Reconciling Theism and Atheism
In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume presents Philo as arguing that the disagreement between theists and atheists is merely verbal:
All men of sound reason are disgusted with verbal disputes, which abound so much in philosophical and theological inquiries; and it is found, that the only remedy for this abuse must arise from clear definitions, from the precision of those ideas which enter into any argument, and from the strict and uniform use of those terms which are employed. But there is a species of controversy, which, from the very nature of language and of human ideas, is involved in perpetual ambiguity, and can never, by any precaution or any definitions, be able to reach a reasonable certainty or precision. These are the controversies concerning the degrees of any quality or circumstance. Men may argue to all eternity, whether HANNIBAL be a great, or a very great, or a superlatively great man, what degree of beauty CLEOPATRA possessed, what epithet of praise LIVY or THUCYDIDES is entitled to, without bringing the controversy to any determination. The disputants may here agree in their sense, and differ in the terms, or vice versa; yet never be able to define their terms, so as to enter into each other’s meaning: Because the degrees of these qualities are not, like quantity or number, susceptible of any exact mensuration, which may be the standard in the controversy. That the dispute concerning Theism is of this nature, and consequently is merely verbal, or perhaps, if possible, still more incurably ambiguous, will appear upon the slightest inquiry. I ask the Theist, if he does not allow, that there is a great and immeasurable, because incomprehensible difference between the human and the divine mind: The more pious he is, the more readily will he assent to the affirmative, and the more will he be disposed to magnify the difference: He will even assert, that the difference is of a nature which cannot be too much magnified. I next turn to the Atheist, who, I assert, is only nominally so, and can never possibly be in earnest; and I ask him, whether, from the coherence and apparent sympathy in all the parts of this world, there be not a certain degree of analogy among all the operations of Nature, in every situation and in every age; whether the rotting of a turnip, the generation of an animal, and the structure of human thought, be not energies that probably bear some remote analogy to each other: It is impossible he can deny it: He will readily acknowledge it. Having obtained this concession, I push him still further in his retreat; and I ask him, if it be not probable, that the principle which first arranged, and still maintains order in this universe, bears not also some remote inconceivable analogy to the other operations of nature, and, among the rest, to the economy of human mind and thought. However reluctant, he must give his assent. Where then, cry I to both these antagonists, is the subject of your dispute? The Theist allows, that the original intelligence is very different from human reason: The Atheist allows, that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it. Will you quarrel, Gentlemen, about the degrees, and enter into a controversy, which admits not of any precise meaning, nor consequently of any determination? If you should be so obstinate, I should not be surprised to find you insensibly change sides; while the Theist, on the one hand, exaggerates the dissimilarity between the Supreme Being, and frail, imperfect, variable, fleeting, and mortal creatures; and the Atheist, on the other, magnifies the analogy among all the operations of Nature, in every period, every situation, and every position. Consider then, where the real point of controversy lies; and if you cannot lay aside your disputes, endeavour, at least, to cure yourselves of your animosity.
To what extent Hume actually agrees with this argument is not clear, and whether or not a dispute is verbal or real is itself like Hume’s questions about greatness or beauty, that is, it is a matter of degree. Few disagreements are entirely verbal. In any case, I largely agree with the claim that there is little real disagreement here. In response to a question on the about page of this blog, I referred to some remarks about God by Roderick Long:
Since my blog has wandered into theological territory lately, I thought it might be worth saying something about the existence of God.
When I’m asked whether I believe in God, I usually don’t know what to say – not because I’m unsure of my view, but because I’m unsure how to describe my view. But here’s a try.
I think the disagreement between theism and atheism is in a certain sense illusory – that when one tries to sort out precisely what theists are committed to and precisely what atheists are committed to, the two positions come to essentially the same thing, and their respective proponents have been fighting over two sides of the same shield.
Let’s start with the atheist. Is there any sense in which even the atheist is committed to recognising the existence of some sort of supreme, eternal, non-material reality that transcends and underlies everything else? Yes, there is: namely, the logical structure of reality itself.
Thus so long as the theist means no more than this by “God,” the theist and the atheist don’t really disagree.
Now the theist may think that by God she means something more than this. But likewise, before people knew that whales were mammals they thought that by “whale” they meant a kind of fish. What is the theist actually committed to meaning?
Well, suppose that God is not the logical structure of the universe. Then we may ask: in what relation does God stand to that structure, if not identity? There would seem to be two possibilities.
One is that God stands outside that structure, as its creator. But this “possibility” is unintelligible. Logic is a necessary condition of significant discourse; thus one cannot meaningfully speak of a being unconstrained by logic, or a time when logic’s constraints were not yet in place.
The other is that God stands within that structure, along with everything else. But this option, as Wittgenstein observed, would downgrade God to the status of being merely one object among others, one more fragment of contingency – and he would no longer be the greatest of all beings, since there would be something greater: the logical structure itself. (This may be part of what Plato meant in describing the Form of the Good as “beyond being.”)
The only viable option for the theist, then, is to identify God with the logical structure of reality. (Call this “theological logicism.”) But in that case the disagreement between the theist and the atheist dissolves.
It may be objected that the “reconciliation” I offer really favours the atheist over the theist. After all, what theist could be satisfied with a deity who is merely the logical structure of the universe? Yet in fact there is a venerable tradition of theists who proclaim precisely this. Thomas Aquinas, for example, proposed to solve the age-old questions “could God violate the laws of logic?” and “could God command something immoral?” by identifying God with Being and Goodness personified. Thus God is constrained by the laws of logic and morality, not because he is subject to them as to a higher power, but because they express his own nature, and he could not violate or alter them without ceasing to be God. Aquinas’ solution is, essentially, theological logicism; yet few would accuse Aquinas of having a watered-down or crypto-atheistic conception of deity. Why, then, shouldn’t theological logicism be acceptable to the theist?
A further objection may be raised: Aquinas of course did not stop at the identification of God with Being and Goodness, but went on to attribute to God various attributes not obviously compatible with this identification, such as personality and will. But if the logical structure of reality has personality and will, it will not be acceptable to the atheist; and if it does not have personality and will, then it will not be acceptable to the theist. So doesn’t my reconciliation collapse?
I don’t think so. After all, Aquinas always took care to insist that in attributing these qualities to God we are speaking analogically. God does not literally possess personality and will, at least if by those attributes we mean the same attributes that we humans possess; rather he possesses attributes analogous to ours. The atheist too can grant that the logical structure of reality possesses properties analogous to personality and will. It is only at the literal ascription of those attributes that the atheist must balk. No conflict here.
Yet doesn’t God, as understood by theists, have to create and sustain the universe? Perhaps so. But atheists too can grant that the existence of the universe depends on its logical structure and couldn’t exist for so much as an instant without it. So where’s the disagreement?
But doesn’t God have to be worthy of worship? Sure. But atheists, while they cannot conceive of worshipping a person, are generally much more open to the idea of worshipping a principle. Again theological logicism allows us to transcend the opposition between theists and atheists.
But what about prayer? Is the logical structure of reality something one could sensibly pray to? If so, it might seem, victory goes to the theist; and if not, to the atheist. Yet it depends what counts as prayer. Obviously it makes no sense to petition the logical structure of reality for favours; but this is not the only conception of prayer extant. In Science and Health, for example, theologian M. B. Eddy describes the activity of praying not as petitioning a principle but as applying a principle:
“Who would stand before a blackboard, and pray the principle of mathematics to solve the problem? The rule is already established, and it is our task to work out the solution. Shall we ask the divine Principle of all goodness to do His own work? His work is done, and we have only to avail ourselves of God’s rule in order to receive His blessing, which enables us to work out our own salvation.”
Is this a watered-down or “naturalistic” conception of prayer? It need hardly be so; as the founder of Christian Science, Eddy could scarcely be accused of underestimating the power of prayer! And similar conceptions of prayer are found in many eastern religions. Once again, theological logicism’s theistic credentials are as impeccable as its atheistic credentials.
Another possible objection is that whether identifying God with the logical structure of reality favours the atheist or the theist depends on how metaphysically robust a conception of “logical structure” one appeals to. If one thinks of reality’s logical structure in realist terms, as an independent reality in its own right, then the identification favours the theist; but if one instead thinks, in nominalist terms, that there’s nothing to logical structure over and above what it structures, then the identification favours the atheist.
This argument assumes, however, that the distinction between realism and nominalism is a coherent one. I’ve argued elsewhere (see here and here) that it isn’t; conceptual realism pictures logical structure as something imposed by the world on an inherently structureless mind (and so involves the incoherent notion of a structureless mind), while nominalism pictures logical structure as something imposed by the mind on an inherently structureless world (and so involves the equally incoherent notion of a structureless world). If the realism/antirealism dichotomy represents a false opposition, then the theist/atheist dichotomy does so as well. The difference between the two positions will then be only, as Wittgenstein says in another context, “one of battle cry.”
Long is trying too hard, perhaps. As I stated above, few disagreements are entirely verbal, so it would be strange to find no disagreement at all, and we could question some points here. Are atheists really open to worshiping a principle? Respecting, perhaps, but worshiping? A defender of Long, however, might say that “respect” and “worship” do not necessarily have any relevant difference here, and this is itself a merely verbal difference signifying a cultural difference. The theist uses “worship” to indicate that they belong to a religious culture, while the atheist uses “respect” to indicate that they do not. But it would not be easy to find a distinct difference in the actual meaning of the terms.
In any case, there is no need to prove that there is no difference at all, since without a doubt individual theists will disagree on various matters with individual atheists. The point made by both David Hume and Roderick Long stands at least in a general way: there is far less difference between the positions than people typically assume.
In an earlier post I discussed, among other things, whether the first cause should be called a “mind” or not, discussing St. Thomas’s position that it should be, and Plotinus’s position that it should not be. Along the lines of the argument in this post, perhaps this is really an argument about whether or not you should use a certain analogy, and the correct answer may be that it depends on your purposes.
But what if your purpose is simply to understand reality? Even if it is, it is often the case that you can understand various aspects of reality with various analogies, so this will not necessarily provide you with a definite answer. Still, someone might argue that you should not use a mental analogy with regard to the first cause because it will lead people astray. Thus, in a similar way, Richard Dawkins argued that one should not call the first cause “God” because it would mislead people:
Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence.
I will argue shortly that Dawkins was roughly speaking right about the way that the first cause works, although as I said in that earlier post, he did not have a strong argument for it other than his aesthetic sense and the kinds of explanation that he prefers. In any case, his concern with the name “God” is the “baggage” that it “carries in the minds of most religious believers.” That is, if we say, “There is a first cause, therefore God exists,” believers will assume that their concrete beliefs about God are correct.
In a similar way, someone could reasonably argue that speaking of God as a “mind” would tend to lead people into error by leading them to suppose that God would do the kinds of the things that other minds, namely human ones, do. And this definitely happens. Thus for example, in his book Who Designed the Designer?, Michael Augros argues for the existence of God as a mind, and near the end of the book speculates about divine revelation:
I once heard of a certain philosopher who, on his deathbed, when asked whether he would become a Christian, admitted his belief in Aristotle’s “prime mover”, but not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This sort of acknowledgment of the prime mover, of some sort of god, still leaves most of our chief concerns unaddressed. Will X ever see her son again, now that the poor boy has died of cancer at age six? Will miserable and contrite Y ever be forgiven, somehow reconciled to the universe and made whole, after having killed a family while driving drunk? Will Z ever be brought to justice, having lived out his whole life laughing at the law while another person rotted in jail for the atrocities he committed? That there is a prime mover does not tell us with sufficient clarity. Even the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god does not enable us to fill in much detail. And so it seems reasonable to suppose that god has something more to say to us, in explicit words, and not only in the mute signs of creation. Perhaps he is waiting to talk to us, biding his time for the right moment. Perhaps he has already spoken, but we have not recognized his voice.
When we cast our eye about by the light of reason in his way, it seems there is room for faith in general, even if no particular faith can be “proved” true in precisely the same way that it can be “proved” that there is a god.
The idea is that given that God is a mind, it follows that it is fairly plausible that he would wish to speak to people. And perhaps that he would wish to establish justice through extraordinary methods, and that he might wish to raise people from the dead.
