Friday, February 27, 2015

Is there a God? Does he care? Should we?

For a change of pace from my latest forays in political economy, which is a very contingent and immanent topic, I’m going to devote Today’s post to a quite transcendent one (in the most strict sense), which kept me pretty busy in a previous stage of my life, and has been a background preoccupation during all these intervening years. A short introduction may be in order: there are a number of questions every thinking person should be able to answer for himself, like the three Kantian ones subsumed under “what is man?” (What can I know? What can I expect? And, How should I act?). Between them I strongly feel the three ones I’ve used as title are important enough, even if the answer is just a shrugging and a “who cares?”… which is by and in itself a significant enough answer. Not one I would be contented with, though, so I’m going to share with my patient readers a bit of the answer I settled on for myself, without any intention of proselytizing or convincing anybody (this is not how I roll at all, it is intended more as a way of clarifying my position for myself, as it is by no means a clear cut one, even after devoting so much thought to it).    

Now there are certain areas where to arrive at a satisfying position one must necessarily do some research, as relying on one’s intuition and personal history alone will most certainly cause the researcher to miss a lot of useful hints from the ones that have covered that area in advance. No student of Physics would pretend it would be fruitful to start pondering about the best way to represent the movement of solid bodies without studying first Newtonian mechanics (and most likely Einstenian relativity, for completeness sake), as a lot of ground has already been covered by our predecessors, and it would be a major loss of time not to build upon that. Similarly, a lot of consideration has already been given to the possible existence of an all powerful being who is the ultimate cause of our (and everything else’s) existence, so even if we reject every and all arguments from authority it makes a lot of sense to spend some time reviewing what the main contributions to this particular discussion have been. These, then, would be your Cliff Notes on the main arguments presented for the existence of God in the last 2,600 years:

·         The first cause/ prime mover: for everything that moves/ changes there is a previous cause that initiated the movement/ change. That cause has itself a previous cause, and so on, so if we want to avoid an infinite regression, there has to be a first cause that started it all. Aristotle gave the argument its original formulation (probably he was already echoing previous doctrine) and Thomas Aquinas codified it in a Christian guise in the XIII Century. It has never been all that popular because it is not immediately obvious why a) that first cause should be a person (have at least the features of intelligence and will) ; b) what is really the problem with an infinite regression (if nature has existed for an infinity of time many of those are to be expected) and c) to what extent positing a first cause so back in time we really can not know much about it is actually an explanation

·         The ontological argument: we owe its original formulation to a XI Century monk called Abelard, in a little delightful book that has become almost impossible to grasp nowadays called Proslogion, and it runs like this: as you can conceive of things more perfect than others, there has to be something which is the most perfect you can conceive of. That most perfect concept must include being all powerful, all benevolent and all knowing (among other features). Now here comes the interesting part: that concept has to necessarily exist, as existence is a perfection, and if it didn’t it would be possible to conceive of something even more perfect. Thus that most perfect concept is real. As obviously that most perfect concept is also known as God, God is real, it exists. To say this little piece of logic (of sophistry for its opponents) has been much debated would be a gross understatement. None other than Kant (even the most casual reader of this blog knows how much water the opinion of the Great K carries for me) dismissed it with the (arguably no less obscure than the argument itself) dictum that “existence is not a predicate of the subject” (so we can not posit the existence of something as implying an additional perfection, as if it did not exist after all the previous perfections ascribed to it would be fictitious, and the whole exercise of conceiving something of which nothing more perfect can be conceived is invalid)… let’s say for the moment I find Kant’s rebuttal not entirely convincing, although not entirely devoid of merit either

·         The argument from design: although in one form or another it has been around also from the Stoics time, its clearest formulation (at least to us, distinctly modern types, I’m not so sure it would have been intelligible at all to an Athenian citizen in 400 AC) comes from William Paley, who almost single-handedly spawned what is known as “Natural Theology” (never heard of it? Do not worry, we’ll arrive soon at why). In the book of the same name (XVIII Century, although it was published at the beginning of the XIX). According to his most famed metaphor, if we saw a stone by the way we would not be much surprised, as from studying it we may discover the blind processes that originated it, but not much more. If we, however, saw a clock, with all its intricate pieces finely adjusted and assembled, even if we knew nothing of the subdivision and measuring of time we could assume a purpose behind the device, and the clarity of a purpose would signal the existence of a thinking, willing intelligence behind its creation. What Paley developed in minute detail is how the natural, biological world is a mechanism like the clock (not that it is deterministic, mind you, although he shared most of Newton’s strict causalism, but that would be a discussion for another day), that in its intricate design and apparent adaptation to the purpose of living everywhere betrays the existence of a designer. I’ve highlighted the “biological” part because it is in the living world where Paley saw the most convincing evidence of design, in the extraordinary adaptation of living organisms to their environment. And the fact that his opinion was so celebrated (it was mandatory reading in most disciplines in Cambridge, to the extent that the very person that truly demolished the whole thing was thoroughly conversant with it) explains why the appearance of an alternative explanation of that adaptation has been so culturally significant. I’m talking, of course, about the Theory of Evolution, but before dwelling on it we will linger a bit on a previous criticism of this argument (previous even to Paley’s formulation of it).

The high point of that criticism is normally assigned to David Hume (which for many “debunked” or “demolished” the argument from design, to the point that he supposedly rendered it invalid almost single handedly). In his book Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (published in 1779, three years after the author’s death due in part to the procrastination and hesitations of his good friend Adam Smith, founder of classical economics) he has his main characters discuss the possibility of deducing the existence of a supreme being from the orderliness and convenience of the Universe, only to dismiss it as the product of a very incompetent deity, or a cabal of uncoordinated ones, as there was so much inconveniences and disorder side by side with the aforementioned. There is not so much demolishing or debunking as Hume apologists would like to claim, as the whole argument is constrained by the dialogue form, where different characters express different opinions and it is hard to tell what the author really thinks (this is pretty characteristic of the Scottish philosopher, which liked to be pretty equivocal in some of his stances, specially the ones that could get him in trouble). However, the most critical and acerbic one, Philo, is the one most modern readers tend to identify Hume with (although in a private letter to a friend he claimed to align himself with the more moderate Demea). I’ve grappled myself for a long time with the Dialogues, and I’ll just finish with the rhetorical flourish with which the very skeptic Philo ends his participation (I’m quoting from memory, as my copy of the book is not presently by my side): “nobody has a deeper recognition of the greatness of divinity than me. Nobody can be so fool as to deny a clear design, a clear purpose all around us”. Coming from the mouth of the avowed representative of the uttermost doubt, it is pretty significant, and in other writings I’ve vouched that it is the closest to his heart, truest declaration of what Hume actually believed (the passage is conveniently forgotten by the very numerous atheists that want to make good ‘ol David their patron saint, of course).

But of course, that would not be the last word about the plausibility of the argument from design, and little after Paley published its greatest defense the whole thing would be (now truly) obliterated by one of his countrymen, the notorious Charles Darwin. But how that come to be will be the subject of another post…

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