Reposting an Old Argument

Daniel suggests, reference the Richard Dawkins video below, that I repost an old piece disproving Atheism.  That piece was written in the very first days of Grim's Hall, when I was a rather different man than I have since become; but reading it over, the main thing I disagree with (aside from my once-more-confrontational tone) is that one cannot prove the existence of 'any god.'  I think Avicenna's argument for the necessary existent is pretty solid; but I hadn't encountered it at the time.

I might also, today, extend my critique of his alleged disproofs of God; but only because he was lazy about them, having apparently not bothered to read the philosophers whose conclusions he was disparaging.  It's not as if Aquinas or Gersonides was unaware of the issue, or without arguments in support of their views.  As all of you have come to know from hanging around here, though, some of the old philosophers are harder to assail than you'd think.  Aquinas, for example, is a thinker whose proofs are often very demanding for a modern reader -- the forms of argument are more sophisticated than moderns are used to encountering.

So, with that as preface, here's an old piece from 2003.

The Raving Atheist:
The Raving Atheist has decided to break lances with me over this post. I've promised him a reply, and I am a man of my word. It will be a bit lengthy.
The Easy Stuff First:
First, RA suggests I "didn't get" his point, which was that if Forn Sidr should spread into the USA, "American schools might soon be compelled to 'respect' ridiculous gods such as Thor and Odin in the same way that they now respect the ridiculous Christian god �- they would no longer be able to disparage the Norse deities as 'mythical.'" I did get the point, but did not bother to reply to it, since it is wrong on the facts:
1) "Forn Sidr" does exist in the United States, and has for about thirty years. It's recognized, under a variety of names, by the US military--you can find the chaplain's reference guide here. So, in fact, it's been around for quite a while, and no such troubles as RA forsees have erupted. I might have spent more time explaining this point, if I had expected to draw an audience who was unaware of heathenry.
2) Furthermore, as I did point out, I recall from my own schooling that the Christian Bible was taught as "literature," or as a source in history that could be questioned and analyzed as other sources. In those classes, the "Christian creation myth" was in fact discussed, using exactly that term--except that it was not "myth" but "myths," as there are two of them in Genesis. Analysis included an examination of why these two myths were probably not written in the order presented, and why the first one in particular was probably the work of a formal priestly class rather than a single author (such as Moses). Now, I went to school in the great state of Georgia, way down South in the Bible Belt. If Georgia can handle doing it that way, I think RA's complaints against the system may be a bit overheated.
Second: there is not in fact a constitutional right to avoid being disparaged. RA demonstrates this fairly clearly by carrying on as he does every day. No one has yet arrested--nor even sued him, so far as I know. The First Amendment protects my right to believe as I wish, but also his right to call me "crazy," which he does a bit later on down the blog. (A tip: if you are going to cite logic as the core of your belief system, it is a good idea to avoid the better known informal fallacies, e.g., ad hominem).
Third: I hardly suppose that "all religions are equally true." I do assert that Atheism is false. We'll get to that momently.
What I assert on the question of the truth of religion is this: excepting Atheism, it is not possible to say with certainty that any religion is false. That does not mean that they are all true; in fact, it does not mean that any of them are true. It means, only, that so long as the believer behaves himself honorably and doesn't cite his beliefs as a good reason for attacking me, my family, or my country, I'm glad to extend him the benefit of the doubt. If he does cite his beliefs as a reason for attacking us, I am glad to extend him the benefit of a burial according to the tenets of his faith.
With the easy stuff out of the way, we'll carry on to the harder stuff.
Forn Sidr:
Since it was Forn Sidr that was the inspiration for his original post, we'll start with that. RA links to his "proof of Atheism." I'll quote the first point in full, since the argument hinges on it:
First, there is no God. In fact, all definitions of the word �God� are either self-contradictory, incoherent, meaningless or refuted by empirical, scientific evidence. Although the nature of the disproof will necessarily vary with the god under review, I will usually be raving against the modern monotheistic (or triune) Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, having (in various permutations) the characteristics of being, conscious, all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), all-good (omnibenevolent), immaterial, transcendent. immutable, immortal, infinite, omnipresent, disembodied and eternal.Such a god is as much a contradiction in terms as a square circle, and thus logically impossible, for numerous reasons including the following:
1) Omnipotence is impossible because God would, at a minimum, be unable to limit his powers, e.g., make a stone he cannot lift; if he could make such a stone, then his inability to lift it would defeat his omnipotence;
