January 28, 2005

The anthropomorphism of religion

Posted by Curt at 04:07 PM in Geek Talk | TrackBack

I might deduce one final consequence of a skepticism in regards to temporality and causality. If our only experience of the world is of an existent reality, such that something uncreated or destroyed is literally unimaginable, the superfluity of religion becomes very evident. Since it is on the basis of a parallel between finite objects, which are presumed to be necessarily created, and the universe in its totality, which in turn therefore needs its Creator, that modern religions ultimately justify themselves, if creation, rather than lack of creation, is taken to be the phenomenon unjustified by experience then the concept of God is unwarranted.


I really need to spend some time studying the ideas of the philosophers you mention. I see many of them were mathematicians, which means they were about ten times smarter than I am.
I really think you are touching on some mysteries for which there are no good explanations. I have had great respect for those who make big scientific advances. There is also room for mediocre scientists and musicians, but I have read about the experience of gaining a new scientific insight, which can truly be a peak experience. I believe it is the height of human creativity, similar to writing a great poem or composing great music. Can you explain that?
I disagree with those who say “It is mere data.” or “You are ruining nature.” The literati who put down science are lazy and egotistical or maybe just stupid.
I see the difference between science and non-science as a difference in the degree of reality testing (contingent on predictive value.) Some subjects, such as religion, philosophy or politics are not subject to much reality testing. That does not keep many very brilliant minds from spinning unbelievably complex, internally consistent theories and this goes on and on as new generations of students and wise men ruminate on the same basic cud. When they predict anything it always falls flat. When something becomes untenable the effort is made to repair the belief, but modify it only to the extent necessary that it is not entirely irrational.
The beauty of science is that you can eliminate many false paths through experimentation. The down side is that cherished beliefs get trashed and there is no guarantee that scientific truth will make you happy or even make sense. That makes the authorities mad, but it sure is interesting.

Posted by: Dave at January 28, 2005 07:26 PM

I see many of them were mathematicians, which means they were about ten times smarter than I am.

I'm sure my brother will be duly flattered.

I really think you are touching on some mysteries for which there are no good explanations.

That reminds me of what Edward Gibbon said about the Neo-platonists, who he held responsible for infecting Christianity with a theological fervor that resulted in much war and bloodshed: "Several of these masters, Ammonius, Plotinus, Amelius, Porphyry, were men of profound thought, and intense application; but by mistaking the true object of philosophy, their labours contributed much less to improve than to corrupt the human understanding. The knowledge that is suited to our situation and powers, the whole compass of moral, natural, and mathematical science, was neglected by the new Platonists; whilst they exhausted their strength in the verbal disputes of metaphysics, attempted to explore the secrets of the invisible world, and studied to reconcile Aristotle with Plato, on subjects of which both these philosophers were as ignorant as the rest of mankind. Consuming their reason in these deep but unsubstantial meditations, their minds were exposed to illusions of fancy...The ancient sages had derided the popular superstitions; after disguising its extravagance by the thin pretence of allegory, the disciples of Plotinus and Porphyry became its most zealous defenders. As they agreed with the Christians in a few mysterious points of faith, they attacked the remainder of their theological system with all the fury of a civil war."

There's no doubt in my mind that some of the issues that I have touched on are intractable; what I will say in my own defense, however, is that my own flights of fancy are to some extent dedicated to destroying the aura of inevitability that sometimes seems to attach to sacred orthodoxies like religion and science. If I occupy myself with obscure metaphysics from time to time, it is to show that they do too, that their own foundations are built on tenuous metaphysical assumptions. One does not have to accept my skepticism about time or causality; it is enough to perceive that the assumptions upon which religion and science and the other prevailing dogmas of our age are not unquestionable a priori.

Posted by: Curt at January 29, 2005 06:29 AM

I have to admit, Curt, that while I have read or skimmed your earlier comments on this subject, I have not investigated them completely. And while I may have a thing or two to say in response to them, that hardly concerns us here. I make this disclaimer, of sorts, to make it clear that I very well may be misunderstanding you here. In fact, at certain points, I am pretty sure that I am. Now, as I read this entry, it seems to me that three objections to theism are presented. Again, while I read three, perhaps you don't mean to put forth these three, but rather that I am interpreting these. If I were to read you differently, as I have attempted, one or more of these may disappear. But since you may mean as many as these three, and that these three may very well be presented, and that your ideas here and elsewhere may result in these three, I think it necessary to reply to all three. Of course, I think it would be readily admitted that to come to these conclusions, one must accept your model, and that few, especially theists, would. This says nothing of its truth, of course. So this is not a criticism of what you have presented, simply a note. First, I must say that nontheistic or secular epistemology must always lead to radical skepticism is, to me, clear. However, given a theistic basis, such problems as this, and many others created by secular epistemology, disappear. Since you are clearly working outside of a theistic framework, it is not surprising you come to conclusions that we may not be able to fit within it. And why should it? If God does not exist and did not create us, why should we be able to understand him? But if He does, why shouldn't we? This is really presuppositional then, in a sense. We cannot come to the conclusion once we have investigated the issue, rather we have to start with our conclusion before we investigate. This is hardly unethical, far from it, it very well may be necessary. But a part of me refuses to believe that it is a necessary conclusion. I believe, even working within a secular framework, at least in a sense, one can come to the conclusion that God exists. Now, before I begin the following, I would like to again make clear, that the theist needn't work within your framework, as simply being a theist is a enough to get around it. Certainly, we don't want to be like the theist of last century, when faced with logical positivism attempted to work within it. The question, however, remains, that if everyone were to accept your basic conclusions, would they be forced to accept, as you do, that "the concept of God is unwarranted". The answer, as we shall see, is no. Some theologians, in fact, for the most part accept some of your conclusions. Albeit not for your reasons. All three major branches of Christianity, for instance, have relied to some extent on apophatic theology. The Church in the east might be the most receptive to your argument, since they have traditionally been the strongest apophaticists. But, despite what may be alleged, it is not foreign to the west. While we have been traditionally more cataphatic, it is by no means universal. In fact, before the schism, apophetic theology was far more common. Many of the early fathers of the church, for instance. It seems to me that cataphaticism made its strongest headways in the west with Scholasticism. But one can hardly call Scholasticism cataphatic. If we look at Aquinas, we see a great amount of apophatic thought. He devoted more of ST to apophaticism than to cataphaticism. Even his use of analogy could be seen as apophatic. No one can deny the apophaticism of Psuedo-Dionysius, or his influence in Scholasticism, I should think. Even Baadar was apophatic. So there is no doubt that EO is apophatic, and there are certainly apophatic Catholic theologians. Of the three branches Protestantism has been the most resistant to apophatic theology, but this more has to do with Protestant methodology than any incompatablity. Even as recently as last century apophaticism has been expressed by some of Protestantism leading theologians and philosophers. You certainly find strains of it in Barth, and in Doodyeweerd's ondoorgrondelijk. Now I am open to the criticism of cataphaticism by apophaticists, and vice versa. But I think that both are off the mark. I think it is possible to put something forward that is both and neither, in a sense. If I am right, then this would certainly get around you conclusion, even granting your premises, which I will not do. I could go on here, but I think that it is not necessary, having made my point. Now if you mean to allege that tradional arguments for God, namely those which rely either on our experiences, causality or temporality, fail. Then, I must both agree to an extent and disagree. I agree that granting your conclusions, some would fail. I disagree that those based on our experiences would. That being said, I think there are a number that would still work. For instance, while discarding causality and temporality would seem to deal a death blow to cosmological arguments, I think it would only do so to some cosmological arguments (which in one way of reading your entry is what you mean to imply). However, this would hardly affect cosmological arguments based on the PSR or contingency. Ontological and transendental arguments would be unaffected. The same goes for the host of modal arguments. And thinking that God could be considered unwarranted in reformed epistemology is laughable. This says nothing of God being considered necessary for other propositions. I could go on and on. I am not saying that any of these are very persausive, simply that they might warrant a belief in God. Could we even possibly see God as fitting well within your framework? This is merely a mental exercize, as I don't accept any part of it, so why should I seriously attempt to work within it. However, I think if we were to view God as trans- or even meta-modal, then the answer would be yes. I had much more to say, but it is quite late and I can't recall it at the moment. Perhaps, I will return to this, in the meantime I hope I am not misunderstood. I do not want to come across here as dismissive or the such. I am merely trying to respond to what I think you are saying. I hope I have done you no disservice here, and if so I apologize.


