Monday, December 29, 2008

Mangan on God

He's gone on a tear since this posting, but Dennis Mangan articulates my take on the God question better than I am able to:

In this entire debate, what seems to have gone unnoticed and unremarked is: What consequences can we draw from the purported existence of God? My answer is: none whatsoever. If the existence of God cannot be the subject of empirical inquiry, that must mean that we have no way of seeing whether God acts in any way upon the world. We have no way of knowing whether God, should he exist, could possibly care about human beings and their often sorry little world.
Periodically I'll get the urge to delve into philosophical writings by men like Leibniz or Hume, but usually burn out too quickly to even finish a single selection. I find myself faced with the empiricist's inherent problem in using the natural to describe the supernatural. It seems those who posit a God and those who posit no God inevitably talk past each other on this point.

Natural methods have not proved God's existence, but it is conceivable that the supernatural has dictated that the natural be unable to detect it. I try to find comfort in Pascal's Wager, but am unsettled by the thought that God might as easily punish those who believe as reward them, so the idea that the best possible outcome for the atheist is the same as the worst possible outcome for the theist isn't convincing.

Consequently, the focus here is usually limited to the consequences of religiosity, not the validity of its supernatural claims. I'm agnostic, hoping for benevolent theism, with a reverence for Christianity captured by my inclination towards one of Lawrence Auster's responses to Dennis from the aforementioned post:

So, far from there being no truth of existence, with each culture making up and prospering by its own lies, there is a divine truth of existence, but humans cannot grasp it fully, each culture only gets parts of it. But the more a culture gets of it, the better that culture will be. And of all religions, Christianity expresses far and away the fullest measure of the divine truth of existence. Which is not to say that even the best religion cannot become distorted and ruinous, as modern, liberalized Christianity is. But that only means that Christianity must be won back from liberalism, just as our whole civilization must be won back from liberalism.
Staying power has theoretical plausibility as an argument for veracity, or at least as an argument for Darwinian fitness.


Stopped Clock said...

Do you read the blog "Secular Right"? You might like it.
It moves pretty fast compared to most other blogs I post on.

Have you been agnostic all this time, even when you said you were theist? I personally would consider the two terms contradictory but they both can be used in a lot of different ways.

I have always believed in the idea that "God covers his tracks" to ensure that those who believe in him will believe by faith instead of relying on evidence they can see. When I was a teenager I considered myself a Creationist but I soon noticed that most Creationists seek to reinforce their beliefs by looking for evidence in science, ignoring the possibility that God might have created the world and the laws of evolution fully formed so that both the Biblical creation account and the theory of evolution might be true. Thus, I believe in God even though there is no evidence I can show to another person and say "this is why I believe in God".

If nothing else, I have to say that believing in God has helped make my life easier. Even if God doesn't exist, I'm getting benefits in this life from believing that he does exist. (But I am a strong theist; I believe that I have actually seen God, but again, I cannot explain this to another person, even another theist, in a way that would make them believe me other than by them taking my word for it.)

Blode032222 said...

"I find myself faced with the empiricist's inherent problem in using the natural to describe the supernatural. It seems those who posit a God and those who posit no God inevitably talk past each other on this point."

You are so dang smart, Audacious. You don't waste time trying to make the abstract concrete - you just spend your effort making your point lucid. Excellent strategy.

Secular Right is an okay website but IMHO there is way too much rapping about whether fundies are jerks and that sort of thing, and not enough talk about policy. Me, I'm happiest at blogs where affirmative action is chewed up and spat out every day. :)

The Undiscovered Jew said...

"But I am a strong theist; I believe that I have actually seen God, but again, I cannot explain this to another person, even another theist, in a way that would make them believe me other than by them taking my word for it.)"

I believe you, and I also believe either there is a God or there is a "supernatural" or "hypernatural" level of mental existence.

I've never had an encounter with God or some sort of spiritual entity.

However, at the risk of sounding like a nut, when I was a kid I did have a "Deja vu" experience where I was in and had seen a place I could not have been in before but had seen visually seen before.

Like you, I don't talk about my experience much because I'm an empirical kind of guy and don't expect others to understand my Deja vu experience.

It's just one of those things that if it doesn't happen to you, you won't understand.

I do however think lots of people have had one of those "Oooh" type of events that they can't explain.

BGC said...

The crux is revelation - for religions such as traditional Christianity, Islam and Judaism (but not for many others) a vital element is that God has communicated (revealed) knowledge to humans.

I never really understood this until I read Rodney Stark on Mormonism and his book Discovering God (where the argument is clearly set out).

