But how? Part 17: god’s plan

[EDIT 4:30 PM: This post went through numerous drafts over a period of days, which means it was in process long before this little squirt of utter bullshit came out, and I managed to post it before Jerry Coyne posted his commentary – once again, I hate looking like I’m copying or springboarding from someone when I’m not (and happy to give them credit when I am.) But yeah, very topical, and illustrative of the same issues I talk about below.]

You can blame the previous installment for suggesting the topic this time around, but it’s a common concept within religious apologetics regardless, so it deserves the critical examination. I’ll be right up front with this: I consider the claim of anything at all being “god’s plan” a cop-out, pure and simple, an excuse to dodge the inherent flaws and inconsistencies in a religious worldview. However, disliking a concept (or, alternately, liking it) isn’t a solid reason to pass judgment on it, so let’s take a close look at all of the ramifications of “god’s plan.”

The structure of most of the ‘But how?‘ posts has been to explain how a universe without any deity can function just fine, and how so many of the factors or traits ascribed to such are just as easily, if not more so, explained without any such supernatural influence. In this case, however, there will be nothing to fill in or alternately explain the traits attributed to a master plan, since such arguments have no traits to begin with – the master plan is always assumed to be an unfathomable thing, an explanation unto itself when the logical flaws in religion appear. The naturalistic world displays no evidence whatsoever of a plan, nor does it present any reason why we should invoke or seek one. That so many people find this a disagreeable or contentious conclusion is a strong indication that motives and desires should be examined carefully in such topics, because wanting it to be true is enough to cause significant bias and a lack of objectivity, especially when it comes to producing philosophical/theological arguments. Sophistry is very easy to accomplish, and goes unnoticed as long as someone finds the conclusions so gratifying that they don’t bother to examine them critically – quit while you’re ahead, in other words. Yet there are actually so many flaws in the concept of a master plan that it’s amazing it still exists, much less getting used with such frequency and confidence.

To begin with, if we accept the premise of a omniscient, omnipotent being, there actually can be no such thing as a plan of any kind. Any being that knows everything cannot plan to do something, since the results are already known, and thus all it can do is follow the script. Planning is a concept that requires uncertainty about the future, and the desire to produce a preferred outcome among many options. We cannot, for instance, plan on gravity taking effect only at a certain time, since it’s going to whether we like it or not, nor can we plan for a book that we’re reading to end a certain way.

There is also the failure when compared against omnipotence, as well. Any being that can do anything and everything does not need to plan – any such desired outcome can be produced instantaneously. So even given an uncertainty about the future, plans are still a pointless aspect of a omnipowerful being. And in fact, the passage of time becomes pointless and meaningless as well – why should there be any such thing as a ‘future’ when anything can happen immediately? This also trashes the claims that such supreme beings live ‘outside of time’ or all throughout it or whatever. Obviously, nobody’s been thinking these things through in the slightest.

But okay, let’s go ahead and bend the rules a little, and posit that the properties we have been assured of for centuries don’t actually exist; this supernatural being is instead very powerful and very intelligent, but not ultimately so, being limited on both fronts. It is also trapped in the passage of time as much as we are. Thus, the future is actually uncertain, and not everything can be achieved immediately. We still have to face the third necessity of planning, and that’s a desire for a certain outcome. Which by itself is a really loaded avenue of thought. Nearly all of our human desires are easily traced back to survival, whether related to procreation, or status, or even just figuring out mysteries – the ability to find solutions to puzzles has been responsible for accomplishments as basic as figuring out how to plant crops and as advanced as calculating mass, velocity, and gravitational influence to maintain satellites in orbit. Natural selection can account for these easily, and the ones that haven’t (so far) been adequately plumbed by this theory – things like the appeal of thrill rides or the purpose of nostalgia – aren’t really leading in a religious direction anyway. But what desires would a supernatural being possess, and where would they come from? Survival, social instincts, avoiding danger, even any form of accomplishment – all meaningless to such an existence. All of our frames of reference are from the standpoint of humans whose existence is not guaranteed, and who must compete, beings with finite abilities and lifespans no matter what. We cannot even say that anything supernatural could get bored, or has thinking processes at all, much less something bearing any resemblance at all to our own. In fact, it is safe to say that perpetual existence is something that would be pretty damaging to the makeup of our own minds, so any being that could handle this is not very likely to be similar in any way.

god's plan webcomic by John McNamee at piecomic.com
Pie Comic by John McNamee
This is, of course, the “we cannot fathom the mind of god” argument, and I agree with that completely – but that pretty much trashes all traits assigned to this god, including plans, including intentions, including why we would have been created in the first place. We have handy-dandy little functions like empathy and a desire to get along with the rest of the tribe – these don’t even make sense to the idea of a singular supernatural being. Going with the premise that we were created by such, we have no idea why we were created, and whether it’s actually leading anywhere or whether it’s just an observation to see how quickly we will destroy ourselves. As I’ve said before, it could even be that all of our concepts of religion were introduced to see how long it takes for us to spot all of the nonsense and discard them. We cannot assume beneficence, or indeed anything at all – the plan is entirely up for grabs, and even if any such being could appear to us right now in an inarguable form and say, “This is what I want you to do,” we can’t even tell if this is because it’s a good thing, for humans or the god or the universe as a whole, or just for the shits and giggles of a being that, let’s face it, can start all over again without any effort whatsoever.

Which means that the appeal of a master plan can only come with a lot of bare assumptions, ones that we have no evidence of and no reason to believe are valid. Even the tautological assurance that scripture is true because scripture tells us it’s true fails to take into account the simple possibility that misdirection is part of the game. Whose game, of course, is a question that remains to be answered, but I’m quite sure that the first thing I’d do when trying to mislead someone is assure them that I’m legit, and I doubt this insight was lost on all of the people who were scribbling down scripture throughout the centuries. Nobody has even come close to ruling out the possibility that scripture is simply creative fiction, while two distinctive traits make the probability of this high enough not to be ignored (unless, ahem, you’re trying): the bare fact that there are other religions in the world, which obviously cannot all be right despite having their own self-confirming scripture; and the uncomfortable evidence of the extensive editing that has taken place over the centuries. But it gets even worse.

Whenever someone insists that everything is part of a master plan that we aren’t meant to know, the very first question to pose is, “Then how do you know about it?” Let’s be real, here: if we can be created by some being, then that same being can just as easily a) tell us what it’s all about, or b) completely eradicate the very idea of questioning to begin with. This idea that we have some information regarding what we’re involved in but, ha ha, “I can’t tell you,” goes beyond pointless. There are two scenarios that make it past the logic failure: the first is that it’s all a game of this supreme being with no intention of making sense or reaching a particular conclusion – which not only defeats the definition of ‘plan,’ it eradicates any reason to care about it in the slightest – and the second is if doubt and uncertainty are specific functions that we’re supposed to have. Which is fine – let’s run with that posit too. Think about everything in our lives that we doubt, and what uncertainty does for us, why we even have it. Does it revolve around, to a significant margin, danger and survival and erring on the safe side? Does the uncertainty that there might be a speeding car coming around the bend, or that the fish being sold from the back of a van might not be the healthiest thing we’ve ever eaten, demonstrate the functions of doubt well enough? Does the presence of umpteen-hundred laws regarding consumer safety and contractual obligations tell us that doubt is misguided or frivolous? If anyone wants to argue that doubt is part of the plan, that’s fine – the first thing to doubt is the claim that there’s a plan in the first place.

