Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On God: Part 1 - Examining Our Premises

Examining our Premises

The Importance of Clearly Defining “God”:

It is an imperative first step in any argument or debate to first clearly define all of the major terms to be used in the discussion. Though it may seem obvious, this step is one often overlooked in religious debate and subsequently allows the debaters excellent means of avoidance simply by claiming to have been referring to a different definition of “God”.

For an example of this; check out Christopher Hitchens’ debate with Rev. Al Sharpton – towards the end of this debate, Sharpton shifts the definition of God away from the traditional Christian conception (which Hitchens clearly believed he was discussing) to one much more nebulous and limited. Essentially he changed the debate mid-stream by first using the standard conception of God “the Father” then morphing it into God “the Holy Spirit”.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am hereby defining God in the most commonly used sense in the United States and around the world. That is to say, the God of the Q’uran and the Bible (in its various incarnations) – this god has many names; Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah, God, Jesus, even Haille Selassie according to some, but in each representation, this god has the same basic characteristics. Thus, any use of the term “God” shall be furthermore interchangeable with the following attributes:

  1. Omnipotence: God can (literally) do anything. He is the “all-powerful” creator of the universe – there is nothing beyond his ability to create, materialize, or invent. It is crucial that this be fully understood as part of the intrinsic definition of God. There are no limits to his power. Any and all laws of physics or generalized rules of nature that humanity has discovered within its entire history do not apply to God.
  2. Omniscience: God knows everything that has ever been, is now and will ever be. He knows what every living creature in the universe is thinking and feeling simultaneously.
  3. Omnipresence: God exists everywhere simultaneously, or at the very least can be anywhere in the universe instantly. Omnipresence is in a sense a result of the combination of being all-powerful and all-knowing in that God exists above and outside the laws of physics such a complete extent that time and space have no meaning. As such, God is by definition immortal as well.
  4. Omnibenevolent: God is all “good” or all-loving. This is much harder to define, but presumably it means that God’s primary motives all fall into the category of outwardly beneficial to the other life-forms in the universe he created.

The first three traits are the basic defining characteristics of any all-powerful supernatural being. In tandem, this means that God has ultimate understanding of everything that is (and everything that exists only in the imaginations of anything that can possibly imagine), the power to mold the universe into whatever shape he deems best and the ability to do and know anything simultaneously. The final trait is the most crucial component to the vast majority of religious thinking because it is this single characteristic that provides the positive incentive to believe, to worship, to follow and to obey.

Consider the idea of an all-powerful – omnimalevolent (all-evil) God for a moment:

What would the world of an all-evil creator look like? What type of people would populate such a universe? What would this mean to us?

Many philosophers have postulated this idea while observing perceived “evil” in the world and attempting to reconcile various atrocities with the assumption of a creator who (1) Is aware of the atrocities as any all-knowing being would have to be, and, (2) has the power to stop any and all atrocities effortlessly as any all-powerful being would be able to do and the fact that any all-loving creator would take action to correct things like war, suffering, disease, murder, and anything else that is commonly thought to be bad. The conclusion by some philosophers, like Calvin or Hobbes (I just couldn’t resist), is essentially that we are predestined to exist in a world which is essentially evil and God alone decides our fate in the afterlife (at birth) – at which point we will either continue as eternally damned in hell or be elevated to a non-evil plane of existence called heaven. Other, much older philosophers believed similar things – for example Greek, Roman & Norse gods are all petty, and vindictive creatures who toy with humanity primarily out of amusement. These gods are not all-evil by any means, but they rule purely out of fear – and eventually fell out of favor for a god which presents more positive incentives for worship.

Omnimalevolence is an interesting topic to discuss to be sure, however, it provides no incentives to the religious for belief – only the most masochistic and sadistic of individuals would be remotely interested in that type of existence or God, and even then, they wouldn’t benefit either.

So, I am going to deal exclusively with the idea of an omnibenevolent creator.

There is significance in this exact a definition (as opposed to the one Sharpton slid into at the end of the Hitchens debate) because it distinguishes God – as a supernatural being not bound by any physical laws – from a highly advanced “Intelligence” or alien. (Note: The “Intelligent Design” hypothesis will be discussed at a later point in some detail.)

If one takes a more loose definition of God – the “personal” type of deity that many sensible Americans believe in instead of an active all-powerful one – what results is that “God” becomes effectively no different than an extremely technologically advanced alien species would be. At that stage, the very concept of God shifts from being super or supranatural, to being bound by the same laws of physics that govern human existence.

And at that point, we move into a scientific and secularly philosophical (rather than theological) discussion and are no longer talking about the same God described by nearly every religious text in the world.

So, to reiterate: God, for the purposes of all further discussion in this essay, is hereby defined as being omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent.

Supremely powerful & supremely good.

And yet - that is an impossibility. Let’s actually examine our premises.

Omnipotence - The Basic Paradox:

Can an all-powerful God create a rock so large he himself cannot lift it?

Well… No.

I know that this argument appears to be set up as a straw-man, but the truth is, most people’s conception of the Judeo-Christian/Muslim God (and many others!) is that of supreme immutable power and thus it is important to examine.

The problem lies in the initial premise that anything could be “all-powerful”. By simple reasoning alone, anyone can come up with a number of intrinsically impossible paradoxes like the question at the outset of this segment.

Thus the mere existence of paradoxes forces omnipotence into the impossibility category.

Again, according to the very definition of omnipotence, NOTHING is beyond the ability of an omnipotent being – yet, there are only two ways to answer a paradox such as “Can an all-powerful God create a rock so large he himself cannot lift it?”, and because there are two aspects to the question that are irreconcilable, either answer results in the omnipotent being failing to do in some way.

1. God can lift any object regardless of its mass, volume, size, scale, etc. – thus resulting in a no to the question of whether or not God can create such a rock.

2. God can create anything, including a rock he can’t lift – thus resulting in a God which is unable to lift an object.

In either case, God cannot do something.

But it’s not “God’s” fault! The premise that omnipotence can exist at all is completely fallacious due to these types of paradoxes. No being can do “anything”! The whole idea is really just an over simplification, quite likely created as an explanation for another premise: God created the universe.

If God created the universe, it’s logical to ask the question, “How did God create the universe?” To which the first and most basic answer is very likely; “God is all-powerful and is capable of any feat, regardless of how inconceivable it is to humanity.”

Unfortunately, this over simplification has perpetuated and grown over the ensuing centuries and the concept that God is all-powerful gives rise to many false conclusions – one of the most essential ingredients to fundamentalist zealotry is the belief that one’s own interpretation of God is completely infallible (as any all-powerful/all-knowing being would have to be) and thus, the way you believe is absolute truth. Of course, many theologians will take issue with that statement as a human problem rather than one with God, but the overall point is that omnipotence cannot exist. In and of itself, it is paradoxical and thus to base any belief on the premise of an omnipotent God will result in flawed conclusions.

Remember; even the most rational conclusion based on a false premise is still going to be wrong!

Omnipotence & The All-Good Dilemma:

Though omnipotence can be clearly established to be an impossible paradox, assuming that it was possible for a being to be all-powerful for the sake of argument, and also assuming that said being is all-loving or omnibenevolent, what would our world look like?

Certainly there are things that happen in the world at large that the vast majority of people would unanimously consider as, “bad”. Three of the major ones in general are 1. Theft, 2. Rape, and 3. Murder. These respectively violate our right to be secure in property, our right to be secure in person (and to have our decisions respected) and lastly our most essential right to exist.

However, thefts, rapes and murders happen every day!

So do countless other types of atrocities… and not just isolated cases, but in simply absurd proportions! There is genocide happening currently in Darfur and other parts of Africa. In fact, the 20th Century alone has seen dozens of mass murders from fabulous dictators such as Kim Il Sung, Mao Ze-Dong, Jozef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Che Guevara, to Fidel Castro, and on and on…

As obvious as this is, if we assume God is “all-good” and that he is “all-powrful”, and we agree that genocide is not good at all, the question must be asked: Why would God not stop genocide?

If God were both omnipotent & omnibenevolent, it is only reasonable to conclude that he/she would stop the terrible atrocities that happen every day. There is an alternative of course – that God has a much larger, all-good purpose for which genocide is a key component. But that requires us to assume a large number of premises that have absolutely no supporting evidence, for the sole purpose of being able to maintain those premises – which is all quite circular, and extremely flawed logic.

