Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Faith Delusion

Ed. note: I'm dragging this back up simply because I've been re-reading Annie Dillard's "Holy the Firm," in order to teach it in the morning. And that's left me full of beans. That, and I had to respond to ProfWombat.

You know, I come across something like this, and I realize there is no end of ignorance in the world. First, let's give the devil his due:

When it comes to arguing whether God exists, or whether she is a figment of the human mind, first-year theological students have it all over Richard Dawkins.

Review after review after review after review states this.

Only they never mention why our first-year theological student is correct and Dawkins is wrong. Or, if the [sic] do, it’s a point so peripheral and probably misinterpreted, that the end result is the same.

This is why Dawkins riles so many. Because, in essence, he is absolutely correct in his utterly logical condemnations of God and religion. And because he married Romana from Dr. Who, the lucky bastard.
Yeah. My problem with Dawkins is Leela Ward-envy. I guess somehow I knew they were married. And my other problem is, I'm obsessed with the question of God's existence, without even knowing it! Of course, what follows is peripheral to whatever "proof" Dawkins' submits as to God's non-exsitence, and it's probably misinterpreted, too. Well, misinterpreted by someone.

What is it about God's existence that so riles people? Maybe it's the Turing Test mentality of it: "existence" is known by experience. If I "chat" with you on a blog, then clearly we both have "existence." Right? But consider (again) Kierkegaard's answer to the issue: can I prove the existence of the prisoner in the dock, or can I only prove his identity as the criminal he is accused of being? Careful how you answer: the entire project of ontology, ontotheology, Western metaphysics, and phenomenology, are involved in the issue. The problem is, as I've pointed out before:

It is generally a difficult matter to want to demonstrate that something exists-worse still, for the brave souls who venture to do it, the difficulty is of such a kind that fame by no means awaits those who are preoccupied with it. The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore, whether I am moving in the world of sensate palpability or in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence. For example, I do not demonstrate that a stone exists but that something which exists is a stone. The court of law does not demonstrate that a criminal exists but that the accused, who does indeed exist, is a criminal. Whether one wants to call existence an accessorium [addition] or the eternal prius [pre-supposition], it can never be demonstrated. We shall take our time; after all, there is no reason for us to rush as there is for those who, out of concern for themselves, or for the god, or for something else, must rush to get proof that something exists. In that case, there is good reason to make haste, especially if the one involved has in all honesty made an accounting of the danger that he himself or the object being investigated does not exist until he proves it and does not dishonestly harbor the secret thought that essentially it exists whether he demonstrates it or not.

If one wanted to demonstrate Napoleon's existence from Napoleon's works, would it not be most curious, since his existence certainly explains the works but the works do not demonstrate his existence unless I have already in advanace interpreted the word "his" in such a way as to have assumed that he exists. But Napoleon is only an individual, and to that extent there is no absolute relation between him and his works-thus someone else could have done the same works. Perhaps that is why I cannot reason from the works to existence. If I call the works Napoleon's works, then the demonstration is superfluous, since I have already" mentioned his name. If I ignore this, I can never demonstrate from the works that they are Napoleon's but demonstrate (purely ideally) that such works are the works of a great general etc. However between the god and his works there is an absolute relation. God is not a name but a concept, and perhaps because of that his essentia involvit existentiam [essence involves existence].
Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments.

Basically, if we're going to approach this from the posture of a scientist (like Dawkins), we'd first need to establish what "existence" is, and to establish it as something falsifiable. Existence, of course, is merely a concept, even to the most hardcore empiricist. Can someone tell me the difference between a sleeping person and a corpse, except that one is "alive," and the other, purely by definition, is not? (If you doubt me, recall Poe's fears of "premature burial," in an age where recognizing what we now call "coma" was a serious medical issue.) Where does the "alive" come from, and where does it go? What is it that animates a body, that gives that body "existence"? Because surely, if someone is dead, they no longer have "existence". What, then is "existence"?

Nexus 6 wants to assert Dawkins falsifies the proposition that God exists by running rings around people like me, logically. Socrates, of course, would have a field day with anyone asserting "existence" is provable or unprovable, and by his relentless logic (and little else), he "proved" the existence of the immortal soul stoutly enough it is still an almost ineradicable part of Western culture (we argue against the proposition to this day, if we argue it at all; no one argues from the assumption the soul does not exist. Such is the one-sidedness of logic, eh?)

Not that you'd know any of that from people who call a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement a "First year theological student." Speaking as a graduate of a theological seminary, I can confidently state that at no time did we have a class arguing or even studying the existence of God, or any of the many proofs thereof. (Of course, what do I know? Unlike Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett, or the blogger at Nexus 6, I've actually attended a theological seminary. Clearly those who are unsullied by the experience know better than I what goes on there. You want to know what seminary is like? I have an anecdote here that sums it up nicely.) We did have some lively discussions on the nature of God, and of metaphysics, and the faculty included people from traditional theists to process theologians (in terms of metaphysics, of which the subject of "existence" is primary theme, those two barely speak to each other.) . Although, as I pointed out in the post that caused Nexus 6 to include me in his/her/its ignorant diatribe, I've studied all the proofs for God's existence, and find all of them wanting. And for much better reasons than Dawkins managed to elucidate. And despite all that, I'm still an ordained minister and a confessing Christian.

Clearly, however, I'm not as well off as the ignoranti on this subject. Orwell was right: ignorance is bliss.

Google, which is my grate gud friend (N. Molesworth), popped up this link, which is another worthy examination of the topic of belief and biology. One serious question which is never explored as it should be is the simple, empirical one (via Karl Popper or David Hume; take your pick): is the concept of "belief," or "faith," for that matter, falsifiable? If not, it isn't subject to empirical analysis, and therefore, per Hume the uber-empiricist, we can't talk about it because it's nonsense. End of discussion. But, of course, that presumes the empiricism is the only way we can speak validly about anything. And if Christopher Hitchens, for example, only speaks of his politics or his wife and daughter in purely empirical terms, then, well, I'd be surprised (and sad for them). Even Hume didn't think such an end result of thought meant everything had been thought. He concluded it meant an end to philosophy, and a good excuse to take up sheep-herding.

Then along came Immanuel Kant....but that's another story, and another problem.

Because what really interests me here is the continued debate over God's existence, as if determining that argument would end all discussion. It's an atheist's canard, and I don't say that derisively but descriptively. The 19th century idea that, if we eliminated God (God's Funeral, A.N. Wilson called it), morality would cease, was not formulated by a hand-wringing theologian challenged by Enlightenment reasoning (I've yet to find any modern-day critic of religion who shows even a passing knowledge of theology, by the way), but by Friederich Nietszche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Atheists, you see, are forever setting up straw men and knocking them over. And then they are puzzled why all the world's believers don't explode like puffballs. Go figure.

The primary reason is, of course: Christians aren't worried about the question of God's existence. That has become a hot topic in the philosophy of religion and "Christian philosophy" (I'm not sure whether that's really a category of philosophy or not), and Heidegger critiqued such concerns as "ontotheology," claiming the issue confused Being with "a being," a position Tillich took up in describing God as the "ground of being" (as God transcends experience, Tillich argued, it is wrong to speak of God has "having existence.") Tillich also argued that everyone has an "ultimate concern," and so atheism is, strictly speaking, impossible. Given how many atheists wrap themselves around the question of God's existence, it's hard to argue against Tillich's point. But it's always atheists who bring this up as the "logical" demonstration that all believers are fools. It is a topic usually considered to have come from Christians, as the primary "proof" of God is usually considered to be Anselm's. Only problem is, it isn't so clear today that Anselm was engaged in apologetics (intellectual defense of the faith) when he crafted what Kant later labeled (and undermined) the "ontological proof." The argument of Anselm's proof (pace Charles Hartshorne) seems aimed more at providing intellectual (i.e., Greek rationalistic) support to a faith position already taken, rather than an argument for bringing the faithless to faith. Which brings us, mutatis mutandis, back to Kierkegaard:

The whole process of demonstration continually becomes something entirely different, becomes an expanded concluding development of what I conclude from having presupposed that the object of investigation exists. Therefore, whether I am moving in the world of sensate palpability or in the world of thought, I never reason in conclusion to existence, but I reason in conclusion from existence.
If I don't suppose God exists, in short, how am I to prove otherwise? If I do suppose God exists, why do I need proof? And so the whole obsession with God's existence is an obsession of the non-believers; not the believers.
Yes, yes, I know many Christians who worry themselves over the proof of God's existence, and it's still a lively topic among Christian philosophers (such as Alvin Plantinga's ontological argument from modal logic). But the argument as a form of apologetics is not the same as an argument for the necessity of faith (which is not to be confused with belief). In fact, that's the real problem, and the good Lord willing I'll return to it eventually (promise! promises!): the distinction that needs to be made between "faith" and "belief." Oh, and the problems of epistemology, Christian and otherwise.

I know you can't wait. I'll bring okra.

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