In The Beginning Was the Word: Separating the Atheists from the Agnostics – Rescuing the Agnostics from the Theists

Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities / his eternal power and divine nature / have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. -Romans 1:19-20

To you I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the Loyal Opposition. -Woody Allen

Atheism and agnosticism are two categories that get tossed around with far too much flippancy. In common parlance, and more and more in professional circles, the terms lack proper definition. Thus, perverted usage has taken over and confused the issues. Atheism has come to mean “the belief in no God” and agnosticism “not being sure if God exists.” Both of these popular definitions are wrong. While being wrong is bad enough, these widespread distortions also work solely in favor of the theist. Due to the misunderstanding of both terms numerous Christians have attempted to redefine all atheists as agnostics; and far too many atheists have quietly ushered themselves into that less caustic corner. This confusion must end. It’s time to do a little gerrymandering in the name of rational disbelief — to show why many self-described “agnostics” are actually atheists.

“Agnosticism” has been greatly misunderstood by modern audiences. The term’s original meaning has nearly been completely lost. Originally coined by Darwin’s attack-dog Thomas Huxley to describe himself as one who did not believe that God’s existence was knowable, agnosticism has been converted to mean one who does not know. The two definitions are worlds apart. The former is a claim on the epistemological status of a belief, the latter is a reluctance to accept a claim. Somehow we moved from the belief that God’s existence is something that humans cannot be sure about to not being sure about God’s existence.

Likewise, atheism suffers from severe misunderstandings. With Christians, atheism is a category that will put you in the doghouse. Recent data has shown atheists to be among the most distrusted people in the United States. Agnosticism, on the other hand, will just put you out in the yard. The modern Christian believes that agnostics (as they mistakenly take the term) commit a grievous — but understandable — error. God, after all, is transcendentally unknowable. However, with a little help (an occasional tract or two, a gifted copy of Mere Christianity) agnostics can be helped out of their folly. The atheist, however, is incorrigible. To call yourself an atheist is to put a foot down where the agnostic fears to tread. The atheist willfully denies the existence of He-Whose-Existence-is-Obvious-and-Undeniable.

For many theists, atheists are not just incorrect but incoherent and impossible. In his book “God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists” noted Christian apologist Ray Comfort makes this quite clear: “If you insist upon disbelief in God, what you must say is, ‘Having the limited knowledge I have at present, I believe that there is no God.’ Owing to a lack of knowledge on your part you don’t know if God exists. So, in the strict sense of the word, you cannot be an atheist. The only true qualifier for the title is the One who has absolute knowledge, and why on earth would God want to deny His own existence? The professing atheist is what is commonly known as an ‘agnostic’ — one who claims to not know if God exists, or ‘one who professes ignorance.'”

Comfort’s interpretation of the terms is clear. He is also moving through well-trod territory. Theists constantly try to demote (or “promote” depending on your point of view) professed atheists to agnostics. This move is a furtive attempt to win an argumentative point through reclassification.

Ray Comfort’s current shtick is playing wingman to Kirk Cameron’s newest calling; the Evangelical Christian organization “The Way of the Master.” On the website you can see videos addressing evolution and “atheism” — at least Comfort’s version of atheism. The video on atheism has Comfort reiterating his point from “God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists.” However, he adds a wrinkle to his point — a wrinkle in the form of an astonishingly bad argument. To recapitulate Comfort’s argument: you don’t know what you don’t know so to claim that you know something doesn’t exist is to claim that you know something that you couldn’t possibly know because of all the things that you don’t know. You know? This is an argument that should make all good philosophers vomit their skeletons through their computer screens. But, apparently due to its front-and-center treatment, this is among the best Ray Comfort has to offer.

Skeleton-vomiting aside, it is worth taking a moment to point out that Comfort’s argument is actually an argument against the possibility for any non-omniscient creature to claim knowledge of any kind. Flowing from his rhetoric is the inevitable conclusion that you cannot claim to know one thing unless you know all things. Therefore, if Comfort accepts his own argument he must believe in the existence of every postulated object – every god, demi-god, man-god, sub-god and cosmic teapot (for starters) – as well as every possible postulation (everything that has yet to be thought up). From the position he has laid out he cannot assert his own disbelief in any contingent object or entity. Also, as he says in his quote above, the only one who can be an atheist is God himself. Of course, it equally follows that the only one who could be justifiably called a theist is God himself.

Comfort’s argument rests on his confusion – a confusion that is now a pandemic – about the meanings of the terms “agnosticism” and “atheism.” The argument only makes sense, if it makes sense at all, if his definition of atheism is the one stated earlier in this essay; that atheism is “belief in no God.” In fact, atheism is properly understood as “no belief in God.” The difference is subtle yet very important. The distinction can be pointed out by this question: “Do you believe that FDR did not eat any oranges during the week following Pearl Harbor?” Assuming that we are all ignorant of this claim it would be absurd to answer in the affirmative to this question. The proper course is not to believe that FDR did not eat any oranges during that week but rather to take the position that you have no belief that he did. Sufficient reason has not been given to believe the proposition.

This is the atheist position. By demanding that theists give sufficient reasons for believing in God, the atheist maintains that the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the theist. This is unquestionably true with regards to any specific religious tradition. No religious tradition holds the automatic supposition that it is true. The preponderance of various religions and the grandiosity of their claims guarantee that it is up to the theist to convince the atheist that their conception of God is correct.

Most Christians — and this clearly includes Ray Comfort — will talk at length of how they find atheism unimaginable. They, however, know exactly what it feels like to be an atheist. Of all the Gods that people claim or have claimed to exist Christians find only one to have merit. They rightly place a burden of proof upon other religions that must be satisfied in order to merit belief. Therefore, in most situations Christians know exactly with whom the burden of proof rests. However, when it comes to someone who doesn’t accept their beliefs they shift the burden of proof to the atheist. However, the position they take towards others’ religions is precisely the same position I take upon theirs (and all religions). Comfort’s argument against atheism is as much an argument against his beliefs as it is mine.

Other, non-religious, conceptions of God — the scientists’ Gods, the prime mover, first cause, “higher powers,” God as essence rather than God as being — are pushed towards irrelevance. As scientists continue to explain more about the universe the burden of proof continues to be placed in the lap of the theist — particularly with regards to teleological “arguments from design.” Cosmologically, however, the question of “why is there something instead of nothing?” will always be insoluble. If you choose God to be your answer to such an abstruse question so be it. But, for any characteristics you wish to instill in that God beyond “first cause” — i.e. personal, interested, omnipotent, good etc. — the burden of proof will once again lie in your lap. These anthropomorphic characteristics are the ones that the majority of theists care the most about — whether God knows, cares, acts, desires, is angry etc. However, they are also the hardest to justify. Despite the many nuanced and opaque philosophical debates to be had about the status of identifying and clarifying who has the burden of proof and why, I am quite sure that miracle working, resurrected god-men, floods and floating arks, multi-armed androgynous deities, and mountain-moving prophets are not close to the gray-area of these difficult distinctions. Whatever else it may be, the burden of proof at least rests in the hands of those who claim the magnificent.

It would behoove Christians like Comfort to return to a more productive path in order to argue for their beliefs — a path that doesn’t use bad arguments and bad definitions to advance bad points. Theists and atheists alike, if they wish to engage in meaningful debate, need to agree on at least one item; that neither of them “knows” the status of God’s existence. Mostly this stems from traditional philosophical skepticism. Philosophers may debate which claims are indubitable claims to knowledge (i.e. “I think therefore I am”) but almost every philosopher would agree that most claims of knowledge, especially anything based on empirical data, cannot be reasonably said to be indubitable knowledge. Aside from more mundane reasons for doubt, there is always the possibility Descartes’s evil demon is deceiving us or that we are simply brains-in-vats.

Beliefs are not knowledge. Yes, believing is a necessary element of knowing. To know so is to believe so. But knowing is not a necessary element of believing. To believe so is not to know so. If we are intellectually honest with ourselves we will come to understand that nearly every belief in our heads that is at all interesting (tautologies are awfully boring) is a probabilistic belief rather than a certain belief. A car just came around the corner. I don’t know that the car wasn’t materialized by aliens immediately outside of my vision. Likewise I don’t know that a donkey isn’t sitting on my driveway right now. However, I would confidently assert that I have no belief in either proposition. But it would be disingenuous — to incorrectly use the terms — to call me a donkey-in-my-driveway agnostic. I am a donkey-in-my-driveway atheist and I will continue believe so until you give me reason not to.

Such thinking allows us to see that those who call themselves atheists are perfectly justified in doing so. That is, Comfort and others’ claims that atheism is too strong of a term is inaccurate. Furthermore, we find that many who have historically called themselves “agnostics,” based on the common and confused definition of “not knowing,” could rightly be called atheists.

Because none of us “knows” the status of God’s existence, the common interpretation of “agnosticism” is pushed towards irrelevancy. In one very mundane sense we are all “agnostics.” But I am an atheist; and I use the term accurately and whole-heartedly. However, I am not an atheist because I know God does not exist. I am an atheist because I find His existence highly improbable. I find it improbable enough to act as if he does not exist and to be comfortable with my decision. But, I also don’t believe that God’s existence or non-existence is “knowable” in any epistemologically defensible way. In this sense I could rightly be called an “agnostic atheist.”

But actions do speak louder than words. Like all of us, Ray Comfort doesn’t know that God exists. But Comfort acts as if God does exist because he believes God’s existence to be highly probable. I, as already stated, am on the other side. However, the majority of self-described “agnostics” — who use the term to mean “don’t know” — act like atheists. They do not attend church or actively attempt to appease God. In other words, they act as if the burden of proof has not been met by the theists — at least any group of theists they have encountered — and move on the supposition that the world is naturalistic and godless. This is identical to the atheist’s position.

The cash-value of a belief is the actions it creates. Epistemologists have occasionally been inclined to take a gambling metaphor as representative of degrees of certainty. “Oh, you’re certain of your belief? How much would you bet?” Monetary issues aside, it is still worth acknowledging that beliefs produce actions representative of the level of conviction. Beliefs that are thought to be highly probable produce decisive actions. By acting as if God doesn’t exist agnostics are demonstrating their skepticism towards God’s existence. Most importantly they are demonstrating that the burden of proof lies with the theist and that it has not been met. However, because the term “atheist” has been so demonized in modern society — in addition to being massively misunderstood — agnostics prefer a lighter moniker.

But, it may be time for many agnostics to step up to the plate. Perhaps this essay will convince some that a name-change is in order. The broader purpose of this essay is to clarify terms and unite sides because, in reality, the agnostic and the atheist are on the same side. Both believe the Christian (Muslim, Hindu et. al.) hasn’t made their case. Either way, it is certainly time for both theists and atheists to stop equivocating their definitions and clarify what is meant by “atheist” and “agnostic.” Yes, they may be just words. But remember, in the beginning was the word.


If you decide to learn how Native American religions formed then you’ll have to take their culture into consideration since that has a large impact on how religions start. This is something about religion that can be considered fairly universal, not just applicable to just Native American spirituality alone.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink.

63 Responses to In The Beginning Was the Word: Separating the Atheists from the Agnostics – Rescuing the Agnostics from the Theists

  1. ordinarygirl says:

    Excellent article! Thank you.

  2. godma says:

    Very well said.

    The way I usually like to put it is that atheism is synonymous with non-theism, in the same way that apolitical is synoymous with non-political. Since “theism” requires a belief in a deity, “atheism” simply does not.

  3. SmellyTerror says:

    The thing that bugs be about the official meaning of agnosticism – that god’s existence is not knowable – is that it’s a fundamentally atheist point of view. If god existed, he could choose to be known. The only way you could conclude that he’s unknowable is by assuming he doesn’t exist.

    In fact, a rational atheist must conlcude the same, that the question will never be settled, since the non-existence of god can’t be proven. So all atheists are necessarily agnostic(?).

    But could a theist conclude that god is not merely unknown, but also unknowable? No. Absolutely not. It’s not god if it’s powerless. Even a god-as-first-cause could have left evidence that could be found some day. The possbility remains.

    So all atheists are agnostic, and all agnostics are athiests. Seems like a pointless word game to me.

  4. Chad says:

    Nice article. I too have been annoyed about the misuse of these definitions for some time. I even did my part in posting a little something on the topic a few weeks ago, although I didn’t get into nearly as much detail as you.

    http://chadmacspeaks.blogspot.com/2007/05/is-for-atheist.html

    My basic position has always been that atheism is about belief and agnosticism is about knowledge. Yes, they tend to go hand-in-hand much of the time, but they are not the same thing. I used to use either of the words to refer to myself, however due to folks like Comfort, I have decided to just refer to myself as an atheist from now on. Or if necessary I will qualify that and call myself an agnostic-atheist (or weak atheist).

    And to SmellyTerror: Not all atheists are agnostics. Some “strong atheists” claim to know for sure that there absolutely is no God and they do not agree that the existence of God is unknowable. Every atheist I know personally is a weak-atheist (to the best of my knowledge), but I’ve been told by some friends that there are indeed strong atheists out there. And while I agree that a large part of this is a semantic word game, efforts must be made to prevent any misuses, whether deliberate or through ignorance, of the words atheist and agnostic.

  5. SmellyTerror says:

    I think strong atheists are misrepresented. If I tell my son that Santa isn’t real, must I qualify that with the possibility that he is? After all, you can’t prove he’s not, assuming some suitably innocultated Santa.

    So when someone says that they *know* god to be non-existant, are they claiming infallibility? I really don’t think so. If sufficient evidence came along, do we expect strong athiests to stick their fingers in their ears and ignore it? Again, I really don’t think so. The possibility of error is implicit in any statement of fact. Atheism is depedant on a lack of evidence, so of course it ends the moment evidence turns up.

    To put it another (common) way: would any weak athiest or agnostic have a problem saying that Santa, invisible unicorns, orbiting teapots, CIA mind control satellites, magical fairies, and similar, do not exist? Probably not. I doubt anyone is going to coin a word that means “I don’t believe in Santa, but unlike all those other guys I’m willing to accept the possibility I’m wrong”. Well duh, everyone is, this is not a seperate position. Someone who says “there’s no such thing as Santa” is NOT claiming to know the unknowable. It’s just pointless to make the distinction.

    So why make an exception with religion?

    If there are people who claim that the non-existence of God is or can be (or even needs to be) positively proven, then they are simply irrational (that is literally irrational, not meant as an insult). I’m not sure it’s worth making a new word because of them. Irrational people exist inside any philisophical position, and I don’t see everyone renaming the groups just to distance themselves from them.

  6. J. K. Jones says:

    The burden of proof is on you to establish a coherent argument for reason and knowledge from within your worldview. Otherwise, I will continue to “assume” God exists since I can explain these things. If your argument is cogent, it invalidates the laws of logic and the basis for reason. Logic is based on abstractions that are improbable in a random universe.

    Some beliefs enable us to believe things about the world around us.

    Atheists and agnostics are very good at tearing down the arguments of others. Let’s see if they can establish a worldview of their own–

  7. Chad says:

    To Smelly Terror:
    I would generally agree with most of what you say. I don’t think most self-proclaimed strong atheists are claiming infallibility, but I wouldn’t want to make that generalization to all of them. I would, however, agree that any strong atheists who do not claim infallibility to some degree are actually weak atheists – they just want to maintain a “tougher” label, possibly because they have some serious issues with religious folks. That being said, there may indeed be a very small minority who truly do claim infallibility (although I’ve never met any), but I think they make the same mistake as those making theistic claims of infallibility.

    Claiming infallibility, in my opinion, is not mutually exclusive from changing one’s belief based on the arguments and evidence presented by someone else. This is best demonstrated by the “deconversion” of a fundamentalist Christian. So, just because we believe that strong atheists would change their stance if sufficient evidence was presented doesn’t mean that they feel the same way. A true strong atheist would simply be one who really believes that no such evidence will come. But you would have to find a self-proclaimed strong atheist to discuss any of these points with…..as I am not one of them.

    But once again, in the grand scheme of things, such distinctions are just semantics and may not really serve a useful purpose. Although, one could argue that these distinctions do inspire debates between atheists which force them to think about their personal viewpoints a little more (as this discussion has for me).

    Maybe using myself as an example will further highlight my opinion. I am a very strong atheist when it comes to the Judeo-Christian concept of a personal God. I think the scientific community has done enough work to sufficiently debunk any such irrational claims and that no evidence to the contrary is possible. However, I am a weak atheist when it comes to a more deistic claim that some type of creator established the initial conditions for the universe (or multiverse, depending on your viewpoint) and just let it go from there. This is truly unknowable in my opinion.

    And as for the CIA mind control satellites, we don’t believe in those because that’s what the CIA wants us to think. I mean, if they really do have mind control satellites……

  8. Chad says:

    To J. K. Jones:
    The burden of proof is not on the atheist. It is up to the theist, the one making the positive claim, to prove their assertion. You can “assume” the existence of God all you want, but we atheists feel that you have not sufficiently provided evidence for your position. If there were no theists, then there would be no atheism. Therefore, we literally have nothing to prove.

    I can explain this best in terms of scientific research. If I were to claim that I had discovered a process for cold fusion, I would first write a paper about my work, submit it to a peer-reviewed journal, and if my experiments and conclusions were valid, it would be published. Other researchers would then perform their own research and recreate my experiments, or design their own. If they discover evidence contrary evidence then they can disprove my theory. They wouldn’t set out to disprove my approach to cold fusion before I propose it, which is essentially what theists are asking of atheists.

    Also, strictly speaking, atheism isn’t really a worldview or belief structure, but rather a lack of belief. However, atheism can be a component of a broader worldview like Secular Humanism. In fact theistic religions implicitly contain an atheistic component with respect to other theistic religions. For example, Christians are atheistic when it comes to Thor and Loki.

    Basically, there is a burden of proof on any particular worldview to provide evidence in support of their positive assertions. People who hold other worldviews can then attempt to disprove such assertions by providing evidence to the contrary.

  9. J.K. Jones:

    Alright, before I respond to this post and a few of the other more recent ones you’ve left on my articles I must ask you to clarify a position you’ve hinted at throughout.

    Here are some of your hints:

    “The burden of proof is on you to establish a coherent argument for reason and knowledge from within your worldview. ”
    “If your argument is cogent, it invalidates the laws of logic and the basis for reason.”
    “Logic is based on abstractions that are improbable in a random universe.”
    “The notion that God exists must be presupposed for any logical or rational thought to be. ”
    “This is a proof of God’s existence because the world is incoherent without the framework God has provided.”
    “An objective standard of truth itself requires a God to make people capable of rational thought and basically accurate perception of their world to hold it.”

    These are a few of the positions you have asserted throughout this site. Now, before I any time to respond to your assertions I need to know what you are saying and why you are saying it. You seem to be saying something like, “without God rationality is impossible” and, “without God truth is impossible,” and “w/o God knowledge is impossible.” Are any or all of these what you are saying?

    I must ask because you are making claims that are grandiose on levels I have rarely encountered in theistic thought – and I read a lot of theistic thought. If this is what you are saying would you please offer an argument for this position? I can see that you probably have one, but something in the form of premises, inferences and conclusions would be helpful if I plan to address this point at all. Otherwise, these assertions get to big and unwieldy to confront and we end up going nowhere.

    Oh yeah, and the definitions of “rationality” and “truth” that you are using would be helpful.

    T

  10. J. K. Jones says:

    The laws of logic are universal (absolute, consistent over time from one person to another and one place to another). One example is the law of non-contradiction.

    These universal laws require an explanation.

    A Christian can provided an explanation for the universal laws of logic: an unchanging God upholds them in His being and knowledge.

    You must supply an alternative explanation for the universality of the laws of logic before we can even disagree on any subject.

    Otherwise, I’ll just continue on with the assumption that logic can only be accounted for by the existence of an unchanging God.

    If the laws of logic do not apply, we cannot even have a conversation because no ideas can be communicated. If the laws of logic do not apply, we cannot evaluate ideas and systems of thought for internal consistency. If the laws of logic do not apply, we cannot even make generalizations about what we perceive.

    Rational — “pertaining to or attributable to reason or the power of reasoning”

    Truth — “conformity of assertions to fact or reality”

    Both definitions are from The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary.

    I will not make any future comments unless you ask for them directly.

  11. J. K. Jones says:

    Chad,

    Please see the outline in the above comment. I am saying that an atheist must give me an alternative to belief in God that establishes the laws of logic and the possibility of reason.

  12. Chad says:

    J. K. Jones:

    Hmmm…. It appears I jumped the gun a little with my response. I probably should have posted a clarification request as Trevor did above.

    I don’t recall ever seeing this particular argument for the existence of God. I think it is an interesting question and I will definitely post my thoughts on it once I have had some time to look at it in some detail. I haven’t studied logic in a formal sense for some time, so I will have to give myself a brief refresher before responding. Hopefully, I’ll get to it this week….. but it may take a couple weeks before I can find time to reply in full.

    Although, I would ask for further clarification on the following (originally asked by Trevor)…. Are you in fact implying that “without God rationality/truth/knowledge is impossible?”

    Cheers

  13. J. K. Jones says:

    Chad,

    In a word: yes.

    Really I am saying I cannot find another explanation for a universal law that does not fit the Christian God. The ground of logic must be as unchanging as the laws themselves. Other concepts change in one way of the other.

    For a debate to take place, an alternative that accounts for the facts must be posed.

  14. Kyle says:

    J.K.Jones:

    It seems to me that your ability or inability, or that of anyone else, to find another explanation doesn’t really have much bearing on the reality of the situation.

    Prof. Albert Einstein described the human understanding of such things as such, “The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child only dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being towards God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws.”

    To claim that the laws of classical logic are proof of the existence of Christian interpretation of god, is akin to an ancient tribesman claiming that his blood sacrifice to the gods were what made for a bountiful harvest. It’s an argument based on ignorance as opposed to knowledge. A lack of understanding does not mean there is a mystical component to that which we do not understand, but rather that we don’t have a solid enough knowledge base to form an informed opinion.

    Further, your laws of classical logic are not universal. Particle physics has proven that quanta can exist not just in multiple places, but also multiple states, all at the same time, in opposition to both the laws of noncontridiction and identity.

    Which says nothing with regards to all that which we may not know. While we’re able to speculate on what’s gone before, our knowledge of the previous 13.7 billion years of our universe is far from complete; who’s to say just how stable the laws of classical logic were in the moments just after the big bang?

    Not to mention the possibilities posited by the many worlds interpretation of existence, should it be true, and what sorts of laws may or may not apply in the infinite spectrum of possibility such a thing represents.

    Our universe is full of wonder and mystery. To simply write that off as the result of a divine influence is to rob some of the wonder from the natural order of things in a vain and hubristic attempt to account for things which we’ve yet to understand.

  15. J. K. Jones says:

    Kyle,

    “It seems to me that your ability or inability, or that of anyone else, to find another explanation doesn’t really have much bearing on the reality of the situation.”

    That still does not give me an alternative explanation for universal logic. I can account for them as being grounded in the way an eternal and unchanging being thinks, the way He is. The ancient tribesman probably could not. Besides, the line of argument you are using at this point falls is Ad hominem abusive.

    Also, I have not ever claimed that I fully understand any given aspect of God or any of the universal laws He upholds. I don’t have to understand them completely, I just have to know they are universal.

    “Further, your laws of classical logic are not universal. Particle physics has proven that quanta can exist not just in multiple places, but also multiple states, all at the same time, in opposition to both the laws of noncontridiction and identity.”

    Just because the laws of physics do not explain a given situation does not mean the laws of logic do not apply. For example, if the law of non-contradiction, that A cannot be both A and Non-A at the same time and in the same relationship, did not apply to the situation, you might just as well say, “Particle physics has proven that quanta cannot exist in multiple places — all at the same time.”

