Some navel-gazing about god(s)

I was prompted into contemplating my belly-button by reading the usual crypto-fascist Vox Day. So apologies for that. I’m not going to bother linking to the piece (its dated December 7 if anybody wants to look), it’s neither terrible nor insightful. However, the issue at hand is god and logic and that’s a topic that always sets me off but before I continue let me say something:

You can’t prove using logic that god (in general) doesn’t exist.

Also, I’m not attempting to prove that god doesn’t exist (I mean god doesn’t exist but that’s not what I’m going on about).

The piece in question is looking at Richard Dawkins offering some of the classic issues of the standard conception of god. Specifically that god is both omniscient and omnipotent. Both have issues logically and together they have even more issues. Dawkins is quoted as saying:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.

Which is fair enough, as far as it goes. Day calls the argument ‘silly and superficial’ but then goes off on a full-on theological retreat in the face of the argument, essentially backpedaling on both qualities. He argues that maybe the bible doesn’t claim either thing and maybe these are just potentialities of god i.e. god has the capacity to know everything but only if he chooses to etc. That’s all fine, you can believe in whatever god you want and your god can have whatever limitations you think appropriate. I’m not the faith policeman.

It is still missing the point though. Put aside the word ‘god’ (or ‘God’) for that matter. Let’s talk about the Ultimate Being instead. The Ultimate Being is a Platonic god i.e. at the end of a chain of abstraction of what is and what is good. It is also a philosophical god, the end point of Thomas Aquinas’s chains of causality and existence.

The supposedly trite question of whether a god (say Zeus) can make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it is not trite when we consider such an Ultimate Being. Saying that such a being would never choose to do such a thing is not an answer because it avoids the question. The question really is: can such an Ultimate Being do something that is logically contradictory? There are exactly two answers to that question:

  • Yes
  • No

“Yes” is a reasonable answer but it comes with a price. The price is that you then can’t reason logically about an ultimate being beyond this. If such a being not only transcends time and space but also logic, then such a being is beyond reason and reasonable inquiry.

“No” is not a reasonable answer. It looks reasonable because it affirms reasonableness but it implies that your Ultimate Being is less than ultimate. It implies that rules exist that limit this ultimate being and raises the questions of where those rules come from and who enforces them. If the answer to that is the rules don’t come from anywhere and nobody has to enforce them, they just are then…why are you bothering with an ultimate being for everything else?

“Are you an agnostic then?”, is something I am asked from time to time. No, except in a much broader sense of believing that knowledge is fallible and absolute certainty about anything is impossible. I don’t have faith in god(s)/God, other people do. I’m cool with that 🙂 Tell me though, that there’s a proof or a logical reason for believing in god then sorry, but no there isn’t.

[see also: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fideism/]

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24 thoughts on “Some navel-gazing about god(s)”

  1. I think maybe the “ultimate good” might eliminate some of the contradiction? So yes Ultimate might be able to do something counter-logic just as Ultimate could do something Ultimate knows won’t happen. But doing those things would be bad, and Ultimate is also omnibenevolent.

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  2. The idea that an “Ultimate Being” which created the entire universe not only cares about but can be bribed by the wishes of some insignificant apes in one tiny corner of that universe is utterly ludicrous.

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    1. If you’re throwing omnis into the mix, an “Ultimate Being” which created the entire universe caring about everything, including some insignificant apes, doesn’t seem so ludicrous. It’s human exceptionalism, where the whole universe exists to produce humans, that’s ludicrous.

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      1. So why would such a powerful being allow itself to be bribed by the selfish wishes of those same apes?

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  3. I think you are misunderstanding what logic is (don’t worry many people do)

    I would be hesitant to describe the “Yes” answer as “reasonable”. Consider the old question of “Can God create a rock He cannot lift”. A being beyond logic could do something it cannot do and therefore cannot ever make itself unable to do something except it can do things it cannot do…. it’s just a mes. But within logic we could accept that an Omnipotent being has the capability to restrict itself, giving up full Omnipotence.

    The “no” answer is reasonable because logic is not a set of rules imposed on reality. The laws of logic are semantic rules. Under the correspondence theory of truth, when we say that a statement is true we mean that it accurately describes some portion of reality. That rules out some other descriptions and statements expressing such descriptions are considered false. The reality of any possible state of affairs rules out other possible states of affairs – not through external rules but by the simple fact of it being so.

    Maybe this thought will help (it helps me). Wave-particle duality (where particles behave as either particles or waves) is not a logical contradiction. Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave–particle_duality quotes Einstein:
    “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”
    The issue, however, is not that reality is contradictory, the problem is that neither model is really true. Wikipedia describes it as “…the inability of the classical concepts “particle” or “wave” to fully describe the behavior of quantum-scale objects”. It’s weird but not a logical contradiction.

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    1. Don’t worry but I think you are misunderstanding what I mean when I say “logic” (that’s not an uncommon problem).

      For example: “we could accept that an Omnipotent being has the capability to restrict itself, giving up full Omnipotence.” is missing the point. Doubly so as missing this point is something I underlined, rhetorically is not typographically. Whether a being dodges the issue or not is moot compared to whether THERE IS AN ISSUE. That’s the point. Is there an issue that needs dodging or not.

      “The laws of logic are semantic rules. ” well they can be expressed semantically or formally but that is changing the question. Are the basic rules (e.g. non-contradiction) part of reality and are they rules that a god has to follow? That’s the question 🙂

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      1. The laws of logic are not rules governing reality. It is impossible for two logically contradictory statements to both be true because if reality is accurately described by a statement it cannot be accurately described by the logical negation of that statement. The meanings of the statements are exclusive.

        There certainly may be apparent contradictions, like wave-particle duality but that is because neither the particle model or the wave model are accurate descriptions of the reality of objects such as electrons.

        With regard to omnipotence and omniscience I think we can say that an omniscient bring would know with certainty which course of action is the best (from its point of view) and might be locked into its decisions in advance by that knowledge even if capable of acting otherwise (I am reminded of the prescience trap of the Dune series, especially God-Emperor of Dune). More, it can know about it’s own state at the time it makes the decision and understand that it would not decide differently – why would it? There can’t be a reason. That may not seem entirely satisfactory, but I think that’s really getting into a different problem, that of libertarian free will. (I reject the possibility of libertarian free will so I find this explanation fairly solid. Those who think otherwise have cause to disagree on that point)

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  4. I can’t understand this “logic”. From my perspective, the definition of something omnipotent includes that it can’t be restricted. To say that it can’t put unremovable restrictions on itself is only in line with this.

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    1. The problem is that you are proposing a restriction – that it cannot restrict itself.

      My resolution is that it may voluntarily surrender its Omnipotence – thus it may restrict itself, however, it may not be restricted by anything else (unless it chooses to give that up)

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      1. No. I’m saying that omnipotency doesn’t necessarily mean the possibility to make paradoxes reality – i.e making two contradictory statements true at the same time. I mostly see that as a very weird requirement for omnipotency.

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  5. “You can’t prove using logic that god (in general) doesn’t exist.”

    So is VD saying I ought to convert to Islam? Or Hinduism? (Or maybe I should start praying to the White Rat, or the Hanged Mother, or the Sainted Smith, or the Five Gods of Chalion, or the Seven of Westeros, or R’hllor, or the Drowned God?)

    The problem is that “god (in general)” is a vague and basically undefined concept. “You can’t prove using logic that [something vague and undefined] doesn’t exist.” is not a very useful statement. Or perhaps I should say: It’s not useful as a statement about the existence of deities, rather it’s a statement about the necessity of defining what you’re talking about.

    I’ve never met a religious person who have bothered me with their faith in a vague and undefined god. All the faithful who have wanted to convert me, or argue with me, or getting some sort of legal recognition for their religion, have believed in a specific god, with specific attributes. And they believe that this god is not just a logical possibility, but a near certainty – both more likely than no gods, and than any other possible gods.

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    1. I’m pretty fond of the Rat God we all learned about in “Swordheart”. There’s a deity that’s really down with humans, whose clergy give practical help as well as spiritual/moral. No crusades (either warring or on behavior), no proselytizing or exclusivity by the believers. He’s a good one.