Omniscience – Conflict with Omnipotence and the Free Will Dilemma:

Though there is no direct conflict, in that if any being was all-powerful it would inherently also be all-knowing, the concept of omnipotence has a flaw.

To know all is for everything to be complete and unchanging. In a strange way this does present a problem for an omnipotent being because nothing would be created that wasn’t already known. This isn’t necessarily a problem for the supreme being if one accepts that even an all-powerful God cannot generate or create any idea or thing which he did not already know he would have. Which means that omniscience (though an inherent component to the concept of omnipotence) actually negates the possibility of omnipotence.

The whole concept is definitely a bit of a brain twister… So, to clarify:

1. Definition of Terms: Omniscience means knowing all ideas, actions, feelings, events, etc. from all times past, present & future.

a. That would necessarily include all ideas, actions and feelings past, present & future that were experienced by the all-knowing being (God) in addition to those of every other sentient creature

b. Omnipotence means being able to do, create, alter any reality to any other reality at will – to be able to do anything with no limits.

2. Thus, an omnipotent being cannot be omniscient as it would render the being incapable of producing a thought or action that was previously unknown.

Essentially, this is just another way of pointing out that omnipotence is a completely impossible and paradoxical concept.

But again – for the sake of debate - assuming that omnipotence was possible and by extension, omniscience, this does present an enormous problem to the concept of free-will among those of us who are not the all-powerful God.

At this point, we have to come back to the real issue of omniscience – which is that for a creature of any kind, even a God, to know everything, than everything that was, is and ever will be is completely unchangeable.

An Analogy: Say you have just finished reading your favorite novel, perhaps the book is “Sock”, by Penn Jillette. As you’ve completed the entire text, you now ostensibly know everything there is to know about the text of that book – you’ve read and understood every word. You are now “all-knowing” on the subject of the book, Sock. But you are only all-knowing so long as the text doesn’t change. But perhaps let’s say that Penn decides to write a new edition of the book and change a few chapters. When the book has been rewritten, you are no longer all-knowing about the book until you read the updated version. Penn’s free-will and ability to change the text rendered your knowledge of the book incomplete whereas without change, your omniscience in this microcosm could continue. Ultimately, it must also be noted that if you had supreme knowledge of the past, present and future, you would have also known the text of the updated version – which in essence renders the author powerless against fate.

This understanding has led many philosophers to believe (rightly so given the premise) that the existence of humanity has been entirely predetermined by God. If God already knows all that can be, then the future has ostensibly already been written and humans have no legitimate control over their own destiny.

Fate and free-will are mutually exclusive concepts.

At this point, we come to a philosophical crossroads: If God is omniscient, then fate (or specifically all life being managed by God) is in play. In this event, human existence is predetermined entirely by God – so we can now decide whether we believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, or the worst? In other words, good and bad are completely out of humanity’s control, so it’s up to God to decide which to provide in which situations and to whom. In the past, certain philosophers have chosen to believe that God controls everyone’s destiny and the result is the best of all possible things, and some have chosen to believe that God is more vindictive and the result is the worst of all possible things. Ironically, in either case, the belief in fate or God’s plan for human existence would mean that whether or not an individual was optimistic or pessimistic, God (and not the individual) made that choice.

As a bit of an aside, if we all can agree that our lives aren’t perfect and there is a mixture of good and bad in every-day life then we are going to have some difficulty taking the position that God, who is in control of our destiny, is “all-good” or “all-bad”. However, that would contradict God as omnibenevolent and also would suddenly open up a Pandora’s Box of mystery as to God’s intentions.

Note: Shifting back down for a second… This is a very complicated issue precisely because religious philosophy over-complicates itself as a result of accepting ridiculous root premises. In order to successfully maintain the axioms that it holds true at the most basic levels – e.g. the existence of an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful creator – it paints itself into an intellectual corner that can only be escaped by avoiding dealing with the issues that it raises. The theologians of centuries past did not always shy away from these issues, and as a result, entire movements of religious thought realized that to account for some people who are accepted as good and some who are accepted as bad while also maintaining that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, God must favor some people over others by predetermining who enjoys the good and who suffers the bad. And while that might account for why there is a mixture of good and bad in the world, it certainly wouldn’t explain why an all-good God would allow any non-good to exist in the first place. In either case, humans have no control over their actions – and all because of an exceedingly complex set of philosophies that are based on premises that defy reason.

