Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why Theology Fails: On the Transcendental argument and IPUs

How the Transcendental argument for God is Not Even an Argument
Theologians like to bemoan the fact that most atheists aren’t aware of the really “good” theological arguments for God. They like to claim we’re theologically naïve. Well, if theologians could actually agree on a single coherent definition for God would help us in taking them seriously. No, I’m afraid Thomas Paine pegged theology for what it really is more than two centuries ago, the study of nothing.

The philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci, Steve Zara, and the biologist PZ Myers all seem to agree that there can be no scientifically meaningful “evidence” for God because the concept is so ill-defined. Other scientists and thinkers such as Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Victor Stenger seem to think that the concept of a personal God is untenable not because most definitions fail or because they are so ill-defined (although that may be part of it), but because they are mainly rationally incoherent and have no explanatory power (due to a lack of the invaluable thing called evidence).  Yet what all this goes to show is that attacking a nebulous or ill-conceived concept of God is a fool’s errand and a waste of time. Polemics against theism are mostly useless. We can only explain our personal reasons for why we find specific arguments lacking.

So here's one of mine: there is no single, clear cut, definition or conceptualization of God. Most religions have their own version of a deity, and various sects which have schismed off from these main religions have their own versions of God too. Each variant faith, much like a Russian Doll which has another doll inside it, contains a series of differing religious denominations which share theologies and may even have concepts which resemble each other but which may simultaneously be at odds with other groups within the same faith. This is why there are so many schismatic groups. Nobody can seem to agree. About the only thing they can agree upon is the persuasion that God exists—but what it is exactly that they are agreeing on nobody knows. 

Every branch of faith then has its own unique theology and its own variant explanation for God. If they all agreed unanimously on what God is, or what he means, or how he is defined then there would be no need for the variance (or variation of thought) in the first place. Therefore, even if God did exist, theology would still be useless.

Theology means the study of God. But isn't this sort of like begging the question? What is it exactly that theologians want us to study again? God? Okay, I get that. But what God exactly? Ah, here's the rub! Studying something, by definition, requires something tangible to study. 
The Transcendental argument states that God exists beyond space and time, he transcends them(!), he is an all transcendent being. If he is outside of space and time, separate from the physical universe, then there would never be any evidence to even consider. Simply put, nothing to bother about. So whenever a theologian says, “But hold on there, you’ve neglected one of the best arguments for God yet, the Transcendental argument!” I can’t help but think to myself, “Oh boy… here we go again.”

When theologians peddle theories like the Transcendental argument, stating atheists have yet to properly address such an argument, I don’t think they know what they are even asking. We demand proof, and so they offer up the Transcendental argument, which says God transcends all things--exists beyond our grasp--but this is an old parlor trick. Only after they have safeguarded God from being disproved by making him external to any evidence, they claim victory. I say enough of this old tired out shell-game, anyone who has thought it through knows the game is rigged. It's a dishonest enterprise to say that God exists and then seek to make the claim unfalsifiable. An unfalsifiable theory isn't even a theory, and an unfalsifiable argument isn't really an argument. 

First theologians need to settle upon a universally agreed upon definition to formally enter into the debate. As it is, the nature of theology is so utterly convoluted that nobody actually has any clue what they are arguing for. And theologians have the gull to lobby the fallacious accusation that atheists and skeptics are theologically naïve?! For crying out loud, give me a break.  

Such a position is not only pompous but condescending as well—as if educated skeptics were too “dogmatic” to see how clear and easy theology truly is. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before, we're all just materialists blinded by our “faith” in science. 

An atheist and a theist are discussing the existence of God. The atheist says, "You know, I just don't see it."

The theist is taken aback, "What?! But it's so obvious!"

"Oh, yeah?" inquires the atheist.

"Of course!" exclaims the theist.

"So where's the evidence? Where's the proof then?" begs the atheist.

"Evidence? You want evidence?! But God transcends science! Don't you get it?! Therefore we can’t have any evidence for something which is transcendent. There is no proof. Only faith! God exists because he is necessary!"

The Transcendental argument amounts to little more than a profession of faith, it's not a valid argument. When you make a truth claim, you have to back up that claim in order for it to be justified. If not, then a skeptic will ask you to divvy up the proof. No proof means your claim is totally lacking and is probably not the best explanation for what it is you are trying to prove in the first place. That's assuming you are starting from a point of clarity of knowing exactly what it is you are trying to prove.

Most theology is so convoluted, so tangled, so labyrinthine that to be clear on what it is we are even arguing about is not at all obvious. Now only if there were some evidence to help us in setting the record straight—that would be something. But, contrary to the pretentious theologians who think they’ve figured out what nobody else has, all we have (in actuality) is a whole lot of nothing. The Transcendental argument isn’t a solution to the question of God's existence, it’s not even an viable answer, it’s a theological trick to safeguard God from the criticism spawned due to a lack any trustworthy evidence for God. 

Pink Invisibility is a Negation: And so is an all loving God who allows for Evil in the World
Needless to say, if God were real (REAL!) he could do a lot better than being a vagary of perception, wouldn’t you think? PZ Myers has stated on his blog that “any evidence of a deity will be natural, repeatable, measurable, and even observable… properties which god is exempted from by the believers’ own definitions, so there can be no evidence for it.” I agree. You can’t say invisible pink unicorns (IPUs) exist without some sort of evidence—indeed, the entire theology of pink invisibility (the classic unicornist theory) or invisible pinkness (the reformed unicornist theory) doesn’t even make any sense. That is to say it’s incoherent—irrational. 

Meanwhile those liberal (hippy) unicornists say both mainstream theologies are way off—the unicorn is real, the invisibility is real, but the pinkness is a matter of the animal’s divine aura! Others might claim they had a born-again unicornian experience so they know—the Unicornian Spirit spoke to them at a religious revival—they know! (e.g. something the evangelical uniconist might say). Or they may be inclined to say that you can’t prove to them that there is no such thing as pink invisible unicorns—you can’t prove that they don’t not exist—so neener neener—we can believe whatever we want (e.g. something the fundamentalist uniconrist might try to get away with).

Regardless of the religious sect, or what particular theological premises they adhere to, their metaphysical assumptions about the supernatural properties (e.g. conjectura) of imaginary unicorns may or may not agree, but saying that pink invisible unicorns must exist precisely because they are beyond our comprehension, that they exist outside space and time, does nothing to prove whether or not there is such a thing at all. Nor does it solve the cognitive dissonance of contradictory features (or attributes) of invisible pink unicorns, i.e. that invisibility is the absence of all color, thus such a thing could never be seen as a color, let alone the color pink. The terms negate one another, pink invisibility just can't exist, just as the concept of an all loving God is negated by a universe filled with pain and suffering, and therefore we know that such a God could never exist (although an evil and amoral God is surely conceivable). Theologians act like theodicy (e.g. the Problem of Evil) is not an obstacle to faith, but ignoring a problem isn't the same as actually tackling it and dealing with it head on.

The point is, however, it doesn’t matter what attributes we assign to these mysterious unicorns, be it pink, invisible, or all loving (or whatever) none of these things will prove their existence. Why safeguard the irrational claims by pretending invisible pink unicorns are transcendent? That makes no sense. And what’s the evidence for these pink invisible unicorns transcendent nature, you might wonder? Faith they say? Wow! Talk about begging the question.

What else can you say to a person who believes as much—that is to say they believe whatever it is they wish because they have a belief in belief that what they believe is so, and therefore it’s real enough to them, so they’d like nothing more than to keep believing it. They act offended any time anyone criticizes these preposterous beliefs, and they immediately start laying on the guilt, talking about how they are being singled out and persecuted, and they protest: don’t attack our beliefs! They’re sacred. This caterwauling can be pretty annoying, but it still doesn’t justify their beliefs. Between believing in God or perhaps discovering that to the contrary the god awful truth is that there is no God, well, they’d rather just keep on believing. I suppose the only thing we could say to someone so deluded is, “Good luck with that.”

Here’s the kicker though, because there is no valid, or at least agreed upon, 'god hypothesis' there can be no testing the hypothesis perchance to prove that particular God’s case. In other words, even if by the off chance one theology out of all the theologies which have ever existed or will come to exist was in fact correct, we still have no way of testing all the minutiae of hypothesis, therefore we have little to no chance of proving said God. The problem is compounded when we realize the more religions which get invented the less likely we are of ever knowing whether or not God exists—an infinite amount of plausible theologies all get in the way—and the probability is always working against the theist. To avoid this problem most religions will profess that they are the one true faith—that theirs is the correct believe—all others are wrong. Yet this is a dogmatic conviction, not a proper conclusion based on the dispassionate and objective inquiry into what the evidence shows—mainly because there is an utter lack of empirical evidence.

The only way God can be proved in a naturally bound probabilistic universe such as ours, would be to manifest God directly. No theology needed. Just show me God. Theology is completely useless. It’s philosophy trapped in a box—the box of dogma drenched doctrines and screeds—worse than this, it’s ersatz philosophy. The irony being that if there is a truth to God’s existence, it is buried beneath a profundity of obscure theological conjecture and will continue to be unknowable for as long as theology continues to generate untestable and invalid assumptions which have nothing to do with the reality we observe daily. Theology is a failed enterprise through and through.

Low and behold, Thomas Paine was right all along. Theology is predicated on nothing, is the study of nothing, and leaves us with, you guessed it, nothing. If theists want to prove God exists, and they want to be vindicated in these devotional convictions, then I suggest they put theology aside and start taking science seriously. Because if there is a God which interacts with humans, causes miracles, is all powerful, created all things, etc. etc.—whatever else he may be these are specific claims, claims which overtly trespass on the domain of science. Science does have the power to prove the existence of god—if he were at all real. The fact that science hasn't found a single trace, not an iota of tangible evidence, should cause the most stubborn headed theologian to stop and give pause. On the other hand, if God is truly transcendent above all things, then it will forever be a futile endeavor to prove God exists.  So either theists must start proving God's existence or else get comfortable with the fact that they just won’t ever know—and can’t know—whether or not God is real.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist