Friday, September 21, 2012

The Paradox of Existence

"Cogito Ergo Sum" - I think therefore I am.  When the French philosopher Rene Descartes dug to the bottom of his philosophy, the only thing he found there amid the tattered ruins and bombed out shelters of his former beliefs, was the reflection of his own doubt.  Those doubts  "became a fundamental element of Western philosophy, as it was perceived to form a foundation for all knowledge. While other knowledge could be a figment of imagination, deception or mistake, the very act of doubting one's own existence serves to some people as proof of the reality of one's own existence, or at least that of one's thought."

"The statement is sometimes given as Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum (English: "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am"). A common mistake is that people take the statement as proof that they, as a human person, exist. However, it is a severely limited conclusion that does nothing to prove that one's own body exists, let alone anything else that is perceived in the physical universe. It only proves that one's consciousness exists (that part of an individual that observes oneself doing the doubting). It does not rule out other possibilities, such as waking up to find oneself to be a butterfly who had dreamed of having lived a human life." *

Despite the complexities of existence expressed above, and everything in it, Peter John Kreeft offers "the argument from the existence of things" as a good reason to believe in God. Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King's College and author of numerous books on Christian philosophy, theology and apologetics. The premise of his argument for belief in God is simple: the very existence of things suggests there is a God who created those things. .
 According to Prof. Kreeft, the cause of all existing things must be an "uncaused being," a being that has existence by its own essence, a Necessary Being.  This "being," however, is conjured up by an immaculate conception of God from a trinity of unproven assumptions. First, it assumes that the "cause" of the universe is necessarily an "uncaused being" without explaining how we know the "cause" was not the result of  a "caused being" or even a group of "uncaused beings." Nor does it explain why we should conclude that whatever "caused" existence necessarily constituted an intelligent "being" rather than just the stuff of "being." Second, it assumes that this "uncaused being" must be an eternal God. But how do we know such a "being" didn't itself have a beginning or die when it gave birth to existence?  Third, it assumes that "existence" must of had a starting point before which nothing else existed.  But how can we know there was any such starting point?  Maybe, in other words, existence - in one form or another - has always existed. These assumptions are patently relied upon in both the argument itself and the conclusion it wishes to advance. None of these assumptions, however, can be verified. They can only be assumed, and nothing more.

So, what is existence? Or more specifically, what does it mean to exist? The answers, which range from the extremely complex to overly simple, demonstrate that there is no one clear, concrete definition of what we mean by the word “existence.”  Instead, defining “existence”  can range from the elusive to the illusory. The truth is  we’re still trying to figure out what we mean when we talk about "existence." Some people believe that "existence" has just always existed. Others, like Descartes, doubt if existence can ever be known in any true sense. And for still others, like the anti-realists, the Mahayana Buddhists, and the solipsists, “existence” may not exist at all.  

  Beyond the philosophical hurdle posed by existence however, lay the more difficult questions posed by the existence of physical reality itself. Despite the accomplishments of people like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and countless others, physicists are still trying to understand not just what constitutes the material of physical “existence,”  but how and why it all works the way that it does. Physical reality for some may be just an illusion that disappears the more we look at it. For others, like scientist Leonard Susskind, the "entire universe may be just a hologram “painted” on the cosmological horizon." Attempting to unscramble this riddle posed by our reality has become the holy grail of modern physics. It is hoped, especially with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, that one day such a theory will explain the what, how, and possibly even the why, of this mysterious and mercurial thing we call “existence.” Until then, claims about the origins of "existence" and everything in it, presuppose an understanding of our "existence" that, for the most part, simply does not exist.  

   This argument, however, assumes we have an adequate understanding of "existence" in order to trade the "what" of that existence for the "who.”  By supplying the "who," the theist provides answers for the what, how, and why of existence, but also opens a Pandora's box of other potential "who's." Maybe the universe, for example, is simply a hairball coughed up by Gods mischievous cat, in a red and white hat, and bow tie to match. Or maybe it was Zeus, or Apollo, or Cindy Lou Who. From Mount Crumpit to Timbuktu, to that Boson-ville in the CERN-thing-a-ma-doo, once we open the door of  "who," any 'who" down in Who-ville can just walk right through. 

 The ultimate paradox posed by "existence" is the claim that an "uncaused being" existed to create existence. Hence some "existence" had to exist in which the "uncaused being" existed. If we simply say that God was without existence, or that he existed in a way we cannot comprehend, then we are admitting that we have no idea at all what "existed" in this sense, so why should we call it a "God," and of the Christian variety no less?

Finally, the fatal flaw of this argument is its inability to explain the biggest "thing" of all - God.  If God exists, in other words, than he is a "thing" that disproves the very logic of this argument. This is because, if the existence of "things" proves the existence of a God who created those things, then who created the biggest "thing" of them all, God? And if God can be a thing that did not need to be "caused" by some preceding "uncaused being," than God is an exception that disproves the rule. And if the rule can be disproved by God, than we must either accept the rule that disproves God or accept a God that disproves the rule, but we can not have it both ways. Once again, as with so many of the arguments that try to "prove" the existence of God, God is the ultimate evidence that disproves the rule.

