Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser's "The Swedish Atheist" Chapter 18

Chapter 18: From Personal Cause to Most Perfect Being
As I continue to look at Randal Rauser’s The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, the more I feel that I should have done an overall review of the book rather than a chapter by chapter summary review. The problem is, the book is already running long, and instead of making clear points, Randal often confuses the reader by quickly changing topics, going off on tangents, coming back to other topics, and often forgetting to follow up on other so-called rabbit trails he went down, but then stopped cold for some reason.

Overall, this makes the book rather difficult to take in. Not because it contains big ideas, but because these big ideas are not presented clearly. As such, this is not a book I could recommend anyone. Don't worry, if you give up on this book after only a few chapters, it's not your fault.

That said, let’s get this show on the road.

Chapter 18 begins with Randal explaining:

“I’m certainly not claiming that the statement ‘personal cause of the universe’ is a religiously satisfactory definition of God. But even if that description doesn’t say all a Christian wants to say about God, it certainly says something important. Christians believe that God is the creator of all things and thus that the question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ has a personal answer: God.”

Sheridan again asks how Randal can be so certain it’s the Christian God? This is a point that Sheridan has raised nearly every chapter, so it seems Randal’s reluctances to answer it right off the bat has something to do with him wanting to massage away the painful criticisms of God, via apologetics, before he tackles the issue. There really is no other reason to put it off, as it is a pretty straight forward question.

Randal then informs that the first requirement is to supply more “specificity to the general concept of God.”

Yes, that goes without saying. If you want to prove the general concept of God is your concept of God, then you will have to specify.

As such, Randal quotes the medieval Christian theologian Anselm’s definition of God, and goes on to state: 

“God is the greatest conceivable or most perfect being. It is not possible to conceive a greater being.”

Sheridan then contends that this is rather an abstract philosophical description for the quote, unquote “Christian God.” To which Randal responds:

“[I]f God exists, he simply must be the most perfect being. But as long as we’re positing God, it’s legitimate to define God as the most perfect being there could be.”

For some reason Sheridan goes along with it. Maybe the apologetic trick of simply re-asserting baseless claims you’ve already asserted a thousand times have worn Sheridan down, but really, Randal has no reason to assume God is the most perfect being. Nowhere has this been established. But for the sake of the argument, and to save on a lengthy tangent, we’ll let it slide this once.

Sheridan also lets it slide, and demands to know where one goes with the definition of God after that. Randal then affirms:

“Well, saying that provides a helpful way to eliminate those descriptions that fail to meet the demands of the definition.”

Randal then cites the Mormon concept of God as an example which fails the test. But how is the test not arbitrary? After all, Randal merely looked around and arbitrarily selected the definition of God he liked, in this case Anselm’s definition. Moreover, what does he do about other God-concepts that meet all the criteria for the definition but are not the Christian God? In Africa, the Akan people of Ghana believe that the deity Nyame is the God of All Things, and their theological description of Nyame meets all the criteria of Anselm’s definition, just to cite one example.

So now the problem is compounded, not only does it seem to be arbitrarily selected, but now other deities that fit the criteria of the definition can be arbitrarily put in place of the Christian God. This is a big problem. And of course, Randal would probably do what most theologians do and hold up their template of God to the template of the Akan people’s God and then nitpick the details until he could find enough divergence with his theology to dismiss it as not-Christian. But that doesn’t prove the Christian definition true, since the Akan people could likewise hold their template up to the Christian template, find where the Christian God diverges with their theology, and then dismiss the Christian God as not Nyame.

Most apologists try to avoid this conundrum by simply denying the validity of other people’s definitions of God, but this is also an arbitrary act—since there is no reason to prefer one’s deity over another when one hasn’t compared, contrasted, and tested both theological claims. Furthermore, another area which proves to be a thorn in the apologist’s backside is the fact that The One True God™ and The God of All Things™ could very well be the same God, simply known by different names.

Randal then seems to have a candid moment of clarity in which he affirms:

“[Y]ou can’t say God is whatever you like. I think the Anselmic concept is so basic that every description of God has to be held up to it. If a particular concept of God appears to result I a deity that’s less than perfect, then we need to revise either our understanding of God or our understanding of perfection.”

