Thursday, August 18, 2005

Didactic Dialogue on God

Here I post an exchange I had this past Spring with a committed unbeliever.

Non-believer: “I don't know there is no god, just as you don't know there is one. My argument also includes the notion that I don't really care if there is or there isn't a god. I do know there is no god of the bible because that story is full of crap.”

Christian Believer: Now we're getting somewhere. You are correct in that I don't know there is a God to the extent that I can give you an irrefutable empirical or logical proof that God IS. Neither can you give me an irrefutable proof, logical or empirical, that God Isn’t. This is not to say that empirical evidence cannot be interpreted in a scientifically respectable way to support the proposition God IS. Or that there aren't valid logical proofs that God IS. Making a logically valid argument a good argument (i.e., one that is also true) depends on the truthfulness of premises. Knowing, however, cannot be restricted to being empirically proven. After all, Hume, who tried to show that all knowledge-properly called- is rooted in sensory experience, has been convincingly refuted. Such a contention is far too restrictive and eliminates many things we would agree that we know. Knowledge, on a general epistemological view, consists of justified, true, beliefs. Obviously in such a schema most of the weight is put on justifying beliefs. Showing that beliefs (which constitute the radically subjective component of the schema- i.e., one can believe anything)are not at odds with how we know the world to be scientifically, goes a long way towards giving these beliefs a greater probability of being true. Getting back to the point, for the reason you mention, belief in God is called faith. There are proofs, of course, for God's existence. Now such "proofs" (I'm thinking here of Aquinas' five classical arguments and Anselm's ontological proof) are philosophical proofs, more accurately called arguments in favor of God's existence. Aquinas' V ways:

I) Argument From Motion: St. Thomas Aquinas, studying the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, concluded from common observation that an object that is in motion (e.g. the planets, a rolling stone) is put in motion by some other object or force. From this, Aquinas believes that ultimately there must have been an UNMOVED MOVER who first put things in motion. Follow the argument this way:1) Nothing can move itself.2) If every object in motion had a mover, then the first object in motion needed a mover.3) This first mover is the Unmoved Mover.

II) Causation Of Existence: This argument deals with the issue of existence. Aquinas concluded that common sense observation tells us that no object creates itself. In other words, some previous object had to create it. Aquinas believed that ultimately there must have been an UNCAUSED FIRST CAUSE who began the chain of existence for all things. Follow the argumentthis way: 1) There exists things that are caused (created) by other things.2) Nothing can be the cause of itself (nothing can create itself.)3) There can not be an endless string of objects causing other objects to exist.4) Therefore, there must be an uncaused first cause.

III) Contingent and Necessary Objects: This Way defines two types of objects in the universe: contingent beings and necessary beings. A contingent being is an object that can not exist without a necessary being causing its existence. Aquinas believed that the existence of contingent beings would ultimately necessitate a being which must exist for all of the contingent beings to exist. This being, called a necessary being, is what we call God.Follow the argument this way:1) Contingent beings are caused.2) Not every being can be contingent.3) There must exist a being which is necessary to cause contingent beings.4) This necessary being is God.

IV) Argument From Degrees And Perfection: St. Thomas formulated this Way from a very interesting observation about the qualities of things. For example one may say that of two marble sculptures one is more beautiful than the other. So for these two objects, one has a greater degree of beauty than the next. Thisis referred to as degrees or gradation of a quality. From this fact Aquinas concluded that for any given quality (e.g. goodness, beauty, knowledge) there must be an perfect standard by which all such qualities are measured. These perfections are contained in God.

V) The Argument From Intelligent Design: The final Way that St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of has to do with the observable universe and the order of nature. Aquinas states that common sense tells us that the universe works in such a way, that one can conclude that is was designed by an intelligent designer, God. In other words, all physical laws and the order of nature and life were designed and ordered by God, the intelligent designer.

St. Anselm's Ontological Argument Point By Point: 1) God is defined as the being in which none greater is possible.2) It is true that the notion of God exists in the understanding (your mind.) 3) And that God may exist in reality (God is a possible being.) 4) If God only exists in the mind, and may have existed, then God might have been greater than He is. 5) Then, God might have been greater than He is (if He existed in reality.) 6) Therefore, God is a being which a greater is possible. 7) This is not possible, for God is a being in which a greater is impossible. 8) Therefore God exists in reality as well as the mind.

The God question is so important that complacency, and suspicion are not reasonable responses. Beyond all this, most believers in the God of Israel-in addition to the sound intellectual basis for our faith, know God on an experiential level because God wants us to know Him.

Non-believer: “Yes, that is exactly what cannot be interpreted by any science available today.”

Christian Believer: And how do you know this? According to your own highly restrictive way of knowing, you would have had to be there to know whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not. Were you? There were eyewitnesses to Jesus' resurrection. Furthermore, they wrote down their testimonies, spoke of their experience, etc. So powerful was their testimony that it is believed today. Not believed only, but the resurrected and living Jesus is directly experienced by people by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is nothing but the mode of Christ's resurrection presence. Besides your argument contra Jesus' resurrection is fallacious. You argue that Jesus wasn't raised from the dead because dead people don't come back to life. This is a classic case of petitio principii, or begging the question. Begging the question consists of assuming the truth of the conclusion in the premises of an argument.

