On The Possible God Of Philosophy And Cosmology Vs. The Personal, Historical God Of Faith

This post is inspired by some excellent remarks from Daniel Dennett in reply to William Lane Craig’s vigorous cosmological arguments for the existence of God (which you can see him make in a separate debate here).  Here is the Dennett video, below it you’ll find a rough transcript I have produced of it, and then below that you will find my own arguments.

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What Professor Craig does, brilliantly and with a wonderful enthusiasm, is he takes our everyday intuitions—our gut feelings about what’s plausible, what’s counterintuitive, what couldn’t possibly be true—and he cantilevers them out into territory where they’ve never been tested, in cosmology where whatever the truth is, it’s mindboggling.  So we know in advance that whatever the truth is it’s going to be jaw-droppingly implausible and counter-intuitive in one way or another.

The simplest expression of this, I think, was due to the late Philip Morrison who pointed out:  Perhaps we are alone in the universe, perhaps there is no other planet in the whole universe that has intelligent life on it, or perhaps that’s not true.  Both alternatives are mind-boggling, the hypothesis that we’re alone is mind-boggling, the hypothesis that we’re not alone is mind-boggling.  So you can’t use mind-bogglingness as your litmus test.  The truth is going to be very hard to believe.  And some of our home truths are going to have to be abandoned.  We already know this from quantum physics, we already know this from Einstein.  How do we get the leverage, find the epistemic leverage, to dislodge something that seems so crashingly obvious [that] we’re prepared to use it as a premise?  It takes a huge scientific structure with complex mathematical arguments and a delicious sort of ‘conspiracy’ of confirmatory evidence and finally people shake their heads and say, ‘okay, however counterintuitive this is, we’re going to have to accept it.’

That’s the situation in quantum mechanics, as Richard Feynman, the late great physicist said, and he was as arrogant a scientist as there ever was—he had a black belt in overconfidence—and he says, I don’t understand quantum mechanics, nobody understands quantum mechanics, maybe nobody can.  In those circumstances you come to trust the mathematical theory that you can’t interpret yet.  Raging battles over how to interpret quantum mechanics—unsettled.  But, as Feynman points out, the mathematical structure—which is just in some sense a black box that we can’t yet get to the bottom of—it predicts results of such breathtaking accuracy.  His comparison, I won’t get it exactly right but I think it’s like being able to measure the distance between San Francisco and Miami to a hair’s breadth.  Breathtakingly accurate predictions.

Those are the sorts of—just the weight of evidence that can overturn everyday intuitions that you just think ‘that couldn’t possibly be false.’ Ahhhhhh, but it turns out to be false!  And what Professor Craig has shown us is how the arguments go and how if you start with a bunch of initially very plausible premises—and in each case he says, ‘Look this is a very plausible premise I don’t see how this can be false…’  ‘Boy this just stands to reason…’  and then you pursue it and pursue it and he does that—near as I could see, I had no quarrels with the relentless development he puts on those premises but we end up at really remarkably implausible conclusions.  Now officially of course if you end up with a contradictory, a self-contradictory conclusion, you’ve got a reductio ad absurdum argument and something has to give.  I cannot pin a formal reductio on anything—at least if I can, I can’t do it impromptu, there was an awful lot going on in that talk.

But I can point to some areas of suspicion.  First, I want to address one of the points that came up late.  Maybe I’ll just make that point and then that will be enough.  Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the cosmological argument (one of the cosmological arguments that he presents) does favor the conclusion that the cause of the universe is a timeless, changeless, abstract, immaterial “whatever.”  At that point, we had no idea what that might be.  But whatever it is, it’s the cause of the universe. Maybe it’s the idea of an apple.  Maybe it’s the square root of 7.  But no, he says it’s nothing like that because abstract things can’t cause things.  

Who says?  Who says abstract things can’t cause things?  My favorite example of an abstract thing causing things is the principle of triangulation so that when you want to keep your house from going like this, you put a triangular piece on and you tack it down and thanks to the rigidity of triangles you create a rigid structure.  It seems causal.  It’s quite wonderful the effect of tacking that extra piece on and making the triangle and now we have a rigid figure.  It’s Euclydean geometry, an abstract principle, being invoked in a causal way.  

But you say  ‘well that’s not really causation.’  Okay, it’s something like causation.  And of course, we’ve already heard from Professor Craig it’s not really like causation when God causes the universe because it’s not physical causation.  But what do we know about non-physical causation?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  So we’re really just guessing at what non-physical causation could be.  Our intuitions just don’t carry us into that area.  

Now, contemporary cosmology is a fascinating area and I must say it completely twists my head up and I have no confidence about anything in that area.  I am delighted Professor Craig mentioned my colleague Alex Vilenkin, who is one smart dude.  And I wish I could get to the bottom of all the stuff that Alex does.  I wish Alex were here to respond.  Because I know that Alex and Alan Guth and some of these other people would have an awful lot to say and, unfortunately, it would be highly technical and I don’t think I would understand it or you would understand it.  But first of all they wouldn’t agree.  Contemporary cosmology is in a wonderful snarl.  And those of us who are not mathematicians and physicists are going to have to wait on the sidelines and wait for something to percolate out of this.

The intrepidness with which Professor Craig leaps in there and chooses sides is a wonderful thing.  I just don’t have his courage on that point.   But back to the question of this changeless God.  The trouble with a changeless God is that it is changeless, it is outside of time, don’t bother praying to it or don’t expect it in time to hear your prayer and answer your prayer.  A changeless god is a deist god at best.  So that’s why I don’t think that most people in the world who believe in God need take anything more than the most passing curiosity, [or] interest, in the battle of cosmology because it doesn’t really reflect a response to their curiosity at all.  

Now Professor Craig says that he’s got some arguments that this is a personal god.  And one of the premises is that there are two kinds of causation, scientific causation and personal causation.  I submit that that’s just false.  That’s as good as my life’s work to show how personal causation reduces to scientific causation.  So that’s where I would drive the wedge in there, but that’s a long story.  Thanks very much.

 In the above video (and the transcript thereof), Dennett nearly exactly mirrors my own attitudes towards fundamental cosmological questions, including the question of a possible abstract ground of all being principle or “God”.  First, the questions at hand are for cosmologists—mathematicians, physicists, astronomers with knowledge of how reality works on the most fundamental levels which far exceeds and often contradicts our “common sense.”  Genuine expertise well beyond that of philosophers and other non-specialists in cosmology is required to form anything like a real opinion on these matters and so the most technical position that all of us non-experts should have is one of agnosticism.  It’s the same agnosticism we should have about any other scientific question.  The question of God’s existence is no longer really in the province of philosophers—or at least not the cosmological investigation of it isn’t.  Common sense intuitions about what makes sense to us is really beside the point and a guide to nothing.

Secondly, I think it’s worth stressing that Dennett demonstrates exactly how it’s a lie to say that atheists have “faith” just like the way theists do.  Dennett simply declares himself agnostic about how cosmological debates are going to settle.  He leaves them to the qualified scientists and shows no sign of threat at the idea that possibly an abstract cause (that Craig wants to call “God”) is necessary for the universe to be.  Like I argued last weekend, at least most atheists do not have the kind of investment in such abstract physical and metaphysical issues as religious people do because to us this is a bare fact about reality with no existential bearing.  It’s as indifferent to me whether there is some single principle of ultimate causation separable from the universe (a ground of all being of some sort) or whether there is some principle of being within the universe or whether some various combination of principles explain being, etc.  

It’s an interesting topic the way the problem of universals is or the way philosophical puzzles about what constitutes personal identity are.  But these puzzles are abstract and philosophical and how they’re settled has little to no bearing on things like morality or religion or personal meaning in life.  This is different for theists who are not only metaphysically or physically persuaded to posit a ground of all being but who are religiously committed to faith traditions.  Such a religious faith leads you to the intemperance which Dennett attributes to Craig.  When Craig looks at cosmological debates he leaps in and sides with whatever will bolster is preexisting commitment to Christianity.  

