“…let us call this entity God”

tl;dr summary: a ranty rant about theology.

There’s yet another little kerfuffle on the net. The story so far:

Before you do anything, you should read The Courtier’s Reply if you haven’t already.

But back to the present. Jerry Coyne is studying theology, because he wants to be able to respond to those who say that atheists ignore “sophisticated theology”. Summary: he is unimpressed.

Edward Feser, a theologian, gets upset and posts an imaginary dialog in which, instead of a theist and an atheist, he casts a scientist and a skeptic, a flight of fancy that sounds nothing at all like what scientists say.

Jerry Coyne replies.

Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog posts Where Can I Find the Really Good Theology? Part One, in which he summarizes the situation so far, and adds some thoughts of his own.

vjtorley at Uncommon Descent posts a reply to Rosenhouse, No good theology, you say? Oh yes there is!, which is where I came in.

Jason Rosenhouse posts Where Can I Find the Really Good Theology? Part Two.

Feser follows up with two more posts, Tom and Jerry and So you think you understand the cosmological argument? to reply to Coyne.

which brings us up to date. I think.

This is a huge mess, so let me just jump into the middle. After going on for a few pages Feser writes:

Traditionally, the central argument for God’s existence is the cosmological argument, and (also traditionally) the most important versions of that argument are the ones summed up in the first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways.  But the typical modern reader is simply not going to understand the Five Ways just by reading the usual two-page excerpt one finds in anthologies. For one thing, the arguments were never intended to be stand-alone, one-stop proofs that would convince even the most hardened skeptic.  They are only meant to be brief sketches of arguments the more detailed versions of which the intended readers of Aquinas’s day would have found elsewhere.  For another thing, the terminology and argumentative moves presuppose a number of metaphysical theses that Aquinas also develops and defends elsewhere.

So, to understand the Five Ways, the modern reader needs to read something that makes all this background clear, that explains how modern Thomists would reply to the stock objections to the arguments, and so forth. […]

After Aquinas’s versions of the cosmological argument, the next most important argument for God’s existence is the kalām cosmological argument.

This is what you might call the meta-courtier’s reply: yes, you may have studied a few points of Sophisticated Theology™ and found them wanting, but you haven’t read the things that make this argument not be stupid, so go read this library, and come back when you’re done. I see this a lot. And given how much Sophisticated Theology™ there is, there’s no end to it.

I’ll say this again because apparently seven hundred thousand times isn’t enough: the burden of proof is on the theists. It’s not up to atheists to demonstrate that there aren’t any gods; it’s theists’ job to show that there are. If we atheists aren’t convinced because theists use shitty arguments, then stop using shitty arguments. If you think your arguments aren’t shitty, then come up with a way of presenting them in a way that doesn’t make them sound shitty. Also, my time is worth something, so don’t waste it.

I realize that not everyone can write clearly. But some people can, and some of them must have written understandable versions of theistic arguments. So where is theology’s version of Carl Sagan, or Stephen Jay Gould, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Neil Shubin, or Steven Pinker, or Sean Carroll, or Sean B. Carroll?

Or is it, to borrow a line from Robert Price, that to explain apologetics is to refute it? Because that’s what it looks like.

Note, too, the numerous references to Aquinas, as if a guy who died over seven hundred years ago had the last word on the subject.

Okay, here’s another thing that apparently needs to be said again: I don’t give a rat’s ass whose argument it is, or who’s making it. I don’t care whether it’s Aquinas, or Gautama, or your sister’s dentist’s pizza delivery guy, or “Anonymous #3” on some obscure site. The argument should stand or fall on its own.

This is somewhat related to what I said above, and to Feser’s complaint that a lot of people, including people in the pews, run-of-the-mill pastors, and even philosophers whose focus isn’t Aquinas don’t understand Sophisticated Theology™ arguments.

So explain them better.

Don’t blame us because you haven’t managed to make yourselves understood. Work on explaining better. If you need help, there are books and classes and workshops on how to write. Heck, try giving a talk on Sophisticated Theology™ at your local church or library, and see what kinds of questions and problems arise when you explain sophisticated concepts to lay crowds. Oh, and by the way, you can stop propping up Aquinas’s corpse (or at least those remains that haven’t been sold off as relics) every fifteen seconds. If the arguments, refutations, counter-arguments, and counter-refutations have honed and refined the original argument, then just present the current versions of the arguments. The whole argumentum ad dead guy is getting pretty old.

But, as Coyne says, and I’ve pointed out before, theologians are very fond of bafflegab, which lends weight to the idea that all they’re doing is waving their hands hard enough to raise a dust cloud that’ll hopefully hide the fact that there’s no there there.

If you can still be bothered to scroll up, you’ll see that Feser likes the Cosmological argument or first-cause argument. It’s sometimes presented as

  1. Everything has a cause.
  2. So if you follow the chain of events in the universe backward, you have to arrive at an uncaused cause, which we’ll call God.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This has the pretty glaring flaw that it says both a) everything has a cause, and b) not everything has a cause. Feser goes off on a multi-page rant about how this is a strawman argument that nobody actually buys, before telling us

What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause.

so I guess the argument should be restated as

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. If you follow the chain of causality backward, you arrive at something that didn’t begin to exist, so the chain of causality can stop.
  3. Let’s call this thing “God”.
  4. Therefore, God exists.

