Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The explanatory power of the unseen infinite

I've listened to a few debates on topics like 'Is there a God?' recently. One thing I've noted in the arguments of apologists is the use of what I'll call the 'unseen infinite' to explain the way the world is.

For example, consider the issue of suffering, one common argument against the existence of God is that there is too much suffering in the world for there to be an all-powerful, all-loving God.

The standard apologetic rebuttal to this is essentially that, in the light of an eternal life of bliss and joy, the present sufferings are as nothing.

In other words, to outweigh the known, visible, but finite amount of suffering in the world, you invoke an unknown, invisible and infinite amount of joy.

The problem with this is that the existence of the future, everlasting happiness cannot be demonstrated. There is simply no evidence for it, because future events have not happened. And we even have no evidence that people who have died in the past have gone anywhere happy (or otherwise, for that matter).

The reasoning is emotionally compelling, we want to believe it, but it is intellectually indefensible.

Almost any problem can be addressed by invoking an unseen and infinite reality, and apologists do this all the time. But its not really justifiable. If you have to invoke an unseen infinite to answer a problem, you might as well admit that your case is weak.

But what about God, is he just another unseen infinite?


Mike McQuaid said...

I think the problem is he's treated like one in these debates because seemingly any anecdote is a sign of weakness.

Were it not for God's real presence and interaction in my life I would have long ago been debated out of my Christianity into atheism. They certainly have better reasoning (generally) just the problem is they can't explain what I've seen and heard without just writing me off as a crazy person.

Tim said...

With this post following hot on the heels of my last comment, I'd be tempted to think I'm leading the witness, m'lud. But this is exactly what I was getting at. Assuming that metaphysical ideals exist is implicit in all arguments for God, but that assumption is never properly demonstrated, merely taken as a given.

So in the previous case of moral absolutes, the apologist smuggles in the metaphysical ideal of a moral zenith that is utterly undemonstrable in the real world. Or in the case of teleological arguments and design arguments, an ideal purpose or directive is again assumed. And so on.

That such idealism derives from the way our brains process information, draw inferences and conceptualise the world around us, seems almost undeniable nowadays. To posit that metaphysical ideals actually exist is a position that ought to go the way of belief in a flat earth. A flat earth seemed to be the case from the vantage point our little brains - indeed in our everyday life it still seems to be the case - but a proper apprehension of the facts tells us our intuitions on the matter are simply mistaken.

Those who doggedly adhere to idealism aren't paying attention. It seems intuitively so, but it doesn't exist outside of our heads. I would venture respectfully that Mike McQ's appeal above is precisely that. The arguments would take him towards atheism if it wasn't for the "voices in his head" - that is to say, how reality seems to him based on purely internal concerns. (And BTW when I say "voices in his head" I do not mean to infer, as his comment also suggests, that his beliefs are a form of madness. Merely that they are derived from criteria that cohere with his internal sense of self and how it interacts with external reality. The map, as they say, is not the territory.)

Mike McQuaid said...

Unfortunately in my case it's beyond just voices in my head and become actual revelation/prophesy/whatever of things I could not otherwise know about another person which they confirmed when I shared with them. Note this also wasn't the general airy "you are having difficulty with something in your life right now" but a real issue which only affects a small minority of the population.

I say this not to seek to make you belief (I also write off anecdote pretty quickly) but to examine that, were the above to happen to you, it would certainly increase your chances of holding on to the possibility that there is more than is claimed by atheism.

I do agree with you on moral absolute and idealism though. I think the Bible and Christianity are a good explanation and I believe a lot of them to be truth but I'm not ignorant enough to think therefore I have absolute certainty of my knowledge of absolute truths, just that I think I've thought and wrestled with it more than most so have a reasonable idea of things that are logically consistent and logically inconsistent with Christianity.

Tim said...

Mike, I appreciate your candour. Especially since my last comment could have been misread as branding you as some sort of lunatic. I myself come from the pentecostal fringes of Christianity. I experienced all sorts of weird phenomena in my believing days. When my beliefs were starting to collapse under the weight of the evidence against a genuine supernatural reality behind Christian faith, I often retreated to my experiences and asked myself: 'explain that then'.

But here's the thing: exceptional occurrences of a seemingly irrational nature do nothing to overturn the (IMHO) good arguments against a divinely inspired Bible, a divinely guided church, an incarnate god-man-messiah, and so on. In fact, I would say there is no connection between the two - the experiences and the doctrines - apart from the artificial dogmatic constructs that say there is.

Atheistic naturalism is often caricatured as robbing the universe of any wonder, and sometimes I think atheists can make it seem that way in order to stop any kind of magical thinking slipping through a crack in the door. But I think our very human experience of the numinous, the sensations that seem to move beyond the mere material realm such that we require spiritual language at all (and I'm thinking especially of artistic, aesthetic, creative activity here), all demonstrate that materialism doesn't need to be minimalist - indeed if the universe is only matter and energy, materialism is the maximal position. But how all that matter and energy works together is what so often fools us into thinking there is something beyond. As various psychological studies have shown, we effortlessly posit supernatural explanations because/if we don't have all the data. In your case, I most certainly don't have all the data, but it sounds very much like the many times I was able to intuit information in a spiritual state of mind: a mental state not dissimilar to creative states where one makes seemingly inspired connections. It feels like something outside your mind is whispering in your inner ear, but all things considered it's more likely an internal monologue between dissociative persona.

Mike McQuaid said...

Tim, no problem. I'm regularly called an actual lunatic so I'm not terribly concerned about someone hinting at me being one!

Thankfully I don't agree believe the Bible was divinely inspired (although Jesus was divine) or a divinely guided church (although many in the church are divinely guided on some things and mistaken on others) but I do with an incarnate messiah.

I would agree that there may well be no connection between the two. The problem is I'm yet to hear any explanation for what has happened other than the Christian one.

I'll be more specific about what happened not because I think I'll be convinced otherwise but because I'm interested in your response. I was at an event where people it was suggested from the front that we pray for healing for people in our groups. I thought this was a load of charistmatic nonsense but I prayed anyway and felt God was telling me that someone in the group I was sitting with (who I didn't really know and wasn't a church-goer, had just agreed to come to this event) had issues with his father that had hurt him in the past but he'd never dealt with them and there was a mental scar still there. I mentioned this to him and he appeared visibly shocked and angry and asked me who had told me. I was pretty amazed and we talked about it and it seems I was pretty much spot on.

If that was the only thing I could maybe write it off. Without going into boring detail I've seen and experienced other healings, miracles, answered prayers and generally weird stuff. I'm pretty dubious about some of it but I'm not dubious about all of it. To quote a former pastor, it could all just be a coincidence but it seems whenever I pray the coincidences always seem to happen.

I don't think miracles prove that the Bible is divinely inspired. I think they have proved to me that a atheistic empiracist worldview is missing something that it refuses to admit even exists. That's fine and I don't blame people for believing in it but that's not nearly enough for me to deny real experience in favour of people who deny that there's even a need to answer the questions I'm asking or state that I'm simply crazy.

Tim said...

Mike, sorry for the late reply to your comment. Without wanting to start a whole other discussion since we've already hijacked Ricky's original post, I'm fascinated by your claim that Jesus was divine but the Bible and the church are flawed. I know this is an increasingly common post-evangelical sort of position, but I think it is ultimately self-refuting.

Re: your prayer experience. I don't want to come across as having a pat answer for every spiritual event, but I'll offer some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts.

I'm curious that you claimed to have skeptical reservations ("a load of charistmatic nonsense") before you were blessed with unexpected insight. I have come across this trope many times in such stories and, while it may be presented by some as God breaking in with helpful revelation to the believer whose faith is uncertain, I think it has a more mundane psychological dimension to it. Often a mind that is wrestling against a proposition, especially one presented in an authoritative setting like a church meeting led by a trusted pastor etc, apparent resistance can be resolved subliminally by sudden cathartic release: the self convincing the self with some intuitive reason to accept after all. This sort of epiphany usually "proves true" - the conflicted person ends up resolved, thinking "of course, why didn't I accept it all along?". Their former reservations now seem utterly unreasonable.

Now in your case your intuition "felt" there were daddy issues for "someone in the group". I hope you're reporting accurately here because you are implying the "word of knowledge" (if you'd use that term) wasn't directed specifically. Again this is a common trope of pentecostal/charismatic stories: a word given generally about a back pain, or a lack of forgiveness, or a job crisis. You know the stuff. It's the same "throw out the bait" technique used by mediums and psychics. I'm not saying these are deliberately fraudulent people doing so, but they are - even unwittingly - engaging in a creative divinatory ritual that is common across many cultures.

it could all just be a coincidence but it seems whenever I pray the coincidences always seem to happen

I've heard this line a lot. (I note Nicky Gimbel uses it on the Alpha course, which could be why everyone else has picked it up too.) What it conceals is a terrible lack of understanding of what a coincidence actually is. A coincidence requires meaning to be read into a conjuction or correlation. I have had coincidences happen to me that have no supernatural meaning or even natural significance: like talking about something unusual one minute then seeing the same word/subject printed on a poster a short while later. Again psychology has an explanation and it's known as priming. The mind is focused on connecting otherwise random events/data. When one prays, one looks for the outworking of an "answer". This looking for an answer is effectively seeking out coincidence. When one doesn't pray about a subject, one isn't looking for this correlation of input and output. Psychologists talk of the "illusion of control" - prayer and other superstitious rituals are intended to give our minds a sense of control over randomness of life. Things don't happen for a metaphysical reason. Faith assumes they do.

Anyway, that's more than enough from me. Thanks for reading.

Mike McQuaid said...

Interesting points Tim. To answer your questions:

I don't think Jesus but the Bible/Church being flawed is self-refuting. Jesus being divine is the tricky bit and I "believe" it based on experience but the Bible/Church being flawed is fairly demonstrably true (although I'm sure you're not disagreeing there!). Jesus being divine is the best fit I've found in trying to piece everything together and I find the arguments made for his divinity/manhood to be persuasive, particularly given it seems to be clear that it was a very early church meme that he was divine.

this was not a general word of knowledge like "oh someone in this room of 800 people has had a problem with their father" but a specific vision of a specific person in my group having a "scarred" relationship with his father.

I've also read about mystics and the power of suggestion and I can't see any particular evidence for this occurring in this place. There was no-one suggesting I do something or leading me somewhere and I was personally dubious about even the concept.

I'll concede the point about coincidences and prayer. I still disagree somewhat as I think writing things off as coincidences borders on a logical fallacy with how trivially you can use it to disprove almost any argument based on individual experience.

I elaborate on the above not in hope of convincing you (I don't expect my anecdotes to do that) but also to give you an honest account of something that I was sceptical and changed my mind about. Thanks for having such a civil discussion.

Tim said...

A pleasure. I'd love to continue but I don't feel this is the place to do so. Thanks also for a sensible and courteous exchange. All the best.

Ricky Carvel said...

Hey, don't feel bad about 'hijacking' my blog. This is fascinating. Keep it up if you want. ;o)