Saturday, April 28, 2007

3: Final and Clinching Proofs

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men.

A little child may know
The father's name of love
'Tis written in the earth below
And on the sky above.

Around me when I look
His handiwork I see
This world is like a picture book
To teach his name to me.

If you want to read a really convincing proof that God does not exist, don't look in The God Delusion: look in The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy. Every good geek knows the passage by heart.
Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: 'I refuse to prove that I exist,' says God, 'for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.'
'But,' says Man, 'The Babel Fish is a dead give-away, isn't it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don't. QED.'
'Oh dear,' says God, 'I hadn't thought of that,' and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
Why is this so funny?
1: Douglas Adams is making a joke at the expense of other science fiction writers.
Space opera wouldn't be very exciting if the hero never understood a word the villain said. So sci-fi writers tend to just assume that anything which has travelled 40,000 light years from the Planet Zog is quite capable of asking the first human it encounters to take it to their leader. Most readers accept this convention without question. In the first episode of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy the Vogons talk to the human, Ford talks to Arthur and Arthur reads from The Guide—and no-one asks how they can possibly understand each other. Writers sometimes say that everything is being translated by The Lens, The Green Lantern Power Ring, The TARDIS, A Universal Translator or A Japanese Lady With a PhD In Linguistics—none of which are a great deal more believable than 'Everyone speaks English because base ten is an intrinsically superior system.' Adams' joke is to draw attention to the problem and make the inherent far-farfetchedness of a magic translating fish part of the story. He make the same joke a few pages later when he introduces the Infinite Improbability Drive. All writers of fiction have to come up with reasons why very unlikely things happen to their characters: otherwise, there wouldn't be any story in the first place. Adams solves the problem by drawing attention to it, forcing his characters to travel around with a magic box which causes improbable events to occur.
NOTE: Later in the series, Adams suggests that in an infinite universe, everything which it is possible to imagine must exist somewhere: even planets populated by matresses and biros. So the Babel Fish needn't have been designed; so God exists after all. Whew!
2: It's a joke about religious arguments.
The opening remark is a simple comic reversal. We expect the Guide to say that the Babel fish proves the existence of God. It can't have evolved; so it must have been designed; so there must have been a designer; so God must exist. This is the classic Argument From Design (which, as we will see the only argument Richard Dawkins is at all interested in.) Certainly, if such a fish were to be discovered in Real Life, then many thinkers would see it—or, as Adams subtly says, choose to see it—as proof that there is a God. So it gets a big laugh when when we hear Peter Jones telling us in his best Just a Minute voice that it actually proves the exact opposite.
But while we are laughing, I think that we recognise that people really do sometime argue about religion in this way. When something comes along which seems to put a serious dent in the case for Christianity—someone finds the bones of baby Jesus on board S.S Titanic, say, or digs up a papyrus of Mary Magdalene's wedding list—you can bet that some Christian will say 'There you go! That proves what we've been saying all along.' Adams has switched things round: something has turned up which quite obviously deals a fatal blow to atheism, and the atheists, without missing a best, say that it proves their case.
Dawkins makes a similar point about religion in The God Delusion. Christians often say that scientific critiques of their faith are irrelevant. There's no point in trying to prove or disprove the existence of the soul or the efficacy of prayer by conducting experiments because 'souls' and 'prayers' aren't the kinds of things you can experiment on. Dawkins says that, on the contrary, Christians make claims about the empirical world which are perfectly amenable to scientific investigation. I get the impression that he thinks that if you had been present at the revivification of Lazarus and had had your tricorder handy, you would have been able to observe some physical process occurring: energy coming out of Jesus, cellular regeneration of the corpse, that kind of thing. (That's my example, not his.) This is tantamount to saying 'The revivication of Lazarus was not a miracle.' But there are all sorts of other things which a scientist could perfectly well have offered an opinion on: was Lazarus really dead? was his corpse really decomposing? was the person who came out of the tomb the same person who went into it? Dawkins asks what would happen if someone found a strand of Jesus' hair and performed DNA analysis on it. Supposing the analysis proved, scientifically, that Jesus had no human father. Would Christians say 'Oh, but that's quite irrelevant to our belief in the Virgin Birth; science has nothing to say about religion.' Or would they move the pearly goalposts and say 'That proves it! Luke's Gospel is literally true after all!' This is one of the few occasions while reading the God Delusion when I said 'A hit! A palpable hit!'
