Saturday, December 13, 2008

An Invitation to God-template?

As religiosity heats up again approaching Christmas, a number of new "God" books - and some not so new- have come to my attention. One of these has been the book: ‘No One Sees God’ by Michael Novak, 1994 winner of the Templeton Prize.

Novak's is one of those books an atheist sometimes reaches for in the hope of seeing whether a Christian can forge a detailed apologia for his position. Also, whether an atheist can be greeted by something more than bombast, threats or venom for not kowtowing to the mainstream God-addiction.

For the first thirty or so pages, until the author veers into palpable atheist baiting (‘Not the Way to Invite a Conversation’, using the "New atheist" books of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris as templates) it was a pretty good read. One sees a reasonable and rational mind at work, and one not afraid to admit that atheists may have something in their favor - for at least pushing lazy Christians to examine issues and aspects of their faith. (But, of course, to me - Christianity is not one monolithic faith, but a patchwork of about 70 different sects - from the largest, Roman Catholicism - to which Novak belongs, to the smallest Science of Mind enclaves)

Indeed, it reminded me of the sort of dialectic content that often permeates arguments with my longtime Christian friend, John Phillips. E.g. the author’s claim (p. 17) that he hypothesizes that:

“unbelievers, especially those who have never known religion in their personal lives, or who have had bad experiences with it, experience a revulsion against a reasoned knowledge of God”.

Of course, as my friend John noted and recalled, I have not had so nice experiences of religion either – going back to a nun teacher in first grade pressing a hot needle (she’d just heated using a match) into my right palm to remind me “of Hell”.

“Remember boy, the fires of Hell are a million times hotter than this and they burn you inside and out! Don’t ever forget it!”

Well, I didn’t, and thus began my journey to rational atheism as I note in my recent book, Atheism: A Beginner’s Handbook.

But to assert, as Novak does, that this might have elicited “a revulsion against reasoned knowledge of God” is to miss the interpretation, and by a country mile.

First, there can be no such thing as “reasoned knowledge” of anything until one has first provided the ontology. Ontology, the basis for primary existence, comes BEFORE knowledge (epistemology) and not after. Thus, all Novak’s later citations of the classics describing God and citing the likes of Aristotle and St. Augustine, do him no service. Rather, such diversionary passages merely show that Novak himself has no clue about who or what this “God” is, he can only say what It isn’t.

Thus, despite waxing long and hard (in reply to the three atheist authors, Dawkins, Harris and Dennett) in Chapter Three (‘Letter to an Atheist Friend’) he fails to make his case that his entity is anything more than a will-o-the-wisp centered in his fertile imagination, or his temporal lobes (as Michael Persinger’s work showed, see my review of his ‘The Neuropsychology of God Belief’) . He himself reinforces his own deficiencies when he admits (p. 274, Epilogue):

“The only knowledge of God we have through reason, all the ancient thinkers have taught us, is dark- and by the via negative- that is, by reasoning from what God cannot be”

True enough! But Novak is not afraid, despite this candid admission, to make all manner of positive statements about God’s nature. A few samples off-hand:


“God must be more like human consciousness, insight, a sense of humor, good judgment…”

“God knows well the creatures He made…he has to beat us around the ears a bit”

“In the end it was important for God that his son (who is one with him) became human and dwelt on the Earth”

The Trinity: p. 197,

“to think of God as a Trinity is to think of Him as more like an intimate communion of persons than as a solitary being”.

p. 198:

“When everything is suffused with reason, that is the presence of God”

How exactly are any of these, metaphorical or not, statements via negativa- the dark way? They aren’t! Especially the egregious and misplaced reference to “God’s son” (p. 196) which assumes there is ample evidence that a possible 1st century charismatic Jewish rabbi was a genuine God-man. He wasn’t. He was a confabulation of Christians who felt compelled to copy and imitate the earlier pagan Mithraists’ god-man fables. (E.g. Mithras was born of a virgin, performed miracles, died on a cross...etc. then rose from the dead.)

The collection of Novak’s statements comprise an assortment of positive statements the author proffers about an entity he really doesn’t know because he hasn’t provided any ontology.

Now let’s get into some ontology here. First, following Bertrand Russell’s lead (‘The Problems of Philosophy’) we need to specify the practical and operative laws that apply to existents and entities, under the general rubric of “being”. (Thus, to be most accurate here, when an atheist agrees to debate a Christian, he is only agreeing to the presupposition of “being”. It remains to be worked out or proven, what the exact nature of this being is.)

By “existent” we mean to say that which has prior grounding in the mind, albeit not yet demonstrably shown in reality.

For example, the number ‘2’.

If the number 2 is mental, it is essentially a mental existent. (Do you see literal two lurking in the outside world, apart from what the human mind assigns, e.g. two apples, two oranges, two beetles etc.?)

Such existents are always particular.

If any particular exists in one mind at one time it cannot exist in another mind at any time or the same mind at a different time. The reason is that as time passes, the neural sequence and synapses that elicited the previous “existent” at that earlier time, no longer exists. My conceptual existent of “2” at 3.30 a.m. this morning is thus not the same as my conceptualization of it at 4 p.m. It may APPEAR so, but rigorous neural network tests will show it is not. (E.g. differing brain energies will be highlighted at each time)

Thus, ‘2’ must be minimally an entity that has “being’ regardless of whether it has existence.

Now, we jump into the realm of epistemology from here, with the next proposition:

Generalizing from the preceding example, ALL knowledge must be recognition, and must be of entities that are not purely mental but whose being is a PRECONDITION- and NOT a result- of being thought of.

Applying this to the ontology of “non-contingent creator”, it must be shown it exists independently of being thought of. (E.g. there must be a way to declare and isolate its independent existence from the constellation of human brains which might get tempted to confabulate it out of innate brain defect or emotional need)

Here’s another way to propose it: If one demands that this entity (G-O-D) is not susceptible to independent existence, and therefore the mere announcement or writing of the words incurs validity, then the supposed condition has nothing to do with reality. It is like averring we all live inside a 12-dimensonal flying spaghetti monster. I would be laughed into oblivion, especially as I incur no special benediction (as you do) by invoking the G-noun.

In effect, if the proposed “non-contingent creator” or its single word equivalent isn’t subject to independent existence, then its alleged “truth” is separated from verification. Truth then becomes what is communicated to us by proxy (or proxy vehicle, e.g. Pope Benedict, the Bible, Novak or any other Xtian apologist) with the existent (or a metaphor) in the mind of the communicator who deems himself qualified to make the “truth” exist.

But such a “truth” (or any associated invocation of “reason” in its service) is fraudulent and cannot be a valid expression of the condition. What it means is there is little assurance the communicated secondary artifact has all the elements and particulars needed to be an affirmed REAL entity. The truth is dispensed according to our needs (in this case the need to believe humans are seen after by a Cosmic Daddy) – all we need ignore is the constellation of evidence that refutes it.

Second: How to escape from this ontological problem?

Logicians have been aware for centuries of the pitfalls of appealing to pure causes, or to generic causality. We see this in multiple places in Novak’s book such as on page 217 where he takes Dan Dennett to task for what is claimed to be spurious invocation of causes and causality:

“Besides, Dennett interprets the cause of a cause as if both were the same, like one turtle on another”

This sort of causal approach is exactly what makes discussions sterile because it invites dead ends and ambiguity. By contrast, as Robert Baum notes in his text, Logic, 4th Edition, causal explanations are only of limited utility because of the intuitive, non-systematic nature of causal inference. Not only are we confronted with multiple types of cause but also proximate and remote causes. For example, a collision of a comet with a large meteoroid in space may be the proximate cause of the comet’s shifting orbit enough for its nucleus to collide with Earth. However, another collision – say of a large asteroid with Earth- may be engendered by the remote cause of the YORP effect.

For this reason, it is far more productive to instead reframe causes into necessary and sufficient conditions. As Baum notes (p. 469) this is advisable because the term ‘cause’ has been too closely associated in most people’s minds with a “proximate efficient” cause. Like one billiard hitting another and sending it into a side pocket. Or one small asteroid hitting another to send it into Earth- intersecting orbit.

In these terms, whatever “secondary causes” or other causes pertain to G-O-D are irrelevant and do not advance the arguments. We therefore put these causal references aside as Baum recommends, and substitute for them necessary and sufficient conditions for the claimed existent. If someone is unable to provide these, then either he doesn’t know what he is talking about, or has engendered a fantasy creation or phantasmagoria in his own brain which he now offers to us (non-believers) as reality.

Let’s now review what these n-s conditions are. A necessary condition is one, without which, the claimed entity cannot exist. A sufficient condition is one which, if present, the entity must exist.

For example, consider a hydrogen emission nebula. The necessary condition is the nebula or interstellar cloud of hydrogen exist in the first place. The sufficient condition for the existence of a hydrogen emission nebula in space would be proximity of the nebula to a radiating star. In this case, the star’s radiation causes the hydrogen atoms in the nebula to become excited – cause electrons to jump to higher energy levels- then go to lower with the emission of photons)

Leaving out all the fluff about “first causes” or “secondary causes” we therefore simply ask: What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a “God” of the type Novak proposes to exist?

Note, that in having to explicate these, Novak also is compelled to show how his God varies from all the other God- concepts proposed. This also disallows the cavalier statement he makes in his Epilogue where he conflates the Judeo-Christian God with that of deists. E.g., page 274:

“If there is a God such as Jews, Christians and deists have held there to be…..”

But wait! The Deist’s God is NOT the same as that of Jews or Christians! Strictly speaking, Deism treated in its orthodox and traditional form is not Theism. Deism is, in fact, only one step removed from atheism. The only real difference is that in deism some kind of non-specific "first cause" is proposed, but after that all distinctions collapse. The atheist avers there is no one or nothing "minding the store" and so does the deist.

