Sunday, June 03, 2007

Atheist Philoso-Chat

After my Al Sharpton post, I had a brief exchange with Gene Callahan in his comments section. Short version: Callahan claims that “God is justice” or something like that, and I wonder what that even means.

I was thinking of continuing the discussion with a new post here, but before I got around to it, my friend Luka got into it with Callahan in Julian’s comments section. Luka and I had an IM chat about it, and I decided I could save time by posting the transcript:
Luka: who the heck is gene callahan?

me: some blogger
name sounds familiar from somewhere, but i can't recall where

Luka: gotcha.

me: you just read his post about my sharpton post?

Luka: yeah. but first i had a little exchange with him on julian's blog
he linked to your response to him, from his blog

me: oh, to show some other foolish atheist's bad arguments?

Luka: sort of
but our convo was about the "but what does that even mean" strategy
you employed it in response to his claim that god is justice
i was saying that it's a fine way to go sometimes

me: yeah, say huh?
(was my reaction)

Luka: totally ridiculous claim about god
but he seems to think that it's basically never ok to ask what something even means
i think he's got at least a couple silly views

me: yeah. i would debate him further, but i don't know what he even means ;)

Luka: exactly! :-)

me: it sounds like he is defining God as the existence of reality. in which case i guess i'm a theist after all.

Luka: yeah, me too. it's like what that spinoza guy seemed to be doing. god = the universe or some crap. totally ridiculous and somewhat dishonest

me: because it's not what almost anyone actually means by God

Luka: right

me: "X does not exist." "Well allow me to redefine X as something that exists. QED."

Luka: yeah. it's absurd!

me: I should copy this chat and just post it.

Luka: go for it.
that would be funny
No offense to Callahan intended. Maybe he’ll explain what he means in the comments section.


Jay said...

"it sounds like he is defining God as the existence of reality. in which case i guess i'm a theist after all."

On my read, that's exactly it. God is defined to be "the logical structure of the universe"; if you believe there is a logical structure to the universe, then god exists. This sort of move also eliminates several other icky grade-school-philosophy questions, like "can God make a rock so heavy he can't lift it," as well as some trickier ones like the one you raise. God can't violate the laws of logic, he can't order something immoral, not so much because he lacks the power to do so as because he lacks the desire. It's a not-uncommon turn of phrase to say about some reprehensible act, "I just can't do it." Under this interpretation, for God this would be a literal statement: he could kill the puppy, or whatever, if he wanted to, but it's not in his nature ever to want to.

So, for instance, the good is defined by the way the world works; but God is all-knowing, so he knows what's good, and all-benevolent, so he wants to see us do what is good. So he orders us to do what is good because it is good; he's not the sort of being who would ever want us to do bad.

As for your comment that you guess you're a theist, that's the point of the quote excerpt in the comments: "It may be objected that the “reconciliation” I offer really favours the atheist over the theist. After all, what theist could be satisfied with a deity who is merely the logical structure of the universe?" If you have a thin enough conception of what "god" is, you can get pretty much everyone to agree that god exists. But then you're left trying to move from "the universe has a logical structure" to "and this logical structure knows us and loves us," which is every bit as hard as the original question you ducked by redefining your terms. This, incidentally, is where I think things like Aquinas's Five Ways fall apart: they show that there is a God, if and only if you define God as what they show exists.

Benoit said...

Most theists try to portray atheists as people who believe that there is nothing beyond the immediate observable universe. Most atheists believe that there might be something beyond what we can understand but that it is most likely nothing like the gods of man made religions. It is maybe something more similar to what is studied through cosmology, physics and science, it may be something else not even reachable by humans.

I would guess that most atheists fall under the category of theological noncognitivists
or ignostics

I say that the question of whether there is a god or not is meaningless until we define the word "god".

I know I'm an atheist with regard to the christian god, the muslim god and all abrahamic gods. In fact I have never encountered a religion with a god I found likely.

Atheists should emphasize these two points: 1)Atheism doesn't mean believing in nothing, it just mean not believing in a supernatural god. 2) Always define the word "god" before asking me if it's something I believe exists.

August said...

Good post. As a Catholic, I run into weird definitions of God all the time. Whether atheist, fundamentalist, or anywhere in between, people want some trite convienient definition, when, in fact, none can be.
After all, should I choose to start defining myself, I would start with some basic physical appearance, and then start meandering all over the place. Except for brief, and practically meaningless generalizations, one human cannot be "defined" much less God.

Ran said...

I think it's pretty pointless to debate whether G-d exists, because there are those of us to whom the existence of the Universe is proof enough that She exists, and there are those of us to whom it is not, and despite what some religious people might think, there's really no other compelling evidence.

It's also pretty pointless in that even if you managed to convince an atheist of Her existence, it's quite a jump from that to any potentially controversial moral point. I mean, no strictly logical argument for G-d's existence is going to end with the conclusion, "and that's why the death penalty is obviously right/wrong," or "and that's why abortion is obviously acceptable/not," or "and that's why homosexuality is obviously acceptable/not." People of faith often take pride in how logical their faiths are, without noticing that the logic is all internal, and that an internally coherent faith is not necessarily a demonstrable-to-the-non-believer faith.

steve said...

“God is justice”.

Sounds a bit like a cheap Sunday sermon talking point. Kind of like “God is love”.



Oh, never mind, it doesn’t really mean anything.

Its just a cheesy way for this dude fill up the next hour, you know, before we can get the hell out of here and go skateboarding. :)