Saturday, 11 January 2014

The God Confusion

I saw it. I turned the pages. I bought it. I took it home. I turned the pages again. I read it, cover to cover. And when I was done, I thought about it. I am still thinking about it. It is an interesting book because the author Gary Cox, a mortal philosopher, confronted the all-consuming unknown and walked away neither disparaging those who believe nor joining those who disbelieve.
Although a major part of the book challenges the existence of God, it is a tempered treatment with moderation. In fact the author sincerely endorses the position that one cannot be sure whether God exists or not. This conclusion at the end of the 194-page book is telling, "As ever, my problem is not with God but with organized religion, which does not have much to do with God in reality, other than to give the old guy a bad name."
This is the long and short of the whole book. You can actually get off here and go no further. But should you desire to take this journey with me to explore the deeper aspects and implications of the book and my thoughts on them, then stay on as I shift gear and step on the accelerator. It’s going to be a rather long journey and I sincerely hope it doesn’t put you to sleep. Here goes.
The author started the discussion about God by encouraging us to think about him. And to guide us along, he adopted the familiar quote by the medieval philosopher and Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm, who describes God as, “Something than which nothing greater can be thought.What are the divine attributes of God than which nothing greater can be thought?
In a nutshell, God is perfect in every way. He is omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and perfectly good or moral. He wouldn’t be God if he had fallen short of any of these defining attributes. And all these attributes would safely satisfy the Anselm’s criteria. 
But here, it is tempting to ask this about an all-powerful God: “Can he being all powerful create a wall too high for him to climb over or a rock too heavy for him to carry up?”
 How about his omniscience? Does he know everything in such a way that he knows what I am going to do tomorrow? If so, do I have the free will to choose what I want to do? Because if you think about it, if God knows the choices I am going to make tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and I am quite powerless to change its trajectory, then wouldn’t it be completely vacuous for me to say that I am free to choose what I want to be when what I will become has already been known by God before I can make any choice about it?
Well, in the book, the author dealt with such questions with a question, "Can 4+4=7?" or "Can one think about a triangle with four sides?" Of course not. So, the question about a wall and a rock is clearly illogical. And because an all-powerful God is also a logical God, he cannot perform anything that is illogical or in contradiction to his nature.
Adopting a similar stand, let me borrow this analogy. Imagine a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat and he then tells you, to your surprise, that it is not an optical illusion but it is in fact real. It really happened. That rabbit was
residing in that tiny hat for the last one month. That poor thing was actually being fed from that hat and she did her daily discharge in that hat and possibly cleaned it all up in that hat, so boasts the human magician. Wouldn't you think he is mad? Isn't the illusionist himself clearly deluded? So, in the same way that a magician cannot perform a trick that is not an optical illusion because it is clearly not in his nature to perform an act against the laws of nature, God cannot perform a feat that is
wholly illogical because nothing about him is illogical.
As for knowing everything before we choose them, one can apply the same logic. According to the author, he writes, “not knowing what it is impossible to know is not really a limit to knowledge. It makes perfect sense to say that God’s omniscience consists in knowing everything that it is possible to know because not knowing what is unknowable is not a form of ignorance.”
I say, bravo to the understanding agnostic intellectual…thus far! Let’s continue.
In addition to the attributes listed above (all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good), God is also omnipresent. This mean that God is present everywhere. This is a given. For the simple reason that if there should be any place where his presence is disallowed or prohibited, such would be a constraint not only on him being omnipresent but also omnipotent. That would undoubtedly make him less than the God his believers have come to worship.
Needlessly to say, thinking along this line, God also has no past for having one would imply that he has a beginning. And a beginning would mean that he is a created being just like us. That would be blasphemous.
Neither would God have a future for the same reason that he does not have a past. For a future would imply that he has an end. That would be no less blasphemous.
So god exists outside of time. He is not dictated by it like us. By this logic, you can say that he is never running late or arriving early. He is always present at all times and in good or bad times. He sees everything happening simultaneously in the present. From his perspective, the past and the future all happen now. With the concept of relativity and singularity of space and time that we have come to know, these attributes of God are not too farfetched for our present day imagination.
After having thought of god as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present, one cannot help but
bring his thoughts to this inevitable and seemingly logical conclusion: His necessary existence. The idea of god will therefore lead us to presuppose his existence since an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-present being would count for nothing if he remains a figment of our imagination. But this is also where believers would be a tad disappointed with what the author has to say in his book. Because at this point, the author is going for the jugular. Being an agnostic philosopher, he goes on to debunk several arguments for the existence of God. Let start with St. Anselm’s “nothing greater can be thought.” This is also called the ontological argument and it has to do with his existence by sheer thought.