"All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one." (Occam’s Razor)

We need to ask ourselves – is it more likely that an all-powerful being mysteriously controls our every action in completely intangible ways and although he is ostensibly all-good, actively promotes horrific atrocities perpetrated by a select group of people he has chosen to act out in violent, murderous ways as a means of creating ultimate good on Earth, and that because all that was, is and ever will be is already known beyond all doubt by this being, people’s behavior, morals, social values and the entire future of humanity is already predetermined and completely impossible to change…


Is it more likely that people aren’t being unwittingly controlled by a magical being but instead are simply freely thinking animals capable of making their own decisions and with that freedom comes good or bad choices as a result of fallible senses and limited intelligence?

Besides which, again it bears reminding that we’re only delving into this topic as a hypothetical exercise… Omnipotence is a paradox in and of itself and cannot exist – and neither can omniscience.

Omnipresence – Proving a Negative:

In this one instance, after having established that nothing can be either Omnipotent nor Omniscient, we are still left with a common feature of most Gods, which is Omnipresence – or the ability to be in all places at once.

Ironically, since it is impossible to prove a negative (i.e. that God “doesn’t exist”), it’s also impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist everywhere at once. It is important to note that this is only true if we accept that God takes no active role in shaping the universe or our lives, for the alternative would necessarily provide us with ample evidence of his omnipresence. Unfortunately, there is no such evidence.

Notes & Conclusions:

Understand that because it is impossible to disprove the existence of any God, no rational person can, in good conscience, entirely rule out the possibility – provided that the God people refer to is highly limited in his abilities and not of the hyperbolic nature most average people attribute to him.

With that in mind, let it be stated that if God did exist and was omnipresent, he would be relegated entirely to a clawless, toothless being that in essence only had the power to observe and not alter the universe directly in anyway – OR – if God did exist and was not omnipresent, he could have some mysterious powers to alter time and space, but not by any means would he know everything or be able to do anything, in essence, he would be much more like the Gods of Greek or Roman mythology. Powerful in certain ways, but certainly not all powerful… not even the Titans were truly immortal.

But, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins, how many of us believe in Zeus? Odin? Saturn? The Sun-god? Sun Wukong, the Chinese Monkey-god?

We’ve long discarded the concept of specific, petty and highly anthropomorphic Gods of our ancient history. We don’t sacrifice virgin girls to the sun each night in order to ensure the morning light. And we no longer believe that a drought will be in any way ended if only we dance and chant.

But I would certainly contend that the modern, all-powerful version of God is filled with the same level of silliness as any of those ideas! And assuming that there is a God who has some limited powers, but is not magically (paradoxically) all-powerful brings us all the way back to the beginning of this segment in that such a being would be indistinguishable from a technologically advanced alien.

Again, for a God to be supernatural, he must operate outside of the laws of physics. An advanced alien might be inconceivable to humans and be mistaken for a God, but that creature would definitely not be supernatural. However, though the definition of God as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving certainly makes God quite different from some curious alien species interested in genetic tampering, it has a problem… It just can’t work!

The default position needs to be skepticism (not cynicism!), and extraordinary claims of supernatural beings who have vast powers actively employed to alter the universe into whatever shape suits the whims of said being should be backed with extraordinary evidence of that claim. Logically, the burden of proof has to be on the claimant – if a person walks up to you and says, “There is an invisible fire-breathing dragon standing next to me”, then that person says, “prove that I’m lying”, you will find it impossible to do so no matter how ridiculous that idea might be because you cannot prove a negative. The same applies to God – it is absolutely not enough to say, “An anthropomorphic, omnipotent being created the entire universe instantly, and actively controls the fate of mankind although one cannot hear, see, smell, touch, taste or measure his existence in anyway – prove that he doesn’t exist.”

