Category Archives: theism

Breaking Trail

For the umpteenth time, my snowshoe breaks through the crust and dives into hopeless depth hoar. The continental snowpack nibbles away at one’s soul with a false promise in every step. The crust feels solid when one’s foot first rests upon it. It even holds as weight shifts from back foot to front foot. But, it can sense when the full weight of body and pack has shifted, and then it collapses.

The slog would be bad enough were it a grueling monotony of breakthrough after breakthrough, but it is worse that that. Because sometimes, the crust gives you a few steps on top, and just when you relax, then it lets you fall through into the great vat of cornstarch beneath. What’s still worse about my current situation is that I am following a trail. Minus the snow, it would be easy walking.

If I persist, I will soon get a little psychological boost, as my course turns off the cut trail and into untracked forest. Though it really isn’t any harder or easier than wallowing above the Summer trail, breaking off the established path onto the section that only I know, feels like progress and is an antidote to the demoralizing snow conditions.

I used to do the walk to high camp with a map and compass. I no longer need those. The rocks, trees, sequences of slopes and their conformations chart a more accurate course in my memory. These days, I can get to my destination despite the snow cover because the trail isn’t really on the ground; it is in my mind. Or, so it would seem,

One might say that the trail presupposes or lies in the potential of, my mind and memory. For a trail to be, the possibility of a trail must have been. But the trail is not made of possibilities. It is made of my memories of trees, slopes, rocks, and all the other landmarks on the way. It is made of my senses of time, space and distance, which are properties of the phenomena which constitute thought and memory. My memory, and its possibilities, are dependent upon its contents. And so it is with memory in general; it is defined by having extant referents.

In other words, my memory is nothing without memories, and all the possibilities of memory lie in its contents, including its metaphysical possibilities, which lie in its having contents. When I recall looking down the trail in this moment, I trace a path through the space and time of my memory, just as I did when I stood in the snow on the day I recall. And I do so on background – all the historical infrastructure which orients my current experience and dictates its aspectual shape.

My recollection at the keyboard can’t get going without the background, yet the background can’t be background except in relation to current experience, which links it all together. The possibility of a trail inheres in legs, eyes, slopes and trees. Memory resides in its defining contents. The contents of my memory rely upon where and when I am now.

Some folks get frustrated with all this interdependence and would retreat to the simple certainty of a hierarchy. I can understand the appeal of a world where there is a separate mental substance, an uncaused cause, memory as an independent faculty among other independent faculties, and a trail waiting beneath the snow to accommodate our walk without the hard work of trail breaking.

But that means a world where there may be memory which doesn’t necessarily remember anything, a mind which doesn’t necessarily think about anything,  an agent which does not experience the changes it makes, and destinations which don’t belong to anybody – a world which is not possible.

 

 

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Cult of the Range-Fed Turtles

When my best childhood friend grew up, he decided to become an archaeologist. During his graduate training, he was in charge of  a dig in the Mississippi river valley which unearthed an odd structure. In the midst of the native people’s dwellings, was found a circular enclosure made of closely spaced wooden posts and containing a large pile of turtle shells. The undergraduates were eager to speculate about the purpose of the structure, but my friend cautioned them against it.

“We can’t be sure of its use,” he said”, and we can’t just guess based on what we might use an enclosure like that for today. We can’t just assume they were running a turtle ranch here. Why would they do that with a river full of turtles just a quarter-mile away? We have to put it in context of the surrounding village and the environment of the time, look for other examples and see if there are any modern structural analogs. Then we can make a guess, but it will still just be a guess.”

The next day the professor in charge of the dig came around on a rare site visit to see how things were proceeding. The students were eager to show him the mysterious ring of posts with its pile of shells.

Upon seeing their find, the professor remarked without hesitation, “Huh, must have been a turtle pen,” and promptly resumed his walking tour of the dig.

I don’t know if archaeology has an excuse for this kind of thinking, but medicine does:

Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult.

– Hippocrates

We can be forgiven for resorting to teleological assumptions now and again in medicine. With limited time and incomplete information, we must sometimes act on hypotheses which attribute function to structure and purpose to processes. Lucky for us, there’s plenty of slop in the system, so even if we’re wrong at the start, we usually get a second chance. We are trying to get away from teleology, though. “Evidence based medicine” and “scientific medicine” are the names that we have given that effort.

We are trying to get away from teleology because we have been burned by it. We thought that the body made pus to fight off bacterial infections, so for years, when we saw people with respiratory illness cough up phlegm with pus in it, we gave them antibacterial medications. We were wrong, not just about the purpose of pus, but in attributing a purpose to pus. Again, it was an understandable mistake, given the long history of debate regarding the merits of pus. Was it a good sign, or a bad one? Should we encourage or discourage its formation? It turns out we shouldn’t have been focusing on the pus at all, but on    the outcome of our purposeful intervention in the underlying process that produces the pus.

Purposeful results and final causes apply prospectively to human endeavors alone, and even there it’s often difficult to tell whether, when our actions are associated with the desired result, the outcome is due to our actions or simply due to fortuitous circumstances. Applied retrospectively or to processes and structures beyond our control, teleology is a sure mistake.

When we assign an endpoint to a process, we presume causation and correlation must be proven. Humans are notoriously bad at that. In systems which we can’t duplicate or control, we can always tell a causal story (I’m looking at you evolutionary psychology, intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning). But those stories are just interesting rationalizations, sharing the merits of a fairy tale in that they reveal more about us than the subject matter. Our fairy tales are harmless when they are about the universe, the origin of life, turtle ranches or anything else beyond our control. When we tell teleological stories about processes we do seek to influence (and can) we court tragedy.

The practice of bleeding was based on one such tale: the story of homeostasis. We still tell it today, but we tell it as metaphor instead of fact. The story is based on the simple observation that, when a person becomes ill, they go through a series of changes in their physical state which ultimately ends in either the restoration of their previous state, or death. Having observed other systems, the Greeks thought that the process of illness looked like a disequilibrium. Having observed associated changes in fluids which emanated from the body, they attributed the disequilibrium to an imbalance in those fluids. We can hardly blame them for the limits of their observations. We can’t fault their hypothesis. However, we can fault their method.

They didn’t just postulate an imbalance in the humors as a cause of illness, they presumed a balance of the humors as a state the body sought. The difference in these two points of view is subtle, but crucial. If  the balance of fluids is seen as descriptive  then restoring health by balancing the fluids remains a working hypothesis. It admits that other factors may determine the observed equilibrium. It leaves open the possibility that the observed flux of humors is a secondary phenomenon. Most important, it leaves physiologic equilibrium as a simple description, instead of presuming that it is a purpose with causal powers.

Given a description and a working hypothesis, physicians would look at their efforts to balance a patient’s humors with a critical eye. As a teleological assumption, with equilibrium as a “final cause” under Aristotle’s system, the idea creates an entirely different viewpoint. With  humoral balance rooted in the body’s design, variances in expected observations must be due to inadequate methods or incomplete knowledge of the humors. For this version of the “balancing the humors” hypothesis, failure is not an option.

Now, the ancient Greeks may have weathered this kind of assumption better than their heirs. They loved to fight with each other. In the face of inconsistent outcomes from humor-balancing interventions, they were likely to call Aristotle and Hippocrates idiots or just ignore the under-girding theory of causes altogether in favor of their own pet theory. Definitive statements naturally took a healthy beating in the Greeks’ intellectual environment. The Romans, and the Europeans who came after them, were much more pious.

As a result, no one questioned the teleological assumption, out of reverence for its sources, and the vital fluids persisted in medical thought owing largely to the idea of homeostasis by design. No matter how apparent the flaws in our understanding of the blood, bile and phlegm, they were somehow attached to the homeostatic goal of the body. As long as physicians saw that equilibrium as the body’s goal, they could reconcile any discrepant observations with the over-arching story and persist in practices such as bleeding. It fell to investigators outside of the medical profession to discover the secondary nature of the humors. Only then did the practices aimed at balancing the fluids truly begin to fade.

But long after bleeding and the balance of fluids fell by the wayside, the tale of homeostatic purpose continued to plague medical science. Physicians continued to view physiology as directed toward an end. For example  the heart was seen not to pump blood, but to be a pump. Therefore, medical students were instructed to never administer medications called beta-blockers to patients with heart failure.

Beta-blockers stick to proteins in the membranes of  heart cells called beta receptors, which normally bind adrenaline. Via the beta receptor proteins, adrenaline stimulates the heart to pump faster and with more force. In heart failure, the heart can’t contract forcefully or fast enough to keep up with the volume of blood returning to it from the veins. If the heart is a purpose-built pump, beta blockers should be anathema in the setting of heart failure. But in reality, when given to stabilized heart failure patients, beta blockers reduce long-term mortality by about one-third.

We don’t yet know exactly how these medicines achieve such a feat. We do know why they are not inevitably detrimental in heart failure. It is because the heart pumps, but it is not a purpose-built pump. The heart is instead a group of cells which inhabits a specialized niche in a system of many cells all with complimentary and competing characteristics, existing in a state of equilibrium which, in deference to tradition, we call homeostasis.

Our physiology doesn’t try to maintain homeostasis any more than erosion tries to form a natural arch. The arch forms (rather than crumbling like the sides of a stream-bed) because it is geometrically stable given the geology. The arch persists because it is geometrically stable, and so we frequently see natural arches where the climate and geology allow. Nobody marvels at this, speculating about a conspiracy between sandstone and weather patterns. Then again, few people have an emotional stake in natural arches. The same is true of our physiology, minus the low stakes. There is no overall homeostasis sensor or hormone in the body. There is no homeostasis conspiracy.

So, we have abandoned the notion of purpose in physiology, and that simple maneuver has allowed us to discover things like the survival benefit which beta blockers produce in heart failure. This move is the principle behind the randomized, controlled clinical trial. All along, it wasn’t ignorance holding us back, but the project of rationalizing our knowledge to traditionally understood, teleological models.

Of course, the questions driving evidence based medicine don’t start from nowhere. Scientific medicine asks questions based on the results of previous investigations and hypotheses derived from basic science discoveries regarding the components of physiology and their relationships. Some of these hypotheses are even most easily stated in terms of purpose. But those statements are now understood as metaphor, rather than bare fact.

Beyond the fecundity of this change in method, the move away from teleology finally brings some redemption for poor Hippocrates. Rather than using it as an excuse, we can understand his aphorism, “Life is short. The art is long. Experience is difficult “, properly again – as an admonition about method. Be skeptical. Remember that your viewpoint is limited. Watch out for overarching narratives. Good advice, and not just for medicine, but for all those turtle-ranch theorists out there (I’m looking at you intelligent design, cosmological fine tuning, evolutionary psychology…).

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Aimlessness

Purpose gives life value. Most people would agree with that (false) statement without being able to properly explain what it means.  To be fair, when its morally authoritative proponents speak of purpose in an existential  context, they may mean one of two things. The intertwining intents make for a confusing narrative, so some untangling is in order.

The first, predominant meaning, is the common usage of ‘purpose’: instrumental to an extrinsic end. A good example this sort of purpose is the purpose of a humble noun.

“Cat” has an instrumental purpose. All it does is represent a certain class of lazy, mammalian parasites (who we love anyway). We could name the same category with a different phoneme and nothing would change. The sound and spelling derive their purpose from their use toward an end outside themselves.

The second, less commonly expounded thing to which moral leaders refer when they speak of existential purpose, is something more like ‘content’. The word then gestures at the richness of a personal story. On this account, Immanuel Kant and Idi Amin led purposeful lives.

Of course, lay-speakers often intend both meanings at once and also equivocate freely between the notions ‘instrumental’ and ‘full-of-content’. And lay-speakers cannot be blamed for the muddle. It is intentional.

We are all told, explicitly and implicitly, morning to night, from birth to death, that content comes of instrumental purpose, and one justifies the other. Our religions tell us this. Our politicians tell us this. Our employers and professions tell us this. And they all tell us that this mechanism gives value to existence.

The pervasive message of human civilization is: instrumental  purpose makes purposeful content, makes value. But that is not how we work. Acting as an instrument may serve as a means of expression, but expression of motive (will to power) actually produces the value of our personal stories.

The endpoint itself makes no difference.

Nor does the report of our lives’ content capture their value. A slave may live a wild adventure from crib to deathbed and still, rightfully feel cheated. To think that the endpoint. and content generated in pursuit of that endpoint, themselves yield value, is itself a moral failure

It is all in the doing.

 

 

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‘Cause You’re Doin’ it Wrong

Regarding thoughts and discussion of deity, the question must eventually arise, ” Why?”. Once one has decided not to take such notions too seriously, why engage on the matter with those who do?

Morbid curiosity is part of the answer. Or to paraphrase a famous psychologist’s response to the same question about his interest in UFO’s: I am more interested in the motives for holding the belief, than I am in the belief itself.

But beyond morbid curiosity, there is an ethical impetus. For within the mish-mash of desperate apology and cognitive dissonance, lies a kernel of consistency. It begins with the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

It is a ridiculous question, but the reason why it is ridiculous is interesting. We are in the world and can never step outside to see whether the world must be as it is, what other way it might be, or whether it must be at all. In light of our blindness on the matter, an assertion of existential necessity appears to need no further justification. And that’s good, because nothing explains (existential necessity) God, though (existential necessity) God explains everything  – if you believe it. And that’s as far as it goes, for those few who are ethically sound.

For the rest, they go on to endow existential necessity with intentionality, motive and any number of other, inconsistent properties, all as a way of swinging their dicks around  (to allay their own anxieties, most often). That is doing it wrong, and I just hate to see folks doing it wrong.

 

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Why Have Children?

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Everyone who has had children has asked themselves the question. The answers leave one feeling a bit squeamish, because the answers are all tautologies. The simplest is some version of: Because people have children. The more complicated responses – to make little caretakers for ourselves, for example – beg the question off to another, underlying tautology (We want to live because we live, in this case). There is no immediately obvious rationale.

The question in question is just the sort of question which religion purports to answer. But answers from divine purpose fare no better than circumstantial answers. The simplest answer from religion is: Because God commands it, which does not differ functionally from the first statement above, ‘Because people have children’. More nuanced responses again beg off to deeper tautologies, like the famed divine mission statement from the Christians: Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The statement is lovely, but it is devoid of functional content. After thorough contemplation, we are still left standing around, awaiting the Lord’s instructions before we can get on with the glorifying and enjoying.

These tautologies lurk at the bottom of all teleology. No attempts to divine purpose from conditions avoid the fate of Leibniz’s theodicy. When applied, teleological excursions all discover the type of gem unearthed by Dr. Pangloss.  Study of a language’s syntax alone, will never reveal the language’s semantics. What is cannot tell us why it is, any more than it can tell us what ought to be. Attempts to divine purpose from structure, while operating strictly within the structure, are futile.

So, why have children? Why not? Or more precisely, why ask why? It is not a fit question.

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Can Spacetime Be Created?

More precisely, can we make sense of created identity?

The answer seems obvious. Of course, we draw, build, write and sculpt all the time. A sketch, for example, takes shape in the mind, gets transferred to paper, and a new thing is born.

But the identity of the sketch is dependent upon the intention, and therefore the relative identity of, the artist. The making of the sketch is transformative, and so inherently temporal, and derivative of phenomena which can be mapped in relation to each other already. Identity itself is not created in the sketching process, only an identity.

To speak of the schema itself being created, is meaningless. A claim of creation for identities is not a claim of creation at all, but something entirely different. It is not even remotely analogous. It is the quintessential miraculous proclamation.