This comes with its own raft of problems. For one thing, how do you know that God didn’t begin to exist? If the word “God” refers to something real out there, and has been observed to be eternal, then presumably its existence has already been established, so there’s no need for the cosmological argument. Or is it a matter of defining “God” as eternal? Because if so, the argument is notable for what it doesn’t say about “God”:

  • It doesn’t say that God is a triune figure comprising a father, a son, and a holy ghost.
  • It doesn’t say that God is a bearded man in the sky.
  • It doesn’t say that God listens to prayers.
  • It doesn’t say that God came to save humanity from its sins.
  • It doesn’t say that God has ever interacted with humans.
  • It doesn’t say that God cares about humans, or about the universe.
  • It doesn’t say that there’s only one God.
  • It doesn’t say that God is good.
  • It doesn’t say that God has any cognitive faculties.
  • It doesn’t say that God wants anything, or is even capable of wanting anything.
  • It doesn’t say that God still exists.
  • It doesn’t say that God isn’t, say, a subatomic particle in a metaverse with no time-like dimensions; or something like a mathematical theorem.

But when you say “God”, that’s the sort of thing people are going to hear. I mean, I could just as easily replace “God” with “Bigfoot” in the argument above and claim to have demonstrated the existence of Bigfoot, but then most people would think I’d bagged an ape in the Pacific northwest.

Feser has a response to this (look for point 4), but it boils down to “the answer is in that library over there. Come back when you’ve read it.” He makes no attempt to actually address the issue. It’s a snipe hunt argument: “there’s a perfectly good answer to your objection, but I don’t have it. It’s over there somewhere.”

Now, I’ve used the phrase “let’s call this entity ‘God’” several times, including in the title, because crops up all over the place, and it’s beginning to really get up my nose. In his list of “Good theology” papers, Torley lists A New Look at the Cosmological Argument by Robert C. Koons. There, we find:

I presume that every fact includes at least one being and at least one property of that being. In addition, I assume that a being cannot be involved in an actual fact without actually existing. Hence, a necessary fact entails the necessary existence of some being (or system of beings), which we might as well call God.

No. Stop. You may not call this being “God”. You can call it X, or The Necessary Being, or Fred, but you may not call it “God”. That word’s already taken, it has a lot of cultural baggage associated with it, and using a loaded term like that is bound to cause confusion. Hell, even physicists figured out a long time ago that referring to a property of the electron as “spin” gives a false impression of what it does, because people think they know what “spin” means, and started coming up with names like “strangeness” and “charm”.

Until you demonstrate that the first cause or prime mover or that-greater-than-which-nothing-can-be-imagined actually has an effect on the universe; gives two shits about whether the planet Earth is vaporized by a stray gamma ray burst (to say nothing of caring who puts whose dick where); will let people hang out with it after they’re dead; consciously decided to build a universe for the purpose of housing intelligent beings; has a jolly good system of morality that we ought to follow… until you demonstrate these things, you can say that you’ve demonstrated the existence of Fred, but don’t fucking go around calling it “God”.

When so many people use that construction, it really gives the impression that theologians are just making shit up as they go along; that they can’t actually point to any real phenomena that need to be explained by the kind of magic man that the Bible/Quran/Vedas/$HOLY_BOOK describe, and are just casting about for some gap in our knowledge, or some phenomenon to which the all-important word “God” can be applied.

I’m imagining a physicist arguing thusly:

  1. When I came in this morning, I put my lunch in the fridge.
  2. But now, it’s gone.
  3. Therefore, my lunch must have been removed by some entity capable of transporting macroscopic masses from one point to another.
  4. Let’s call this entity “the Higgs boson”.
  5. Go to Stockholm to collect Nobel prize.

But of course this wouldn’t fly because “Higgs boson” has a well-defined meaning in physics, with well-known properties, and being able to steal someone’s lunch isn’t one of them.

The word “God”, on the other hand, means whatever the author wants it to mean at any given time. It can mean “love”, or “creator of the universe”, or “designer of living beings” or “undead Jewish carpenter”.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

— Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

So maybe “God” really means “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you”.

At any rate, I’m done with according theology any kind of respect. At least until someone manages to show me that it’s an actual ology, that it studies something real.

Because if all we need is a source of unintelligible pompous logorrhea, well, that’s what we’ve got postmodernists for. And they’re already used to being made fun of by a lay public that doesn’t understand them. So they’re just like theologians, but more convenient.

2 thoughts on ““…let us call this entity God””

  1. Because if all we need is a source of unintelligible pompous logorrhea, well, that’s what we’ve got postmodernists for. And they’re already used to being made fun of by a lay public that doesn’t understand them. So they’re just like theologians, but more convenient.

    I’m sorry but this claim cannot go undisputed. Postmodernists do not ring my doorbell or interrupt my household maintenance duties to engage me in extended dialog about the real meaning of truth. I am not currently able to travel less than 10 blocks in any randomly selected direction and enter a tax free House of Postmodernism for a chit chat and perhaps some coffee. Unless and until postmodernists are accorded the same rights, considerations, and access as theologians they cannot in any way, shape, or form be considered equals of convenience.


    1. To be fair, it’s not the Sophisticated Theologians™ who wake you up on Saturday mornings, is it? Rather, it’s the unsophisticated hoi polloi, the ones with antiquated notions of God as hairy thunderer who answers prayers for rain and economic recovery, rather than “ground of all being” or whatever it is these days.

      Other than that, if I understand you correctly, you’re calling for coffee houses to be tax-exempt, to support the noble institution of pomo hipsters holding court there on abstruse subjects.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: