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Wed, 13 Oct 2010

Why There Very Probably Is a God - but Not the Kind Some People Want

Richard Dawkins' atheistic book The God Delusion contains a chapter titled "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God." The title of this post is a takeoff on that title, but my title ends with a curious phrase. This post won't be just another critique of The God Delusion. I've already written such a critique in a set of earlier posts. In this post, I want to make a point about the concept of God - a topic that I've discussed a lot, but perhaps not enough.

Not every believer in a Supreme Being thinks of that being as a supernatural creator. In The God Delusion, Dawkins defines God in such a way that only a supernatural creator of the universe can qualify as God. Actually, some religious and spiritual teachings have embraced belief in God while also denying that God is supernatural or that God literally is the creator. A Supreme Being doesn't automatically have to be a supernatural creator.

Dawkins' chapter "Why There Almost Certainly Is No God" gives an argument for the unlikelihood of a supernatural creator. Here is my own take on the likelihood of a Supreme Being.

To start, I'll mention some preliminaries. (I recommend reading all of these preliminaries. They might not be leading where you expect them to go.)

Most of us believe that there are real values in the world. These include, at very least, moral values. We think that some events are good, while others are bad, and still others are neutral (neither good nor bad). Many of us also believe that there are real aesthetic values in the world. We think, for example, that some sunsets are beautiful, or that the starry sky or the sea is beautiful. Scientists often feel that the underlying logical structure of the universe - its harmony and its system of mathematical laws - is fantastically beautiful. Some people may argue that beauty is all "in the eye of the beholder." However, as I've argued elsewhere, the fact that the recognition of beauty depends on an observer does not imply that beauty is unreal.

People often disagree about what has value - about what is good or bad, or what is more beautiful or less beautiful. People also often disagree about the origin of values; there have long been debates about whether values have a purely natural origin, and about whether the mind plays a role in constructing values. However, most of us agree that there are real values of some kind. This central idea is more important than all the disagreements over details.

To believe that there are no real values is tantamount to believing that nothing truly matters and that no wrongdoing, however abhorrent, can rationally be condemned. I doubt that anyone fully accepts this, both in theory and in the practice of everyday life. I doubt that any thinker who claims to believe that there are no real values really does believe it, fully and in practical day-to-day terms. (How does this thinker behave? If he even tries to stay alive, he's denying his own position through his actions.) The assumption that something matters or is worth doing - which implies that there is a value of some kind or other - is as much a part of our basic knowledge as are our sense experiences. This knowledge is independent of any theory of how values work, whether values are mind-independent, or where values come from. Given that this knowledge exists, the assumption that there are real values of some sort is a very plausible assumption. We might not be able to make a probability estimate for this assumption, but speaking qualitatively we can regard the assumption as at least very probably true.

If there are real ethical or aesthetic values of any kind, or any other real values, then these values share a common property. This is the property of being a value, or of being a good quality in a very broad sense. (By "good" in this context, I don't mean just morally good. I mean "good" in the sense of having real value or true worth.)

In my earlier writings I showed that if this common property exists, then there is an entity that accurately can be described as the most perfect entity or as a supremely good being. I won't repeat the argument here; it's available at this link. I want to emphasize right away that this argument has nothing to do with the idea of a God who enforces values on people. The argument does not even prove the existence of a supernatural creator, or of anything supernatural, or of a universal lawgiver of any sort. (Those are all separate issues.) The being in question would be a vast totality composed of known natural items and their abstract logical and mathematical features. This being would not include anything supernatural, unless something supernatural already happened to exist. (However, this being is not - I repeat, NOT - just nature or the universe renamed as God. I am not proposing an atheistic pseudo-pantheism here. For the details, read the original argument.)

This line of argument discloses a being that embodies and encompasses all that is good and beautiful - all that we can admire, idealize and love. Is this being a person? Perhaps not - but still it has features normally regarded as mental and spiritual. Though not a "person" in the conventional human sense, this being is more like a "someone" than a mere "something." It even encompasses personality in an indirect way, through its logical relations with persons like us.

Is this being God? That's a matter of how you define the word "God." Let me just point out that the notion of God as supremely perfect being is much more important to the real Western religious tradition than is the better known idea of God as supernatural creator! As I've pointed out elsewhere (here, here and here), there is more than one idea of God. Most ordinary good-hearted believers seem to have two different concepts of God without realizing it. Despite this ambiguity in the notion of God, the idea of a supremely perfect being is the most important idea of God. Many Western religious thinkers have defined "God" in just this way - as a perfect being, or a greatest logically possible being, or some similar definition that adds up to supremely good being. Many (probably most) of these thinkers also believed that God is a supernatural creator, but this was not their definition of God. Most religions today involve supernatural belief, but the concept of God can exist without supernaturalism. Some theists might not be comfortable with that fact, but it remains a fact.

