How can we mere mortals state what God SHOULD do?

How can we mere mortals state what God SHOULD do? October 28, 2013

This is essentially the point, I believe, which has come out of, or driven, much of the conversation over the last few days between labreuer, Andy Schueler and myself on another thread. We popped down many rabbit holes, including free will, slavery, epistemology, history, the problem of evil and oughts. The conversation was quick and frenetic, so I decided to move it here, and start not afresh but with a streamlined trajectory. Here is what I think was labreuer’s core gist (his own comment):

My argument reduces to the question:

Can we come up with coherent concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection which would plausibly lead to the creation of a world like we have now?

This is like the ultimate top-down approach. At least in my line of work, it is pragmatic to do top-down and bottom-up design. So, is it ‘good’ to do the same with the traditional Christian God? It is often objected that this is

(1) starting with a conclusion,

which is in direct opposition to

(2) starting from the evidence.

It is often asserted that (1) is an invalid course of action, that (2) is always the way to go about things. But this is manifestly untrue in some domains. I think the answer to Ought we only form beliefs based on sufficient empirical evidence? is a firm No. Democritus’ Atomism was distinctly useful to science, although it took a long time for it to become falsifiable. I think it is difficult to maintain that Atomism came from (2)-type thinking, because we’re in danger of saying that I can look around and then come up with an idea, with little connection between what I saw and the idea. I claim it was valid to ‘tentatively believe’ in Atomism. But does this hold for a creator-God?

We often answer questions like the above in a quasi-consequentialist manner. I say ‘quasi-‘, because we also tend to care about the means. That being said, we tend to ask whether it was ‘good’ to do a certain thing. So, we have books like Christianity is Not Great vs. What’s So Great about Christianity. Some argue that Christianity led to the rise of modern science, claims which are hotly disputed. Perhaps I haven’t done enough research, but arguing on a historical basis seems difficult.

In an earlier comment, I argue that an attempt to apologize for nasty behavior in the OT stirs us to understand that ‘human nature’ is darker than many are wont to believe. To elaborate, see the predictions for the Milgram experiment:

1. “fourteen Yale University senior-year psychology majors” predicted that 0-3%, avg 1.2% of participants would inflict the maximum (450V) shock.

2. “forty psychiatrists from a medical school” predicted that 3.73% would inflict the 300V shock, and ~0.1% would inflict the 450V shock.

In the actual experiment, 65% of participants inflicted the 450V shock. Many weren’t happy (“Subjects were sweating, trembling, stuttering, biting their lips, groaning, digging their fingernails into their skin…”), but they did it anyway. In my opinion, this is a colossal failure in understanding of ‘human nature’. If attempting to apologize for genocide texts in the OT corrects such misunderstanding, I claim that is evidence of ‘goodness’. This does not mean that terrible things can come from extrapolations from the genocide texts. Just like nuclear fission can be used to terrible ends, so can OT genocide texts.

In conclusion, I think we deprive ourselves of a useful form of thinking about reality if we insist that either:

A) The concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect deity is incoherent.

B) An omni-* deity would not create the type of reality we see, now.

This is not the same as saying that everyone must try this ‘constraint matching’ program. It merely argues that if we judge premises by the fruit (results) they produces, a good case can be made that this ‘constraint matching program’ can provide valuable results.

There is a possible path for pursuing A which I have not yet seen: consider at what point it is incoherent to start with { potent, sentient, morally decent } being and then take all of those attributes to ‘infinity’? Alternatively, note that one way to understand ‘omnipotence’ is to switch from “understand[ing] omnipotence in terms of powers” to “understand[ing] powers in terms of omnipotence”; see Infinite Power and Finite Powers.

There are some huge points here which I would need a massive amount of writing to properly discuss, but I will try to sum up my thoughts. Much of these topics I have written and spoken on extensively before.

So the first key point is this:

Can we come up with coherent concepts of omnipotence, omniscience, and moral perfection which would plausibly lead to the creation of a world like we have now?

or, A) The concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect deity is incoherent.

Now, all of these points are, to me, incoherent and always require some amount of subjective opinion because even deductive logical arguments like the ontological argument (OA) require a good deal or argumentation over what qualifies as a great making property, what might be optimal, and so on. As I have mentioned before, the idea of perfection is incoherent as an intrinsic quality since it is goal oriented. I will now repeat much of what I said there:

I can only understand perfect as a goal-directed adjective such that A is perfect for B, or this catapult is perfect for getting this stone over the wall in such and such a manner. Now, one could say that God is perfect at being God, but this implies an infinite regress or circularity. What does it really mean to say that God is perfect? Is he perfect at getting a stone over the wall? Perfect at being loving, merciful and just; at being prefect, designing and moral?