 On the other side of this argument about the origins of existence is the question of "cause." What does it mean to say something “caused” existence, anyway? Does it mean that something “caused” existence out of something else, or out of nothing at all? The former implies that maybe God was not alone before he created existence, while the latter implies that, if he was "alone" per se, he was not unchanging. Also, arguing that something “caused” existence only begs the further questions of "what caused the ‘something’ that caused existence" and in what "existence"did that something exist? Simply saying that an ‘uncaused being’ created everything out of “nothing” is to build a belief in God with the cornerstone of a self-contradiction. For if God has always existed, than some kind of "existence" has always existed as well, or God would have had to create his own existence. Ignoring these inherent contradictions makes terms like "an uncaused being" and "out of nothing" operate as little more than verbal wands that allow the theist to pull the rabbit of God out of a hat of abstraction.  

 To infer that God “caused” existence, when there is no hard evidence to justify such a conclusion, is to spy our own humanity in the heavens and call it divine. Basically, we are projecting a larger-than-life image of ourselves onto that blank canvass of pre-existence we call “nothingness,” and then attributing to that vision all the intention of creating existence that we have in building a church. The intentionality that we attribute to those forces, however,  are ultimately our own, for the only thing that we can see when looking into the void is a reflection of ourselves looking back.  Religion is the curse of Narcissus, in other words, with humanity falling in love with its own cosmological reflection, until the dream of martyrdom reunites the two in the baptismal waters of a pond called Heaven.

  Believing that there is an author of our existence is the result of a simple, almost inescapable, logic - since watches come from watch makers, existence must come from an existence-maker. The symmetry and simplicity of this conclusion is far to powerful, and for many it is far to comforting, to ever resist. The truth of this conclusion is that we look at a watch and think of how we would have made it if we were a watch maker, and then look at existence and think the same thing.  Finding the origins of existence by rifling through the contents of our own thoughts, however, is like finding the origins of cotton by rifling though the contents of our own sock drawer. In many ways, the answer we reach is ultimately shaped by where we are forced to search.  That search is animated by our desire to know the meaning of life and death just as much as a watch maker is animated by a desire to know the time of day or night. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the intention produces a result that so resembles the desire. In other words, our desire to know the meaning of life and death prompts us to manufacture a meaning to life and death.  

It is ultimately this question of intentionality that we must consider when determining if existence was “caused” by the power of random chance or by the providence of a divine choice. "Intent" describes the the state of mind in which an act is performed, and it requires a conscious intelligence to be exercised.  Although a watchmaker can consciously “intend” to make a watch, for example, a tree can not consciously intend to make a tree because seeds, unlike watch makers, do not have the intelligence to exercise "intent. That the tree results from the seed is different from saying that the seed ‘intended’ the tree. Similarly, to say that the existence of things suggests there is a God is to infer that the existence of things is the result of an "intent," by God, to create existence. Hence, this reasoning finds God by simply describing "existence" as having a necessary starting point where it was intentionally created, and then calling that "creator of existence" God. But how do we know if there was ever any such 'absolute' starting point at all? And even if there was, did God, before that point, necessarily "not" intend to create existence?

Take the human body as an example of the difference between the "intent" of a conscious intelligence and the evolution of an organic process. It does not grow because our "intent" is to get older (or indeed, many people would intend quite the opposite), it simply grows - period. Hence, to conclude that "existence" was “created” with some kind of “intent” to, say, produce human life, is largely contrary to the very biology of how human life itself actually functions. The author and environmentalist Paul Hawken, for example, pointed out that “the human body has 100 trillion cells, and 90% of those are not human cells. They are fungi, bacteria, and micro organisms.” Hence, "the thing that makes us human is not necessarily human, and human beings then may be the back story” of existence itself.  Point being, most of our physical existence is biological even though much of our perception of existence is psychological. And perhaps is is because we experience existence mostly on a psychological level that we tend to attribute psychological properties, like “consciousness” and “intent,” to so many events that are purely biological in nature.

Intention is just one of the human attributes that we regularly assign to God. Indeed, everything we know of God conforms perfectly to our humanity, including our reasoning, our emotions, and even at times our mortality. Anger, jealousy, forgiveness, compassion, love, hate, wrath, disappointment, vengeance, and everything else, are all possessed by the God this argument alleges to exist. He even (allegedly) “created” the universe with all of the meticulousness of a watch maker making a watch. In fact, for all of his omnipotence and omniscience, the God, especially as described in the Old Testament, is remarkably human. No wonder so many people so often presume to know so much about a "being" they've never seen or met - "he-she-or-it" is exactly like they are. Most of the things in existence itself, on the other hand, seem to behave like anything but how we are. Indeed, even the origin and development of our own body conforms more to that of a tree than a watch. So why must we conclude that the whole of "existence" was necessarily formed more like a watch than a tree?

