Friday, March 30, 2007

Our Creator

Feeling a bit nihilistic? Let's continue with this little series.

p: "You do have a purpose. God created this world, he is your creator, and he has a purpose for you in it."

The atheist who takes issue with this has an easy task of undermining it as a straightforwardly denotative claim. He may say that the fact that the creator intends that he take on certain purposes is of no concern to him. "The creator of the universe intends that I do X" does not entail that "doing X is worthwhile." Even if we add a supplementary premise that the creator is perfectly good and wise, the conclusion still does not follow. Moreover, there isn't the slightest bit of evidence that there is a God, so even if the argument were valid, it has a premise which is as about as unwarranted as the belief in ghosts. Robots are under no moral obligation to obey their creator's commands. Etc.

But somehow one suspects that something has been overlooked in such a treatment of the theistic boilerplate p. If we respond to boilerplate with critical boilerplate, when in fact momentous and profound principles are at issue, something is amiss.

What has gone overlooked is the connotation of p. It is difficult to imagine someone stating that p and not meaning by it the connotations that the existence of this world is unfathomably good, that the rough suitability of human nature to thrive in this world is an opportunity to be grateful for, and that there are paths to happiness given by our having been made to be creatures of such a kind. And p is a beautiful way of expressing these things. A tale of a supremely good and wise being's creation of this world and all of these circumstances is a fitting allegory.

On all of these things the atheist can agree. He can also agree that expressing the anti-nihilistic vision that these statements and p attempt to convey is not simply a matter of stating blandly that life is acceptable and happiness is possible. The bland statements too often fail to convince the nihilist, fail to give him to see what he needs to see in order to find his nihilism unfounded. Rather, a cognitive adjustment is required in which one is able to let the torrential flow of trivial thoughts taper off and subside. They too easily subject one to the temptation to frustration, anger and resentment, all of which are vectors pointing straight toward nihilism: the temptation to sin.

More later.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Romans 12.2

People who share a common experience and commonly ascribe to certain descriptions of it can discuss it, even though there may be a lurking ambiguity or outright disagreement about it owing to their disagreeing over its complete description. For example, if I believe tomatoes are vegetables and you take them to be fruits, we may still discuss tomatoes because we agree about many of their other properties and are in harmony over many of our experiences of tomatoes. We may cross swords over their genus and even, as the cognitive infects the gustatory, disagree on whether they taste like fruits or like vegetables.

A similar consonance mixed with equivocation can be found in conversations about God, though exceedingly rarely. Consider this passage from the Bible that speaks of salvation and moral transformation through God.

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12.2)

It is possible for an atheist to see this as sound advice and to agree with the theist that there is more truth in it than falsehood. The God-talk language game is one that the atheist can play, as well as the theist. He can play with conviction and not just as though it were a mere play that he tacitly dismisses is as devoid of truth-bearing statements. In particular, it is possible for an atheist to find value in Romans 12.2 the following lesson:

It is a good idea to do the following:
1. Keep one's mind from being immersed in the river of mundane thoughts in which it is almost constantly swept away and which so frequently subject it to resentments and frustration.

2. Reflect on the facts that the existence of this world is unfathomably better than nothingness and that one’s having this life in this world is unfathomably better than not having it.

3. Realize that the state of patience and eager acceptance of this world that results from 1 and 2 makes one better able to respond to any situation with greater wisdom, strength and courage.

These practical principles are not a translation of Romans 12.2. This is not a reduction. But it is an atheist’s recognition of the profundity and value of the scripture.

Of course, there is much more to the story.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


"God" has a connotation in the sentence "There is a God." It is an evocative sentence which does much more than attempt to refer to a thing of a certain description. It entails that the fact that there is this world, rather than nothing, is very good, and that the situation in which we find ourselves makes living in this world well worthwhile and the lives we have in it things to be deeply grateful for. When the priest kisses the cross or the Jew reads the creation story, this connotation is never far away from these signs.

As an attempt at a reduction of religious language to naturalistic language, this gloss on "There is a God" fails, however. This connotation of "There is a God" is, when the theist utters it, not "what he means." He means to refer to a supernatural person who created this universe. So there is no reduction of "God" to the goodness of the fact of this existence or the appropriateness of being glad for it.

Yet there is more to this story, as we'll see in the next post.
Religious Talk

One Wittgensteinian view of religious language (language about God and salvation) is that it shouldn't be considered incorrect or without real referent but rather a different sort of language game or usage altogether from the one which is committed to truth, real referents, consistency of meaning, clarity to reasoning players of the game, and standards of evidence. I've long thought this a plausible interpretation of religious language. The fatal flaw of this theory is that too many players of the religious-language game simply mean their talk to be truthful and to refer to real supernatural things, such as God, and to supernatural events, such as salvation. Yet there is something so compelling to me about the idea that if you dismiss religious language on the grounds that it does not refer to anything real, you miss something truthful about religious language.

I've made a little progress in figuring out what is missed. There are certain components of some religious experience that produce non-trivial truths. People who have had these experiences can discuss them with religious language. The discussions successfully convey truths. It may be that people who have not had these experiences can be caused to have them by hearing religious language. And all this can be so even if, as I think is the case, there is no God or other supernatural objects or events. I'll show you what I mean in the next few posts.

In this connection, I fondly remember Professor Ramon Lemos (1928-2006). He took every opportunity to point out that there are truths that you can "just see," self-evident truths, his favorite example being the truth that orange is more like red than it is like green.

UPDATE: By odd coincidence, Bill Vallicella posted on this topic today. Go read the whole thing.