On divine perfection, mysteries and logical contradictions

triangle

A very interesting, kind and respectful atheist fellow calling “Xon-Xoff” (by the way where does this name come from? :-)  ) wrote me an interesting comment.

“It is nice to engage a believer that has a more rational outlook, which I gather from your blog here on this page, and some of your comments on “Debunking Christianity.”

If you recall a few days ago, I am the “turbopro10″ that upbraided you for your use of the word atheist inappropriately–in my humble opinion at least.

Your comment “Actually, I reject the idea that the Bible should be our foundation for learning how God is and believe we should base our theology on the concept that God has to be perfect in order for Him to be God[,]” is interesting.

Now, before I parse that sentence, I must understand what you mean by those very abstruse and somewhat loaded words: ‘perfect,’ and ‘God.’

What does it mean to be perfect?
What is a God?

Also, I see that you favour Randal Rauser, and I should like to discuss one of his books, “Faith Lacking Understanding,” which I promised to read a month ago. As an agnostic atheist–I am not too enthusiastic about labelling myself–it’s hard sometimes to read an apologist engaged in mental gymnastics as s/he tries to get around an obvious contradiction or discrepancy.

For instance, the Trinity, which Mr Rauser takes up firstly in the above mentioned text. How do we make sense of 1 is 3, and 3 is 1? Well, as he pointed out in the introduction, as a rational mind, one plausible means is to retreat to mystery.

When we retreat to mystery, then almost anything may be possible.

Danke”

I wish all Christians and atheists interacting with each other were so friendly. He rose very interesting, profound and extremely complex questions.

It is clear that I am not able to come up with definite answers, let alone ones which would convince  every rational person. So everything I am going to write should be understood as a springboard for further reflections.

I view “God” like Anselm of Canterbury as the greatest possible being who can possibly exist. We all believe intuitively that certain things are more beautiful than others, that some persons are more loving than other individuals, that some people are more rational and so on and so forth.

God is the being who maximizes all these properties. Of course this leads to many difficulties such as the problem of reconciling evil with the existence of this perfectly good creator.  I am certainly troubled by that but believe that the problem is greatly diminished by the fact that God will offer eternal life to everyone sincerely desiring Him.

I agree that like every human beings, the progressive Evangelical theologian Randal Rauser sometimes performs mental gymnastic to defend some of his cherished beliefs.

Now there are several things I’d like to say about the problem of the trinity.

triangle

First of all I don’t see that as such a great problem. A triangle is made up of three segments but it is also an unity. But it is true that it is a mystery

But it is vitally necessary to make a distinction between logical contradictions and enigmas.

Asserting that God is Love while saying He will condemn people to eternally suffer is as meaningful as stating that John is a married bachelor.

hell

But saying that God tolerates evil during a limited amount of time for reasons we cannot (at least fully) comprehend is not absurd.

Forbidding an appeal of mystery and saying that the existence of unsolved problems for theists show that God does not exist is risky because this could be committing the fallacy of an “Atheism of the Gap”.

Like the reverse fallacy “God of the Gap” perpetrated by ID creationists, it consists of saying that if (according to our current knowledge) a worldview is not able to account for a given set of facts, then this worldview is most likely wrong.

But this raises a very difficult question: how can we decide the threshold of tensions beyond which a worldview has been shown to be utterly implausible?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. Actually I am not sure how one could objectively define the word “likelihood” and “probability” with respect to the truth of theory, as philosopher Elliot Sober pointed out.

I can define the likelihood of having a car accident while driving in one hour to the physician as an objective statistical quantity.

But how could have Newton objectively defined the likelihood of his theory of gravitation as he was gathering his first data?

I tend to be pragmatic about my beliefs. I cannot show (without begging the question) that it is unlikely I am a brain in a vat. Yet I choose to lead my life as if the world around me is real.

Finally, I want to emphasize that I don’t believe that the doctrine of the trinity is essential to Christianity. Actually I am not convinced by it since it only appears in an embryonic form in the latest writings of the New Testament.

The central truth of Christianity is that God was embodied in Jesus of Nazareth and showed us His true face through his life, death and resurrection.