I think this is “baggage” carried over from Augros’s personal religious views. It is an anthropomorphic mistake, not merely in the sense that he does not have a good reason for such speculation, but in the sense that such a thing is demonstrably implausible. It is not that the divine motives are necessarily unknown to us, but that we can actually discover them, at least to some extent, and we will discover that they are not what he supposes.
How might one know the divine motives? How does one read the mind of God?
Anything that acts at all does it what it does ultimately because of what it is. This is an obvious point, like the point that the existence of something rather than nothing could not have some reason outside of being. In a similar way, “what is” is the only possible explanation for what is done, since there is nothing else there to be an explanation. And in every action, whether or not we are speaking of the subject in explicitly mental terms or not, we can always use the analogy of desires and goals. In the linked post, I quote St. Thomas as speaking of the human will as the “rational appetite,” and the natural tendency of other things as a “natural appetite.” If we break down the term “rational appetite,” the meaning is “the tendency to do something, because of having a reason to do it.” And this fits with my discussion of human will in various places, such as in this earlier post.
But where do those reasons come from? I gave an account of this here, arguing that rational goals are a secondary effect of the mind’s attempt to understand itself. Of course human goals are complex and have many factors, but this happens because what the mind is trying to understand is complicated and multifaceted. In particular, there is a large amount of pre-existing human behavior that it needs to understand before it can attribute goals: behavior that results from life as a particular kind of animal, behavior that results from being a particular living thing, and behavior that results from having a body of such and such a sort.
In particular, human social behavior results from these things. There was some discussion of this here, when we looked at Alexander Pruss’s discussion of hypothetical rational sharks.
You might already see where this is going. God as the first cause does not have any of the properties that generate human social behavior, so we cannot expect his behavior to resemble human social behavior in any way, as for example by having any desire to speak with people. Indeed, this is the argument I am making, but let us look at the issue more carefully.
I responded to the “dark room” objection to predictive processing here and here. My response depends both the biological history of humans and animals in general, and to some extent on the history of each individual. But the response does not merely explain why people do not typically enter dark rooms and simply stay there until they die. It also explains why occasionally people do do such things, to a greater or lesser approximation, as with suicidal or extremely depressed people.
If we consider the first cause as a mind, as we are doing here, it is an abstract immaterial mind without any history, without any pre-existing behaviors, without any of the sorts of things that allow people to avoid the dark room. So while people will no doubt be offended by the analogy, and while I will try to give a more pleasant interpretation later, one could argue that God is necessarily subject to his own dark room problem: there is no reason for him to have any motives at all, except the one which is intrinsic to minds, namely the motive of understanding. And so he should not be expected to do anything with the world, except to make sure that it is intelligible, since it must be intelligible for him to understand it.
The thoughtful reader will object: on this account, why does God create the world at all? Surely doing and making nothing at all would be even better, by that standard. So God does seem to have a “dark room” problem that he does manage to avoid, namely the temptation to nothing at all. This is a reasonable objection, but I think it would lead us on a tangent, so I will not address it at this time. I will simply take it for granted that God makes something rather than nothing, and discuss what he does with the world given that fact.
In the previous post, I pointed out that David Hume takes for granted that the world has stable natural laws, and uses that to argue that an orderly world can result from applying those laws to “random” configurations over a long enough time. I said that one might accuse him of “cheating” here, but that would only be the case if he intended to maintain a strictly atheistic position which would say that there is no first cause at all, or that if there is, it does not even have a remote analogy with a mind. Thus his attempted reconciliation of theism and atheism is relevant, since it seems from this that he is aware that such a strict atheism cannot be maintained.
St. Thomas makes a similar connection between God as a mind and a stable order of things in his fifth way:
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
What are we are to make of the claim that things act “always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result?” Certainly acting in the same way would be likely to lead to similar results. But why would you think it was the best result?
If we consider where we get the idea of desire and good, the answer will be clear. We don’t have an idea of good which is completely independent from “what actually tends to happen”, even though this is not quite a definition of the term either. So ultimately St. Thomas’s argument here is based on the fact that things act in similar ways and achieve similar results. The idea that it is “best” is not an additional contribution.
But now consider the alternative. Suppose that things did not act in similar ways, or that doing so did not lead to similar results. We would live in David Hume’s non-inductive world. The result is likely to be mathematically and logically impossible. If someone says, “look, the world works in a coherent way,” and then attempts to describe how it would look if it worked in an incoherent way, they will discover that the latter “possibility” cannot be described. Any description must be coherent in order to be a description, so the incoherent “option” was never a real option in the first place.
This argument might suggest that the position of Plotinus, that mind should not be attributed to God at all, is the more reasonable one. But since we are exploring the situation where we do make that attribution, let us consider the consequences.
We argued above that the sole divine motive for the world is intelligibility. This requires coherence and consistency. It also requires a tendency towards the good, for the above mentioned reasons. Having a coherent tendency at all is ultimately not something different from tending towards good.
The world described is arguably a deist world, one in which the laws of nature are consistently followed, but God does nothing else in the world. The Enlightenment deists presumably had various reasons for their position: criticism of specific religious doctrines, doubts about miracles, and an aesthetic attraction to a perfectly consistent world. But like Dawkins with his argument about God’s simplicity, they do not seem (to me at least) to have had very strong arguments. That does not prove that their position was wrong, and even their weaker arguments may have had some relationship with the truth; even an aesthetic attraction to a perfectly consistent world has some connection with intelligibility, which is the actual reason for the world to be that way.
Once again, as with the objection about creating a world at all, a careful reader might object that this argument is not conclusive. If you have a first cause at all, then it seems that you must have one or more first effects, and even if those effects are simple, they cannot be infinitely simple. And given that they are not infinitely simple, who is to set the threshold? What is to prevent one or more of those effects from being “miraculous” relative to anything else, or even from being something like a voice giving someone a divine revelation?
There is something to this argument, but as with the previous objection, I will not be giving my response here. I will simply note for the moment that it is a little bit strained to suggest that such a thing could happen without God having an explicit motive of “talking to people,” and as argued above, such a motive cannot exist in God. That said, I will go on to some other issues.
As the Heavens are Higher
Apart from my arguments, it has long been noticed in the actual world that God seems much more interested in acting consistently than in bringing about any specific results in human affairs.
Someone like Richard Dawkins, or perhaps Job, if he had taken the counsel of his wife, might respond to the situation in the following way. “God” is not an appropriate name for a first cause that acts like this. If anything is more important to God than being personal, it would be being good. But the God described here is not good at all, since he doesn’t seem to care a bit about human affairs. And he inflicts horrible suffering on people just for the sake of consistency with physical laws. Instead of calling such a cause “God,” why don’t we call it “the Evil Demon” or something like that?
There is a lot that could be said about this. Some of it I have already said elsewhere. Some of it I will perhaps say at other times. For now I will make three brief points.
First, ensuring that the world is intelligible and that it behaves consistently is no small thing. In fact it is a prerequisite for any good thing that might happen anywhere and any time. We would not even arrive at the idea of “good” things if we did not strive consistently for similar results, nor would we get the idea of “striving” if we did did not often obtain them. Thus it is not really true that God has no interest in human affairs: rather, he is concerned with the affairs of all things, including humans.
Second, along similar lines, consider what the supposed alternative would be. If God were “good” in the way you wish, his behavior would be ultimately unintelligible. This is not merely because some physical law might not be followed if there were a miracle. It would be unintelligible behavior in the strict sense, that is, in the sense that no explanation could be given for why God is doing this. The ordinary proposal would be that it is because “this is good,” but when this statement is a human judgement made according to human motives, there would need to be an explanation for why a human judgement is guiding divine behavior. “God is a mind” does not adequately explain this. And it is not clear that an ultimately unintelligible world is a good one.
Third, to extend the point about God’s concern with all things, I suggest that the answer is roughly speaking the one that Scott Alexander gives non-seriously here, except taken seriously. This answer depends on an assumption of some sort of modal realism, a topic which I was slowly approaching for some time, but which merits a far more detailed discussion, and I am not sure when I will get around to it, if ever. The reader might note however that this answer probably resolves the question about “why didn’t God do nothing at all” by claiming that this was never an option anyway.