Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Paradoxes and clockses

If I find a watch in the woods, it is reasonable to expect that it was made by a watchmaker. However, I already know that watchmakers exist. Not only that, but watchmakers not much less systematic and orderly and consistent than watches.

One time, I was talking with my friend, Luc; he was arguing that Christianity doesn't hold together because Jesus was not a fit sacrifice. Jesus was cursed, he was hung on a tree, and according to Deuteronomy 21:22-23,
When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.

Luc's argument was dumb. It's not like he's the first person in two thousand years to have read Deuteronomy, it's not as if all Christians are so dishonest that they'd throw out that verse.

Luc was also arguing to me that the gospels were ahistorical, Luke, especially, because they were overwhelmed by an early erroneous Pauline influence. I'm confused why the early Christians would construe the gospels in such a way that Jesus would be painted as accursed if that curse would undermine their theology.

What Luc missed, more than the logic, was how little the Christian God seems to care about logic. The meaning of the crucifixion stories is held in Jesus thoroughly absorbing our wrongdoing into himself, and suffering the punishment for all of our vileness, so that that we are made whole and he is exalted. It's not supposed to make sense, it's supposed to be good.

If the Christian God were trying to make sense, the Bible would be shorter, it would be in bullet point format, and all the jokes would have been edited out.

Luc was playing by the wrong rules. He was thinking that there were any rules at all to knowing, when it comes to God. Christianity defies these rules. Polite church people call the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation "mysteries" or "paradoxes". These are logical contradictions, and attempts to reconcile them betray a lack of understanding of their meaning.

I am frequently asked what it would take for me to believe. God is impossible. He's three people, and one of them is also a human being, who died and stopped being dead. God, being infinite, somehow made finite beings who are distinct from him. What sort of science or history would it take to demonstrate with confidence these absurd and beautiful notions?

Watches and belief

Please note Tim's writing on belief, which, I think, is a good coda to the discussion from my post, Impasse or hiking.

Also note MC Graham's post, boeing 747, which anticipates the first paragraph of my post for this week.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Triangles: People, nature, and God

I'm a big fan of dumb arguments. I think there's something cute about this argument that recycling is overrated: if recycling were substantially more efficient than extracting raw materials from holes in the ground, you'd be paid to recycle. I would get lost doing cost-benefit analysis on energy savings and reduction of pollution. The problem is complicated enough that whoever's doing the study can fudge the numbers to favor their personal biases. Recycling might be good, but no one's made it worth my effort, so I can tell that I'm at least not doing a lot of harm by burning all my styrofoam cups and plastic bottles in the backyard.

Arguments for God's existence, based only on knowledge of nature, any of them from the young earth creationists' casting aspersions on radiometric dating, to the denial that abiogenesis could have occurred without divine intervention, to the argument that the universe itself is so fine-tuned it must have been made by an intelligent designer, all of these arguments are hideously complex. I like to think that I'm almost a smart person, and I haven't been able to work out the math on any of these for myself.

I've been on one side or the other of these sorts of arguments, and I now find them dull, to the point of pain. I'm ready to say, "The earth is 6,000 years old, it was made on October 22, 4004 BC, life can't come from non-life, we live in an incredibly complex universe that couldn't have been an accident, and bananas were designed with human consumption in mind." I would say this just to escape from this sort of discussion the next time I'm trapped in one. I'd like to see what happens next. I suppose this would make the argument a lot dumber; I'd prefer to talk about whether a personal God can be known through impersonal nature over talking about abiogenesis and astrophysics and accumulated aquatic aluminum.

From Disorientation

I suppose one could call this uncaused cause God, it's all semantics, that's fine. But, how does one make the jump from this uncaused cause to belief in Hashem or Allah or the Fates or the Triune God of Reformed Theology? When people ask each other, "Do you believe in God?" I don't think they mean, "Do you affirm that the universe results from an impersonal uncaused cause?" (Also, they rarely mean, "Do you believe in a divine essence who hates you?") Whenever I ask the question, I'm not directly looking for information or opinions on God, I'm trying to understand my interlocutor: the implied question is, "Do you try to relate to a god? How?" Nothing about causality or complexity or even beauty in the universe suggests that there's a big something that would care to interact with us.

So why do religious people try to demonstrate that their God can be known from observation of nature? Religious people who came to belief through mere study of the cosmos are rare. Most religious people were raised in their current religion. Most converts become converts not through a systematic exploration of alternatives, but through the influence of their friends.

I suppose that, for Christians in particular, the historicity of the resurrection is enough of a reason for belief for them. Likewise, Jews and Muslims would appeal to other supernatural historical events, the deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the Koran, respectively. (Non-monotheists tend to be less concerned with academic proofs that any God exists.) What stake do the religious have in the idea that God can be known from nature, if, in general, that's not how they themselves came to belief in God?

I first became interested in arguments about God and nature because I wanted to interpret the Bible literally; I didn't care much about proving God to other people, I was trying to reassure myself, that my beliefs about God were compatible with reality. I suppose that's one reason why I've had stake in the relationship between God and nature.

Another reason to talk about knowing God through nature is found in Romans 1:18-21:
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.

It would be cruel of God to damn people without any warning. Jonah was sent to Nineveh not to evangelize, but to give a portent, like serving a legal summons or posting a notice on a condemned building. Instead of obeying God, Jonah fled to Tarshish because he didn't want the Ninevites to even have that warning. Likewise, those who believe that God is good and condemns some must assert that knowledge of what God requires can be found in nature.

This can be a beautiful idea, that God can be known from nature, because that means that regardless of race or culture or religious background, everyone can have some true knowledge about God; if this is the case, God is rather sporting and egalitarian.

I suppose that the strongest reason why religious people have stake in finding God in nature is that they already want to find him, period. Humans have a strong longing for a relationship with the divine. This attitude shapes our relating with everything.

People look at the Galle crater on Mars and see a happy face. Creatures with faces didn't move rocks into a face-shape to communicate with us. It looks like a face because whenever people see two dots over a line, we see a face. This is pareidolia, seeing patterns where there are none, simply because people look for patterns all the time. That people see a personal God in nature says more about people than God.

"I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say... that God is eminently triangular."
Benedictus de Spinoza

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nature can't prove God exists

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."—Douglas Adams, Is there an Artificial God?

Arguments for the existence of God based on observation of nature hinge on the idea that the universe is so complex that it would have taken a powerful intelligence to make it. Suppose that were true: the most that that argument could ever possibly conclude is that something very complex and big exists. I call that complex big thing the universe.

To set up any sort of proof for the existence of God, you have to answer the question, "Which God?"

When I say God, I mean someone powerful, personal, and good, someone who evokes worship from me. Isn't this why anyone would be concerned with the idea of God? If we're just talking about some ambiguous big thing, who cares what we call it or how we deal with it? The questions about God are all questions about meaning.

And, by powerful, I mean powerful enough to make the big bang happen. I don't want to worship Barack Obama by mistake.

That God would be personal is important, too; I think the cosmos is beautiful, but I don't worship it. What do you give a cosmos that has everything?

Well, not all arguments for the existence of God from study of nature try to advance the idea that God must be more complex than the universe. Some try to argue that God must exist because the universe is good. The universe would have had to have been made by something big, complex, and good. I think that this is what deists believe, at least, this is what my rabbit tells me she believes, and she's a deist.

Even if there is this complex, big, good thing, I can't tell if it has beaten or wooed me into good behavior, and I don't know why either of us should be concerned at all with the other.

All of these arguments from nature depend on some sort of embiggening assumption, that if the universe has some property, it must have been made by something that displays that property even more so. It's messy enough to apply that logic inside this universe. If I had an apple, but no knowledge of where apples come from, I couldn't say much about the apple's origin. I could look at the stem, and guess that the apple came off of something stemmish, but I couldn't say whether that stemmish thing was a tree or a vine or a bush or a peduncle emerging from the ground.

In conclusion, I'm going to wander around the student union building. Maybe I'll find some Christian evangelists who use arguments from nature to assert belief in God. I would pretend to be convinced by their arguments, then affirm belief in Waheguru of the Sikhs. Do you want to come with me?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Good news from primordial ooze

When I was a little kid, dinosaurs were my favorite category. They're still in my top ten favorite categories, along with snacks, furniture, and mistakes.

(I like snacks because they're extra food; they're food you eat because you want to, not because you need nourishment. I like furniture because it's a humble category; chairs are for people, cabinets are for dishes, desks are for papers. No furniture exists for itself. I like mistakes because they're things that you didn't do right that you don't have to feel bad about.)

I grew up in a conservative Christian home. When my parents saw that I was interested in dinosaurs, they gave me a lot of creationist books on the topic. To be fair, my parents have always been more open-minded about origins than a lot of conservatives. The books, though, were written with a heavy anti-evolution agenda, and I think this is where my obsession with proving people wrong began. They filled me with wonder, though, and in a sense, they still do. Maybe plesiosaurs are swimming in the Mariana Trench, or what if triceratopses are hiding in jungles in Africa?

These books always went from dinosaurs to Genesis, and that's where my love of the stories in the first bit of Genesis began. I like imagining God carving oceans in the earth with his hands and scooping land together, and people living in an ideal garden, and how the world might have changed in a catastrophe. These stories in Genesis help me form meaning. I think that the idea of people being made in God's image is much more helpful for me than working out bioethics in making sense of modern moral dilemmas. That we are said to come from the dirt, but are pushed back into it by toiling as farmers helps me understand both the worth and the stress of my job.

I find so much meaning in the story of the fall. The blame-shifting, the hiding, the shame, I tell this story myself whenever I do wrong. When I was a small child, I would sit on the toilet, groaning as I pooped, asking, "Why did Adam and Eve have to eat the forbidden fruit?" I don't know that I felt at the time like that was unfair. I did feel like my pain was bound cosmically to the actions of naked strangers.

The sin of the people caused thorns and disease and everything that is not-good in the world. (More cynical people than I would complain of how this punishment is not proportional, or would blame God for putting the tree in the garden in the first place.) The problem that I have with the story of the fall is its placement of the weight of intentionality behind everything that's unseemly.

I've spent a lot of time and toil trying to find meaning in meaningless suffering. I think evolution tells a story that helps me deal with reality better. Creation says that everything used to be good, but humans messed it up, but God will make it okay again. Evolution says that everything used to be bland and dead, but that beauty has arisen naturally. The world isn't a bad place, the kinks just haven't been shaken out yet. For something that I didn't pay for, I think life in this cosmos is pretty nice, and if there's no intentionality behind it, I'd say things are working out pretty well, all things considered.

Life is tenacious. All beings are always changing, trying new ways to fit the world better. Evolution is incredibly messy, it's not an organized process. It's not the most efficient way one could conceive of that life could come to be. Natural history is riddled with false starts. There are oodles of examples of great successes, like dinosaurs, that lost whatever advantage they had and then disappeared. The plesiosaurs probably ran out of food.

Evolution doesn't say anything about what an ideal world would be or how we should live or what ultimate meaning is. What I learn from evolution is that life isn't neat, but that progress comes from trying a lot of things, most of which aren't going to work very well. If you stick with what does, and change it a little bit, and keep trying new things, you might wind up with something neat.

When I make mistakes, I think about evolution, and I smile. My mistakes aren't abysmal failures, they're just things that need tweaking, or dead-ends that can be abandoned in favor of five new ideas.