Monday, March 5, 2007

Response to Mark Vernon

Philosopher Stephen Law began a series of posts on his blog regarding whether or not atheism was a "faith position." The discussion spread over to Mark Vernon's blog when he responded to Stephen Law's posts. I responded to Mr. Vernon's post entitled "Common Mistakes of Atheists," and he responded to some of my comments (and the comments of others) in his second post, "Common Mistakes of Atheists II." His response included a couple of questions to me, but, for whatever reason, my comments in reply did not appear on his blog. I now post them here.

MV: "My point is that all images of God must be done away with. So, no: you can't agree on what a true God is."

With no image, no properties; with no properties, no discussion, no? Honestly, I'm not sure what would possibly be left to talk about.

MV: "Again, the great theologians say this: God is always wholly other. You might approximate. But then you have to do away with your approximations too. God is beyond human comprehension else not God."

If these are Christian theologians, wouldn't they by ignoring the Bible's statement about human beings being made in His image? Human beings and human understanding would, following the "in His image" line of reasoning, be the approximations that allow some point of reference when discussing God. If we do away with even mere approximations of God, and say God is beyond human comprehension, then how can any theologian say anything about what God is or is not, what God desires or does not desire, or how human beings can in any way relate to such an entity? It seems they'd all be out of business.

MV:"So you notice I say 'Whatever omnipotence might be...' not this is what omnipotence is (which is what in effect Stephen Law implies by insisting that an all-powerful, all-good God must be able to do away with so much evil.)"

Didn't you also insist on what God must or must not be able to do when you said: "Whatever omnipotence might be it is not simply the ability to act whenever."? I think Stephen Law was simply following the dictionary's definition of that word. You were, it seems, agreeing (in the original post) with theologians who appear to prefer not only their own definitions of God, but of words as well.

MV: "I don't understanding your point about Occam's razor. Natural explanations can be enormously complicated. And anyway, Occam's razor is very out of fashion in science these days: think of the speculations about the multiverse or of evolutionary psychology."

The reason for the razor is that you said: "Another reason why I think God will always be an open question is that any perception of God someone claimed to have would always be indistinguishable from some natural experience." And I thought: what's the difference between an undetectable God ("...indistinguishable from some natural experience"), and no God at all? The proposition of God (or any other supernatural entity) causing the "perception" would be superfluous in that case.

As for scientific speculations, they're hypotheses and require evidence to be incorporated into theories. Evolutionary psychology is what I'd call a (very) "young science." The Multiverse hypothesis, from what little I understand of it, seems to be metaphysics so far.

MV:"Do you really think that people's belief in supernatural agencies are falling away?"

In regard to them being the cause of "nearly all phenomena," as I stated, yes I do. For instance, there are some groups living in modern society who still think evil spirits or curses cause disease, but most don't. They go to the doctor for a prescription to cure their malady, not the witch doctor. People living in third world countries, and some groups of Christian fundamentalists in the U.S., excepted, of course. We consult the Weather Channel these days, rather than implore Zeus or Thor, before planning a lightening bolt-free picnic. That's not to say that believers don't think God created lightening bolts, it's just that most don't imagine Him lobbing each one by hand at some sinner, thereby providing an object lesson to the masses.

MV: "As to theology being 'made up': well, all human discourse is made up in that sense; we make it! Which is not to say it is not enormously valuable - even bearing some relation to the way things actually are in themselves from time to time - just never absolutely certain."
We cannot be even remotely certain how theology relates to "the way things actually are in themselves from time to time" with this concept-free God you've proposed. As for theology being like the rest of human discourse, in that they're both "made up": That's like saying a college level world history textbook is the same as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, since they both use words to tell us about past events.