Monday, September 29, 2008

A response given to an atheist of my acquaintance upon his demanding, point blank, that someone prove to him the existence of God.

This is analogously equivalent to a beginning student of algebra asking for someone to prove Gödel's incompleteness theorems to them. Without the necessary background the proofs aren't meaningful to the one being taught, so they must either believe the teacher based upon his own credentials and authority or else doubt the teacher because they did not understand him and thus weren't convinced.

Proof of the existence of God is the end of metaphysics. It takes as given all previous metaphysical principles, as well as the principles of the philosophy of nature that metaphysics takes as its foundations. A thorough account would take at least a book. A complete understanding could take a lifetime. That might not be very satisfying. Reality can be a harsh mistress.

I would also note that if by "proof" you mean "scientific proof," then you are asking for the impossible. I will note, however, that I am not saying this simply to say that the existence of God is not a question open to the empirical-mathematical method of modern science, which is interested only in the accidents of sensible quantity and measurable quality. I am saying this because the scientific method, as a method, is not capable of providing proof of anything in a strict sense.

The scientific method is an inductive and dialectic method which relies on continually observing things under particular circumstances, forming hypotheses based upon these observations and then testing the hypotheses against further observations. When one hypothesis is demonstrated to be false because reality does not follow the predicted outcome, the data is then reconsidered and a new hypothesis is formed and tested. When a hypothesis continually predicts reality correctly, it is then considered to be true.

This is not, however, equivalent to proving that the hypothesis is true. The hypothesis is probably true because particular circumstances have continually conformed to the hypothesis' predictions. But all it takes is a single, repeatable example in which the hypothesis fails to render said hypothesis false, at least in scope if not completely. Sometimes such observations take decades, or even centuries, to be realized because they require new tools to enhance our senses, allowing us to observe phenomena that we previously could not observe. For example, classical mechanics was long believed to be the whole of mechanics until we were able to observe phenomena on a much smaller scale, a scale in which classical mechanics breaks down and fails to make accurate predictions. Thus quantum mechanics was born.

Thus, the scientific method, being an inductive method, does not prove anything in the strict sense. Its results are probably true, but they are not definitely true. In the most accurate sense, the information about reality given by science would be called justified belief, which is traditionally the name given to propositions held due to induction (moving from the particular to the universal) and dialectics (the back and forth of hypotheses until one is arrived upon that cannot be disproved given the current circumstances).

However, in the interest of providing some help, I will offer the following link. It provides an audio lecture on some proofs for the existence of God by the philosopher Peter Kreeft, as well as links to some more of his writings on the question. I offer this link with two caveats:

1. These lectures and writings are simplifications for the purpose of speaking to a non-academic audience with little or no higher level training in philosophy. As such, it is possible that there are weaknesses in the arguments as presented that would not be present in more rigorous and academic presentations of them.

2. Simplifications such as these are sometimes targeted at audiences more inclined to agree with the arguments than not. As such, the tone of the presentation might be contrary to your sensibilities. This is simply what one must deal with when one is dealing with this kind of work. I feel the same way reading Dawkins or Dennett.


Tom said...

How did your response go over?

brendon said...

How did your response go over?

I don't know. The exchange took place on one of those online "social networking" sites and he hasn't responded to me yet.

I can give more information on why I responded as I did, which may help fill in the picture.

I'm not actually sure that his question wasn't merely a rhetorical way of saying, "All Christians are dumb!" since he asked if anyone could prove the existence to God to him without using the Bible. This, in my experience, is generally a way of painting all Christians as fools who fall back on circular reasoning. But, since we were friends in college, even if just by certain common interests, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I was also likely the only one of his acquaintances who would offer a response that was not a short burst of agreement, since those had been the only responses he had gotten so far. Of our shared acquaintances on said website, I was the only one I knew of who would not either be put of by his dismissal of the Bible or miss his statement as it fell through the cracks of the activities of all the other people I know. As such, I felt I had a certain duty to respond.

I responded as I did because it seemed the most prudent way to respond based upon my own experience, both with modern atheists in general and my acquaintance in particular. Simplifications of, for example, St. Thomas' five ways lead to long arguments over the definitions of terms. These often ends in frustration and with the atheist dismissing the argument, either because they refuse to accept any definition that is different from one they have previously held for a familiar term, or because they think that the argument has gotten too complicated and thus can be nothing but word games, hand waving and attempts to avoid the obvious. None of this is true, and I thought a comparison with something that atheists generally hold to be provably true, such as proofs of mathematical theorems, would demonstrate the fact that something is not false simply because understanding it might require a large amount of background knowledge a non-specialists would not have at their immediate disposal.

The second part of my response was to demonstrate that, in many areas where modern atheists think proof exists, it actually does not. The scientific method, as it is generally understood, is not a method that proves things to be necessarily true, but rather only probably true. I did this for two reasons. First, because this means that any attempt to demonstrate the existence of God that depends on making an inductive argument is not necessarily unworthy of belief because it is not strictly demonstrable, since science itself is not strictly demonstrable. Second, because this realization demonstrates that many modern atheists, despite holding themselves to be the pinnacle of rational thought and unaffected by prejudice, are actually prejudiced against belief in the existence of God, demanding for it more evidence than they demand of things they freely believe to be infallible.

I put forward these points at the start because I believe they need to be out in the open for a fruitful discussion to take place. One cannot have a worthwhile discussion or attempt to teach another if the one you are trying to teach does not possess the necessary background information and is hostile to any attempts to be taught. A certain amount of patience and docility is necessary if one is to learn. My preliminary points were meant to point this out in the hopes of making my acquaintance reassess his apparently hostile position. This does not, of course, mean that he must simply believe me if we have any further discussions, but it does mean that he not be so hostile as to dismiss anything I would have to say as absurd on its face.

Finally, I linked him to Peter Kreeft's lecture and writings because I believe Dr. Kreeft to be one of the best popularizers of philosophy. I generally believe he is able to simplify arguments and put them into common language without weakening them. Now, it has been awhile since I have listened to some of his lectures, so it is possible that he may weaken some arguments while doing this. But this is possible for anyone. Indeed, I mentioned my first caveat because I know that if I had tried to lay out such arguments in a more accessible manner, I would have almost certainly made them appear weaker than they are in fact. Indeed, this fact is why I did not simply give my acquaintance an argument. My second caveat was offered for a similar reason. I know that I have a tendency to perhaps present a topic to a hostile party in a manner that turns them off. While I do not believe Dr. Kreeft presents in such a manner, I have seen some relatively hostile interlocutors accuse his tone of being condescending. In my opinion, this is because they take his refusal to concede to their poor arguments as an affront, but I realize that a hostile party can view as offensive a tone that a sympathetic party would view as balanced. This can be seen in many reviews of the "new atheist" books and of the books written in response.

If I had to write the whole thing over again, I probably would not change much of it. I might rewrite the line, "Reality can be harsh mistress." I often use it as shorthand for the fact that reality does not change to suit our whims, but, in retrospect, the tone that comes across in it is not a helpful one.

My acquaintance knows how to contact me, and I hope the fact that I responded to him demonstrates my openness to discussion on the issue. If he responds I may offer updates on what I write or say in my defense of the existence of God. Any critiques or further resources would be appreciated.

Tom said...

If he comes away thinking something like, "Christians may be fooling themselves, but at least they do it cleverly," that may be as good an effect as you could have at this point.

Coincidentally, perhaps, I read a scene in a Discworld book last night in which someone is arguing with a group of priests (of different gods; in Discworld, there are a lot of gods) about the existence of gods, and says, "If anyone can rationally prove that their god exists, then I'll join your religion."

A lightning bolt strikes him, but he discounts it since that's hardly a rational argument.