It will certainly take more than you contradicting what the witnesses who, in the words of St. John, "have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed, and have touched with our hands" (1 Jn 1:1). Peter in Acts 2:32 says: "God has resurrected this Jesus. We are all witnesses of this." St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 "For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time, most of whom remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He also appeared to me."

Non-believer: “I didn't need to be there. Dead people don't rise up. Either it's a big lie, or jesus never died in the first place, in which case, it's still a big lie. You're arguments are hollow. The witnesses were fabricated and the event documented several years later. That people believe such nonsense is understandable. The whole religion was based on that one goofy promise, that jesus rose up and you can too, just $49.95 a month.”

Christian Believer: Let me put it more straightforwardly: Science has not disproven God. Furthermore, scientific evidence, interpreted according to legitimate scientific standards, lends credence to (it does not prove) belief in God (i.e., it makes belief in God more epistemically justifiable). It is important to point out that one cannot legitimately, on the basis of science alone, arrive at sweeping metaphysical conclusions (i.e., God IS; God isn’t). Whereas, on the basis of science alone, one can eliminate certain religious beliefs from serious consideration (i.e., the earth is considerably older than 4,000 years). Certainly arguments, like those of Aquinas, must take into account what we know (beliefs that are justified and, therefore, as far as we can tell, true) through scientific discovery.

Non-Believer:: "I didn't need to be there. Dead people don't rise up."

Christian Believer: Your persistence in using an argument proven to be fallacious puts you squarely in the camp of the unreasonable who persist in their beliefs despite being proven wrong. I think discussion has to end here.

Non-Believer: Yes, that is exactly what cannot be interpreted by any science available today.

Christian Believer: Quite apart from your argument, which, if framed properly, could avoid being fallacious, is the assertion of Christians that Jesus did rise from the dead. According to Christian belief he is the first person to be resurrected. So, at least to this point, Jesus' resurrection is a unique event. So, the argument you have to make is against the eye-witness testimonies of Jesus Christ being raised from the dead. Your assertion, 2,000+ years after the written testimony, does no damage to the testimony.

Again, science is incapable of proving or disproving whether God IS. Such an assertion is properly called metaphysical for the very reason that it transcends, is over and above and outside, the scope of science.

My house of faith is built on the Rock. Faith and reason are not only compatible; they are complementary- they aid each other. Believing there is no God is just as much an act of faith as believing there is one.

Christian Believer: I wrote previously: "You are correct in that I don't know there is a God to the extent that I can give you an irrefutable empirical or logical proof that God IS. Neither can you give me an irrefutable proof, logical or empirical, that God isn’t."The fact that proving or disproving God IS is outside the scope of science is obvious and something to which I have responded. Let's look at the other assertion regarding logic. In doing so I'll stick with elementary informal logic and not belabor the point too much. The argument properly formed would go something like this:-Premise 1- Human beings die-Premise 2-Human beings once dead do not come alive again-Premise 3-Jesus was a human being (setting aside for a moment any objections that Jesus actually existed)-Conclusion: Therefore, Jesus did not rise from the dead.
Nothing formally wrong there. The response would look something like this:-Premise 1- With God nothing is impossible-Premise 2- God can raise human beings from the dead-Premise 3- In addition to being human, Jesus is also God. Conclusion- Because Jesus, in addition to being human, is God it is possible that he was raised from the dead after His crucifixion. We can trade valid logical arguments like these all day. What is important is the truthfulness of premises. Such an inquiry leads us, initially, back to the question of God's Being. Even if we were to say that human beings that did not exist cannot be raised from the dead and that Jesus did not exist. Therefore, Jesus was not raised from the dead. We are back to truthfulness of premises (i.e., proving Jesus' historical existence. This is really no problem if we take how we know other ancient figures as a starting point).

As to the assertion that there is no need to disprove God because God hasn't been proven is nothing but an instance of Descartes' method of doubt. Adherents to this method hold that nothing is to be believed unless it can be proven with certainty- that is irrefutably. Well, Descartes could prove that he existed, even if only as a mind under the influence of an evil genius. Beyond that he came up empty. Descartes, of course, did not believe that he was a mind under the influence of evil genius. But, he could not move beyond solipsism by employing his own method. In other words, he could not prove by means of his method that everything he experienced, including other people, the existence of an external world- a world independent of his own mind. Such is a recipé for evil and insanity.

Christian Believer: Of course it is a matter of faith as to whether Jesus was raised from the dead. The most compelling evidence a Christian has of Jesus' being alive is her/his personal encounter with the resurrected and living Lord. Beyond that the continuous testimony of the community of believers going all the way back to those who were eye-witnesses helps put them on solid epistemic ground. The most compelling evidence a Christian can give that s/he has encountered the resurrected and living Lord is how s/he follows Christ and is Christ-like. Of course, this something at which all disciples of Jesus fail, myself included. To cut to the chase, the grounds for Christian belief are epistemologically sound. In other words, fundamental Christian beliefs are justifiable on reasonable grounds. Reason alone, however, will never be compelling enough for a person to become a Christian.

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