Even establishing what a prefect painting is, is an entirely subjective process, depending upon personal tastes. And this applies to all sorts of things such that perfection becomes either subjective or incoherent. Being perfectly powerful and knowledgeable are admittedly simpler proficiencies to hold, conceptually.

The other problem is that perfection of a being involves multiple aspects such that, as the classic problem goes, God cannot be perfectly just AND perfectly merciful since to be perfectly just assumes punishing justly for a misdemeanour, and to be perfectly merciful assumes some kind of leniency.

With all of these characteristics which conflict, the theist retreats to maximal perfection, a sort of optimal scenario given all of the nuances and variables. But this becomes arbitrary and subjective. One more ounce of mercy and one less ounce of justice might be perfect for a God wanting to achieve A, but vice versa might be better for wanting to achieve B.

Therefore, we need to establish, without circularity or incoherence, what God is to be perfect FOR, before establishing whether God is or can be perfect. To have a timeless God sitting there and label it as perfect is, to me, meaningless (as a stand-alone descriptor).

Therefore, and given the subjective nature of appraisals of perfection, I see any argument using the term perfection as incoherent.

Omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence are the subjects, really, of my book The Little Book Of Unholy Questions, my posts on God’s characteristics and my talk The Case for God on Trial:

And for those who have not so much time:

Which details some inconsistencies with God’s characteristics. I posit in many various places that all of these great making characteristics are problematic and are enough to show that God does not exist. That God creates subsets of people who are more or less likely to freely come to love him shows that God is inherently unfair, and thus not all-loving. Simple arguments like this are terminal.

That is not to mention the idea that God is infinite. Infinite, though, is an abstract concept which means that God potentially becomes merely an abstraction (I have just edited a book by mathematician James A. Lindsay called Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly which argues the incoherence of attached infinites to God). Any kind of infinite is a problem when associated with God, so people like Bill Craig then claim that the term is used qualitatively rather than quantitatively. But either this is meaningless, or the qualitative statement actually reduces to a quantitative one since comparing one notion to another and saying one is more, means necessarily that there can be some sort of unitary or quantitative valuation.

And ideas of omniscience are problematic in a similar way. Does God know the infinite digits of Pi? If so, then actual infinities do exist in God’s knoaledge (and the Kalam fails, since the argument for God relies on actual infinites not existing). And then there are infinite counterfactuals which God supposedly knows – possibilities of potential worlds and their potential configurations and interactions within. Such ruminations of infinity just don’t get off the ground because the very concept is abstract, and people who claim such things of infinity and perhaps God are confusing the map with the terrain (as Lindsay would say), or confusing our understanding of reality with reality itself (such as with the Ontological Argument)

I could spend much time on the characteristics of God, but it really is enough to say that they are incoherent and as such God is incoherent. Perhaps this is a good argument for ignositicism.

The second point is this:

B) An omni-* deity would not create the type of reality we see, now.

which is perhaps a more nuanced point to consider, and inspired the title question. So essentially we are left with 1) in our limited intellect, how can we know what the best world would be, and 2) how do we know that this is not it.

To be concise, I will list the issues:

a) we have no idea what the design criteria are

b) at what time do you evaluate a creation (beginning, middle, end?) or is it evaluated in the best parameters which could perhaps give a range of outcomes.

c) if it is evaluated at a certain point, and we are at another point, what would that look like to us?

What labreuer has done here, without realising (since he seemed unaware of the term in conversation) is alluded to the position of skeptical theism. This is a position used to defend God in light of the problem of evil – that we are simply unable (not in a position, clever enough compared to God’s infintie knowledge etc) to know why evil exists (why this world doesn’t look like the perfect one). This was discussed to some degree with myself, Justin Schieber and Counter APologist in this Google Hangout on the Problem of Evil:

I don’t buy it. If I punish my son for trampling on the flowers one day by bringing him inside the house, beating him within an inch of his life, giving him cancer, killing his friends etc etc and then NOT telling him why I am punishing him, are these the actions and nature of a loving parent? Look, we are in the position of being able to understand quantum mechanics and the machinations of the universe, and yet we are apparently unable to understand why God repeatedly kills us of with tsunamis etc. It seems absurd and a case of special pleading a certain form of understanding based on the absence of that explanation.

The great thing that Justin Schieber does is that, if you accept skeptical theism, you must also accept the Divine Lies Argument so it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t from a theist’s point of view. I won’t go into this argument here, but it is well worth looking into.

God’s divine hiddenness and reluctance to tell us why things are happening, like cancer, only plays into the hands of the atheist, in my opinion. That a greater good might come out of all this suffering is not good enough, because God doesn’t even explicitly communicate this. If I punished my child, if he didn’t understand it, then at least an explicit communication from me, the loving father, that he may not understand why the punishment has to be like it is, but that there is a greater good which necessitates this suffering would be expected. After all, God is love, so they say.

So if we have no idea what the purpose is of this world, of the design criteria, then the whole God hypothesis becomes even more unfalsifiable, and God looks more and more like the pea in the con man’s shell game which gets moved from shell to shell when the onlooker claims to have located it. God just gets ad hoc shifted around, logically shunted from pillar to post in the hopes that whatever conception remains is somehow coherent. But from the arguments hinted at above, such conceptions simply are not coherent. We don’t even have a viable understanding of what God is or could be, let alone what and why he might want to create.

Of course, any creation is a necessary degradation of the ontological state of affairs, and so we can safely say that if he is omni, then he wouldn’t create anything at all in the first place.

I would rather, though, punt to what we do know of how things work, of what logic and probability entails. Methods to evacuate God from the problem of evil revolve around possibilities. God COULD have a reason why suffering exists; we MIGHT not be able to understand why God allows suffering; this COULD be the most perfect world, we just don’t know.

Because, given God’s omni characteristics, this must be the best possible world in some way of measuring that (as alluded to above). As I mentioned here:

Although it is very difficult to logically disprove this defence, it does have some rather serious ramifications for the Christian theist. Because God is claimed as being all-loving it means that any decision that God makes, any actualisation of events and matter and so forth, must be the most loving that can be. It means that every decision made must be the most caring or loving decision that could possibly be made in terms of some criteria, or some outcome.

Since God is omniscient, and given the possibility of Middle Knowledge or any other mechanism for divine foreknowledge, God knows every possible outcome for every actualisation of every possible world. And God, evidently, chose this one.

First of all, the ramifications are fairly clear for God’s own free will. Since he must do what is maximally loving at all times, he cannot do otherwise. One could argue, then, that God does not have free will himself. Without the ability to act contrary to his omnibenevolence, he has only one course of action that he can possibly take, or courses of action that contain equal quantities of ‘lovingness’ (for want of a better term). A theist could argue that God could do otherwise but chooses not to. This is akin to the taxman analogy. This goes as follows. A taxman assesses your business. He says you have a tax bill for $25,000. He gives you the choice of paying it or not paying it. The free choice is yours. However, by not paying it, you will go to prison (or to make the analogy more powerful, you will be sentenced to death). Thus you have a free choice where you can exercise your free will, but one choice will result in your imminent imprisonment or death. What will it be? You can argue, perhaps, that you have free will, but you can also argue that this is an effective denial of free will.

In the same way, God could choose in a way that was not maximally loving, but he never would because it is against his all-loving nature. This is a grey area of free will. There is a debate here as to whether God does not have omnipotence, or whether omnipotence can be a potentiality. If it is a potentiality that can never be made real and existent, then does this equate to it not existing?

However, the main point to be made here is as follows. It seems, then, that if God is to keep his omnibenevolent characteristic, then this world must be the maximally perfect and loving world that there can be. If God is perfect, then this must be his most perfect creation. A perfect God could not create something that fell short of perfection, and an all-loving God could not create something that did not fulfil the criterion of being the most-loving creation.

The slightly worrying outcome this is that a world where 250,000 people and millions of animals are killed in a tsunami, where anywhere between 20% and 75% of foetuses are naturally aborted (depending on the source), where cancer and malaria are rife, where a global flood killed all the population of earth bar 8 (and all the animals bar some), where forest fires kill baby deer, is a world where these events that are perhaps even necessary for it to be the most loving world.

Moreover, the Westboro Baptist Church may have some kind of twisted logic in celebrating the death of every soldier, in celebrating the outcome of pretty much anything as being the righteous judgement of an all-loving God. They realise that this judgement by God to actualise this particular world must be supremely wise and must result in the most loving world. This includes every piece of suffering and death experienced by every animal and plant in the history of the world.

If this is where logic takes a Christian, then they can keep their God in all his maximal perfection. And while they’re at it, they can package up all the pain and suffering and send it return post to the pearly gates. Not needed here, thanks.