I can’t. No one can… but do not ever make the mistake of thinking that lack of a disproof is remotely the equivalent of a proof, much less even a reasoned argument. Proofs are positive things that demonstrate an idea clearly and directly and are precisely what faithful believers are missing. So just because I am logically responsible in not claiming to “disprove” God entirely, that does not endorse the likelihood of a God in any way.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

To recap our re-examined premises:

  1. God is omnipotent:
    1. Entirely paradoxical and simply cannot happen due to the existence of mutually exclusive (oppositional) objects & ideas
    2. Would present enormous problems to also viewing God as all-good since he has the power to make everything in the world “perfect” and doesn’t
  2. God is omniscient:
    1. If God cannot be all-powerful, he cannot be all knowing, as at least some forces outside his control would be acting upon the universe
    2. If God were all-knowing, that would indicate that all events, thoughts, feelings, actions, and every single atom of the universe was able to be accounted for from the beginning of time to the end of time – which would mean that no one, including God, has the power to alter their existence in any unexpected way. In addition, even if people don’t know that it is God’s divine decision to create their lives exactly as they are would not change the fact that those lives are controlled by God/fate
      1. This leads to a number of depressing philosophies: Determinism, Calvinism, “original sin”
      2. Absolves any human (or animal, etc.) from any responsibility for their action
    3. Since an all-knowing God would need to be an all-powerful God, and yet humanity regularly experiences violent evil, there would be no evidence-based way to suggest that God was also all-loving
  3. God is omnipresent: Since there is no evidence to support an active God, it is possible, however extremely unlikely, that there is a relatively powerless being floating invisibly among all life in the universe
  4. God is omnibenevolent
    1. If we assume God is all-powerful & all-knowing, we cannot reasonably conclude that he is also all-loving, as there is no correlation between religious belief and susceptibility to disease and perhaps more obviously because multiple tribes who even believe in and worship the same concept of God routinely kill each other, none of whom are magically protected by having pleased the right deity.
    2. If we assume God is not particularly powerful, but is perhaps omnipresent, God could also be all-loving. However, since that God would have almost no power to do anything to help or change human existence, it really is an academic point then.

When we break down the premises on top of which people build entire religions and life-guiding philosophy, we find a crumbling foundation not fit to stand on, much less build empires with. From those bad premises onward, we have to start making wild assumptions about the world in which we live and operate under the solipsistic notion that we can consciously understand what God says or believes while simultaneously explaining that he is beyond our understanding as a species. The whole thing leads to innumerable contradictions and overly complex circular philosophies. Yet…

“Contradictions do not exist. Every time you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises, one of them is likely to be false.” – Ayn Rand

The concept of God is built on premises that fail the most basic inductive logical scrutiny – and that’s before taking into account the utter lack of empirical evidence related to the subject matter, which only serves to make the whole idea more suspect. People are often content with this however, I imagine, due to their desire for simplistic aphorisms and feel-good platitudes. It’s really nice to think that there is a plan for your life that will all be for the best and that we as a species exist because a grand creator placed us deliberately in his universe. We are cosmically loved, and if that weren’t enough, when we die, we’re actually immortal and get to spend eternity in paradise! Yes, that sounds good, but only works so long as we avoid taking a deeper look at what it all really means and so long as we can remain ethnocentrically positioned to assume that no one outside of our group has access to God - for the success of another group who also claims the favor and good-willed platitudes of being loved by God, if conceptualized even slightly differently, would mean that there is a chance that God might favor the other group! That idea of course, has lead to countless on-going wars and many of the previously mentioned mass-murders. This isn’t good.

Critical thinking is man’s greatest tool for advancement in a rough universe and we need to apply it to our core beliefs if we hope to truly live up to our potential. Beliefs based on nonsense can only lead us astray, no matter how benign people wish them to be. That is why it is imperative that everyone understand this first concept:

"...otherwise logical arguments do not create true conclusions from false premises, regardless of how frequently or confidently they are repeated."

If the belief in God itself is based on false premises, it doesn’t matter how many conclusions about the nature of God people would like to draw – they are all going to be wrong. The very definition of God is impossible, and anything short of that definition is less than godlike.

Our core beliefs are what guide us and what help us deal with the universe. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to operate with beliefs that represent the universe as it truly is. But when we adopt fundamental principles that are flawed at their very core, we have no chance of seeing the world accurately – and in turn, we destroy our ability to exist in it at our fullest potential. So check your premises!

No comments: