There is a growing debate on the blogosphere on Atheism v.s. Agnosticism (or, heaven forbid, Deism). The lines of battle are set.
On Pharyngula, Atheist PZ Myers slums at accommodationists, almost as hard as he slams the religious.
On Evolving Thoughts, Agnostic John Wilkins claims for disbelief.
And on and on. Take a look at Rosenbaum’s latest Agnostic pamphlet. It is a nice read. For the lazy, there is Elliot Sobel’s video on FORA.tv. He makes it simple, which is the job of a good philosopher.
- a deist believes in god (whatever that is).
- an atheist believes that the is no god.
- an agnostic doesn’t believe either.
The bulk of the philosophical criticism against the “New Atheism” (by Sobel, Wilkins, Rosenbaum, Cristopher Schoen, and others – against Myers, Dawkins, et al.) is that no scientific evidence can possibly refute the philosophical theory about the existence of God. There can be evidence that certain beliefs are wrong (is the earth really 6000 years old? No way!). One can refute some religious views. But one just cannot refute the idea that god exists. Not scientifically, at least.
And if God cannot be refuted, his existence or inexistence are the stuff that philosophy is made of, not in the realm of scientific inquiry. Very simple, so far. However, there is one little piece of problematic sociological evidence (cheered to no end by Richard Dawkins): the higher one’s education, the more likely is one to be an atheist. Now how do you explain that? Here philosopher Sobel does a terrible blunder. T’is ‘psychology’, he utters. Mere psychology, and nothing more. There is no ground for disbelief in god. Only an emotional tendency, which is materia for psychological research, not serious philosophy.
Why was that was a blunder? Because it is exactly his job as a philosopher to explain that tendency, even if it is not a perfectly logical syllogism. And it has a very simple explanation. Simply put, it is the idea that
Ideas and notions do mental work.
The job of a good notion is to demarcate – to form boundaries around an idea. This is it, and This is not it.
Notions are supposed to help us dissect reality into parts. Distinct parts. Ideas, likewise, tell us what is, as distinct from what is not. The reason scientific theories must be refutable is because there is, indeed, something very fishy about theories which can “get along” with any conceivable reality. But, no less, it is because such theories are, in a deep sense, meaningless. For an idea to have a meaning, it must differentiate the possible worlds into ones that get along with the theory, and those that do not. It is the former kind that the theory entails.
Let’s put it differently. Karl Popper’s idea about the refutability of scientific theories has it’s roots in Frege’s philosophy of language. Frege noticed that to say “if p then q” actually means “p and not-q do not hold together”. So, any conditional claim (“If you eat your spinach, you’ll be healthy”) is actually a claim about this particular world versus all possible worlds (“the world in which you eat your spinach and still get the flue – is not the world we live in”). A claim which does not put restrictions on reality is no claim at all. It is mere tautology.
Likewise, a notion is a demarcation: it draws limits. To be humane means not doing harm to others. To be racist is to hate people on in accordance to an ethnic key. Thus, I am not racist if I hate all mathematicians. I am not a racist even if I hate all French mathematicians, as long as the fact that the mathematicians I hate are French is inessential. I am racist only if it is exactly their being French which makes me hate them. Recently, a renown Israeli poet claimed that a certain type of music is crap. That music is often played by a specific, ethnic, lower-class strata of Israeli society. Not surprisingly, the poet was automatically demoted as racist. That allegation is as ridiculous as it is dangerous. If mere questions of taste in music can make a man racist, then the boundary between racism and non racism blurs to no end. And then, everyone can be racist, regardless of their position. And if everyone’s a racist, then one has no basis on which to discredit real, dangerous racism. It is not very surprising that misogynists often start by claiming that everyone is a misogynist. If everyone’s exactly like them, then there is no reason to disagree with their fringe politics, right?
What does all this have to do with God? Well, simple. If the Deistic theory (“God exists”) is compatible with any conceivable evidence, then it means naught. It becomes empty. Now deists often make the claim that God is left as a moral compass, an idea directing one’s life. But does the notion of God really remain consequential in such a setting? What does it mean, to believe in God? What claim does one make when one says “God exists”? If the theory about the existence of god is irrefutable, than claiming that god exists says absolutely nothing about the world.
There is a similar problem with Spinoza’s notion of an immanent God. If Deus sive natura (god is nature) then god is nothing. If god is everywhere and everything, what exactly does the notion of god do? What is it good for? Why is one to use it at all? The Deists which banned Spinoza knew what they were doing. Spinoza’s claim that god is everything really amounts to the secular claim that god is nothing at all. The notion of God becomes empty.
What happens to all those scientists is simple: by driving god out of the natural world, we have driven her out of existence. The theory about god’s existence plays no role in science, and thus god herself plays no role in life. And when god plays no role in life, when he remains a useless expression, devoid of meaning, she is at risk of losing our faith. When one discovers that God plays no role in one’s life, one just lets go. And God dissolves. And she is gone.
But not all expressions are factual expressions
Now here cometh a very big but. Which is a but taken very seriously by some philosophers. There are many functions to language, goes the but. One important use of language is to make factual assertions. But there are others. “Hold my hand”, “Help”, “What a beauty”, and even “I love you” are best understood not as claims about the world being such and such, but as, say, expressions of emotion, requests, et cetera. But (here comes my double but) they can be turned into assertions. True, when one says “I love you”, one rarely means to express a fact about the world. One is trying to express an emotion, in order to put in motion a corresponding cascade of emotions in the listener’s mind. But, still, this can be turned into an assertion – and the proof of that is that we understand what it means to lie when saying such a thing.
Back to God. When a deist claims that the existence of God is not a factual matter, but an emotional one, she should be asked “then, what would it be like without there being a god”? Even if it is not factual, but rather an emotional response of awe in the face of beauty (as was Einstein’s use of the word “God”), still there should be a way to turn the expression “there is a god” into a factual one. As long as there is a way to say it dishonestly, it should have a factual meaning.
When a Buddhist looks at a flower and says “this is god”, he is expressing his joy at seeing beauty. But he is also saying “all is one”. He is connecting the world into one single being. This has moral implications (the need to head and respect all living things). I agree that this is a noble sentiment. I disagree at it being a great philosophy. It is too much like Heidegger’s philosophy – everything becomes one big tangle, impossible to grasp, impossible to speak of. One is left to feel in silence. This is not philosophy, but the direct opposite of philosophy. But that is the stuff for a whole new post.
To be continued…