Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Of Atheists, Straw Men, Spaghetti Monsters, and God

Dr. Edward Feser, a well respected philosopher, author,  and professor developed a nice analogy to show where the thinking of atheists goes awry on the subject of God and why this basic first misstep effectively derails any intelligent conversation between theists and atheists. He uses two people looking at a painting in a gallery to represent the two sides in the theist-atheist debate (emphasis original):
Suppose you’re looking at a painting of a crowd of people, and you remark upon the painter’s intentions in producing the work.  Someone standing next to you looking at the same painting -- let’s call him Skeptic -- begins to scoff.  “Painter?  Oh please, there’s no evidence of any painter!  I’ve been studying this canvas for years.  I’ve gone over every square inch.  I’ve studied each figure in detail -- facial expressions, posture, clothing, etc.  I’ve found plumbers, doctors, dancers, hot dog vendors, dogs, cats, birds, lamp posts, and all kinds of other things.  But I’ve never found this painter of yours anywhere in it.  No doubt you’ll tell me that I need to look again until I find him.  But really, how long do we have to keep looking without success until people like you finally admit that there just is no painter?”
Needless to say, Skeptic, despite his brash confidence, will have entirely misunderstood the nature of the dispute between you and him.  He would be making the crudest of category mistakes.   He fundamentally misunderstands both what it means to say that there is a painter, and fundamentally misunderstands the reasons for saying there is one. (source)
Too often atheists treat God - the God we theists actually believe in, that is - as if He were a big bearded guy living on a cloud somewhere. Their arguments (like the comparison between God and a "Flying Spaghetti Monster") would be devastatingly power, if we were pagans worshipping Mars or Thor or the Eagle Spirit (that is being that are a part of the world) but completely miss the point when talking about the God we actually believe in, and the God men like Abraham, Aquinas, Augustine, Aristotle, and Plato believed in. This God is the Creator of the material world (just like Leonardo is the creator of the Last Supper) and it makes just about as much sense to look for God within the world as does to look for Leonardo in his painting. For an atheist to say "Aha! God isn't in the material world at all!!" is for him to say the exact same thing we theists have been saying for the last few thousand years and is certainly no proof against God's existence. It would be like me claiming Richard Dawkins doesn't exist because I throughly searched my entire garage - every square inch, mind you - and not a trace of Dr. Dawkins was to be found! Of course, not. He simply isn't where I'm looking and no one ever thought he was in the first place. Or would be like a zoologist announcing to the world that elephants don't exist after an exhaustive study of the antarctic where he found not a trace of a single specimen. Such absurdities can't be argued with, they can only be chuckled at.



You can disprove the existence of Zeus by scaling Mount Olympus and finding it empty, but can't disprove the existence of an immaterial God by searching the material world and declaring you haven't found Him - of course you haven't, no one ever claimed He was there in the first place.  And scaling Mount Olympus is all "arguments from science" ultimately are in the search for God. Science necessarily is limited to exploring, studying, analyzing, and describing the material world, the immaterial is entirely beyond its ability to comment on. Science can say nothing whatsoever about it, including whether or not immaterial realities exist (which of course, science itself depends on, especially the existence of immaterial numbers, but that is a post for another day). Such is simply "the crudest of category mistakes" at best or the most obvious of straw man arguments at worst.


By the way, Dr. Feser's book on Thomas Aquinas is an absolute must read. I've read many books on the thought of Aquinas and recommend this one without hesitation. If you haven't read it, you're really missing out.

I've heard good things about his book specifically addressing the "New Atheism" (he was once an atheist himself), but I haven't read it yet,

11 comments:

  1. The analogy fails from the outset. We know that paintings have painters. We have plenty of real examples of that. In fact the word painting implies a painter. Theists look at nature and go "this is a painting". Atheists disagree. This is a straw man.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tjaart, Nathan's argument isn't about the painting. And too bad he kindof ruins his argument by talking about looking for RIchard Dawkins in his garage...

      What I think he's trying to say is that you should not look for the creator in the creation, because the creator won't be in there. Which, on face value, seems like a reasonable argument.
      Until you stop referring to "live and the universe" as a "creation". Then assuming a creator is _at the very least_ jumping the gun. I think it's the abuse of words like these ("creation" and "theory" and "father") that throws these theists off. It's like calling the sun a "golden disk" and then, based in that bit of semantic trickery, trying to argue the sun is made of pure gold.

      It's silly and annoying how they manage to confuse the hell out of themselves by muddying the water like this.

      Delete
    2. "I think he's trying to say is that you should not look for the creator in the creation, because the creator won't be in there. Which, on face value, seems like a reasonable argument. "

      And a strawman, because that is not the position atheists take when challenging theism. They also contradict themselves, because they say things like "the complexity of a cell is evidence for a designer", just as we would look at a painting and say that the pattern of strokes is evidence for a particular painter.

      "It's silly and annoying how they manage to confuse the hell out of themselves by muddying the water like this."

      I totally agree. Their primary error is PRESUPPOSING that which they seek to prove. Despite the superficial sophistication, this post amounts to "there must be a creator because that's the only way there could be a creation"

      Delete
    3. Tjaart - you've completely missed the point of the analogy. Let me explain. The theistic position is that the universe is created by a God who is not in the universe, just like a painting is created by a painter who is not in the painting. When atheists argue from science, say "evolution proves God doesn't exist" or "the Big Bang proves God doesn't exist" or when they make silly comparisons to non-existent material beings (i.e. beings that would be "inside the painting") they are making the same mistake our skeptic is making when he concludes there is no painter because he can't find him in the painting.

      The analogy isn't a straw man, because it isn't proving that the universe is actually created, it is simply demonstrating hoe most atheists simply don't understand the theist position in the first place and how 99% of their arguments fail to even engage theists.

      Delete
    4. " The theistic position is that the universe is created by a God who is not in the universe, just like a painting is created by a painter who is not in the painting. "

      The analogy still fails because of the fact that we know that paintings have painters. We have real evidence that paintings have painters, none at all that universes have gods. It seems funny to theists because they all share the presupposition that the universe is a painting. lol silly atheists right? Wrong!

      Atheists disagree. We do not think the universe is a painting, or in fact anything that requires a creator, because we aren't given any sufficient reason to.

      "When atheists argue from science, say "evolution proves God doesn't exist" or "the Big Bang proves God doesn't exist""

      Sorry but you are either hanging out in the atheist 101 club or you are fabricating straw atheists. Everyone who knows anything about theology knows that new facts are just shoehorned into creative interpretations of religious texts. Strictly speaking nothing can disprove god because theists will just create ad hoc escape hatches by reinterpreting their religion.

      It is absurd to look at a painting and assert that there is no painting, not so with the universe because it has not been established that it is a type of created thing.


      "The analogy isn't a straw man"
      Yes it is, because it is not an adequate parallel to reality and it requires a presupposed belief to be accepted.

      "atheists simply don't understand the theist position in the first place and how 99% of their arguments fail to even engage theists."

      A large proportion of atheists used to be christians and used to be convinced by the same terrible arguments that theists are convinced by to this day. Maybe theists don't understand the seriousness of the objections that atheists raise. Maybe it is faulty to assume that the problem lies with others and not oneself, but then again the greatest flaw in theistic thinking is a painful lack of metacognition.

      Delete
  2. This article fails due to one oversight; nobody has ever disproven the pagan gods since they, much like the omnipotent God of the Abrahamic religions, are unfalsifiable beings. The same logic modern monotheists use for their God can be easily used to defend Gods. If you scale Mount Olympus and find no Gods, how do you know they aren't merely concealing themselves from you? And the gods of Asgard didn't live in our world, they lived in a supernatural dimension called Asgard that was normally inaccessible to mortals. You know, "outside of time and space" and whatnot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Capt. Rhodes, thanks for the interesting response, but I think you've failed to come to terms with the argument. It isn't that God isn't visible to the material world (and thus science), therefore He exists which argument could be extended to any being endowed with the power to "be invisible" it is that God, as understood in classical theism, isn't a material being at all - *by definition.* The opposite is, again *by definition*, true of the "gods". The "gods" are (essentially, not accidentally) like the "FSM", "God" is (again, essentially, not accidentally) NOT like the "FSM."

      But even putting that basic misunderstanding aside, all your comment would prove is that the "FSM" style objection so popular among atheists is equally unable to disprove "gods" as it is "God." IOW, your point would not undermine the argument, it would simply expand its reach. Or, put perhaps more simply, showing that science can't disprove Thor doesn't mean either that Thor exists or that God doesn't.

      Delete
    2. The entire point of GFSM was never to disprove the existence of May other Gods. Unfalsifiable concepts cannot be falsified, which is why most rational people recognize them as worthless. The point was to illustrate the inanity of believing in such concepts to begin with. I can't disprove your God anymore than I can disprove my young niece's imaginary friends, which is fine, because I don't need to in the first place in order to reasonably dismiss them for lack of evidence. As Hitchens once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and you seem to have none.

      Delete
  3. Capt. Rhodes,
    In fact there is a multitude of evidence for God (unlike the FSM or your niece's "imaginary friends" or "celestial teapots", etc). The evidence for God comes from the observable world (see Aquinas five ways), from intelligibility, from philosophy, from the gathered testimony of mankind, from morality, and from many other places. All the "other gods" lack all of this evidence.

    What usually drives comments like yours is the lack of material evidence, which makes as much sense as demanding material evidence of Michelangelo in the Sistine ceiling (and which brings us back to the article above). God is not “an “unfalsifiable concept” but the concept isn’t scientifically testable (which isn’t the same thing at all). The article shows why confusing “scientifically testable” with “unfalsifiable” is an error.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You say all the other Gods lack this "evidence"? Prove it. Anyone can make up all powerful beings that are magically capable of doing anything, including being detected by humans. Imagining a thing is not the same as proving. And by the way, theism admits of no way to disprove gods, and every time theist logic is challenged, they have to employ cop-outs like "God moves in mysterious ways..." or "God exists outside of time and space". As you probably know, it is impossible to disprove a negative, so yes, God is unfalsifiable.

      Delete