    If the law of identity, that every object is the same as itself, did not apply, you might just as well say, “Particle physics has proven that molecules can exist not just in multiple places, but also multiple states, all at the same time.”

  16. Whispers says:

    JK Jones:

    “The laws of logic are universal (absolute, consistent over time from one person to another and one place to another).”

    Presumably this is true. But we really do not know this to be true. Indeed, as far as I understand modern physics, all of the laws of physics are constrained to only be true when various prerequisites are in place. Or, to put it differently, we can only observe the laws of physics as having existed from a certain point on after the Big Bang.

    And those are the laws of physics. While I tend to think that (d(Mathematical Truth)/dt) = 0, it’s not really something that we could ever test.

    “One example is the law of non-contradiction.”

    Non-contradiction is an abstraction. It’s not completely clear that it holds for the physical universe, though it certainly appears to.

    “These universal laws require an explanation.”

    Uh, why? Where did “require” come from?

    “A Christian can provided an explanation for the universal laws of logic: an unchanging God upholds them in His being and knowledge.”

    That’s really not much of an explanation, if I may say so. It just beggars the question about explanation by creating a circular loop. Existence needs explanation, so there must be a God upholding existence. All the questions about the mysteries of existence have merely been shunted off into the blind ally of this “God” fellow. The “God” entity is interesting because no truth claims are made about it and no actual physical existence is postulated about it. Indeed, almost nothing testable about “God” is said at all.

    This is not very close to “an explanation” in my book. It’s just a rhetorical trick – a way of stopping arguments. Usually the people who use the God argument block up all sorts of emotional drives with this idea, and can only respond with anger and/or indignation if the area is probed.

    “You must supply an alternative explanation for the universality of the laws of logic before we can even disagree on any subject.”

    I think you’re getting way ahead of yourself here. For starters, the “laws of logic” is a field of mathematics. Many people do very good work in this field without ever referring to a Christian God. Why do you think this is the case? Indeed, one of the seminal consequences of 20th century logic was the realization that certain truth claims are independent of well-devised systems of mathematical axioms and their consequences (aka ‘theories’). Indeed, one can describe fairly comprehensible mathematical postulates (e.g. the Continuum Hypothesis) whose truth or falsity is independent of the commonly used axioms of mathematics (aka ‘set theory’).

    Here is my take on this: people who want to assert something as being true need to first create a framework where the statement can be comprehended, and then they can describe the framework upon which the truth or falsity can be judged. This is a completely different point of departure than what you are doing. From a logical standpoint, you have simply arrogated to yourself your personal theory of comprehensibility (aka ‘the God Hypothesis’) and are now demanding that any competing theory meet your criteria, and, if it doesn’t, your theory must hold the day by default.

    Well, that certainly would be a sweet position to have in the world of abstract nonsense, but I haven’t seen anything to grant you such a default position in the universe of hypotheses. To the contrary, I think that, if you want people to believe in your God hypothesis, the heavy lifting is up to you. You are the one making a truth claim about the nature of the universe, after all.

    “Otherwise, I’ll just continue on with the assumption that logic can only be accounted for by the existence of an unchanging God.”

    Logic just is. It doesn’t need a God hypothesis to validate its existence, unless one comes to the table making this demand, as you do. Your demand that your God hypothesis be granted equal standing with the “laws of logic” strikes me to be as unjustified as my nutty neighbor’s demand that his sun-worship be given equal status with the “laws of logic”. Neither his Apollonian beliefs nor your Christian beliefs have ever demonstrated any tangible relationship between their truth claims and the “laws of logic”. Indeed, the situation is worse than that, as the “laws of logic” usually make a fair mess of your religious truth claims, when they are applied with vigor.

    “If the laws of logic do not apply…”

    Oh, we needn’t worry seriously about that…

    “…we cannot even have a conversation because no ideas can be communicated.”

    So now all communication skills are tied into your pet metaphysical theory. That’s a neat trick!

    “If the laws of logic do not apply, we cannot evaluate ideas and systems of thought for internal consistency. If the laws of logic do not apply, we cannot even make generalizations about what we perceive.”

    (Aside: you are granting more permanence to the “laws of logic” than I think is justified. Indeed, my perspective on the nature of thought suggests to me that logical reasoning is far more complex than would be understood by your epistemology. After all, we know via Godel that any finite mathematical theory will necessarily be incomplete. I suspect that the actual truth content of the abstract nonsense which undergirds the universe is far more rich and complex than is implied by your brutish invocation of the “laws of logic”.)

    “Rational — “pertaining to or attributable to reason or the power of reasoning””

    Sure.

    “Truth — “conformity of assertions to fact or reality””

    Agreed.

    “Both definitions are from The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary.”

    Yes, Webster was a good West Hartford boy. I prefer his work to the OED, but that is because of my Yankee upbringing.

    I’m waiting for the point where the elevation of the Christian God to a supreme place in metaphysics is in any way related to the various claims about epistemology that you have made. I fear I would have to wait for quite some time.

  17. Whispers says:

    I suspect it was a waste of time to reply to JK Jones. To the main post: Trevor, I agree with you completely about the definitions of “atheist” and “agnostic”. When I was a teenager, I made a transition from a Catholic to what I thought was an agnostic. I have slowly decided that “atheist” is a better word to use, because, for most people, “agnostic” no longer has the meaning that Huxley originally intended it to mean.

    Furthermore, I have decided that my objection to the God hypothesis is stronger, or perhaps more fundamental, than Huxley’s. Huxley merely claimed that the God hypothesis was an unanswerable question (or something along those words). I have gradually come to think that the situation for the God hypothesis is worse than that: it is, for the most part, as it appears in popular culture, a truth claim that not only cannot be evaluated, but one that cannot be made into a coherent theory. Indeed, with most variations of theistic hypotheses, very little poking is needed to find the human-borne, psychologically powerful impetus for the theistic thinking.

    That’s a polite way of saying that most theistic postulates that provide any truth claims tend to collapse under any scrutiny. The only ones that don’t are the ones without very much application in the real world: for example, the abstract Deistic, non-interventionist God who was favored by the founders of the United States.

    I’m kind of dancing around the issue here, but here is my main objection: most theisms are not coherent. They do not provide a whole, coherent theory of the universe whose truth value could even be considered worthy of, um, consideration. Indeed, a careful reading of the history of theology sees various theological theories changing their colors left and right. Was Mary a virgin or not? Did she have sin or not? Did the immaculate conception happen or not? The very human participation in the task of addressing these questions makes it clear that any resulting theory is human in nature, not divine.

    I have yet to encounter a consistent, coherent theology that would begin to approach the complexity and beauty of, say, modern mathematics. So, before anybody wants my answer to the question of “do you believe in God or not?” I would insist on a clarification to the effect of “what exactly is that question supposed to mean?” Because I have no idea.

  18. Christian says:

    I must say that JK Jones has a long way to go to prove that the existence of logic proves the existence of the Christian god. I will concede the point that order in logic can be used to somewhat support the idea of a deity. However, proving that the deity is the god of the bible is a much longer road. One first has to get past the issues that all of the books in the canon of the bible were written by men who supposedly divinely inspired. And then prove that the current canon of the bible is actually the correct one. Remember that during the early days of christianity, the ebionites, marcionites, and the gnostics (along with other groups besides the proto-orthodox) were all competing to produce books that would shape what is today known as christianity. The proto-orthodox won that fight, but to ignore the others would be to ignore the fact that what is proto-orthodox version of christianity was not the clear cut winner in the first two or so centuries C.E.

  19. J. K. Jones says:

    Whispers,

    The whole point of my argument is that the laws of logic are abstractions. They are not like the laws of physics in that the laws of logic exist in our minds. The thing of it is, if we deny them, we deny all possibility of rational thought and conversation.

    An atheist universe does not even account for the possibility of logical conversation. Mine does.

    Universal laws like the laws of logic require something unchanging to ground them. Time and chance and convention won’t do. Those things do not change.

    Why did you decide I was not worth replying to?

    Christian,

    The development of the canon did not happen as you are describing it. I can give you links if you want.

  20. JKJ: “Universal laws like the laws of logic require something unchanging to ground them.”

    Why?

    You keep repeating this claim, but so far all I hear is an attempt to define god into existence: “god is what makes logic work”.

  21. Whispers says:

    JK Jones: you are trying to assert your theology as the default position, but nobody else is understanding why it should have such a privileged position. And we seem to all be baffled at the attempt at drawing a logical inferece
    logical order => god exists

    I see no reason to think that’s true any more than I should be required to think that Atlas is holding up the Earth. From our perspective, the order of the universe simply is. Trying to infer any cause to the order of the universe is an activity that, by its very definition, goes beyond any understanding of the universe.

    I just don’t see the point.

  22. J. K. Jones says:

    elwedriddsche and Whispers,

    Most people want an explanation for what they find in the universe. In fact, most atheists demand that explanation. This site’s continued contention with the traditional arguments for God’s existence is an illustration.

    Whispers,

    “Trying to infer any cause to the order of the universe is an activity that, by its very definition, goes beyond any understanding of the universe.”

    It does go beyond your understanding of the universe. It requires something you cannot provide in your view.
    Unless you are satisfied that whatever is, “simply is.” I am more curious than that.

    My best statement of the overall argument to date, with links, is at http://jkjonesthinks.blogspot.com/2007/06/logic-and-god-3.html

    The argument is straightforward. If B is required for A to exist, and A exists, then B must exist.

    God exists => logic exists

    God establishes logic because that is the way He thinks and that is the way he set up His universe. His being and thinking do not change.

    The laws of logic do not change. They are consistent from one person to the next, from one situation to the next, and over time. Randomness, convention, and observation of a changing world cannot account for an unchanging standard. Only an unchanging being can. Other religions postulate gods who change their standards.

    I am repeating myself. I cannot see how this is anything but annoying to you all. You have my best statement and my prayers. I will only respond to very specific questions from now on on this site.

  23. Candice says:

    I have a growing folder full of bookmarks that I refer people to whenever their response to my statement that “I am an atheist” consists of “so you believe there is no god?” or “no, you’re not.” I just added this post to it. It’s so tedious having to argue this same point time and time again that even if the conversation is in person, all I can say is “I’m not going to discuss this now — I’ll e-mail my pre-written explanation of why you’re wrong, along with references, when I get home.”

    A lot of the people that I get into this with call themselves agnostic — but sometimes, not after we’re through (and not because they’ve been convinced to accept Jesus Christ as their personal saviour). I hope your article results in a few more people to gaining some self-awareness.

    As for J. K. Jones… Discussing ANYTHING with someone who is effectively saying “in order to even be able to debate this topic, you must first concede that I am right” definitely strikes me as a big waste of time, since they’ve rejected all arguments against their position in advance. But the best part is where Jones seems to be saying “if you have problems with my argument, it must be because you don’t understand it — here is a wordier explanation.” Oh, no. I got it. It’s just that step 2 has not been adequately covered:

    1. If B is required for A to exist, and A exists, then B must exist.

    2. Proof that B (God) is in fact required for A (logic) to exist goes here.

    3. God exists => logic exists.

    The proof also require an expanded definition of God in step 2, because like Whispers, I have no idea who we’re talking about here. I read the link posted above, and if we’re talking about the same Christian God whose purported works I’ve read in the past, I need more proof of his immutability. I always thought he seemed rather fickle, myself. Without those definitions and proofs, the argument fails rather spectacularly.

    Not that I’ll be checking back. Though I must say, it’s kind of funny to see someone arguing that logic proves God’s existence when they don’t appear to have a grasp on logic in the first place. Tip: knocking down straw men cannot and does not in itself support any claim whatsoever! And an argument in the form of “the possibility of the existence of this argument proves the correctness of this argument, and the correctness of this argument provides for the possibility of the existence of this argument” is just baffling.

  24. After perusing the wordier explanation, I’m still short of a valid, much less a sound, argument for step 2.

  25. eye-of-horus says:

    The almighty lords of dualism: Ahura Mazda, Yahweh, God, and Allah are ethical equivalents of comic book super-villains. Jokers all.

