Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Disproofs of God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

Previously I approached three proofs of God. Next, I'm going to criticize three lines of reasoning attempting to disprove the existence of God. Why would I want to oppose lines of argument that agree with my overall position? Well, for one thing I enjoy these sorts of theological conjectures, and these are the conclusions I've come to.

But more importantly, many people come to a claimed atheist position due to finding one or more of these areas of argumentation to be compelling. It would be better to know why they are not beforehand, and base one's worldview (either way) on stronger ground. In particular, I suspect (and many theists charge) that at least some claimed atheists are actually misotheists - people who are disgusted with or angry at God due to the problem of evil While some may find it unproblematic to lightly dismiss the concept of God, others may need better reasons than these in order to move past their upbringing and the culture around them. I hope to provide such in future posts.

The Omnipotence Paradox

"Can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?"

This commonly cited question is a simple formulation of the paradoxical nature inherent in positing infinite power. Answer yes, and there is something God cannot do (lift the stone). Answer no, and there is something God cannot do (create a stone He cannot lift). In either case, the notion of an omnipotent God fails.

Thus, God must either not exist, or not be limitless. And a limited entity has no claim to true deity. An entity of finite powers (however great they might be) could only be another participant within the universe, rather than its creator and sustainer. One could still posit a hypothetical being of greater power.

However, the same question could be rephrased to contain the same meaning, while removing God from the paradoxical portion, and placing it all on the other item: "can God create an unliftable stone?" This is more akin to asking, "can God create a squared circle," or any other self-contradictory item you care to name. The question regarding God then becomes, is He unrestricted by logic, or must He conform to it?

One response to this (from George Mavrodes) is that a God who is restricted only to the bounds of what makes is logical doesn't count as "restricted" at all; that this still fulfills a fair working definition of omnipotence. A second response (following C.S. Lewis) is that to discuss self-contradictory items is mere nonsense, and including them in a question renders it meaningless. This is completely coherent with Mavrodes' response, since to assert that that which lies beyond the bounds of logic is meaningless, is also to assert that a logically bounded universe effectively remains unbounded. Everything beyond the boundaries of reason is merely nonsense, and thus they don't count as boundaries at all.

But we still can explore Lewis' response in a little more detail, and perhaps expand upon it. If we posit an omnipotent God, then any questions that contain the auxiliary verb forms "can" or "could" are meaningless. This is because they speak to the possibility of some event; in doing so, they refer to the gap between what one wills to happen and what actually happens. But in reference to an omnipotent God, there can be no such gap. There are only two possible outcomes of the thought-experiment: 1) God lifts the stone, or 2) God does not lift the stone. In either case, the outcome conforms exactly to God's will; there are no other possibilities. That's what omnipotence means: whatever happens, is exactly what God wills to happen. The will of God is identical to the actual outcome of reality, as well as all possible outcomes.

To ask whether God can create a stone He cannot lift is to demand that God both intend and not intend that the stone be lifted. Thus, the only limitation one might claim to the powers of God that He could not do something that He did not will to take place. But this is no limitation; it is in fact a reassertion of the meaning of choice itself. There is only what God does, and what God declines to do. There is no difference between what God "cannot" do and what God chooses not to do; the sets thereof are equivalent. Therefore, for any question worded "can God do X?" It can be re-worded to "does God do X?"

Omniscience vs. Free Will

With or without positing the existence of God, free will is at least somewhat problematic. Regardless of one's a/theist position, everyone has some attachment to the notion of free will. It's required for us to feel that we can take responsibility for our actions (whether praiseworthy or blameworthy), as well as for us to hold one another fully accountable for theirs.

It's generally considered to be the case that if it were even theoretically possible to measure and predict in detail the internal and external causal factors that lead to the choices we make, then we cannot be said to have free will. That is to say, the working definition for most of free will is that it refers to some property of our minds which disallows the possibility of a perspective from which our choices can be accurately determined or predicted. If it were the case that our choices could be precisely predicted, then it would also be the case that our choices were already being precisely controlled by our environment.

