Problems with the first Article of Faith
by: Christian Bieck
I discovered your website last week and have spent quite a few hours now perusing it – there is a lot of fascinating stuff. Thank you and the other contributors for that.
For all of my adult life (which means somewhat over 30 years now), I have considered myself an apathetic agnostic; although I have to admit that I stumbled over the exact term not so long ago when a friend pointed it out to me on the Web and commented "that describes you." (The definition was not from your website, but some wiki.) So one of the first pages I looked up when I found the site were the Articles of Faith, and I was somewhat disappointed when I discovered I disagree with them.
No matter, there was still a lot of enlightenment and entertainment to be had. I am a European (German, to be exact), and a lot of what I read here makes me appreciate what you in North America are doing for us – namely, to give a home to religious crackpots in the name of "freedom of religion". That way, I can just laugh at the Pat Robertons, Jerry Falwells and all the others. We still have the Catholic church, but on the rest of the "Christian" side you have all the crazies. And I am sincere in thanking you for that – not having to pander to the religious right all that much makes our politics a lot more open and un-ideological.
When reading further into the site, I found that I disagreed with some more statements of the esteemed members of the UCTAA. Since writing about these kind of things is fun, I composed a very long commentary/talkback in my head – which I then pretty soon shortened, because most of it has been said in one form or other already, several times. The rest of what I will be writing probably has been, too, so feel free to ignore this article altogether and just point to the links or where it has been covered.
(Note: this article is basically an expansion of the comment I made here. I will refrain from digging into the atheist-agnostic discussion again, as it will probably have tired a lot of you already. The only extra point I want to raise is that the contention to me seems to be more a matter of language than one of actual content. Ethymology of the words atheist and agnostic won't help at all, since language is a living thing, and it is current usage of a word that matters, not the dictionary definition (which is out of date as soon as the dictionary is in the bookstore). One thing that native English speakers – especially those not fluent in any other language – often don't appreciate is the ambiguity of the English language, which is a lot higher than French or German because of its variety of roots. Great for poets and other writers, but hard on communication. Most of the "fencing-sitting" disagreement in the atheist/agnostic discussion IMHO stems from the ambiguity of the statement "I believe/don't believe in x". Add to that the the ambiguity of "God" or "Supreme Being", but that I will get to in a moment.)
The first Article of Faith:
1. The existence of a Supreme Being is unknown and unknowable.
I have no issue with unknown, since that is why I consider myself agnostic. Unknowable is a different matter, though. (I know this is the core of strong vs. weak agnosticism, but I will plod on anyway.) This crucially depends on the definition of "a Supreme Being". Unfortunately, the commentary to the Articles does not provide that definition, either, so let me look at it from a few angles. (I will be using SB for Supreme Being from now on for reasons of laziness.)
- We could leave it undefined, as it is. Then the statement becomes either "The existence of a being that we refuse to define is... unknowable" or "the existence of a being that has as many definitions as there are people on the planet is ... unknowable." While these are both true, they are also useless; it is like saying "I did not read the paper, so in my view its arguments are neither wrong nor right."
- The SB is defined to be of unknowable existence. While that seems to be one of the favorites of many religions, it also makes the Article useless – it becomes a tautology. (=True by default.)
- Dawkins does have a definition, so let us use that for a moment: A SB is ".. a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it." This definition is still has some unspoken assumptions, and it does not contain some characteristics that seem to be important to the UCTAA's view of the unknowable SB: omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence.
An omnipotent being can be a lot of things, but it cannot be unknowable. That is one of the perks of omnipotence – the omnipotent SB could make even entities with a finite mind like us humans understand and know it. SB can of course choose not to, but that just changes the practical knowledge, not the theoretical knowability. One of the articles on the site (which I can't find right now) discussed what would constitute proof of the existence of a SB. The conclusions seemed strange to me: an omnipotent SB would have no trouble at all providing conclusive evidence of its existence to everybody, even agnostics. If it can't, it is not omnipotent, if it won't, it remains unknown, but still not theoretically unknowable.
- So let's go weaker still and drop the omni-stuff and just use the rest of Dawkins' definition. We still have to define what we mean by supernatural and superhuman; even if we could refer to a commonly agreed upon defintion of natural and human, the "super" has the effect of leaving it open-ended.
I won't go into the superhuman; if it has the power to create the universe then superhuman is a given.
I would define supernatural as "outside of the laws of our own universe." Again, that seems obvious, given that it created the universe. Still, it gets rid of all infinities in the definition, and we have for the first time a "realistic" possibility of a SB. Is such a being unknowable?
That depends: does it have the means to communicate with me and everybody else on planet Earth? Note that the means is sufficient for the question of knowability – incentive etc. are irrelevant. Those means are highly likely – it made us, after all. So such a SB could make its existence known to us – it is not unknowable.
- The only way such a SB as in 4 would be unknowable is if it had no physical way of communicating its existence to us. That is quite conceivable, but I very much doubt that that is the definition of Supreme Being that strong agnosticism has in mind.
Before I conclude, I would like to introduce a "Gedankenexperiment". My currently favorite "creation theory" is that we are simulations in a kind of supercomputer. I even wrote a short story to that theme (it is not published, and not in English anyway, though I plan to translate it, as the audience in English-speaking countries is a lot larger.) I won't pretend this is a novel theme, but I hope my slant is interesting.
The researcher who programs the simulation is our SB. Does he fit Dawkins' definition? I think so. The world he lives in is more than 3-dimensional – as it would have to be for the quantum computer that is our universe to fit into his research budget; so it is pretty safe to say he is supernatural. He is obviously superhuman, and created the universe. (You can argue the "everything in it".) Relative to us, he is even omnipotent – he can do whatever he wants either directly within the limits of the program, or by changing it. Relative to us, he would even be omniscient in the sense that he would be able to know what everybody in our universe had ever done or even thought. (He wouldn't be prescient, though, he still has to run the simulation.)
Would such a researcher, i.e. SB, be unknowable? No, it is well within his power to tell us who and what he is. Would he be unprovable? If he wants to be, yes – if he doesn't, there are probably lots of ways to let us measure and show there is an extradimensional being interacting with us.
Thanks for reading so far. To conclude: the existence of a SB is only unknowable if you either define it to be, or if you define the SB to be without possibility of interaction with us. Most religions that I know or heard of - if they bother with any definitions at all – might have "unknowable nature" as part of the definition, but not "unknowable existence". A SB is only unknowable if it has no way of telling us it is there.
Knowledge does not mean we have to find it personally – it just has to stand up to the test of reality after somebody told us.
- An example is the fact that we have a female chancellor and an openly gay foreign secretary who is the head of the liberal (in American terms i.e. libertarian) party. Both were voted for by the conservative electorate. Can anybody imagine the Republicans even nominating a woman or a homosexual?
- And easily beats writing posts on a blog nobody reads ;-)
- It is astonishing and amusing how often the simple question "what exactly do you mean with that statement?" leads to hemming and hawing. The speaker just assumes the listener would telepathically know what he or she means on highly ambiguous matters. I do tend to have a hard time with my American colleagues because as a German "straight talk" is much more of a habit for me.
One of my personal favorites in the belief department is "I don't believe in marriage." Americans (especially males) often nod sagely at that statement when 99% of the time they have no way of knowing what the speaker really means: it can range from "I don't want to marry YOU" through "as a die-hard communist, I abhorr the archeo-capitalist institution of marriage" all the way to "I have been married five times. Next time better be with a gooood prenup." Belief seldom has anything to do with it.
- Dawkins, R.: "The God Delusion", Random House UK, 2007. Dawkins actually uses the term "God", not SB.
- An interesting question is whether the omnipotent SB could make itself unknowable. While it probably could (in the same way that it could make a stone too heavy for itself to lift), that would not help, because we wouldn't know it made itself unknowable. "We know the existence of the SB is unknowable because it told us so." Hm...
If the first Article referred to the nature of the SB being unknowable the argument would be different.
- Not "outside the laws of all possible universes". That just reintroduces the omnipotence through the back door.
Removing any infinities might make SB a misnomer, if for you "supreme" has to include infinities. The word itself does not, though.
- I first read something along these lines in a short story by Stanlislaw Lem, which unfortunately I cannot find anymore. The computer in that story was planet-sized and deranged because it had lost all outside sensory perceptions. If any of you know what story I am referring to, I would appreciate giving me a hint where to find it.
There is also Nick Bostrom's philosophical take on the topic. I don't find his reasoning very convincing, but that may be because I understood only half of it.
- NB: I find it highly fascinating that many people who have no problem at all with the idea of some obscure god creating us and meddling in our lives do have a problem with the concept of our world as a computer simulation. That might be because it feels like the question of "ultimate beginning" has obviously been moved one step out.