So I don’t know that this isn’t the most perfect world through the most perfect choice to create. But I don’t know anything past cogito ergo sum. And the theist doesn’t know the that this world is the most perfect world, in some way. Everything is a probability. How do I assess the probability that this isn’t the best possible world? Well, for a start, as an outsider, all of the biblical claims (the Bible) amount to very poor evidence to support the most extraordinary claims in the world. The saints parading around Jerusalem seen by many in Matthew 28, the darkness and earthquakes are attested to in pithy verses only in one Gospel. And we are expected to believe these amazing claims when they are found nowhere else in the world? You get the picture.  Also, the personal experience of Christians is no different to the personal experiences of any other religious believer whose religion is mutually exclusive to Christianity. So evidentially, I have no good reason to pick Christianity as truthful over any other religion. Had I been born in Riyadh, I would be Muslim. Not so fair if the object is to freely come to love the Yahwistic God!

I can’t know that this isn’t the best world, as lebreuer might ask. But neither does he know that it is. I can give many, many, many good reasons why it doesn’t look like the best possible world. Can he give good reasons why it does? How does malaria killing millions of children? How does literally billions upon billions of foetuses being spontaneously aborted naturally (far more than survive full term) figure in the explanation? God loves abortion. What we need to do is weigh up the good and the bad in the world and see whether it best supports either hypothesis.

I would have all animals being photosynthetic such that a rational animal like myself has no need or desire to eat other sentient life forms. Better still, non corporeal beings. Better still, just invent mental beings in heaven – the ones whom I would foreknow to love me. A place supposedly with free will and no suffering and where everyone is in a perfect loving relationship with me. Skip the shit in the middle, and go straight to the new Kingdom, the end times, the post-Judgement. The heaven.

Anything to show that this must be the best possible world is an appeal to the unknown and is ad hoc by nature.

I could go on, but you get the picture. No, I don’t know that this world is imperfect, or what the world should look like. But I can have some pretty good rational guesses. Do you, labreuer, know that this world is in some way perfect? How do you know? On what basis is every unit of suffering ever experienced justified by an all-knowing, all-loving , all-powerful God? Those reasons have to be pretty damned robust to get over the sheer magnitude of suffering over time. Coulds and mights get you only so far.

Right back at ya!


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  • Clare45

    Does it really matter what an alleged God should do if he doesn’t exist?

    • labreuer

      It matters if positing the right kind of God allows us to come up with a model that is good enough that it:

           (1) helps us understand reality better

      This is kind of an instrumentalist statement, but I think it is correct. We ought to judge beliefs based on what comes out of them, and not just whether they are consistent. I think this ‘ought’ binds just about anyone who would comment on a blog like Jonathan’s, but I’m happy to discuss that claim. :-)

      • Clare45

        Imaginary morals attributed to an imaginary God? How on earth can that make us understand reality better?

        • labreuer

          Can you understand what “more just” means? If so, when you say ‘more’, you are assuming that some things are more just and some things are less just. But if we can establish an ‘ordering’, I claim that the ordering is anchored at one end by a point at infinity. That is, if we become more and more and more just, we are approaching the universal of Justice. And so it is useful to think about what a ‘truly Just’ being would do.

          • Clare45

            To me, to be just means to be fair and treat people equally. I don’t see how you can be “more just”. It’s like saying some people are more equal than others!

          • labreuer

            You’re oversimplifying. Consider the human rights abuses we know are going on in China. Consider all the things you buy which are “made in China”. Is it just for you to economically support a country which is exploiting some of its people?

            It is my view that either each of us realizes he is being massively unjust—except perhaps those who have experienced massive injustice—or we’re delusional. Have you seen How many slaves work for you??

          • Clare45

            Of course, we do not live in anything like a perfect world and we are often hypocrites when it come to our purchasing habits, but we are not the ones administering justice-we leave that up to our governments and courts. We are not perfect and therefore our projection of the imaginary god is not perfect either.

          • labreuer

            I actually completely agree that our projection of an omni-* deity would have errors. This is why I said at the end of my big comment:

            What I propose is that thinking about (3) and (8) is valid when we do it ‘only a little bit’. That is, we only go a little ahead of our current knowledge of the state of things. It is in this kind of environment that (3) has proven to work toward the end of (1). Likewise, I claim that (8) can aid (2).

            I still question whether your conception of justice is ideal. For example, what exactly is ‘fairness’ or ‘equal treatment’? In my opinion, you just shifted the definition problem onto other words. It’s not even clear that those are the best way to define ‘justice’; see Nicholas Wolterstorff’s 2010 Justice: Rights and Wrongs. He argues, at least in the beginning, for a conception of justice as having ones rights be respected. But who says that this will be the best conception of justice in a century?

