In the wake of several threads regarding the study of theology on other blogs, such as Why Evolution Is True and EvolutionBlog, I feel compelled to weigh in [yes, this post has been in draft form for a little while – not to mention I like to try and break up the long ones.] I have, for many years now, felt that large portions of philosophy were far more evidence of people trying to impress themselves with their own intelligence, than the actual application of intelligence. Theology has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be firmly within this category.
There are two leading principles of theology (among countless examples) vague enough to apply to virtually all religions and general enough not to directly contradict scientific evidence: the Ontological Argument, and the Cosmological Argument. You are, of course, welcome to investigate these on your own and come back here to challenge my points, but I tend not to get sidetracked from the crux of matters, and I don’t fall for paragraphs of linguistic obscurity. I say this up front because this seems to be a favorite tactic of theologians and their various sycophants.
The Ontological Argument states that, if we can conceive of a perfect being, then the very nature of perfection would confirm that such a being exists. No, seriously. I’m a bit astounded to think of how human beings, stupid though many might be, could still maintain such a vacuous argument for the many centuries it has existed. It smacks all too closely to the brain-damaged concept of “The Secret,” where positive thinking is supposed to bring about physical changes in reality. With the Ontological Argument, we are apparently maintaining that our concept of perfection either brings it about by our mere recognition, or that we could only conceive of it if it was a real thing. I can conceive of many things, among them decent arguments for the existence of a god, but this doesn’t really have any effect on such arguments existing.
The key, as I’m sure someone would try to tell me, is the “perfect” part – the definition of perfection is what leads undeniably to a deity. Of course, I could also put forth that the definition of a perfect being would be one that has no need of vague wordplay to establish its existence – feel free to explain how this is out of line with the argument itself. I’ll also point out that, even if there was some way to demonstrate that such wordplay actually explained reality, we’re beholden to actually conceive of perfection. It should be universal, shouldn’t it? A perfect being couldn’t possibly disappoint anyone, so a perfect being should be easily defined by anyone, and agreed upon by everyone else. Have fun with that, if you like. Alternately, start small, and conceive of a perfect meal for your very next meal (which by the same argument should exist,) or perhaps a perfect bicycle, which must, by definition, be one that you own (it wouldn’t be perfect if you couldn’t use it, of course.) Is it perfect if it is effortless to ride, thus the most energy efficient vehicle imagined, or perfect in that it produces just the right level of exercise? Is it perfectly comfortable, like an easy chair, or perfectly balanced for cornering? Do I need to keep spitting out examples to show that “perfection” is a vague, opinion-related idea?
Further, the mind absolutely boggles at the sheer egotism that this argument infers. I think I’m safe from contradiction when I say humans are not perfect beings ourselves (I know, I’m an atheist and just referred to myself as “human”, but humor me this one time,) but this argument implies that we are both not mistaken about perfection, nor about our ability to conceive of it. Stunning.
The Cosmological Argument is only slightly better. It states that everything must have a cause, and since causes cannot go back infinitely, there must be a First Cause, ergo god. On the face of it, it seems somewhat logical, but only if you accept a pretty bastardized view of logic, which I suppose is fine for philosophers but not a good move for anyone who has to routinely deal with the real world (i.e., everyone else.) We actually cannot establish that everything must have a cause, nor that causes cannot go back infinitely – about the best we can say, based on most physics that we routinely use every day, is that change requires some kind of instigator, generally some input of energy. I said “most physics” above because quantum indeterminacy does not demonstrate this trait. This could be because it really is unlinked to causative factors, e.g., it happens truly randomly without any internal or external causes; or simply because we have not yet found the causative factor.
What’s interesting is if we do a simple substitution experiment and say, “Rocks must have a beginning,” which is the same argument but freed from human ego. Rocks, however, are merely collections of atoms that temporarily hold a particular shape. Before they were rocks, they were molten lava, and going way back, interstellar dust coalescing into the planet. Before that, hydrogen atoms that eventually drew together under their own gravity into a sun, where heat and pressure created fusion. What this illustrates is that we never see the beginning of something, as in, the sudden appearance of atoms that had not previously existed, and we cannot destroy anything either – we see only form changes. Sometimes this is into, or from, energy itself, but the basic premise of cosmology (we’re not talking the theological concept here, but the one that uses real physics) is that the atoms and the energy that forms them is a fixed constant in the universe, tracing back to the Big Bang. Things change, but we see only the exact same amounts, no increase or decrease.
“Aha!” says the triumphant yet addled theologian, “You just admitted that the universe started with the Big Bang! Gotcha, neener neener!” But this is a typical misrepresentation – the only thing that has been proposed by the Big Bang Theory is that the universe that we know right now traces back to a particular point of sudden expansion. Does that mean everything, all the energy and matter, sprung into existence then? Not at all, only that we have no way of tracing anything further back than that, because there is nothing to examine – all we can do is some speculative mathematics.
The ugly part of this, naturally, is that matter and energy (which are interchangeable) are constant, based on every last bit of evidence that we have. The whole “there must be a beginning” thing really only applies to just one small aspect: life. And since life is simply a collection of mutual energy exchanges among a mass of atoms with the same history as the rock we examined earlier, what we really consider beginning is consciousness, or our own memories. This is an amazingly self-centered thing on which to base the claim that the entire universe is beholden to First Cause. We think “everything” begins simply because we only relate to the start of life, the beginning of consciousness or even, like a tree, the beginning of a growth cycle from a reproductive stage. Even this is pretty far off the mark, since life springs only from life, from a parent stretching back to the first RNA billions of years ago, and haven’t the faintest idea when consciousness began (nor, for that matter, an effective way of defining it.) It is only because we relate personally to a “start” and “end,” because we view consciousness as a special state, that we think a beginning is even necessary. Once again we’re back to the egotistical attitude.
I think I was thirteen or so when I pointed out the biggest flaw in First Cause arguments, which is, “What caused god then?” You have to admit, it’s phenomenally lame to posit a law of causation that is defeated by the very thing it proposes to prove. “But you don’t understand,” whine the theologians, or more often, the ones who think they make reasoned arguments, “the real argument is that everything that has a beginning has to have a cause!” (You think I’m putting words in their mouths, don’t you? I wish that it were true, really.) What this does, supposedly, is to explain that god does not therefore need a cause, just everything else. Yet I already answered that above – matter/energy has every appearance of being perpetual, so it becomes exempt too. Even if we accept one part of the argument as a given, that “everything that begins must have a cause,” we still can question why a never-ending string of causes (or a periodic causal force) is against the rules while a never-ending god is not. The reasoning behind one being able to be perpetual but others things cannot? There’s none at all.
Which leads us to the biggest flaw of theology itself, which is that it exists only to try and reach a particular conclusion, whereupon the careful and meticulous philosophy stops dead and pretends nothing else matters. Lest you think I’m not going deep enough with such simple arguments, I can also point out another flaw in the Cosmological Argument: time and change are pretty much the same thing – we cannot have one without the other, and in fact cannot distinguish them. For a “First Cause” to even exist, there would have to be no change/time before it, and if there is no passage of time, there cannot be a “first” to mark the change from an unchanging state. “Going back through infinity” (or “eternity” if you prefer) is actually the only thing that doesn’t defeat itself – as hard as it is for us to conceive of it, the physics bears it out, and the logic supports nothing else. Change is constant.
Are you getting the impression of why I find theology so fatuous? Well, hold on, I’m not done yet. But I’ll pause here long enough to say, in the face of those who maintain that theology cannot be rendered as simple as I’ve made it here, that you have the very flaws I’ve pointed out above to explain first. If I’m misrepresenting them, so is everyone else, because these are the exact same arguments I’ve heard for years. Feel free to explain how it’s more “nuanced” than this.
