Monday, June 25, 2007

God, Fish and Me

Last week, I approvingly quote from Stanley Fish's ongoing "philosophic defense of religion" series, now playing in a New York Times near you. Yesterday, Fish fired his latest salvo against Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, in an attempt to undermine the atheist argument that "religion is manmade, ergo, religion is not divine."

Fish begins by conceding what to some may seem like a pretty important point: yes, religion is indeed man-made. Indeed, Fish -- implicitly if not explicitly -- even concedes that our religious texts are riddled with errors, "corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today . . . ." He's describing the atheists' argument, of course, but he doesn't really refute this point. Instead, far from undermining the existence of god, Fish stresses that this is "exactly what you would expect," because:

"It is God (if there is one) who is perfect and infinite; men are finite and confined within historical perspectives. And any effort to apprehend him – including the efforts of the compilers of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran – will necessarily fall short of a transparency that will be achieved (if it is achieved) only at a future moment of beatific vision."

Let us pause for a moment to appreciate what Fish is saying, and the implications that follow from his argument. Man is less than perfect; god is perfect. Therefore, any understanding we think we have of god must be, by definition, less than perfect. Although Fish never comes right out and says it, religious fundamentalism is destroyed by this argument: the Bible (or Koran, or the canon of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) cannot be the literal word of god because it has been touched, created, and perceived by man. So we should be clear just how lukewarm a defense this really is: Fish is not defending any religious conception of god -- nor could he, given the "imperfect" access we have to god -- but instead defending the philosophical concept of god.

What does that mean, "philosophic" concept of god? Here we are talking not about the god of the Old Testament, who spoke and interacted with various lucky Jews in Palestine, or the Allah who decided to chat with Muhammed and told him that women shouldn't be allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia in 2007. No, this is a god who -- by definition! -- we cannot "measure":

If divinity, by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of God be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him.

Proving the existence of God would be possible only if God were an item in his own field; that is, if he were the kind of object that could be brought into view by a very large telescope or an incredibly powerful microscope. God, however – again if there is a God – is not in the world; the world is in him; and therefore there is no perspective, however technologically sophisticated, from which he could be spied. As that which encompasses everything, he cannot be discerned by anything or anyone because there is no possibility of achieving the requisite distance from his presence that discerning him would require.

The criticism made by atheists that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a God whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a God; he would just be another object in the field of human vision.

So, to recap: man has an imperfect understanding of god; god cannot be measured; god's existence cannot be demonstrated or proved (indeed, to even try would be pointless); god is not in the world; he cannot be spied upon; all we know is, god is "that which encompasses everything."

Now, an atheist could try to refute this argument, but why bother? I submit that the god that Fish is defending is utterly unrecognizable to anyone who actually "believes" in the existence of a capital-G God. No, the god Fish has described sounds much like the pantheist Baruch Spinoza's god, a god who exists in everything but does nothing -- we could modernize this concept by calling it the "quark god." Sure, there may be quark god, but since it seems quite content to let the universe play itself out by measurable -- albeit confusing and not-yet harmonized -- physical laws, we can safely ignore the quark god and keep busy with the business of science, which allows for "measurement" of things like atoms, cells, planets, galaxies, just about everything that's worth studying.

What we've arrived at here is the argument I've been hinting at. Atheists should get out of the business of trying to scientifically disprove god's existence (I'm with Fish on this point). What we should be doing instead is trying to show how impoverished god-worship -- whether it be in the form of Pentacostal tongue-speaking or philosophic quark-god -- is in comparison to the pursuit of knowledge of things that are measurable.


Blogger John said...

I think your argument is in danger of resting on unstable ground. Lots of things worth studying cannot be scientifically measured or proven. There's a whole university system dedicated to their study... they're called Liberal Arts, or sometimes Humanities. They include art, literature, and (I think) even ethics and law.

Would you say that a legal argument between two law professors is hogwash simply because neither perspective was scientifically provable? Similarly, two theologians debating a point of religous ethics aren't necessarily wasting their time just because the object of their study isn't scientific.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

I think art, literature, ethics, and law are all worthy subjects of study, even though -- as you rightly point out -- they cannot be "proven" in the strict scientific sense. What I am arguing is that Fish's conception of god is not one that is worthy of study, since the god he postulates is "unstudy"-able. In contrast, theologians who debate religious ethics think they can access the mind of god accurately.

