Sunday, January 13, 2008

On Proofs of God

This morning's New York Times Sunday Book Review includes a review of Temple University mathematician John Allen Poulus' new book, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up. In the book, Poulus takes on the traditional "proofs" of God and not surprisingly (since even most theologians share his view) finds them wanting.

The review argues that Poulus misses the point:


The classic arguments for the existence of God have few friends these days. Theologians scorn them, insisting that they “objectify” a Supreme Being that can be known only through self-revelation. Philosophers make a parlor game of dissecting their logic. (In the 1994 book “God and the Philosophers,” edited by Thomas V. Morris, none of the 20 philosophers who discussed their religious faith said they came to it through logic; typically, it was a matter of experiencing what they felt to be the love of God in their lives.) And ordinary believers have never heard of them.

Still, studying these arguments can pay big intellectual dividends. Take the cosmological argument, the first one Paulos considers. It goes something like this. The universe we live in seems contingent. Nothing about it suggests that it exists by its own nature. Therefore, if there is an explanation for the universe’s existence, that explanation must involve another kind of entity — one that does exist by its very nature. Call this entity “God.”

From that barest of sketches, it is obvious that the cosmological argument has some grave problems. For one thing, it takes for granted the dubious principle that everything has an explanation. For another, there is no reason to suppose that the self-existent entity it points to has any other divine attributes, like omniscience or benevolence. But grappling with its flawed logic has led to a deeper understanding of existence, causation, time and infinity.

Paulos misses most of that. Just when the going ought to get good, intellectually speaking, he bales out with a jokey allusion to self-fellating yogis. He has a similarly glib way with the other classic arguments for God’s existence. The ontological argument — which, in its most up-to-date version, involves a subtle analysis of how existence might be built into the very definition of being like a god — is “logical abracadabra.” The argument from design is a “creationist Ponzi scheme” that “quickly leads to metaphysical bankruptcy.” You wonder how such transparently silly arguments could have engaged serious thinkers from Descartes, Leibniz and Hegel to the present day.

. . .

Paulos concedes that, just as arguments for God’s existence are logically inconclusive, so too are arguments against God’s existence. That means that you can either believe or disbelieve without being convicted of stark irrationality. Similarly, Paulos’s fellow mathematicians can either believe that they are communing with a Platonic realm of perfect mathematical entities, or they can believe that they are playing a meaningless game with symbols on paper. Most mathematicians appear to be in the former camp. Is it wrong of them to hold this unexamined and (arguably) groundless faith if it helps them flourish in their mathematical lives?

The same pragmatic justification may apply to the many intellectuals I know who, despite the exertions of Paulos, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins et al., are serious about religion (usually, as it happens, either Catholicism or Judaism). But I sometimes wonder whether they’re not a little like the physicist Niels Bohr, who (the story goes) nailed a horseshoe above his office door for good luck. “You don’t really believe in that stuff, do you?” a colleague asked him one day. To which Bohr responded, “No, but I’ve heard it works even for people who don’t believe.”


Read it all here.

I think this review comes fairly close to the views of Christians, like myself, who are willing to accept the teachings of science, yet still believe in God. In the end, given that science and rationality can neither prove nor disprove our faith, I think that our differences with our modern atheist and agnostic friends is caused by a different world view--and that world view is the result of personal experience and not reasoning.

I have a world view that what we can detect with our senses is not all that there may be. Like the philosophers questioned by Thomas Morris, for me this acceptance of the possibility of a God was largely the result of a sense of a loving God active in my own life. Could this be nothing more than some unexplained brain chemistry or the misfiring of a few of my synapses? Perhaps. But like the Platonic mathematician, my life is richer for my belief, and (in my view at least), I am a better person because of my belief. So why change?

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