(Speaking for myself, I might very well say that DNA is not relevant to my belief that Jesus is the Son of God. I might very well say 'This DNA proof actually rather damaging to Christianity because it might give people the impression that Jesus' birth, which I think of as a magical event with theological significance, was actually a curious scientific example of parthenogenesis.' This may have been what David Jenkins had in mind when he said that the Resurrection was not (n-o-t) a Conjuring Trick With Bones.)
3: It's a joke about the whole idea of using logic to prove or disprove the existence of God.
St. Anselm's logical proof that God exists is almost as famous as Oolon Colluphid's proof that he doesn't.
Let us define God as 'the greatest conceivable thing.'
The greatest conceivable thing must by definition possess every positive quality to the greatest possible degree.
'Existence' is a positive quality.
Therefore God must possess 'existence' to the greatest possible degree.
It is logically impossible that a thing which possesses the greatest conceivable degree of existence does not exist.
Therefore it is logically impossible that God does not exist
Therefore God necessarily exists.
People have been arguing about this proof for a thousand years, and unlike Dawkins I don't think I'm clever enough to sort it out this evening. However, one of the things which Anselm may have done is defined God as 'a being who exists'; and then claimed that since it's nonsense to say that a being who exists doesn't exist, God exists. But this only works if you accept the original definition. One response to Anselm is to say, 'Yes, you are right, God necessarily exists.' The other is to say 'Since God doesn't exist, I guess your definition must be incorrect.'
(Some philosphers might say 'Ah, but Anselm wasn't trying to prove that God necessarily exists, he was trying to prove that God's existence is necessary,' but let's ignore them.)
Oolon Colluphid has made the same kind of mistake. Some Christians say that the lack of evidence of God's existence doesn't bother them too much: they think that God is the kind of chap who would rather we believed without proof. Colluphid turns this into a definition 'Let us define God as "a being who created the universe and whose existence cannot be proved." ' If you find clear evidence that the universe was designed, then clearly 'A being who created the universe and whose existence cannot be proved' does not exist; therefore 'God', as defined by Colluphid, doesn't exist. The Theist will then say to: 'Yes, but you've specifically chosen a definition of God which fits in with your disproof'; to which Oolon will reply: 'Yes, and you are always choosing definitions of God specifically because they fit in with your proofs.' Which is presumably Adams' point.
While we're here, we may as well note that Colluphid's proof exemplifies two other common faults in religious arguments.
1: It's a complex definition. In order to exist 'God' has to be both the creator of the universe and a being whose existence can't be proved. This is a bit like saying 'My mother is a lobster who was married to my father. But we can prove empirically that my father was never married to a lobster. Therefore 'the lobster who was married to my father' does not exist. Therefore my mother does not exist. Therefore I do not exist.' Both sides play this trick surprisingly often. You define God as 'A being who created the world in six days and is the source of morality', and then say 'If you say that God didn't create the world in six days, then there is no source of morality, and since you can't deny that morality exists, the world must have been created in six days.' Or you define God as 'A being who created the world in six days and who gives Peter Kay comfort during his times of trouble' and then say 'Since I can prove that the world wasn't created in six days, Peter Kay must be mistaken about his supernatural comforter.'
2: Proof does not deny faith. Proof may deny belief if you define belief as 'holding an opinion without sufficient evidence.' God may say 'without faith I am nothing'; he certianly does not say 'without belief I am nothing.' Richard Dawkins also gets himself into a fearful mess over this one: his big problem with Pascal's Wager (1) is, amazingly, that he doesn't understand why it matters to God whether we believe in him or not.
When Christians talk about 'faith' they are not talking about 'holding the opinion that God exists': they mean something like 'trusting-and-following-God' or 'submitting to the will of God'. In evangelical circles, 'faith' is often synonymous with 'mystical gnosis': 'I believe in God', 'I have faith in God', and 'I know God' are used more or less interchangeably. If a real Babel Fish were discovered, everyone, even Richard Dawkins, would believe that God (defined as 'the person who made the Babel Fish') really existed. But not everyone would trust in that person or submit themselves to his will.
I am contractually required to quote the following anecdote at this point.
'Once upon a time, a stunt-man decided to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls. A huge crowd gathered to watch him.

