Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | October 11, 2011

The God Debacle

I spent a little time on a philosophy forum the last few days. I finally took the time to crystallize a few things that have bugged me for a long time about the God debate. My post appears as it does on the forum in response to the original post, “God Refutation,” with CAPS instead of italics. Hope it doesn’t hurt your ears! 😉

I’d love to hear what you think.

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I’ve followed the God/no-God debate since the early 1970s. The most puzzling thing about the debate, besides its dialog-of-the-deaf characteristic, is an assumption SHARED by both sides.

That is, EVERYONE seems to think that God is unable to speak for him/her/itself.

Even someone as sharp as Bertrand Russell assumed this. In a 1959 BBC TV interview, he explained how he became an atheist:

BBC Interviewer: Well you were brought up, of course, as a Christian. When did you first decide that you did not want to remain a believer in the Christian ethic?

Russell: I never decided that I didn’t want to remain a believer, I decided… Between the ages of 15 and 18, I spent almost all my spare time thinking about Christian dogmas and trying to find out whether there was any reason to believe them. And by the time I was 18, I had discarded the last of them.

Bertrand Russell, in a 1959 BBC TV interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aPOMUTr1qw, at 1:53 into video

Apparently Russell made his decision about Christianity, and with it the existence of God, based on what people said and wrote about the matter: dogmas. What people said about God made no sense, ERGO, God does not exist. Whaaa? Please Sir Russell, tell us you had better reason than THAT! (I know, unfair, he can’t respond.)

Why, when investigating the question of God, do people spend all their time asking OTHER PEOPLE if they have evidence or if it makes sense to believe that God is there? To illustrate, if a guy really wants to find out if a girl is as cool as she seems, does he just go around asking her acquaintances what they think and never bother talking to her?

People who engage in the God debate seem strangely God-avoidant, no matter which side they take.

A couple of basic problems with BOTH SIDES of many of the arguments:

  • Even if NO ONE has ANY evidence that God is there, we CANNOT conclude from that alone that God does not exist. Lack of evidence never precluded the existence of anything. Even if we are absolutely sure that we should find some evidence and we find none, lack of expected evidence DOES NOT guarantee the non-existence of anything. After all, our expectations could be wrong or we might overlook what’s there. Lack of evidence more directly relates to our cognitive limitations (i.e., IGNORANCE,) not the limits of existence, whether it pertains to God or faster-than-light neutrinos that according to prevailing theory were “impossible” until we found out (purportedly) that they aren’t impossible, they are actual.
  • Even if NO ONE can make sense of the existence of God, i.e., if it makes NO SENSE to ANYONE, we CANNOT conclude from that alone that God does not exist. Our ability to comprehend a matter has never prevented anything from existing and behaving exactly as it does beyond the limits of our ability to comprehend it. (There’s that danged ignorance thing again…)

WORST CASE, God could be hiding from you. Just you. If so, you would never know it, you would have no evidence of God’s existence, and it might not even make sense to you. God could exist and all your arguments why God does not exist might make irresistable, incontrovertible sense, not because God doesn’t exist, but because God decided to hide from you. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that a human being was ABSOLUTELY SURE that he or she was right while in fact being horrendously wrong.

THE KICKER: There is a testable method of determining God’s existential status. I have almost NEVER heard this simple, verifiable method mentioned in an argument over God’s existence. (I almost simply said NEVER, but hey, maybe I forgot a couple of times. I can’t remember ANY.) It’s EASY, SIMPLE, and GUARANTEED to produce an outcome: Ask God to show you if he/she/it exists or not.

Only three outcomes are possible:

  1. Nothing happens; you get no response. (No response/effect/result is still a significant outcome.)
  2. Something happens to indicate that God does NOT exist.
  3. Something happens to indicate that God DOES exist.

Those outcomes alone don’t prove anything. God could still be hiding, or you could be deluded, and that holds for ALL 3 outcomes:

a. If nothing happens, it could be beause you are deluded. God might have done his/her/its best to inform you of his/her/its existence, but you could be so far-gone that you think it’s just the wind.

b. If something happens to indicate that God does not exist, you could still be deluded. It might be a brain fart. You might be mistaken. God might still exist or not exist. Your brain fart might be irrelevant to the question even though you mistakenly think it’s significant. Or it might be proof that God does not exist. How can you be sure?

c. If something happens to indicate that God DOES exist, you of course might be deluded (just ask an atheist!)

d. If something happens to indicate that God DOES exist, God MIGHT STILL BE HIDING FROM YOU. In this case, God is a deceiver. Maybe he/she/it deliberately caused you to think that he/she/it exists as ONE kind of non-existent being PRECISELY so that you will never discover that he/she/it is actually a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT kind of being that does exist. Getting God wrong is not much better than not getting anything about God at all.

Note that those considerations are NOT UNIQUE to the question of God’s existence. They are the same kinds of deliberations that everyone goes through before they resort to picking petals off a daisy. “Does he/she love me?” is just as provable or unprovable as “Does God exist?” and prone to the same epistemological quandaries. (Make no mistake, the question of God’s existence is PRIMARILY an epistemological conundrum, NOT a metaphysical one. It’s about how we know–or don’t know–what is really there.)

Fortunately, there are testable and rational ways to investigate all this. This forum is not the place to elaborate on them. I didn’t point these things out as preamble to discuss details, but simply to give examples showing how LITTLE most people have thought the matter through RATIONALLY, atheists included. Read a little Chris Hedges, and you’ll see how fundamentalism and “sky-hook” airy-nothing faith aren’t unique to “believers.”

MY POINT IS VERY SIMPLE. If God exists–whatever “god” might be or mean–God should at least be capable of proving it TO YOU, to YOUR satisfaction given YOUR unique, personal requirements for convictions of that sort.

WHY NOT ASK GOD for proof?

Why doesn’t doing this occur to most people? My suspicion has long been that one or both of two reasons are behind blindness to the option:

SUSPICION 1 – The person is not genuinely interested in the question of God’s existence, but instead cares primarily about the opinions of OTHER PEOPLE on the matter. In other words, to them the real, naked question is:

Question A. “Can I prove God’s existence to everyone else?”

not

Question B. “Can I prove God’s existence to myself?”

Two very different questions. If a person’s real question is Question A, it makes a lot of sense for him or her to spend a bunch of time and energy arguing about it with other people, regardless of which side of the question his or her opinion falls on. It also clarifies his or her relative priorities. Question A probably holds little interest to any God that might actually exist. E.g., That cool girl you decided to approach will behave quite differently if she thinks that you are interested in HER than she will if she thinks that you are just putting on a show for your buddies.

SUSPICION 2 – The person intuitively realizes that if he or she asks God to reveal himself/herself/itself, the possibility of getting a response from God is real. For whatever reason, the person does not want to face that possibility. E.g., You just can’t muster up the moxy to approach that cool girl.

It’s sad to see so much time and effort wasted following argumentative red herrings, of which most God-is-or-isn’t discussions are chock full. The poor quality of the thinking about the existence of God can be clarified by applying the same arguments used pro or con God’s existence to things like love, honor, loyalty, or anything related to YOUR values and reasons for living instead of committing suicide. SOMETHING makes this life worth continuing for you. You can’t “prove” the existence or validity of ANY of your dearly held values any more than you can prove–or DISPROVE–the existence or validity of God. This isn’t because such things are hard to prove or because there is no evidence of their existence, but because of our biased, selectively applied, and very unrealistic notion of “proof.”