But let’s not leave that one hanging all alone. Note that, in the vast majority of cases, the idea of a plan is used not to clarify anything, but to excuse the discrepancies, the anachronisms, and the contradictions that continue to crop up in religions worldwide. In almost every usage, the phrase is intended to stop us from questioning and doubting. It slots into the huge open space left in our concepts of religion when reality isn’t demonstrating any of the properties that this god and its creation are supposed to have. Theodicy is the (quite large) branch of theology that tries to cope with the very existence of evil in a created universe, and untold years have been spent on this pursuit – yet, this is only because of the overriding assumptions that there is both a beneficent deity and a plan. The problem is solved by assuming a deity that is not beneficent, as well as being solved by no plan at all – and it must be said that evil almost becomes a non-issue from an atheistic standpoint, because it is no longer a defined aspect that must have been created or intended, but simply an artifact of a competitive species (and not particularly hard to trace back to survival instincts, as well.) No more part of a plan than a sex drive or the ability to taste food.

If, instead of simply using it as an excuse when things aren’t making sense (such as the countless contradictions throughout scripture,) we instead apply this idea of a plan throughout, we have to accept that we are only puppets, in many cases doomed to ignominious ends precisely because the rules have been withheld from us – the plan obviously being far more important than the entirety of life on this planet. Pick any scripture that you like, and recognize that with the concept of a plan, every death, every torture, every abuse, all suffering, was intended – again, this is the problem of theodicy. For instance, if we take the creation story from the abrahamic scriptures, we have to reconcile the plan against the ‘fall,’ and the expulsion of adam & eve from eden, making the issue of punishment for their behavior, in fact the behavior itself, a script. Scripts are fine for fiction, but it’s quite a different matter when it’s our lives that are playing the parts. All of the things we were supposedly created to feel, love and pain and camaraderie and the desire for a strong society – everything – are all play-acting in denial of the control that the supreme being wields over our lives. We were created to find these immensely important, but then told they really don’t matter at all. Did you sweat blood over raising that child, born with a disability, to face life optimistically and with a fine sense of ethics? Too bad – she’s going to die at age 17 in service of this master plan. Bear in mind, once again referring to the abrahamic scriptures, that this supposedly happened to every single being on the planet, save for the select few on the ark. How, exactly, did the centuries of life leading up to that event perform some function? Are we to believe that all of god’s petulant hissy fits that resulted in mass slaughters, throughout any religion one cares to name, were all planned? Is this idea somehow comforting to all those who promote it? Or do they ignore the ramifications?

The argument can be made that this concept of an ultimate goal means we all play a part, and no matter how pathetic our lives or ends, it serves to push this goal along. Sounds fine on the face of it – until you recognize that we were created to suffer, and could just as easily have been created not to. And again, this is assuming that it’s a worthwhile plan, and not because some god is simply bored. Going a little deeper, it is the definition of nihilism; it doesn’t matter what we do because our actions are through ignorance of the true goal – we cannot act to shape it without knowing what it is.

Going still deeper, it has served as justification for virtually any action that religious folk have taken, no matter how heinous (and there’s been a hell of a lot) – obviously mere mortal desires and comfort must take a backseat to this plan, and since god has it all under control then whatever happens is obviously a part of it, right? This might even sound good when it’s used in conjunction with whatever actions we feel like taking, but it pales a bit when it comes to watching our village get decimated, or when the bomb rips apart the bus. Seriously, in the face of this master plan, what does any action, any feeling, any desire, matter?

But again, these desires do have a specific benefit to an evolved species, requiring no philosophical gymnastics to try and explain or excuse. Even the idea that organized religions are all just the efforts of a self-absorbed few to consolidate their power structure – which no one has disproved in the slightest – fits in quite well with evolved traits. It does mean, however, that we are responsible for our own decisions, and answerable not to what we imagine some supreme being really meant, but to all of those around us instead. We have the ability to foresee and predict the consequences of a large percentage of our actions, and we have reached the level that we now occupy precisely because this ability is so remarkably useful, making it both functional and explanatory, not to mention an overriding drive of humanity. To discard all of that, to dismiss all accomplishments of mankind throughout history, in favor of a shallow, feeble attempt to excuse all of the logical failures and anachronisms of religion, is undeniably pathetic. We can do better.