From the atheist perspective, free will is only somewhat difficult to maintain. One may propose that some unknowable factor goes into our decision making processes, whether that be some form of dualism, or claim the involvement (to any degree) of quantum indeterminacy in neurological function. Alternately (and the approach that I take) one can rephrase the question from "does free will exist?" to "how free is will?" That is to say, will need not be infinitely free to be characterized as free; so long as one's complexity of mind is sufficient that no perspective that exists can precisely determine its behavior, that's good enough for all relevant purposes. From an epistemic skeptic position, to claim that we don't have free will would require actually determining at least one mind, which no one has been able to do, and which hasn't even been proven to be possible. I maintain that my will can be said to be "free" (i.e. is not determined by some other perspective) until you can provide real evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, once one posits the existence of an omniscient entity such as God, then such a perspective, one which can determine and predict our every choice down to the slightest detail, now exists. Even more troubling, most of those who posit the existence of God also maintain that human free will is necessary to their concept of morality; the theist position places the assertion of free will among the most critically important concepts imaginable, even as it makes it more difficult to defend.

To answer, we can word this question as a special case of the omnipotence paradox: "can God create an entity so complex He cannot determine its choices?" Fortunately, much of the heavy lifting on this type of question has already been done above: we can then reword it to simply, "does God determine our choices?" So long as God refrains from "peeking" within the causal machinery of our minds and predicting our choices and their outcomes, then we can be said to have free will - but only at His constant allowance.

The Problem of Evil

Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world? – Epicurus

This earliest known formulation of the problem of evil remains one of its most concise wordings - although I'm going to refer to "suffering" hereafter, since "evil" in common usage has specific connotations regarding choice and intent.

If we define God as omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, then we are asserting an entity who is capable of eliminating the suffering that happens to us, and who purportedly loves us. A cursory examination of events occurring in the world easily demonstrates that plenty of suffering is presently occurring, such that anyone who purported to love us could not possibly tolerate it. Therefore, at least one of the above properties ascribed to God must fail.

We've already discussed how any entity who is anything less than omnipotent would simply fail to meet the criteria necessary to fit the definition of God. But omnibenevolence, while easier to dismiss on logical grounds (the creator of the universe need not necessarily have any special regard for us), is vastly more problematic on moral and ethical grounds. Being omnipotent, God not only allows, but must the cause of all suffering that exists. Per my response to the ontological argument above, all suffering occurs not despite, but as an expression of, the will of God.

Aside: One of the reasons I wanted to address arguments against God is that I feel that many people who claim atheism in response to the problem of evil actually take the position of misotheism - they may not fully disbelieve in the concept of God, but rather they are merely disgusted with it on moral grounds. This criticism has in fact been levied towards the overall position of atheism (at least in passing) by many theists. Of course, a proper atheist isn't angry at God in the slightest, as that would involve investing emotional energy on a nonexistent being; one might as well be angry with the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny. The moral disdain shown by many prominent atheists such as Sam Harris or (more vitriolically) Christopher Hitchens is properly aimed at the concept of God, as well as its adherents. But certainly not at God Himself.

One response to the problem of evil is what's known as the "best of all possible worlds" response, originally formulated by Gottfried Leibniz. In this defense of God, out of the entire set of possible worlds that are logically consistent (and therefore meaningful), this is the one that results in the least amount of suffering. Since Voltaire so thoroughly mocked it in Candide, this argument isn't often elucidated in apologetics, although it is sometimes implied in contemporary pop-Christian parables, such as the footprints in the sand, or did I miss one? In both cases, moral blame of God for evil is responded with by considering how much worse things could have been, i.e. taking into consideration the many worse possible worlds. However, it is so easy as to be entirely trivial to imagine a world that is better than this one, especially given the tools available to an omnipotent entity.