Sheridan then strikes back with an even more devastating criticism, stating:

“Just because you come up with a description of God doesn’t mean that your God is real. You can’t just define God into existence.”

Randal ducks the questions and instead asks whether or not “it’s possible that the greatest conceivable being exists…?”

Randal then describes how if the definition isn’t in anyway contradictory to what we know, then it is at least plausible that, according to such a definition, such a thing—in this case a Perfect being—could exist, saying, “If they do exist, then they exist contingently.”

Then he raises the point that numbers exist necessarily.

Sheridan objects that numbers are not God, and wants Randal to cut to the chase. Randal obliges.

“When it comes to God—the being than which none greater can be conceived—that being cannot exist contingently, like a beach house…. Because a being that must exist is, all things being equal, greater than one that only happens to exist but might not have existed.”

He goes on to add:

“I’m depending on an intuition to make that claim, but I think it is a strong intuition.”

Ah-ha! We have found Randal out. He knows God is a being than which none greater can be conceived because he has had an intuition!

Well then, it must be so! It’s not like our intuitive thinking is problematic or anything.

Oh, wait, it is problematic? How so?

In Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s groundbreaking research essay “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” published in Science magazine,[1] the two researchers documented the main biases of intuitive thinking, described the simplifying shortcuts of intuitive thinking, and demonstrated the role of heuristics in judgment. What they found was a set of 20 common biases that everyone is susceptible to and which always must be accounted for in order for intuitive judgments to be more accurate than not. In other words, our intuition is not at all reliable.

In his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman observes:

“The spontaneous search for an intuitive solution sometimes fails—neither an expert solution nor heuristic answer comes to mind. In such cases we often find ourselves switching to a slower, more deliberate and effortful form of thinking.”[2]

This slower form of thinking is called “analytical thinking” and is named, specifically for the fact that it deals with the analysis of relevant information to make better, more accurate judgments than if one were to rely strictly on intuition alone.

To say one believes in God, or a type of God, based on intuition alone is the equivalent of saying one believes their random choice of pony will win at the horse races because they have a hunch. But given more information on the competing horses, one should be able to make an analytical judgement. Let’s imagine our horse was running against the famous Seabiscuit. Would it make sense to bet on our horse over Seabisucit based on nothing other than our intuition? 

Of course not! If one is basing their choice of horse on intuition alone, and they are ignoring Seabiscuit’s impressive statistics, then their intuition is going to be wrong nine times out of ten. Something other than intuition is required to make accurate judgments, in this case, which horse is the better runner. So we must look at things like statistics, and we’d use analytical thinking to analyze which horse statistically wins more races than all the other horses, and basing our judgment of the probability that this horse wins more frequently than the other horses, we’d most likely bet on a horse that has won most of its races. 

Therefore, reason dictates we should bet one Seabiscuit because he is a thoroughbred that won 11 of his 15 season races, ultimately going on to defeat the reigning Triple Crown champion War Admiral in 1938 at Pimlico, in one of the most famous horse races of all time.

The analogy shows that if we went by intuition alone, we’d end up being wrong more often than not, because our intuitive thinking is not as accurate as our analytical thinking.

I often feel theologians, like Randal, put far too much faith in their intuition that God is real, or that God has this or that attribute, because, as Kahneman’s research has shown us, intuition alone isn’t sufficient for making correct judgments about the world.

Randal goes on to add:

“If we accept the definition of God as the most perfect being, then it follows either that God must exist or it is not possible that God exists. To put it another way, if it’s possible that God exists, then it’s necessary that God exists.”

My question would be, what is the likelihood of his intuition simply being wrong here? I think it’s rather quite high. In fact, the very notion that our intuition is known to fail us to astonishing degrees, and that analytical thinking is often required to balance our reasoning so that we’re simply not always mistaken, it seems to be a good rule of thumb to keep a healthy skepticism about our intuitive judgments.

Sheridan says it sounds like a type of gamble, and Randal informs, “That’s not too far off, although I wouldn’t exactly characterize the discussion as a bet. It’s really just a matter of definitions.”

Two things. In actuality, it really is more about a matter of probability. As with the example of Seabiscuit, letting intuition dictate your judgments is a type of gamble—in this case the gamble that your intuition is correct.

The second thing is that, I think it’s safe to say, Randal is correct in noting that it’s a discussion of definitions, and ultimately, semantics. But this raises a big problem with how Randal chooses to define God, because he is, technically speaking, talking about concepts as if they were real. This usually leads to a form of semantic confusion rooted in incoherency that is common within theology and more so within religious apologetics.[3]

One example of this confusion would be to define God as transcendent. But by the very definition of transcendence (existing outside of reality), we cannot test for this property of God, so there is technically no way to demonstrate God is a transcendent being. Therefore, to talk about a Transcendent God as if it was an extant being creates an incoherency, because we would be talking about a hypothetical abstraction as if it were literally a real world physical object. And imaginary-real things are self-refuting.

What clever apologists do, however, is simply ignore the problem of incoherency. They will talk about God-concepts all day long, only to, at the end of the day, proclaim God is real. It’s not so unlike how theoretical physicists will talk about String Theory. They will talk about it in terms of mathematical abstractions, but at the end of their day, they can only posit String Theory as hypothetical model, full well knowing there is no evidence to confirm it as anything more than a mathematical abstraction.

Of course, this demonstrates the key difference between scientists and theologians. Scientists are duty bound to be honest about their mathematical abstractions being little more than fancy conceptualizations (at least until it can be demonstrate otherwise), whereas theologians do not like to admit their theological abstractions are concepts too.

Sheridan then opts to take the option that God does not exist rather than God existing necessarily. Randal tells him to hold up. That while it’s easy to find a contradiction in terms with something like a “square circle” it’s not so easy to find a contradiction with the idea that God is “a most perfect being.”

Sheridan then suggests the concept of a perfect being simply may not be meaningful. Randal responds, asking:

“What’s not meaningful about the concept?"

Sheridan goes on to point out that Randal is, essentially, comparing apples and oranges. Examining the most perfect rainbow, for example, has nothing to say on the perfection of the most perfect tiger. Saying God is the most perfect being, then, says nothing on the perfection of most perfect rainbows or tigers. They’re different classes altogether.

Randal’s answer, of course, requires us to put on a hockey mask—that is, if we don’t want to break our faces with yet another dangerously powerful face-palm.

Randal informs:

“I agree that not everything is comparable in terms of absolute perfection to everything else. But it doesn’t follow that everything is not comparable to God, does it? Even if we can’t compare redwoods and tigers to each other in terms of perfection, it doesn’t follow that we cannot compare them to God. And if God is the creator and sustainer of all things, then it seems very plausible to conclude that God is greater than all things.”

I have re-read the above quotation at least half a dozen times, and each time it makes less and less sense to me. Usually, profound points are meant to clarify an issue, or hone an idea, and make it accessible to us. It seems the only thing Randal has accomplished here was to take a whole bunch of words, toss them together, and make a fancy word salad.

Notice the only thing we actually learned from the above quotation is that God is the “sustainer of all things.” After which Randal merely states that "it doesn't follow that we cannot compare them to God."

But this is merely another unfounded proclamation of faith. Instead of explaining why something is or isn’t, and demonstrating his claims, Randal merely resorts to proclamations of faith. This is what bothers me about this book. It often is little more than Randal reaffirming that he believes in Christianity instead of explaining why he believes in Christianity.

Sheridan brings the chapter to a close with a question he has raised repeatedly throughout the book, and which seems Randal may finally get around to answering.

“So what makes you so sure that your God is the greatest?”

Chapter 19 is entitled “Why Zeus, at Least, Isn’t God” and I can’t help but feel this is going to be a dangerous analogy for Randal, because he is basically going to explain why he doesn’t accept Zeus as a real deity, and this answer will most likely be the same reason atheists do not accept Yahweh as real. But, of course, Randal will deny the equivalence. I’m interested in what his reasons could possibly be for such a renunciation.

[1] Science, vol. 185, 1974.
[2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 25 October 2011.
[3] In my book Ignosticism: A Philosophical Justification for Atheism, I discuss why our definitions for God are more likely to be conceptual rather than real. I justify this claim by showing that the descriptions one uses to define God relate back to hypothetical constructs and not literal referents, thereby highlighting the fact that talking about abstractions as if they were a real object brings with it a problem of incoherency.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist