Infinitely debating the unknown

In today's Inquirer, Temple University Math professor John Allen Paulos offers a somewhat utopian proposal to move the world towards "heaven on Earth":

...candidly recognizing the absence of any good logical arguments for God's existence, giving up on divine allies and advocates as well as taskmasters and tormentors, and prizing a humane, reasonable and brave outlook, just might help move this world a bit closer to a heaven on Earth.
I make no secret of my belief in God, but I'm a skeptic where it comes to heaven -- whether of the divine or man-made varieties. I'm even more skeptical about promises of heaven, or proposals for how to get there. While this professor is a self-proclaimed atheist, I think he's making a mistake to imagine that atheism will bring about heaven on earth, because history shows that atheists who have promised heaven on earth have a rather poor track record of delivering. Human nature seems to be the problem, and while I can certainly understand the argument that religious strife has done much harm (whether in the form of the Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms, or Islamic expansionism, right on down to al-Qaeda and 9-11), I see no reason to believe that the absence of a belief in God makes people any more peaceful or productive than the belief in God. This is not to say that religions have a good track record (and clearly some religions are more peaceful than others), but the majority of religious doctrines at least in theory stress the need for people to get along. Assume that all of a sudden every last human being were simply to "recognize the absence of any good logical arguments for God's existence." Why would that recognition bring about world peace, or move the planet closer to heaven on earth?

What always worries me about religious arguments (and I include atheist arguments asserting there is no God among them) is that they involve disagreements over the unknown. Many atheists assert that they know the unknown, which strikes me as requiring an act of faith essentially similar to the act of faith which is required asserting knowledge that a deity (or deities) exists. Claiming a belief (or a disbelief) is one thing, but claiming to know the unknowable is not logical.

Atheism is often considered synonymous with materialism, and materialists posit that there is nothing out there except matter, because matter is all that we humans have been able to discern. That strikes me as a bit like arguing that there is nothing out there beyond the planets we have discovered because we have not yet been able to see or perceive them. But if you posit infinity, if you really consider the implications, then it makes placing limitations upon it illogical, because by its nature it is unlimited. However, even as I say that, I guess I should recognize that even my belief in infinity might be wrong, because infinity is not truly knowable. I like to think that I try to appreciate it, though. Maybe respect is a better word. It certainly is humbling. I can't make a claim that I "know" that physical matter is all there is, or that what we might call the life force, self awareness is merely a hallucination. Might be, I suppose. My belief in something "out there" that I call spiritual, and the independence of a soul beyond the body, these are my opinions based on my experiences, and maybe they are hallucinations. But I don't know that they are, and more than I know that I am alive. If awareness of a soul or spirit indendendent of the self is a hallucination, then self awareness itself might also be a hallucination. Which would mean I am according to materialist atheists living a hallucinatory life. I'm just skeptical that matter is all there is to it. Why would "matter" cause hallucinations of self awareness? Simply to protect and prolong that meaningless phenomenon we call life? If it is in fact meaningless, if we are all simply accidents of molecules and life is as inconsequential as lifelessness (and I have to allow for that possibility), I fail to see how the universal recognition of such meaninglessness would bring about heaven on earth.

Human nature being what it is, it could be argued that such a universal recognition might have the opposite effect. I mean, some people might find meaninglessness depressing. Or they might use it to rationalize all sorts of anti-social behavior -- including the advancement of arbitrary judgmental ideas about fairness. Like, some people should have the right to control other people because, well, because they just think there are too many people and they've decided that they're endangering the planet! If man is meaningless matter, then by what stretch of logic does the planet become meaningful matter?

Of course, this is not to suggest that all atheists are materialists. In theory, atheism merely means rejecting theism, which is the belief in religious theology. One could in theory be spiritual and still be an atheist. Assuming infinity, assuming an unexplained life force, assuming even the existence of souls does not require the belief in a structure, much less a ruling God or even multiple deities. A vast infinity of floating souls with no deities might not be emotionally appealing, but it's not inconsistent with atheism.

I'm getting off track here, and it is not my purpose to encourage a schism between materialist atheists and spiritualist atheists; only to demonstrate the folly of asserting actual knowledge of the unknowable. I think atheism is a belief, but atheists (at least those of the fundamentalist materialist stripe) are usually unwilling to concede that, for they assert their beliefs are facts.

