Friday, April 8, 2016

Some Thoughts on God is a Question, Not an Answer

William Irwin, professor of Philosophy at King’s College, posted an opinion piece in the New York Times (March 26, 2016) entitled God is a Question, Not an Answer. Professor Irwin contends, rightly I believe, that both the true believer and the avowed atheist “must admit that he has his doubts, that occasionally he thinks he might be wrong.”

Does God exist? Irwin goes on, “There is no easy answer: Indeed, the question may be fundamentally unanswerable.”

As a result, Irwin suggests that people should not be too dogmatic in their discussions of the question, but should be open to opinions from all areas of the spectrum. I should like to discuss how the question arose in the first place.

Both the believer and the non-believer eventually arrive at an answer which, although they may not realize it, turns out to be the same unfalsifiable hypothesis about which Bertrand Russell wrote so clearly in 1952.1 Or as Carl Sagan so succinctly put it, "Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true."2

Believers may bring up the argument that since every race, every tribe, every group, etc. ever discovered, be it extinct or completely isolated from civilization, has some belief in a mystical connection to the unknown, therefore there must be something causing such a belief. And I agree.

But that something is not God’s search for man, as believers suggest. In fact, it’s just the opposite, it is man’s search for God, and man thinks he has found Him.

I suggest that the earliest hominids, including Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons and Homo Sapiens were doing the same thing as the scientists of today, that is, trying to make sense of the surrounding universe, but with no tools other than sticks and stones, no standards of measurement and very limited language skills they faced a daunting task. They could feel the wind, hear the rustling of leaves and the songs of birds, experience the power of waterfalls and thunder, and see the movements of animals, but with no visible cause behind these phenomena they opted for the invisible. First it was gods, and after many generations it became God.
This situation prevailed until the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific revolution in the eighteenth century, at which time authority and legitimacy were based on reason rather than the fixed dogmas of the church. Until then the question of God’s existence was virtually unquestioned.

Several logical arguments have been proposed attempting to prove the existence of God – the most common one is that of first cause:


1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

          2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

 
This first cause is defined as God, but the question then arises as to what was the first cause of God. Similar objective logic negates similar proposals.

The literature is full of cases of people who were dying, but after prayers were offered they were miraculously cured. The non-believer warns against accepting the “sample of one,” and suggests that just because we do not understand an event does not necessarily prove the existence of God.

For example, suppose Benjamin Franklin were to come back into today’s civilization – what would be his reaction? What would he think of today’s science? I submit that to the good doctor it would be somewhat akin to Arthur C. Clarke’s 3rd law of predictions: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I am not attempting to prove that God does not exist, since I cannot, any more than the believer can prove that He does. I am questioning the value of professor Irwin’s suggestion that we listen to all sides of the “Does God exist?” question.

We may as well argue how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.


1.    Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

2.  The Demon-Haunted World (1995).

 

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