'Do you believe that I can walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd.

Sure enough, he walked from one side of the falls to the other and then back again.

'Do you believe that I could push a wheelbarrow across a tightrope over Niagara Falls?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowed. And sure enough, he did so.

'Do you believe that I could put a sack of potatoes in the wheelbarrow?' he asked.

'Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd. And sure enough he did so.

Hardly pausing for breath, he asked 'Do you believe that I could put a man in the wheelbarrow and push him across the tightrope safely?' '
Yes! Yes!' cried the crowd 'We have seen you do it yourself, we have seen you push the wheelbarrow, we have seen you put potatoes in the wheelbarrow: of course we believe that you could push a man across.'

'Very well,' said the stuntman. 'Who volunteers?'

Friends, this story is true. I know, for I was that tightrope.
4: But in any case, Oolon Colluphid is looking for the wrong God.
Adams' whole riff turns on meta-joke. We know, by the very fact that we listening to it, that Oolon Colluphid's argument is completely false. The existence of something like the Babel Fish—a ludicrous plot device that even Russell T Davies would be ashamed of—does absolutely prove that Colluphid's universe was created by an Intelligent Designer. Namely, Douglas Adams.
'God' is quite a significant presence in The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy—a minor character who is often mentioned but who never appears—like Eccentrica Gallumbits, and, indeed, like Oolon Colluphid. He leaves messages to his creation in five mile high letters of fire and Deep Thought may (or may not) know his telephone number. But even if Oolon phoned him up, he still would not be in touch with the creator of the universe. Oolun Colluphid wasn't created by that 'God' but by a very witty writer. And nothing Colluphid says can possibly make him disappear.


(1) Pascal's Wager -- When you make a bet, you take into account the size of the stake, the size of the prize, and you chance of winning: you might be prepared to make a very small wager for a very small chance of winning a very large prize (e.g the National Lottery) or a very large bet for a very good chance of winning quite a small prize (e.g putting £1000 on the favourite at 7:2 on.) If God exists, the reward for submitting to his will is infinite—going to heaven for ever and ever. If God doesn't exist and you mistakenly submit to his will then the very worst that can happen is that you waste your whole life—which is still a finite quantity. So however unlikely the existence of God is, faith is still a good bet: because it's a good bet to make a finite wager (your whole life) on a very small chance of infinite reward (heaven.)


Site Owner said...

Surely if a miracle actually happens, something is observable? Not weird energy streaming from Jesus's fingers but a dead body getting up and being again a living man. In which case why shouldn't Richard Dawkins expect it to have a causality (albeit one that presumably ends with it *just* seeming to start). When I believed one of the predicates of my belief was that *if* I could get at the evidence it would prove the gospels true (within certain limits, ie Jesus would not just be a good man but a sinless one, and I would not therefore have been surprised by miracles, even though my faith such as it was was not predicated on every biblical miracle having happened literally).
If there can be no physical evidence of miracles that's tantamount to saying there are no miracles. Even the loaves and fishes apparently left 'baskets over', real physical evidence, not just a miraculous ceasation of appetite sans process.

Simon BJ

J. Robinson Wheeler said...

Another thoughtful and entertaining post. Perhaps it's tacky to swing back into Dave land, but the cap of the essay couldn't help but remind me of it, as obviously Cerebus followed its own line of logic about the inclusion of creator-Dave and Creator-God-who-created-Dave in the book.

Andrew Stevens said...

The difficulty of defining God is the crux of the matter. I can only prove God doesn't exist if you define him in such a way that he's logically impossible. Most religious thinkers don't actually do that, so there isn't any way to finally prove God doesn't exist.

A friend of mine used to use as his proof for the non-existence of God the Irish elk, whose antlers became so large and unwieldy that they could barely lift their heads and they required massive amounts of calcium and phosphate compounds to form them. When climate change occurred at the end of the last Ice Age, they rapidly went extinct for lack of minerals (according to one theory). Is this, he asks, the design of an intelligent designer?

I reject my friend's argument for the reasons you mention. Perhaps God exists and he allows evolution to take its course largely unimpeded. Perhaps he has a sense of humor. There are lots of escape hatches. In the meantime, atheists are left in the impossible position of proving a negative. One thing should be made clear. The religious do not have this excuse. If God really exists, all one has to do to prove his existence is to produce him. The Bible says faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. You wouldn't have to move too many mountains to convert me.

Arthur said...

The real problem with Pascal's Wager, of course, is that it assumes a false binary situation: specifically, it assumes that God doesn't give a hoot which religion you follow, so long as you believe in and worship God. Furthermore, in Pascal's Wager doesn't mind which vision of God or the Gods you adhere to: the Wager applies to Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Odinism, Shinto and Shamanism equally well. You could be worshipping Baal for all that it matters, and so long as you actually believe that's all that is important.

This is a position which few (if any) major religions have gone so far as to adopt: while many religions have made important gestures of tolerance, as far as I am aware none of them have made blanket statements about all forms of worship being equally valid.

Pascal's Wager isn't just offensive to atheists: it's effectively an argument for absolute relativism in the religious field. Since choosing the correct religion has such great rewards, and since choosing an incorrect religion will either be the same as having no religion at all or be just as good as following the correct faith (depending on exactly how jealous God is assumed to be), you may as well pick any mode of worship you choose in the absence of any strong argument against a particular faith.

Andrew Stevens said...

Pascal never finished the work which contained his famous Wager; it was published posthumously. Probability is a major field of study for me and Pascal was one of the giants. He had a first-class mind and it's unjust that the Wager became so associated with him.

Pascal always intended to use the Wager to convince unbelievers how important it was to consider the existence of God, and not to prove Christianity. He intended to prove Christianity specifically later in the work, but died before completing it. (Another flaw in the Wager is that it assumes that God rewards belief. It is quite easy to imagine a God who punishes blind belief and rewards skepticism instead.)