Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Question of Faith

"Faith" is a term that has many nuances of meaning. It connotes belief in someone or something. It implies confidence and trust in its object. It is up to reasonable people to infer the condition that faith should be based on evidence and experience. Although it is a perfectly good word, it has been tainted by its religious use. Religions call for unquestioning obedience to dogmatic principles that have no rational justification. They ask for faith without factual evidence and offer no experiential basis for trust. Religion provides no better justification for faith than anecdotal evidence and appeals to nebulous spiritual ideas. This kind of faith has no practical application to the real world. In fact, religious faith can make people act contrary to common sense. For example, someone who has faith in God may believe that they are more likely to get a better job by praying for it than by improving their employability through education, experience and appearance.

To counter such disparaging remarks about their dogmatic faith, religious people (especially fundamentalists) sometimes say that faith in science is the same thing as faith in God. This argument sounds hollow. Generally speaking, those who can be said to have “faith” in science don't have a blind belief in the infallibility of scientists or of the scientific results. I just don’t think "faith" is the best term to describe their confidence in science. I think it behooves us to use the words that best indicate what we intend to say. Only if you intend to convey a blind following of scientific dogma would you be correct in using the term "faith". But this isn’t usually how rational people think of science.

It simply isn’t necessary to have blind faith (unfounded belief) in science. Science proves itself every day. We are the beneficiaries of innumerable products and conveniences that have been brought about by science. Many diseases have been eradicated through science. None of this scientific knowledge came from God. And religious faith doesn’t produce any such results. With science, it becomes less about confidence and more about what is obvious. Whether God can be proven true or false is beside the point. Either way, the reality of nature is staring us right in the face. Historically, we have been able to make the most progress as a species when we weren't worshipping Gods but are working with nature and observable facts.

Life and the universe are mysterious and they give up their mysteries grudgingly. And it is good to be open to any way to achieve understanding. But it is questionable whether anything valuable can be learned by following ancient superstitions and myths. One big thing religion claims to do is help people live moral lives. Perhaps that’s true in some cases, but overall there is no basis for that claim. Statistically there is no positive correlation between morality and religious belief. Trying to live a good life is a noble thing. I personally think it imparts meaning to life in the process. However, it doesn't require God or religion to do so. Nor does it require science. But here, there is definitely a conflict between religion and science. It is expressed in the difference between trying to find meaning that makes us comfortable and trying to find meaning in reality. In the end, there may be no ultimate purpose or meaning to life. That doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless. It just means we have to find meaning in the experience of life itself.

The common view of the relationship between religion and science is that science attempts to answer the "how" and "what" questions of observable and verifiable phenomena, while religion attempts to answer the "why" questions that deal with morality and purpose. Actually, science looks to answer all relevant questions that deal with reality. Religion doesn’t really answer any questions although it claims to have all the answers. It gives us comforting stories with lots of nice sounding metaphors and analogies to our own human experience. It promises us rewards for good behavior. In contrast, science definitively answers many questions. But because science goes where the evidence leads, we don’t always find comforting and pleasant answers. Unlike religion, science doesn't start with a predetermined conclusion.

Religions claim to tell us where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going after this life. Science has answers to all these questions, but they don’t make us all feel warm and fuzzy. The reason answers to these big questions don't appeal to some people is that we sometimes don't like the simple, unvarnished truth. The answer appears to be that we have no external purpose and that each of us has to determine what we want our purpose to be. It’s simple, but not comforting. Imagining a more satisfying answer leads us to difficulty and often delusion.

Don’t get me wrong. Imagination is one of the greatest things mankind has. Science is advanced by our imagination. It takes imagination to come up with a "what if" question and then test our theories against the facts, especially in the face of "conventional wisdom" that tells us the answers lie elsewhere. It leads us to greater understanding of our existence and can usually lead us to consistent answers that everyone can use. Religion (organized or not) leads to a lot of possible but implausible answers. By its very nature, it cannot give us consistent, unambiguous answers with consistent results. But it can make us feel good. Science may not be appealing to some people because it is utilitarian instead of warm and comforting. But it has a track record that warrants faith in scientific answers.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Perfectly Impossible

While there are many areas of dogma over which theists of even the same denomination will disagree, one thing that most believers agree upon is the notion that God is perfect. However, it seems that many people don’t really stop to consider the full ramifications of this simple statement. It is too easy to just accept that a being capable of doing what God is credited with doing must be perfect. But, is it reasonable to make that assumption? I don’t think so. Although I won’t attempt to cover every possible angle of this question, I will look at what perfection means in human terms, how the perfect state of God is defined and how these definitions interrelate. I will also look at some arguments for and against God’s perfection and then propose a conclusion about the feasibility of the actual existence of a God who is perfect.

I do not intend to belabor the usual objections to God’s perfection by repeating such things as the “problem of evil” or asking how a perfect Creator can preside over an imperfect creation. Nor do I want to go into the details of God’s actions and statements in scriptures that show him to be less than perfect. These are valid points but I would like to take a little different approach in my treatment of the subject. What I really want to discuss is what actual ultimate perfection would mean. This is a question that has often been raised by philosophers and logicians. But my goal is to make this article less complicated and more accessible for the average person. I hope to state it in a clear and understandable manner without resorting to the use of formal logic or philosophical jargon.

Perfection is a very subjective thing. For most of us, perfection is a standard by which we measure our progress. It isn’t really a goal. It isn’t something we generally expect to achieve. Standards of perfection are typically not instantiated. They are ideals but are unattainable in any practical sense. If perfection is ever achieved, there is nothing left to achieve. Since we don’t generally strive for perfection in all things at once, I suppose that a person could try something different and still have something to look forward to. At least we have that option. An ultimately and universally perfect being would have no such option.

While there is a range of definitions of the word “perfect”, it is generally defined as: being excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement. Indeed this seems to be what most people mean when they say God is perfect. Another common definition refers to something conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type. It is doubtful that this could refer to God. Since the vast majority of theists are monotheists, the statement seems rather pointless. If there is only one God, he is both the best and the worst sort of God. To say that there is an ideal god type sounds ludicrous. There isn’t even a consistent definition of what a god is much less an ideal type.

We also use perfection in the sense of being without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings. But this definition also implies a standard by which to compare. For this definition of perfection, there must be the possibility of imperfection. Applied to God it would mean there must also be flawed or defective gods. Perfection can also refer to something that precisely fits a specific need or purpose. However, this would not explain God’s perfection as a being but merely his suitability for a purpose.

Anselm’s Ontological Theistic Argument from his Proslogion of the late 11th century is well known. It claims that we can use reason alone to prove that God exists. It states that God is “something than which nothing greater can be imagined.” God is the most perfect thing imaginable. Anselm further states that something that exists is greater or more perfect than something that is imaginary. So he concludes that God must exist. But there is no justification for saying that existence is more perfect than imagination. While I think we would all prefer to be real than imaginary, existence has nothing to do with perfection. We all exist and few of us would say that fact makes us perfect.

Anselm’s argument was refined and logically formalized by Decartes in the mid 17th century. But it is still little more than a gratuitous assumption. In his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant makes the observation that no matter what properties we may imagine for God, existing is not a property of a thing at all. To put a finer point on it, existence is a state of being, not a perfection. The question is whether our concept of God corresponds to anything real. Kant says that pure reason cannot answer the question of God’s existence (unless the concept of God is self-contradictory, in which case God cannot exist). He illustrates the error in Anselm’s assumption by rephrasing the argument thus: "Utopia is the most perfect ('the greatest') society conceivable." To conclude from this that Utopia must therefore exist is clearly ridiculous. Observation and experience are required to make that determination.

Saint Anselm’s argument is fallacious and it is also vague. It lacks specificity. He says that God is “something” and it is the greatest “something” that can be conceived. To say God is the greatest there is without specificity would seem to say that God is the ultimate in every category and aspect of being. But how could that be? That would make God the greatest conceivable author, criminal, philatelist, politician, mime, liar, comedian ad infinitum. So, I don’t think the ultimate “everything” is quite what Anselm had in mind. If he is saying that God is the greatest possible God imaginable, we need to know what the definition of God is and what standard is used.

If a comparison is to be made between a perfect being and a less than perfect being, it seems we must concentrate on specific attributes to compare. Given the anthropomorphic view of God it is not surprising that the attributes generally proposed for this comparison are those we humans find appealing. They are: knowledge, power, presence and goodness. The perfect versions of these attributes are: Omniscience (ultimate knowledge), Omnipotence (ultimate power), Omnipresence (infinite presence) and Omnibenevolence (ultimate goodness).

I suppose it would be silly to include tongue length in the list. Except that as mere imperfect humans we are woefully inadequate to dare decide what attributes are important when referring to God. Maybe God is very proud of the length of his tongue. Since we are told by theists and their scriptures that we cannot fathom the mysteries of God, perhaps we go too far when we presume to exclude any seemingly trivial attribute. God’s attributes are said to be nothing like what we mere mortals experience. Indeed, many will tell you that we can only understand a fractional approximation of what God is. At the risk of rendering God completely unintelligible, theists undermine our every attempt to gain any sort of understanding of God.

A thorough reading of the scriptures of Abrahamic religions will show that God displays many emotions and passions other than love. We read of emotions like jealousy, anger, hate, and pride. If God is a being than which no greater can be imagined, it seems that God’s attributes should include the ultimate version of these. But you will probably never hear God described as Omnipassionate, Omnisensual or Omniconceited. The obvious reason for these things existing in scripture is that some people got a little carried away with anthropomorphizing God. To top it off, some of these emotions are considered negative. But I guess its going too far to suggest that God might also be optimally bad.

Because God is said to be the ultimate in each of his attributes, he is the standard of perfection in each of them. For example, God is the absolute standard for goodness. But, in order to avoid circularity we have to refrain from using God as the standard of goodness when we are talking about God. The essential question posed by the Euthyphro Dilemma (derived from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro ) is whether something is good because God says so or does God say so because he recognizes a universal standard of goodness? In other words, do actions or attributes have an absolute quality of goodness independent of God? This has to do with the question of what standard makes God perfect. Is God perfect because he meets an absolute standard of perfection, or is perfection defined as what God is? Is there a separate standard or is God the standard? If God is the standard then to say God is perfect is to say God is God. We have gained nothing. If God is not the standard, then something else exceeds or preceded God in perfection.

According to most theists, God has finished the journey to perfection or he was there to begin with. In either case, he is there, fully realized in all his perfect glory, and not in just one limited sense but in all ways. God is the epitome of the concept of perfection. He is omniperfect. The problem is that from a state of absolute perfection there is no room for improvement. What could a perfect being possibly strive for? What goals could he have? Once perfection is reached, by definition, no further progress can be made. Thus God must be become static because the only place to go is down. God simply has nothing to look forward to. If he has already reached the pinnacle of perfection in all things, what else could he do?

If this is a difficult concept to grasp, think of it this way. Let’s say you are climbing a mountain and you reach the summit. You have attained your ultimate goal. Since you cannot fly, if you move at all, you have started back down the mountain. Any change reverses your progress. You may stay there and stagnate but you cannot advance. This all demonstrates the fallacy of saying that God is perfect. If God has achieved ultimate perfection in all things, he can do nothing to increase his perfection. He must stop or go backwards. God would have to do nothing because doing anything beyond perfection could only make him less perfect. Not least because, even if the thing he’s doing is the best possible thing to do, it means he had not already done it which makes him less than perfect. In this case, it seems God would have to cease to exist because existence without action would render him useless. And that is an imperfection.

This leads to many other interesting questions. Does an absolutely perfect being need anything? The traditional God seems to need things of us. But being in need of something implies a lack. And that means imperfection. I wonder how our praise or worship could benefit a perfect God. Indeed, what could a completely perfect being possibly gain from us? We can only spoil his perfection. And why must we serve God? What can our service to God do for him? This is effectively what Socrates was saying to Euthypro in one of Plato’s dialogues. To imply that when you perform a holy or pious action you enhance God in some way, is a dangerous example of hubris. What then is the purpose of serving God?

If God is absolutely perfect and complete, why would he need or want to create us? I have heard some theists say that since God is perfect, he is perfectly free to do whatever he wills. That may be true, but in exercising that freedom he can only move away from his state of perfection. No matter the reason, if God created us, we became a part of what defines him. That makes him the God that created humanity. We would be forever intertwined with what God is. He would be diminished by our imperfection. But perhaps he was simply tired of stagnation. Or perhaps, ignoring the oppressive baggage of traditional religious dogma, a perfect being might simply create things as a mere byproduct of its nature without will or intent. God might be a perfect force that throws off creations in its wake. But if we are talking about a force without intention and purpose, why call it God? It sounds like a scientific theory of how things formed due to the natural forces and laws governing the physical universe. This tends to demystify the concept of God. It is probably unsatisfying for most theists.

It appears that a perfect being is no more than a myth, for several reasons. First of all, perfection is a subjective opinion and not an actual quality. Perfection is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder. Absolute perfection implies a universal standard that is not in evidence. It also cannot circularly refer to itself and be meaningful. Ultimate perfection in an active being is impossible because any change can only move it away from ultimate perfection. I think it is also clear that vague appeals to our imagination are no help. There just isn’t any substitute for observation and experience. Unfortunately, regarding God, these are things we cannot have.

The entire point is rendered moot when we are denied our own definitions as tools for understanding. We cannot be expected to use some presumed supernatural definition. When trying to discuss any attribute of God, the final outcome will inevitably be that we, as mere humans, cannot understand a supernatural being. This tends to make the entire concept of God incoherent. We try to understand the concept of God but in the end God is so different from us as to be totally incomprehensible. Believers say it is important to know God and what he wants for us. But when pressed, they admit that God is ultimately unknowable. In that case, everyone is necessarily agnostic. The question is this: when faced with something unknowable, is it best to accept it as true or to reject it until there is some way to at least comprehend it?