Thursday, 12 November 2009

Does God Exist?

Looking for a "punchy" blog title for today, I settled on the above. But as readers of this blog may well suspect, I am not going to come out with an answer one way or another! Instead, what I want to do is to explore the way in which I think belief or in God (or gods) is unprovable, one way or the other, and the kind of logic which might apply if we are looking at this.

So here are a few thoughts on what is provable or not, and why we have to make assumptions, and why reductionism can be bad for you (and not scientific anyway).

Even a scientific basis has to take for granted "unprovables", or axioms. If one "steps back" to the metaphysical assumptions that we make about the world, we can see that there are various assumptions that are simply taken for granted. Chesterton put this better than me:

Every sane man believes that the world around him and the people in it are real, and not his own delusion or dream. No man starts burning London in the belief that his servant will soon wake him for breakfast. But that I, at any given moment, am not in a dream, is unproved and unprovable. That anything exists except myself is unproved and unprovable.

All sane men believe that this world not only exists, but matters. Every man believes there is a sort of obligation on us to interest ourselves in this vision or panorama of life. He would think a man wrong who said, "I did not ask for this farce and it bores me. I am aware that an old lady is being murdered down-stairs, but I am going to sleep." That there is any such duty to improve the things we did not make is a thing unproved and unprovable.

All sane men believe that there is such a thing as a self, or ego, which is continuous. There is no inch of my brain matter the same as it was ten years ago. But if I have saved a man in battle ten years ago, I am proud; if I have run away, I am ashamed. That there is such a paramount "I" is unproved and unprovable. But it is more than unproved and unprovable; it is definitely disputed by many metaphysicians.

Lastly, most sane men believe, and all sane men in practice assume, that they have a power of choice and responsibility for action.

Now that does not mean that "God exists" is an assumption like those Chesterton considers, because he is looking at universals which can be taken as a starting point.

But working on this kind of thinking, we can see an analogy with Euclidean geometry, which itself proceeds from axioms (which are stated in terms of constructions).

1 To draw a straight line from any point to any other.
2 To produce a finite straight line continuously in a straight line.
3 To describe a circle with any centre and distance.
4 That all right angles are equal to each other.
5 That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines make the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.

To work with Euclidean geometry, one has to start with axioms, but the ancients - including Euclid - spent a good deal of time seeing if there was a way in which (5) which relates to parallel and non-parallel lines can be removed from the list. We now know that is not the case, and geometries can be constructed where (5) does not apply - non-Euclidean geometries.

Gödel's first incompleteness theorem showed that it is not possible to prove or disprove the parallel postulate from the remaining axioms.

I would argue that looking at the existence or non-existence of God is axiomatic in the same way as the parallel postulate, where science cannot provide a decision one way or another. It is beyond the scope of scientific proof. But then so are a good many things, which as Chesterton pointed out, we have to take for granted.

To reduce matters to science is the approach of logical positivism, which your friend seems to be veering towards. In this approach:

1 A proposition is meaningful only if it is verifiable.
2 A proposition is verifiable only if it can be proved or disproved or can be deduced from other propositions which are verifiable.
3 Statements that are not verifiable are cognitively meaningless although they may possess emotive meaning.
4 To argue about truth or falsity of statements that do not permit verification is a waste of time. Examples of metaphysical statements are 'there are angels' or 'the devil does not exist.' These sentences cannot be proved or disproved, they are meaningless.

This position of course has the great advantage of removing whole swathes of mathematics, such as the parallel postulate (which cannot be verified or deduced from other propositions)! It also has the wonderful plus of not being able to be verified itself; this it cuts off its own branch, because it is a set of metaphysical postulates which are not themselves verifiable according to the rules which they give for verifying rules - which was partly the basis of Karl Popper's critique.

Popper set out instead to differentiate between science and non-science, not science and nonsense (as the Positivists did), and noted that (in Conjectures and Refutations) that

And as for Freud's epic of the Ego, the Super-ego, and the Id, no substantially stronger claim to scientific status can be made for it than for Homer's collected stories from Olympus. These theories describe some facts, but in the manner of myths. They contain most interesting psychological suggestions, but not in a testable form. At the same time I realized that such myths may be developed, and become testable; that historically speaking all-or very nearly all-scientific theories originate from myths, and that a myth may contain important anticipations of scientific theories. Examples are Empedocles' theory of evolution by trial and error, or Parmenides' myth of the un-changing block universe in which nothing ever happens and which, if we add another dimension, becomes Einstein's block universe (in which, too, nothing ever happens, since everything is, four-dimensionally speaking, determined and laid down from the beginning).

I thus felt that if a theory is found to be nonscientific, or 'metaphysical' (as we might say), it is not thereby found to be unimportant, or insignificant, or 'meaning-less', or 'nonsensical'. But it cannot claim to be backed by empirical evidence in the scientific sense-although it may easily be, in some genetic sense, the 'result of observation'.

This is definitely an awareness of the limitations of science, and also how myths themselves may generate scientific theories. Not all will be - there is not a "myth of the gaps" theory here, because Popper is also aware that some theories may not ever be testable in a scientific sense, and he is very careful to note that this does not mean they are necessarily unimportant.

Lastly, I'll finish this section with an eye-opening off-the cuff speech by Douglas Adams, which again is a vote against being to quick to apply reductionism to our thinking - under the guise of "science", although really, as I suspect, a lurking logical positivism. This is not about the existence or non-existence of God, but it does show how such beliefs may play an important part in our thinking, in ways we are not fully aware of. Something, perhaps, to explore in another piece of writing.

I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there's been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn't be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense - there aren't any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that's actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we've lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven't had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we've had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we've had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we've had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It's all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I've been through that stressful time, as I'm sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you're trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live - and an awful lot of other things you don't know about that get left out. You don't know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you're trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven't really got much of a clue, but there's this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don't really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, 'It's going at 17 degrees'; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball's whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it's going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, 'Oh look, there's a ball coming; catch it!'

What I'm suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don't necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, 'how would a dragon live here?' We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We've never seen a dragon but we've all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, 'Well if a dragon went through here, he'd get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn't see that and he'd wave his tail and knock that vase over'. You figure out how the dragon's going to be happy here and lo and behold! you've suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

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