That’s how a faith commitment is inherently prejudicial.  Craig does not rest content to say, “let the scientists and mathematicians guide the way while we all humbly admit our lack of knowledge in the meantime.”  Dennett does say that.  Because, as with nearly every atheist (including all the prominent “new” ones like Stenger, Dawkins, et al.) concede that some metaphysical or physical conceptions of a “God” are at least minimally likely to be true and cannot be ruled out beyond a shadow of all doubt.  

What the real issue is that makes most atheists atheists (or at least makes me self-identify as an atheist rather than an agnostic) is what Dennett stresses in pointing out that the kind of God plausible from contemporary cosmology is only an abstract entity of some sort which has neither necessary nor likely relationship to a personal being like you or me.  At best all that can be argued with plausibility is a deist god that may be real.  But a deist god of this sort is as impersonal as the number 3 or the law of gravity.  It’s just an abstract principle.  

To impute to it intelligence or interest or, worst of all, some magical communications with ancient peoples whereby it revealed a personality, jealousy, a will, commands for our behavior and for genocides, etc.  is wholly ludicrous.  The bare abstractions of a source of all being or an ontologically necessary perfect being, etc. have no necessary or analogously truthful relationship to the ignorant superstitious anthropomorphic projections of ancient peoples’ values and fears into the heavens.  

It is, to my mind, one of the most disasterously misleading equivocations in world history to use the same word “God” to refer to both the metaphysical notion of a ground of all being and to the thoroughly anthropomorphic deities of the world’s mythologies—deities who express only humans’ values, fears, and desperate wish for a means to change their situation beyond naturally available recourses.  

Such personal gods dreamed up by vivid, passionate, self-centered, projective human imaginations are at minimum irrelevant to whatever “divine” explanatory principles may some day prove helpful (even as presently, none seem to be such, and all seem to be worth ignoring as settling no questions of consequence) and, at worse, the personal gods are not only irrelevant but outright incompatible with those possibly formulable abstract entities which may some day yield an actually cosmologically confirmable “ground of all being” or “divine principle.”  

The disconnect between metaphysics and mythology is far greater than can be solved by saying that—again by some magic trick—some particular ancient tradition’s personal deity myths mythically represented the same truths about the divine that may one day receive a confirmable formulation and actual confirmation.  It stretches language and intention beyond recognition when theologians try to reconcile the maniacal, blood-thirsty, jealous, tyrannical biblical/koranic God into a myth for some deeply abstract concept of fundamental being.  It is also wholly arbitrary to posit by faith that any specific tradition’s myths will accurately represent the unrevisable truths of the ultimate reality.  Not only is that arbitrary but it’s a disastrous invitation to stop thinking about the truths of ultimate reality since we have decided in advance that a certain set of myths with their particular interpretations and emphases will have to be borne out no matter what reality is like.  Or on the other hand, we might find ourselves substantively changing our views of ultimate reality or morality but if we are religious, instead of just saying that the old myths were wrong we have to just bend and contort the religion’s symbols so as to say they really all along said what we now think is true about the world.  

Both of these options are intellectually disingenuous and facile.  The one strategy leads creationists to say that genuinely objective science must simply be wrong since the biblical account must trump all else.  The other makes the biblical myths so malleable as to be true no matter what science says.  When the earth was thought young, that’s what the Bible was taken to really mean.  Now that it’s revealed to be quite old, that’s what the Bible metaphorically must mean.  Never is the simple conclusion just drawn that the Bible often says flat out false things with no redeeming metaphorical intent, that all it provides are myths and the baseless or superseded guesses and inferences of ancient superstitious tribespeople with a penchant for interpreting their own petty existences (and  not to mention their brutal local warfare) as matters about which the divine itself took personal, furious interest.

But that’s the most rational conclusion to an objective, non-faith committed observer willing to suck it up and acknowledge that centuries old traditions can be systematically false and deserve to go extinct when they are (or at least to unqualifiedly reject both the literal and metaphorical content of those parts of themselves which prove literally and metaphorically false).

So, in short, it’s only honest to be agnostic about unsettled cosmological puzzles and to acknowledge that there may be some metaphysical formulations reasonably tagged as “God” concepts that might have philosophical or scientific merit.  And honesty also entails recognizing that in matters of fundamental reality our common sense intuitions are simply poor guides at best (and possibly not guides at all).  And faith that not only prejudices one’s conclusions about these matters best left to the most sophisticated reasoning we have is both unhelpful and counterproductive.  And, far worse, faith that moves from the mere possibility of a future workable, compelling formulation of some cosmological principle of fundamental being to the inference that the anthropomorphic deities of existing religious traditions have specially revealed literal or metaphorical truth to them is wholly unjustified.

What the atheist does (or should do) is admit to technical agnosticism as far as cosmological debates go.  In the absence of clear conclusions in that area of study, point out the need for those without expertise to refrain from positive affirmations, but rather settle into a position of de facto atheism.  And then embrace full, unequivocal atheistic rejection of the intellectually bankrupt idea that the transparently imaginary and anthropomorphic mythic deities of the various existing supernaturalistic religious traditions somehow are real (or that even only one of these deities, or one “triune” one of these deities, is real).

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://ethicalrealism.wordpress.com James Gray

    We as philosophers can take a look at the cosmological arguments and have quite a bit to say about them. I don’t think cosmologists themselves need to try to settle all these metaphysical questions, and I don’t know if they really need to. The problem seems to go back to Parmenades and the other pre-Socratics: Does every event have a cause? Maybe not. Did the universe always exist? Maybe.

    To say we know the answer to premises like these is the problem, but it seems easy enough to admit that they might go either way.

    Scientists will always want to know the physical cause. They don’t like events without causes. That is just how science works, and I don’t think a scientist will ever be happy to say there is no cause at all. That means that scientists will always want to know what caused the big bang, and one possibility is that the big bang is just one small part of the universe. What is outside the big bang and our natural laws is not something we know anything about. Citing causes of the universe that come from outside the big bang is almost as mysterious as citing nonphysical causes, but I know some scientists like to speculate about it anyway.

  • mahdi

    Greetings…. (Peace be upon you)
    I would like to present to you all the sciences related to cosmogony together with its rules as per its identity which is something not similar to any of the other things and is out of any and assimilation according to the following point of view:
    1. The theories of on cosmogony lack the fundamentals of the origin of things as they are mainly based on incidence and on the unseen.
    2. The cosmic extension that has been taking place is the result of the range of vision through using the telescope and any other instruments because the thing being seen is determined by vision and this is one of the universe laws.
    3. Knowing the within secrets of man will uncover secrets of the universe as the apparent entities of existence are of six kinds: the perspective (what is being seen), the tangible world (what can be touched and felt), what can be weighed, what can be heard, things that have flavor and things that have smell. These, in most cases, are overlapping and are counted six in number.
    The origin of all entities are bare pictures of materials, void of force and readiness; it shines in debate and is complete when read. The investigation of scientists is restricted to this reading (capability and liability) where the material is with all its atoms, energy and speed and this alone is useless compared with its radiance.
    The first cosmic law is that nothing can be determined unless established with what is contrary to it. And things are sometimes concrete and sometimes abstract and both are the same according to law.
    The origin of radiance is the brain and by saying this I do not mean perception but the simple core of it. By formulating this equation the truth becomes uncovered.
    The subject is highly complicated and can only be clarified by word of mouth or by arguments.
    So, what do you have to present. (show)
    بعد التحية :-
    أود أن أعرض عليكم جميع علوم نشأة مفردات الكون وقوانينه وفق ذاتيته التي هي شئ ليس كباقي الأشياء خارجه عن حد التعطيل والتشبيه حسب النظرة التالية :-
    1/ أن نظريات نشأة الكون تفتقد لأصول نشأة الأشياء وتحيل على ألصدفه أو الغيب .وكذلك استغراق البحث في الأفاق لم يأتي بغايته إلا بقدر ربطه بالوعي الإنساني.
    2/ التوسع الكوني الحاصل هو نتيجة المد البصري من خلال التلسكوب وغيره لأن المنظور أليه يثبت بالبصر وهذا أحد قوانين الكون
    3/ معرفة أسرار بطون الإنسان تكشف أسرار الكون حيث أن مفردات الوجود الظاهر على ستة أنواع (المنظور أليها ). (الملموسة). (الموزونة). (المسموعة). (ذات طعم). (ذات رائحة). وتكون في أغلب الأحيان متداخلة .وأصل الأشياء كلها صور عارية عن المواد . خاليه من القوه والاستعداد . بمناظرتها تشرق وبمطالعتها تتم . وبحث العلماء ينحصر في هذه المطالعة (القوه والاستعداد) حيث المادة ودقائقها وطاقتها وسرعتها وهذا وحده لا جدوى منه بقدر إشراقها . . وأصل الإشراق هو العقل ولا أقصد به الإدراك أنما هو )جوهر بسيط درأك محيط) وبتكوين هذه المعادلة تنكشف الحقيقة .
    الموضوع غاية بالتعقيد يوضح بالمشافهة والجدل فما هو عرضكم ؟