2) God's omnipotence conflicts with his omniscience, because if God knows everything that is going to happen in advance, he cannot do anything in the present; he must simply watch the future unfold as previously foreseen, because changing anything would falsify his prior belief concerning the future;
3) God's omnipotence precludes him from having knowledge of any sensations or emotions associated with weakness, e.g., fear, frustration, despair, sickness, etc., and thus conflicts with him omniscience;
4) God's omniscience precludes him from having knowledge of any emotions associated with surprise or anticipation, and thus conflicts with itself;
5) God's omniscience conflicts with his disembodiedness, since a being without a body could not know how to drive, swim, or perform any activity associated with having a body;
6) God's omniscience conflicts with his omnibenevolence, since a morally perfect god could not have knowledge of feelings of hate, lust, or envy, or cruelty, etc.
7) God's omniscience and omnipotence conflict with his omnibenevolence, since a god who could prevent evil would do so unless he were unable to do so or unaware of the evil.
The gods of Forn Sidr--the Aesir and the Vanir--actually take part in none of the categories RA finds demonstrably impossible. None of them are all powerful, all knowing, all good (some of them, in fact, aren't particularly good at all), immutable, immortal, infinite, ominpresent, or eternal. They may be transcendent, depending on what you meant by the word; and as to whether or not they are immaterial or disembodied, that is I gather the subject of some debate.
Regardless, the various "omni-" aspects, on which the "proof" relies, simply aren't a problem for Forn Sidr. They make no claims to those properties. This "proof" that they do not exist doesn't touch on them at all.
Yet RA's original post on the subject said that this was "the one form of theology that can safely be declared false." Now, I understand RA himself is prepared to declare all forms of theology false. Still, it's interesting that he's chosen to pick on one that is not touched by his arguments.
On Atheism Generally:
RA holds: "To disprove atheism, one would have to prove the existence of a particular God of a particular religion." That is not true, however. The claim that "you can't prove that God exists" belongs to the Agnostic, an honorable fellow with whom I have no quarrel. The Atheist's claim is that "We can prove God does not exist." I admit that I am not able to prove the existence of any god. However, I can prove that it is impossible to prove the nonexistence of God.
Let's return to the claim that "god is as much a contradiction in terms as a square circle." Indeed. Here's the problem, though, lad: where can I find a square, or a circle?
This is not a flippant question. It touches on the limits of human knowledge. Both the square, and the circle, belong to the realm of mathematics. Mathematics only models the world. If you hand me a child's puzzle piece, and say that it is square, I'll point out that it is not, as it has three and not two dimensions. If you draw one on paper, it will still have depth (if you draw it with ink, which soaks into the paper) or height (if you draw it with a graphite pencil). Examine it closely, and you will find that its edges are not perfectly straight, as a the sides of a "square" must be. Draw a "line," if you will, and you'll append arrows to each end to show that it goes on forever--which it does, but only in theory.
The mathematical certainty you want to apply to the world applies only to the realm of math. In fact, it doesn't even apply there:
Thus, it came as a great surprise in the 1930's when it was formally proven that there exists an unlimited supply of math problems that fundamentally cannot be solved, whether by human or machine. Furthermore, it was shown that the very problem of determining if a math problem can be solved is undecidable.
Even in the realm of math, which is a wholly human creation, and deals exclusively with human concepts, certainty about the absolutes is not possible. Mathematics is a tool--it is, as I said above, a model. Its categories, though, do not accurately portray the world--they only model the world, simplifying it to keep the calculations manageable to human minds and such tools as we can build. Still the ultimate questions are beyond us, even in the simplified realm of math. Things become far more complicated when we pass beyond math into physics, biology, or history.
By the same token, it is not possible to prove the non-existence of God. Yes, it's true that "omnipotent" is a contradiction in terms. The terms, however, are human. They are limited, even as mathematical concepts are limited; and they break at the limits, even as our mathematical concepts prove finally unsolvable. Like mathematics, too, these concepts only attempt to model the world: they are not, in fact, the world. Not only are our concepts imperfect in themselves, but they are imperfect in their attempts at modelling reality. If you find that there are questions about the world you cannot answer, not even in theory, it is foolish to speak of proving that there is nothing beyond the edges of the universe. It is whistling past the graveyard.
The world is too big, and too strong, for us to hold it in our heads. Faced with that, there are no alternatives but three: to pretend it is not so, and that you can possess ultimate knowledge; to shriek in despair; or to bow your head with reverent awe. The first--Atheism falls here--is falseness and self-deception. The second is madness. The third alone allows proper respect for the power of the truth of the world, without destroying the man who recognizes it.
It is therefore the case that none of the religions of Men can be proven false, except Atheism, which has been.