    “Jesus lives” is the informational equivalent of “Batman lives.”

    And this pulp fiction enjoys fanatical cult followings.

    eye-of-horus
    copyright asserted 2007

  26. socrates.daemon says:

    there is a very serious logical error i have been seeing frequently on athiest sites, including this one.

    “Most Christians — and this clearly includes Ray Comfort — will talk at length of how they find atheism unimaginable. They, however, know exactly what it feels like to be an atheist.”

    this could not be more wrong. disbelief in, say, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is in the athiest the result of inductive reasoning, and in a christian, the immediate consequence of an axiom.

  27. The fact that you take the Christian God’s existence to be axiomatic – to the exclusion of all other gods – is sufficient for this point.

    The fact that you believe that your theism is not derivable from any subordinate premises is not only scary but insulting. Why did your God give me the insight into His existence that you so axiomatically rely on?

  28. Curtis says:

    An interesting piece.

    If the definition of agnosticism is taken as the belief that the existence of God is unknowable, then I could not be said to subscribe to that belief. I am severely uncomfortable pronouncing what is and is not knowable for all time.

    If the definition of atheism is taken as the absolute, unyielding disbelief in the existence of God, then I could not be said to subscribe to that belief, either.

    The most concise way I could express my feeling on the matter would be this: that it is absurd, arrogant, and infantile for any member of mankind to feel that he or she can empirically, definitively know anything about the depths of ontology and cosmology given the current information available. I’ve been referring to that as agnosticism. What would you call it?

  29. J says:

    Do you know that you exist?

    Is it because you can provide a rational argument?

    I don’t think so. Perhaps you can in fact provide a rational argument, but that’s not why you know that you exist. You know that you exist because you know that you exist. Your knowing is not a matter of providing justified premises that form a valid argument, the conclusion of which is that you exist.

    Is it fair to say that whatever your knowing is, it’s much deeper than a rational process? I think so.

    Atheists and Christians alike love proving things. You’re not so different. At least if you ask me. The Christian usually does so by pointing to the Bible, and calling it an objective standard. The atheist usually usually does so by pointing to empirical evidence, and calling it an objective standard.

    Is it possible to reason from the bible without interpreting it? Is it possible to reason from empirical evidence without interpreting it? I don’t think so.

    “Interpreting” is a funny word. What does it really mean? I think intepreting is what you do when you try to answer that question. What does it really mean?

    To me intepreting means that you have a particular perspective, that it’s impossible to separate yourself from it, and that no two beings share the exact same perspective.

    No doubt “interpreting” means something a little different to you.

    I know a vast and creative source of love is, but I hate to put words to it, especially the word “God”. There’s no more poetry in that word, if there ever was any.

    If I may confess something, these days I hesitate to put words to anything. Right now I’m even thinking about deleting everything I’ve written. I do that a lot lately. I probably won’t check to see any of the respones, if there are any. I’m joyous in my knowing. And I’m content to let everyone else revel in their knowing.

  30. J says:

    I am reminded of a richer example that perhaps illustrates my perspective a bit better.

    There’s a british man born to perhaps at most a handful of people in the world, in that he has abilities associated with severe autism, and yet he’s fully functional, and brilliantly eloquent and social. If anyone is interested, perhaps I can dig up his name and the book he wrote, but it’s been some time since I first learned of him.

    If you were ask him what 31232 times 5673 is, he can answer you instantly and without fail provide the correct answer. He tells people that he sees numbers in a swirl of colors. Many are very pleasant to look at. Pi, for example, he says is exquiste and heartbreakingly beautiful. Although some of them, like 289, are quite ugly, and he loathes to think about them.

    Once, in a room with three people reading from a very long printout, he closed his eyes and imagined pi, seeing it in color, and described it digit by digit to something like 22,000 places. It took six or seven hours, and all three persons reading from the printout of a computer calculation agreed he didn’t mistake a single digit.

    Philosophers love to point to mathematics as an example of objective knowing.

    Like many, I’m comfortable saying that I know that 2+2 = 4. I might even say that I know that 31232 times 5673 is 177179136. I can plug the numbers into the appropriate equation and crank out an answer according to the rules of multiplication.

    But I submit to you that I, and probably many people like me, would not be comfortable in saying that I know the answer in the same way that this british fellow knows the answer, that his knowing seems deeper.

    Whatever his knowing is, it’s not a matter of plugging in the appropriate numbers crank out an answer according to the rules of the equation. It’s not a matter of plugging in justified premises into a valid argument and cranking out an answer according to the rules of logic.

    The points I would like to draw out are this:

    1)His knowing seems very much to be a subjective process. He says for example, that when asked to multiply two large numbers, a picture of colors comes to mind, and he then translates that picture into a number, which just always turns out to be the correct answer.

    2)His knowing seems somehow deeper than what we do when we prove things. Like the way Beethoven knew music. Even when answering the same question, what’s 31232 times 5673, it doesn’t seem fair to say we know the answer in the same sense that he does.

    My overall point is that knowing in the deepest sense is something different than proving and a very subjective experience. And that if someone really knows “God” for example, in that deeper sense, it’s also something different than proving and a very subjective experience.

  31. Debbie says:

    A lot of people who call themselves Agnostic are in fact Atheists. God believers are severly judgmental. Say you are Athiests and they look at you like you are the devil himself. This is not good in the work environment or for your neighbors. Christians dont try to convert you or try to save your soul if they are content in believing, you believe in something.

    Some Agnostics use that name also because although they are primarily an Atheist, they cannot explain little things that happen to them like a mother who suddenly feels her child needs her and goes in the backyard and the child knocked itself out. These intuitions or gut feelings dont fit into the scientific arena that can proven or disproven as facts. These people are truely still exploring their beliefs.

    Calling oneself Agnostic is a cop out, but it is safe. Im glad the word exsists. I call myself Atheists only when I know someone else is one. I believe your age has a lot to do with how you handle these labels. Older generations remember when they had to pretend to believe in god or risk social isolation.

    I also think its odd how angry god believers get when they hear the word Atheist. I dont recall any Atheist getting so worked up when they hear the Christian word.

    I remember a married man I worked with a long time ago who had a strong feminine way about him. Every day he bashed gays. One day I told him to stop because he was obnoxious and we would all think he was gay if he didnt. To my astonishment he hung his head down and asked “Is it that obvious?”

    He was just afraid. Agnostic people are just afraid. Christian people are petrified!

  32. geeza says:

    A certain sequence of events over the past few days led me to search the internet for the phrase “In the beginning was the Word” and in my search I stumbled on to your site. Of course, your page has got little or nothing to do with what I was looking for but I found it most interesting. I was fascinated by the fact that about a fortnight ago I took the unusual step of writing to someone about God and in that message I expressed views similar to yours — views I have never heard anyone else express.

    While I generally agree with the your arguments and was consciously appreciative of you clarity of thought and expression, I felt you missed the point. You talked about the atheist and the agnostic and you took great care in defining those words. But both words relate to God and have no meaning outside of that relationship. Yet, you did not define God — the real centre of the whole discussion. One can talk about God without a thought or mention of the atheist or the agnostic but you can’t talk about either without the concept of God. To me, therefore, the discussion has no real meaning until the word “God” is defined.

    I enclose below a copy of that message I sent to a myspace friend a short while ago. Perhaps after reading it you might be able to tell me if I am a theist, agnostic or atheist.

    ____________________________________________________

    I don’t like to write. It takes too long. Still I do it when I feel it necessary and something just told me to write to you about God. This is my view.

    I don’t know and would never claim to know any more about the unknown than any other person. Nor do I think that any other person knows any more about the unknown than I do. The unknown is unknown to all. That is what it is. Unknown.

    Even if some individual in the past, present or future should have visions or whatever, he can only believe it came from God. He might be right, but he can’t know that for a fact, and he certainly can’t prove it to me. We are told that mad people see things, and so perhaps those who get messages from God are just people who have a similar kind of experience. I don’t know. Nor does the ‘prophet’ or the madman. No one can justify his or her claim to know the unknown. You will just have to believe him if you want to or if you feel you should.

    When occasionally I find myself in a conversation about God, people are surprised to hear me say that I don’t believe in God. But they are even more surprised when I explain. When you believe something it means you are not sure, but when you know you know. There is literally a world of difference between believing and knowing. I therefore say that I don’t believe in God; I KNOW God. What?!? Yes, I know God. Let me explain.

    When I meditate on the subject I do not start with anything that I have been told by anyone. I start from within with the intelligence that Life has given to man as a gift that is too wonderful to speak of. And using this gift, I ask myself: how did Life begin?

    To try and answer that question I have to try to go back to the beginning; to a time when there was nothing. Now scientists tell us about a big bang. Well, I don’t know if that is true or false. I am not a scientist on that level. But what I do know is that, even if it is true, it is irrelevant to the question. If there was a big bang then that means there already existed something that could cause a bang and the concept and principles of bangingness were already in place. To go to the beginning we have to go to a point where there was nothing. Total and Absolute Nothingness. **No Thing– At All**. Not even a vacuum… Zilch. Now, how are we going to move from such total and absolute No-Thing-Ness to something? That is just simply impossible for any part of my being to come to grips with. I find Madness standing there laughing in my face… So I leave that thought alone and try an alternative.

    What if there was no beginning and there always was something? That’s better. We can now bang away at leisure. Great!!! But, hold on a minute. How can something not have a beginning? What am I talking about here? Something that always existed with no starting point; that didn’t come from anything or anywhere at any time? … No; I can’t see how that could be either. Here comes Madness again and I am truly stuck. If I turn left I run into the unknowable and if I try to escape right it is still there in front of me, smiling at my childlike incomprehension. I am therefore left with no option but to resign myself to the fact that this is simply beyond human understanding. So here I am in this world that cannot possibly be, sitting at a computer writing a message to you that I will send through cyberspace. What word does man know that can adequately describe all this? And to top it all, it is just as difficult to try to imagine there being no universe as it is to understand how come there is one.

    So, knowing that the Unknowable exists, I define that as God. I therefore know that, by my definition, God exists because that which is unknowable to man exists. There must, of course, be some explanation but that explanation cannot be found in the realm that we inhabit. I therefore don’t think about it any further. For me, any further thought on the subject of God is pointless. I know that I will never understand this while I am on earth. Later maybe; or maybe not. But while I am here, I see God every where I look and in everything that is, and God leaves me speechless and spellbound– I feel it is beyond my place to make any further statements about God. I pay little attention to those who claim to speak for God and I empathize with the masses who are God-fearing enough to listen to them.

    I don’t know what you will make of all that I just said but I have nothing further to say about God. I will talk about the world that I know and that includes talking about Jesus. But I can say nothing more about God. Amen.

    Peace and Joy

    Geeza

  33. Geeza, you’re obviously a theist, and from the sound of it a Christian. And your argument isn’t very good. Just because you can’t imagine something doesn’t make it impossible.

  34. geeza says:

    Hi ordinary girl

    I am not saying that because I can’t imagine something that makes it impossible. In fact, I am saying quite the opposite. God is not just possible but is the only real possibility that exists. However, what I am saying is that I cannot and will never be able to understand beyond that and so I don’t engage in trying.

    Moreover, I would also say that those who claim to understand are fooling themselves and others. It is small wonder that so many people are really atheist/agnostics. These people are turned away from the thought of God by the amount and the kind of nonsense being put about by people who claim to believe in God.

    God is real and is the only reality. Religions aren’t real and they turn people away from recognizing God.

    You say that from the sound of it I am a Christian. Well, I am not going to argue about that but I don’t know what led you to that conclusion.

  35. Geeza, I don’t want to get into a back and forth argument with you because this isn’t my blog and it’s not my post. Besides, it’s fruitless exercise. I’m not going to change your mind and you won’t change mine.

    I classified you as a Christian because you mentioned that you talk about Jesus. Perhaps that is a reach purely from the way the sentence is phrased, but my interpretation is due to the last paragraph is that you believe in Jesus. Whether or not you believe in the religious organization of the church, that still makes you more of a Christian than a pure theist in my opinion.