According to Anselm, God is a necessary being and this necessitates his being real and existing just like us. His existence is therefore a logical derivative from his divine attributes. The logic here is simple. If there is a being so perfect such as God, how can he not exist in the flesh? This is how Anselm puts it, “Surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot exist only in the understanding. For if it exists only in understanding, it can be thought to exist in reality as well, which is greater…Therefore, there is no doubt that something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in understanding and in reality.
But this argument cuts no ice with the author and I can somewhat understand why. We cannot think God into existence. Although a fool would say in his heart there is no God as the Psalmist would have us believe, an atheist would say otherwise. Our proof of God cannot be based on what we think God is. Just because I can think of a perfect being doesn’t necessarily mean that he is real. Think superman but only better, he is perfect.
Of course, I can think of my mother-in-law now, who is less than perfect, and she obviously exists, but it is not by my thinking of her that her existence is dependent on. She exists because she exists. That’s obvious I know. I can tell you where she resides. I can tell you where to find her. You can go to that address on a Sunday night and you would find her there. You can chat up with her. You can pick her brain. She is as real as the nose on your face. My repeated reflection of her is definitely not the cause of that existence (and not a good proof of it either). Neither will my wishing her away cause her to disappear suddenly (just kidding). Here is a quote from the secular philosopher David Hume taken from the book to shed further light, “…When I think of God, when I think of him as existent, and when I believe him to be existent, my idea of him neither encreases nor diminishes.
This brings me to the author’s next debunking, the cosmological argument.
This argument is based on St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. In a nutshell, according to Aquinas, God exists because there must be an uncaused causer that started this universe going. Because everything that comes into being, like the universe and us, has a beginning, and God doesn’t have one, so he must be the uncaused causer of everything that exists today. Of course, I am simplifying the argument here but that is the gist of it.
Basically, what we are trying to solve here is what is called the problem of infinite regression. You see, if the universe and everything in it have a beginning, then something or someone must have caused it to begin. But here, it is tempting to ask, “Does that something or someone have a beginning? If so, who started it or him or her going?” To solve this, that is, infinite regressing, Aquinas proposes God, the uncaused causer. God exists and he exists before time. Nothing created him because he has no beginning and no end. It is hoped that this would put a brake or an end to infinite regression. Convinced?
Naturally, the author doesn’t think so. He thinks that God as the uncaused causer is too simplistic. He argues that deferring to metaphysics, instead of pure physics, only confound the issue. To me, it is no different from the ontological argument for the existence of God. If you think about it, and thinking is the operative word here, you can think of anything about God, even his being the uncaused causer. But that doesn’t make it so. From the ontological to the cosmological, the methodology appears rather similar (although the former is an a priori argument, that is, reasoning independent of experience/not supported by factual study, and the latter is a posteriori position, that is, reasoning from observable experiences/causes and effects). So, one simply imagines an additional divine attribute and presto! we have a God who is now the uncaused causer. How convenient?
At this point of the book, the author made his own conjectures. He postulated a set of mathematical principles or pure energy that started the universe going instead of a being called God. He also played down the need for one to think about a supreme being that caused the universe to exist. The universe may have come about by pre-existing elements randomly coming together in a fusion of some sort. On this, he writes, “There may be several independent uncaused causes, a whole multiplicity of them rather than one supreme first cause. This argument denies the existence of a supreme being in so far as a supreme being must be the first cause of every other cause in order to be supreme. This argument could be taken to suggest a pantheon of gods, each of them necessary and uncaused, but it rules out the single supreme being of the Judeo-Christian tradition.Pantheon of gods? Now that stretching it a bit, don’t you think?
In a bid to put a brake on infinite regression, the author even considered a self-destructive form of deism. He writes this, “it can be argued that God created the universe but now he no longer exists. Perhaps he ceased to exist the moment the universe was created. Maybe the cosmological argument can only suggest that there was a God, not that there is a God now.” Well, this appears to me to be an act of overthinking in the tradition of St Anselm. I guess the author himself couldn’t escape the “ontological-think-and-it-shall-be” trap.