The Holy Ghost can be fairly well understood as being an aspect of God and not a person.

By the way Conservative Evangelicals told me I was “unsaved” due to this belief and that if I don’t believe in the trinity I am heading to (eternal) hell.

 

I’m delighted if you have discovered my blog for the very first time.

Please take a look at the mainpage (link here) to find out if there might be other things worthy of your interest.

 

Ich bin entzückt, wenn Sie für das erste Mal meinen Blog entdeckt haben.

Werfen Sie bitte auch einen Blick auf die Hauptseite (Link hier), um herauszufinden, ob es nicht andere Dinge geben könnte, die ihrem Interesse würdig sind.

 

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26 responses to “On divine perfection, mysteries and logical contradictions”

  1. xon-xoff says :

    Lothars hi,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Firstly, I do not intend to belabour the argument of the existence of god(s). I think that argument is a tired and olde argument that does not do much to help you and I live in our world.

    So, let’s discuss the fact that you “view ‘God’ like Anselm of Canterbury as the greatest possible being who can possibly exist.” As I stated in my original post, some words are abstruse and loaded; like the words “greatest,” “being,” and “exist.”

    What does greatest mean? What does being mean? What does exist mean?

    From Merriam-Webster Online (MWO), EXIST: “to have actual being : to be real”

    I think this means to be real as you and I? Or is my understanding here incorrect?

    What Is Anselm’s “greatest possible being” like?
    Is this being real?

    I hope I do not quibble.

    Did Anselm presuppose a being by using the word being up front before we establish there is a being in the first place?

    And, what does he mean by “greatest possible being”?

    And, if we take the definition of exist as per MWO above, is it not that being implies existence?

    For me, all that Anselm’s mental gynmastics may get us is that perhaps some of us might conceive of a greatest possible being–I don’t know if I can. Now, does that mean that there is this greatest possible being?

    Secondly, I assume–correct me please–that English is not your first language. So, with this in mind, when you write that “God is the being who maximizes all these properties[,]” is this not the same as “God maximizes all these properties”?

    My point is that “is the being” is perhaps a tautology.

    And how does your god do what you claim: “maximises all these properties”?

    Thirdly, how do you know that “God will offer eternal life to everyone sincerely desiring Him[?]”

    How do I desire a god?

    Fourthly, you state: “A triangle is made up of three segments but it is also an unity.” Ok.

    Is your trinity god analogous to an isosceles triangle?

    What about a scalene triangle: would this type of triangle work?

    “But it is true that it is a mystery.”

    if the Trinity is a mystery, then to which theological understanding of trinity shall I subscribe?

    Fifthly, you stated: “Forbidding an appeal of mystery and saying that the existence of unsolved problems for theists show that God does not exist is risky because this could be committing the fallacy of an ‘Atheism of the Gap'”

    As far as I am aware, neither have I nor anyone else forbidden anything.

    As a non-believer, I do not have to demonstrate that any entity that is posited does not exist. One who makes a positive claim bears the burden to demonstrate that the entity posited does exist. And by exist, I refer to the MWO definition above.

    Lastly, you admitted: “Finally, I want to emphasize that I don’t believe that the doctrine of the trinity is essential to Christianity.”

    Ok. I take it that I need not mention that the Trinity is essential to a large swathe of Christians of one sect or another–Catholics, for one and a large number. So, if I decide to believe and become Christian, to which Christianity shall I subscribe?

    vielen dank

    • lotharson says :

      Hello,

      actually I am a Germanic Frenchman from Lorraine/Lothringen, a region at the boundary between the two countries.
      French is my mother tongue followed by German since my father and a great part of a family speak Lothringisch, a German dialect.
      So English isn’t my native language at all but I guess my English is not too bad when compared with that of most froggies (French people, as they’re called in Britain) :-)

      Do you believe that certain things are better than others?
      If so, why do you reject the concept of perfection?

      You are probably able to know what a GOOD person would or would not do.
      And surely the notion of “the best person you can conceive of” isn’t an absurd one, is it?
      I evaluate what God could or could not do (under an eternal perspective) according to this criterion.
      If he is anything less than perfectly good, he would just be a powerful supernatural being unworthy of bearing the name “God”.

      As I’ve explained at length

      http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/category/parsimony-sparsamkeit/

      I believe that if you are not able to show that the existence of an entity is unlikely, you should be AGNOSTIC about it, like I am agnostic about the existence of intelligent bear-like aliens in a distant galaxy.

      Lovely greetings / Liebe Grüsse, Marc.

      • xon-xoff says :

        Marc hi,

        Your English is excellent. I wish I could speak several languages like you do–I’m envious :-)

        I shan’t call you a “froggie” anytime soon. I don’t think that it is a term of endearment used by the English for their French cousins.

        Ok, to our engaging discussion: let me say firstly that I do not reject perfection; I am not sure what it means to be perfect. And, in this respect, I may–may, I say–reject the ascribing of that loaded word to an entity.

        Let me try to explain please. If, as Anselm asserted that this being is “the greatest possible being who can possibly exist,” then my limited grey matter pictures not a single entity standing (sitting, suspended in space, embodied, disembodied–whatever the hell that means …) there in my mind, but rather a nebulous, I-don’t-know-what (je ne sais quoi), inconceivable thingie. And, I dare assert, no one can conceive of such a being. We may say we can, but do we actually do so?

        Can you actually conceive of such a being?

        Perhaps you can.

        “anything less than perfectly good… ”

        What does it mean to be perfectly good?
        Is there some amount of good that constitutes perfectly good?

        How is a being made worthy “of bearing the name ‘God'”?

        “I believe that if you are not able to show that the existence of an entity is unlikely, you should be AGNOSTIC about it”

        D’accord!!! When I do not know something I admit I do not know. I neither pretend to know, nor do I make up stuff to try and explain.

        You adhere to Anselm, I like William of Ockham:

        “only faith gives us access to theological truths.” (Wikipedia)

        So, if I subscribe to William that it’s about faith, and as I mentioned before, with some gaps we retreat to mystery, then how shall I proceed? Which faith is correct? Which god among the myriad claimed to be in existence today is the greatest?

        Gracias, Vern

      • lotharson says :

        Hello, not being a philosopher of religions or a theologian, I cannot give you a detailed (and convincing) answer to the challenges you raised against Perfect Being Theology.

        You’re right it is not possible for a finite mind to “conceive” God. Nevertheless, we can (tentatively) conceive what His absolute moral goodness is, just by looking at mankind and at the holiest men (in all religions) who have ever lived.

        As in science, you can never prove that a faith is correct. All you can do is showing it has passed all the previous tests.

        And many gods can be ruled out as being imperfect or even morally evil, like the Calvinist god predetermining people to act badly and punishing them eternally for that in hell.

  2. xon-xoff says :

    BTW: I forgot to upbraid you once again on your use of atheism: “be committing the fallacy of an ‘Atheism of the Gap’.”

    Once again please, FYI: “Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities” (Wikipedia) — that’s it and nothing more.

    If there was someone that posited that some gap existed, for which I saw no evidence to accept the claim, then i would be an “Agapist.”

    “Atheism of the Gap” does not make much sense to me.

    merci

    • lotharson says :

      Oh thank you for taking me to task for that :-)

      I define the two in the following manner

      “God of the gap”: at the current moment, atheism cannot explain certain data, therefore it is false

      “Atheism of the gap”: at the current moment, Theism cannot explain certain data, therefore it is false

      Does that slightly make more sense?

      I will answer to your other longer comment in due time.

      • xon-xoff says :

        Ok Lothars, I hope I understand what you may mean to infer, however, atheism neither explains anything, nor does atheism need to explain anything. All atheism is a rejection of the claim that there is/are god(s).

        Allow me to suggest:

        “‘God of the gap': at the current moment, the breadth of human knowledge may not explain certain data, therefore ‘God did it’.”

        “‘Theistic claims with a mystery gap': at the current moment, Theism may not explain certain data, therefore the mystery remains.”

        cheers

      • lotharson says :

        Okay then replace “atheism” by “naturalism” or “materialism” and my definitions should work a bit better :=)

  3. xon-xoff says :

    ok, agreed :-))

  4. Andy Schueler says :

    “But this raises a very difficult question: how can we decide the threshold of tensions beyond which a worldview has been shown to be utterly implausible?”
    – Indeed. But there is also a related problem for progressive theology, which is, that the God espoused by progressive theologians died the “death of a thousand qualifications” (you probably know Anthony Flew´s famous essay “Theology & Falsification” where this phrase comes from: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/flew_falsification.html ).
    It could be phrased as such: assuming that the God you believe in is real, how would the world, as we can perceive / measure / experience it, be *any* different if this God were *not* real? And if you have no answer to that question, how is your God, even if he *were* real, different from an imaginary one?

    • lotharson says :

      What difference does the presence of bear-looking intelligent aliens in a parallel universe make for us?

      Can we conclude then they’re imaginary?

      • Andy_Schueler says :

        “What difference does the presence of bear-looking intelligent aliens in a parallel universe make for us?
        Can we conclude then they’re imaginary?”
        – If there is no way for those aliens in a parallel universe to interact with ours, then they are certainly *indistinguishable* from aliens that are purely imaginary.

  5. xon-xoff says :

    You know Lothars, I like your honesty: “Hello, not being a philosopher of religions or a theologian, I cannot give you a detailed (and convincing) answer to the challenges you raised against Perfect Being Theology.”

    If you do not have an answer, you admit it. Great. Now, perhaps we can chase an answer that’s meaningful.

    Perhaps some theologian has a meaningful answer–hint, hint, William of Ockham :-)

    “You’re right it is not possible for a finite mind to ‘conceive’ God. Nevertheless, we can (tentatively) conceive what His absolute moral goodness is, just by looking at mankind and at the holiest men (in all religions) who have ever lived.”

    Not sure if the above might be somewhat self-contradictory. You admit that a finite mind may not conceive God, but then go on to suggest that we can (tentatively) conceive His absolute moral goodness.

    Absolute, like perfect, is one of those loaded words. Its meaning is not very clear–to me, that is.

    How do we conceive absolute moral goodness?

    Can we conceive an absolute?

    I apologise if I take you to task on your wordings, but, this is where I come to bump heads with some of my theist friends and their thinking. Some of them tend to use words for which we may not have clear and mutually agreed upon understandings. And when we do encounter those meanings misunderstandings, it’s an easy “sleight of tongue” to have the words mean whatever anyone wants those words to mean.

    –> http://www.fecundity.com/pmagnus/humpty.html

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t- till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!'”

    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master-that’s all.”

    Unfortunately, with discussions on subjects for which our understandings are limited significantly or perhaps non-existent, we (all of us) sometimes trip over words.

    Perfect. Absolute. Omni[pick your attribute]. Supernatural. All. Everything. Nothing. Never. Ever. …

    “And many gods can be ruled out as being imperfect or even morally evil, like the Calvinist god predetermining people to act badly and punishing them eternally for that in hell.”

    By what criteria do we make the distinction that one god has an imperfection?

    By what criteria do we determine moral evil?

    • lotharson says :

      Hello, I am currently busy and also want to publish soon a new post so please be a bit patient concerning my response.

      You raise very interesting questions and I certainly want to avoid answering in a superficial way :=)

      • xon-xoff says :

        No worries Lothars. We’re in no hurry for an answer. Please take your time.

        cheers.

    • lotharson says :

      Hi, I wonder if we could perhaps skype together.

      My user name is “Lothars Sohn” , would you be interested?

      If so, I’m curious if you will find I have a French or German accent. English-speaking folks tell me I have both.

      Lovely greetings/ Liebe Grüsse.

      • xon-xoff says :

        Lothars hi,

        No probs; we can do that.

        However, I am at the office, and Skype is not useable. It would have to be when I am at home, and at a time amenable to both of us.

        Send me an e-mail and we can arrange accordingly: xon_bobst@yahoo.com

        cheers

  6. ntspanos says :

    Lothar, and Xon-xoff, too:

    I bellow with appreciation at your courteous but rigorous dialogue.
    It brings me joy to see people tussling for truth in a way that doesn’t degenerate to trashtalk.
    I hope your conversations continue to be cordial and enlightening.

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