Deism, to give an analogy, is analogous to a child who makes a toy with a gear wheel, and the toy has the ability to move after being wound up and released. Thus, the child makes the toy (he's a clever kid) winds it up, releases it down the sidewalk, then walks away never to glance at it or its final outcome, destination. In this case, the child plays an analogous role to the ambiguous first cause of deism and the toy is analogous to the universe.

One of the most egregious arguments of Novak is when he avers (p. 267) that:

“The trouble is that atheism is a leap in the dark and not a rational alternative. No one can possibly prove a negative or know enough to be certain there is no God

But none of the atheists I know, myself included, DO THAT! So what Novak has succeeded in doing is inventing his own straw man atheist or tackling dummy and nothing more. Let’s take his ‘shot in the dark’ tag. Not at all! What we (rational atheists) say is that in the absence of YOU proving your claim (or at least giving us the necessary and sufficient conditions for it) - we are maintaining a position of non-investment of our mental or emotional resources and energies into it. This is the conservative and natural position to adopt for a true rationalist.

In a similar vein, if a neighbor tells me he has alien ghosts inhabiting his attic, I would also withhold investment of any emotional or intellectual commitment to it. Until he could provide me with some empirical justification or evidence, I am fully entitled to ignore his claim as possessing any remote connection to reality. Likewise for Novak’s claim of a deity no matter how many descriptive metaphors he can dredge up for it. Minus those n-s conditions he is merely promoting phantasm as reality like the alien ghost believing neighbor. True, on a vaster perhaps more sublime scale, but in the end the same category of Macguffin.

As to ‘proving a negative” no atheist does that either. We simply maintain the conservative “show us, we’re from Missouri” outlook. Thus, we regard the improbability of a deity that is invisible and governs and designs the cosmos as about the same as one trillion alien ghosts from Tau Ceti inhabiting the DC Beltway.
The error of latter day Christian obscurantists like Novak is in placing the onus of proving a negative on us, when in fact the onus is on him to prove his existent is substantive and not his own mental confection. Failing any hard evidence, say like a video recording for an alien ghost or apparition, the next best thing is to give us those necessary and sufficient conditions signed, sealed and delivered. As it is, what we end up with (in Novak's book) is his own creation of deity as a mirror image of his mental self-representation.

There are so many other egregious assertions or claims that pervade the book, such as atheism allowing the meme that “everything is permitted”, or that purpose must be exposed via science, that it would require a whole other book to deal with them. So let me end this review with the case of Novak’s daughter, who we are told, p. 42: “decided atheism cannot be true because it is self-contradictory”.

He then goes on to expostulate that: “atheists want all the comforts of rationality that emanates from rational theism but without any personal indebtedness to any Creator, Governor, Judge.."

And so Novak’s daughter concludes it is more reasonable to believe there is a God, then withholding investment for any evidence demonstrating it is more than a munchkin of her mind. And let us recall hear the words of astrophysicist Carl von Weiszsacker: “It is impossible to understand rationally a God in whom one did not believe in already”.

First, Novak’s daughter is wrong to accept that we define everything as “chancy” or “absurd”. Indeed, there is within the cosmos a domain of natural law regularity within which our deterministic mechanics can work very well. It is only when one moves on to the quantum theory (quantum mechanics) that hard prediction becomes dicey. Our job, as rationalists and scientists, is not to succumb to metaphysics or overeager mystics, but to try to show how much of our cosmos CAN be understood in terms of known laws and how much cannot. Thus, on setting the limits for rational enquiry we set limits on our own penchant for mental eruptions and inventions. We use our empirical methods, whatever they are, to put curbs on our human penchant to inflate reality.

What we do know now, compliments of our most modern advances in infrared and microwave astronomy, is that the assay of the cosmos holds little room for what we recognize as “order”. The latest results from the Boomerang balloon survey and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy project disclose that darkness pervades 93% of the cosmos, whether in the form of dark matter(23%) or dark energy (70%). We humans represent emergence of a rational brain to fathom these mysteries compliments of natural selection on one small planet, and the probable beneficial intervention of a large asteroid 65 million years ago which wiped out our prime competition.

Second, NONE of these rational modes or methods was earned via “comfort” or given to us compliments of the god-mongers or Christians. We had to earn our rational results (say those showing that dark energy behaves like a plasma that fits a spherical harmonic distribution) step by step through patience and many errors, and the final ability to reach our goals. Thus, we owe absolutely nothing to any “judges” or mystical “creators’ inhabiting the mind of Novak, or anyone else. To say so is to attempt to validate science’s service in the perpetuation of never-ending mumbo-jumbo, theological dogmas and superstitious phantasmagorias.

I am a rational atheist, proud of it, and beholding for it to no fictitious entity that inhabits the wayward neurons of someone’s brain.

The good news here is that this is one of the better “God books’ in circulation. The bad news, is that it’s not anywhere near as good as James Byrne’s “GOD”(Continuum, 2001). But then again, after reading Tipler’s fulsome ‘Physics of Christianity’ it was a relief of sorts!

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