Saturday, January 3, 2009

Deism-Theism-Agnosticism-Atheism (Part 1)

There is much hub bub these days about the spate of books extolling atheism. Specifically, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I very much like these books, and can go along with them for the most part. But not entirely. I call myself an "agnostic", and though I think all of these books plausibly attack that position as weak and to some extent cowardly, I want to hold to that label. I think it is justified, and believe that I can defend it..
To believe that it is justified, one might ask if there is any reason at all to say that you don't know whether something exists when there are no clear reasons for thinking that it does exist. The "it" in this case is a God, a set of gods, or a Deity...some kind of being or beings that in some way brought about the Universe.
First consider the "Deist" position. This was I believe held by Thomas Jefferson and others during that era we call "The Enlightenment". The idea is that there was some agency, or God, that designed and created the universe---but after doing so, he backed off from it, set back, and did not interfere with it. In particular, such a position rejects the organized religions, and the Abrahamic religions, and usually argues that the Creative Being does not concern Itself/Himself/Herself/Themselves with the doings of humanity.
The theist position, by contrast, adds to the Deist creation idea with the postulate that the Creative Being does continue to interact with the world, in particular, with the goings on of the human race. The Abrahamic religions would be, of course, theistic religions. Examples of such interactions might be selected "miracles", the dictating of certain rules or codes of conduct (e.g., The Ten Commandments), the Incarnation of Christianity, and so forth.
While I can not say that I subscribe to either of these positions, Deism or Theism, I do not agree that there are absolutely no reasons for considering the beliefs to be plausible.
I want to give two examples. One is the evidence, admittedly weak, for Theism. The other is somewhat stronger, to my mind, arguing for Deism.
The Deistic argument first, and I will here be very brief, hoping to enlarge upon this in a later post. This is based on the observation that the universe not only exists---itself a bizarre and vertigo-producing fact---but also that physics seems to suggest that the fundamental laws and parameters of the universe seem to be fine tuned to allow life and consciousness to form. Furthermore, the prevailing theory that the whole thing started with what is called the "Big Bang" seems to suggest that something started it. I know, of course, that there are alternative theories here to Deism---the parallel universes and such. But common sense---dubious in this context, it must be admitted--- seems to that the whole thing was created and designed by someone or something. There is no element here for me of "faith" at all, rather it is just a sort of intuitive feeeling. And I honestly don't know if the modern "Design" argument is very convincing to others, as there is some subjective judgement here.
The other argument, the one for Theism, is I admit much weaker, and much more subjective. This is based on art and music that has been inspired by one particular theistic religion, namely Christianity. The music, in particular, seems to me to be inspired beyond human capability. I think especially of the music of Bach, Palestrina, Handel, and Victoria. There are of course many others, but Bach stands out above all the rest, in my estimation. As I have said, this is a weak argument, but nevertheless it has some weight with me.


Abbie said...

The argument you give for Theism is very interesting, and I think I agree with you. I am not a religious person in the conventional sense, but I will admit I find it hard not to believe in some kind of higher power when looking at both the cathedrals and music created that are inspired by religious belief.

TwangGuru said...

Tom... as I'm sure you know, I consider Agnosticism not only a powerful and positive position, but also the only defensible position. All other "isms" are "beliefs" based upon some claimed a priori knowledge. All are expressed in the language of the system they claim to proove... Godel must be having a fit!

I suppose, too, that Agnosticism, though strong, is also a humble position. Western thought often confuses humility and weakness. Admitting the possibility that things "are" much different than they "seem" is fundamental to Agnostic thought. We might be like a bit in the computer used to write this blog trying to explain the writers personal motivation for writing the blog. (ouch)

IMHO, Deism, Theism, Atheism, etc., all boil down to matters of "faith" and try as one might, you just can't take it any further.

Tom said...

Thanks for an interesting comment, Thang Guru.
I like your computer bit analogy...that is probably the kind of thing we are dealing with here, that is, some level of reality that is vasty beyond our comprehension. As Haldane said somewhere about nature--and I think it applies to metaphysics also---"the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine".

efp said...

Hi Tom!

So, you say the Goldilocks Enigma makes deism--the existence of some sort of uber-being capable of tweaking the fundamental constants of a universe--plausible? Tell me, who tweaked the constants that allowed this uber-being to come into existence? How, exactly, does this deity perform this task; are there meta-laws of physics that determine how the deity can change the laws of physics? You're replacing a difficult but interesting question, one with potential to yield insight into physical law, and replacing it with questions many orders of magnitude greater, with no potential whatsoever.

I can't figure out why people find it so necessary to explain the existence of a manifold containing a near uniform distribution of energy, but no need to explain the existence of a hypothetical uber-being capable of building universes (but is always short on cash).

You are correct in describing these arguments as feelings and intuitions. This is your limbic system twinkling, imbuing objects and concepts with unearned significance.

Tom said...

The answer to the first question to this comment (who tweaked the constants) is, "I don't know". None of us have any idea what we are really talking about when we try going outside the universe. But good heavens, cosmologists do it all the time, speculating about parallel universe and many worlds interpretations. All these seem to similarly have "no potential whatsoever".
It is just that common sense---or maybe it is indeed "the limbic system twittering"---that makes many of us think the universe is somehow a result of design by some unimaginable, creative mind. Maybe there is an element of wishful think in this. Note that I said in my post that I thought the evidence for this kind of Deism is "somewhat stronger" than that for theism, I didn't say it was solid evidence.
Your comment recalls the old Bertrand Russell joke about "it is turtles all the way down":
Yes, of course that is argument that all of us know that have studied any philosophy at all, namely that postulating a God to explain why there is a universe just pushes the question one step out to a another level. Who made God? And where does it stop? Richard Dawkins makes this point over and over in "The God Delusion".
That argument carries some weight, but I don't think it is necessarily a knock out blow. A conscious mind may in some way be primary in a way matter is not....the infamous "uncreated Being". Oh I just don't know. It is all so confusing, isn't it?
But I would like to add in my response that I find it incredible that anyone would seriously refer to this universe as a "manifold of nearly uniform energy". Maybe that is a valid description to a cosmologist, but from where I stand, the world around me is anything but uniform. It is full of meaning and significance....and I cannot help but wonder why. Well, there may be no “why”, but that won't stop me from wondering, and yes, perhaps "twittering" away.

efp said...

We are, after all, talking in cosmological terms. The early universe was most certainly very uniform, as is written in the CMB. And the lumpiness we presently see, even throwing in dark matter, appears to be less than a quarter of the mass-energy of the universe.

It most certainly is a knock-out blow. To explain what seems to be an improbable situation (the nicely tuned constants) by introducing something many, many, many orders of magnitude more improbable, and consider this credible, doesn't even deserve to be called a fallacy. It's insanity.

Not to mention, humans have a universal tendency to attribute agency to inanimate objects. The pathetic fallacy permeates our language. It's such a central cognitive metaphor, it can be difficult to think without it.

There is absolutely no physical reason to consider deism plausible, and every reason to consider it a natural (and expected) product of human psychology.

Tom said...

But I don't see deism (or any of the related variations involving some kind of mind or minds as designers) as attributing agency to an inanimate object. Rather, it is attributing agency to something outside the universe, which, with the exception of sentient life, is inanimate.

Let me ask this: how is postulating such an agent or agents any more irrational or insane that the parallel universe or multi-verse ideas that are often conjectured by many cosmologists and theorists to explain the seeming fine tuning of the constants? Those too involve postulating something vastly more complex than what one is trying to explain. And furthermore, there is no way to ever examine such postulates empirically---is there?

Also, I don't see it as being irrational or insane to postulate something more complicated than some inanimate object we happen upon. If we find some gizmo on Mars, for example that resembles no human made object, we might at least consider it plausible that it was made by some unknown creature more complicated than the gizmo. I realize this comes close to the ill-fated Paley watch analogy, but I believe it avoids the fallacious aspects of his example, and at least it shows that it is not always absurd to postulate a more complex designer.

Sure, people have used such thinking to argue for such wrong headed things as creationism and ID. But we now know that it was natural selection, evolution, that produced the seeming fine tuned animal structures (such as the eye). But it does not seem that an analogous process could account for the fine tuned universe.