Is It Just A Mystery Whether God Exists?

Robin: Jaime, what bothers me about your atheism is that it’s so dogmatic. You claim to know there is no God. That’s so arrogant.

Jaime: Yes, I claim to know there are no gods. But I don’t claim it dogmatically or arrogantly. I claim it based upon the fact that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the proposition that there are any gods.

Robin: But you can’t know there is no God. To know that there was no God you’d have to have complete certainty. But to know with certainty that there was no God anywhere in all existence, you would have to know all there was to know about all existence. But to know everything that there is about all existence you would have to be omniscient. But if you were omniscient you would be God! So the only way you can say you know God does not exist is if you were God! So, it is impossible for anyone to truly say they know God does not exist since that person would be God and would exist!!!!1!

Jaime: That is absurd. First of all, theoretically an omniscient being could be possible without it being a god (or your specific god, even). An omniscient being would not have to be the Christian god at all and it would not necessarily have any of the other attributes of “the god of the philosophers” that philosophical theists believe in. But second of all, knowledge does not require absolute certainty. We all justifiably think we know plenty of things that we do not know with absolute certainty. I know my address. I could be wrong about what it is if my memory happens to falter or, more extremely, if somehow I am being deceived by the Matrix. But that does not matter. There is no evidence I’m in the Matrix being deceived. It’s not at all the most probable explanation of my experience or my memory. My best inference is that I know my address. I see it all the time, I get my mail there, my friends who I give it to all arrive at my door. I know this. And countless other facts. So, I can know things even if theoretically they can possibly be wrong.

Robin: But you can’t know there is no God the way you know your address!

Jaime: Well, no, it’s a different kind of knowledge, but it’s still knowledge. It is an inference to an overwhelmingly likely metaphysical explanation.

Robin: But it’s not “overwhelmingly likely”. How could you even judge such a thing?

Jaime: By many means. Would you mind if we just take one and focus on it without deviating to side topics?

Robin: Sure. Give me your best supposed proof there is no God and I’ll refute it in detail.

Jaime: I don’t know if it’s the best proof but it’s one of the most central. As far as I can tell the concepts of the Christian god and the philosophers’ god are both incoherent. Specifically, their overlapping idea of a timeless being that performs actions is fatally contradictory. Such a being cannot be made intelligible and, as unintelligible, cannot be thought to be in any way even a plausible candidate for existence, let alone a likely one.

Robin: Well, I admit that there are some mysteries we have to face when we think about God’s timelessness. But God is not impossible.

Jaime: Appeals to mystery are special pleading. Either the concept is internally rationally coherent and therefore understandable and, so, meets the minimum criterion for being rationally considerable at all, or by failing to meet such standards, it is one we can dismiss as meaningless at best or impossible at worst. If I show you contradictions in the concept and you just say “that’s not a contradiction, it’s a mystery”, then you’re asking me to just accept a contradictory concept for no better reason than you are used to believing in it and have a religious investment in believing in it. Any non-religious concept that made no rational sense, you would readily join me in saying was nonsense that one could know was either false or meaningless. Asking me to ignore the impossibilities connected to your concept of god is asking me to suspend normal standards of rationality. I don’t have to do that for you. I can say, I know that since there is no good reason so to suspend the standards of rationality, that there is good reason to think that any concept those standards rule out (including your god) is false (or meaningless).

Robin: Okay, okay. But I still don’t think you can know that we can know all there is or know that there are not aspects of reality which exceed even our finite minds’ best abilities to grasp.

Jaime: There very well seem to be many aspects of reality which even in principle exceed our grasp but (a) rational scrupulousness requires that we must be silent about such things and not claim to know them as you claim to know your god and (b) whatever realities exceed our knowledge cannot contradict what we do know, but must be compatible with it.

Robin: Okay, first of all—I don’t claim to know there is a god, I admit I have faith. I am honest about that, unlike you making knowledge claims where you really only have faith too.

Jaime: Hold it—you cannot have this both ways. You worship this god, you live your life around your beliefs about this god and what you think it wants you to do, and you try to get me to believe in and obey this god. You claim all the time to know this god intimately, to have a personal relationship with it, and to know its will. To claim that you don’t act like a person who thinks they know is disingenuous. You’re not living in a humble middle ground like the kind of agnostic who refrains from believing, consistent with their belief they cannot know enough either way to commit to belief or disbelief. You constantly talk and act just as someone would only if they truly thought that they knew there was a god. I mean, how can you say you have a deep and intimate personal relationship with someone one minute and then turn around and the next minute say you’re not claiming to know that person even exists! What kind of an intimate personal relationship is that? Finally, I don’t have faith beliefs here. I admit it’s always possible I’m wrong, but I make my judgments based on my assessment of the preponderance of the evidence. Even if I misjudge the strength of the evidence or make mistakes in my argumentation, etc., unlike you I am unwilling to deliberately commit to believing against (or beyond) what I think the evidence indicates. I am open to changing my mind if you can dissuade me with evidence and logical arguments. That alone makes me not a “faith believer”. A faith believer in principle refuses such changes of mind.