But then, to be fair to the author, both sides of the divide are appealing to the metaphysical to lend support to their claim or belief. The theist relies on the ontological and the cosmological while the atheist relies on unproven quantum physics and mathematical principles to take the place of the uncaused causer (they don’t call the “Higgs boson” the God Particle for nothing?) None of them is any wiser. Maybe science will one day come up with the answer to life’s greatest mystery or maybe not. Should it be the latter, and if that day ever come, then it is inevitable that the concept of God as the ultimate creator would win by default from a believer’s point of view. But such victory, for the lack of a better word, doesn’t mean that the believers have finally proven the existence of God. Without a doubt, the atheists and agnostics would still not be persuaded because the believers would still fall short of presenting incontrovertible proof of the testable identity of their so called uncaused causer.
Next comes the teleological argument for God’s existence. The starting point of this argument is one of purpose or design. In Summa Theologiae, Aquinas writes, “But things lacking intelligence tend to a goal only as directed by one with knowledge and understanding. Arrows, for instance, need archers. So, there is a being with intelligence who directs all natural things to ends, we call this being God.” William Paley, the Christian apologist, also came up with his famous illustration of a watch and a watch designer and extrapolated from there to conclude that the vastness and complexity of our universe cannot do without a designer who is himself up to the task. In other words, this universe cannot arise out of chance.
But the author has much to say about this view. He brought up Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. He mentioned that there is a difference between a machine that is deliberately designed for a purpose like a car or a toaster and the universe that “is most usefully explained by the action of non-deliberate natural forces and process – physical, chemical and biological.” He quoted Nietzsche who once wrote, “Let us likewise beware of believing the universe is a machine; it is certainly not constructed so as to perform some operation, we do it far too great honour with the word “machine””. Even if the universe was created for a purpose, so argues the author, we of infinite mind would never know what that purpose is because we would need a mind of God to know it. As such, our presumption that this universe has a purpose and that such a purpose implies an intelligent designer we call God and we are therefore exclusively chosen by him because we are lovingly created in his image is not only an attempt at overreaching, if not wishful thinking, but also self-serving. I guess the Christian bias can be the boss of us sometimes, so to speak.
I can see where this view is leading us to. I can sense the author’s nudge. So indulge me here as I stretch it a little. I can imagine a world inhabited not by human beings but by chicken. These are no ordinary chicken. They are “human-like”, smart, creative and inventive. They have created a whole new civilization from scratch. Their technology is as superior as ours. I can imagine chicken walking on the streets with their i-phones and i-pad. I can imagine chicken driving fast cars and living in penthouses. I can also imagine chicken running the world, making legislations and even declaring war on another chicken state.
Now, if the chicken happens to be religious, I would expect them to imagine their god as having chicken-like features. I can imagine their god to have feathers and a beak and to be walking around clucking as it jerks its head back and forth sporadically. This is the anthropocentric side of us. Putting aside conclusive proof, we want our God to look like us, to have our character, to love only us, to die for us, to create a heaven for us, and to make us the center of all attention. Can we imagine a god looking like paul the octopus? While believers would call it believing by faith notwithstanding the absence of proof, atheists call it wishful thinking or self-fulfilling vanity in the absence of proof.
So whether it is faith or wishful thinking, I guess the author is trying to say that believers will selectively look for evidence to support their belief and conveniently dismiss those that don’t. This accounts for the overreaching or the presumptuousness in our nature. The bias is as thick as hardened cement. Of course, I would expect the atheists to do the same, to have the same bias, and to disbelieve with the same self-serving posture as that of a believer.
Here’s what the author has to say about the other side of the divide. “The problem with atheism, philosophically speaking, is that it is a very strong belief position, no less strong than theism. It claims to know beyond all possible doubt that God does not exist. But as philosophers who understand that there are strict limits to knowledge have long argued, it is not even possible to know beyond all doubt that the external world does or does not exist…The healthy skepticism that is the hallmark of every true philosopher is incompatible with a commitment to atheism. Arguably, when it comes to God, a good philosopher can only be an agnostic.” So, I am afraid the gap will never be closed, not any time in the near future at least.
Now, back to the teleological argument. Obviously, the author is not persuaded by it. He thinks that it “exceeds the bounds of reason in claiming to prove the existence of a single, unified, infinite, all powerful, wholly benevolent God.” He went further to write this, “What all this shows, above all else, is that the teleological argument, which is supposed to prove the existence of a single, all powerful, benevolent God, in fact, at best, merely suggests any one of a whole host of possible deities, without providing any means of proving the existence of any one of them, or even the means of showing one of them to be more likely than another.
