Friday, March 07, 2008

Further Thoughts on the Problem of God


I've had exactly a week since my Enterprise-Record article, "The Problem of Good" appeared, and I'd like to offer a few thoughts in response to my critics.

First of all, I am thankful for those (admittedly few) who responded. I am convinced that solid Christian thought (although my article was really simply "theistic") has nothing to hide, and therefore gains much, from honest engagement. Admittedly, many self-proclaimed religious "thinkers" are embarrassments. On the other hand, judging from some atheists, they have not cornered the market! So my hope is that this open exchange of ideas will prove fruitful.

I should also say something I couldn't include in my 700ish-word ER article: I am convinced that science provides excellent means for us to understand the complex realities of nature. Particularly, Darwin's theory--and subsequent neo-Darwinian evolution--have much to offer. I am thankful to be in serious intellectual interchange over his theories through the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences and Metanexus Institute. I realize that Darwin's theory will continue to produce profound insights, as well as questions, for theists. For what it's worth, in my reading, Darwin himself appears not to have taken his theory toward atheism, but remained something of a deist. In any event, I was highlighting the contradiction that some atheistic scientists find themselves in (namely, that they have no ground for good within their systems of thought).

And this brings me to a central item that has missed the attention of my critics: In the article, I am quoting atheists. Dawkins, Geller, and Weinberg provide the ideas. It is not Augustine, Pascal, and Tillich. In a blog apparently populated by Dawkins's disciples, they pointed to his argument in "The God Delusion" on good. Dawkins does in fact present a kinder, gentler atheism in that book, but without serious philosophical reasoning for his bold assertions. For all his stylistic brilliance, Dawkins most often resorts to name-calling, inuendo, and bullying. (That's probably why the book has sold so well--it fits our zeitgeist.) I find it hard to take him seriously. In philosophy, one cannot put this book in the same work by atheists such as Diderort, D'Allembert, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, or Russell. Instead, I chose to quote him from the earlier, "River Out of Eden" because he was much more thorough and honest there.

Tanya Heinrich's thoughtful reply, in the previous post, seeks to solve the problem of good by saying essentially that there is no such thing as good. It is a way out of the dilemma. I'm struck that this is so unsatisfying intellectually and ultimately circular. I can say that poetry does not exist, and that it's simply black and white on a page. But where does that leave me? Without the beauty of Shakespeare's or Eliot's words. She does offer that contemporary thinkers--she references Quammen--are seeking to build a new system (which of course has been a project for the past 200 years or so). They haven't convinced me yet that there is a sufficient reason to posit the non-existence of good, meaning, beauty to match the related non-existence of God.

Ms. Henrich's thoughtfulness does escape her when she closes the argument by writing, "There are those who believe that religion and science can co-exist. I am not one of these people. Religion is a crutch that was contrived to control and manipulate people and used in most despicable ways." This is an example of the lack of serious thinking that atheists so often apply to "religion." Can she really be serious that all religion was contrived to manipulate people? The assertion is so broad as to be either easily falsified (select one religious tradition that was not contrived to manipulate--easy) or as to have no actual explanatory power.

There is much more to say, but in this post, I'll close in with this: I am seeking to take atheists seriously by looking at the import of their words. When I do, I see that they come to incredible roadblocks in their theories. Christian theologians have been much more honest about their aporias for centuries, and it's time for the New Atheists not only to know their sparring partners better, but to engage in a higher degree of intellectual rigor.

10 comments:

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

You want a "higher degree of intellectual rigor"? Maybe you could start by explaining why, if you "find it difficult to take [Dawkins] seriously," you would choose to quote him as representative of the atheist position on the alleged "problem of good." Is it intellectually rigorous to choose less than the best representative for a view you are arguing against? Feel free to quote anything Bertrand Russell wrote on the alleged "problem of good."

Next up: "If the universe is simply a physical system, then why should something non-physical like good, meaning, purpose, or beauty arise? It cannot."

If you want a place to start, try looking under emergence.

