Archives for posts with tag: incoherence

Richard Dawkins claims in The God Delusion (p. 137) that “there almost certainly is no God”. This is false and misleading. We can deny the existence of the God of Judaism, Islam and Christianity with one hundred percent confidence.

“How can you say that? You don’t know everything!”

What a strange thing to say. I have never claimed to know everything. I’m not sure the idea even makes any sense.

“The point is, you could be wrong about how the world works.”

I’m sure I am. Sooner or later something I observe will force me to adjust one or more of my ideas about how the world works. It could happen today. It could happen many times today. But what I observe will certainly not be the God of Abraham.

I know this first of all because the Christian God is unobservable. At least, that’s what everyone answers, when we ask why it’s never observed.

But there is a more important reason that God can’t pop up and let all of us know that we were wrong: the definition of God is incoherent. This means that God cannot exist, by definition.

Richard Swinburne, a highly respected theologian, writes (The Coherence of Theism, 1993, page 1) that a theist is

a man who believes that there is a God. By a ‘God’ he understands something like a ‘person without a body (i.e., a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe’. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all in the above sense theists.

Swinburne follows millennia of mainstream monotheism in saying that God is omnipotent and perfectly good. But the Euthyphro argument and the problem of evil show that this does not make sense. Omnipotence and omnibenevolence are mutually exclusive. (In fact, each one is probably incoherent all by itself.) Therefore, his definition is logically incoherent. It follows with logical certainty that his God, the God of mainstream Judaism, Islam and Christianity, cannot exist. There is no almost.

By the way, ‘logically incoherent’ does not mean ‘disputable on semantic terms if you have a degree in philosophy’. It means, ‘doesn’t make sense’.

Imagine that someone tells you of an object that is “perfectly round and perfectly square.” If you accept the claim that the object is ‘perfectly round’, it becomes impossible to understand the claim that it’s ‘perfectly square’; and vice versa. An object can’t be both those things. Why? Because of what the words ’round’ and ‘square’ mean! It’s that simple, and that certain.

Dawkins’s “almost” is much too weak. We know for a fact that the traditional God of monotheism cannot possibly exist. We have merely to look unflinchingly at the concepts included in its definition. ‘Perfectly good’ and ‘perfectly capable’ contradict each other, as surely (though not as obviously) as ’round’ and ‘square’. Therefore, the definition of God fails to make sense. The atheist has no need to disprove it, because the existence of God has never even been coherently proposed.

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Starting around 2:16 in this excerpt from The Atheism Tapes, Jonathan Miller and Daniel Dennett are talking about people who profess to believe in an “immaterial soul” that goes on after the death of the “physical body”.

Jonathan Miller says:

I find it very hard to see how they can actually formulate or conceive the notion of an immaterial continuity of an unembodied self – of how it would know that it was in fact the thing that had once been the embodied person, with a particular name, with particular projects. It’s always seemed to me that the notion of projects, and trajectories, and hopes and plans and so forth, are all tied up with being embodied.

Daniel Dennett says:

Yes, and I think that everybody cheats when they think about this. I mean in the way that scientists cheat too, when they imagine hard-to-imagine things. So people, when they imagine an immaterial soul – they don’t! They imagine a sort of ghosty sort of semi-transparent material object that’s got arms and legs and a particular physical location, but just isn’t quite physical. It’s sort of like a hologram. And they know that that’s not right. They know that a soul isn’t really like that. And they know they can’t really imagine an immaterial, disembodied soul. But that’s all right, these things are hard to imagine! “Physicists can’t imagine quantum mechanics, and we can’t imagine an immaterial soul. But, you know, we can try, and it doesn’t hurt to think about, you know, people playing harps sitting on clouds.”

I often ask my students, when they were children and reading comic books or watching on television, did it ever bother them that Casper, the friendly ghost, could both fly through a wall, and catch a ball? I mean, why doesn’t the ball just go right through his hand? And almost all of them say, Oh yes, they had noticed this mildly discomfiting inconsistency, but everybody goes along with the gag. But everybody notices that this is not really consistent.

There’s a big difference between a scientist trying to visualize quantum mechanics and a person trying to imagine an immaterial soul, which is really an immaterial person, which is a contradiction in terms. Dennett reminds us that a truly immaterial thing would not even have “a particular physical location,” to say nothing of arms and legs.

Physicists try to visualize the inner workings of atoms because atoms almost certainly exist. Quantum effects are hard to visualize because they seem to require contradictory predicates: very small entities are, famously, sort of “like waves,” and also sort of “like particles.” But this is an apparent contradiction, caused by limited understanding and limited vocabulary. One can imagine a future in which we can speak with perfect clarity about the inner workings of atoms. But in the idea of an unphysical person there is an inherent, a priori contradiction.