, yet maintain that this is an anthropomorphic allusion to, say one “inner demons”. Certainly many people will go fully anthropomorphic, but still.
2. Irrefutable because it’s untestable
Coyne then discusses three interpretations of “the opposition’s strongest case”. I have no big beef with the first two. It’s the third one that sets the tone of his post, however, and boy does he get this one wrong. It’s so wrong I don’t know where to begin, so let’s just go over it slowly.
“…people like Hart have proposed conceptions of God that are so nebulous that we can’t figure out what they mean.
No. The concepts of a “Necessary Being” or “Divine Simplicity” may be incoherent, but they aren’t particularly nebulous. The problem with traditional theology isn’t that it’s nebulous – it’s that it’s wrong.
And because they are not only obscure but don’t say anything about the nature of God that can be compared to the way the universe is, they can’t be refuted. To any rationalist or scientist, this automatically rules them out of rational consideration, for if an observation comports with everything, and can’t be disproven, it is totally useless as an explanation of reality.
First of all – the phrasing of the scientific method here is awful. If a theory [not an observation] equally comforts with everything [theories need to make predictions, not iron-clad predictions] then it can’t be verified [never “disproven”, and not only falsification but also positive verification is possible], and belief in it cannot be empirically justified [which does not mean that it’s useless as an explanation; consider, e.g., interpretations of quantum theory].
But the whole point is that the theologian claims his theory is justified by pure reason – by philosophy alone. He claims, for example, that only god can explain existence. We need to show why this non-empirical argument is wrong – not to dismiss it out of hand because it isn’t empirical.
I might as well say that there’s an invisible teddy bear that sustains the universe, and without my Ineffable Teddy there would be no cosmos. But nobody can see that bear, for he is the Ursine Ground of Being: ineffable and undetectable, though his Bearness permeates and supports everything.
You might. And to counter that I’d need to argue in turn why it is unreasonable to assume existence requires such ursine support. I could not dismiss the theory for lack of empirical evidence, for the theory has been designed to be immune to such empirical evidence. C’est la vie – you need to contend with the actual hypothesis being raised, not with what you want the hypothesis to be.
On this “ground of being”, Coyne continues
Not only is this meaningless (I’ll read Hart’s book to see if I can suss out any meaning), but it’s also untestable. And there is not an iota of evidence for such a God, so on what grounds should we believe it?
The “meaningless” here refers to things such as ” God is what grounds the existence of every contingent thing, making it possible, sustaining it through time, unifying it, giving it actuality. God is the condition of the possibility of anything existing at all”. I don’t think that’s meaningless. I think it’s not true, and even ultimately incoherent – but that’s not the same as “meaningless”. [Just like “1+1=3” is not true and ultimately incoherent in that it’s self-contradicting, but yet it isn’t at all meaningless.] Coyne is simply failing to understand the opposition.
What follows is, in a sense, even worse – from lack of understanding to sheer ignorance.
Hart claims that this is the conception of God that has prevailed throughout most of history, but I seriously doubt that. Aquinas, Luther, Augustine: none of those people saw God in such a way. And it’s certainly not the view that prevails now, as you can easily see by Googling a few polls.
Seriously ? Coyne can’t recognize this extremely traditional theological fare as the standard Scholastic view, held in the West all over the middle ages ? By Christians, Muslims, and Jews ? The view most certainly held by Aquinas (he gave the formulation of the argument from contingency!).
I’m not sure about Augustine (he certainly saw god as perfection; not sure about being the ground of being, however). Luther I’m not clear on, but he basically marks the end of the Scholastics anyway (“Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light”).
It is certainly not the view that prevails now. But we’re talking about the “the opposition’s strongest case”, remember ? And while it’s not easy to judge what is the best case without delving into the options first, it is at least initially plausible that an idea held by so many philosophers/theologians for so long should be on the short list of contenders. Something we should look into, to verify that we’re holding the correct view.
I can make up yet another God with just as much supporting evidence Hart’s: God is a deistic God who has always been there but has done nothing. He didn’t even create the universe: he let that happen according to the laws of physics, from which universes can arise via fluctuations in a quantum vacuum. My God is just sitting there, watching over us all, but only for his amusement. He’s ineffable and indolent.
I claim that my Coyneian God is just as valid as Hart’s God, for neither can be tested, and thus there’s no reason to believe in either.