Joseph W. said...

I dropped the "agnostic" label for "atheist" some years ago, without really changing what I think or why I think it. (And I hope I didn't become less honorable in the process.)

Outside of mathematics, there is very little that can be completely disproven. But like the of the human race, I certainly do disbelieve certain things because the weight of the evidence goes that way. (Because of one of your posts, I bought On Being Certain but I haven't read it yet, so I am interested to see what that'll teach mea about this. "Certainty" as a human emotion is professionally very interesting to me, as you might well imagine. So I may be flattering myself when I say I'm convinced by evidence.)

In the days when Uri Geller was big news, sometimes he got caught cheating. And some of his apologists would explain that he cheated that time, because he was under so much pressure to produce results, and naturally the pressure made his real powers harder to use. But on those other occasions, when he wasn't caught, he was using real powers. Now, my position on Geller and his psychic powers is what I call "disblief." Can I positively, mathematically disprove that he never used real telekinesis to bend a key? No. But am I going to declare myself "agnostic" on the subject? Hell, no.

For me, the existence of God is possible in the strictest sense of the word, but so extremely unlikely that disbelief is quite justified. And this more inclusive concept of atheism is more useful than the one you're discussing, because it fits more real people better.

Grim said...

It sounds like you're occupying a position that I am glad to endorse as reasonable, but disputing my label for it. Fair enough -- Elise's insistence on defending the label "feminist" is part of what prompted me to re-examine the contributions of the movement; and as I mentioned, I'm less confrontational than I used to be.

That said, if Avicenna is right there isn't the possibility of God's existence, but the necessity of it. The trick is that his argument is fully rational, but it also obligates him to abandon a number of Islamic notions about the nature of God. Some of the qualities that the Raving Atheist used to object to (I notice his site has been abandoned, and is now run by someone called 'the Raving Theist') are the ones that Avicenna abandons, precisely because reason tells him they aren't tenable. He is ready enough to abandon anything irrational.

(One of these is the doctrine that there was no world, and then God created the world. Not so, given Avicenna's reasoning about what the "necessary existent" must be like -- thus the world is eternal, as Aristotle had held. Others who wished to preserve creation, like the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, had to argue for it -- which he did not very successfully, really.)

I'd like to say that, if you're going to read something on my recommendation, it should be Avicenna's Metaphysics from the Book of Healing; I don't agree with a fair amount of his reasoning, but his basic proof seems solid. However, before you decide on that course, I should warn you that the book is also some of the most dense and difficult philosophical argumentation I have ever encountered. It will require a pretty solid grounding in Aristotle, as well; but if you decide to attempt it, I would be glad to work through it with you.

Joseph W. said...

Is there a free copy of the Book of Healing online anywhere? (Didn't see it in the obvious places.) I'll have a Kindle Fire in a few weeks and I might give it a look regardless - can't commit just now but I will see.

Grim said...

I've checked around a bit, and I don't think there is. Reading Avicenna in the electronic would be even more daunting than trying to make sense of it with a paper copy in front of you, and all the time in the world.

Probably you can get it through your library, if it is a good one -- you must have access to a reasonably good one, I would guess. I'm using the Marmura dual-language edition, if you are prove to have the option of choosing among several options.

Grim said...

By the way, I'd refer you to Aquinas, who excerpts the argument in his proofs of God; but he apparently thought Avicenna's proof was so compelling that he only sketches the argument in a paragraph or so, which in no way adequately proves what Avicenna set out to prove. I'm not sure any Christian writer ever did justice to it, though they incorporated it.