God (Part 1)

In this philosophical phriday, I'll be writing about what I consider the least useful of any branch of philosophy.

Some of the greatest minds in the world have expended vast effort in trying to prove their version of their religion's god existed.

In 6000 years recorded history, the result has been...half a dozen rather unimpressive arguments. This in itself I find remarkable. Less effort has been spent searching for proofs of hypotheses in economics, engineering and biology - and it takes a towering expert in any of these fields to conclusively refute any of them.

And yet, there's not one theological proof which stands against an ordinary person asking obvious questions.

You don't believe me? Here are the first three.

  • The Ontological Argument: God is the greatest thing imaginable. To exist is greater than to not exist. Therefore god exists.

There are so many things wrong with this - every generation seems to find new flaws.

Why define god that way at all? What about all the other attributes - eternality, creation, self-creation (whatever that means), justness, wrath, deserving of worship, the obsessions with sex and genocide - are they part of this total greatness? Why?

Why is it greater to exist than not? And what do we mean by existence anyway? Plenty of languages don't even have a corresponding verb, and if an argument can only be made in certain languages, isn't it just the result of some grammatical confusion?

If god's the greatest thing imaginable, what exactly are you imagining if you try to imagine it? And seeing as it's such a vague notion, can't you just imagine something even greater?

If greatness does entail existence, shouldn't that mean the greatest milkshake imaginable must also exist? And the greatest everything else.

  • The Cosmological Argument: The universe must have had a beginning, therefore it must have been started by something, therefore that thing must be god.

This shows the problem that most proofs of god have - even if you accept the premises and the reasoning, it doesn't prove what they want it to prove.

Assuming for the moment the universe did have a beginning, why did it need something existing before that to make that beginning? And wouldn't that thing need a creator too? If it didn't, on what grounds can you insist the universe did?

Brushing all that under the carpet, you still need to justify giving all those other attributes to this nebulously defined creator.

  • The Teleological Argument: Things have a structure. Structure is the same as design, therefore there was a single designer. Therefore the designer was god.

I like this one, because every single link in the logical chain is broken. Structure isn't the same as design - if it were, that cone-shaped heap of sawdust that forms under the plank of wood you're sawing would be deliberately designed that way, by you. Which means you could design it to fall into a cube if you chose.

Even if we accept the reasoning that there is a designer, as with the cosmological argument, there's no reason to identify it with the christian god. Or any god that anyone's ever believed in, or could have believed in.

It demonstrates the question surrounding all metaphors: When do you stop applying it?

Say god is like an architect. But architects don't actually build what they plan. And they aren't immortal, incorporeal, or their own fathers. And buildings are made of pre-existing material, not created out of nothing.

Buildings aren't made by a single act of labour - they're co-operative, so maybe there's a swarm of creator gods out there. Some buildings are incompetently made, and their makers usually make lots of them. Perhaps the gnostics were right and the devil made the universe?

The thing is, it's that way with all the metaphors - god as builder, parent, gardener, judge, friend, king, whatever. Whenever you say 'God is like an X', you have to snow it with a seemingly neverending list of qualifications - ways in which god is not like an X.

God is like a loving parent. But he won't stop you stepping out into traffic, or cook for you, or give you advice beyond what was written thousands of years ago by some bronze age goat herders. Also, he probably didn't have sex with your mother.

He won't even change his plans to help you - prayer consists of asking him to intervene in the world for your benefit...but only if it's part of his plan - only if he was going to do so anyway.

This is known in theological circles as the 'Death of a thousand qualifications', and it leads some thinkers to posit a god who is so totally alien that language, evidence and thought simply don't apply. And then talk like they've proven such a thing exists.

These are the three 'classical' arguments, and they're still in use today, especially the teleological. For the next three, tune in for part two.

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