Tuesday, June 01, 2004

But What Purpose God?

Supernatural explanations are no explanation at all.
I think it intellectually dishonest, the way some people take a Big Question, and pretend to provide an answer to it through religion. For that is all it is. Pretending. If you dig a little deeper into the so-called 'solution', it turns out to be little more than a dressed up admission of ignorance. Surely it would be better to just cut to the chase and admit ignorance right from the start, thus avoiding all the superfluous (and sometimes downright harmful) window dressing.

Lest I be accused of floundering in baseless generalities, I want to focus on three particular examples of this rhetorical masquerade: origins, meaning, and morality. These are (in my experience) perhaps the most common arguments people appeal to in order to justify their belief in a deity.

Where did the universe come from? It's a tough question, and I haven't a clue what the answer is. Some religious people think that positing a supernatural creator (i.e. God) provides the answer. But surely it is clear that this achieves nothing - it merely pushes the question back a step, so that we must ask "where did God come from?". He is usually conceived of as being eternal, but why not skip over him altogether and just apply that very same answer to the natural universe? As Raymond Bradley put it: "I find only fallacious inference in the supposition that we can explain why anything at all exists by hypothesizing that something else exists in addition; for that supposition starts one on the path of infinite regress."

Questions of meaning & purpose are other favourites of the religious. But again, so far as I can tell, it amounts to nothing more than pushing the problem back one step. They say that without God, our lives have no (ultimate) meaning or purpose, and that God provides that purpose. But how exactly is that supposed to work? After all, what is the meaning of God's existence? If God has no ultimate meaning (and it is difficult to see how he could), then clearly he cannot pass it on to us. But if you want to stipulate that he does have an 'ultimate meaning', then what does that achieve? Could you not (once again) just skip out this pointless intermediate step, and simply apply the stipulated meaning directly to human existence?

I think part of the appeal here is the desire for your life to be part of something bigger than yourself. But, of course, religion has no monopoly on meta-personal goals. Any sort of mass movement (e.g. political or social movements) has this very same property. So how is being a Christian any more meaningful than being a Communist? One presumably ends up appealing to the special 'meaning' provided by God, which brings up those problems discussed in the previous paragraph.

Morality is a closely related matter. Some suppose that without God, there is no reason why you really ought to do one thing rather than another. But how does adding God into the equation help things here? (Short answer: it doesn't!) Suppose God wants you to do X. Why should you do what God commands? Surely this is just as troubling a question as the original "why should you do X?" was? Even supposing that a benevolent God exists, one must still face the old Euthyphro dilemma: "Is X good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?" We must surely choose the latter, but this demonstrates that God is superfluous to morality, which exists (or not) quite independently of God.

I'm sure you can see the general pattern here: We have an unexplained problem. The religious suggest that God can explain this problem. What they fail to realise is that the concept of God has at least as many problems of its own. Whatever we didn't understand about the universe, we still don't understand about God!

So, I must conclude, the explanatory usefulness of God is nil.

Disclaimer: I do not here make any claims about whether God does or does not exist. [Of course he cannot be 'disproved', any more than you can disprove that there is an invisible intangible dragon in my garage. Though I do think there is precious little reason to believe either!] I am merely drawing attention to the fact that positing his existence does not serve to explain anything (or at least, not those 3 things discussed above).

A 'God of the gaps' is inevitably full of gaps himself. I find it remarkable how rare it is for people to acknowledge this fact.

8 comments:

  1. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christany? It does a really God job of proving that, via Morality, that there must be a god. I am not a lewis, and never will be, so I will not try to show you how. I just say go out and read the book, it is not that long.

    Does infinaty exist? Yes is the simple and true anwser, there are and infinte amount of points inbetween any two points. But we don't understand infinty. We understand very little. Many people go though their lives driving cars, useing computers, and don't understand them.

    "What they fail to realise is that the concept of God has at least as many problems of its own. Whatever we didn't understand about the universe, we still don't understand about God!"

    That is not a fault, not understanding something just shows its power, its range, its genius. By any means a lack of understanding does not show fault.

    Chase Whittemore  

    Posted by Chase Whittemore

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  2. I think you've missed what I'm getting at here. Some people claim that we should believe in God because his existence explains various puzzling matters we otherwise don't understand. The problem is that the God hypothesis has no explanatory power. Religious belief does not increase understanding at all, because we simply replace one puzzling question with another that is even worse. So the particular claim under discussion does not hold up. 

    Posted by Richard

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  3. "one puzzling question with another that is even worse."

    As in more puzzling?
    Cause I think that God and the world are equaly confuse people. Though i must say, there our some people who look at things and say divine internention, with out thinking. It is very posible that God does not work by "Magic" but yet by prosses. A man gets sick, medicine savess him, the question is, who created the medicine? 

    Posted by Chase Whittemore

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  4. "I'm sure you can see the general pattern here: We have an unexplained problem. The religious suggest that God can explain this problem. What they fail to realise is that the concept of God has at least as many problems of its own. Whatever we didn't understand about the universe, we still don't understand about God!

    So, I must conclude, the explanatory usefulness of God is nil."

    Richard, I think you are being a little simplistic in your notion of "explanatory power."

    As an example, lets assume that I have no good explanation for human beings (no evolutionary theories, no creationist theories, nothing). Humans are an utter mystery to me. Better yet, I don't think it is even possible to explain humans. Does this prevent me from explaining other things in terms of humans? What caused the fire? A human hit two stones together which caused a spark. What killed the bear? A human shot an arrow at it. Where did that infant human come from? Two humans had sex and 9 months later it was born. I don't see why those answers to those questions aren't explanations.