      The more logical options on this here planet are either 1) nope, no gods 2) lotsa gods, each with their own function, and everything with its own god or 3) one god in charge of everything all by himself, which so far has led to thousands of years of warfare, sexism, homophobia, and not being allowed to eat bacon. Rat God does not cause those!

      A gnole says it’s all whisker-twisting.

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  6. “The question really is: can such an Ultimate Being do something that is logically contradictory?”

    I have a better question, floppy. Could a being that created the universe be encompassed by a tool invented by Humans? In principle, I mean.

    I think you’ll find the answer is no. Even Wittgenstein said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Logic cannot even encompass the creation, much less the creator.

    In fact, floppy, can even a human be completely encompassed in a set of logical propositions? People doing AI and machine learning will tell you no.

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    1. Excellent question! No, seriously.
      “Could a being that created the universe be encompassed by a tool invented by Humans?”
      Clearly not! But then is that what logic is? I’m inclined to that direction but even if we accept that logic is essentially a descriptive tool that still leaves the question open as to what kind of thing is it describing? The net effect is mainly to change how we phrase the question: can God do something that our tools of reasoning would describe as contradictory? That sounds more like a “yes” but the coda still follows: can we use our tools of reasoning to make conclusions about God? Ah! It’s still a “no”. Whether logic is an intrinsic property of the universe or whether it is a tool we invented for understanding the universe, we end up at the same point: either God can’t do contradictory things or god can’t be understood using the tools we use.

      “In fact, floppy, can even a human be completely encompassed in a set of logical propositions? ”
      That’s a different question. It looks similar but isn’t.

      Take a similar question “Can arithmetic be encompassed in a set of logical propositions?” The answer is a long and deep one but the issues behind it are not the ones I’m pointing out above.

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      1. “…either God can’t do contradictory things or god can’t be understood using the tools we use.”

        Mathematics is a branch of logic. There are plenty of things smaller that Divinity that cannot in principle be encompassed by mathematical statements. Incomputability is an issue in all kinds of mathematics, or so I am told. So if we already know there are problems of a fairly simple nature that logic cannot in principle address, is it reasonable to expect Divinity to fit within such a framework?

        This also does not mean that humans cannot apprehend Divinity, or interact with it. Just that logic is a tool that cannot guide the user to useful conclusions regarding Divinity.

        Meaning that disbelief in Divinity because there is no logical proof is…

        …wait for it,

        …illogical.

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  7. Omnipotence defined as our host is defining it seems incompatible with logic, in a similar way to how allowing any describable set is incompatible with set theory. It leads to internal contradiction. So by that, logic demonstrates Camestros’s point that a being omnipotent in that way is undecidable logically.

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  8. I sometimes amuse people by describing myself as a devout agnostic. I don’t personally feel the existence of any deity as such, but I acknowledge that atheism requires just as much faith as theism does. There’s really no way we can prove or disprove God’s existence.

    As creatures with a long period of immaturity and dependence on parents and community, it’s natural that we should have a deeply ingrained impulse to look for someone or something that can protect us from life’s travails. It’s a good survival trait — find and obey someone who has the knowledge and power to take care of you. When we are children, we believe our parents can do and know everything; when we are somewhat older, especially in more primitive societies, we believe our leaders can. The natural human inclination to find causality in random events, and our natural human desire to be protected by someone more powerful than ourselves, naturally lead us to project our “parents can do anything” mentality onto imaginary supernatural beings. These natural impulses make me believe that God/god is likely a product of wishful thinking, but they don’t actually disprove a God/god’s existence.

    This same tendency also shows us that any human conception of a deity is going to be limited and imprecise because we humans are limited and imprecise. Just as any sufficiently advanced tech will appear to be magic, any sufficiently powerful and/or knowledgeable being will appear to be omnipotent and/or omniscient. And the more powerful and knowledgeable our protector seems to us, the more secure we will feel under that protector’s wings. It feels good to be safe, and humans are masters at making themselves believe whatever will make them feel good. So, again, there’s a strong psychological impulse to see that leader or deity as omnipotent and omniscient, no matter what the objective reality may be.