Hence, what “caused” existence is a question that requires us to define what we mean exactly by “caused.” And just because my language and my imagination tend to attribute human properties to processes that may be purely biological in nature, does not mean that my intelligence was necessarily “caused” by some greater intelligence operating in the void of pre-existence. It may only mean I am projecting myself onto that void, calling it “God,” and then using that projection as both the measure and the author of all things. Hence, by the lure of our own reflection, we may accidentally and ironically confirm Protagoras' statement that “man is the measure of all things.” And this is the very thing the theist argues we should never do. 

Ultimately, even if we accept all of the assumptions this argument depends on, and conclude some kind of intelligence created existence, such an answer only opens the door to more questions. In a web series called "Atheism and Critical Thinking," for example, UK artist and secular humanist QualiaSoup points out that "even if some kind of intelligence initiated the existence of our universe," we would still need to ask, what is the nature of that intelligence? Was it single or collective? Was it interested in the universe, or humans? Is it even aware of our tiny planet? Is it capable of communicating? And perhaps more importantly, does it still even exist?**

In sum, the answer for Kreeft is the destination he reaches because of the path he chooses to follow through the ambiguity of his question. From the myriad meanings for “caused” and “existence” available, the questioner can freely choose the definitions that allow him to arrive at the answer he prefers. That answer is often determined not only by how the questioner defines those terms, but by how those two terms are seen to relate to each other. If, on the one hand, the relationship is viewed to be more detached - like the watch and the watch maker - the inquirer may likely prefer a more divine, theistic answer. If, on the other hand, that relationship is seen to be more organic - like a tree from a seed - the inquirer may prefer a more mechanical, atheistic answer. Both options demonstrate that every road one can travel to the idea of God can equally be traveled away from an idea of God, with the direction we move determined by the definitions we choose to follow.  And while Prof. Kreeft has chosen to follow the well worn, familiar definitions and relationships that allow him to arrive safely at the answer he seeks, I, as Robert Frost put it, ‘I choose the definitions less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Walt Whitman on 9/11

This is a tribute poem to 9/11 stitched together purely from various poems by Walt Whitman. 
In other words, I like to think of it as Whitman’s tribute to 9/11.

When the thunder-cracking guns arouse me,
  and million-footed Manhattan unpent descends to her pavements,
… I will sing you a song of what I behold …Libertad.
When the facades of the houses are alive with people, when eyes
     gaze riveted tens of thousands at a time
When Broadway is entirely given up to foot-passengers and
    foot-standers, when the mass is densest,

I too arising, answering, descend to the pavements, merge with the
    crowd, and gaze with them…
To us, my city,
Where our tall-topt marble and iron beauties range on opposite
    sides, to walk in the space between,

To-day our Antipodes comes.

 it moves changing, a kaleidoscope divine,
it moves changing before us.

When the fire-flashing, when rude clouds canopy my city
When gorgeous the countless straight stems, thicken with color

your legs are bent and broken

My stars and stripes fluttering in the wind,

Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.
I am with you, you men and women of a generation

Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers
Suspend here and everywhere

Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys!
 cast black shadows at nightfall!
cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses;

We descend upon you and all things—we arrest you all
Creeds and schools in abeyance
  O baffled, balk'd, bent to the very earth,

  Over the carnage rose prophetic a voice,

  Be not dishearten'd, affection shall solve the problems of freedom
  Those who love each other shall become invincible,

I breathe the suffocating smoke, then the flat clouds hover low
     concealing all;

9/11 - 11 years later

11 years already
since that day in September
when everything changed 
  oh how I remember

A warm sunny day
 the summer's last kiss
 ended in tears
for those we miss

 as the sky was ripped open
 and the world was awoken,
from a dream to a  nightmare
of “bombs bursting in air”

when Giuliani became
The countries mayor
And police and fireman,
 heroes without compare

Great Britain played our national anthem
in Buckingham square
to remind us we’re not alone
in the grief we all bear

11 years since a nation
turned to God in prayer
and we told all those we love
just how much we care

since vigils and candles
scented the midnight air
and God Bless America
rang from the Capital stairs

since bucket brigades tirelessly worked
beneath the halogen glare
and red, white and blue
blossomed from everywhere

since we forgot about
 “who wants to marry a millionaire”
and we longed for those days
of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire

     it’s been 11 years
      since our great despair
 when time itself seemed to hang in the air
and the whole world stopped what it was doing stare
 Yet by our hopes and resolve
we will mend and repair     
and give proof through this night
that our flag

                is still there.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Paradox of Motion and the Motion Maker

 Another argument offered by theists as evidence of God is the argument from motion. This argument says that, because things move, God must have moved them. God, so the reasoning goes, is the "unmoved mover" who makes all things move. God, in other words, is the Motion Maker.
On its face, this argument relies implicitly on the division made between potential vs. actual motion, which is a division based on an Aristotelian world view.  This world view, however, is as outdated a belief as that of a geocentric universe.  "The Michelson-Moreley Experiment of 1887 undid much of Aristotle’s world view" and, by extension, Aquinas’s argument (since the latter is premised on the accuracy of the former). "Special relativity further explained how “motion” is no longer a property of just “one thing” – the observer or the object – but of both the observer and the object," independently or simultaneously.  Special relativity, then, helped show how the belief in an “unmoved mover” is either an unfounded premise that defies the laws of physics, or, if such an “unmoved mover” does exist, it does so wholly outside of any human understanding or experience of time and space. This latter point means that, even if an “unmoved mover” exists, we have no ability to argue for that 'thing,s' existence using properties that “it” necessarily operates wholly outside of. Otherwise, we are like fish arguing for the existence of a falcon by using only the properties of water.  

 Additionally, why must we assume that “motion” has an origin and not a genealogy?  The "unmoved mover” hypothesis simply assumes that all motion must, necessarily, have a starting point. But  how do we really know if there was ever any such starting point? Perhaps there is only perpetual motion, in one form or another. That we cannot imagine perpetual, or 'infinite,' motion speaks more to the limits of human imagination than to the existence of an "unmoved mover."  As such, this argument asks us, indeed it requires us, to accept a belief in "the finite nature of motion" so we will further accept a belief in the existence of "an infinite motion maker."  This transfer of "infinity" from the former to the latter creates a kind of seesaw relationship between the words "motion" and "unmoved mover." A more narrow definition of the term "motion" increases the need for an "unmoved mover" while a more broad definition of "motion" decreases that need. Thus, there is a transference of the "infinite" from motion itself to an “unmoved mover” who causes that motion. Yet why we must swap the latter for the former is predicated on a presumption about the nature of the "universe," even as it ignore how that universe may be to a multiverse what cells are to the human body.

  Hence, this argument simply proves God by asking us to believe that motion must fine and the motion-maker infinite. This, then, asks us to accept the assumption that one must therefore be "caused" by an “act” of the other.  It is to assume that "infinite motion" is impossible, in other words, so that the existence of an "infinite unmoved-motion-maker" is inescapable.   But why, if something (indeed, if anything) exists outside of all time, space, and motion, must that “something” be a God and not Gods or God's cat, coughing up a hair ball, or simply infinite “stuff” that we know nothing about - period? After all, ANYTHING outside of time and space would equally qualify as "unmoved," no matter what "it" is.

 This argument, therefore, assumes something "must" be true (there "must" be an "unmoved mover") and then proceeds to conclude that the assumption we are forced to accept as "true" must necessarily be "God," even though we are debating the question of God to begin with.

Theists use this argument by claiming that God is "unmoved" because He is immaterial, and therefore outside of "time and space"  This puts the embodiment of God into the "space" outside of space, however, and then denies that such a space or embodiment exists.  It is to claim, in other words, that the theist knows exactly what and where God was before God could have been anything or anywhere the theist could possibly understand. It calls any mystery one encounters God, and with so doing, concludes that every mystery is fully solved by virtue of being fully unsolvable.It is to invite the wondering philosopher to perform calculus equations on a roller coaster so that he may conclude from the dizzying experience that God created Disney World. 


Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Paradox of Perfection - The Dilemma of Degrees of Perfection


Using Degrees of Perfection as a yard stick to prove the existence of God leads to the problem of the  Paradox of Perfection. This paradox has three parts. Part one is how the imperfect can only see the perfect imperfectly. Imperfect beings, in other words, are too imperfect to ever know, recognize, or even accurately judge something as completely perfect.  The second part begs the question, why would such a "perfect" God create such an incredibly "imperfect world,"? And the last part is how 'perfect perfection' necessarily implies the existence of its evil twin, 'perfect imperfection.' This second part illustrates how "perfection," ironically enough, sometimes breeds imperfection. And the last point demonstrates how the argument does not prove the existence of one god, but proves there is either no God or at least two gods or more.

 To understand how imperfect beings see the perfect imperfectly, we need look no further than the examples of the Parthenon and Christ himself.
The Parthenon is an imperfect perfection, so to speak. It is aesthetically perfect by being mathematically imperfect. According to contemporary scholars, it was built to "appear" perfect by being built to accommodate for the imperfection of human perception. As a result, there are few right angles in the entire structure. Instead,  it was built with gentle curves to give it the appearance of being straight.  The builders used imperfection, in other words, to create the optical illusion of "perfection."  If the builders had built the structure using perfectly straight angles, on the other hand, the building itself would "appear" curved and would thus appear to us as "imperfect." In this way, the perfect and the imperfect are often mere interpretive differences, and the latter is often used as the means for conveying the former.  To imperfect beings, using the imperfect to give the "illusion" of perfection is more real, and thus more "perfect" than perfection itself. Also, choosing one type of perfection usually requires sacrificing other perfections.  Mathematical perfections are different from aesthetic perfections, which may be different from functional perfections. Greece was aware of these distinctions and often had to choose one over the others.

 Christ, on the other hand, was supposedly "human perfection." As such, he might be said to be the embodiment of the three kinds of perfection just mentioned. But the people ultimately crucified Christ, which illustrates either how we don't recognize perfection when we see it, or worse, that when we see it we want to destroy it. Hence the "perfection" of Christ only agitated the "imperfections" of others to put Christ to death. In fact, if God had simply made people "perfect" to begin with, there would've been no one around to redeem our predictable disobedience in the Garden of Eden by viciously slaughtering Christ. Christianity, in other words, is not a story of how humanity aspires to perfection, but how humanity aspires to destroy perfection in ever more horrific ways. From Adam and Eve in the perfect Garden of Eden, to Noah and the flood, to Christ himself, the Bible is one repeating theme of an imperfect humanity rejecting and then destroying the "perfections" given to them (although how a garden of Eden can be called "perfect" with a lethal snake and poison apple tree thrown into the middle of it is beyond me).

Besides, what sort of a "perfect" God creates such a woefully imperfect world? Even without sin, there's still earth quakes, disease, hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, drought, aging, and all the rest. And if "sin" is to blame for how imperfect our world is, than why put a poison apple tree in the middle of a garden of infantile humans? That's worse than giving a box of razor blades to a baby and arguing the baby has free will to kill himself. Seriously, who comes up with this stuff!?

Lastly, the argument from DOP, even if we accept all its assumptions and difficulties, asks us to believe that it proves there is a God. But this is untrue. Instead, if the "degrees of perfection" are real, it does not prove the existence of "a" God, it proves the existence of at least two Gods, or more. Or worse, if it does prove one God, than that God is both perfectly perfect and perfectly imperfect. A single such God, however, would negate his own existence and demonstrate that the DOP only proves there is no God.  

How does the DOP argument prove the existence of two gods? By moving us in one direction toward the "perfect perfection" it defines as God and moving in the opposite direction toward "perfect imperfection" that would be equal to, and thus also definable as, God. In short, the DOP moves from perfect perfection to perfect imperfection, as symmetrically as numbers moving in both positive and negative directions.  

Christians may argue that this "perfect imperfection" is Lucifer, but there’s a big problem with that answer. Lucifer, so the story goes, was a fallen angel, which is supposedly something far less than a God. A perfect imperfection, however, is equal in its imperfection to God in his perfection. Otherwise we would be saying that, by God throwing Lucifer out of Heaven, he increased Lucifer's power and made Lucifer's imperfections equal to God's perfections. This is like "firing" a guy who asks for a raise by promoting him to the position of CEO to your biggest rival.

Nor is not enough to say, as some Christians might, that "perfect imperfection" simply does not exist, and that is why it is so "imperfect," or they would be admitting the devil is not real but God is. But then why would there be evil in the world?  Also, if a perfect perfection that is real is more perfect than one that is not, then a perfect imperfection that is real is also more imperfect than one that is not. Otherwise, we would be saying that imperfection is simply degrees of nonexistence, with perfect imperfection being total nonexistence (whatever that would mean).

 Again, to conclude, it is in this way that the DOP either disproves the existence of God, or it proves the existence of two gods, or it produces an infinite number of Gods, for every perfection and imperfection possible. Hence, the argument from "degrees of perfection" is far less proof of monotheism that it is proof of either atheism or polytheism.   How perfect.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Degrees of Perfection and the problem of Christ

 In my previous post I wrote about a number of problems with the argument from, and thus the difficulties of applying a yardstick of, Degrees of Perfection (DOP). The argument assumes that "degrees of perfection" implies the existence of a "perfect being" that can be called God. This assumes, of course, that “degrees of perfection”  is not only objectively real, but culminates in the embodiment of God.  A question that the argument fails to answer, however, is why we must assume that “degrees of perfection” indicates a "perfect being" any more than degrees of temperature indicates a perfect temperature. 
The DOP argument assumes that, at some point, we can reach the ultimate perfection of God, or that perfection, by being infinite in degrees, should be called God. Either conclusion is problematic, however. If we say the DOP can reach an "ultimate perfection" then we are reducing an infinite God to some finite standard. On the other hand, if we say that perfection itself is infinite, then we are handicapped by being finite ourselves, and have no need or reason to call it God. Indeed, our limitations prevent us from determining if one is any different from the other.

Ultimately, this argument, like so many other arguments for the existence of God, miraculously transforms an infinite DOP into an infinite G-O-D, without explaining why the former requires us to accept the latter. Numbers are real, for example, and can stretch into infinity as easily as degree of perfection, but that does not lead us to believe in a perfect number that we should call the "God - number" any more than that we should call the sum of all numbers God.

What do we mean by "perfection" anyway? What standard should we be using to measure "perfection?"  Do we mean perfection in an animal sense, a human sense, or in some divine sense? And how can we compare? A human cannot run, throw, or see as far as a camel, a gorilla, or a God, so a perfect human cannot be measured against the "perfection" of any of these.  Humans cannot hear on the same frequency as dogs or see ultraviolet light like Bees, or even see the farthest planets without a telescope. The octopus and the horned owl, for that matter, have more "perfect" eyes than humans, but humans have better eyes than bats. Bats, however, have better sonar than humans. Does this mean Christ had eyes like an owl and the sonar of a bat? The point is, we can no more measure the "perfection" of a dog, a bee, or a telescope, by comparing it to a man, than we can compare the perfection of a man by comparing him to a God. Even comparing a man to other men poses the problem of what, exactly, we should compare and how should its "perfection" be defined in a vacuum, and by whom.

Christ was supposedly the "perfection" of both man and God (he had to be for his sacrifice to be "perfect"), but does that mean he had ears like a dog, eyes like a bee, and sight like a telescope?  Does it even mean he could leap tall buildings in a single bound or run faster than Usain Bolt? Or are we saying that all human beings, upon reaching the level of "perfection" that Christ embodied will have the power to walk on water and raise the dead? And if humans can never reach such a perfection, because Christ was supposedly perfect man and perfect God, then we're saying that that kind of perfection is not one that we can or will ever reach, so what's the point of using such a measure at all?

Furthermore, when we say something is "perfect" we must ask not only "perfect for what," but "perfect" in what sense, and compared to what? For comparing imperfect people to a perfect God is like comparing my laptop computer to the entire universe, which is a perfectly ridiculous thing to do.

Finally, imperfect beings are not made "more perfect" simply by accepting that a "perfect" being exists. Even if an objectively perfect being does exist, it would still be imperfectly interpreted by an imperfect being. The true perfection of a perfect being could only be interpreted "perfectly" by another perfect being. An imperfect being, such as ourselves, is too imperfect to truly know the perfect perfectly. As such, the question of whether a perfect being exists is perfectly ridicules. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

How Degrees of Perfection Disproves God

The Argument from Degrees of Perfection is an argument often used to try to logically "prove" the existence of God. The argument basically says "not all things in nature are equal, some are better, more perfect than others in many ways. But things can be compared only by a standard; "better" means closer to the best. More perfect means closer to absolutely perfect. Thus, if degrees of perfection are real, then perfection is real. And that is another name for God: a really perfect being."


The miracle of this argument is how it makes the invention of a human ideal a God, and then concludes that there must be a God or we could never have been clever enough to conceive of such a human ideal in the first place.

"Degrees of Perfection" are simply a measurement of human invention applied through our faulty and ever changing human perception. "Perfection" is often a subjective thing, the product of time, place, and audience. A perfect poem or painting, or piece of music, for example, is often something from one person being measured by some other person(s). Or, it can be a person measuring them-self against them-self, or against someone else. Even a "perfect dog" in a Dog Show is "perfect" according to the particular people judging that particular dog, on that particular day, at that particular show.  That dog, however, may not be "perfect" according to other dogs, or even other Dog Show judges, or to the local cats, or for that matter Martians. The perfect athlete or student or performer, is measured for their "perfection" not by people who have a special insight of God as the perfect athlete, student, or performer,  but by people (i.e, "judges") who measure them against others to whom they are comparable.

In short, this argument presents a simple idea in theory that is as impossible to measure in practice as it is infinite in what and how it can be applied. In other words, the argument raises the further problem of determining how we should define different perfections for things or persons, and how should we determine how to define perfections for groups of things or persons. Is there a God for the perfect opera singer, tree house, rugby team, flower, aardvark, automobile, navy, barbershop quartet, political party, nation, religion, etc.? And if any one of these can be "perfect" for any one person at any one moment, must there be a God for every kind of "perfection" possible? Confused yet? Yeah, me to!

Additionally, to say something is "perfect" implies the question, "perfect for what?" The former can only be measured in the context of the latter otherwise the standard becomes meaningless. This second question can, for reasons of time, place and experience, make anyone and everyone "perfect" at least in some sense. Does that therefore mean we are all Gods, at some point? This takes Andy Warhol's "15 minutes to a whole new dimension! 

Also, if God is the "perfect being," than "perfection" is as infinite as God, which, again, only makes the standard meaningless. Such a divine yard stick is infinitely long, so that everything measured against it becomes equally unequal to it. Here's how.

 Using an infinite being as the standard by which we measure all finite beings makes every finite being equally unequal. A three foot long snake, for example, is just as "unequal" to an infinitely long yard stick as a ten foot snake, or a hundred foot snake. The hundred foot snake is only "more perfect" than the ten foot snake if we have a standard that says that "200 foot snakes are the most perfect snake possible."  In other words, a finite thing needs some kind of finite standard to be measured against, or the standard results in comparing things that are incomparable. A person who lives to the age of 121, for example, cannot be said to have lived a "perfectly healthy life" if only compared to someone who is immortal.

Hence, the only way perfection can be real is if it is obtainable, and therefore applicable, in this life. The Olympics, for example, measures the perfection of competing athletes not by comparing the athletes to the athleticism of the Gods of Greece, but by comparing them to each other.  If "degrees of perfection" suggest there is a "God," then each event in the Olympics may have a Greek God who is the measure of perfection for that event, against which all the competing athletes would be measured. But how could a person's athleticism be measured against that of a Gods, when we disqualify people for things as simple as just using steroids (allegedly)? Such a comparison would be like asking who is stronger, Ricky Schroeder, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Zeus. 

This makes measuring by such a standard completely meaningless because even the most imperfect thing imaginable by us is still infinitely better than an infinite number of other imperfect things, and any perfection imaginable by us will always be infinitely less perfect than an infinite number of more perfect things possible under the standard. Thus, the degrees of perfection are not measurements of a "perfect being" called God, but of human ideas and human ideals.

To use “degrees of perfection,” in other words, is simply to measure ourselves against our ideal self, not against a God who is the embodiment of an immeasurable, infinite ideal that we could never achieve. The latter would simply make attempts at the former as silly as asking who can jump to the Sun and back. Of course God could, but how is that any measure of an Olympians attempt at being a "perfect" high jumper?

 More perfect for what?

 Before we can say something is more perfect than something else, we must determine what that thing is more perfect for, exactly. A hawk is more perfect for flying than a fish, but the fish is more perfect for swimming than a kangaroo.  To conclude that a hawk is more perfect than a kangaroo only begs the question - "more perfect for what?"

This also raises the question of, who should decide this degree of "perfection," the hawk, the kangaroo, or the fish, or perhaps the rabbit. Or should perfection of any of these be left to human beings to decide, or Martians, or even the Gods themselves? And, to make the problem exponentially worse, how can we decide what standard is the "perfect" standard for determining degrees of perfection? And what standard should we use to determine the standard we should use? And who should decide all of this? Who, in other words, is "perfect" enough to figure out exactly what we mean by "perfect,"  then develop the perfect standard for applying what we mean, and then apply that standard perfectly, every time? We can say God is, but that doesn't help us prove that the "degrees of perfection" are real because it does not help us figure out how such a standard should be calculated and applied in the first place

 Hence, when the standard of perfection is said to be God who is infinite, the standard becomes infinite, and therefore unusable. And if the standard is infinite, than it does not need God, because the standard becomes equally as useless to finite beings who can no more measure the infinite degrees of perfection possible, than they can measure a God who is supposedly infinitely perfect in every possible way. In other words, if the degrees of perfection are God, than we can no more know the meaning of the one than we can prove the existence of the other.

Once again, this argument does not prove the existence of God, as much as the existence of God necessarily disproves the validity of this argument.  

In other words, we have yet to determine if the "degrees of perfection" are as "real" as this argument requires us to believe they are. It simply proposes that they are, without proof, or even what that means, or how such "degrees" could or should be applied, and quickly moves on to pronounce (before anyone can get their pants back on) that "therefore, God is real!"

I don't know about you, but this argument leaves me feeling like I've had a run in with a used car salesman who just sold me a perfect lemon.

Monday, August 13, 2012

An Atheist View of Miracles

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle," David Hume once wrote, "unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish." The only way we can assuredly know that something is a genuine "miracle," in other words, is if we believe it would be an even greater miracle to discover that the person making the claim could either be wrong, or is in fact a liar.

Applying Hume's criticism, then, we see how the Christian simply assumes that it would have to be an even greater miracle to discover that the Bible was either wrong or lying, for example, than that Jesus actually rose from the dead or walked on water. In fact, the Christian even "believes" that it would be a far greater miracle still that such stories should be interpreted in a strictly metaphorical sense, than that such stories actually happened in a literal sense. Such assumptions, upon which the entire edifice of Christian "belief" in miracles rests, is, at its core, the real "miracle of faith.'  

An atheist can admit that "miracles" happen,  but what the atheist means by "miracles" and what the theist means by that same term can be two very different things indeed. For the theist, a miracle is as easy to explain as it is impossible to comprehend, because it is simply an act of God. As such, no further investigation is necessary because all further investigation is futile. After all,  it's a miracle!

Calling something a bona fide "miracle," therefore,  is to claim that anything that happens which we do not understand must necessarily be the result of divine "magic," which we will never be able to explain in any other way.  This is like assuming that anything we have ever seen in the sky that we cannot explain today must therefore be a flying saucer forever after, filled with intelligent "beings" from another world. It is to assume, in other words, an understanding of the near infinite nature of how everything in the universe works, with enough certainty to rule out every other possible explanation imaginable - forever.

For the atheist, on the other hand, miracles are simply things we do not yet understand, and nothing more. What a Christian calls "a miracle" may just be the result of powers of the mind over our own body that we have yet to fully understand. After all, it has been demonstrated that people can use their mind to alter their own body chemistry, which has been demonstrated in not only placebo experiments, but also in everyone from Tibetan monks to people with split personality disorder.

Assuming that a "miracle" is anything more than a giant question mark, however, is a dubious interpretation at best, or a deliberate act of manipulation at worst. In debate class, they would call this a logical fallacy, one that necessarily assumes not only that the "miracle" in question can not be explained in any other way today, no matter what investigative method we use to try and understand it, but one that humans will never develop the understanding or the technological sophistication to understand - ever! 

If we are being intellectually honest, however, then the only thing we all know for certain is that UFOs or "miracles" are either things we will understand in the future, or they are something we will never understand - ever. But either way, it is far more honest, and certainly far more humble, to admit the human limits of what we know and understand, than to leap to the god-like conclusion that God must of done it in the conservatory with the candle stick.

Otherwise, we are simply assuming that anything that happens in the world, simply by virtue of our not being able to explain how it happened, must therefore be a miracle. Hence, if we are unable to explain the nature of gravity, or how animals know about impending earthquakes or tidal waves long before technologically sophisticated humans ever do, then both anomalies should properly be called "miracles." In fact, even rain could be called a "miracle," prior to our discovery of how and why it rains.  In contrast, any attempt to then discover the underlying causes of such "miracles" would be seen as not only blasphemous, but as daring to question the existence of the "being" responsible for those miracles.

The truth, however, is that scientific investigation into what causes gravity, rain, or how animals sense earthquakes, is not a challenge to the existence of a God per se, but is really only challenging the authority of all those who seek to call such things "miracles" in the first place.   

In this respect, it's quite possible that all of the "miracles" mentioned in the Bible actually happened, but that they were only "miracles" because people didn't know what else to call them, and there were no scientists or medical experts around who were trying to figure out the actual cause of such "miracles." Curing someone of a fatal disease or restarting a person's heart in 5000 B.C.E., for example, would likely be called "miracles" by all who observed such events. What else could they have called them, after all?  Indeed, we would still call such things "miracles" even today, even if we use such a term as simply a euphemism for medical advancement.

Today, such "miracles" are not seen so much as an act of God but of a good doctor. And thank god scientists have figured out how to multiply such "miracles" by seeking to understand their underlying causes, for God has historically been incredibly stingy in his willingness to use such "magic" to help cure more of humanity overall.

 And the fact that God could cure everyone with his miracles, but instead chooses to selectively cure only some, is like a doctor with an infinite supply of a panacea that cures absolutely everyone of everything, but who chooses to provide it to only a few patients arbitrarily, in the hope that the rest will love him for having the benevolence and mercy to do so. Such a doctor would be scorned by Christians, however, for doing the very same thing those Christians praise their God for doing.

Indeed, that the patients who this doctor chooses not to heal with his panacea, chose to love him nevertheless, is by far a greater miracle than that such a doctor possess such a panacea in the first place. Yet this is never noticed by those patients, and for perhaps no other reason than that they are wholly dependent upon that doctor to keep them alive, even with all of their maladies in tact.  

In addition to Christians feeling threatened by anyone who seeks to understand the underlying causes of those things they call a "miracle," and to overlooking the fact that they praise as a selfless act of God the very same things they would condemn as morbidly selfish were it done by a doctor, Christians also assume that everything that happens in their Bible that can be described as a "miracle"  must necessarily be understood to be beyond the realm of science to explain, lest it challenge the authority of the Bible and the existence of God, just as much as it undermines the credibility of all other Christian claims to moral authority.

 Such a perspective hides the fact that the people who wrote the stories in the Bible were not all knowing scientists or even PhD's in literature or history, as far as we know. They were simple fishermen and shepherds and carpenters and, of course, story tellers. And in the telling of their oral traditions, those story tellers were always expected to adapt their stories to suit the needs of their particular time and circumstances, much in the same way Shakespeare's Hamlet or Richard III are always reflections of the director of the play. 

Story tellers, as such, are not just historical stenographers, but artists, who often paint the picture of the ideas they wish to convey with the power of prose and the color of poetry. Picasso, for example, painted ideas he gleamed from the writers and poets he surrounded himself with in Paris. In contrast, a writer paints the image of their idea on the canvas of our own imagination using the medium of language.  And the finished product, as is often the case with literature, is usually a portrait of ourselves spied through the retina of an author's pen.

Perhaps the biblical authors, in this same way, simply choose to describe the act of walking on a sand bar as "walking on water," not in an attempt to deceive but to describe the image more powerfully to their audience. Or maybe the author genuinely believed that Jesus was "walking on water" instead of a sand bar. After all, an author is only as human as their audience and as such, he (or she) is as fallible in discerning what they see as we are creative in interpreting what we read.

Whatever the case, it is certainly not a belief in "miracles" that is the problem between theists and atheists, but the different meanings that each derives from them. The theist thinks a miracle informs us about the existence of a higher intelligence, while the atheist knows a miracle is simply evidence of our own ignorance. And while one sees them as a license to act like God, the other sees them as a reminder that we are only human.  

Religion is a disease masquerading as it’s own cure.