    * أود أن أبين بأن وسائط الإدراك هي الحواس ألخمسه + تحسس الوزن.
    * إما أحوال الإدراك ( تصوراته أي المعاني التي يلبسها ) فهي ستة أيضا ثلاثة وخلافها :-
    1/ الحياة والموجود ولها صور فمثلا صورة الحياة هي الماء.
    2/ الحركة والسكون ولها صور فمثلا صورة الحركة هي الهواء.
    3/ الانفعال والسكينة ولها صور فمثلا صورة الانفعال هي النار.
    * إما مراتب نفس الإدراك إي نفس ألصوره فهي خمسه:-
    1)الجماد 2) النبات 3) الحيوان 4) الملكوت 5) الإنسان وصور ذلك كثيرة.
    *** وكل هذه الصور تندرج ضمن تصورات الإدراك .منها ظاهره ومنها كامنة إي لم تظهر لحد الآن . والتوسع الكوني الحاصل هو ظهور لبعض هذه الصور الكامنة.
    *وأروع إبداعات الإدراك هو العقل (جوهر بسيط درأك محيط ) ولكل واحده تفصيلاتها الوظيفية.
    ووظيفة العقل هي ربط كل الصور المذكورة أعلاه بعوالمها الحسيه ألسبعه. وعالمنا هو العالم السابع وفق نمطيته الحسيه. وتجري آثار العقل على كل الصور الكونية فتصبح محسوسة وفق قوتها واستعدادها التصوري.
    قد لا يفهم الموضوع بشكل جيد كونه لم يطرق بتاتا

  • Jonathan

    “Never is the simple conclusion just drawn that the Bible often says flat out false things with no redeeming metaphorical intent, [..]”

    Never? Seems to me that various contemporary, post-modern and post-secularist theologies do say these things, and have been for some time.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Okay, but it’s puzzling to me why we would call these “theologies” at that point. Why would a particular religious tradition have any unique authority once we can recognize that it’s as fallible as any other product of human culture. If the Bible can not only be literally false but say things which are metaphorically misleading too, then how is it a special guide to the divine or ethics or anything else? Study it for its worth as literature and the insights one can glean about cultural history and anthropology from studying it, but it becomes marginally helpful at best as informative of any philosophical truth at that point.

    • Jonathan

      The documents aren’t ever the only component of a theology though. Their use is always embedded in a pre-existing tradition, are read in that context by individuals’ who come with their own intellectual baggage/commitments and who have to make an effort to understand both the author’s context, their own and then creatively relate the two. I’d query your positing of “an objective, non-faith committed observer” at this point.

      If the question was simply:

      “Do the documents have to be more than fallible human documents witnessing to authors’ beliefs in order to be of current religious and/or philosophical use?”

      then their non-fundamentalist use in both in the post-evangelical and post-liberal religious context and that of contemporary philosophy (I’ve just read Kotsko on Zizek, but have to ‘fess up to general ignorance), seems to speak for itself.

      Fallible humans are still building functional theology using fallible ancient documents, but they’re using them in more sophisticated ways.