          • Clare45

            The link you give is to purchase a book, and offers a short book review. In the review it states that the author gives up on the concept of human justice and resorts to a theistic view. I am beginning to suspect that the word “just” like “belief” has a different meaning when applied in a religious setting, in which case we cannot discuss it further, as your definitions are probably going to be quite different from mine. We would first have to mutually agree on a secular definition of these terms.

          • labreuer

            Wolterstorff also discusses various conceptions of justice other than those which can be upheld in a secular fashion. One virtue which philosophers hold in highest regard is the act of representing opposing arguments in the best possible light. So regardless of his end conclusion, his portrayals of alternatives is respectable.

            I’m not sure our ideas of ‘belief’ are so divergent. But I’ll clarify:

                 (1) every action is predicated on a set of { A }
                 (2) every thought is predicated on a set of { T }
                 (3) every belief is basic or predicated on a set of { B }
                 (4) a person will report a set of beliefs { R }

            We can debate as to whether every element of ATBR is called a ‘belief’. For example, I often say “tentative belief” to describe some elements of AT. I would also question whether all elements in R exist in ATB, given The Unreliability of Naive Introspection.

          • Clare45

            Here is Webster’s Dictionary definition of “just”

            adjective

            right or fair; equitable; impartial: a just decision

            righteous; upright: a just man

            deserved; merited: just praise

            legally right; lawful; rightful

            proper, fitting, etc.: a just balance of colors

            well-founded; reasonable: a just suspicion

            correct or true: a just report

            accurate; exact: a just measure.

            Note that the definition I originally gave you (without looking it up first!) is at the top of the list!

          • labreuer

            Yep, so go ahead and define ‘right’, ‘fair’, ‘equitable’, ‘impartial’, implement them, and then see if the result seems (via introspection—there is no other way) ‘just’. There is no guarantee that they will.

          • Clare45

            Are you disagreeing with Websters dictionary? You had better write to them and put them straight!

          • labreuer

            What would you say if we set a date, past which no new definitions could be created, and no extant definitions could be questioned and modified or discarded? Your argument seems to say that this would be a good idea, since you want me to simply agree with the dictionary definition.

            You might benefit from reading Unknowable and Incommunicable. The thesis is that communication is not perfect (excepting finite formal systems). This means that when you utter the word ‘justice’, you are referring to a mental concept in your brain which does not necessarily match the mental concept in my brain when I utter ‘justice’. Furthermore, your conception of justice likely includes a prediction of what things would be like if the conception were enforced on reality; this prediction is not guaranteed to be correct. Indeed, when people impose their ideas on reality, their predictions are often erroneous. One response to this is to say that their conceptions aren’t quite right, because they believe the predicted state of affairs can be achieved somehow. This is tricky stuff when you try to be formal. But you’re right: for a lot of life, dictionary definitions do just fine. I simply don’t think they are good enough when it comes to the idea of Justice.

          • Clare45

            If your reality differs from mine, and you imply that it is, then one of us is delusional and not sane. Therefore end of discussion. Bye. Nice chatting with you.

          • labreuer

            I just found this dialogue, which questions what the ‘correct’ concept of ‘fairness’ is.

          • Andy_Schueler

            I think it is unhelpful to try to quantify fairness and justice. In the same way as it would be unhelpful to try to quantify happiness, suffering or beauty. All those things rely on subjective judgments and we can identify the parts of human nature that lead us to make certain judgments – why certain melodies sound better than others, why symmetric features tend to be aesthetically appealing / “beautiful” for humans and so on and so forth. But a numeric scale that would allow quantitiative judgments like “Bach is 13.8% better as a composer than Mozart is” or “policy A is 3.3% more fair than policy B” don´t make sense.
            IMHO, all that matters when it comes to moral judgments, is, that senses of fairness, justice, empathy etc.pp. are objectively real biological traits shared by all healthy human beings (and all healthy great apes I might add + several other species of non-human animals to varying degrees). That, and the fact that we can easily find an almost universally accepted consensus as to what is “fair” and “just” as long as the people that are discussing perceive each other as members of their respective ingroup. I am oversimplifying here, but I really do think that the mental bias of placing some people into an “ingroup” and other people into an “outgroup” is the single biggest obstacle towards moral progress, and that actions which minimize ingroup-outgroup thinking in turn are the single biggest contribution towards moral progress.
            I think the evolution of LGBT rights in the USA is a very nice example of this happening right now. So many LGBT people have come out of the closet that virtually everyone who is not in the LGBT group has a friend, family member, co-worker, neighbor etc. from the LGBT group. And the more you personally interact with people from such a group, the harder it becomes to see them as “others”, by interacting with them, you see that they are people just like you and that the differences you perceived are only superficial – whether it is skincolor, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.