    Defining “God” as “the unknowable” is simply moving a fencepost. You want to have a belief in a higher power, a caring super-being, but yet you want to argue that your belief is in “the unknowable,” claiming that everyone must accept that there are things that aren’t known. Why not just call it “the unknowable” instead of God?

    I’m sorry if I’m misunderstanding, but the way you speak and the terms you use would lead a lot of people to assume the same.

  36. Chad says:

    Hmmmm….this discussion seems to have drifted a little off-topic……

    Geeza,

    I’m going to have to agree with ordinary girl on this one. Mentioning that you talk about Jesus leads directly to the conclusion that you are Christian. I wouldn’t have thought of you as a Christian if you had not mentioned Jesus specifically. If you want to refer to “the unknowable” as God in some pantheistic/deistic sort of way, that is one thing. However, the transition from this idea to Jesus seems like a huge non sequitur to me. Maybe you are leaving out the details of your thought process in this case, but I really see no way to make this transition.

    Also, as an academic and educator, I take issue when you say:

    “I am therefore left with no option but to resign myself to the fact that this is simply beyond human understanding” and

    “There must, of course, be some explanation but that explanation cannot be found in the realm that we inhabit. I therefore don’t think about it any further.”

    While I would agree that, given the nature of the universe and our place within it, there are potentially things that we may not be able to completely understand, but I would never want to resign myself to that fact. To not think about such things any further goes against the very idea of scientific inquiry. There are many things which mankind has previously thought of as unknowable that we now understand in great detail. As examples, one can look to simple things like the changing of the seasons and phenomena like lightning or at more complex things like cosmology and the nature of the solar system. It is the desire to explain that which we currently do not understand that drives scientific and technological progress.

  37. geeza says:

    Greetings Chad

    I am in total agreement with you when you say that it is the desire to explain that which we currently do not understand that drives scientific and technological progress. That seems to be the nature of Man. So it is and so it should be.

    But scientific reasoning tells me that there is at least one thing that is beyond scientific reason. It seems that Man in his conceit wants to ignore that one thing. Basically, getting something out of total and absolute nothingness is outside the realm of science. It is non-scientific and defies all the principles of science. Just as Love and Ambition are outside the scope of Geometry so too Science cannot be applied to Nothing.

    So while people in the the past might have considered the principles of lightning unknowable, such people were just being closed-minded. Lightning obeys natural scientific laws and so the phenomenon was eventually explained in those terms. But I think it is being equally closed-minded to fail to recognize (or even to consider) the idea that getting something from nothing crosses the boundaries of science itself and moves into a realm unkowable to science where science has no place.

    I think I am being as scientific as anyone can be in saying that there is something unknowable to science. Perhaps one day scientists will recognize that as being a law of science.

    I will add that I think that it is Man’s reluctance to acknowledge that he and science are not the ultimate – the beginning and the end – it is this reluctance that leads and allows him to do so some of the crazy things he does.

    Regarding me being a Christian. I did say to ordinary girl that I wouldn’t argue about that, but I remain puzzled as to why she and now you conclude that I am. I told my myspace friend (who declares herself to be a Christian) that I am prepared to talk with her about Jesus. Does that make me a Christian? I am prepared to talk about almost anything – including Hitler and the Nazis. Does that make me a Nazi?

    I don’t know of any Christian who is reluctant to acknowledge that he/she is a Christian. Still, I suppose not knowing the context of the relationship between my friend and I, that misled you both into assuming things that are not necessarily true. This, of course, is not particularly important. I just thought I would clarify.

  38. geeza says:

    Hi ordinary girl

    I was sorry to hear that you feel you want to end our dialogue. I feel sure that the blog’s owner doesn’t mind the fact that his initial blog has stimulated such interchange. In fact, I imagine he would welcome and encourage it. I could, of course, be wrong.

    I was also disappointed to hear you say that you can’t change my mind and I can’t yours. I can understand you thinking that you can’t change my mind even though I never said so, but why are you saying that I can’t change yours?

    I think I should tell you that if you or anyone can awaken me to something I haven’t yet seen I would be overjoyed. In the meantime, I see what I see.

    I feel a little reluctant to say this but you seem to be making a habit of imagining things about me. For example, you said that I “want to have a belief in a higher power, a caring super-being” etc. But I never said anything about a caring super-being or, for that matter, any kind of being. In fact, I tried to make clear that I cannot and will not say anything about God except that God is. I would not even say that God is a being let alone a “caring super-being”. So where did you get this notion from?

    Sometimes we see what we want to see rather than what is there to be seen.

    You say that defining “God” as “the unknowable” is simply moving a fencepost. You are probably right. But I see it as simply coming to a conscious realization that the fencepost exists. I offered this definition of God because the original author of the blog did not offer a definition and I feel that a definition is needed if we are to have a meaningful discussion about atheism and agnosticism. But this is just MY definition. If you have a better or alternative definition of God other than the Unkowable, I would love to hear it.

  39. Chad says:

    Geeza,

    Ahhhh…… So, the Jesus comment was in reference to someone else’s belief. I had taken it out of context then…… Thanks for clearing that up. If I had to label you as something, I would probably go the way of deist or pantheist I guess.

    I think we are basically in agreement with regards to the idea that, with respect to the question as to why there is something rather than nothing, there are most likely some things that Man will never know for sure. Also, I certainly agree that some people display a “reluctance to acknowledge that he and science are not the ultimate.” However, I feel that most scientists, myself included, always have a considerable respect for the unknown and have a very good appreciation for that which they do not know. Such is the nature of the scientific method and research.

    I may have overestimated the resignation you mentioned (I’ve been thinking a lot about the suppression of science and intellectualism by religion lately.). However, when you state that you “cannot and will never be able to understand beyond that” and so you “don’t engage in trying,” I cringe a little. While I can understand and even respect a view like this with regards to the origins of the universe, the scientist in me would never consider not engaging in trying.

    Apart from that, I think we are in basic agreement on this matter, although we may have different ideas about where to place the “fencepost” of unknowability (hmmmm….. that’s probably not a word). I prefer a multiverse viewpoint in which our universe is a 4D space-time membrane within a higher-dimensional multiverse (I don’t want to get into details, but it all relates to string theory). So, I guess my fencepost is pushed back to the origin of the multiverse. Of course, there is a point at which such theoretical explanations go beyond the possibility of experimental verification and start bleeding into the realm of philosophy as opposed to science. But that shouldn’t prevent one from pondering such matters and trying to formulate their views regarding the origin of the universe.

    Getting back to the reason you originally commented…… the definition of God. I agree that the definition that someone uses has a significant impact on their “agnostic” or “atheist” label. As I mentioned in one of my earlier comments, with respect to any God described by man-made religions, (Yahweh, Thor, Zeus) I am a very strong atheist. But I am a weak atheist with respect to a deistic viewpoint.

    While I understand where you are coming from, your definition of God doesn’t quite sit right with me. I take the same issue with the pantheistic way in which many scientists (ie: Einstein and Hawking) have used the word God. While this may just be arguing semantics, the word God (capital G) is a loaded word with all sorts of baggage. Personally, I find that using the word in any context other than the monotheistic Abrahamic case causes a great deal of confusion. I still don’t see why you would need another label for “the unknowable” apart from word itself. Is there any particular motivation for why you do this? I apologize if you explained it earlier and I didn’t catch it. It appears to me that we have a similar viewpoint on much of this (correct me if I’m wrong). I think the choice of using the label “God” as you do is our main difference.

    There I go being long-winded again…… I’ll just leave it at that for now.

  40. Geeza, Under that context you have been misinterpreted. But why don’t you tell us what you classify yourself as?

    Chad said what I was trying to say much better than I did. The only thing I could add is that scientists and skeptics don’t profess to have all of the answers. They say they don’t know. I don’t like calling it “the unknowable.” That’s like saying it’ll never be known. But things we don’t know right now are likely to be understood by future generations. It’s possible we’ll never know some things, but it’s also part of who we are as human to keep trying to understand and know the world around us.

    What I disagree with is assigning some anthropomorphic or even general idea to that which is unknown. I’m not talking about speculation. I’m talking about claiming to know what it is without any evidence. I’m talking about the God of the Gaps. If we can’t automatically explain it then goddidit and that’ the only explanation we need.

    It doesn’t bother me when a scientist says he/she doesn’t know what was before the Big Bang. That’s honesty. But to say the Big Bang didn’t occur because what happened before can’t be explained or known isn’t. Unless all of the data that points to the Big Bang can be refuted it’s like putting a set of blinders on and ignoring what we do know.

  41. geeza says:

    Greetings ordinary girl

    I started my message to my myspace friend by saying that I don’t like to write. It takes too long. But I write when I feel I should. The discussions between us three have kept me writing and I am thankful for that.

    There are a number of things said by both you and Chad that I would like to add to or comment on but I think I will leave almost all of that for another day. For now, I want to answer a specific question you raised. It is a question that I imagined might eventually arise but one that I wasn’t particularly looking forward to answering. You asked “why don’t you tell us what you classify yourself as?”

    I will now tell you why I haven’t told you up till now, and then I will tell you how I would classify myself.

    Chad pointed out in his last message that “the word God (capital G) is a loaded word with all sorts of baggage”. I fully agree. And that is why I chose to define God as just being God and leaving God baggageless. But once the word God is uttered people bring their own baggage and turn this baggage into God. I suppose I was hoping that by stripping God down to “the Reason there is Life”, we could come to a definition that could be universally accepted. I was hoping that whatever religion one might follow or whether one is atheist or agnostic we can all agree that there is a Reason there is Life and, for the sake of common understanding, we will call that reason God. Each can add his/her own attributes to God if he/she so wishes but the fundamental remains the same for all. Namely, the Reason there is Life instead of eternal Nothingness. Forgive me for apparently straying a little from the question at hand but there is a reason for me wandering.

    I mentioned the baggage attach to God because, although Jesus is not as impenetrable as God, similar baggage is attached to the word “Christian”. I therefore would not want to say I am a Christian without knowing what the word means to the person I am communicating with.

    So, if you think a Christian is someone who believes in an immaculate conception and who thinks that Jesus arose from the dead and will one day come in the clouds, then no, I am not a Christian. I am not saying that any or all of this isn’t true. I am just saying that I don’t KNOW any of this to be true; nor do I have sufficient good reason(s) to accept it as being true; and I don’t engage in blind belief. Still it could all be true. But if knowing, accepting, or believing it to be true is what makes you a Christian then I am not one.

    If following the teachings of Jesus is what makes you a Christian then, again, I am not one. I don’t follow anyone and I don’t want anyone to follow me. I don’t want to be misled nor do I want to be responsible for misleading.

    But there is one possible meaning of the word Christian that I could accept as being applicable to me.

    I have read the sparse account of the life of Jesus that is found in the Bible. I don’t think many people stop to realize how sparse the account actually is. Of the sixty-odd books in the Bible only the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give an account of the Life of Jesus. Moreover, these four books largely repeat the same stories with only a few additions in each, and so those four could easily be condensed into one book that would not be much bigger than any one of the individual books. For a religion that is based around a particular character, the lack of substantial information is alarming.