Well, from a purely evidential point of view, I see his point. I can imagine myself going to court to prove the existence of God. I would be submitting dozens of testimonies from believers, all of which are sworn affidavits. Most of my witnesses, Christians no less, would be testifying to and about how God had changed their lives, how he healed them, how he transformed them, and how sure they all are of his existence. I would also tell the court about the Bible and how the Christian faith has survived everything that is thrown at it and is even growing stronger today. I can imagine the presiding judge taking down notes as the witnesses give their testimonies. Occasionally he would be nodding to show that he is listening, and listening intently.
But there would come a time towards the end of the proceedings when I can reasonably expect the judge to make this simple request, “Ok, I have heard all your witnesses and the evidence. Everything seems to be in order. Now, please call your next witness, and I guess the most important one, a person by the name of God.” Of course, I would submit that he can infer his existence by the circumstantial evidence furnished to him at the trial. Alternatively, the judge can look at the wonders of the universe, the beauty of nature, and the complexities of our human brain to confirm that such a divine designer exist or has to exist (just think hard enough…) Lastly, I would also remind the judge of the Cross of Calvary and how a perfect being called Jesus confirmed that he is the “Savior of the World” many centuries ago.
But then, should the judge counter all that with what science has to say about our existence, making particular reference to a set of mathematical principles, a form of energy or a cosmic theory of evolution as the universe’s probable creator, and then insists that I call God to the witness stand before he decides, I would be hard-pressed to summon him in the flesh.
I guess this has always been the issue about proving God. He is not someone who would readily avail himself for the world at large to scrutinize first hand. All I can muster at this moment is secondary/circumstantial sources of his existence and at best, such sources would carry some weight in the eyes of the skeptical world. But it would not be enough to tip the scale to effect an immediate worldwide conversion in a way that his grand and sustained appearance in the sky (or in court) would do.
Now, this brings me to the next argument for the existence of God. In the book, the author writes, “Many philosophers who reject the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence on the grounds stated, are nevertheless convinced by the moral argument. That the world, or at least the human world, contains a moral dimension, that humans have a moral conscience, that we are capable of moral judgment, that there are moral facts and standards, is for them clinching proof of God’s existence. All this, they argue, can only be made possible by the existence of a supremely moral being.” Well, I am tempted here to concede to this point as an irrefutable proof that a supreme being exists. But I have my reservation. I have seen and read about what we humans are capable of. In our actions and thoughts, we have admirably ascended the summit of goodness, humanly defined of course, and unashamedly plumbed into the depth of unspeakable depravity.
The human conscience is a very subjective thing. Believers may argue that if not for the fall, our god-endowed conscience would be kept pure and attuned to the voice of God. We would live upright and make choices only for his glory. So, after the fall, our conscience is as good as dead and it can only be revived by accepting Christ and by allowing the Holy Spirit to train it up.
This all make good sense from a religious point of view. But here, I am trying to understand it from the skeptic’s point of view. I am trying to see it from their perspective. I am trying to bridge the gap between our conscience and the irrefutable proof that God exists. Unfortunately, I can understand why the skeptic sees a gap that cannot be filled here. You see, telling them about how our conscience was dead after the fall, how it can be revived again when we accept Christ, and how it can be trained up with the disciplines of the Holy Spirit, are all Sanskrit to them. They will not be inclined to listen because to them, we have started on a most biased note. We are making presuppositions based on our belief that they do not subscribe to at all. In order to start on an equal footing, we have to come to the discussion free from all our biblical presuppositions (or bias).
Without referring to the fall, we have to show how our moral conscience is God endowed. Strip it bare from biblical reasoning. When exactly did God give us the moral capacity or reasoning? How did he do it? Which part of our moral brain has this indelible mark that reads, “Made by God?” How does it work? How do we explain the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis under the guise of what some psychologists call the “banality of evil”? Where is the moral conscience in all that? Seen from this angle, we would be again hard pressed to make the vital connection. All we can say is that this desire to do good is innate, that is, we are born with it. Some may even throw in what the apologist extraordinaire CS Lewis once remarked, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” I guess a philosopher in the likes of the author would beg to differ. Maybe, respectfully, he would replace the word “the only logical explanation” with “one of the logical explanations”. At best, that eloquent quote, which only CSL can get away with, makes for deep emotional comfort and little penetrating intellectual persuasion.
