Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


A Transcendental God

I have read about a million reviews now of The God Delusion. This was a tricksy one by Terry Eagleton in The London Review of Books.

It comes out fighting…

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

…but its real strength comes when he points out that Dawkins, like so many anti-religious writers, directs most of his criticism at the idea of a personal God rather than the transcendental idea of God that the reviewer believes in.

Dawkins speaks scoffingly of a personal God, as though it were entirely obvious exactly what this might mean. He seems to imagine God, if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized. He asks how this chap can speak to billions of people simultaneously, which is rather like wondering why, if Tony Blair is an octopus, he has only two arms. For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.

The critic is of course right. Serious theologians in many Christian denominations describe God in transcendental terms that, without the benefit of several years of training in theology, escape all definition or meaning. Arguing against the man with a long beard sitting on a cloud is much easier than arguing against the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever and leaves you open to the criticism that you are not arguing in good faith.

It was amusing, then, to read a review that addresses the reviewer on his own terms. I love the way he draws a clear line from the unknowable God…

The previous excerpt, which defined God as “the condition of possibility,” seemed to be warning against the dangers of anthropomorphizing the deity, ascribing to it features that we would normally associate with conscious individual beings such as ourselves. A question like “Does `the condition of possibility’ exist?” would never set off innumerable overheated arguments, even in a notoriously contentious blogosphere.

… to the Man in the Cloud…

But — inevitably — Eagleton does go ahead and burden this innocent-seeming concept with all sorts of anthropomorphic baggage. God created the universe “out of love,” is capable of “regret,” and “is an artist.” That’s crazy talk. What could it possibly mean to say that “The condition of possibility is an artist, capable of regret”? Nothing at all. Certainly not anything better-defined than “My envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.” And once you start attributing to God the possibility of being interested in some way about the world and the people in it, you open the door to all of the nonsensical rules and regulations governing real human behavior that tend to accompany any particular manifestation of religious belief, from criminalizing abortion to hiding women’s faces to closing down the liquor stores on Sunday.

…in two easy steps.

It is of course futile to attempt to prove that God does not exist but it is useful to understand the various attempts to prove His existence and where they fall short. To this end, I highly recommend reading this deconstruction of Eagleton’s review. Here’s the link again, in case you missed it first time.

I especially enjoyed it because it supports an idea that I have had from time to time: that if an core concept in a theory seems to cause a paradox (e.g., phlogiston, ether, absolute time and space, souls, consciousness, free will) then there is probably a new and better theory that doesn’t require that concept (oxygen, relativity, er…still working on the others).

In fact, in this day and age the flaws in Aristotle’s cosmological proof (just to pick one) are perfectly clear. Our understanding of the inner workings of the physical world has advanced quite a bit since the ancient Greeks. Long ago, Galileo figured out that the correct way to think about motion was to abstract from messy real-world situations to idealized circumstances in which dissipative effects such as friction and air resistance could be ignored. (They can always be restored later as perturbations.) Only then do we realize that what matter really wants to do is to maintain its motion at a constant speed, until it is explicitly acted upon by some external force.