    Also, you took the origin of the universe, meaning & purpose, and morality separately. But isn't an over-arching principle that is offered as an explanation for many things usually thought of as having explanatory power? I'm thinking of things like our search for a "Theory of everything" - a TOE would have more explanatory power than the incompatible theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. Why? Because it's one basic principle or theory for describing many phenomenon, rather than two separate principles or theories. Explanations involving God generally act in much the same way - God provides a general principle rather than an ad hoc sort of explanation.

    Also, appealing to God for an explanation could lead to predictions of some sort or to useful theories. Saying God explains something could lead to some hypothesis that a non-God explanation may never lead to. I don't know if this has happened or if it will, but I don't think you can rule it out without arguing why it isn't possible. You can't just state that the explanatory usefulness of God is nil without explaining why it could never lead to useful predictions. (Off the top of my head, we might look at Cantor's development of transfinite numbers and how his belief in an infinite God made the idea of infinity more acceptable.)

    Whether you are convinced or whether it is a good explanation is another matter, but it seems to me that appealing to God can offer at least some explanatory power.  

    Posted by Macht

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  5. A 'theory of everything' is worthless if it could explain everything that isn't just as well as it does everything that is.

    "I don't think it is even possible to explain humans. Does this prevent me from explaining other things in terms of humans?"

    I think that's a quite different situation, however. We all recognise that humans exist, and have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things they're capable of - and what they're not. This seems strikingly different from a 'God of the gaps' type explanation, which doesn't seem beholden to any facts at all. A particular 'gap' or its inverse would be equally well explained by "God did it". If one could show some predictive power here, then things might be different...

    But you're right that I haven't established that God could never be an explanation. I was more just taking the opportunity to vent at those particular 3 attempts (which are, I think, the most common ones).

    If God really existed then they might be reasonable 'explanations', simply in virtue of being true. But some believers try to use these big 3 questions to justify belief in God, rather than the other way around. That doesn't seem convincing to me. The 'explanations' do not provide us with reason to posit the existence of a God-entity. I don't see that position as providing us with any further explanatory power here. 

    Posted by Richard

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  6. "A 'theory of everything' is worthless if it could explain everything that isn't just as well as it does everything that is."

    I agree. Likewise, if God could equally explain a "meaningful universe" and a "meaningless universe" it would, as an explanation, be useless. But I don't see how God could be used to explain a "meaningless universe."

    "I think that's a quite different situation, however. We all recognise that humans exist, and have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things they're capable of - and what they're not."

    So, for the people that believe God exists, you would agree that it is a good explanation? What if we changed it to alien beings? Let's say we come across some evidence that leads to the conclusion that the best possible explanation is to posit the existence of some type of alien beings. Doing this would create all kinds of NEW problems about where they came from, how they act, etc. But I guess I just don't see why this wouldn't be considered an explanation. I suppose we could "skip over" the alien, as you put it, but I really don't see why we should want to do that. And of course this explanation pushes the question back, but so what? When we explain matter in terms of atoms, that pushes the question back one step. When we explain atoms in terms of electrons and protons and neutrons, that pushes the question back one step. When we explain those things in terms of quarks or strings or whatever, that pushes the question back. We can always ask, "Well, what's THAT made of?" Are you saying that these "explanations" of what matter is made of are just "dressed up admission of ignorance?"

    "This seems strikingly different from a 'God of the gaps' type explanation, which doesn't seem beholden to any facts at all."

    I said nothing about a "god of the gaps" approach and nothing in your original blog entry takes that approach, either. There's a big difference between saying "There are things we don't know, therefore we should use God to explain them" and "The evidence leads to the conclusion of God." I only take the former as a "god of the gaps" approach. The latter is "beholden to facts."

    "But you're right that I haven't established that God could never be an explanation. I was more just taking the opportunity to vent at those particular 3 attempts (which are, I think, the most common ones)."

    You seemed to be making a stronger claim than that even though you had your disclaimer at the end. You said "So, I must conclude, the explanatory usefulness of God is nil." You also said at the beginning, "Supernatural explanations are no explanation at all." If you were just talking about those three attempts, you are still wrong, just not as wrong. ;) 

    Posted by Macht

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  7. Yeah, I may have mellowed slightly since writing that post :)

    "So, for the people that believe God exists, you would agree that it is a good explanation?"

    An explanation, yes; not a good one though, as I don't see how it contributes much to our understanding (unlike atomic models in theoretical physics, say). But perhaps that's because I'm looking at each case individually, as you noted before. I suppose the full theistic 'framework' might be better in that respect.

    I do see these big 3 as appealing to a "God of the gaps" approach, however. Like I said originally, the pattern seems to be: (1) Find a 'big question' we have trouble answering. (2) Say "God did it!".

    I hope you'd agree that such attempts don't offer much of an explanation. But you probably think that I've presented a straw man there. (Which might be true, but if so it was unintentional; the religious people I'd previously talked to really held these positions - or at least that's how I understood them.)

    But I stand by my central point, as explained in my previous comment: these three 'explanations' don't provide a non-believer with reason to posit the existence of God. (That's the original context within which I heard these claims, you see.) 

    Posted by Richard

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  8. Richard, you suggest that "God created it" doesn't suffice as an answer to the question, "Where did the universe come from?" I don't understand. Of course you may argue that it is not a correct answer, but to say that it "achieves nothing" misunderstands the point and scope of an answer. One may further ask, "Who created God?" (and it can be shown that this question is malformed). But this subsequent question has nothing to do with the initial question, "Where did the universe come from?" and is outside the scope of its answer. One might as well say that "My dad threw it" is no good answer or "achieves nothing" as a response to the question "Where did that ball come from?"

    ReplyDelete

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