The Raving Theist

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April 21, 2006 | 15 Comments

A reader’s e-mail raises a number of questions regarding the relationship between atheism, determinism, empiricism, materialism, and logic:

I wonder if you would consider the following argument, the aim of which is to establish that agnosticism is more logically consistent than atheism.

I would presume (please correct if I’m wrong), that the strict atheist would believe the human brain evolved as a physical organ, and is subject to limitations just as are the heart, lungs, etc.

I would further presume that the atheist believes our ability to reason lies in the electrochemical processes of the brain.

Wouldn’t this suggest that human reason has limitations, and that there may exist a reality beyond the comprehension of the physical brain? It would seem strange to believe that the brain, alone among human organs, has unlimited capacity.

Michael Rogan, M.D.

Many of the issues implicated I’ve discussed here. At its core, the question is a variant of the theistic arguments that “god is beyond logic,”or “you can’t define God” or “you can’t limit God.” He’s so complicated that we can’t understand his nature, attributes or powers. God is beyond the grasp of our tiny minds in the same way that men are beyond the understanding of the physical minds of ants.

The main problem with the question is that it fails to meaningfully define the “God” at the heart of any atheistic/agnostic analysis. It’s not really talking about God at all, or anything, for that matter. Instead, it hypothesizes a vague “reality beyond the comprehension of the physical brain.” The only attribute of the deity it supplies, then, is that it is incomprehensible. That’s not a definition, but the avoidance of one. There’s nothing to which either doubt or denial can be affixed. If someone questioned whether we should believe, doubt or deny the existence of a “blark,” we’d ask what the sound was meant to denote — we wouldn’t immediately declare its existence or non-existence unprovable because of the possibility of some hidden realm of being.

Undoubtedly are many things, physical, conceptual and otherwise, that are beyond the understanding of most or all people. But mere unknowability or incomprehensibility doesn’t a God make. As I noted in the above-linked post:

[T]his argument . . . fails to provide a satisfying or usable definition. Horses were once unknown, at least in North America; did this fact make horses gods? Quarks and atoms were once unknown — should the “god” label be applied to them? Suppose tomorrow astronomers discover some new, far-away orb with properties unlike any other previously-discovered celestial object, brighter and denser than any star, and composed of elements not found on the periodic table. God? Or finally, let us hypothesize that there are millions of green, cube-shaped objects so small, distant, or otherwise elusive than no human instrument can ever detect them. Does their mere unknowability make them gods? What criteria could one possibly apply to make that assessment, if the word “god” lacks any definition?

The reader’s question focuses upon God more as the subject of “reason” than observation, but the same arguments apply. A toddler’s mind cannot grasp the quadratic equation; but that does not make the equation God. Square roots of negative numbers perplex many people, but they’re not gods either. And there may well be other mathematical or logical concepts so complex that they would defy the comprehension of any human, but merely attaching the word “god” to them is insufficient to bring the discussion into the realm of theology. Simply put, “an agnosticism based upon the notion of the incomprehensibility or undefinability of god simply avoids the question . . . the fact that ants find humans incomprehensible, does not strip humans of definite powers and attributes, or, more importantly, make humans gods.”

Once some definitional meat has been place on the word “God,” its existence becomes subject to logical disproof by establishing contradictions among its various attributes; some of the standard arguments are set forth in my Basic Assumptions and elsewhere. These arguments demonstrate that the term “god” is akin to a “square circle” or a “married bachelor, or as impossible as one plus one equaling three. Whatever the limitations of our electrochemical brains, they do not stop us from making definite judgments on those matters. I suppose one could again speculate as to a “reality beyond the comprehension of the physical brain” in which logic doesn’t apply and all those odd constructs exist. But in that realm, presumably the statement “God exists” = “God doesn’t exist” would be true as well. But all it would be would be the realm of nonsense.

Some discussion is in order regarding Rogan’s premise that the “atheist believes our ability to reason lies in the electrochemical processes of the brain.” To a degree this statement implies that atheists are all determinists — that all of their thoughts, beliefs and therefore action are controlled by the same laws governing ordinary matter. I doubt there is any unanimity on this point, except to the extent that most people, theists included, believe that there’s enough of a relationship between the physical brain and their thoughts that they wouldn’t let someone shoot a bullet in one ear and out the other. But however complex the questions of free will and the mind/body relationship may be, they are separate from the question of God. Whether humans are mechanically controlled robots or something freer says nothing about the existence of God or square circles or powerful space aliens.


15 Responses to “Limitations”

  1. Los Pepes
    April 21st, 2006 @ 1:13 pm

    I would say that what the heart does–pump blood–it does perfectly. Sure, it has limitations, but those limitations are beyond what you should expect from a heart during the course of a normal life.

    The brain’s job is to think and to understand (beyond the lower brain functions), and it does that perfectly. If it has limitations as far as understanding is concerned, we are nowhere near them yet, and debunking a god-myth falls well within current capacity.

  2. Austin
    April 21st, 2006 @ 1:56 pm

    I received the exact same email about two weeks ago. I wonder if he is sending to every atheist he finds online? I made about the same points in a response and, over the course of several emails, Dr. Michael Rogan established that he thinks the laws of logic are “accepted on faith” and “might not be true in some circumstances,” but persistently refused to explain what those circumstances might be.

    Of course, if his purpose is to establish that agnosticism is “more logically consistent than atheism,” and if he sincerely believes that the laws of logic are simply a matter of faith, then also he’s doing is “establishing” a faith position. This is only to be expected as he doesn’t seem to understand what logic is. He’s a poseur because he thinks it’s a credible, philosophical argument to start from the premise “we can’t know everything” and then arrive at conclusions about what might exist. This “agnosticism” is, as you say, simply another way of avoiding the question.

  3. Thorngod
    April 21st, 2006 @ 3:04 pm

    Dr. Rogan is surely correct in assuming the physical basis of reasoning, and if by “unlimited capacity” he is challenging the capacity of a human brain to encompass all of reality (or “realities”?) then his assumption here is irrefutable. What he has failed to grasp, I think, is that he has no warrant to posit a “reality” or a “God” for which his brain has perceived and established no credible evidence. Agnosticism is a state through which the questing mind passes on its way to a better grasp of probabilities. -Thorngod.

  4. Mister Swill
    April 21st, 2006 @ 4:13 pm

    Heh, my break from this site was shorter than I expected, and I’m glad to have arrived on the day of such a good post.

    I think one of the most important points of confusion in arguments between atheism and agnosticism is the lack of agreement on a coherent definition of “God.” Define it broadly and agnosticism makes more sense. Define it narrowly and atheism or agnosticism may make more sense, depending on the specific definition. Some definitions lead to a third option: “yeah, I agree that exists, but why should I worship it?” I have found that the only good answer to “does God exist?” is “define God.”

  5. K
    April 21st, 2006 @ 4:40 pm

    That’s a really stupid premiss for an argument. Hey, just because we’re made of meat doesn’t mean reality and physics suddenly change.

  6. john
    April 21st, 2006 @ 5:20 pm

    I don’t know why we bother with these discussions. Of course there is no god. The fact that there is no god is not something that you can logically convince someone of if their pre-set position of “there are some things that we can never know”. So why argue?

    God doesn’t hurt me any worse than most things people believe (i.e. We need nuclear weapons to defend ourselves, we are in charge of this planet so if we need to dump our waste in the oceans it is ok, if people say something we disapprove of we’ll imprison them, etc). I may even be the beneficiary of their beliefs. Of course, you may argue that those religious beliefs MAY LEAD to some to the things I’m more concerned about. But completely non-religious folks do those exact same things. Most religion gives people a purpose in life and keeps them behaving themselves to a reasonable degree.

    Let them eat god.

  7. SeldomScene
    April 21st, 2006 @ 5:45 pm

    What irritates me about the agnostic position as it is usually presented is its inconsisitancy.

    It might make a certain amount of sense if they made an internally consistant argument about knowledge and how “real” knowledge is unattainable. But they never do that, because they know how stupid it would sound to claim that you can’t “know” what you had for lunch today or what your name is. They only apply their silly circular philosophizing to the “god” question.

    So they expose themselves as hypocrites.

  8. bUCKET__
    April 21st, 2006 @ 9:07 pm

    The mind/body problem doesn’t have anything to do with determinism, and the dualist runs into the same problem of having to name the cause(s) of their thoughts. No sane person thinks their thoughts are just created randomly. But theists say the craziest things.

  9. Dada Saves
    April 23rd, 2006 @ 10:43 am

    Folks, for the zillionth time: agnosticism and atheism is not an either/or proposition. You can be both. Everyone — from TRA to the goddamn Pope — IS an agnostic, and until they disprove or prove the existence of the god(s), that they will remain. TRA’s Basic Assumptions attack a very limited scope of standard god-concepts. Does he really believe that these concepts are all that are possible?

    Whether one believes in god(s) or not is mostly a matter of opinion. Anyway I am an agnostic atheist (can prove nothing, believe in nothing), and admit it freely.

  10. salvage
    April 23rd, 2006 @ 11:47 am

    >yeah, I agree that exists, but why should I worship it?

    I think this applies to the JudeoChristian flavor of skygod, if their he is as described in the Bible than he is obviously quite mad and I can’t imagine why anyone would worshiping anything insane.

  11. inkadu
    April 23rd, 2006 @ 5:49 pm

    Religion makes its bones by defining and describing God, in some detail, and his plans for every hair on my head.

    Yet when Science says, “Let’s have a look,” suddenly God dissapears in a puff of indefinability.

    Maybe I’m not a wonky philosopher, but that just seems like bullshit to me. The gods people care about debating are the gods that people believe in, the gods that have been defined, and belief in whom has shed blood over centuries. Those gods have been defined, so why the sudden evasion?

  12. Mister Swill
    April 23rd, 2006 @ 9:12 pm

    Almost every hypothetical God I’ve mentioned is a God that someone I know believes in. A friend of mine who has referred to herself as a “modern-day mystic” defines God as the energy that makes up the Universe. We live and die, but the energy of which we are composed remains. It is us, we are it, it is everything. That’s what I was thinking of when I defined a category called “okay, that definitely exists, but why should I worship it?” In reality, I did not ask my friend why I should worship it (which she never suggested), but why I should attribute human-like traits to it, or why I should assume that our consciousness or our knowledge would survive our death (in any way that living humans would recognize knowledge or consciousness) and remain part of the energy of which everything consists.

  13. sternwallow
    April 24th, 2006 @ 6:43 am

    “I would presume (please correct if I’m wrong), that the strict atheist would believe the human brain evolved as a physical organ, and is subject to limitations just as are the heart, lungs, etc.

    I would further presume that the atheist believes our ability to reason lies in the electrochemical processes of the brain.”

    Bad starting assumptions. A strict atheist knows that a lack of evidence for god means there is no reason to believe god(s) had anything to do with human development. Atheists might not believe in evolution through lack of education, but they still have no reason to believe in god.

    “Further”, the atheist may not know whether reason lies in the physical brain alone, but he has no reason to believe or even suspect that there is a spiritual or supernatural element involved.

  14. tarkovsky
    April 24th, 2006 @ 8:49 am

    “…so why should I worship it?”

    Worshipping sucks. It is based on the fear on being struck down in case of incorrect behaviour.

    The tradition of worship is just another way men have found to enslave other men.

    I don’t worship the law, yet I understand its premises and agree to follow it.

  15. john
    April 24th, 2006 @ 11:12 am

    Tarkovsky said: “The tradition of worship is just another way men have found to enslave other men.”

    True. It has been used for that. I think it is probably beneficial to most people though. It’s not for me, and obviously not for you, but some people can not come to grips with a godless world, even though it should be easy. Or, maybe it shouldn’t. A while back I was chewing over the idea that our brains may be evolutionarily hardwired for religion and it still does not seem like that incredible of a notion to me. But, the essense of what I’m saying is this: As the brain of Homo and probably Australopithecus before him, started rather rapidly increasing in size, and especially once abstract thought was occuring, you would imagine that the fears of the unknown, which could suddenly be contemplated in detail, could have been emotionally, psychologically and physically so overwhelming to these creatures that only those who were able to buy in to the tribal myths could survive. I’m sure someone has written extensively on this and I’d love to see what they came up with. Anyone know a a book that covers this concept?

    “I don’t worship the law, yet I understand its premises and agree to follow it.”

    Me too. However, “the law” has also been used to enslave, absent most religious context. Hitler, Hirohito and Stalin would be examples from the recent past. I know that at least 2 of those 3 were “religious”, but only in the widest sense. They didn’t formulate policy and law based on their religions.

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