In the book, the author offers another view, “Morality is not rooted in the metaphysical, it is rooted in us. It is rooted in species-specific physical and emotional requirements, in natural human passions that are by turns selfish and altruistic, in the constantly pressing demand from reality to devise cooperative strategies for achieving, maintaining, protecting and enhancing what people need and generally want as highly sexed, highly active, highly intelligent, highly touchy social animals.
In summary, the author is trying to say that our moral sense evolved over time from when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers to the current state of affairs we see today. From being independently-driven towards survival to living in a community of people where cooperation is a form of survival and thriving, we grow to become more caring of our loved ones, living in consideration of our neighbors, and fulfilling our duties as a citizen of the nation-state. Of course, there is more to that than what is written here. But the point is that the morality argument cuts both ways. At best, it hints to God as the source of our altruism but it does not conclude the debate in his favor.
Then, we come to the end of the book with a chapter on “Evil and God.” This is a very tricky subject for the Christian apologist to dabble in. The paradox of evil is a pandora box of faith and once it is opened, there is no telling which way things will go. I have tried my hand in it and was scorched on a few occasions. According to the author, these three propositions are clearly incompatible:-
1)   God is omnipotent.
2)   God is all-good.
3)   There is evil and suffering in this world.
Of course, theodicy has come forward with two resounding propositions in a bid to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. The first proposition is that of free will and the second is the expected growth and soul-making that the process of suffering brings. The latter is known as Irenaean theodicy. But even in the light of these two propositions, the author raises a point about evil that I find worthy of a deeper reflection.
He writes as follows, “Certainly, minor evils, and even some quite significant evils, can produce a greater good. The world is full of examples of people who have been shaped for the better morally and spiritually by significant misfortune, including ill health and even disability. But what about extreme evil? The claim that evil exists for the purpose of producing a greater good, that it can be justified on that basis, seems to break down completely when we consider the very worst evils.
The author then talks about the Holocaust. There is unspeakable evil in the Holocaust. There is evil that clearly has no redeemable value. Children like wooden planks were cast into the fiery furnace alive. Witnesses to such atrocity even recounted that they could hear their screams throughout the night. It was a suffering of the most gratuitous kind and given that God exists, he was certainly there. But for whatever reasons, he stood by. He let it pass. If love constrained him, then I can understand why an earnest skeptic would question the specific form and nature that such love takes. What great reservation was this love laboring under to be able to stand by and do nothing in the face of extreme, wholly gratuitous and seemingly purposeless evil?
I guess no believer I know or read about would be able to provide a satisfactory answer to this extreme form of the paradox of evil. Maybe they can remind us of the Biblical Job and how he suffered for God all in a bid to win a cosmic bet. But I doubt skeptics or atheists would be persuaded.
So, I have come to the end of my review of the book The God Confusion (with added views of my own). The author’s position is clear from the onset and here is a recap of it in his own words, “…in my view, nothing that I have said in this book, no argument that I unearthed while researching it, no position that I have ever come across in my years as a philosopher, proves or disproves the existence of God. I can give only this verdict: God may or may not exist.” He further writes this, “When a case is inconclusive it is inconclusive. Inconclusive means no conclusion can be drawn either way. Inconclusion does not mean everyone can go off and draw their own conclusions.
Well, I beg to differ. I would expect this life to be full of confabulation, full of contradiction and full of inconclusions.  Nothing has ever stopped us from coming to a particular conclusion (or conclusions) about what we believe in even when we do not have the physical evidence to show that what we believe in is true – beyond reasonable doubts that is. Here’s a feel-good quote from Ravi Zacharias that would make a believer’s heart skip a beat, “God has put enough into the world to make faith in Him a most reasonable thing. But He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by sheer reason or observation alone.
I believe that many things in this world escape empirical tests. We cannot know for sure and we cannot know for sure applies to both sides of the divide. This inconclusion will stay with us for a very long time. And how we come to our conclusion about such inconclusion is very much a subjective state of affair. And hands down, the best way forward in a world of such sheer diversity is one of mutual understanding, respect and patience. I guess this is one conclusion we should be able to agree on.
Let me end with this quote, “All this twaddle, the existence of God, atheism, determinism, liberation, societies, death, etc., are pieces of a chess game called language, and they are amusing only if one does not preoccupy oneself with “winning or losing” this game of chess.” (Marcel Duchamp, French artist and chess master) Well, apart from the rest, I can surely endorse the part about not being too preoccupied with “winning or losing”. Cheerz.

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