Another (more common) response to the problem of evil (at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition) is that since God grants us free will, any suffering that occurs is a product of our own decisions, either to harm ourselves or one another. Any simple body count of the latest earthquake, tsunami, flood, hurricane or tornado is sufficient to disabuse one of the notion that suffering is a product of human decisions. Certainly much is, and we could (and should) make better decisions, as well as do more to come to the aid of those who suffer, but that's not the same thing as asserting that the universe is constructed in such a way that God can be entirely absolved of responsibility for the suffering that its inhabitants experience, much less that it's constructed. Clearly, it is not.

Thee only possible key to the problem of evil thus lies in a less naive and more thorough examination of what we mean by "omnibenevolence." God cannot be said to love us in either the way we are expected to love Him or the ways in which we love one another. Here, "omni" does not merely mean infinitely more, but must refer to a benevolence of an entirely different nature than what we can mean by any term that relates to our attitude towards one another on Earth.

By this, don't actually mean that they way in which God can claim to be beyond reproach is beyond our possible understanding. God Himself presents this sort of response in Job 38-41, and frankly He just comes off as kind of a dick there:
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
All this to a good and pious man who had just had his entire life demolished and ground in the dirt just so that God could prove a point. Job hadn't even cursed him, just questioned the reasoning for his suffering. "I'm the boss, you don't know, so shut up" is no proper response to a moral indictment from or by anyone.

Following the Book of Job, let's ourselves do a dialogue...

One day the angels[a] came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them.

God (to Satan): Where have you come from?

Satan: From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.

God: Have you considered how wonderful it all is? How my subjects enjoy the benefits of my infinite power, in accordance with my great love for them?

Satan: Actually, that's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. It appears that a great many of them are suffering horribly on a pretty consistent basis.

The LORD then looked down upon that which He had made. He saw the suffering of humankind, saw the many humans praying to Him for mercy, saw their starvation, torture and misery.

God: Yep, that's pretty messed up.

Satan: Well, you're the omnipotent guy here. Just fix it.

God: What do you mean just fix it?

Satan: Just fix it. Eliminate all suffering. You can do that. You're omnipotent.

God: Sure, I'll give it a shot...

The LORD then snapped His mighty fingers, and from that snap a great change went out through the world. Suddenly, every human heart was filled with infinite joy. From that moment, no person on the Earth knew even the faintest bit of suffering, only utter and abject pleasure.

Satan looked down, watching all of the humans on Earth lying on the ground, doing nothing more than twitching and moaning in joy.

Satan: So that's what getting rid of suffering looks like? They're kind of boring now.

God: That's what you get. In order to "elimate all suffering," as you put it, I had to put them all in a state of pure bliss. Now they've got no reason to do anything at all.

Satan: Well, that's no good. None of them are even moving a muscle! They're just laying there soiling themselves and enjoying every moment of it. Frankly, it's pathetic.

God: Yep. Looks like they're all going to die of dehydration within a matter of a few days.

Satan: Ha! I bet none of their doomsayers saw "apocalypse by orgasmic joy" coming.

God: And people tell me I don't have a sense of humor.

Satan: Platypus!

And lo, the LORD and Satan did thereupon share a high five and hearty chuckle, as the final generation of humanity enjoyed its last few hours on Earth.

Beyond simple reflex response, all human action is the product of what the mind deems to improve its state on a scale ranging between transcendent happiness to abject misery. Everything that we do, we do in the hopes that it will either lead to a greater measure of happiness, or at least lead to a state via which we can achieve happiness on a more consistent basis than we do now. Thus, absent some range of subjective desireability between states of existence, human motivation becomes impossible.

It might be the case that we could be programmed via instinct to follow exactly the routines that we do in the world, fulfilling our entire range of behaviors in direct response to instinctually programmed behaviors. But then we could hardly claim to have free will. For any free will system to work (much less for it to be possible for us to be dynamic participants in the universe) instinct can tell us no more than what conditions we dislike, and which we prefer, and then allow us to reason for ourselves how to avoid the former and/or achieve the latter. From this, the entire range of complex human behavior follows.

But this itself suggests a possible solution. If all that's necessary is some range...

Satan: What if you only made them somewhere between very-happy and blissful?

God: How so?

Satan: Well, if all they need is some range of differentiation between their worst possible state and their best possible state in order to get up and do interesting things, why not just make their worst possible state still pretty good? Like, the difference between a great day and an orgasm?

God: Sounds tricky but -

Both: omnipotence!

The LORD then snapped His mighty fingers, and made it so that humanity could only experience a range of situations between very pleasant and perfectly blissful. The people got up and began to go about their business, with great smiles upon their faces.

Satan: Now that's what I'm talking about!

God: We'll see...

A brief time passed. Later on, the LORD and Satan reconvened at lunch in order to review the results of the recent changes.

Satan: Well, it seems that folks are doing alright. Starvation, war and torture are nonexistent. People are managing to get what they need, and help each other get more.

God: That's actually not what my inbox says. Prayers of complaint about the world are pretty much back to the same level they've always been.

Satan: What? How is that possible?

God: Take a look for yourself.

And Lo, the LORD God did reveal to Satan the myriad prayers coming up from the Earth. And therein Satan wept at the stories of lattes served too cold, wifi that wouldn't connect quickly enough, traffic jams, poor service at restaurants, having to stand in line, and a host of mild inconveniences. And yet the abject misery expressed by these supplicants was as heartfelt as it ever had been before.

Satan: What the fuck is wrong with these people?

God: You're not looking at things from their point of view.

Satan: What possible point of view could that be?

God: As bad as it can get is still as bad as it can get. You think this is the first time I've tried this?

The thing about humans is, we amazingly adaptable. Of all the ways in which we are adaptable, our ability to judge situations as good or bad is by far the most retrainable.

Let's say that we set a quantitative scale of misery to joy, with 0 being the most suffering that a human being could experience on Earth, and 100 being the most joy that a human could experience. If we talk to someone at the low range (say a starving African child), who only ever has had experiences between 2 and 8 on this scale, and ask her how she's doing today, she might likely say "pretty good." If we ask of an extremely wealthy male from the United States, born of inherited privilege, who only has ever had experiences that rank between 93 and 99 on our scale, and ask him how he's doing today, he might also say "pretty good."

In no way in this comparison am I attempting to equate the horrors of abject deprivation to the minor troubles of the comfortable. But the nature of human judgement is that it is subjective, judged from within. And from a subjective view, one can only judge their current circumstances on a scale of the lowest that they've personally experienced to the highest. For the impoverished African child, that scale of 2 to 8 becomes their personal 0 to 100. Similarly, for the wealthy U.S. male, their experience of 93 to 99 becomes their personal 0 to 100. This judgement from the lower end has been better explained than here by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The upper end of the scale has more recently been lampooned in the blog White People Problems.

From an imagined objective perspective, we can proclaim the invalidity of these internal judgements all we like. But the fact remains that everybody judges their situation internally, redefining the lowest of their experiences as miserable and the highest of their experiences as joyful. Thus, even if God set the range to between 99 to 100 as the outer limits of our possible conditions, we would still renumber within that range as 0 to 100 (adding decimals as necessary), and in time go right back to shaking our fists at the sky and complaining that it's all His fault.

It is only we, who must suffer or enjoy the conditions of the world, who judge them as good or evil - not God. From an "omnibenevolent" position outside of experiencing the conditions, but which encompasses them all, He cannot make the same kinds of judgements that we can. Inevitably, no matter how He made the world (provided that it allowed for the conditions required for free will), we would still judge the lowest limit of our experience as absulutely miserable, and the highest limit as absolute bliss. And there is nothing that God could do to change that; for Him to attempt otherwise would be self-contradictory, and therefore meaningless (see my previous ontological argument discussion).

So what could the "benevolent" in "omnibenevolent" mean? Only that God is fond of humanity as a whole. Perhaps He's even rooting for us. In any case, the fact is that we are the leading edge of complexity in the portion of the universe that we know of. And it's hardly an indictment of God to claim that he's a fan. And given our varied and adaptable ability to enjoy and suffer, that's the best that He can be expected to do.

Next up: I argue against dualism, deity and faith themselves.


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