    But I have read other books about Jesus. These include books that give historical accounts and others that claim to be in some way inspired. What I have found consistently is that the character portrayed by each book is one that I can identify with. For example, the book The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ goes into great detail about the life of Jesus and shows, among other things, that he travelled extensively and had discussions with learned men in Asia and Africa. One account of his time in India is as follows:

    “AMONG the Buddhist priests was one who saw a lofty wisdom in the words that Jesus spoke. It was Barata Arabo.
    2) Together Jesus and Barata read the Jewish Psalms and Prophets; read the Vedas, the Avesta and the wisdom of Gautama.
    3) And as they read and talked about the possibilities of man, Barata said,
    4) Man is the marvel of the universe. He is part of everything for he has been a living thing on every plane of life.
    5) Time was when man was not; and he was a bit of formless substance in the moulds of time; and then a protoplast.
    6) By universal law all things tend upward to a state of perfectness. The protoplast evolved, becoming worm, then reptile, bird and beast, and then at last it reached the form of man.
    7) Now, man himself is mind, and mind is here to gain perfection by experience; and mind is often manifest in fleshy form, and in the form best suited to its growth. So mind may manifest as worm, or bird, or beast, or man.
    8) The time will come when everything of life will be evolved unto the state of perfect man.
    9) And after man is man in perfectness, he will evolve to higher forms of life.
    10) And Jesus said,
    Barata Arabo, who taught you this, that mind, which is the man, may manifest in flesh of beast, or bird, or creeping thing?
    11) Barata said,
    From times which man remembers not our priests have told us so, and so we know.
    12) And Jesus said,
    Enlightened Arabo, are you a master mind and do not know that man knows naught by being told?
    13) Man may believe what others say; but thus he never knows. If man would know, he must himself be what he knows.
    14) Do you remember, Arabo, when you were ape, or bird, or worm?
    15) Now, if you have no better proving of your plea than that the priests have told you so, you do not know; you simply guess.”

    I think I would have said more or less the same thing. And that was just an example. As I said before, in reading the various sources I find that Jesus’ view of the world and my view of the world are very similar.

    So, if being a Christian means thinking along the same lines as Jesus, then I can accept being called a Christian. But while I could accept that, it is not what I would call myself. I would say that I am another soul lost in time and space like (perhaps) every other soul that has ever inhabited the earth. But that’s too long a description. So to simplify, I would say that I am you — ordinary boy.

  42. geeza says:

    Greetings Chad

    As I said in my response to ordinary girl that there are a number of points raised by you both that I would like to address. But again here I will address only one.

    You ask why I would need another label for “the unknowable” apart from the word itself. I think part of my response to ordinary girl might answer that question but I will now try to pin it down firmly.

    I think the way I introduced the subject in the first instance might have led you both to look at the matter with the wrong focus. I am not seeking to define the unknowable as God. Rather, I am seeking to define God as the Unknowable. For the purpose of a discussion on a God-related issue we need a definition of God that we can agree on. So this was about defining God and not about redefining the Unknowable. I set out to try to show that the Unknowable is a fact and therefore God is a fact. Unfortunately, it now seems that the flow of the reasoning has led to a focus on the unknowability aspect rather than the suggestion that God is that which is Unknowable to Man.

  43. Chad says:

    Geeza,

    You are indeed correct in thinking that I interpreted your goal as defining the unknowable as God. Switching that around certainly changes the nature of the discussion.

    If I am following your motivation correctly, you want to find a common definition of God on which to base further discussion of belief between persons with different religious views. With this in mind, since most (if not all) monotheistic definitions describe God as being (at least in part) unknowable by Man, this aspect of God is a candidate for a “common” definition or a compromise (for lack of a better word). Feel free to correct me if this is not the case.

    If this is indeed what you are saying, here are my thoughts. I will be using the Christian God as an example when necessary, but what I am saying applies to any particular definition of God. By taking one feature of God and using it as your definition, you essentially “water-down” God and remove a lot of the reasons why people believe in God in the first place. If you remove the “omniscient being who intercedes in the physical world and personally takes an interest in the affairs of mankind” from the definition, God loses much of his power. I would be willing to bet that no fundamentalist or remotely devout follower would be willing to accept such a definition of God. This can be seen with Young Earth Creationists who take offense when moderate Christians say that God may have used the Big Bang, stellar evolution and the like to create the universe for us humans. If you keep removing features of God from the definition you essentially reach a point where, for all practical purposes, believing in God doesn’t really matter. At this point, many debates about belief really become moot.

    So, while I agree that the specific definition of God affects whether one would refer to oneself as an atheist, agnostic, theist etc, I don’t really see a need for a common definition. In any one discussion, the parties involved must agree on the particular definition of God being addressed. However, to try and reach a common definition for all discussions seems counterproductive to me. I would think that most non-believers are willing to vary the nature of their atheism (ie: strong vs. weak) with the definition of God being discussed.

    With regards to the original post lacking a clear definition of God, I think that the aim was to keep the discussion general. The goal was to remove any specific religious views from the debate in order to focus on the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. So, I guess what I am trying to say is that the definition of God is important when defining one’s belief, however it is not necessary when defining the distinction between atheism and agnosticism.

  44. Chad says:

    Geeza (and others),

    With regard to the relationship between God, science and “the unknowable,” I just watched a video that you may find interesting. I don’t intend to discuss the video here, I just thought it was at least partially related to some of the comments made here. Neil deGrasse Tyson does an excellent job of summarizing my thoughts on the “God of the Gaps” debate. This basically discusses the invocation of God by those in history who have reached the apparent end of their knowledge….. Also, I look for any opportunity to introduce people to Dr. Tyson, since I really like his presentation style and passion for science.

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-102519600994873365

  45. geeza says:

    I want to start this post by expressing the Love and respect I feel for ordinary girl. This was born out of the fact that I submitted a post earlier that raised a very pointed question about her attitude to our dialogue, and that showed very clearly (I think) that her thinking is somewhat prejudiced. However, she did not seem to take umbrage at my question and observations nor did she end the dialogue at that point, as I imagine a great many people might have done. The fact that she responded plus the tone of that response suggest to me that here we have someone with the kind of humility that, sadly, is far too uncommon. I would love to see more ordinary girls and boys.

    I mention this because I am now going to refer again to the dialogue between her and me in order to underline a general point.

    It would seem that ordinary girl had, and continues to have, a problem relating to what I say, simply because I cannot be clearly classified. It seems she needs to put me in a box and then argue with the box rather than with me. So first, she puts me in a box with Christians and that means that I believe in a “caring super-being” even though I had said nothing to indicate that. She also said that she won’t ever be able to change my mind, presumably because that is what we have come to expect from people in that box. Then when I pointed out I don’t belong in that box it seems I was then lumped with those who say that the big bang never happened. But again, I never said or even suggested that.

    What I said in fact about the big bang was: “I don’t know if that is true or false. I am not a scientist on that level. But what I do know is that, even if it is true, it is irrelevant to the question.” Clearly, that is a statement from someone who is quite ready to accept that the big bang did take place. But apparently that is not what ordinary girl saw. She therefore said:

    “It doesn’t bother me when a scientist says he/she doesn’t know what was before the Big Bang. That’s honesty. But to say the Big Bang didn’t occur because what happened before can’t be explained or known isn’t. Unless all of the data that points to the Big Bang can be refuted it’s like putting a set of blinders on and ignoring what we do know.”

    Again I have to ask, where did she get the notion that I think the big bang didn’t happen? I can only assume that that is the view of those in the box that I have newly been assigned to. But interestingly, ordinary girl made a clear reference to the difficulty she is having in dealing with me when, at the start of her post she asked “why don’t you tell us what you classify yourself as?” That it seems, would somehow help.

    I took the trouble to recount all this because I realize that I have an uphill task in trying to get either of you to see what I am saying even though I think it is reasonably clear. Even though you are probably better educated academically than ordinary girl and me, and even though you seem more open to dialogue than she seems to be, nevertheless you appear to be afflicted with the same problem she faces. Namely, you think of me as having a certain mindset that you are already familiar with and that prejudiced viewpoint gets in the way and clouds your thinking.

    You said in an earlier post that “I’ve been thinking a lot about the suppression of science and intellectualism by religion lately” and I suspect that you are seeing me in that context rather than opening your mind fully to the profound but simple scientific premise that underpins my argument.

    I watched the presentation made by Dr. Tyson and, like you, I am impressed by his presentation style and the depth and breadth of his knowledge of scientific matters. I learnt some interesting things from this video and I thank you for pointing me to it.

    Dr Tyson’s main argument was that great scientific minds such as Newton and others would happily fall back to the concept of God and intelligent design once they reached the limit of their knowledge. I imagine that, having a similar view to Dr Tyson, you think I am guilty of demonstrating the same flawed Newtonian outlook when I resign myself to never knowing. I can understand you wanting to cringe at the thought and I feel your discomfort. But I would like to suggest that when you stop thinking that my attitude is the same as Newton’s it will suddenly become clear to you that it isn’t.

    I think that Man has a natural duty to Life to forever seek to explore the unknown. He should not only want to explore what is currently unknown but even those things that he doesn’t yet know that he doesn’t know. So please don’t put me in that Newtonian bag. I don’t belong there either.

    What I am proposing as a SCIENTIFIC axiom is that there is a point that science, by its very nature, will never be able to reach. In saying that, I am not being a theist or anything else that wants to undermine the authority of science and submit to God. I am simply recognizing the fact that science deals with things — things of all types, forms and states, but things nonetheless. Science cannot deal with No Thing. There would be nothing to address, work with or from, or to be scientific about. Therefore, the idea of moving from a starting point of No Thing to a new position of Some Thing is outside the realm of science. That is a scientfic non-starter. Once we have started, fine. But scientific inquiry cannot address the starting point of Nothing.

    Of course, there is the alternative option of accepting that there has always been something. But even if that option is preferred, I would suggest that it is no more manageable by science than the idea of getting something from a starting point of Nothingness.

    I think I should also make clear that I am NOT SAYING THAT THESE MATTERS ARE UNKNOWABLE. Clearly one or both is/are real because Creation happened and is. Whichever option is real, that phenomenon is presumably knowable. However, what I AM saying is that that phenomenon is not knowable in the realm that we inhabit and certainly not knowable to science. In other words, there is another realm of existence where what is impossible in our world is common place; where the discipline and laws of science and intellect don’t and cannot apply. Perhaps this is where we go when we sleep and dream. While in this dream state we are never ever even mildly surprised at the impossible things we experience. But that is another thought.

    In summary then, I am putting forward an idea that must be looked at for what it is worth rather than through spectacles tinted by one’s preconceptions of where I am coming from. Only after fully understanding the point can one then offer objective and meaningful counter-arguments. I would be quite open to any such arguments but first we need to clear the mist.

    Dr Tyson is clearly puzzled by the existence of the 15% of scientists who haven’t discarded the idea of God. Perhaps these aren’t mad scientists after all, as he seems to want to suggest. Perhaps this 15% are those who are humble and honest enough to recognize the point I have been trying so desperately hard to make.

    I am saying that some things are physically impossible, that is, contrary to fundamental and irrefutable laws of physics. Nothing becoming something is one such impossibility and something that did not come from anything or anywhere at any time is another. Or do we allow for the view that anything is physically possible? Jesus walking on water, for example? Or Moses using a magic wand to part the sea? How physically possible are those reported events? Yet they seem like child’s play while on a stroll in the park compared to starting with No Thing that, out of the volition of its own Nothingness, decided to become something. When Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle by making wine at a wedding feast, he at least showed some regard for scientific principles by starting with something; namely water.

    We now seem to have strayed quite some way from the original issue. But this has been necessary. We first need to consider whether the point I am making here has any validity. If some merit can be found in the argument, we then need to consider whether my definition of God is appropriate in light of this. We might then want to look again at atheism and agnosticism.

  46. Chad says:

    Geeza,

    When I said “I’ve been thinking a lot about the suppression of science and intellectualism by religion lately” I was acknowledging the fact that I was seeing your argument in a context that wasn’t correct. There is indeed a difference between the view you propose about the limits of science and the attacks on science put forth by religious people. You are obviously not attacking science, instead you are trying to make a point about the nature of science and what potential limits it may have.

    The way I see it, there are three main aspects to this discussion. Based on the last paragraph of your last post, you appear to see it the same way. I think, for the most part, each of these questions can be considered independently from each other. For each question below, I have written what I think, based on your comments, your viewpoint is [bold text]. If there is anything that you feel I am misinterpreting, please let me know. I have also outlined my basic views on each question. From this point on, in order to avoid confusion, I think we should be sure to highlight which question we are referring to when making a point.

    (1) Does the explanatory power of the scientific method have a limit when addressing some of the fundamental questions about the nature of the universe? Is there in fact something unknowable to humankind due to our place in the universe?

    I think you are trying to say that there are, by the very nature of science, some questions to which it simply cannot provide answers. This is best seen by your statement that getting something from nothing is physically impossible, therefore if the universe came from nothing the origin of the universe is a question that science cannot address.

    In addition to this point, you also state that “there is another realm of existence where what is impossible in our world is common place; where the discipline and laws of science and intellect don’t and cannot apply.” Based on this, would I be correct in stating that you believe that there may be another, possibly supernatural, realm beyond our physical universe?

    On the first point I think we are basically in agreement. I too think there may indeed be questions to which science cannot provide answers. That being said, I think we have different views of where to draw the line on this matter. As I mentioned before, some theoretical frameworks start to get to a point where they are not falsifiable by real-world experimental observation. They can be investigated through mathematical formulations and thought-experiments that have their foundations in science, but ultimately I think they start to become fairly philosophical points. My view of this is that, while these theories may not be ultimately verifiable by science, they at least provide a framework firmly built upon a foundation of science within which one can ponder these “ultimate questions” about the universe.

    That being said, I think we have a more fundamental disagreement when it comes to your statement regarding “another realm of existence.” My view is that the “creation” and/or “existence” of our universe involve nothing that would be physically impossible. We may never be able to find the answer to what actually happened, but my purely naturalistic viewpoint would dictate that, whatever did happen was indeed physically possible (as evidenced by the existence of the universe). There is no evidence to support anything supernatural beyond the universe (or multiverse if that is the case) we live in. When I refer to questions that science cannot answer, I am referring to the fact that we may never be able to find the appropriate evidence to determine what actually happened. I am not referring to anything beyond our realm of existence.

    (2) Is a definition of God necessary when discussing the distinction between atheism and agnosticism? This is the question that originally prompted your first comment.

    Based on the fact that you made your first comment, you believe that the definition of God is needed to discuss the atheism/agnosticism distinction.

    My view on this is best addressed by repeating a couple paragraphs from the comment I made before the Tyson video posting:

    “while I agree that the specific definition of God affects whether one would refer to oneself as an atheist, agnostic, theist etc, I don’t really see a need for a common definition. In any one discussion, the parties involved must agree on the particular definition of God being addressed. However, to try and reach a common definition for all discussions seems counterproductive to me. I would think that most non-believers are willing to vary the nature of their atheism (ie: strong vs. weak) with the definition of God being discussed.

    “With regards to the original post lacking a clear definition of God, I think that the aim was to keep the discussion general. The goal was to remove any specific religious views from the debate in order to focus on the distinction between atheism and agnosticism. So, I guess what I am trying to say is that the definition of God is important when defining one’s belief, however it is not necessary when defining the distinction between atheism and agnosticism.”

    (3) If there is a need to define God, is the definition God as “the unknowable” a valid definition?

    Based on your comments, I believe you are saying that, given the limits of science seen in the first question, there is a place for God to be defined as “the unknowable.” If I am interpreting your motivation correctly, you fell that since most (if not all) monotheistic definitions describe God as being (at least in part) unknowable by Man, this aspect of God is a candidate for a “common” definition or a compromise (for lack of a better word). Feel free to correct me if this is not the case, because I think this may be the one point of yours that I am not quite following 100%. If there is anywhere within this discussion where I am potentially viewing your statements with “tinted spectacles” this would be it. So if I am putting words in your mouth, I apologize.

    General definitions of God, such as “the unknowable,” appear to me as stripped-down versions of other definitions of God that can be used as common ground between believers. As I mentioned before “If you keep removing features of God from the definition you essentially reach a point where, for all practical purposes, believing in God doesn’t really matter. At this point, many debates about belief really become moot.”

    I don’t know if this was your actual thought process or not. If not, please let me know what I have missed or misinterpreted. Either way, however, I do want to make a point about defining God as “the unknowable.” While the scientists that Tyson discusses inserted God when they couldn’t find an answer, I get the impression that you are inserting God in the place where we can never find an answer. In my opinion this is still a “God of the Gaps” philosophy–.. or possibly the “God of the Ultimate Gap” view. Suppose that tomorrow a physicist discovered the grand unifying theory that combines the theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity to explain everything that happened after the big bang and in doing so revealed some fundamental fact about why the universe exists that we previously thought was truly unknowable within the realm of science. Your definition of God would simply change to ask “but what about before the creation of the universe?”

    One more final point. I agree that your view of the first question is really not the same as the scientists that Tyson discusses. You are raising a valid point that there are potential limits to science. However, when you start discussing other realms and defining God in the way that you do, you are indeed falling into a “God of the Gaps” approach. When Tyson and others (such as myself) mention this approach, we are referring to using a supernatural explanation (another realm where the impossible is possible, God = “the unknowable) to explain some observation about our physical universe.

  47. geeza says:

    Chad

    We are talking about two things at the same time and I would prefer for us not to. I would like us to agree or agree to disagree on the first matter before trying to address the second.

    I now feel that the best way to proceed on this is for me to ask one single direct question at a time and for you to give a direct answer each time. Hopefully, we will eventually understand each other. So let us now focus. The first question is this.

    Do you think that it is physically possible to make 9/11 unhappen? That is, bring back the twin towers and all the people who were in it; restore the planes that crashed into the towers and send them
    on their way to their scheduled destinations as if nothing had happened. Is all this physically possible, or is not, or are you not sure?

  48. Chad says:

    If that’s how you want to proceed, we’ll give it a go. I’m going to try and be very direct with my answers.

    As for your first question, I’m not entirely sure where you’re going with it, but my answer is that it would be physically impossible to do what you described.

  49. geeza says:

    Chad

    This is an aside to the thread that I have started where I will ask one specific question each time and hope that that process will lead to full understanding. Any response or comments to this post should therefore be posted separately from the answers you might give to the specific questions in the other thread.

    Also, although I am going to ask a question here, this is obviously not part of the question and answer thread.

    Now, it has just occurred to me that my ignorance of the accepted meaning of one or two key words might be causing some confusion and mis-communication. What do you mean by the word “universe”?

  50. geeza says:

    Chad

    Further to my last post which was outside of the question-and-answer thread, I would like to make the following observations. (By the way, from now on I will refer to the question-and-answer thread as QAT).

    It seems to me that you agree with me totally but you don’t yet realize it. If that is the case then hopefully QAT or this post will bring that to light.

    I am keen to know the meaning you attach to the word “universe”. This is because I think the reason for you not realizing that we are in total agreement is the fact that the word has different meanings to you and me. As a result, my ultimate gap is not where you think it is. This dawned on me when you said:

    “Suppose that tomorrow a physicist discovered the grand unifying theory that combines the theories of quantum mechanics and general relativity to explain everything that happened after the big bang and in doing so revealed some fundamental fact about why the universe exists that we previously thought was truly unknowable within the realm of science. Your definition of God would simply change to ask “but what about before the creation of the universe?”

    Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems from the argument just quoted that your universe begins with the big bang and so, if this phenomenon were ever to be rationalized, that would require me to move my fencepost — my ultimate gap. But my universe does not begin with the big bang nor is my ultimate gap at that point. I thought I had made that clear when, in my very first post, I said regarding the big bang:

    “I don’t know if that is true or false. I am not a scientist on that level. But what I do know is that, even if it is true, it is irrelevant to the question”.

    To me, if the big bang did occur, it is a matter of historical significance and great scientific interest but nothing of earth-shattering importance. That is not where my ultimate gap lies.

    I skip over ALL conceivable gaps and those that cannot be conceived. I go back to the point where there is No Thing at all anywhere; not in your universe or in any other. Back to a point where there is no existence of any kind — known or yet to be discovered by Man. That is where my universe begins and where my ultimate gap rests. I maintain that science will never be able to explain how No Thing became something. And I say that, not because I want to create the ultimate gap and bring God into the picture, but because it is inherently impossible for science to ascribe any quality or attribute to the state of Total Nothingness. I shouldn’t even call it a state because it is, in fact, nothing. Science can do nothing with No Thing. Bring forth something for it to get its teeth into and science is up and running. But where there is No Thing, science and everything else do not exist.

    As I said earlier, you seem prepared to agree with me that there is an ultimate gap. I deduce this from you saying:

    “I think we are basically in agreement with regards to the idea that, with respect to the question as to why there is something rather than nothing, there are most likely some things that Man will never know for sure”.

    And then later you said:

    “I think we are in basic agreement on this matter, although we may have different ideas about where to place the “fencepost” of unknowability”

    With you apparently conceding that there is, in fact, a fencepost of unknowability, I am now saying that my fencepost is in more or less the same place as yours. It’s just that, due to miscommunication, you thought it wasn’t.

    QAT is intended to clearly establish agreement or disagreement regarding the idea that there is indeed an ultimate gap. If you now fully recognize and accept this argument, we can skip QAT and move on to the second question. That is, whether or not it is useful to use this ultimate gap as a basis for the definition of God.

  51. Chad says:

    My definition of the universe may require me to get a little scientific in order to put it into the right context.

    When I use the word ‘universe’ I am referring to the physical universe that we live in. I tend to lean towards an M-Theory view that encompasses the idea of a multiverse. According to this view, our universe is a 4-dimensional (3 space, 1 time) membrane within an 11-dimensional space-time. Additionally, our universe is one out of many universes, with each universe potentially having different physical laws and numbers of dimensions.

    This actually leads directly to my view of the big bang. Within M-Theory, it is postulate by some that the big bang could potentially be explained by the collision of two membranes. Based on this idea, my current thinking is that the universe has potentially always existed in some form and the current manifestation of the matter and energy within our universe is the result of a collision with another universe. If at any point I implied that I thought the universe began with the big bang, that was an oversight on my part.

    By the way, the above is simply the view I currently prefer. There are other theoretical approaches involving cosmic inflation, quantum fluctuations, etc., that I have not read enough about to work into my general viewpoint. I won’t go into any of this beyond this basic view as I am not a cosmologist or string theorist and am therefore horribly under-qualified to do so.

    Of course, if I am understanding you correctly, much of the finer details don’t really matter. If I word it in terms of my above description, you would go back to the question of what happened before the multiverse came into existence. I would tend to agree that, if there was indeed a moment when the multiverse was created (for lack of a better word), it would be futile to discuss what the nothingness before was like. Of course, if you take the view that the multiverse has always existed in some form, you are still left with the question of why is there something rather than nothing. This again may not be addressable by science, although it would have more potential for study than nothingness.

    Based on this I would say that, yes our respective fenceposts, if not the same, are very similar. I am fully willing to concede that there may indeed be an ultimate gap that science cannot address. I would like to add the caveat that I am not one to make definitive statements regarding the limits of science, hence my frequent use of the words “may,” “potentially” and the like. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I am willing to assume that such a gap exists.

  52. Chad says:

    Hopefully, my last post clarified a couple things about where I am coming from. I would also like to ask a clarifying question outside of the QAT. When you stated:

    “However, what I AM saying is that that phenomenon is not knowable in the realm that we inhabit and certainly not knowable to science. In other words, there is another realm of existence where what is impossible in our world is common place; where the discipline and laws of science and intellect don’t and cannot apply.”

    I am not sure exactly what you mean when you refer to “another realm of existence.” Do you mean that there is another supernatural realm in parallel with our natural physical realm, or is there something else to it?

    Cheers,
    Chad

  53. geeza says:

    Chad

    The purpose of the QAT was to establish by way of carefully worded questions and answers, clear agreement or disagreement with regards to the existence of an ultimate gap. With you now agreeing (reluctantly but agreeing nonetheless) that an ultimate gap MAY indeed exist, there now seems to be no need to proceed with the QAT. I feel a slight twinge of regret because I quite liked the sound of QAT and was looking forward to how it would develop. But that is now laid to rest and we can turn our thoughts to the second issue. But before engaging with this I will respond to your question regarding “another realm of existence”.

