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Posted by on Jan 17, 2014 in God's Characteristics, Philosophy of Religion | 15 comments

Quote of the Day – jozhek

OK, so it’s not here on my site, but on James A. Lindsay’s (whose book Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly I have just edited) site, God Doesn’t; We Do, in a debate with apologist Tom Gilson.

If the Christian god exists it could be observed and then described; not defined. Definitions apply to concepts and not to existing entities. If multiple gods exist and could be observed, then the concept ”gods” can be defined by taking note of their essential similarities. Observation and evidence come before definition. If another such being were then to be observed the evidence could be used to determine whether that entity fit the definition of gods. I don’t think Christians would be too happy considering their god as one among many even if they all definitely existed. In the real world all we have are imagined gods. Both the imagination and concepts are mental activity of our consciousness. Since concepts are defined, the desire of a Christian to mistakenly define and not simply describe his god only highlights its imaginative nature. Only real entities can be described.

I love those last couple of sentences. It’s about defining god from some kind of accepted characteristics, but even those are contested amongst Christians. So all you get is abstract definition in the intellectual realm. Actual description just doesn’t happen.

  • KenBrowning

    “So all you get is abstract definition in the intellectual realm.”

    Well, when I was attending a Pentecostal bible college we had as a guest speaker a guy named Finis Dake. He was “famous” for Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible which in effect is a King James Bible with his references and comments. At that chapel service he argued that the Holy Spirit had to have wings and a penis based on his literal interpretations of several obscure OT verses. :)

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      Now that’s one description I’d love to see a Renaissance painting of!

      • http://disnotblog.blogspot.com/ Eugen

        wings and bollocks? OMG!
        :D:D

    • mikespeir

      LOL! Dake had a bit of a sordid history, to be sure! When my Pentecostal mother asked me to look up some info about him on the Internet when was more than a little taken aback when I told her about the Emma Barelli affair. If it were more generally known, I doubt the Dake Bible would enjoy quite the currency it does.

  • Seth R. Massine

    I never even knew this man existed….thanks for the post :) He seems quite the polymath, and his arguments are lucid and thought provoking.

  • http://disnotblog.blogspot.com/ Eugen

    Jonathan

    Jozhek said: *If the Christian god exists it could be observed and then described; not defined.*

    Imagine for a moment kind of SF scenario.(it won’t be great but I’ll try)

    Programmer creates cellular automata world on a computer. Little creatures and their world are just patterns of electronic signals moving around the memory grid. For convenience he displays the patterns as images so he can watch what’s happening while drinking his cappucino :D. Even thou software rules he established are very simple emerging patterns become complex and unpredictable. Automata become conscious and intelligent by accident or by programmers intent and start learning about the world and themselves.

    Automata scientists figure that everything is made of electrons which move around in bunches and follow simple rules built into the grid. They can count number of electrons in any bunch down to high precision. They develop ways to accelerate electrons and smash them around to see what happens. Automata scientists find the latest little pathway on a memory grid. They see that everything is stable, orderly and predictable in their reality.

    They start asking tough questions: If the Creator exists could it be observed and then described; not defined?

    What could automata be able to say about programmer? Could they observe programmer with their science or even imagine how to describe him? Where is the programmer? How he looks and behaves? Does he eat, dream or is he ever going to pull the plug?

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      OK, the problems with this analogy are that 1) the scientists in this world generally do not seek to describe a god, and certainly not from what they discover; 2) there are many different people / automata who make many different mutually exclusive claims to describe god; 3) there is no discernible way of verifying these claims; 4) claims of experiencing god are multitudinous and mutually exclusive.

      • James Lindsay

        Interesting question. Suppose that the automata scientists one day discover all this order and wonder if it was created for them. So they ask. Does the creator-programmer answer?

        What should the automata conclude if they never get an answer, never? There are, of course, a few possibilities. One is that there is no creator and that perhaps the design they experience occurred somehow by chance or on its own, or that it is an illusion. Another is that there is a creator–perhaps whom they even imagine as a programmer–who either watches (in interest or in indifference) or who has abandoned the project and perhaps the computer and is unaware of it all.

        Now, since these automata have developed science, it stands to reason that in their digital world, they suffer. It strikes me as increasingly apparent that the pressure to solve problems is the pressure to reduce and avoid suffering in conscious minds. So here, then, we face a situation where the automata suffer–clearly needlessly unless because of the incompetence of the programmer–whether that gave rise to their consciousness or not. If they send requests for help and never get a reply, they would be right to conclude that the programmer is either absent, indifferent, or capricious, but not loving or in any important way concerned with their needs.

