May 10, 2014

Horse 1672 - The Problem With "The Problem With God"

I'm reading a book at the moment by a professor of political philosophy at Reed College, Oregon, a Mr Peter J Steinberger; entitled "The Problem With God: Why Atheists, True Believers and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong" (2013).
Whilst I am finding the book entertaining, being written rather like a a good Jewish argument, I think that it fails on the grounds that although the conclusion is valid, the conclusion is drawn from from false principles.

1. It is impossible - literally impossible - for us to imagine anything existing in the world that wasn't caused to exist by something else. (page 6)
Steinberger labours this point quite strongly. The argument is along the lines of, every effect has a cause like a string of Dominoes; that first domino that moved must have been caused to move by some other thing which caused it to move; that thing (which is the new First Thing), that moved must have been caused to move by some other thing which caused it to move... etc etc etc ad infinitum.
Therefore the idea that God either does or doesn't exist can not be a proper concept.

There's a problem with this:
Are virtual particles really constantly popping in and out of existence? Or are they merely a mathematical bookkeeping device for quantum mechanics?
Virtual particles are indeed real particles. Quantum theory predicts that every particle spends some time as a combination of other particles in all possible ways. These predictions are very well understood and tested.
- Scientific American, 9th Oct 2006

Thanks to some of the conclusions of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in the realm of quantum physics, the conclusion is that not only are particles existing and not existing, that particles are coming into and out of existence all the time but that some particles even appear to travel backwards through time; and are destroyed before they are created.

Is it impossible to imagine anything existing in the world that wasn't caused to exist by something else?Science says that not only is it possible but is happening literally all of the time. Quantum Physics suggests that at an elementary particle level, cause and existence might well be completely irrelevant.

In roughly the same way, there is not and can never be, a concept of God. We can never have the idea of a world that didn't have a beginning. Something must have started everything - a First Thing, an Unmoved Mover. (page 52)
Mathematics throws up the idea of infinities all the time. Most of us will remember basic high school trigonometry.
In a right angled triangle, the tangent function gets larger and larger as the opposite side to the angle in question gets longer and longer. A triangle of angles 89° and 1° will be a very very long skinny thing indeed; at angles bigger than 89° though, it just gets longer and skinnier. When you get to 90° though, what other angle completes the triangle? Well none really. It's mathematically impossible. Two 90° angles creates parallel lines which never meet and thus the opposite side stretches all the way into infinity.
Infinity then, is not a concept that we have a problem with. On top of that, even differing degrees of infinity is not a concept that we have a problem with.

To demonstrate this, let's take a short drive down a winding road to Hilbert's Grand Hotel.
Suppose that you have a Grand Hotel with an infinite number of rooms. All of the rooms are currently filled by an infinite number of people, who are having an infinite amount of fun at an infinite expensive party for mathematicians (in truth though, mathematicians do not have that much fun). A late running guest shows up and has to be put into a room. Then what? The solution, is to have the person in Room 1 move to Room 2, the person in Room 2 move to Room 3, et cetera and ad nauseum to infinity.
Suppose then that another party begins for an infinite number of physicists who show up in an infinite amount of taxi cabs. Then what? One solution might be to have all of the people mathematicians to a room which has a number twice that of their original room number. Then all of the mathematicians would be in even numbered rooms and all of the physicists would be in odd numbered rooms. Simple.
What now? The second infinity described must be functionally twice as big as the first infinity. Degrees of magnitude of infinity is also not a concept that we have a problem with.

Why then does Steinberger have a problem with the concept of something which has always existed. On a timescale, of we supposed that right now is time 0, then that would mean that God might have existed from time -∞. Time would begin at some -x relative to now.
The first word in the Hebrew Tanakh (and the Torah) is the word בְּ רֵ אשִׁ ית or "Bereshit" which means "the Beginning". I find no problem in the idea that a thing doesn't have to have an initial cause. Elementary particles come in and out of existence all the time; without initial causes; so the idea that there was a something which must have started everything, a First Thing; an Unmoved Mover, seems perfectly logical and valid to me.
What is so logically difficult to accept about an Unmoved Mover which existed from time -∞? Things which always existed from even before the existence of time itself (in so far as much as time is a subordinate dimension) aren't a logically impossible construct; so the idea that "we can never have the idea of a world that didn't have a beginning" is also not impossible. It's also not impossible that a being might have existed without a beginning either.

2. To talk about God is to talk about something that cannot possibly exist and, at the same time, absolutely must exist. But we cannot have the idea of something that both exists and doesn't exist at the same. There's no such concept. So to ask if that concept which is not a concept at all, describes anything in the world, is to ask a non-question. There's no concept about which to ask. (page 74)
The problem with defining God as an "it" and as something which is both possible and impossible at the same time, Steinberger thinks is an invalid conclusion. I wonder though, if that in itself defies reality.

To wit: Theism is the proposition that God/s exist and presumably from this a priori position, everything else must follow.
Atheism (thanks to the Greek "a-" which negates an idea) is the proposition that God/s do not exist and presumably from this a priori position, everything else must follow.
In both viewpoints, there is a distinct problem in trying to disprove the positions but virtue of the fact that the person who holds either of these viewpoints, will deny the evidence which is contrary to their a priori standpoint. This then becomes a matter of acceptability of evidence rather than trying to prove of disprove a concept.
If both viewpoints are fundamentally flawed as Steinberger suggests then I don't even know what road he finds himself on. Yet strangely, it's also not true that "we cannot have the idea of something that both exists and doesn't exist at the same". There is such a concept and like all good concepts on the internet, it involves cat pictures.

Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist whose most famous picture is that of a cat in a thought experiment.
Suppose you were to put a cat (yeah, I know it could have been a dog or a moose or a cow (and scientists really love cows (and this is the third set of nested parenthesis))), into a bunker with a beaker filled poisonous gas and precariously balanced on the edge of table, such that it could fall over at any moment. If the bottle falls over and shatters, thus releasing the gas, then that poisonous gas has a 50% chance to kill the cat within one minute. 50% of the time, then it's "no more scratching post" for Mr Kitty and the other 50% of the time, Mr Kitty is free to live out his wee kitty life.
The thing is though that after one minute, the cat has either two conditions - dead or alive. There isn't really any other choice. Repeat the experiment often enough and half the time you have a dead kitty; the other half of the time, kitty lives. Get it? Got it? Good.

The thing is that from a quantum position, before we look, the cat is in what's known as a "superposition", that is that it's theoretically possible for Mr Kitty to be both dead or alive at the same time until observed. The act of observation itself, forces reality to decide for us. The thing is though, that inside the bunker, the cat either sees the beaker or poisonous gas shatter or it doesn't. There is no half way house option there either.
Schrödinger says that not only does our act of observation have a bearing on whether or not Mr Kitty lives or dies but also that Mr Kitty's reality is "entangled" with the outcome of the experiment. It is our act of observation that forces reality to show its cards.
Then again, who watches us to decide whether or not we look at the cat inside the bunker who is either dead or alive. Does outside observation force reality there as well?
Guess what? It turns out that this is one of those things about which science itself has no answer for. It's not that it asks a non question, but that reality itself must warp around something. Paradoxes like this exist everywhere in science. Denying the concept seems pretty foolhardy to me and just avoids asking the question.

The thing I like about these sort of paradoxes, is that the Bible in places doesn't avoid them. It lays out in plain text, that the paradox exists and the consequences therein:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 
- 1 Corinthians 15:13-17

In short, if what Paul knew about God was wrong, then it was pointless. Paul basically says here that people should get into one of the two camps and stick with their decision. Paul believes that God exists and that there are consequences of that belief. Unlike Schrödinger's make-believe cat though, reality will not collapse based upon people's observation. There is a concept about which to ask and you'd better make sure that the answer is right.

3. The problem with God is not that we don't have enough facts. The problem is that we don't have an idea at all, and so we can't even know what kinds of facts we should be looking for. Facts about what? To look for facts about God would be like trying to put justice on a scale and weigh it in ounces and pounds. (page 126)
Essentially what Steinberger has been suggesting and building up to at this point is that God as a thing which as he his it, is both impossible and completely possible, is also indescribable because the concept is invalid.
Steinberger at this point thinks that the concept of God is as The Princess Bride's Vizzini would say: "Inconceivable." Like Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

If I wanted to collect facts about something I'd start to make observations, or read a book by someone who had already done so. Science itself comes from the Latin word "scientia" which means "knowledge". If I for instance wanted to find something out Immanuel Kant, I could either read a book about him or better yet, I could read his works and gain some perspective into the way that he though.

If I wanted to fine something out about the Crimean War, I might look at either contemporary accounts, newspaper accounts which made investigations or later documents by historians who made their investigations. Like a detective in search of the facts, I also wouldn't even know what kinds of facts we should be looking for but I do know that once we'd found them, we'd have a better picture built up that when we started.

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
- Luke 1:1-4

Ah Luke, physician and I suspect, amateur investigative journalist. Before Luke wrote his account, he made many trips and visited people and witnesses who saw events, who heard Christ speak in person and more than likely interviewed people. In doing so, I actually wonder if Luke racked up more miles than either Paul of Timothy of whom he wrote.
Also, the fact that we have four gospels, seems to me like a pretty good standard if you wanted to present a legal case to a court. Four independent accounts do better than fulfil the Roman Legal requirements of finding three witnesses for a case.

If you wanted to find out something about a person, then finding out what they said might be a pretty good place to start. I did a quick search in Bible Gateway to find all the instances and variants of "The Lord God said" or thereabouts and found 1024 of them. I mean, if you wanted a pretty good idea of someone, to have more than a thousand things that they said, also seems pretty comprehensive to me.

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 people are without excuse.
- Romans 1:20

Again, if God's invisible qualities have clearly been seen, then it isn't really a matter of what is knowable or not knowable about God but rather, what is deemed acceptable proof of God's existence.

Steinberger's conclusion:
Except to say - lamely, incoherently, as quietly as possible - that this cannot be all there is. That if the pathetic limits of the human mind cannot be transcended - which they cannot - there nonetheless absolutely must be something (sic!!) that is indeed transcendent. I hope you can see that this is not a matter of faith. It's not a guess. It's not a wish. It's simply and completely and undeniably true.
The three pillars upon which the arguments in this book run (first cause, lack of concept and unknowability) all fail on him and he arrives at a conclusion which as a Christian I agree with. My problem with "The Problem With God" then, is that I find all of his arguments faulty.
The whole book is either built upon the premise of building up straw men and then setting them on fire. That for me is a bad way to conduct an argument; even if I do happen to agree with the conclusion. Either the book has been written with the intent of creating straw men and then tearing them down (which I think is a dishonest method of conducting and argument) or he genuinely started out without preconceptions and then ended up tearing them down anyway (in which case, then that's just plain clumsy).
Even with my own a priori viewpoint that God exists, is real, is knowable, existed and could have always existed without first cause, I just don't find the arguments as presented in this book acceptable.

My problem with "The Problem With God" is that it ends up being a meta-argument against itself and I just don't know how far down a Klein shaped rabbit hole I'm prepared to go.

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