Books by Arthur

Social Networks
Article Index [A-Z]

Doubt and Certainty: On the Incoherency of Belief

Philosopher William Irwin wrote an interesting piece for “The Stone,” an ongoing series of essays on “timely and timeless” philosophical issues that appears in the New York Times. In it Irwin argued that both religious faith and secular non-faith should, properly, be encased in doubt.

Blind religious conviction, like unthinking atheism, he argued, just isn’t very interesting. Total acceptance makes him suspicious. If one believes without question (from either side of the theological divide) it suggests, to Irwin, that they haven’t listened to the other side’s perspective.

Needless to say, the article attracted quite a few readers’ comments — 2,237 of them, to be precise. The Times selected seven of them and published them the following week. They’re thoughtful and focus on issues of faith, belief, doubt and certainty. They come from both believers and atheists and several intriguing points are made. But no one touched on what, for me, is the key issue: the incoherence of a deity.

I used to teach a course titled “Parapsychology: A Critical Examination.” One topic we looked at was the nature of belief. Invariably, a student would realize that God was a paranormal entity and we’d end up in usually fascinating discussions about religion and belief. The students always wanted to know what I believed. I’d duck and weave and refuse to answer till the semester of 9/11. The classroom windows gave a clear view of the towers. We saw them come down and I really couldn’t stay silent.

My belief is simple, I told them. Religion is just not relevant. It plays no role in my life. They said that made me an atheist. I demurred. Atheism means taking a stance on God, specifically, his (or her — some didn’t like that) existence. I’m not doing that. They didn’t like that either.

I told them I didn’t believe in 20-foot tall, four-headed purple unicorns. Confused looks ensured. It’s like that. I don’t deny their existence. I just don’t think about them. They’re irrelevant. It’s unlikely they exist but so what.

A young woman countered by noting that surely I’d thought about God.

Of course, I told them, but only when someone else brings the topic up.

That pretty much covered matters. I didn’t want to get into the incoherency argument because that was not my job. We were in that room to examine the cognitive processes involved in human belief, not what we believed.

But the issue of the coherency or lack thereof of deities is important and it was missing in the exchange in the Times though several comments raised the classic, “The existence of God can’t be proven or, for that matter disproven. It’s a matter of faith.”

This is, more-or-less, true. Efforts at proof usually turn on variations of the ontological argument, and have pretty much failed to satisfy theologians let alone logicians. In that sense, belief in the existence of God (or any other deity) is, indeed, dependent on faith.

The other side, the secularist, non-believer side, actually can make a better case based on the argument-from-incoherency principle.

Take my mythical unicorn. Everything we know about evolutionary biology, biochemistry and biophysics points to the impossibility of such a creature. So it just doesn’t make sense to offer ontological claims. Similarly, with deities. Everything we know about cosmology, astronomy and physics, about the age, size and nature of the universe, the age of our planet and the point in time when life emerged renders the very notion of a transcendent supreme being incoherent. It simply makes no sense.

Until recently we thought we were pretty much alone, our planet was all there was and it really felt like it was prepared, readied for us. We now know this terra-centric view is very wrong.

There are several hundred billion galaxies in the known universe. Each contains several hundred billion stars. Virtually every star we get a good look at turns out to have planets. It takes a stupendous dose of hubris to think that a supreme being oversees all this but selected our little dust mote of a planet for his/her largesse.

But even if you do think this way, the manner in which this supposed deity went about things is just nutty. Why wait some seven hundred million years for the first life forms? Why hang around for 4.5 billion years before getting to humans? Why would this entity cool his/her heels for another 300,000 years before giving us his blessings? And what was the sense in creating at least three different kinds of species of Homo before letting our kind knock off the others?

It just doesn’t make any sense. Not to me anyway and I’m just not comfortable with the line that “God works in mysterious ways.” I like a good mystery, especially a scientific mystery but those have, in principle, empirical and theoretical answers.

Is this a proof that God doesn’t exist? No. Proving non-existence isn’t easy to do when dealing with well-defined entities that lend themselves to empirical exploration and the ontological status of mysterian concepts like supreme beings isn’t one of those.

Perhaps thoughts like these are more common than we realize. Gretta Vosper, a minister of a church in Toronto has acknowledged that she is an atheist saying she just got to the point where she couldn’t believe in a supernatural being and claiming that she is far from alone. Many liberal congregations, she said, are headed by atheists, ones who value the good works that churches do and the role they play for families and communities.

I guess you don’t have to believe in God to do “God’s work.”

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>