Upon rereading, this comment may seem confused and disorganized. I hope it comes across clearly.

Posted by: Aaron at January 30, 2005 02:42 AM

While I agree with you that arguments about the existence of God generally only tend to be persuasive if you accept the conclusion as an unstated premise, you are mistaken if you think that I am trying to refute all the multitudinous arguments for the existence of God, although I should note that all of the cosmological and transcendental arguments that I know of depend on the notion of causality--the transcendental argument is practically a codification of the relationship between science and religion that I have already implicitly suggested. The only ones that you cite that don't are the ontological and modal arguments, but in a sense they do, because even if you accept their arguments and you believe that a perfect being exists, that's not necessarily the same thing as saying that God exists, certainly not the God(s) in the Bible. In order to relate the two, it seems to me that you would have to demonstrate that the infinitely perfect being created the world and mankind, etc., and then you're right back at the beginning with causality issues. In addition, I'm quite suspicious of attempts to define the attributes of a perfect being, as well as any explanation in which the events observed are somehow dependent on the observer (and that includes relativity and quantum theory). My skepticism towards the ontological argument is hardly unique; St. Anselm himself admitted that it was no true argument, but simply a way to buttress his faith by providing his rationalism with some sustenance.

But as I said, it's not my intention to refute these arguments, except insofar as I oppose the spirit of attempting to prove that a particular belief such as this is necessary. I find the insistence on necessity a little baffling--physicists don't talk about how gravity is necessary, because talk of necessity is completely beside the point. The issue is creating an explanation that conforms more or less to one's observations, not defending the model for its own sake--quite the opposite in fact, since the desire to improve and revise the model will both lead to changes and give him the confidence that his model is the best explanation available until a better one is proposed. It seems to me that maybe those propogating arguments for the existence of God are rather more insecure about their beliefs if they imagine that they are only defensible if they are necessary. But my aim was not to attack religious belief, but to banish that notion of necessity. Perhaps "unnecessary" would have been a better choice of words than "unwarranted," because after all that is the issue at stake, I believe. Certainly I have no compelling reason to embrace religion, so "unnecessary" is essentially equivalent to "why bother?" to me, but the religious that are committed to their beliefs have the same reaction, then I'm not sure that the attachment was ever that strong in the first place. If anyone finds the prospect of freely holding a belief in which they are not compelled by necessity to believe terrifying, then that perhaps says more about their beliefs than my skepticism.

Posted by: Curt at January 30, 2005 06:43 AM

Just a little clarification before I attempt a response. I have to say that I was right in thinking I misunderstood you. I added the things about the various arguments more as an after thought. I thought that the whole question of apophaticism v. cataphaticism was the main point of the entry. I was also thrown off by the use of "unwarranted" which I usually take as an epistemological term, whereas in your response you explain that you mean more by this "unnecessary" which is another thing altogether. But again why should we necessarily find God necessary in secularism? Although I think it is that we do, I do not think there is anything self evident or necessary about this. Why should we, though, have to fully understand how God exists in order to understand that he exists. And, as has been aptly pointed out by both apophaticists and cataphaticists, although for different reasons. I think even within secularism including what you are talking about here, one can be convinced of the truth of the existence of God. However, I think this is far more likely working within a theistic framework. It is far easier to discover truth through truth than through lies.


Posted by: Aaron at January 30, 2005 02:14 PM