Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Messing around with proofs of God

Robert Spaemann
If they are proofs in the strict sense then they must fail due to circular reasoning, and if they comply with the laws of logic then they are not proofs but simple definitions. Just look at this one, given by Robert Spaemann, chief philosopher of the Vatican: "Truth exists, therefore God exists." I have come across this "proof" yesterday in a newspaper interview with Spaemann. It is a classical example of begging the question: The premise assumes that God is a prerequisite of truth. We see that thruth exists. The conclusion that God exists has already been set as a premise which is a logical fallacy. In other words, Spaemann assumes that God exists. Then he says he is ready to answer the question whether God exists or not exists. He begs that question in order to "prove" that God exists.

Just the same with Anselm of Canterbury's ontological proof: "God is the greatest being that can be conceived. The idea that God exists is possible. If we imagine a God existing only in our minds and a God that exists in reality, the latter will always be conceived greater than the former. Thus, the greatest possible God is the one that exists in reality. Therefore, God must exist." Again, we see a premise that God is the greatest being that can be conceived. Then we are told that it is possible to conceive such a greatest being. The conclusion is the same as the premise: a greatest being.

I admit that I cannot follow all the logical and mathematical steps in the so-called "proofs of God". It somehow reminds me of these math tricks where you have to guess a number, then follow a set of mathematical operations given by the presenter and then he will tell you the number you have guessed. You do not see at first sight that the trick formula is constructed in a way that it puts out exactly what has been put in.

Muddling around with definitions

Another group of so-called "proofs" are no more than definitions. For instance, the following cosmological argument: "The Universe has begun with the Big Bang. Big Bang has happened in reality. Every event must have at least one cause. So there must be a cause that has made Big Bang happen and that has brought the Universe into existence. This cause must be greater than anything we can conceive. It must be God."

So far so good. I can agree with every word of the above statement, I only have to look very closely at the last word. If the above is a stand-alone statement and does not refer to any religion, it can be viewed as a definition of God: God is the entity that has fueled Big Bang, maybe it is the Energy per se, and as such a part of the whole Universe. This definition will lead to a sort of pantheism. I am a bit hesitant in using the word God for the Big Bang causing entity, because this entity has nothing to do with the following ideas:

  • a “consciousness" or "intelligence" of the entity,
  • the likelihood that resurrection from the death has ever occurred or will ever occur,
  • an immortal soul,
  • behaviour of human beings being judged by the entity,
  • the entity as source of the holy scriptures,
  • etc.
Selective pressure

In my humble opinion, the question of God is not a matter of cosmology or astrophysics but of human psychology and the way our brain works. Religion is a coping mechanism that has evolved with our brain, and its main function may be to overcome cognitive dissonance. One such dissonance is the confrontation with our own death. As long as we are alive we see that the Universe exists, and it is just impossible that it should not exist. After our death, from our point of view, the Universe will disappear because we no longer will be able to perceive it. But in reality, the Universe will continue to exist. This contradiction is hard to stand, thus our brain must find solutions to cope. One such solution may be believing in an immortal soul who still will be able to perceive the Universe.

My first post about the evolution of religion deals with some of the raw materials that build up religious behaviour: Dreaming as an everyday experience of a "second world" and the behaviour of children who, when scared, search the protection of their powerful parents.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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