Once again – the point is that Hart (the Scholastics in general) are raising arguments why their god is to be believed in, even though there is no empirical evidence to support that theory. You can’t raise another empirically untestable god and claim that he is just as likely simply because they’re both untestable [that smacks more of modern, “reformed”, theology]. You need to actually show why the Coynian God is as likely as the Scholastic God, or (preferably) to simply show why the Scholastic God is improbable.
Burkeman writes, explicitly, “If you think this God-as-the-condition-of-existence argument is rubbish, you need to say why… the question isn’t a scientific one, about which things exist. It’s a philosophical one, about what existence is and on what it depends.”. Right on. Coyne in response replies…
Therefore it’s immune to refutation. Whether God “is” now depends, as Bill Clinton anticipated, on what your definition of “is” is.
Aha. And Coyne’s (and my!) position that God doesn’t exist depends on what the definition of “is” too. Welcome to Philosophy 101. Now if you want to make a metaphysical claim (such as that God doesn’t exist / Scientific Realism is correct) then go ahead and make the philosophical case for it, instead of complaining one needs to make a philosophical case for one’s metaphysics.
Cyone then complains that history isn’t a good argument.
Hart wrong in claiming that his conception of God is valid since it’s the one embraced most consistently through “the history of monotheism,” but, as all scientists know, how widely something is accepted is no evidence for its validity. … just because a bunch of Sophisticated Theologians™ agreed on God as a Sustainer of the Universe and Ground of All Being does not make it so. Why on earth does that argument have any force at all?
Just because a bunch of very smart guys, from the days of Aristotle to Luther, believed something doesn’t mean it’s true. But it is enough, I think, to merit intellectual consideration. It’s something that’s so big in our intellectual history that one should check it out before ruling it out. That’s all.
Let’s skip ahead. For his last point, Coyne notes that Hart argues that we pursue God when we pursue Good – again, fairly standard fare, (wrongly) equating the abstraction of “good” with the actual existence of good, and incoherently identifying Good with God (the doctrine of Divine Simplicity). Coyne replies
If you define God as simply the set of our most admirable aspirations, then of course God exists. But you could also define God as the set of our most unpalatable aspirations: greed, duplicity, criminality, and so on. And that kind of god could also exist by definition: as the Ground of All Evil. I claim that, in fact, there’s just as much evidence for that god as there is for Hart’s God.
That’s abysmally failing to grasp the (very poor) Scholastic argument. The idea isn’t that any set of aspirations exists and grounds being. It is rather that a certain set of aspirations is such that each is identical to the others and also identical to God. This is sheer nonsense, but it’s just not the argument Coyne is arguing against !
Coyne finishes by addressing several questions to Hart. I’ll give brief Scholastic-like answers to each, as I understand things.
1. On what basis do you know that God is a Ground-of-Being God instead of an anthropomorphic God? (In your answer, you cannot include as evidence the dubious claim that this is the kind of God that most people have accepted throughout history.)
Hart would seem to reply that he knows god is the ground of all being on the basis of knowing, from philosophical analysis, that our contingent existence requires a necessary being to ground it, and that this being is identical with the good, with beauty, and so on so that it deserves to be worshiped and be called god.
I would reply that Hart’s metaphysics is baseless if not totally unsound, and his doctrine of divine simplicity is on the deep end of the latter.
2. How do you know that your Ground-of-Being god embodies truth, goodness, and beauty rather than lies, evil, and ugliness?
Hart would probably employ the standard Scholastic arguments to support such claims. I would reply that these presuppose that these are “perfections”, rather than abstractions that we value and nothing more.
3. What would the universe look like if your God didn’t exist?
Hart would probably reply that the universe would be impossible without god, just like it would be impossible to have a universe where “1+1” didn’t equal “2”. I would reply in turn that his god concept is incoherent, due to its Divine Simplicity, and implausible due to his essentialist (“transcendant”) metaphysics, and more, so that it’s likely that his god is impossible. And that if it was possible, the universe would look very different (due to the argument from evil and so on).
I haven’t read Hart (nor did Cyone), but this doesn’t appear to be new stuff. It’s all been done before. Coyne has read lots of philosophy of religion. I fail to see how he could not address such simple allusions to standard Scholastic philosophy and dismiss them as they should be dismissed, at the philosophical level.