        To another question: could the scientist automata describe the programmer. That depends. Yes if the programmer interacted sufficiently with them to give them a working understanding. No if the programmer never did as they, for all intents and purposes, live in a different (virtual) reality. Again, we’re left wondering why the programmer ignores his creation, then.

        The ultimate question, though, isn’t whether or not this is possible–the bread and butter of apologia. The question is could the automata claim to know that there is a programmer/creator? Could the automata boss other automata around, or beat them, or torture them, or give them ridiculous rules to live by, on the basis of a claim to know that the programmer exists and what he wants or intended? (No.) Does it make sense for the programmer to be called perfectly benevolent in this case, from the perspective of the automata? (No.) Could the automata conclude that a programmer who doesn’t step in when things get out of hand is loving? (No.) Are any automata justified in arriving at anything like the program’s version of any religion to the programmer? (No–not even in the off chance that they guess one completely correctly.)

        • http://disnotblog.blogspot.com/ Eugen

          James

          When automata asks tough question: If the Creator exists could it be observed and then described; not defined?

          The simple answer is no. There is no way for automata to cross to another domain/realm to observe or study the programmer. I cannot think of any probe or experiment they could setup to cross the barrier. They otoh can notice the rules which provide stability and orderliness to their world. They also see that combination of rules + some freedom is the optimum setup for their world. What they make of all this is a different story.

          You also raise several other good questions but I haven’t thought about them. Also, I’m not philosopher so I m not sure how far would I get with them.

          You mentioned suffering. There is no suffering at the basic level in any reality. It is just a reaction by conscious mind. Chemicals on their own or whatever makes the basic reality is indifferent to its various arrangements.

          Like Jonathan said analogies are not the best way to talk about these issues but that’s what came to my mind in a moment. It’s a little thought exercise.

      • LukeBreuer

        4) claims of experiencing god are multitudinous and mutually exclusive

        Is this really true? I often hear the claim that religious experiences are so diverse that they can’t possibly be actual sense-experiences of something real. Enter Keith Ward, in The Case for Religion:

        The best hypothesis seems to be that many people have experience of spiritual powers, but the specific information provided—whether in the form of visions or of ‘heard’ messages—depends very much upon cultural expectations, general background beliefs and the imaginative ability of the human mind to construct vast edifices of ontology from the merest hints of mystery. The omens are not good for the very specific claims that many religions make about God, spirits and the afterlife. Each cultural tradition builds up an increasingly detailed set of such claims. (88-89)

        Religious experience is not really about the provision of additional secret information. It is about a personal apprehension of spiritual reality. This will be person-relative in a strong way. That is, the way in which we come to know another person depends very much on the sort of persons we are. It is well established in psychology that we project onto others the hidden, repressed, or ‘shadow’ sides of our own personalities. We might also project onto them our own ideals and desires. We see others as demons or heroes, as fantasy figures who interact with our own complex goals and fears. It is not, of course, wholly projection. Other people really exist, and we can have more or less accurate assessments of them. But to make an accurate assessment requires maturity, self-confidence, self-knowledge and sensitivity. some people have lots of these qualities, some conspicuously lack them, and some are immature, self-deceived, fearful and deeply prejudiced. If religious apprehension were like personal knowledge, one would expect that religious experiences would range form wildly fantastic projections of personal inadequacies to positive and life-enhancing transformations of personality by encounter with a wider and deeper personal reality.

        It follows that a large part of sorting out reliable religious experiences will be an assessment of the character of the experience. if they are well balanced and integrated, and if their experiences increase their wisdom, insight and sensitivity, it might be sensible to take their reports of encounters with a spiritual reality seriously. If they show a depth of insight into human problems, and an extraordinary degree of creative power; if they have powers of mental and physical healing and a profound sense of well-being; if they show compassion for the sufferings of others and delight in beauty and friendship, then their reports of a transforming awareness of spiritual reality are of significant worth. On the other hand, if they have a sharply exaggerated sense of their won importance; if they place enormous value on relatively insignificant facts; if they manipulate others and seem obsessed with particular beliefs or rituals, their reported experiences are likely to be based largely on projections of their own fragmented personalities. (90)

        It seems to me that religious experiences are something that aren’t dealt with by atheists in a deep, penetrating way. Instead, they tend to be hand-waved away as not possibly being real, without any scholarly analysis. Am I wrong on this? Is there, say, some standard, well-regarded work on religious experience that you and e.g. John Loftus (I’m thinking of his “Religious Diversity Thesis”) are referring to?

        • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

          You are perhaps conflating generalist spiritual experiences with actual real religious experiences.

          Also, really experiencing Vishnu is somewhat exclusive to really experiencing Yahweh.

          • LukeBreuer

            Also, really experiencing Vishnu is somewhat exclusive to really experiencing Yahweh.

            True. But all we have are interpretations, not the raw data, without the interpretive grid applied to it. We never have the raw data.

  • LukeBreuer

    Observation and evidence come before definition.

    It is not at all clear that this is true. See Grossberg 1999, The Link between Brain Learning, Attention, and Consciousness. Grossberg offers a neurological model for consciousness that, as a byproduct, explains confirmation bias. When we make observations, he says, our brains try and match them up to various models (what he calls ‘long-term memories’) that we have stored away. If the observations (what he calls ‘short-term memories’) match up to any models sufficiently well, then those ‘connections’ rise to the conscious level. So, it is not at all clear that we first observe and then come up with models (definitions) for what we’ve observed. The model might come first, at least when it comes to conscious experience!

    The way GPS works also seems to contradict the quoted statement. The power of transmitted GPS signals is extremely weak. There’s no way to know whether a given bit is a 1 or a 0, because these bits are below the noise floor. However, if you know that the signal is a series of 1023 bits (sometimes called a ‘superbit’) or their inverted value (see gold code), then you aren’t asking whether one bit is a 1 or a 0, but if a whole slew of bits are closer to A or ~A. This can be known with probability higher than 50%, and thus your GPS works despite the extremely weak signal.

    So the question of whether there exists a pattern is not always an easy one to answer. If I were trying to acquire a GPS signal without knowing the right gold codes, I likely wouldn’t even know there was a signal. It would just look like noise! Would I be justified in saying that there exists no signal? No. All I could say is that no method had been provided to reliably find a pattern. “As far as I know, there’s no pattern.”

    I claim that Christianity provides ‘gold codes’ for understanding reality. If you ask “Where is God?” about too few observations, that’s like trying to extract a superbit of a GPS signal when you only have 40 bits. But more than this, Christianity isn’t primarily about what reality is like now, but what reality could be like, if we were to stop being horrible to each other. This complicates the matter, because it’s a lot easier to talk about what is than what could be and how good that would be and how to get there. Christianity attempts the latter; to judge it by something which does the former is a category mistake.

    One cannot start from an uninformative prior and reliably guess ways to extract information from a GPS signal. If you don’t guess:

         (a) something awfully close to ‘gold codes’, and
         (b) the right # of bits, and
         (c) the right gold codes of the possibly many,

    then you may never see a signal where there is a signal. There can objectively exist a signal that you will not be able to see, because you didn’t start with a good enough prior. Something may exist that you simply cannot see: according to you, it will be ‘invisible’.

    Without something sufficiently close to a valid ‘gold code’, you won’t be able to discern anything that looks like God acting or communicating. I claim that verses like these—love your neighbor/strangers/your enemies—are an element of the gold code. Succinctly:

         (i) If you will not try wanting what God wants,
         (ii) you will not perceive God trying to get what he wants.

    Here, I’m doing… interesting things with the naturalistic fallacy. Also known as the is–ought problem, this creates a barrier between is-knowledge and ought-knowledge. If you adhere to this idea, then any and all knowledge about God—evidence or no—would not do enough to change how you behave. The Bible says we don’t just have a belief-problem, we also have a desire-problem.

    You wouldn’t be able to find a GPS signal without me giving you proper definitions. The definitions would precede the observation. There’s just no question about this. Unless you look through the right ‘grid’—that of the proper gold code, on the proper frequency—you are extremely unlikely to see any pattern.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

      But you can’t have a model without any experience! That’s a model in a vacuum! A baby has no working definition of a God, or anything…

      • LukeBreuer

        I never said that. I said that a model can precede experience, it can guide experience. And it can guide accurately, not just in a confirmation bias sort of way. Remember, jozhek was essentially saying that experience must precede the model. This simply is not true. I provided a very scientific example that is mathematically precise.

        Remember your Quine: we interpret reality through a grid, and giving observations primacy over the theoretical grid is very, very iffy business.