Robin: Regardless of whether you think you’re only believing proportioned to evidence, you’re not. The evidence can never be as conclusive as you think. For example, to address your second claim before—the one about how the reality we cannot know must not be able to contradict what we do know… You cannot know that. There could be an apparent contradiction from our limited perspective that is resolved by a third factor that is unfathomable to us but which is nonetheless true. Assuming that an apparent contradiction in our understanding of the nature of God  (from our limited human understanding!) makes God impossible assumes we know everything about what is possible or impossible. That’s arrogant! We have no idea about so much! There could be a way that any paradoxes you might raise are resolved even if no human can resolve them. You cannot claim to know that there are not ways to resolve them! These are mysteries!

Jaime: But there is no genuine mystery! A genuine mystery is when there is some known phenomenon that demonstrably exists but which has no clear or decisive explanation for how it exists. When everyone (or everyone competent to understand in the cases of more complicated phenomena) can grasp that something does exist even without knowing how or why, then there is a real mystery to solve. We know there is this thing or this set of things relating in some way, etc., and yet no one can give an account of how or why. When that happens, we cannot just dismiss our confusion as most likely a mental mistake on our part. We have to admit that there is something we do not know how to reduce to simpler, better known, explanatory terms. But when you propose without evidence the existence of a fantastical being, the concept of which is self-contradictory in numerous respects, and I point out those contradictions, you cannot say it is simply a mystery “how this being exists despite these apparent paradoxes”. That assumes there is some independent and clear reason to accept the existence of the being even though we cannot understand how or why it is real. But without any independent evidence for your god, we do not need to puzzle how or why it can be but rather we can simply infer, based on the contradictions in the concept, that it does not exist at all. It is not a mysterious concept, it’s a badly formed one which is completely unlikely to refer to any true reality. That’s totally different from a true mystery—i.e., a well recognized, rationally coherent, and verified reality which all competent knowers agree exists, but which nonetheless relevant experts have no solid account for.

Robin: But we do know God exists without understanding the mysteries of His nature. We know He exists from His creation and from experiences of Him. I mean, those of us who know Him understand this—even if you will always doubt us. So, since we know God inferentially from the world and experientially from our own lives, God is a known reality, even though there are some mysteries about His nature which can never be unriddled completely by our finite minds.

Jaime: But that begs the question! How the world exists is a genuine mystery. It is one of those things that we cannot give anything like a satisfactory account for. The god of philosophical theism is not known to be its cause. Such an inference cannot be made “just by looking at the world”. That god hypothesis is just one of numerous hypotheses which could be proposed for how there is a world. It is a proposed way to solve the truly mysterious question of how the world exists. But we do not need to accept it as a good proposal when it itself is a concept riddled with contradictions and holes. And your subjective experiences which you interpret as “God” are not proof of any being beyond the natural realm causing them. And, by the way, you’ve gone right back to claiming you know there is a god, this time by cosmology and direct experience. So much for claiming no one knows anything unless they are “god”! I guess, you are god then? No wonder you know god exists in that case!

Robin: Well, I can’t “know know” that God exists, but I know by faith. It’s hard to explain.

Jaime: You “know by faith”? You mean you know because you made an arbitrary, unjustified, willful decision to simply claim you know despite your lack of evidence? A being you posit so dogmatically cannot be one that we think of as so well known that we must persist in believing in it even when contradictions in its basic conceptual structure are raised. When we discover contradictions in a concept you made up as part of your faith then those contradictions are not “mysteries that exceeds human understanding”. The contradictions are perfectly explicable—they are explained by the fact that the concept is a logically badly formed wish projection that is only believed because of an act of will to believe or because of tradition, and not because of any commitment to evidence. When you arbitrarily posit a being, and then it has contradictions in it, those contradictions are not true mysteries. They are evidence of your incoherent imagination. And they expose the falsehood of your beliefs.

Robin: Alright, enough of these claims that the concept of God is contradictory. I mean—FINE. I’ll show you that God is not a contradictory concept—even if there are some mysteries. I mean, of course there will be mysteries when we’re dealing with God. We’re not gods. How could we fully grasp what divinity is? But everything we do know about God can be seen to be self-consistent, even if explaining how God exists or where He comes from will remain impossible for us and, so, a genuine mystery. God is not impossible and is therefore a candidate for explaining the mystery of the world. And He is the best candidate for explaining it, even if there are some mysteries about Him. God can be shown to be a coherent concept that is most likely to be true.

Jaime: Those are big claims. Are you sure you can back them up?

Robin: Try me.

Jaime: Alright, are you still willing to focus in on one issue and not evade its problems in any way—especially by trying to change the topic.

Robin: I’ve got nothing to run from and no need to hide.

Jaime: Okay, let’s talk then about the idea that your god is supposedly timeless and see if we can find any way of thinking about it that makes any coherent sense at all.

Robin: Perfect. Let’s do this. Bring it on.

Continued

Your Thoughts?

__________________________________________

Previous Debates Between Robin and Jaime:

Hell as the Absence of God

God and Goodness

More Debates Featuring Jaime:

A Debate About The Value of Permanent Promiscuity

Moral Perfectionism, Moral Pragmatism, Free Love Ethics, and Adultery

On The Ethics of “Sugar Daddies” and “Sugar Babies”

A Debate About the Wisdom of Trying to Deconvert People

Atheist Fundamentalism?

Bullying or Debating? Religious Privilege or Freedom of Speech?

 

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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.


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