    In other words — our human conception of God isn’t an issue of logic. It’s an issue of psychology and evolution. And even if there really is a deity out there, our conception of it is necessarily going to be severely limited and imprecise, because our brains are limited and imprecise. It would take God-like intelligence to have an accurate conception of God, and that ain’t gonna happen down here on Earth.

    /rant

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  9. But isn’t “a stone that cannot be lifted by an omnipotent being” a logical impossibility in itself, like a square circle? I would say it only becomes a problem if omnipotence includes creating logical impossible things (once again like square circles).

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    1. “We need you to draw seven red lines, all of them perpendicular, some with green ink, some with transparent.”

      So an omnipotent being really would be The Expert?

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  10. While I agree with the statement
    You can’t prove using logic that god (in general) doesn’t exist.

    I also agree with its converse
    You can’t prove using logic that god (in general) does exist.

    While Dawkins may find it interesting to try to negate the possibility of the existence of god using logic, to me it seems like an exercise in futility, because belief in god is not based on logic, it’s based on faith — and people who have faith that god exists are not going to be persuaded by logical arguments, anyway.

    My personal choice to walk away from my Protestant upbringing was based on three things:
    1) no persuasive evidence that a god exists,
    2) lots of persuasive that a god does not exist, and
    3) if the vain, childish, petty, vindictive god described by the Christian Bible actually does exist, I don’t want anything to do with him.

    While I recognize that a lot of people derive comfort from believing that there is a deity and a thus a higher meaning to existence and bad things which happen, I derive comfort from believing that this existence is all we have, and we need to make the most of it; that bad things often happen for no reason at all, and it is self-defeating and a waste of time and energy to attempt to discern some higher meaning in them; and that bad things which happen due to the actions of people are something we can affect and change, and we should try to do so.

    While I do believe that it is worthwhile to try to persuade people that women, minorities, and LGBTQ people are as equally human, capable, and worthy as men, white people, and straight people, I think that attempting to persuade believers that god does not exist is an exercise in futility. They are welcome to believe if they wish. I prefer to concentrate on pointing out that their belief is fine, but that they don’t get to force it on anyone else (and on preventing the people who want to force their beliefs onto others, by law or societal pressure, from being able to do so).

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    1. And exactly on the same basis, I can’t take issue with your points 1 and 2 as they are your decision and that’s fine; I find the opposite to be the case, but again, I agree with you that I should not be trying to impose my beliefs on you! I would, however, note that I see nothing in your penultimate paragraph that is particularly contingent on a belief or otherwise in (g/G)od(s).

      I do take issue with your point 3 however, as it strikes me as a perfect summation of one of the most common strawman arguments against God – that an old man with a beard on a cloud throws thunderbolts at people; aka “Zeus”. It’s a view of God that is often taught to children – a bit like Santa Claus perhaps only without the thunderbolts! – and it barely really exists in the Christian (or even the Jewish) scriptures outside of a small number of very Hollywood Blockbuster moments which make for vivid “Sunday School” anecdotes that tend to stick with people.

      And yet somehow it is considered normal to grow out of the childish version of Santa Claus and replace it with the more “human” aspect – we still give each other gifts at Christmas after all – but growing out of that childish version of Zeus is all too often presented as a wholesale rejection of the idea of God as if there is no other way to see God than like that. And yes, I think that this childish version of Zeus is immensely damaging, especially when also exploited by those who want to play definitional games with terms like “omnipotent” (and no, I do not accuse Camestros of doing that when the targets are clearly others!!)

      [Please note, I am not aiming this specifically at you; it’s merely that you happened to be the most recent person to express this particular view, and I wanted to engage/vent a bit!]

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  11. If I were to play the Devil’s Advocate here (see what I did, hurhurhur), I would point out that logic systems fall within the boundaries of what is and isn’t computable, and “do something that is logically contradictory” looks very much like something that I could twist into “is logically consistent, but not provably true”.

    Or, at least, that’s the tack I would take, were I foolish enough toi actually try to argue for the existence of any god(s).,

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