To use your example: a legal argument between two law professors is not "hogwash" because the consequence of winning (or losing) the argument is real, tangible and important (e.g., John Yoo arguing that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to "enemy combatants.") You can't have a similar discussion about the god that Fish is describing: that god is, by definition, unmeasurable and perfect, whereas we humans are imperfect. So the discussion can't go anywhere.

Now, you can -- as I think most religious people do -- abandon the concept of quark god,and instead make very real claims about a particular capital-G God. But once you've done that, you leave yourself vulnerable to attach that the foundation of your capital-G God is based on flawed, mistaken and often invented texts.

12:05 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Attack, not attach.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

John, your excellent point still has me thinking, and I have more to say about theology. A couple of years ago, I gave my girlfriend the complete annotated Sherlock Holmes collection for her birthday. In doing so, I discovered that there exists a huge group of people around the world who treat the Sherlock Holmes stories as entirely real, and attempt to "harmonize" inconsistencies within the Holmes' canon. (For example, in one of the early stories, Dickens gave Dr. Watson's wife a certain name that was later changed to something else. I'm not kidding when I say hundreds of essays have been written about this.)

Obviously, these attempts are made by people who must, at some level, realize they are trying to fix random mistakes by a fallible author who had no idea his stories would become so popular, and thus had no interest in logical consistency. (Think: Stardates!) Nonetheless, the study of Holmes and these attempts at harmonization are clever, thought provoking, interesting -- in short, they represent genuine scholarship.

So too, in my mind, is theology. Theologians study a "canon" of work intensively, debate it, think deeply about it, and the result of these efforts contribute to human understanding. But that does not make their claims about the capital-T Truth of their object of study valid.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad Fish’s articles are “Times Select” – sounds like an interesting read. Care to pass ‘em on?

From what you’ve posted, sounds like Fish is largely recapitulating what Baha’is teach, as well as some schools of Sufism.

I don’t see any conflict between what Ben wrote and John’s response; both of you seem to be saying that science alone is not sufficient to settle things. By training, I am a scientist and I am in complete agreement.

In science, a statement (theory/hypothesis) is meaningless unless one can specify what would disprove the statement. One can test some specific religious claims (the universe is not six thousand years old, there is no genetic evidence that any “lost tribes of Israel” made it to the Americas after the biblical flood, Joshua didn’t fight the battle of Jericho, and so on) but any theological claim about a divine being initiating the Big Bang is beyond testing. (Godel’s Theorem implies that what we can learn is an infinite series and that there is no final answer.)

Ben wrote: “What we should be doing instead is trying to show how impoverished god-worship ... is in comparison to the pursuit of knowledge of things that are measurable.” No matter how sympathetic I may be to this view, I doubt it has much relevance because it implies that the issues are strictly epistemological. We can define and list a host of differences between atheism, god, and God, but, it seems to me that they distill down to one fundamental difference: survival of the individual personality after death. Belief in God provides an emotional reassurance about survival after death that neither atheism or god provides. It may be wrong but there is no denying that it is powerful and it’s not something most people can or want to give up.

-- Big Daddy

12:55 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I'll send you a private email BD with some of the information you seek.

It's my impression that most people in Western Europe today -- with the exception of Muslim immigrants -- do not believe in God, and there is virtually no one who holds a "fundamentalist" conception of him/her/it. Obviously, the situation is much bleaker here in the U.S. So, somewhere and somehow, the "emotional reassurance" that god provides stopped being all that important to Europeans in their daily lives. So I do not, repeat not, take religion as an inevitability of human experience who's omnispresence must be assumed.

The question is how to take the ground back. I think Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are doing admirable work, but mostly they fire up the converted (e.g. me). I'm trying to find ways to appeal to those who think differenrly. No easy task -- it's nice to have a death blanket, as you point out -- but not impossible, either. One blog post at a time...

1:53 PM  
Blogger AJH said...

Religion poses a danger to our very existence, especially where it is controlled by fanatics who believe that concerns about an after-life must dictate our actions in this world. Good people need to stop them from killing the rest of us along with them. Let's not waste time arguing about how many atheists can dance on the head of a pin. We should work together to ensure that religion is not the basis for public policy decisions. It can be practiced in the privacy of one's home and church – not in legislatures and the White House. When people want to invoke God to legislate, they carry a heavy burden to prove his existence and his exact intentions. I suggest we simply agree on that basic point.

6:27 PM  
Blogger John said...

Ajh... wow, what an interesting point... "When people want to invoke God to legislate, they carry a heavy burden to prove his existence and his exact intentions."

I hadn't considered that angle... but I wholeheartedly agree.

12:44 PM  

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