Guess What?

If you believe that your thoughts, feelings, and motives have – or are – explanatory causes, then you are a determinist.

You are also a physicalist.

If you think that God is a person with thoughts, feelings and motives similar to your own, nothing changes. You remain a determinist and a physicalist. God just joins the club.

Welcome.

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Things and Things

No thing can come from nothing. And so, the argument goes, things must have come from something, hence the Lord our God, who neatly avoids the initial difficulty by not being a thing.

But then the argument trips over that initial statement. Because the initial statement is one about the nature of things and how we know things.

Being a thing means existing in the context of other things. Even those poor, deluded Platonists cannot avoid that fate for their Ideals. The metaphysical ‘light (or is it shadow?) cone’ of the ideal circle is distinguishable from the realm of the square, and that is part of being a circle from our viewpoint.

So, when we begin to speak of things coming from God, we have already begun to speak of God as a thing. We can back up at this point, and say that we don’t really mean to say things ‘come from’ God in the way that things ‘come from’ – in other words, are known by their association with – other things.

It is only a loose analogy. The way in which things come from God is not, in itself, explicable. There is no possible mechanism of divine emanation.

But that position is just a special kind of Nihilism. It is a claim of revelation, which stands opposed to explanation, and marks the end of argumentation. If one ‘just knows’, then one ‘just knows’ and that’s the end of it.

 

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The All in One

‘Cause some things bear repeating…there is no Guy in the Sky, or if there is, he is just a guy:

Discussing the existence of a deity is fraught. Everyone on either side of the issue has profound emotional commitments to their position – profound enough, for some people, to merit a violent defense. Setting aside fanaticism, even the reasonable disputant’s motivation to understand the basic issues is weak. But I don’t think that shaky motivation is the primary source of acrimony. Some basic conceptual differences drive the dispute, and the emotional consequences of everyone’s intellectual positions make the dispute nasty. The classical arguments for the existence, or at least the possibility, of a god in the traditional, Western conception illustrate the schisms best. These arguments – the Cosmological, Contingency, and Ontological Arguments – share a basic set of notions, though I think that the Contingency Argument is by far the most important and interesting. Here is a mash-up of the three, courtesy of Jon Duns (and subsequent admirers) :

(1′) Whatever is possible is contingent or necessary.

(2′) A first cause is possible.

(3′) Therefore, a first cause is contingent or necessary

(4′) Any contingent substance is possibly actualized by another substance.

(5′) A first cause is not possibly actualized by another substance.

(6′) Therefore a first cause is not contingent.

(7′) Therefore a first cause is necessary.

I like this. It at once demonstrates the interesting part of the three arguments, especially the Contingency Argument, and the difficulties with their claims and with opposing claims. Stated in this form, the combo-argument gets right to the chewy bits.

Whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary.  This statement says so much. What does it mean to speak of a possible contingent thing? It means one of two things. First, it may be a thing to be considered in logical statements. This means it is a defined entity, a term of art. Our range of defined entities is extremely broad. It ranges from the non-controversial (the color black) to the fantastic (ghosts).  However, logic doesn’t mind. As long as there are rules to tell us where an object of our intention stands among its fellows, logic will apply, and our definitions provide us with those rules in each specific case. Give us the definition and we may say what is logically possible. Second, a contingent thing may be something which we may describe as well as define, in other words, rather than just sketching the rules of its identity we may  speak of it in terms of its composition and its relationship to other things.

When considered in light of the latter, contingent things form a set of entities defined by their dependence. They are dependent on and inseparable from, the conditions which preceded them. They are describable in a positive sense.  They have a composition. But do they also have a nature? Consider that most contingent of objects: the dog. The concept of  “dog” would seem to be a solid citizen of our conceptual society. But if called upon to produce the archetypical dog, can we? Mustn’t we instead depend on a pedigree, physically and metaphysically?

