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This is a follow-up to my last post on the question of whether there are phenomena that theism can account for but which naturalism cannot. The Cosmological Argument can be thought of as an argument not just for the existence of God, but for the claim that a theistic worldview has the resources to explain something that a naturalistic worldview cannot explain (in its simplest form, this something is the fact that there exists something rather than nothing). I don’t think this is so and I am going to try to explain why.
Here is the Kalam cosmological argument.
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The Universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.
First, premise (1) is odd. Why say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, rather than everything, full stop? The answer is that the attempt to use the alternative,
(1*) Everything that exists has a cause
has an obvious and unfortunate consequence for theism: it implies that it is false. Since God is supposed to be uncaused, (1*) cannot be true (if (1*) is true, then there is no uncaused God, so theism is false). So, we get (1) as a means of avoiding begging the question against theism.
It is important to see that (1) depends upon a more general principle, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) [I am just going to assume here that if PSR is false, then for that very reason, we should be skeptical of (1). But I would be happy to pursue this if anyone is interested]. PSR says (in one of its simpler formulations) that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it exists, in other words, there is an explanation for the existence of everything. Now, making the reasonable inference that, in the material realm, the explanation for the existence of anything will be in terms of causes, we can assume that if the PSR is true, everything that exists has a cause. But this supports (1*) doesn’t it? Well, the problem, again, is that this inference only works if we ignore the possibility that there exist non-material things. The explanation for their existence might not be in terms of causes. So we shouldn’t assume that everything that exists has a cause. However, certainly material things have causes, at least as far as we know. And, as far as we know, every material thing had a beginning. Roughly then, (there are a few other considerations that I will ignore here), that is one way of getting to (1) from the PSR.
But the PSR does imply that everything that exists has an explanation. So while it might be unreasonable to ask what the cause of God is (since, if he exists, he is immaterial, and so might not have a cause), that does not mean that it is unreasonable to ask for the explanation of God. So, if the PSR is true, then, if God exists, there is an explanation for the existence of God.
We’ve gotten a little bit side-tracked, so let’s get back to the main thread of the argument. There are actually two points to be made here. First, even if the CA is a sound argument, and even if it is true that God created the universe, none of that tells us what the explanation for the universe is. That is, saying that God did does not explain how it was done. If there is nothing more to the explanation that the claim that God did it, then what is the difference between saying that God did it and saying that it was magic?
The second point is that since the CA relies on the PSR, there is no reason to think that it is only the universe’s existence that presents a fundamental mystery that cries out for explanation. If the question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” then theists should ask why there is a God.
So, what I am saying here is this: If the problem that theists point to is that there is no naturalistic account of the existence of the universe (or, even more broadly, why there exists something rather than nothing), then the theist does not have an answer to this problem either. The naturalist *might* always have to assume the existence of something in order to provide explanations, but so must the theist. The theist must fall back on the existence of God, something that is not explained by theism. Now, of course I am aware that theists have tried to avoid this. There is a long theological history to the claim that God contains the reason for his own existence. But, as I argued recently, that claim, even if it makes sense and it is true, does not tell what this reason is. The claim that God exists a se tells us nothing more than that there is a reason for God’s existence and that it is contained in his nature; it does not tell us what the reason is.
So, it is false that theism has an explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, the argument that says that theism is to be preferred over atheism because the former can account for something that the latter cannot is a bad argument since the premise is false.
Suppose that God exists, exists necessarily, contains the reason for his existence in his own nature, and that everything other than God owes its existence to God. This is granting quite a bit, and there are reasonable objections to all of the items on this list. However, for know I want to grant all of this for the sake of argument because I think we can shown that, even if such a God exists, it does not follow that God is the terminus of all explanation. More specifically, I will argue that even if theism is true in all of its details, there are still facts that theism cannot explain.
