Sunday, 5 August 2007

The Meaning Of Propositions and The Existence of God

Meaningful propositions claim to say something about the way the world is. They make predictions about how things are. Take the proposition "I own a guitar." That proposition suggests that you could find a guitar in my house, perhaps a receipt for one or tablature or chord books, you could ask the guy in the music shop and he would tell you I'd bought one, etc. These pieces of evidence would suggest that the proposition "I own a guitar" is true. On the contrary, if you failed to find any evidence for the fact that I owned a guitar, you'd probably conclude the proposition to be false.

What of meaningless propositions? A meaningless proposition is a proposition that does not make a prediction about the way things are. If there is no way at all to provide any evidence for or against a proposition, then it is effectively a meaningless one, because it makes no difference whether it is true or false. A famous philosophical example of this is the "parable", if you like, of the "Invisible Gardener." It goes rather like this:
Two men are sitting, watching a garden. They have been watching it for a while, and have seen no gardener tending the plants. One man says to the other, "That would suggest that there is no gardener who tends this garden." The other man replies, "Ah, but it could be an invisible, intangible gardener."
The point of this demonstration is to show that the idea of an invisible, intangible gardener is not any different from no gardener at all, because the idea of an invisible gardener fails to make any predictions about reality. Thus, it doesn't actually matter if there is no gardener or an invisible one, because there is no difference.

What then, of God? The proposition "God Exists", what does that predict about reality? Here are some things that one would expect to observe if theism was true:
  • Miracles happening only to believers that cannot be explained in any other manner, like amputees regrowing limbs, or Mount Everest moving 2000 miles away spontaneously, "Jesus lives" or "Muhammad is the true prophet" written in the sky, nonburnable or undefacable Bibles or Torahs etc.
  • Prayer being effective.
  • Good things happening to good people; bad things happening to bad people(ie. accurate smiting, rather than just indiscriminate viruses or natural disasters).
  • No unnecessary suffering.
  • An anthropocentric universe, with a spontaneous creation.
  • Perfect and wonderfully inspiring holy book(s).

These are just a few things we might expect to see if God(in any theistic sense, at least) exists.

However, we actually see:

  • The only miracles that happen are ambiguous, rare and can be accounted for my nature.
  • Prayer doesn't work unless it is a coincidence.
  • So-called examples of God's wrath are indiscriminate, and many good people suffer horribly.
  • Unnecessary suffering occurs, such as victims of an incurable disease, or children dying because there wasn't enough water in a village etc.
  • The universe is huge and has very little to do with humanity, who came about through the messy process of evolution over millions of years.
  • Holy books are often littered with things like racism and violence. It would be unfair to say there is nothing good or inspiring in them(eg. Ecclesiastes is a great Biblical book) but one gets the impression that an omnipotent deity could have done better. Not to mention the factual inaccuracy of certain claims made in holy books.

This lack of evidence for God's existence suggests that he doesn't exist. It leads many religious people to either:

1. Say that science can say nothing about the divine; or

2. That, in fact, we don't have to observe any of those things to believe God exists; or

3. Define God in some Theological way, such as "God is the power of all Being", or "God is the spirit of love" or something equally vague.

But don't all these "options" lead into the trap of claiming that God is a meaningless proposition? 1, otherwise known as N[on]O[verlapping]MA[gisteria], claims that we can never say anything about God's exists using science. I believe this to be misguided, because if we can ask questions about what we would expect to observe if something is true that is some form of science. And obviously, with the existence of the theistic God, we can do this. I just did it above. Of course, you may want to claim that science cannot prove or disprove the divine--but that is a different claim altogether from the claim that science can say nothing about the existence of God. I would agree with the person who says science cannot disprove the divine. This is because the next observation we make on any scientific theory could technically disprove the theory--the next ball we drop could refuse to fall to the ground. The same with God; the next observation we make could be a Bible that refuses to be defaced when some atheist tries to write sarcastic comments in the margins. Moving back to the idea of a meaningless proposition, if no evidence can be used either way to decide the question of God, if the idea of a God can make no predictions about the universe, as NOMA would have it, "God exists" doesn't mean anything.

2 is better known as the method of faith. Of course, the method of believing without evidence is not considered to be a good idea. Believing with evidence to the contrary, like the observations I made above, is even worse. It may be acceptable to tentatively accept a scientific claim over another before the evidence is completely in. But when the evidence has ruled against you, it is irrational to continue to hold to that position. 2 is saying that observations about the universe aren't important in deciding what is true. But if we cannot observe effects of something, it may as well not exist.

3 is the obfuscations of theologians, rather than a claim made by average religious believers. This is just a way of accounting for the observations I made above. How exactly, though, to we show that "the power of being" exists? What effects does that have on reality, and how can we observe them?

Thus, my conclusion is thus: either you refuse to let your proposition of "God exists" make predictions about reality, and thus make it rather meaningless to believe; or you are open to evidence and let your proposition be confirmed or disconfirmed by the evidence.

1 comment:

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