The dog-concept is instead entirely dependent on all the dogs, extant and historical, and in a very particular way. It is, in fact, an epiphenomenon, something which stands in for causally related entities, their appearance rather than their structure. The dog-concept is still real as much as the appearance of someone’s face is real. The dog-concept just doesn’t do anything in and of itself, any more than the appearance of someone’s face itself  “does” anything other than act as an intermediary between the mind of its possessor and the minds of those who perceive it.

At least that is one way to look at things. Another would be to say that there is some magnetic kernel of efficacy at the heart of the dog-concept – that dogness is a foregone conclusion, not just an implication of the circumstances of the universe, and if dogness wasn’t realized by wolf and man, it would have been realized by fox and man, or Tasmanian tiger and man.

These two ways of looking at things hold on a deeper level too, in regards to contingency itself. On the first view, the fact that the things we see derived from other things through time are interdependent must be taken as basic. The adherent to this perspective must say, “I cannot see into that interdependency itself to say whether it is itself the ‘really real’, efficacious thing about the world, whether it is a useful, “close enough” representation of what is ‘really real’ or whether it is an appearance with nothing more certain about its reality than self-consistency. I’m stuck with it. I can’t look at it without referring to it. I believe I’ll live with the uncertainty and move on.”

On the second viewpoint, the appearance of interdependency is due to something – a foregone conclusion which is not possibly an end-product dependent on our seeing it for its identity. This kernel of kernels remains a property; it is inert without associated objects to manifest it. However, the objects do manifest it rather than participating in its active creation. From this perspective, for example, each Chihuahua could be said to manifest “dogness” (sad though their efforts may be) rather than adding to the concept of  “dogness”. Here, by further analogy, the genetics are set and are the real cause of the dog, with metabolic processes and environmental inputs acting as accessories only.

The Contingency Argument could be seen as an explanation of the second viewpoint, but it goes beyond what is necessary for that viewpoint as the argument is used in apologetics. The plain, white rice version argues for a knowable thing. The identity of the non-contingent base relies, at least in part, on its relationship with the contingent things which exemplify it, just as genes are genes only in a biological context. But when the argument is used in support of theism, a hierarchy of dependency is claimed, with the non-contingent thing having the real causal efficacy, and so existential necessity,  in the end. The contingent things don’t dance to a tune or express genetic information, they move to the pull of their strings.  Interdependency is no longer possibly the epistemic basement, a thing-in-itself lurks below. This is a bold claim; bolder, I think, than stopping with a shrug at the top basement. It is even bolder than something like asserting the causal efficacy of dogness. It is bold because a thing with existential necessity must be opaque.

How, in principle might we come to know a necessary thing? How could we induce changes in it to divine its nature? How could it have discernible “parts”?  How could we hope to describe it? Any knowledge of it, even knowledge of its existence, must be as complete and undetermined as it is – given knowledge. This is not to say that such an assertion is necessarily irrational. Given the claim, we can use it in logical statements. In fact, given the claim, we can establish the definition of contingency as the sort of dependency relationship which the second viewpoint above requires, since the first cause, as a thing-in-itself, may not be a billiard ball, or cipher or any other causal entity as we know causal entities. All things we may know as such can be analyzed in some way.

So, if the necessary thing must remain something we propose based on our intuition, are we to believe that whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary? If the necessary thing in question is a logical necessity of a sort after all, rather than an existential necessity alone, would that allow it to be more than a postulate?  On the view of contingency which takes the interdependency of things as basic, logic is descriptive and so doesn’t have anything in particular to say about existential necessity. The situation in which logical necessity and existential necessity are equivalent is the situation in which the description of how we perceive cause and effect relationships is also a precise representation of those relationships. Only in that case can we be reassured that none of the definitions guiding our logical expositions are squirrelly. This leaves us with a particular kind of contingency –   a condition of dependence rather than interdependence, an open system rather than a closed one. But even granting such a viewpoint does not save us from the implications of the thing-in-itself.