Professor Paulos, though, does not see the debate as primarily one between atheists and theists (or materialists and spiritualists or deists), but between those who acknowledge no compelling arguments for God, and those who assert certain knowledge that not only is there God, but He is limited to certain texts. He describes these people as vituperative:

...the vituperative e-mail I've received from religious literalists in response to Irreligion has led me to conclude that there is a much more fruitful distinction than the common one between atheists and theists. The real fissure is that between those who acknowledge that there are no compelling logical arguments for God's existence (even if they choose to believe and practice their religion anyway) and those who are certain not only of God's existence but also of the verbatim truth of their particular holy book with all its idiosyncratic inconsistencies and egregiously false pronouncements.
Which book? The Torah? The Bible? The Koran? The Book of Mormon? Hindu or Buddhist texts? Does he believe that those who believe in the Bible constitute the greater problem?

Because, if he were talking of Islam, he might be seen as disrespecting Islam when he says that their book consists of "idiosyncratic inconsistencies and egregiously false pronouncements" and that Muslims should be treated like this:

Yet time and again we indulge fundamentalists from every religion much more than H.L. Mencken suggested is necessary when he wrote, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."
Selective fear of religion aside, something about the use of the phrase "indulge" and the choice of that comparison might seem condescending, and I find myself wondering whether the goal is really persuasion.

Would the world be a better place if these people recognized that their wives are not beautiful and their children are not smart? Why? What is meant by "indulge"?

He goes on to lodge a remarkable complaint -- that large numbers of Americans refuse to consider that someone who believes the world is only 6,000 years old would be a bad leader:

We aren't so forgiving in other domains. Almost everyone would concede, for example, that a presidential candidate who wanted to outlaw interest on loans and revert to a barter system would be an absurd steward for our troubled economy. So why isn't there a similar consensus that someone who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and that Noah's Ark is an event in zoological history would be an absurd leader on issues such as stem-cell research, climate change and renewable resources?
Why isn't there a consensus? (Never mind that outlawing interest on loans is Sharia law, and national policy in Islamic theocracies.) I think if a person uttering such beliefs ran for president, he would lose. I know there's a meme floating around that Mike Huckabee believes the earth is 6,000 years old, but no one can point to him ever saying that; at most he said (repeatedly) that he didn't know how or when God did it, but that God created the earth -- and man.

Huckabee not only failed to win the Republican primary, but I think that had he actually been foolish enough to actually state "the world is only 6,000 years old," his support would have plummeted to single digits, and he'd have been laughed out of the race.

I've never been even remotely a Huckabee supporter, but is it necessary to put words in his mouth? Why engage in hyperbole? To enlarge the ranks of the alleged ignoramuses said to agree with absurd pronouncements that were not made? How is this going to persuade anyone to be more logical? I share Professor Paulos's skepticism about the supremacy of religious texts, but I don't think the way to reduce irrationality is to exaggerate irrationality. This makes me wonder whether the idea isn't to imply that the Republican Party is full of crackpots who believe the earth is only 6,000 years old. (Or that John McCain "shared the stage" with a man who believes that.)

And since when are "stem-cell research, climate change and renewable resources" necessarily of greater interest to atheists? Do atheists have more respect for the planet? If there something about rejecting belief in a deity which translates into concerns about how much petroleum we can extract from the ground, and whether there might be better alternative forms of energy?

Why? Is there somewhere in the Bible that God said "go forth and drill for more oil?"

According to some interpretations, yes:

....suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock" (Deut. 32:13)
Clearly, God hates the environment.

And atheists love it.

If that's clear, we're on our way to heaven.

posted by Eric on 03.09.08 at 01:29 PM










Comments

I'm always amused by the sort of claims Paulos is making. As things stand, it's virtually impossible to create an ethical structure that is both humanist and avoids resort to universals. Most people who think they are doing so are merely floating along unbeknownst on a wave of Judaeo-Christian morality.

As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”

David Hecht   ·  March 9, 2008 1:57 PM

I cry argumentum ad logicam. Neither absence of a proof, nor presence of an invalid proof, is disproof.

Socrates   ·  March 9, 2008 4:34 PM

I'm always amused by the sort of claim Mr. Hecht is making. Which universal (truths) might he be considering?

In my opinion, any universal truth by definition precludes god or religious belief, since both are concepts of exclusion. (They are only considered universal truths by their respective believers). One might make the point that Judeo-Christian moralists haven't miraculously stumbled upon the secret of civilized behavior and the value of leading a good life (my idea of universal truisms), they simply refuse to consider that they certainly had to exist before 2000 BCE. My position is that ethical life was certainly understood and recommended by civilizations predating the Jews.

There may be atheists who 'assert they know the unknown', but I don't know any. Rather, let us agree that there is no proof of God (another universal truth). My brand of atheism is not a belief, but an absence of fact. And, everything is not permitted in this absence.

N.B. - There appears to be some disagreement about whether Ivan Karamazov actually uttered the quote attributed to Dostoevsky.


dr kill   ·  March 9, 2008 5:35 PM

I'm always amused by the sort of claim Mr. Hecht is making. Which universal (truths) might he be considering?

In my opinion, any universal truth by definition precludes god or religious belief, since both are concepts of exclusion. (They are only considered universal truths by their respective believers). One might make the point that Judeo-Christian moralists haven't miraculously stumbled upon the secret of civilized behavior and the value of leading a good life (my idea of universal truisms), they simply refuse to consider that they certainly had to exist before 2000 BCE. My position is that ethical life was certainly understood and recommended by civilizations predating the Jews.

There may be atheists who 'assert they know the unknown', but I don't know any. Rather, let us agree that there is no proof of God (another universal truth). My brand of atheism is not a belief, but an absence of fact. And, everything is not permitted in this absence.

N.B. - There appears to be some disagreement about whether Ivan Karamazov actually uttered the quote attributed to Dostoevsky.


dr kill   ·  March 9, 2008 5:37 PM

Atheists more respectful of the environment? Yeah right, look at all the environmental disasters in Soviet Russia.

And "a little closer to paradise on Earth" through atheism? Well, there's just that pesky little problem with implementation, you know. Like, you know, two G-dless religions known as Communism and National Socialism together have killed more human beings than all religions in all of human history combined.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does human nature. You try to take away religion from humans: a few will become skeptics and maybe be better off (maybe not), the vast majority will just embrace a surrogate that may not be called a religion but has all of its attributes (inclding dogmatism, true believer syndrome, intolerance). Think of New Age (a.k.a. old paganism), communism, fascism, third worldism, dogmatic ecologism,...

Former Belgian   ·  March 10, 2008 12:05 AM

It's not religion, a system organized for faith and worship, that's the problem. The problem is when people grab POWER in the name of religion and use their religion as a cloak for their control.

goddessoftheclassroom   ·  March 10, 2008 6:55 AM

My problem with the universe is that we didn't get an owner's manual with it. Really, if it is a created thing, I have lots of complaints about shoddy workmanship, leaving way too much up to random chance, and the general sloppiness of the design work. Then we get all sorts of folks with after-market manuals that just don't do a good job describing things, how they work or why they do the way they do... leaving it all up to various factors all of which differ between the manuals. Have to throw them together for purveying bad information, probably in a subsidiary law suit, once the initial one gets finished up.

Then, unlike many a fine establishment that has complaint forms or 'suggestion boxes', we get the after-market manuals telling us that there may or may not be a good way to get the idea across, but that there is no feedback system and, basically, you are left up to your own devices with no recourse. This applies not only to the manuals 'set in stone, save we will re-interpret them because the original meaning doesn't fit anymore' but to the brandy-new ones that are, if anything, even more out of whack than the older manuals.

No suggestion box?

Now, this brings us to an uncomfortable idea that this universe is the 'beta test' used to work out the bugs in the final design... that, unfortunately, fits pretty well with reality. Limited features, buggy design, problems throughout it, parts that don't operate right... yes... the smell of 'beta test' comes through, all right.

ajacksonian   ·  March 10, 2008 7:58 AM

Here is the way I can understand the relationship between faith and science. This requires a precise definition of faith and science which I offer below. This definition of faith is derived from the writings of John Locke.

• Science is the process of determining how matter behaves using observation, testing and inductive reason.

• Faith is any belief undiscoverable by science, which is to say any belief which is unobservable and untestable.

• Religion contains faith that eternal God created matter.

• Atheism contains faith that matter is either eternal or created it's self.

• By definition there can be no conflict between Science and either atheistic faith or religious faith since all faith is outside the domain of science, and science is likewise outside the domain of any faith. True faith and true science are, and always have been, mutually exclusive and never in conflict.

Ronald   ·  March 10, 2008 9:04 PM

Ronald - I recommend Flew's treatment of Locke on the matter.

Dr. Kill - you refute a child's theological understanding with a teenager's response. Such issues as you touch on are actually discussed with some energy and detail by intelligent people, should you care to check them out.

Nah. More fun to just lecture others, eh?

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  March 11, 2008 6:41 PM

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