Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Doggerel #42: "God"
Welcome to a special edition of "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. In this edition, I address something many people consider to be the answer to life, the universe, and everything:
One of the words out there that changes definitions quite often is "God." Are there more than one? Does it have effects on the natural world? Did it create the universe (a big natural effect)? Does it care about all the hominids scurrying around on a particular tiny rock?
Those are all questions that theists can't seem to agree on. Some can't even agree on whether or not they're answerable at all.
Moving along, there are plenty of varying definitions out there, so I'll try to cover as many as I can thnk of for the time being.
First, there's the falsifiable primitive deity. Plenty of these are in Greek mythology. Zeus, for example, hurled lightning bolts on his enemies. Apollo moved the sun across the sky via chariot, etcetera. These entities are falsifiable because we can come up with explanations for how those effects originate. We know something about how lightning works. We can control it via lightning rods. We can even make it to some extent. We know why the sun crosses the sky: The Earth rotates so that us surface dwellers perceive it as the sun's movement, instead of our own. No chariots involved.
These types of deities also have attributes assigned to them: Zeus can heal quickly after having his skull cracked open (to let out a suddenly fully-grown goddess). Balder is vulnerable to mistletoe. Bacchus is probably well over the legal limit. Osiris probably qualifies for the undead creature type. They all have powers of various descriptions.
Second, there's the Deist type of deity: One who created, but stopped right there. This kind isn't falsifiable (at least not yet), since our ability to extrapolate about the past has some limits, especially in the special case of "what the universe was like immediately after the Big Bang" when everything was super-dense, super-heated, and so forth. It's essentially a god in a really hard to fill gap. At least from my experience, Deists tend to be rather civil about it, and admit the shortcoming. I've been surprised before, though.
Third, there's the Intelligent Designer who's currently trying to push his way into the United States public school system, despite being a watered-down primitive deity: He's just been watered down into unfalsifiability. The Intelligent Design crowd just won't speak up about how he designed his stuff, and often won't address design flaws. What's up with that blind spot in our eyes?
Another problem is that when IDers attempt to define a method for detecting design, chances are there's someone out there who's already run an unintelligent evolutionary algorithm that's already addressed the issue. If IDers object to those, they're usually just shifting the goalposts away from evolution and back to cosmology. The other likely chance is that their definition includes absolutely anything as "designed" or falls into self-contradiction.
Fourth, there's the nebulous "fluff" god: An entity defined as undefinable. Not a terribly useful concept, is it? That's where a new -ism I've learned comes in: How can we form a conclusion on something when the conversation is rigged to guarantee no one knows what's being talked about?
Additional problems often occur with individual traits assigned to deities: Omnipotence, for example, is riddled with possible contradictions. Couple omnipotence with omnibenevolence, and you've got to deal with the old problem of evil, and why the existence of evil doesn't falsify one or both.
To add to the mess, a lot of people claim all sorts of things are impossible without gods hanging around. Morality is among the favorites, as if my compassion for my family, friends, and fellow residents of the universe would magically vanish and teamwork would stop being mutually beneficial if some cloudwalking guy in a toga wasn't around. Another concept allegedly made impossible by an absence of deities is free will (another topic altogether). That really strikes me as a non-sequitur. Can't say much beyond that, really.
This entry's likely going to face expansion as time goes on.