Our perception of cause and effect is one of discrete objects interacting at objectively definable points in time. If our perception is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then we are left with the caricature of determinism laid on naturalist philosophy. History is a network of falling dominoes, each with a discrete, fixed identity and falling across a fixed temporal landscape. “Where did it all start?”, becomes a vital question and the path to a first cause and a thing-in-itself opens up. But by the Cosmological path or the Contingent path the seeker ends up back at the monolith. Examination of the dominoes or the course of their falling can tell us nothing about what started their toppling cascade, whether it was an earthquake, a child’s finger, a gust of wind or a wayward beetle. By empirical inquiry and logical examination, the necessary entity must remain an enigma.

We are left with a mandatory agnosticism regarding the thing-in itself. However, the uncertainty leaves room for one more bold assertion, one about mind. The assertion involved should not be mistaken for the concept of mind in pan-psychism. Mind in the pan-psychist formulation is seen as a basic property, a sort of receptivity which explains the interdependency among objects which we observe, but it remains a property. Mind and consciousness are still “about” something, rather than standing alone as things-in-themselves.

A mind which has an independent identity is something else entirely. It is the object of its own intention independent of any comparators – a condition representing intention itself, which is a condition which can be defined, but cannot be described, except in terms of other indescribable (maximal qualities, self-causation, unmoved movement, etc.) Such a mind isn’t necessarily about anything, which, despite our occasional suspicions about some of our fellow travellers, is not a quality we observe in any mind around us, even our own. One could maintain that we suffer from known limitations on our perspective. Fair enough, but it still leaves us standing back at the monolith, facing an object which defies meaningful examination, though we arrive with an additional postulate.

So, the only reasonable claim to be made about the thing-in-itself is, “I feel it must be thus.” This is the proper jumping-off point for atheism, for an assertion has no more inherent validity than its opposite. A claim to intuitive knowledge is not unreasonable (we can make a logical argument based upon it), but it is an audacious claim. Sound explanations can be made without it, if one is prepared to accept a degree of necessary ignorance. The latter would seem the more cautious view, though it might have the appearance of denial to those convinced of the theist claim.

Either way, the advocate is left with an uncertainty beneath them, which is not a tolerable situation for most. So, people work at feeling  justified in their beliefs. The easiest way of achieving a feeling of justification is by expounding on the obvious lunacy of opposing positions. But that tactic is merely a distraction, and one that isn’t good for anyone’s better understanding; it is just good for relieving psychological discomfort. I’m not saying there isn’t anything worth fighting about in the realm of basic religious and philosophical inquiry, just that the things worth fighting about – dogmatism, self-indulgence, tribalism, coercion – are the things most people end up fighting for when they think or talk about basic beliefs.

I Know What You Mean

There are two divine categories: the philosopher’s God and the popular God. The former is an organizing or rationalizing principle. The latter is a Guy in the Sky. There is a defensible position within the set of concepts which make up the philosopher’s God. It is a pretty narrow strip of intellectual territory to hold, and I don’t see that it matters much to claim it, but it is there.

As for the Guy in the Sky, the point of believing in the Guy is not even believing in the Guy. The point is social cohesion, and thus proselytization. It is very hard to ask others to rally around a set of vague principles, but it is easy to ask others to rally around a flag, or a God.

To the same end, various pundits try to reconcile the philosopher’s God with the popular God. Lectures and debates ad nauseum from learned believers like Zacharias, Lennox, Craig, etc. attempt the trick.  As a strategy (both offensive and defensive), the maneuver is completely consistent and coherent.

The actual arguments constituting the maneuver, however, are neither. Because, the Guy in the Sky is above all, a Guy, and the rationalizing principle is a rationalizing principle with a whole raft of properties which are inconsistent with our concept of a person. So, what comes out of these arguments, once all the threads are swept into a pile and sorted out, is just a jumble.

To the preachers and apologists out there: I know what you mean when you toss these arguments out into the ether. I know that you feel obligated to push your flag forward. But please understand why it is never going to work like you want it to (there are lots of flags, at the very least), and please understand why I might occasionally ask you to give it a rest and shut the fuck up.

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