    In saying that moving from Nothing to something is impossible and asserting that an existence that has no beginning is equally impossible, I have taken great care to use the phrase “PHYSICALLY impossible”. Clearly, one or both is/are possible because creation is. It is just that it is not possible in OUR physical world that obeys physical laws. That means that there is some other state of existence where the possibility definitely exists and which gave rise to our world where that possibility does not exist. I mused that we might actually enter that other world when we dream but, for me, that is merely a fascinating thought. I know nothing about this realm and would want to say nothing further about it. I use the world “realm” only because I need to use a word and that word seems to be as good as any. I would ideally prefer not to have to use any word at all because all words we use relate to our world, but what we are talking about doesn’t. I don’t think that fully clarifies what I mean but I hope it expresses my outlook.

    Now the question of whether this ultimate gap that we have agreed may exist is an appropriate definition of God and whether such a definition is useful to anyone.

    I think we can skip the first half of the question because, as you said, “since most (if not all) monotheistic definitions describe God as being (at least in part) unknowable by Man, this aspect of God is a candidate for a “common” definition or a compromise (for lack of a better word)”.

    In saying that, you were of course simply interpreting and summarizing my view. But the fact that you didn’t take issue with that suggestion but instead focussed on the question of whether or not it would be useful to adopt such a definition, that suggests to me that you would be willing to accept that “compromise” definition. So now the question of usefulness.

    You say “I would be willing to bet that no fundamentalist or remotely devout follower would be willing to accept such a definition of God”. Well, that would probably be a very safe bet but I am not sure about that.

    In stripping God ‘down to the bone’ I am not saying that this is all that God is. I am simply saying that this is the essential characteristic of God. When I first put forward the suggestion I added: “Each can add his/her own attributes to God if he/she so wishes but the fundamental remains the same for all”.

    Thus, it is like saying that a car is a motor-propelled four-wheeled vehicle. No one would argue that his car has a CD player and a SAT navigation system so that definition does not apply. Each car can have whatever feature it wants but the essential feature is the one stated. I can’t see anyone arguing with that and I am not sure that anyone would argue with my definition of God once it is made clear that it is not a statement about the sum total of God.

    Just as the stripped down definition of a car cannot be all that a car is (for example, it must have room for a driver and a place to store fuel or energy), so too the definition of God being suggested cannot be all that God is. If God is the cause or reason for existence there must be more to God than just that fact.

    If the definition is understood for what it is, then I think that each religion would see no reason to reject it. In fact, it would be an acknowledgement that God exists without taking away anything from their God. The various religions along with scientists and non-religious groups would no doubt continue to argue about the nature of God, but the fundamental question of whether or not God exists would have been settled. As you said earlier “At this point, many debates about belief really become moot”. The words “atheist” and “agnostic” would probably then become redundant.

    As I indicated to my myspace friend, I will not engage in any of the ongoing debate about God because, by definition, I see God as being unknowable in our world except for the evidence that God must be.

    In summary then, I submit that there is a cause and a reason for the totality of creation and that that cause and reason can never be found in the time-space we inhabit. I say that that is the Ultimate Gap and it is a meaningful and useful definition of the essential characteristic of God.

  54. Chad says:

    Geeza,

    FYI….. I have a reply in the works, but I just had a ridiculous amount of work dumped in my lap, and I may not get to posting anything before next week.

    Cheers,
    Chad

  55. geeza says:

    Chad

    I understand.

    While you get on with what you need to do, I feel I want to say this:

    It seems to me that when most of us engage in debate, our aim usually is to prove to ourselves and to others that we are right, rather than to simply contribute to the process of broadening knowledge and uncovering the truth. Very rarely do we see a debate arrive at a point where one or both parties acknowledge the validity of the other’s point of view.

    I entered this debate with an almost childlike ignorance of the intellectual arguments and concepts surrounding the issue. So for example, the terms “God of the gaps”, pantheism etc. are all new to me. I therefore felt somewhat like a stranger entering a function room and being fortunate to find you at the door to welcome me in. But even more important than this warm and natural welcome is the fact that you were prepared and wanted to engage with me in the spirit in which I think all debates should be conducted. Meeting you has, for me, been a rare and fulfilling encounter. Thank you.

  56. Chad says:

    geeza,

    First, I would like to return your sentiments regarding the nature of our debate. While it is clear that we disagree on many points (or it will be after my next post at least), the discussion has been much more civil than some of my recent online encounters. I never go out trying to “convert” anyone in a debate, because that can be like beating my head against the wall. Mostly I am into remotely intelligent discussion that, if anything, forces me to verbalize my own thoughts on the matter at hand. Learning of new views and raising awareness is what I really look for in these types of discussions. I too have found our exchange quite fulfilling and look forward to finishing it up.

    With that in mind I want to first make one more comment about the nature of the “ultimate gap.” While I would never 100% rule-out a potential explanation that lies outside of our physical multiverse, my view is that if there is an ultimate gap that science cannot breach, it is due to limits in our potential for experimental observation. I feel that, if we could find a way to experimentally determine the properties of the multiverse, we would find a 100% physically possible, scientifically sound theory that explains the origins of the multiverse. While I hate to use the cliche, I think this is a point on which we must “agree to disagree.”

  57. Chad says:

    OK, on to the definition of God……

    First, you are correct to note that I do indeed agree that the definition that you have put forth could be used as a definition for God. With regards to the usefulness of the definition, my main issue is that I see a limitation that affects the validity of your argument.

    When you state that you are “not saying that this is all that God is. I am simply saying that this is the essential characteristic of God.” I would agree that, with respect to most if not all monotheistic religions, being unknowable is an essential characteristic for God. However, I do not see it as a necessary and sufficient characteristic, which would be required for your argument to be .

    I can best address this by summarizing your argument as a series of statements:

    (1) Being unknowable is a necessary feature of God.
    (2) There is ultimately something that is unknowable.
    (3) Therefore, since the unknowable exists, God exists.

    I would not necessarily take issue with statements (1) and (2); however in order for your argument to be valid, the feature in statement (1) must be both necessary and sufficient. By ‘necessary,’ I mean that without this feature God would not exist. And by ‘sufficient,’ I mean that if one were to strip away everything except this feature, you would still have a practical definition of God. While I agree that unknowability is a necessary feature of God, it is not sufficient (at least with respect to how you have defined God). In other words, unknowability must be a satisfactory explanation of God without any additional characteristics, which I do not think it is.

    The only way that this can be true is if we arrive at a watered-down version of God that really has no substance. And as I mentioned before, you essentially reach a point where, for all practical purposes, believing in God doesn’t really matter. This is what I meant when I said that further debate is moot, because there is no real-world difference between believing and not believing.

    I hope that was clear. If anything wasn’t clear, I can summarize my whole argument with reference to your car analogy. Defining a car as a “motor-propelled four-wheeled vehicle” is both necessary and sufficient. You are free to add any extras you want, but the motor and wheels are all that is required to have a car, and without either you wouldn’t have a car. My view is that saying that God is unknowable is analogous to stating that cars have four wheels. While the wheels are necessary to have a car, you need a motor as well to have a sufficient definition. In the same way, you need something beyond unknowability to arrive at a sufficient practical definition of God.

    Beyond this point, I also see a fallacy of the undistributed middle within your argument. Rewording the numbered statements above:

    (1) ‘A’ (God) is ‘B’ (something unknowable)
    (2) ‘B’ is ‘C’ (something that exists)
    (3) Therefore, ‘A’ is ‘C’

    Just because ‘B’ is ‘C’ does not immediately imply that ‘A’ is also ‘C’. This would require that all ‘B’ objects be ‘A’ objects….. in other words it would require that all things that are unknowable are in fact God, which would mean that there could not be other objects that are unknowable besides God. But since, by definition, we cannot know how many unknowable things are out there, we cannot say that all ‘B’ objects are ‘A’.

    Hopefully that was clear, I felt like I was rambling in a couple spots…. For reference, you can call my two points the “sufficiency argument” and the “fallacy argument”.

    Cheers,
    Chad

  58. geeza says:

    Hi Chad

    Sorry for the delay in replying to your post but I too have been a bit busy recently.

    Reading your post a felt I desire to go back to the idea of QAT. That is because we have gone back to a position of talking about more than one point at a time and because of the deep philosophical nature of the subject being discussed, the issues sometimes get lost behind all the words.

    Still, I am going to resist the idea of going back to QAT and, for the moment, address just the last point in your post.

    I understand the flaw that you think you see in my ‘predicate logic’. But there isn’t one. I don’t know if because of the gap in our dialogue you’ve lost the thread, or if the scientist in you is now looking for a flaw. I don’t know, but I was a little surprised by your argument.

    Yes, you are right in your general argument about the ‘undistributed middle’ but you don’t seem to realize that that doesn’t apply here. This middle IS distributed’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘undistributable’.

    In raising your criticism of my argument you have moved from a position of saying that everything IS knowable to suggesting now that there could be an infinite number of unknowables. But my position has been the same throughout. That is, that EVERYTHING in our world is knowable except for an explanation for creation. That is my Ultimate Gap. And there is only one. So in this case, A is B and B is A.

    Of course, I imagine that there must be an infinite number of things beyond the gap and that all these (being beyond the gap) are unknowable to us. I can’t talk about these. But in our world there is only one unknowable and that is the Ultimate Gap. It seems that this is hard for most scientists to face up to but science will NEVER be able to bridge that gap. And I say that, not as a Newtonian thinker nor as a deist or a follower of any particular religion, but as someone who recognizes that science cannot deal with the idea of something emerging from total Nothingness. In fact, one of the fundamental laws of science is that our world of matter and energy CANNOT BE CREATED!!

    Geeza

  59. Chad says:

    geeza,

    There is no reason to go back to the QAT, because I am pretty sure I understand your argument. The Ultimate Gap, as you’ve defined it, may indeed be something that science cannot address and, as a scientist, I must acknowledge that such a Gap may exist. However, as you’ve highlighted in your final paragraph, the laws of conservation state that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Such laws must lead one to consider the hypothesis that the matter and energy that make up our universe have always existed in some form. It is on this scientific basis that I would tend to lean towards an entirely physically-possible explanation of the universe. This is why I stated that we should probably agree to disagree on this point.

    However, even assuming an Ultimate Gap as you’ve defined it, I see issues with moving from such a Gap to God. The apparent change in position you highlighted is due to the fact that I am assuming that there is something unknowable for the purposes of the discussion. Since we obviously do not agree on the nature of the Gap, I think it best to focus on the reasoning you use to move to the existence of God.

    I wouldn’t say that the scientist in me is looking for a flaw, but I would say that I have an issue with making definitive statements about some things. I think that you will find most scientists share this view. This is particularly true when discussing the unknowable. Your view that the undistributed middle does not exist in this case does just this. To say that all that is unknowable is God (B is A) seems like an overly definitive statement. This implies that you know all of the elements within the unknowable set. But since the elements within the set are in fact unknowable, I don’t see how you can make such a statement. I have a similar view of your statement that the Ultimate Gap is the ONLY unknowable thing within our universe.

    Basically, my view is that if you allow room for one unknowable thing, you have to allow room for others (not necessarily an infinite number, but at least one other) so you can’t say that B is A. Of course, you can define your way out of such a view, which it appears you are doing by taking the “Creation being the only unknowable thing” statement as a starting point. But since I am assuming the existence of the unknowable for the purposes of this discussion, I guess I could simply limit my assumption to one unknowable thing.

    Cheers,
    Chad

  60. geeza says:

    Hi Chad

    I apoligize for the delay in responding to your post but I have been particularly busy recently and have been thinking ‘I will respond tommorow’, but tommorow still hasn’t yet arrived.

    I am therefore just writing to send my regards to you and all your Loved ones over the festive season and to say that I will write again soon.

    Geeza

  61. Hello I found this blog using search engine while searching for Theism Beauty and your post regarding e Beginning Was the Word: Separating the Atheists from the Agnostics – Rescuing the Agnostics from the Theists – Symbolic Order looks very interesting for me

  62. Pingback: A Response To Skepdude - The Atheist Blogger

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s