          • Really interesting comments, Andy. Thanks.

          • labreuer

            I think it is unhelpful to try to quantify fairness and justice.

            I don’t think I’m trying to quantify fairness with numbers. The dialog I mentioned uses numbers to show that not everyone will agree on what ‘fairness’ is. Now, this doesn’t actually lead to:

            All those things rely on subjective judgments

            Here’s why: if you want ‘subjective’ to be properly demarcated from ‘objective’, you have to realize that individual extrospective observations are just as subjective as individual introspective observations. My Phil.SE answer to the question, The reality of self, may interest you. In particular, Eric Schwitzgebel’s 2008 The Unreliability of Naive Introspection is important, because many people seem to think that they introspect well.

            Have you read any Michael Polanyi? In his Personal Knowledge, he makes the point that much of individual scientific analysis is inherently subjective. What we do, is move from intersubjectivity to objectivity, almost as a shortcut in thinking. So the fact that individual introspections of justice and fairness are subjective is irrelevant, unless we say that intersubjectivity is unattainable. This leads directly to:

            IMHO, all that matters when it comes to moral judgments, is, that senses of fairness, justice, empathy etc.pp. are objectively real biological traits shared by all healthy human beings […] we can easily find an almost universally accepted consensus as to what is “fair” and “just” as long as the people that are discussing perceive each other as members of their respective ingroup.

            Extant societies could possibly be viewed as providing boundary conditions for minds. This doesn’t mean that minds are fundamentally different from each other in irreconcilable ways! Just like at points in our past, we didn’t know if disparate conceptions of reality could be combined or used to rectify each other or otherwise converge to a set of physical laws, I claim we are at the same place when it comes to laws about how minds operate. This isn’t the same as morality, but it is a crucial building-block toward it. Such lawfulness would, I think, state that we cannot infinitely psychologically manipulate people—something that I think most people would agree to. From these “mindful laws”, we could derive moralities based on certain criteria. But I think moralities would be terribly convergent, and if we had enough criteria, we would get single solutions.

            I am oversimplifying here, but I really do think that the mental bias of placing some people into an “ingroup” and other people into an “outgroup” is the single biggest obstacle towards moral progress, and that actions which minimize ingroup-outgroup thinking in turn are the single biggest contribution towards moral progress.

            I agree. But I don’t think religion is the primary reason whey there exist ingroups and outgroups. I have not seen this empirically demonstrated. People find plenty of other ways to separate out into groups. I’m also rejecting any just-so stories that religion formed to make larger groups of people cohesive; I will accept them if folks can start coming up with compelling ways to try and falsify them, try, and then fail.

  • labreuer

    Thanks for putting this post together, Jonathan! There is a lot to discuss here, so I’m going to try and keep any top-level comment narrow so that things aren’t quite as ‘frenetic’ as last time. No promises, though!

    on real infinities

    On Philosophy.SE, I asked, How could ‘objective morality’ be known/investigated? There, I posit that:

         (1) research into objective reality

    may be mirrored by

         (2) research into objective morality.

    A key aspect of said research when it comes to science is that we don’t talk about the ‘end goal’—what reality is truly like—or at least we don’t spend too much time on that. Instead, most of the time is spent on the next step forward. I suggest that (2) should follow the same methodology, and that this does much to mitigate against the problems with thinking about infinity mentioned by Jonathan.

    The above being said, my original mini-essay could sorta be summarized as the claim:

         (3) thinking about what really is can be useful

    A slightly different formulation:

         (4) thinking about perfection can be useful

    Now, almost as if he read my mind, Jonathan addresses (4):

    As I have mentioned before, the idea of perfection is incoherent as an intrinsic quality since it is goal oriented.

    What if that goal, or telos, is (1) + (2)? Stated differently, what if we posit that:

         (5) God most values human thriving.
         (6) Human thriving consists of learning to rationally believe things.

    The (6) ↔ (1) correspondence is clear, but I’m not sure ‘rationally’ is the right term to establish (6) ↔ (2). The sense of the latter would be people valuing what is the right way to treat people for reasons other than fear or mind control. Fear (Deut 5) and mind control (hardening Pharaoh’s heart) are used in the Bible, but their use is extremely restricted. It’s a bit problematic to call the latter case ‘mind control’, as God was only reinforcing a belief that Pharaoh already held: the Hebrews deserved to be his slaves.

    If we ask why God didn’t do more fear & mind control, we might get into free will, problem of evil-type. But it is not clear that we really need free will. Note that the folks who frequent blogs like this and Debunking Christianity who value believing things rationally, on sufficient evidence. What is the analogous situation for believing in the right ways to treat fellow human beings (or animals, or other agents of various levels of sapience/sentience), based on ‘sufficient reason’? Whatever that is, I posit that it is required for us to be fully self-aware. Stated succinctly:

         (7) Believing on authority is only valid as a temporary, “try this hypothesis”-basis.

    In other words, belief can precede evidence, but perhaps it shouldn’t precede evidence by ‘too far’, for some reasonable definition of ‘too far’ (not too much harm, not too many resources expended, etc.). Oddly enough, (7) can apply to non-deities as well. When a scientist comes up with a hypothesis, he/she usually doesn’t have enough evidence to know whether it is true. But he/she can test it and either falsify or verify it—as can others. So if Yahweh wants us to know things rationally/<insert word for the moral version>, all he can ever do is suggest things to us. Anything else would violate (6).

    The ‘real infinity’ is human thriving. I claim human thriving has no finite definition or description. Likewise, it wouldn’t be surprising if natural law has no finite description. That would mean science could possibly progress forever, with no ‘asymptotic stalling’. So, we can now ask:

         (8) What would an omni-* deity do to maximize human thriving?

    It is easy to screw up when we think about (3); for example, the Bohr model of the atom just wasn’t correct. But this is irrelevant, because of the principle that:

         (9) Wrong ideas can lead to less wrong ideas.

    Indeed, there exists a website called LessWrong, with the subtitle: “A community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality.” What I propose is that thinking about (3) and (8) is valid when we do it ‘only a little bit’. That is, we only go a little ahead of our current knowledge of the state of things. It is in this kind of environment that (3) has proven to work toward the end of (1). Likewise, I claim that (8) can aid (2).

    • Thanks Labreuer. I am not sure I am with you here. It appears that your steps are fairly unconnected assertions or axioms.

      I am going to narrow down to look at this:

      (5) God most values human thriving.

      (6) Human thriving consists of learning to rationally believe things.

      The (6) ↔ (1) correspondence is clear, but I’m not sure ‘rationally’ is the right term to establish (6) ↔ (2). The sense of the latter would be people valuing what is the right way to treat people for reasons other than fear or mind control. Fear (Deut 5) and mind control (hardening Pharaoh’s heart) are used in the Bible, but their use is extremely restricted. It’s a bit problematic to call the latter case ‘mind control’, as God was only reinforcing a belief that Pharaoh already held: the Hebrews deserved to be his slaves.

      Firstly, (5) assumes God exists, and then merely appears to be assertion. If thriving is to rationally believe things as per (6), and rationality seems to be a function of logic or vice versa, then we should simply be praised for logically forming conclusions. But faith seems to be the antithesis of this – belief in spite of evidence to the point of being potentially irrational.

      On your point on Pharaoh, you are flat wrong. I have written about this in my free will book. If it was reinforcing a belief, there would be no need, especially with foreknowledge, to interact in this case. None at all. The ONLY understanding of this is by interacting either to

      1) change the existing state of affairs

      2) if God had no knowledge of the outcome, thus weighting it to achieve X

      Either one actually has the same result, of forcing an outcome against free will, which directly leads to the death and suffering of a whole country and its animals, who had no part in the ‘decision’.

      But this has little to do with the point and is a side issue. Actually, I will repost the post I did on just this issue once on DC years ago, and we can discuss the Pharaoh there.

      Generally, I agree with (7), seems plausible (we believe our elders as a shortcut to knowledge – don’t eat this berry, it will kill you, rather than test the hypothesis – however, some claims need testing [God]).

      The ‘real infinity’ is human thriving. I claim human thriving has no finite definition or description. Likewise, it wouldn’t be surprising if natural law has no finite description. That would mean science could possibly progress forever, with no ‘asymptotic stalling’.

      Not sure this makes any sense. Infinity is a mathematical term (as, say, part of set theory) which you are using unmathematically.

      All in all, I@ confess to being rather unsure of what your substantive point is from this post, in all honesty! Perhaps you can clarify?

      Cheers

      • labreuer

        My apologies for the confusion. Sometimes I cannot sufficiently clarify a stance until I pose the initial version and have a different mind ask questions. If you’d rather not be that mind, do let me know.

        Firstly, (5) assumes God exists, and then merely appears to be assertion.

        All formal systems or even informal systems presuppose certain things. Because a formal system well-models reality, that doesn’t mean it ontologically obtains. The Bohr model of the atom was useful but completely fictional. It is in the same way that if God were to exist, we would understand him: successive approximations. We don’t just ‘snap to’ the correct way to think about some system, unless it is formal and finite. The comment discussion on justice touches on this: we can’t perfectly define ‘justice’, but we can approximate it and improve after more data collection.

        By the way, is the above pragmatist at all? I’m just about to embark on reading a few pragmatism philosophers (Dewey and James for starters).

        If thriving is to rationally believe things as per (6), and rationality seems to be a function of logic or vice versa, then we should simply be praised for logically forming conclusions. But faith seems to be the antithesis of this – belief in spite of evidence to the point of being potentially irrational.

        How are you defining ‘faith’? Also, I explicitly noted that (6) ↔ (2) correspondence is not necessarily valid. If human thriving involves (1) and (2), is that only accomplished through ‘rationality’? If so, how exactly is this version of ‘rationality’ defined? I’m reminded of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

        Actually, I will repost the post I did on just this issue once on DC years ago, and we can discuss the Pharaoh there.

        Sounds good; I approve of slicing off tangents and planting them in their own soil. :-)

        Not sure this makes any sense. Infinity is a mathematical term (as, say, part of set theory) which you are using unmathematically.

        Infinity means “without bound” in this case, and I think that the full, formal, correct, ontologically ‘true’ description of ‘human thriving’ (or thriving of minds) is infinite. This is opposed to, say, the idea that any mind could be forever simulated on a Turing machine of finite tape length (making it not a Turing machine formally, but hey). Stated differently, I’m saying that research into what human thriving is would never terminate and never approach a ‘glass ceiling’-type asymptote. Which is like my view of science.

        All in all, I confess to being rather unsure of what your substantive point is from this post, in all honesty! Perhaps you can clarify?

        My biggest point is (8). I claim that this is how we ought to model Yahweh, despite terrible passages in the OT or perceived gratuitous evils. One way to think of this is to treat those things as “noise in the system”, where ‘noise’ is really “stuff that seems random because I have yet to find any more patterns in it”. So the Big Question becomes:

             (10) Can positing an omni-* deity help classify structure in any set of observations?

        This is perhaps clarified by my Phil.SE post which quotes Polanyi on crystal structure: crystallographic theory is in principle unfalsifiable, but it nonetheless helps us understand crystal structure. One aspect of the crystallographic theory Polanyi was describing is that it didn’t fail if crystals were found which didn’t fit into it. For it would still explain what it does explain, remarkably well! Likewise, it may be important to not attribute all states of affairs as “because God wanted it that way”. Whether the only way for such an operation to be valid is to posit libertarian free will (or modify the definition of omni-*) is something I don’t know. But even here, we might be trying to “skip too far ahead”—something I warned against at the bottom of my original comment.

        It’s not clear I’ve completely captured my idea with (10), because we also want to move toward better and better futures (more and more human thriving). So I guess I need:

             (11) Can positing an omni-* deity help us better increase human thriving?

        The crazy thing—at least in my mind—is that if the answer to (10) and (11) is ‘yes’ for a prolonged period of time, then that in and of itself would be evidence for the existence of an omni-* deity, to the extent that you think that, say, atoms (or quarks) really exist. That is, unless you are an instrumentalist.

  • Gandolf

    “How can we mere mortals state what God SHOULD do”

    Well that’s pretty much exactly what the ancient-theist all do anyway.When they simply lay the claim, that their bible/holy book is also “word of god”

    They just claim its word of god . That’s all

    Yet we still have no real proof its actually any real word of god.We have no proof that it contains anything more than the words and ideas, of some ancient people minds. Who were “mere mortals” also

    Therefore surely any claims being made by theists in their holy book hold no more high ground.

    • A very good point, sir!

      • Gandolf

        I never understand how theists can think that just by quoting their bible/holy books. They then automatically feel they have thus way reached out to something containing some ideas of far more-“objective” value.

        Yet for starters. They didn’t even actually have their scriptures/bible accounts ,down in writing. Until it were much later on. Wasn’t it somewhere around the year 300 ? Ad .

        So during all those human lifetimes that past by over this period until they finally had something down in writing. (Which may have been quite a number of generations too. 6 ?generations ,8? or more Considering that back in those ancient days. More humans often died pretty young)

        These theist were also thus-way being pushed to need to rely on theist-honesty . Honesty of humans. Something pretty far-fetched for anyone to even choose to do. Considering that even today. We do often get reminded how many theists are being caught-out. As being found-out to be deceitful as hell. The world is still riddled with the shonky Benny Hinn types.

        Adding to that.One only needs to have a quick read of their holy books. With all the talk of “talking donkeys” and snakes and suchlike.

        To get the general gist of things. Of just how likely it is that their holy bible ideas are trustworthy