Your quotes from Geller, Dawkins and Weinberg are more about the lack of ulitmate purpose in the universe, not about "goodness," which you never defined. Are you talking about natural good (e.g. finding a tree with ripe tasty fruit) or human behaviour (altruism)? Doesn't the "goodness" of something depend on viewpoint? There is some truth to the old saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." I say that the same applies to goodness. If you want intellectual rigor, define your terms.

Weinberg talks about creating one's own purpose in existence. There is ample evidence that humans can love each other, discover things about nature, create works of art, and assign those activities to their purpose. Why would you apply the word faith to that?

GCootsona said...

Ms./Mr./Dr. Bouffant,
I concede that I did not clearly define "good" in the 700 word article I wrote, but I bundled it together with three other concepts. I just didn't think "The Problem of Good, Meaning, Beauty, and Purpose" had much of a ring to it. Any or all are problems for atheists.

I'm surprised you didn't see in my last post that I consider Dawkins's earlier works to be more rigorous and for that reason, I chose "River" for my quote over "The God Delusion." Does that respond adequately?

Emergence, as I'm sure you're aware, is term that has a wide variety of meanings, e.g., "weak" v. "strong" emergence. It's a fascinating topic, but many scientists consider it a sleight-of-hand to grab free will or intentionality (for example) out of purely physical processes without further explanation. But this would require a much longer response.

I wonder what you have produced positively--I see you populate various blogs with your comments. Is there anything one could read that is a sustained presentation of your ideas?

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

I concede that I did not clearly define "good" in the 700 word article I wrote, but I bundled it together with three other concepts. I just didn't think "The Problem of Good, Meaning, Beauty, and Purpose" had much of a ring to it. Any or all are problems for atheists.

I cannot agree with the bundling, and I cannot agree that any of these is a problem for atheists, and I note that you failed to quote anything by Bertrand Russell. Surely if this is a legitimate philosophical problem, he would have commented on it. He was both prolific and long-lived.

I'm not sure what you mean by listing "meaning" and "purpose" separately. It is true that atheism implies a lack of ultimate God-given purpose, but this is not a challenge to the case for atheism, but an argument from consequences. As for dealing with consequences, individuals are free to be optimistic or pessimistic about whatever they chose; some atheists feel it is liberating to be able to form their own purpose, rather than have one thrust upon them. Others who were not raised in a theistic environment do not feel that anything has been taken away from them because they were never stewed in false promises. A piece by theologian John Haught recently appeared in The Christian Century, on the topic of purpose and nihilism. You might be interested in tracking that down. Here's a response by Jason Rosenhouse.


Beauty: I have already stated that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." I see no response. There is substantial evidence that the standards of beauty have shifted over time and across cultures.

Goodness still stands undefined, and it is such an amorphous term. I had a burger for dinner last night. It was good. I cannot agree that my atheism makes that burger not good. White European settlers decimated the pre-existing population of Tasmania. That was good for the white settlers, but bad for the natives. It's not clear how to approach the "problem of goodness" until goodness, and why you consider it to be a problem for atheists, is defined more clearly.

Emergence: yes, I'm aware that some people attempt to use the concept of emergence to sneak in some magic. You can understand that is not a use of emergence with which I would agree.

I wonder what you have produced positively--I see you populate various blogs with your comments. Is there anything one could read that is a sustained presentation of your ideas?

I'm sure that's not an attempt to abandon the defense of ideas you have put forward and go on the offensive, because that would be inconsistent with your call for "a higher degree of intellectual rigor."

GCootsona said...

It's critical to remember that my "Problem of Good" article/post--which I take still to be the topic--cited three atheists. Their thoughts, not mind, offer the basis for my reflections. My lead-off was Richard Dawkins, who was commenting on a bus crash that killed some Catholic school children and particularly on theologians' attempts to find something worthwhile in that event. Dawkins pitted "design, purpose, evil, and good against "blind, pitiless indifference."

So the convergence of those terms is his work. As I read it, he finds it necessary to get rid of them all in order to respond to the reality of evil and suffering in the world. So the terms aren't entirely mine to define, and since you're the atheist (I'm presuming), you would probably do better than me.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

The original Dawkins quote:

"In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

It is clear (to me) that Dawkins is talking about absolute good and absolute evil. Indeed, atheism does not have much of a place for these (although as mentioned by someone else already, the dilemma of divine command is problematic for theistic versions of God-derived goodness).

Absolute good would only be a challenge to the rational case for atheism if you could provide independent evidence that it actually exists. You don't appear to have done so. Things that happen that are good in a non-absolute sense for particular parties are not a challenge to the rational case for atheism.

The distinction between challenging the rational case for atheism, and being uncomfortable with its consequences has already been addressed. I would rather face an uncomfortable truth than live a comforting lie.

For someone who is calling for "a higher degree of intellectual rigor" in your opponents, you sure are cutting a lot of corners, and leaving a lot of unanswered questions.

GCootsona said...

Thanks for your comments (and I apologize for my utter slowness in responding).

I don't see where Dawkins actually uses, or implies, the adjective "absolute" before "good" or "evil." So I'll return to the main point I'm highlighting--from the words of atheists themselves: goodness, purpose, and meaning do not correspond to a universe without a God. I haven't yet seen you respond to that particular challenge. (You seem more interested in attacking my views as a Christian.)

If you'd like to have the final word on the topic, please go for it. My next post will probably go in another direction. Thanks, in any case, for your vigorous (and admittedly antagonistic) responses.

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

"So I'll return to the main point I'm highlighting--from the words of atheists themselves: goodness, purpose, and meaning do not correspond to a universe without a God. I haven't yet seen you respond to that particular challenge."

You continue to ignore my criticisms and fail to make requested clarifications. I cannot respond until you make some clarifications. How do you consider those things (goodness, purpose, meaning) to be a "challenge" to atheism?

Do you mean that they are a challenge to the rational case for atheism? I disagree, and you have produced no argument to the contrary. "Purpose," e.g. could only be a challenge in that way if you could independently establish that purpose existed. You have not even made an attempt. You also have not shown that any of the quoted atheists consider these things to be a rational challenge to atheism.

Or do you mean that they are consequences of atheism that you consider to be unpleasant? In the quotes you reproduce, Dawkins, Geller and Weinberg do not mention any "problem." I would hope someone with your experience in philosophy would understand the fallacy in making an argument from consequences.

BTW, you continue to list both "purpose" and "meaning" in the same list, as though they have separate meanings for you. And yet you have failed to clarify the distinction.

You also continue to refuse to define "goodness," saying that Dawkins used the word. But you are claiming that Dawkins is making your point for you, so you should be able to provide the definition that Dawkins used and be able to make a case that he is using it in the same way you would. For goodness sake.

I guess I'm going to have to go elsewhere to find "a higher degree of intellectual rigor."

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

I think one of the greatest arguments for Greg's deism is how much of a jerk you were in this discussion...I know, i'm being a bit nihilistic, but, man, you could really use some softening around the edges :)

I think this quote by you sums it up:

"As for dealing with consequences, individuals are free to be optimistic or pessimistic about whatever they chose; some atheists feel it is liberating to be able to form their own purpose, rather than have one thrust upon them."

thrust upon them....very interesting....that speaks volumes of your fear of being controlled...you have this negative fixed belief that any acceptance of god equals being controlled. I think your gold may be more in spending some time privately processing that idea than blowing off steam in the antagonistic manner you've demonstrated here.

I'm not expecting you to magically declare a savior or something...i'm not saying my observation contributes to the existence or non-existence of god at all.......too many brain studies have shown genetic / functioning differences between how our brains can handle ambiguity, belief, etc...but you attack with so much vigor...thou doth protest too much...

again, I don't mean to be ad hominem...I think your discussions are intellectually stimulating...but there are other dimensions to your logic not addressed here...

matt

Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

I think one of the greatest arguments for Greg's deism is how much of a jerk you were in this discussion.
...
again, I don't mean to be ad hominem...


Your comment is nothing but ad hominem. And if you had any counter-arguments to my content, you wouldn't be reduced to criticizing my style.