Reason 101 - Pillar 5: Nature

I’m entitling this category Nature is to keep things on a positive note.

A rational man is committed to the absolutism of reality and the efficacy (competence) of his reasoning mind.  He believes in Nature, the law of identity, and has a built-in environmental (if you dislike that word as leftist, say "conservation") ethic.  He believes in natural explanations and rejects supernatural ones.

My discussion under this category concerns the most ubiquitous (widespread) concept of the supernatural, to which many people cling for various, mostly social, reasons: the concept of God.  In my view, the position on this issue represents the worldwide litmus test of core rationality, from the Bible Belt to the Middle East.

Let’s start the analysis with a question:

"What are we talking about?"

Before any progress can be made in discovering whether God exists, we have to know what he/she/it would be if it did exist.  That is, we need a definition of the concept that is commonly denoted by the word G-o-d.  The following exhaust the options:

  1. No definition proposed
  2. Definition proposed, two options
    1. Definition does not contain contradictions
    2. Definition contains contradictions

Option 1: No Definition Proposed

Many believers will retort to our request for a definition, "Definition, definition, we don’t need no stinkin’ definition!  What makes you think God can be defined by your puny little mind?  God can’t be defined."  Well, fine, if that is the position, then we’re literally talking about nothing, and God is a meaningless concept.  Everything that exists must by that assertion be capable of being defined, i.e. rendered into a meaningful concept.

If you assert some nonsense word, say, Bleefnu, exists, I’d say, "Okay fine, what is bleepin’ Bleefnu?"  If you then say Bleefnu isn’t definable, you would be telling me Bleefnu doesn’t exist and I would be shaking my head saying "Nice talking with you, bud."  Another failed conversion, as I walk away presumably destined for Bleefnubian hell.

Option 2: Definition Proposed

Option 2 then is a required option if you want any kind of CSB.  Note that we have two ways to go with a definition attempt, one without contradictions and one with contradictions.  Let’s consider the definition without contradictions first.

Option 2a: Definition without Contradictions

The only problem with this option is the noncontradictory definition isn’t a definition most people, when pressed, want for their God.

Let’s start the exercise this way: I tell you God is a unicorn, defined as a one-horned pony.  This definition is noncontradictory, there’s no conceptual impossibility that prohibits a one-horned pony-type creature, and we know what it would look like if we were to find one.

The problem is then whether the asserted entity in fact exists in reality.  And we can conduct a search and possibly find the unicorn someday.  In other words, there is nothing that prevents the unicorn from existing except for it actually not existing.

The analogous argument used by proponents of the definable God is that he is some kind of big buddy in the sky.  A special kind of friendly phantasm (ghost).  No one has a problem with the concept of a phantasm, it can be an energy field with distinct cloudlike properties.  Most of us have seen Ghostbusters (1989) and know what a ghost would look like if we were to see one.

So if God is a big distinctive ghost, then it should be a simple enough to find him and demonstrate his existence.  So far as I know, this hasn’t happened.  If any of our readers has heard of the discovery, please be so kind as to contact us.

Another Option 2a alternative is simply to use God as a giant synonym for something we all know, something important that can be described from our common human experience, e.g. positive energy, the life force, our better natures, a warm puppy dog, the zone, etc.  The value of all these representations is they can be shown to exist.

The question is why call them God?

Option 2b: Definition with Contradictions

It has been said, that if one could prove the existence of God, people who believe in God would come up with another concept for God that could not be proved.  The psychological motives are fairly obvious: people want to feel exempt from reality, especially when reality is harsh or they feel they don’t measure up.

Regardless of motives, the overwhelming majority of people who assert God believe in its representation as a series of contradictory attributes.  Since this is a predominantly Christian country, let’s use a definition that a lot of people go with:

The first of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion, found at the back of The Book of Common Prayer (US Episcopal Church), reads "There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.  And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."  From this one can construct a first minimum definition of the word God: it means "a Being which is unique, unitary, incorporeal, infinitely powerful, wise, and good, personal but without passions, and the maker and preserver of the universe."(13)

Standard Christian definition.  Right away we can see contradictions:

  1. Incorporeal being—a being is generally held to require a physical body, i.e. corporeal entity; to say your deity is an incorporeal corporeal entity cancels out the assertion leaving it sadly bereft of meaning.
  2. Infinitely powerful and wise—infinite power (omnipotence) presents a problem of its own, such as "if your deity is omnipotent then it should be able to build a mountain it cannot climb.  But not to be able to climb a mountain is a limit on your deity’s power, so it cannot be omnipotent."

    When omnipotence and infinite wisdom (omniscience or all-knowingness) are combined in the same being, you have a similar contradiction: if the being knows something is going to happen, then it is powerless to change that; thus take your pick, omniscience or omnipotence, you can’t have both.  I’ll leave the reader to determine if omniscience presents its own logical impossibilities.
  3. Personal but without passions—this just sounds impossible, based on any reasonable definition of what it means to be personal or passionate (emotional).  If a person has no feelings, we’re probably not dealing with a person.  And why wouldn’t God have any feelings?  Perhaps that has to do with the final point:
  4. Omnipotent and infinitely good—theologians have dealt with this issue for centuries, it’s called The Problem of Evil.  If God is all powerful and all good, whence evil?  Granted, God has no feelings, but one would think he’d show some care for his creatures.  The common defense to the Problem of Evil is that what we see as evil is not truly evil.  Remember that the next time a beheading occurs in Iraq.

Allright then, we’re basically done with the exercise, certainly the part having to do with what can be reasonably asserted without contradiction.  Option 2a is the only option available for the rational man, namely that the meaningful use of the word God for an entity that actually exists.

In which case, I would argue we pick a different word because of what most people think you’re talking about when you say God.  So I question and quibble with that, and in general a rational man simply states he does not believe in God.  He thinks for himself.

Before we leave the subject, I want to dispose of two basic ideas that Christian theists throw at you, namely that you should believe in God not out of a sense of rationality rather from a sense of necessity.  These are known as 1) the first cause argument and 2) Pascal’s Wager.

The First Cause Fallacy

This question is posed, often rhetorically by Thomist Catholics, "Doesn’t everything require a cause, and as such the universe itself.  Therefore, God must be necessary as a cause of the universe."

Nathaniel Branden dealt with this argument in a column in the May 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, the Intellectual Ammunition department.  His response is essentially as follows:

Two problems exist with the proposition: 1) if the universe requires a cause, God provides it, and 2) the universe requires a cause.

As for the first problem, to posit God as the cause of the universe simply moves the question one step backward, "if God exists, then God requires a cause, which must be God, therefore, pretty soon we’re going to run into an infinite regression of Gods."  Please keep in mind here the proposed God is the Option 2b deity (which cannot exist because of the contradiction(s) in its definition).

Second, the universe does not require a cause.  Causality is inside the universe, not vice versa.  The universe, meaning all that exists or existence, has no cause.  If you must give things a sequential flavor, then existence is its own cause.  Branden finishes with a classic Objectivist flourish:

"Existence is all that exists, the nonexistent does not exist; there is nothing for existence to have come out of and nothing means nothing.  If you are tempted to ask, ‘What’s outside the universe?’ recognize that you’re asking, ‘What’s outside existence?’ and that the idea of something outside of existence is a contradiction in terms; nothing is outside of existence, and ‘nothing’ is not just another kind of ‘something’—it is nothing.  Existence exists; you cannot go outside it, you cannot get under it, on top of it, or behind it.  Existence exists, and only existence exists: there is nowhere else to go."

Whoa!  Way harsh, dude.

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager is a classic formulation of ethics driving belief.  It comes from the 17th Century French mathematician Blaise Pascal who stated in essence:

"If you bet on God, and he exists, your reward is great; if you do not bet on God, and he exists, your punishment is severe, and if he does not exist you haven’t lost much.  Therefore, bet on God."

The wager assumes a lot, also ignoring the staggering odds against God.  As we have seen, only Option 2a is realistic, and you’re betting there on a God with limits.  Even assuming the possibility of finding that being, if God has limits, the chances are slim God will be able to offer you eternal blessings.

An Objectivist writer and thinker, George H. Smith came up with a classic counterwager to Pascal’s Wager(14):

"If you bet on God and he exists, the odds are strongly against God playing fair.  Therefore, bet against God to help secure the highest intellectual integrity and moral character, a great life free of guilt and supernatural treachery."

Let’s conclude by considering some sociological reasons for belief in a deity.

Clearly churches, and many of them fine positive organizations, have provided a fellowship of kindred souls, a community often bonded with love and compassion.  Many people go to church and become active not out of doctrinal loyalty, but to meet people, to touch and be touched by them, to help people, even to seek knowledge.

Also, quite a few people take succor in the idea of a warm, friendly, highly capable CSB smiling down upon them.  They’re buoyed by the love beams in the midst of troubles.

The last thing we skeptics want to do is rudely sever people from an illusion that provides a ray of hope; but there are other ways and have always been other ways to form communities of people to help one another—without the need for a CSB.  These communities have the added advantage of being real.

The secular humanists have various groups, and I’ve heard of another more explicitly Objectivist-libertarian benevolent society that is going to be starting up in ’05.  The world is full of book discussion and social clubs that have a lot of potential for bringing those kindred souls together to share and to celebrate "the best within us."

So that ends the discussion of this pillar.  If you still believe—aside from the Option 2a limited version—please feel free to send me an email and/or post a message on our forums.  Whether you do believe in God is important, because as someone once said, "Someone who believes in God is liable to believe in anything…" usually not so good.

Note  -  The fact I have not countered the metaphysical errors of "Godless communism" or other nationalist/socialist utopian "theology" should not be construed as any sort of sympathy for these systems.  Indeed, they are remarkably like Christian theism: the ineffable concept of "society" takes the place of the ineffable concept of God.  Both require sacrifice of the individual to this higher concept—in practice the sacrifice is always from one group of people to another.  A rational man rejects gods of both church and state., Reason 101

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  1. Flew, Antony. God and Philosophy, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York, 1966. back to text
  2. Smith, George H., Atheism: The Case Against God, Prometheus Books, NY, 1989. back to text