Thursday, January 16th, 2014

robinturner: The sacred Chao (chao)
After some lively discussions on Eray Ă–zkural's Facebook on the topic of agnosticism (which he regards as utmost stupidity) I was moved to think some more about the subject of my earlier post, “An Argument for Agnosticism Against Atheism”. Here I made the case against an argument known as Russel's Teapot, which is one of those charmingly absurd examples beloved of philosophers. It goes like this: one would not believe in the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars because there is no evidence for it; the argument that there is no evidence to disprove the existence of the teapot is absurd. This is used as a stick to beat not only theists but agnostics, since we do not have an open mind on the existence of the teapot—we assume that there is no teapot, even if some people maintain that there is. My argument was basically that belief in the existence of God is not analogous to belief in an orbiting teapot (or leprechauns, or the Great Old Ones) because it is not an assertion that the universe contains something but an assertion about the nature of the universe, and in particular an assertion that the universe is created. Rather than an infinite number of objects that could possibly exist, we are simply choosing between one of two alternatives: either the universe was created or it wasn't. The absence of strong evidence for either of these hypotheses makes agnosticism the most tenable position. (I later found that Brian Garvey has made a somewhat similar argument.)

However, this argument involved only one view of God—a Deist one. There are plenty of other conceptions of God, or gods, and I was curious about whether the teapot argument applied to them. (Incidentally, militant atheists seem only to be interested in the Abrahamic view of God, something which Dawkins admits in The God Delusion.)

1. God as Creator and Director
The Deist position, as we've seen, is that God is the First Cause, and the teapot argument does not apply for the reasons stated. The Abrahamic view of God takes that and adds a more active role for God, who not only creates the universe but directs it. If we see this as stating that God creates a universe that works perfectly well on its own but nevertheless chooses to interfere with it from time to time, then I think the teapot argument, or something similar, should apply. Interference implies that from time to time things happen which would not have happened if the laws of physics were working normally—in other words, miracles. The very eagerness of religious believers to supply evidence for their miracles (“A hundred people saw the statue move!”) seems to imply that evidence is needed; however, the evidence provided is by no means convincing, putting miracles in the same class as orbiting teapots. There is also the theological objection that it would be absurd for a perfect and omnipotent being to create a universe that required tinkering, but that's off-topic here.

An alternative view of God as both creator and director is that everything in the universe happens as the result of the will of God. This view is expressed in some Abrahamic theologies and in Stoicism, for example. While Occam's Razor may apply (why have something directing everything rather than everything running itself?), I don't think Russel's Teapot does. But this view takes us in the direction of our next conception of God.

2. God as World or World-Soul
The view of God that most atheists argue against is a transcendent deity: God is separate from the universe, which God creates and/or directs. An alternative view is that God is the universe (pantheism), the universe is part of God (panentheism) or God is a part of the universe (not sure what you call that). We find this conception of an immanent deity to varying degrees in Western philosophies such as Platonism and Stoicism, and most radically in Spinoza's pantheism, but it is a minority view in the history of Western religions. The further East you go, the more immanent the deity becomes, moving through Sufism and Hinduism to Taoism. Of course when you go that far it becomes questionable whether what you are talking about is really a god (calling the Tao a god would certainly be stretching the point); on the other hand, the doctrine of panpsychism, currently popular with atheists, is only a smidgeon away from pantheism. In all these cases, the teapot argument does not apply because these are all hypotheses about the nature of the universe, not the existence of some entity in the universe.

3. Gods as Powerful Quasi-Physical Beings
One case where the teapot argument definitely does apply is classical paganism. The ancient Greeks, Romans and so forth had a pantheon of deities who were perceived as powerful physical or quasi-physical entities. (It's worth remembering here that, Plato notwithstanding, most people in the classical era were more-or-less materialists.) The Greek gods not only influenced the physical world, they wandered around it using physical bodies, a phenomenon attested to by the large numbers of pregnancies they caused. As far as I can see, this makes them no different from leprechauns, unicorns or Russel's teapot.

4. Gods as Personifications
Even the Greeks and Romans started to realise that the theology of their fathers was untenable, though not necessarily for this reason. What many educated people in the ancient world started to believe was that Mars, for example, was not a guy dressed in armour who went round starting wars, but was in some way a personification of War, or the warlike aspect of the cosmos. Similar things were happening over in India, where the straightforward deities of the Vedas were evolving into cosmic principles. This principle also forms the basis of Neo-Paganism. The teapot argument does not apply here because no argument does. If you want to personify natural forces, that's your business.

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Robin Turner

June 2014

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