The flaws, however, do not stop here. I want to point out that, even if either, or indeed both, of these major theological arguments could be established as true (I won’t be losing sleep over that anytime soon,) neither of them comes even remotely close to the gods that are supposed to be supported by them. “First Cause” could mean nothing more than a law of physics we have not discovered yet, and involves in no way anything resembling intent, design, perfection, or consciousness, much less beneficence, interest, love, or “goodness.” And a Perfect Being, naturally, is unlikely to demonstrate the petty and undeniably human emotions that it is claimed to possess, from any religion you care to name, and would also have to pony up to the wildly random expenses of energy in the universe and the incredible waste of space. Religious apologists, as far as I’m concerned, have to explain the huge contradiction between the “conceived perfection” required for the Ontological Argument and their handwaving excuse for all of the misfortunes we suffer through (and the very existence of evil in the first place): “We can’t know the mind of god.” Doesn’t that say we can’t conceive of perfection? Is it really asking too much for explanations regarding god to be consistent? Or are we talking different gods here?
Either concept has a huge gap between the properties it attempts to infer must exist, and the gods that such concepts are used to prove. Neither, nor any other aspect of theology I’ve ever come across, makes any attempt to explain what realm such gods must exist within; where such gods obtain their raw material to forge creation; why such gods would have the faintest interest in creating such temporary edifices, nor why they would think that the affairs of man, tiny little fragile beings in a tiny little fragile shell on one planet among perhaps millions, should be of any importance whatsoever; how such gods could have thought processes so similar to our own; or even why an omnipotent/omniscient being could or should create anything in the first place – the answer, the whole history of mankind and indeed creation, should already be known (that’s what omniscient means.) These are not idle questions, mind you, but rather important to establishing a working theory and key factors in why we seek a god at all. This, to me, has always been the nature of religious answers, in that they raise a far greater number of questions than the ones they purport to answer in the first place (Ha! I kill me…)
Credit where it’s due: I’m sure that these very questions have indeed been faced by theologians throughout history. But the answers that spring to mind end up working directly against our preconceived ideas of omnipotent, omniscient, beneficent gods. If theology were a true aspect of philosophy or (god forbid) science, then it would be obligated to deal with these very issues, which are fundamental problems with the overall theory. String Theory, a scientific concept about unifying quantum and relativistic physics, yields the possibility of untold thousands of universes when extrapolated outwards (well, okay, at that point they cannot be universes but by definition become multiverses.) This isn’t ignored in the slightest by physicists, but instead they start considering what might happen with two -verses in close proximity, or whether the Cosmic Microwave Background might be patchy because of such interactions. That’s how science works – you are locked into the necessary consequences of any theory. Not so with theology, which produces countless additional questions while still not completely answering the ones it set out to, and is expected to be considered important.
Even worse, when faced with these questions, with the very failure of theology to form a decent explanatory theory, theologians frequently resort to rather elitist attitudes, often saying that you need to read umpteen books to truly understand the arguments. Yet, there isn’t one aspect of science I have come across that is not capable of being rendered into a synopsis. I’ve read great explanatory chapters on abiogenesis, the formation of the first cells based upon inherent chemical interactions, using an analogy of mayonnaise (oil and water don’t mix, unless they couple with a compound that binds with either simultaneously, called an amphiphile.) Stephen Hawking explained numerous concepts of space-time and quantum behavior in a remarkably accessible book, A Brief History of Time. The English language is made like that: it is possible to render everything into less detail as desired. Except, it would appear, when it comes to theology. Pose these questions to theologists, and you’ll typically get references to other writings, or a verbal diarrhea of esoteric terms that might sound wonderfully erudite, but make no sense together.
Watch this, because I’ll demonstrate how it should be done: “Theology is indistinguishable from total bullshit.” Notice that I didn’t call theology bullshit (not this time, anyway,) but what I pointed out was that there is no way to determine its value, since it provides nothing to test against, no verifiable results, and no impact on anything that we do or experience. As mentioned above, it provides a weak excuse to go on believing something that we want to, without having proposed it in the first place nor explained how it should work to produce what we already know. Like being told we’re pretty or handsome by our parents, it’s something that we’d like to hear but in a way that lacks authenticity, and as such it provides no value except to those who need to hear it so badly. And they probably don’t need umpteen books on the subject…