Revelation is either part of a church tradition, and/ or directly experienced - but the main revealed religions have proceeded on the basis of arbitrating claims of revelation, clarifying revelations (on the basis that humans are imperfect in understanding and expression and also corruptible and potentially dishonest) and extending and harmonizing revelation by means of reason/ theology.

This whole process of revelations is clearest among the Mormons, because the process has been compressed and occured fairly recently.

On this basis, the cleavage is between those who believe in revelations and those who do not (which include atheists, agnostics and liberal Christians). If you do not believe in revelation than no amount of logic applied to natural evidence can build up a religion like Christianty.

If you do believe in the possibility of revelation then you proceed exactly as the churches historically have done. This can be seen in Mormonism, where there is a belief in continuing revelation.

Revelations are evaluated - it seems - pragmatically, in terms of their consequences and outcomes. True revelations have observable properties such as increasing the size and strength of the church, increasing the devoutness of church members, and harmonizing with other revelations to give a larger and more complex explanation of the world. (This is not a complete list.) But the source of the revelations is assumed to be supernatural.

As Stark says, if you want to debate revelations, you cannot do so from a position that you do not believe in the possibility of revelations - you will then simply discover what you already knew.

But, if you evaluate revealed religions from a perspective that if God is true then revelations may exist, and (due to human imperfection and social differences) some revelations are truer than others (and some are wrong or dishonest) - then a very interesting intellectual process can be initiated. A process that is rational, based on natural observations such as psychology and sociology, but is not itself scientific.

Razib said...

all depends on how you define god.

Audacious Epigone said...


Yeah, I check in on it regularly. Razib, Heather MacDonald, and John Derbyshire are tremendous thinkers. It has some impressive cognitive firepower behind it.

Strictly speaking, agnosticism and theism are mutually exclusive (although atheism and agnositicism are similarly so, even though they're often lumped together). I used to consider myself theistic, but I guess agnostic-leaning/hoping-theistic is a better explanation.

Re: benefits in this life--Arthur Brooks has shown that religous people express greater levels of happiness than non-religious people do. Additionally, they have more children and are more likely to be married. Relatively, A&As seem to be discontent and societally marginal, especially given their tendency to be of above average intelligence (my next post will touch on this).


I struggle enough as it is grasping the concrete. To try to offer insight to others about abstract matters would be truly audacious on my part (and not successful, either)!


If memory serves, most (more than 50%) of adults report having experienced deja vu sometime in their lives. As far as I know, the experience is still pretty mysterious, because it's hard to test for.


Sounds like a worthwhile read. I just ordered Stark's book.


I'm probably missing part of what you're trying to say (do you have to be that terse?), but mysticism feels like it potentitally has a lot of overlap with solipsism to me.

Fat Knowledge said...

Interesting that you use Darwinian fitness as a way of showing the veracity of Christianity. Ironically, I am anti-Christian because of Christianity's anti-Darwin ideology. I think my negativity is best summed up by this picture, showing that Christians believe that truth is just something you proclaim (or have faith in) and has nothing to do with empiricism.

Because of my empirical nature, I have felt more at home with Buddhism then Christianity. The Dalai Lama said something along the lines that if science disproves the religious teachings, then you need to go with science. I can't remember hearing a prominent Christian leader saying the same thing.

Buddhism's main focus is on happiness, while Christianity is on getting into heaven. I prefer the former, as who really knows what happens in the afterlife? It is also possible then to verify the teachings of Buddhism, as you can tell if you are getting happier or not. With Christianity, there is no way to verify that the teachings really get you in heaven. And, the tele-evangelists that promise heaven and miracle cures for just $19.95 really drive me nuts. I have never seen anything comparable in Buddhism.

And philosophically, I like the concept of the Bodhisattva who puts off nirvana in order to help others get there. While Christians are motivated to help others as a way to get eternal bliss, the Bodhisattva wants to help others so much that he is willing to puts off eternal bliss. The Christian version turns selflessness into selfishness, like the HS student who volunteers just to put it on the resume to get into a good college.

Audacious Epigone said...

The Christian version turns selflessness into selfishness, like the HS student who volunteers just to put it on the resume to get into a good college.

Hehe, you sound like Luther or Zwingli going after the Catholic church, but with a 21st Century update.

Re: Christianity's Darwinian fitness, that extends to the three major monotheistic religions, anyway. Buddhism's TFR isn't as certain--it's definitely a whiterpeople religion among those of European descent, and East Asia, where it still has some amount of cultural influence (China, Japan, the Koreas, and Mongolia), is reproducing below replenishment. Some countries in SE Asia, though, like Laos, are pretty fecund.