Posted: Aug 14, 2013 5:06 pm
by lobawad
In the early 21st Century, when someone makes a statement to the effect “a deity exists”, those who are sceptical that this statement is true will usually respond by saying “show me some evidence of this deity.” Of course those making such claims do have evidence, but on closer inspection this evidence is revealed to be something other than what the sceptic meant by “evidence”. What the sceptic means by “evidence” is evidence subject to empirical testability, falsifiability, and so on. The evidence that is typically presented in support of the claim “a deity exists” is famously averse to such strictures.

Does the sceptic make a reasonable demand in insisting on empirical evidence for the claim “a deity exists”? A cynic might say that this demand is a sneaky trick, for is not “elusive of empirical testability” traditionally a characteristic and even defining feature of deities? Should not someone claiming “a deity exists” (someone we shall call from here on “claimant”) be wary of entangling themselves in such a debate? To present empirical evidence of their deity is to admit that empirical methods are a touchstone, that their deity may be measured in some way. And after all, empirical knowledge changes and grows: only a fool or a fast-talking salesman would stake the existential integrity of their deity on current empirical knowledge, or found an argument for the reality of their deity on a current gap in empirical knowledge.

( I trust that participants in this debate, and those reading it, will not make the clumsy error of assuming that the sceptic's continual calls for empirical evidence mean that the sceptic's position is necessarily built on empiricism itself. )

If we (both claimants or sceptics) are to graciously avoid duking it out in the ring of the empirical, then what evidences do claimants have?

The first, perhaps the weightiest in terms of individual conviction, is the evidence of personal experience. Personal experience is not something we can simply dismiss completely, out of hand, if we are exercising charitable reasoning, but personal experience is not admissible as positive evidence in a reasonable debate because one person's experiences can be not only different to another's, but even contradictory.

In a sincere rational discussion of these matters we must gently pass over another time-honored variety of evidence for the claim “a deity exists”, the appeal by claimants to ancient writings. Where such texts are not inanities, insanities, insufferable misogyny or just plain blather, they offer no single, clear and universally accepted “authority”. Debating the claim “a deity exists” should not lead to rebooting the Crusades, nor could convincing evidence of the being of some non-trivial deity possibly hinge on the “proper” translation and understanding of some words in some long-dead language.

So, what evidences do we have left? We have what are called “metaphysical arguments”, which we may fairly look upon and treat as “thoughtful speculations”. I am quite familiar with such speculations, and engage in them myself, as an artform or kind of literary criticism. I do not dismiss metaphysical arguments at all, but it seems quite clear to me that the metaphysical arguments allegedly supporting claims such as “a deity exist” in fact support quite opposite conclusions, so much so that we might even suspect that many of the landmark theolgical apologists of the past were in fact thinly-veiled atheists speaking slyly or in heavily sardonic tones.

One point that needs to be made clear: in discussing the proposition “a deity exists”, we are necessarily discussing either a small god or an openly human construct. Paradoxically, a God worthy of the name and of the hyperbole assigned to it by many theologies would be unnameable, inexpressible, ineffable. It would not be possible to even say that this God exists, for we could neither name nor reduce to symbols such a thing, nor would it be possible to make the claim “exists” because this is conceivably negated: “does not exist”. This Ineffable could not even conceivably or hypothetically not be. There would be no way to disbelieve such a thing, nor could such a thing be grasped by such puny and ephemeral actions such as “belief”. Complete silence on the matter altogether would be the best, the only possible, discussion.

We could call this point a metaphysical axiom, or an igtheistic claim, or even a definition rooted in a tautology (an ineffable is ineffable). An atheist is under no obligation to accept or even seriously consider this conception, but a theist cannot simply brush it off without argument, nor can they honestly ignore the possibility that a sincere, untrammeled and rational approach to theistic claims might result in a position on the claim “a deity exists” which is functionally indistinguishable from atheism.

My fellow participant in this particular debate being a Roman Catholic, it must be said in the spirit of fairness and reason that he could gladly concede that his God is indeed “small” in keeping with my metaphysical definition, in fact deliberately small, and that the manner in which this God makes itself small is the very heart of his religion. For Catholic and Orthodox Christianities, as well as for the more sophisticated Protestants, hyperbolic adjectives lavished upon the deity are heavily qualified and are considered in terms of compossibility. This well-considered approach to descriptions of a deity should free the more intricate theologies from the charge of insincere and inconsistent flattery of their deity, an accusation which is quite obviously implied by the igtheistic conception of a deity I have presented. Their approach does not let them simply ignore my claim that one may rationally reach a functionally atheistic position by way of theological means, though.

(Please do not grievously misunderstand this metaphysical definition as any kind of claim on my part that some Neoplatonic "The One" is real, or anything like that.)

Another point that needs to be made before entering into debate is that unless one has already made strong metaphysical assumptions, the verb “exists” might have many meanings. If one is claiming that a deity exists in the manner Darth Vader exists, for example, we do not need to debate. In fact I would join in supporting this proposition.

In order to see how metaphysical arguments by claimants support conclusions very different to “a deity exists”, simply embrace the argument fully and follow through to the bitter end.

This is what I did to come to the metaphysical conclusion above. If we accept that God is all that, we are forced into complete silence on the subject, functional atheism.

We may take the same approach with the whole arsenal of metaphysical arguments by claimants.

Cosmological arguments come in many shapes but are all at the heart based on a disjunctive syllogism.
Either this or that must be true; it is not this, so it must be that.

The argument from first cause, for example, does not engage in special pleading as many detractors mistakenly think, for it is not rooted in a modus ponens or a categorical syllogism. “Either there is an infinite regress of causes (splayed out or looped) or there must be some uncaused cause at the heart of it;this regress cannot be; therefore, there is an uncaused cause.” (Disjunctive Syllogism)

If we accept this argument, we can conclude that the world of cause and caused we observe is simply “made of something that causes”. The same holds true for arguments from first mover, first existent, and so on. Not only is there no need to add a deity to this conclusion, but strapping on some unobserved being makes a mockery of any premise we use in which we depend on “intuitively obvious” assumptions from observation. A wholesome exercise of cosmological arguments does not permit us to shove yet more ontological distinction into our original disjunction.

Ontological arguments by claimants take the blue ribbon in slipperiness and inscrutability. Let us welcome them without assuming a conclusion and see what we have. Take Anselm's:

“Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality. “ (Anselm, Prosologium II)

To my knowledge, no philosopher has pointed out the rather embarrassing admission tacit in this argument, and in all ontological arguments by claimants. What is it that makes the conceived “greater”? Existence in reality. What is this “reality”, but the world subject to empirical epistemologies? By using ontological arguments, the claimant inadvertently lets slip the nature of the world to which their deity hopes admission- but we already have this very world and all its glories at hand! From ontological arguments we can only conclude that a deity exists in a manner countless other ideas exist.

Space is limited, so that is enough for now.I am looking forward to my opponent's arguments, to be treated in this manner: not by attempting to dismiss the arguments, or pooh-poohing them, but by accepting them and discovering where they might lead when we do not assume the conclusion “deity!”