That’s why I sometimes suggest that we think about God in terms of potentiality. How do you “prove” potentiality? What “evidence” can there EVER be that potentiality exists? Evidence for potentiality is ABSOLUTELY LACKING as long as potentiality “exists.” Evidence does not become a fact (kind of a requirement to be considered evidence so far as I know) until AFTER potential becomes actual. In other words, if there’s evidence of the potential of an electric battery, it’s because THAT potential was converted into energy at work. So by the time we get evidence of it, THAT potential no longer exists. [1]

Maybe that’s what would happen to God if he/she/it gave us evidence, haha! POOF! No more God. Spiritually speaking, that’s exactly what can happen in a person’s mind once he/she “finds evidence” or “proof” of God’s existence. The evidence can become as or more important than the God it demonstrates, one reason that Jesus said that an “evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign.” Apparently, not all evidence is equal. Some evidence is not worth finding, even worth avoiding.

The differentiator is: Who is the evidence supposed to convince, us or everyone else? Most God-debaters seem to answer that question without consciously asking it.

I’m not saying that God is potential energy, although neither would I rule it out. I’m offering an analog in potential energy of something that entails the same problems with demonstrating existence as God does. We don’t let those problems stop us from believing and acting as if potential energy “exists” or, for that matter, believing and acting as if love, loyalty, justice, compassion, honesty, integrity, or any of a plethora of our preferred brand of virtues “exists.” You can no more prove that it’s a good idea or a bad idea either to stay alive or to pack it in than you can prove that God does or does not exist. You can find or devise no more justification to prove that you should continue living than a believer can to prove that God exists. The problems with “proof” are the same in either case.

So why do we have so little trouble with those problems when it concerns our reasons for living and the existence of things that are important to us about living, but those same problems become insurmountable simply because we changed the subject to God?

Just another example of how biased and irrational the discussion has been ON BOTH SIDES. Just saying.

[1] Someone is sure to point out that we have ways of measuring potential, such as that stored in a battery, for example, and that this constitutes “evidence” of the potential energy in the battery. Not so. We have ways of extrapolating what the energy potential of a battery is. Those methods require taking information about energy at work that relates to potential, but is not that potential, e.g., test a bit of the battery’s output current to measure strength, or measure the energy applied to the battery when it was charged. From that tangential information about energy at work, we can extrapolate to figure out potential. Because of the nature of potential, no direct measurement is possible, and so, no direct evidence, either.

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Responses

  1. why is faith (the beleif in something absent evidence) a virtue? is this not unfair and imoral? couldn’t this lead to all sorts of rediculous beleifs?

    • Hey Josh! Nice to hear from you.

      To answer your question, first I don’t see “faith” the same as you defined it. Faith is never absent evidence. Faith is always the result of evidence. The “absent evidence” version is a common idea in fundamentalist thinking. It’s a simple mistake of not working with enough pieces to make sense.

      Faith involves two things, not just one. The first thing is a reason to believe. Every story of faith in the Bible, for example, involves a message of some sort sent to the believer: a word, a sign, an event, etc. That evidence served as reason for them to believe in the second thing, for which they as yet had no evidence. Paul writes about these two things clearly in Romans 1:20:

      “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. ”

      His invisible attributes (for which we have no direct evidence) are clearly seen through their products, “what has been made.”

      It’s the same thing with love. A girl getting a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates has no direct evidence that the guy who gave it to her loves her. After all, he might just be looking for sex. But the flowers and the chocolates can be enough evidence for her to (rightly or wrongly) believe that he loves her.

      Having evidence is no guarantee that her belief is valid, not ridiculous. And lack of evidence is no guarantee that believing he loves her is ridiculous. After all, he might be too shy to give her flowers and chocolate, or even to speak to her. But something introduced the hope that he loves her. She saw or heard or noticed something that was enough reason for her to believe. Faith in God or a friend is no different.

      I’m not sure where your association between “faith” and “virtue” came from. I think of virtues as desirable character traits or behaviors: honesty, kindness, patience, loyalty, etc. Faith is less like a virtue and more like a prerequisite for virtue. For example, telling the truth because you love transparency and are convinced that it’s always the most effective approach requires faith. Telling the truth because you are afraid of the consequences of lying is less a matter of faith and more a matter of avoidance and uncertainty. Even though the second case involves telling the truth, it’s hard to think of that kind of “honesty” as a virtue.

      Does that clarify things?


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