The argument is fairly simple but to understand it, we have to be very clear and precise by what we mean by ‘Theism.’ I shall take theism to be equivalent to the following:
Theism: There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
I maintain that even if theism is true, there still exist facts that theism cannot explain. Here is a list of some of these facts:
- that the creator of the universe is omni-benevolent rather than omni-malevolent, mostly good, or even indifferent
- that the creator of the universe is omnipotent rather than merely very very powerful
- that the creator of the universe is omniscient rather than merely very knowledgable
Do these facts require explanation? I believe they do. It is certainly conceivable that the creator of the universe could have been other than omni-benevolent. It is conceivable that the creator could have been merely knowledgeable enough to create a universe but would not be in a position to know everything about every aspect of the created universe. It is conceivable that the creator has tremendous but limited power. So it seems clear that these are facts that could have been otherwise; thus we need an explanation for why these facts in particular hold rather than a different set of facts.
It is helpful here to use the device (which I use often) of imagining different kinds of gods that might have played the role that God plays according to theism. So, here are some possible gods:
Yod: An omnipotent, omniscient, creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature. (The only difference between Yod and God is that Yod is only contingently omni-benevolent, while God is necessarily so.)
Asura: An omnipotent, omniscient, omni-malevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
Elo: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
Heway: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), very knowledgeable (but not omniscient) creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
And the list goes on . . .
So, one question that theism cannot answer can be stated thus: Why is it that, out of all the conceivable necessarily self-existent beings, God is the one that actually happens to exist?
That theism cannot answer this is clear: As Randal Rasuer has claimed (see my two most recent posts), theists build aseity into the very concept of God. That God exists a se is not something that theism explains, it is something that theism takes for granted because it is part of the definition of God. The same goes for his omniscience, omnipotence, etc.
In my most recent post, I quoted Randal Rauser saying the following:
And so for the person who wonders “But why should anything exist at all?” the answer comes: “Because the omnipotent, necessarily existent God brought it into being.”
But this answer does not answer this question: Why does there exist an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator rather than one who lacks one or all of these properties? So God, even if he exists, is not the terminus of explanation.
It might not surprise you to learn that my answer to that question is “no.” If you read the paper and have comments or complaints, feel free to offer them here.
Andrew Sullivan recently linked to an article by Jennifer Fulwiler in which she argues that her atheism and her belief that life is meaningful were in irreconcilable conflict and that the only way to resolve the conflict was to renounce atheism (she converted to Catholicism). The best criticism of her implicit argument, that atheism implies that life is meaningless, that I have come across is from Will Wilkinson. Sullivan also published some of his readers’ comments, a few of which took the opportunity to express disagreement with Fulwiler about what makes life meaningful. In response to one reader’s comment, Sullivan said something that I found rather odd. I’ll quote the relevant portion of the reader response, followed by Sullivan’s rejoinder:
“We have a constant explosion of love and sadness through the enormous sweep of the cosmos and it makes us feel without meaning? If the Universe is anything, it is proof that meaning can be found in the smallest of existence, from atoms to neutrinos and down beneath it. It can be found in a virus if one has to look. The lesson of the Universe is not insignificance, the lesson of it is our mutual enormity. The Universe is loud with it.”
But this is God. It is certainly what I understand as God. Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love.
It is very odd that nonbelievers are being admonished to let go of something that they explicitly don’t believe in. But what Sullivan thinks he means is that nonbelievers are confused about the real nature of God and that if they understood what God really is, then they (or at least many of them) would realize that they do believe in God. But this is deeply confused. Atheists have let go of the anthropomorphic sky deity because that is what an atheist is: someone who thinks that there is no such thing. Whatever else he may believe about the source of meaning, and whatever he may want to call that source, what the disbeliever disbelieves in is a personal creator.
Theism is the belief that there is an almighty person who created and sustains the universe. And thus atheism is the belief that there is no such almighty person.
Now, if Sullivan himself has let go of the anthropomorphic conception of God, and if he means by “letting go of” that he believes that this conception is false, then Sullivan is an atheist. Atheism is just the rejection of theism, and theism, to repeat, really is the belief that the world was created by an almighty person. And so if Sullivan thinks there is no such almighty person, then he is an atheist (despite his repeated assertions that he is a Catholic). If he does believe that there is an almighty person, then it is very peculiar that he is admonishing atheists to give up the anthropocentric being.
But actually the above quote suggests that Sullivan has not completely let go of the anthropocentric being, for he tells us that God is “the highest consciousness of all.” This is an enigmatic phrase, to say the least, and its occurrence in this sentence is highly ambiguous. Is he saying that God is that consciousness that is highest of all, that is, higher than any other consciousness? Or is he saying that God is the highest consciousness of everyone; asserting that there is some kind of collective consciousness? Well, he doesn’t make this clear. But if he is claiming that there is some kind of highest consciousness, higher than any other, then it is pretty obvious that he has not completely let go of the anthropocentric bearded guy. For Sullivan is, on this interpretation, asserting that there is some kind of greatest conscious being, which is really not far from claiming that there is an almighty person.
But suppose he really does want to assert the proposition that there is some kind of collective or underlying consciousness of all of us. It is not at all clear why Sullivan would call that God. Did this consciousness create the universe? Did it send its only son to die for the sins of humanity? Did it die on the cross? And if he does want to say that this consciousness did all of these things, then he is most definitely conceiving of it as a kind of person.
Here is the upshot: Atheists deny that there is an almighty conscious creator. (They also, by the way, generally want to add that the supposition that there is such a conscious being does not at all help us account for any of the important aspects of life, including that life is meaningful). Theists assert that there is such a being. I don’t really know whether Sullivan is an atheist or a theist, and it doesn’t really matter. But when anyone asks questions such as, “Can life be meaningful on the assumption that there is no God?” or “Can atheism account for the fact that life has meaning?” we need to be clear about what we are talking about. When an atheist claims that life is meaningful even if there is no God, what this means is that the existence of an almighty person is not required for life to have meaning.
I have long felt that a genuine religious sensitivity compels a person to doubt the existence of God (more precisely, to doubt the truth of theism). This conclusion is based upon a number of beliefs that I have about the nature of religious experience, some of which I have articulated in this blog, and all of which may just be idiosyncratic to me. In any event:
The core of religious experience for a theist is developing a personal relationship with God. Someone who believes in a God who does not concern Him/Herself with our welfare and with whom it is not possible to have a meaningful personal relationship is not a theist. I suppose deism would be the best term for such a set of beliefs. The theist is committed to the view that God is a person who, in addition to being all-powerful, etc., is all-loving and thus wants each of us to experience His divine love.
Those who are not moved by the problem of evil have always struck me as callous, unwilling to see the intensity and boundless extent of the pain and suffering that has been experienced over the course of human history (and why stop there, the dinosaurs must have suffered tremendously) and that continues to be experienced every day. This callousness often hides an appalling self-centeredness; what makes me immune from the suffering of others is their distance, emotional or otherwise, from me. So long as things are relatively stable and good in our own lives, we rarely have occasion to question those beliefs, commitments, and relationships that provide joy and fulfillment.
In contrast to the wealthy and self-satisfied believer whose share of suffering is no greater than the average citizen of the 21st century industrialized world is his fellow citizen, equally comfortable in the material sense, whose life has recently been shaken by tragedy, the loss of a spouse or a child perhaps, to such an extent that her own faith in an all-loving Father in Heaven cannot withstand the pain. This latter person betrays a (by no means unusual) self-focus in that while she has witnessed from afar the devastation caused by the loss of a loved-one, seen others as profoundly affected as she now finds herself, that suffering of others, which, she would acknowledge, vastly surpasses her own at least in quantity, has never come close to shaking her religious convictions.
This is not to say that every theist is self-centered, only that it is easy to allow one’s own self-focus to affect one’s religious beliefs. And this brings us to very important point: all major religions seem to agree that excessive self-focus is the cause of many of life’s evils. Perhaps Buddhism is most explicit about this, to such an extent that the aim of the spiritual life for a Buddhist can be identified with the extinction of the self (which, it is claimed, was always illusory anyway). Jesus was also very clear, telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I often wonder whether many people actually stop to think about the implications of this commandment and I also wonder whether there has ever been a person alive who loved his neighbors as much as he loved himself. In any event, Jesus is telling us that we must radically re-orient our lives; that, among other things, we must give as much concern to the suffering of others as we do to our own. Similar points about the need to relinquish excessive attachment to the self can be made concerning Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.
So many, if not most, of the world’s religious traditions claim that spiritual progress is made only when we abandon our (very natural) narrow self-centered perspectives. My contention is that feeling the real force of the problem of evil requires one to abandon, if only partially and temporarily, one’s normal self-centered perspective. If I were to feel the pain and loss of others as if it were my own, how could my faith in God survive? Of course one could not actually endure this; if I were to experience the suffering of even a very few others, I would most likely not want to go on living. But appreciating the power of the problem of evil does not require that I feel the pain of all of those countless others, but to simply acknowledge it and realize that, if we could feel it, it would indeed be incapacitating.
How, having acknowledged this, can I then return to my faith in an all-loving God? To continue to reap the benefits of a relationship (real or imagined) with the all-powerful creator would be the height of selfishness, which is the exact opposite attitude that religious belief ought to inspire.
One aspect of religion that I think should be somewhat surprising is the conjunction of two seemingly unrelated aspects: that of wonder or awe at the power, beauty, and mystery of the universe and the feeling of being morally compelled to engage in certain behaviors (and to avoid others). Why should reverence be tied to morality?
In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins distinguishes the object of his criticism, which he sometimes refers to as ”supernatural religion,’ from his own religious or spiritual sensibilities, a perspective that he calls Einsteinian religion. Einstein often used the word ‘God’ when talking about his fundamental appreciation of the power and mystery of the world. (Dawkins thinks that Einstein’s choice of terminology is regrettable since Einstein manifestly did not believe in a personal supernatural deity.) Famously, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
Dawkins wants to simultaneously endorse the “pantheistic reverence” of Einstein and insist that such reverence does not entail a belief in anything supernatural. Dawkins is certainly right about this; the feelings of awe and wonder so well-articulated by Dawkins, Carl Sagan and other scientists do not have any obvious theistic implications. And I agree that a naturalist can be religious in this sense and not believe in anything supernatural.
What is conspicuously absent in Dawkins analysis, however, is any recognition of the other side of religious feeling; the sense that what we stand in awe of has some kind of legitimate authority over how we live our lives; that we are compelled by some source of authority outside of ourselves to change for the better–to bring our activities, thoughts, and emotions in line with the objective standard of Goodness, Righteousness, and Justice.
Perhaps because it is easier for conscious beings to understand other conscious beings, it is natural for humans to understand both of these aspects (awe and duty) in an anthropomorphic way. Theism is the view that the ultimate source of beauty, power, and creation is a person (a special kind of very powerful person, but a person nonetheless); and this view is coupled to the understanding of morality as the dictate of Divine Will. This deep connection between the feelings of awe and obligation would naturally lead a theist to be very suspicious of Dawkins and Einsteins religious sensitivities. The natural question to ask Dawkins would be whether that which he reveres in nature holds any ethical power over us. Does the feeling of transcendent wonder at the glory of the universe generate, as a matter of necessity, any sense of obligation in oneself toward the universe and its parts (or the transcendent glory)? There is no doubt that Dawkins does feel the compulsion of objective morality; he rightly points out that an atheist can recognize the power of objective moral values. The question is whether this appreciation of morality is connected to his feelings of wonder, awe, and reverence for the natural world.
Of course I believe that the Divine Command Theory is a failed understanding of the source of moral authority; the idea that moral obligation can be tied to divine will is as deeply flawed as the parallel view that the source of logical entailment could be found in the will of God. Nonetheless it remains that case that genuine religious feeling seems to involve not just awe and reverence but also an understanding that proper reverence requires us to examine ourselves and improve ourselves, to bring our behavior, thoughts, and values in line with an ultimate and external standard. This is why one of the tests of genuine religious experience is whether that experience brings about a change in attitude and behavior.
However, that these two feelings should be connected remains somewhat of a mystery to me: Why should an appreciation of ultimate reality entail a change in myself? I’ll leave that question for next time.