The existence of real values in the world - even of values with purely natural origins - implies the existence of an entity that answers to a classic definition of "God." (Once again, the argument is at this link.) However, there is absolutely no guarantee that this being is supernatural. Further, this being does not "create" the universe in a literalistic, humanlike manner - though the being can be regarded as the source of all things in a more abstract way.

As far as I am concerned, this being is God. It embodies all good, is worthy of our highest love, and (though not literally a person) is partly mental and spiritual - making it more of a "someone" than a mere "something." This is the kind of God that very probably exists. By "very probably" I don't mean to imply a quantitative estimate of probability. I just mean that the existence of this being follows from very plausible assumptions. These assumptions are the existence of objective values and of the common feature that I mentioned earlier in this post.

What does all this tell us? Just that there very probably is a Supreme Being - but not the kind that people might want. Theists might be unhappy with this concept of God because it's different from their usual personal and supernatural concept. They might find this idea of God blasphemous. Atheists might be unhappy with this concept of God because their arguments against a supernatural creator are powerless against it. They might find this idea of God frustrating.

Maybe no one will be happy with this idea of God. Except, of course, the poet who feels the presence of God in the vast meadows, the mighty ocean, and the infinitely mysterious sky. And the lover who is so awed by the presence of the beloved that only the language of the divine and the perfect can describe the experience. And the mystic who discovers in the depths of the mind a God so vast that the ideas of "person" and "supernatural" are simply too small to fit it. All of these visionaries might find this new/old concept of God more congenial than the conventional theistic one. And from the standpoint of reason, they very probably would be right.

posted at: 21:28 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Tue, 12 Oct 2010

Some Thoughts on the Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is one of the traditional arguments for the existence of God. Actually it's a set of at least two different arguments. The most widely quoted version, which uses the idea that a nonexistent God isn't as great as an existent one, is by far the worst form of the argument. There is another form that is far better. I've already written about the ontological argument in an e-book with the words "God" and "science" in the title. Also, I've written a little bit about the argument in an earlier post. Here I want to share some thoughts about what this argument, in its good form, really tells us. I think a lot of the confusion about this argument comes from a misunderstanding about what it proves.

Scholars have long known that there is more than one form of the ontological argument. The argument's originator, Anselm of Canterbury, proposed at least two different forms (see [1] and [2] for details). The first form of the argument is (in my opinion and in the opinions of many other commentators) not much good. (Interestingly, this seems to be the form that atheists prefer to attack. Coincidence?) The second form of the argument does succeed up to a point: it shows that if it's possible that there is a perfect being, then there is a perfect being. (Another way of putting this conclusion is: if there's no perfect being, then it's impossible for there to be a perfect being. The perfect being is either real or impossible - unlike many other things, which can just happen not to exist.) Thanks to the work of Charles Hartshorne [2], it seems that the argument establishes at least this much.

This leaves a big question open: What is a perfect being?

Philosophers of religion have tried to flesh out this notion of a perfect being (sometimes called a "greatest possible being") in various ways. They have tried to make this intuitive notion more precise - and as with some other intuitive concepts, there's more than one way to make it precise. I won't go into all of these ways here. The important thing is that a perfect being exemplifies, to the greatest possible degree, all the values that a being can exemplify. This means, for example, that if goodness is a value, then the perfect being is at least as good as any other being. There is no being greater in goodness. Similarly, if beauty is a value, then this being is, in some sense, at least as beautiful as any other being. And so forth.

Most religious people who like the ontological argument seem to think that this argument is proof of the existence of the God they believe in. Usually they believe that God is a supernatural creator of the universe. By "creator," they usually mean a being that literally caused the universe to come into existence - not an original cosmic principle of a more elusive kind.

Suppose, just for a moment and for the sake of discussion, that the ontological argument (in its better form) proved the existence of a perfect being. Does that mean the argument supports the existence of a supernatural creator?

It does not.

The ontological argument, if it succeeds, provides evidence for the existence of a perfect being or greatest possible being. It doesn't let us take the next step, to the existence of a supernatural creator - unless we make the additional assumption that a greatest possible being has to be a supernatural creator! Even a thinker who accepts the basic argument can avoid the leap to a supernatural creator by assuming that a perfect being might not have to be a supernatural creator. In other words, the argument doesn't support the traditional theistic God unless the property of being a supernatural creator somehow makes a being more perfect than that being otherwise would have been.

Is a supernatural being more perfect than a natural being, just by virtue of being supernatural? I don't think so. Why should it be more perfect? What's so glorious about being supernatural? Couldn't a natural being (a being that's within the framework of nature instead of outside that framework) be equally good and beautiful, and equally perfect in every other way?

Is a being that created the physical universe automatically better or more perfect than a being that did not? The answer isn't obvious - but the answer isn't obviously "yes." The physical universe, as we all know, is a bit of a mess in many ways. As the traditional "problem of evil" in the philosophy of religion reminds us, we can't automatically assume that a cosmic creator (if there is one) has to be a perfect being. There are difficult questions involved here.

So, is it obvious that the ontological argument (in its good form) supports the existence of the traditional God of theism? No, it is not obvious.

Earlier in my writings (see here, here and here) I pointed out the importance of getting clear about what we mean by "God." The word "God" makes different people think of different ideas of God. Not everyone understands that word in the same way. If by "God" we mean a being that represents all that is good and that is worthy of our highest love, then the ontological argument supports the existence of such a being. (At least the argument shows that if such a being is even barely possible, then such a being exists.) However, if by "God" we mean a supernatural creator, or a supernatural being of any kind, then the ontological argument does not support the existence of "God." The argument doesn't rule out such a being; it just doesn't lend any support to the existence of such a being.

The idea of a perfect being that is not supernatural may seem odd. How can there be such a being when none of the things in nature is "perfect"? I've explored this question elsewhere (especially at this link), and I've proposed an answer. In brief: no single concrete object in nature is a perfect being, but a certain abstract object, combined with other objects, might very well qualify as a perfect being. I won't pursue this suggestion here because I've already gone into gory detail about it elsewhere. I mention it only to point out that "perfect" doesn't necessarily imply "supernatural" - and that a perfect being wouldn't have to be an extra thing besides the things of nature.

Does the ontological argument, in its logically correct form, prove rigorously that there is a perfect being? Not quite. To make the argument prove that there is a perfect being, you need a separate argument showing that a perfect being is possible. (I said something about such arguments in the e-book I mentioned earlier.)

Does the ontological argument lend support to the existence of God? No - if you think God can only be a supernatural being that literally created the universe. Or yes - if you think of God as a supremely perfect being, and not necessarily as supernatural or as a literal "creator."

Take your pick.



[1] Anselm. Proslogium. Trans. Sidney Norton Deane, ed. Paul Halsall. [], accessed 5/18/2009. In: Paul Halsall (ed.), Internet Medieval Sourcebook [], accessed 5/18/2009. Anselm's first (weak) and second (strong) versions of the argument are in Chapters 2 and 3, respectively, of his Proslogium.

[2] See: Hartshorne, Charles. Anselm's Discovery. (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1965), especially pp. 12-18.

posted at: 01:01 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Sun, 03 Oct 2010

The Trouble with the Supernatural

In my earlier writings I've said that I am skeptical about the existence of the supernatural. However, I've also said that I think there is a supreme being of some kind, and that humans are not only bodies but also have spiritual qualities (see also here). These seemingly contradictory opinions may have confused some people. In this post I will spell out what I think about the supernatural.

"Supernatural" is a vague word. Its precise meaning is elusive. Philosophers might want to seek a precise definition of this word. However, when most people call something "supernatural," what they mean in practice is that the thing they are talking about will never be understood as part of nature.

To illustrate this point, I'm now going to do a thought experiment. (I don't think the scenario I'm about to describe ever will happen in real life. It's just a thought experiment.)

Think about leprechauns. Leprechauns are mythical beings described in Irish folklore. Leprechauns are widely regarded as supernatural beings, especially by those of us who don't believe in them. Today, scientifically inclined people don't think leprechauns are real.

Now here's the thought experiment. Imagine that some people believed in a type of supernatural being called a "meprechaun." Meprechauns are sort of like leprechauns; they allegedly wear green, guard pots of gold, and so forth. In our scenario, scientifically inclined people don't believe in meprechauns, but some less scientifically minded people do.

To continue our story, suppose that one day scientists discover that some meprechauns are real after all. If scientists were able to confirm that meprechauns are real, then what would the scientists do next? Presumably they would begin to study meprechauns: their anatomy, their geographic distribution, and so forth.

When scientists began to understand meprechauns a little bit, it's a good bet that people would start to think of meprechauns as part of nature. We would start to think of meprechauns as natural creatures, previously thought to be only subjects of folklore and mythology but now known to be real. Like a mythical city later proven real by archeologists, meprechauns would enter the roll call of things that used to be scoffed at but that now are established parts of the world.

Even if we found that meprechauns could violate known natural laws, we still would think of them as "natural" if they were demonstrably real and could somehow be made to fit into the conceptual framework of nature. Even if meprechauns didn't obey the known laws of nature, we would still tend to think of them as "natural" if we could learn something about the laws they did obey. Even if meprechaun behavior turned out to be lawless in some respects, we could simply say their behavior is unpredictable and try to describe it using probability theory. Then we could regard the meprechauns as part of nature, but obeying previously unknown laws of a probabilistic character. (After all, randomness and apparent lawlessness don't make a phenomenon supernatural. The observed behavior of quantum mechanical particles is unpredictable in some ways, but that doesn't make those particles supernatural.) With or without predictability, we would begin to feel that meprechauns aren't supernatural after all.

This concludes the thought experiment. The point of the experiment is not (I repeat, NOT) that leprechauns or their close cousins might exist. I don't believe that they do. (Professional skeptics, read the previous two sentences before raising your poison pens against me.) My only point is this: if we did confirm that some supposedly supernatural beings were real, and if we began to understand how they work, then we would very likely start to think of them as parts of nature.

If we start to call things "natural" when we begin to understand them, then labeling something as "supernatural" amounts to claiming we never will come to understand it as part of nature. If we might, at some future time, understand a thing as part of nature, then we aren't justified in claiming the thing is really, truly supernatural. It might only be a natural phenomenon that we haven't yet recognized as such.

I am skeptical of any claim that says we will never understand something in a naturalistic way, or will never be able to view something as part of nature. Given some item that is real but seems supernatural, how can we rule out the possibility that in 500 or 1000 years somebody will discover a way to think of it as part of nature? (Consider how much our understanding of things has changed in the last thousand years.) However, if we label something as definitely supernatural, we are implicitly claiming that we never will understand that thing in a way that makes it fit into our picture of nature. The act of classifying something as supernatural says more about our current inability to understand that thing than it says about the thing itself.

For this reason, I don't think we ever have rational justification for claiming that anything is supernatural. The most we can do is claim that certain things seem supernatural, and that we don't yet have natural explanations for them.

Note that I am not arguing that there is nothing supernatural. I don't know of any way to rule out the possibility that there is something we really can't understand as part of nature. I just don't think we ever have good reason to assume there is such a thing. As we already know, what seems supernatural today may seem quite natural tomorrow.

Now here's the other part of my argument - the part that the professional skeptics won't like.

When I say that I don't believe in the supernatural, I am NOT claiming that any particular item thought to be supernatural does not exist. Traditionally, people have labeled various controversial items as supernatural. Among these items are the supreme being and the human soul. My disbelief in the supernatural does not mean that I scoff at everything people call "supernatural." I just think that if these things turn out to be real, we eventually will begin to understand them in a naturalistic way. At least we shouldn't rule out this possibility by assuming that such things are truly supernatural.

This explains how I can argue for the reality of certain spiritual things while being a skeptic about the supernatural. My skepticism does not rule out the existence of a supreme being or of the spiritual qualities of human nature - though it does rule out certain crude conceptions of these things.

A final cautionary note: By saying that I don't believe in the supernatural, I am not - I repeat, not - suggesting that there is no knowledge besides scientific knowledge. When today's self-proclaimed "skeptics" say they don't believe in the supernatural, often they seem to mean that they only believe things that can be confirmed scientifically. Their position is not naturalism, but nonsense. There are other ways of finding knowledge besides science. Philosophy and art are a couple of obvious ones - and yes, philosophy is a rational subject and the arts do yield new knowledge of reality, no matter what you've heard. These other ways of knowing can yield real knowledge that is not part of science. However, the possibility of extrascientific knowledge is a different issue from the reality of the supernatural. It's possible to recognize that there is extrascientific knowledge whether or not you believe in the supernatural. Many "skeptics" who claim to be naturalists are actually wide-eyed believers in a naive view of science - not adherents of a truly naturalistic picture of the world.

posted at: 02:36 | path: /religion | persistent link to this entry

Fri, 01 Oct 2010

Let's Change the Subject and Talk About...Snails!

Back in 2008 when I started this blog, I said I planned to write about politics, religion, science, snails, and more. Well, I've covered all these topics but one - snails. So here's a post with the most interesting snail news that I've run across recently on the web.

  • The World Snail Racing Championship was held in July 2010. For information on the outcome, see this story.
  • A new, potent anti-pain drug, based on snail venom, is in the works.
  • An amateur scientist may have discovered a homing instinct in snails.
  • An artist in London did a project involving painting on live snails. Wow! That project really explores the boundaries of art media. (This story was dated 2008, so it isn't new news, but it's news to me.)

I've always found mollusks, and especially snails, to be rather interesting animals. These stories didn't change my opinion!

posted at: 00:01 | path: /nature | persistent link to this entry


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