On Hallquist on me on Plantinga and Shafer-Landau

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 10, 2010 in Alvin Plantinga,Ethics,General Atheism

Christ Hallquist correctly says that I’ve taken some swipes at Reformed Epistemology without yet explaining what I think is wrong with it. He also correctly says that I compare some arguments for moral non-naturalism to Reformed Epistemology:

I think atheists make stunningly bad arguments for the existence of moral values. Ones that often take the same form as theistic arguments for the existence of God. I must ask the atheist moral realist: if you reject the weak and strained arguments for theism, why don’t you reject your own weak and strained arguments for moral realism?

As an example, I quoted Erik Wielenberg’s support for non-naturalistic moral realism:

…how can I justify my list of intrinsically worthwhile activities? I am afraid I have no philosophical proof… [but] many of the things we know are such that we cannot give [proof]… Claims about what is intrinsically good are the axioms of ethical theory; they are the starting points, the first principles. As such, they are unlikely to be the sorts of things that can be proved. Nevertheless, it is perfectly consistent to say that some activities are intrinsically valuable – and that we know what some of these are.1

Now that sounds particularly Plantingan. I call it “I feel it in my heart so it must be true” epistemology.

But since I haven’t explained what I think is wrong with this approach, Hallquist can only guess at what my complaints are:

Luke doesn’t give much indication of what his own thoughts on these issues are, beyond “all these people are wrong.” There is one sentence from the moral realism post that does seem to shed some light on his position: “it’s the duty of the person making a claim to prove it is correct.” This sounds like like a conversational norm (if you’re going to tell someone something, you’d better prove it) but my guess is that what Luke really has in mind is a norm governing private belief (if you believe something, you’d better be able to prove it).

I did indeed intend something like a conversational norm, not a doxastic norm (a norm governing the logic of belief). There are many things I believe that I cannot begin to “prove,” using any common definition of that word.

Hallquist seems to endorse something like the epistemology of G.E. Moore, who “thought all you needed to do to prove the existence of an external world was to hold up your hands and say ‘here are two hands.’”

But it’s hard to see how this helps Reformed Epistemology or moral non-naturalism. Plantinga cannot say, “Look, here is God,” and Wielenberg cannot say, “Look, here are moral values.”

But Hallquist appears to want to know what my epistemology is:

…[this all] raises the question of how we can believe statements in epistemology, like, “our senses are generally reliable” or “you shouldn’t believe what you can’t prove.” Probably there are interesting ways of understanding “proof” in which such statements are provable, but I would be curious to know what specifically Luke has in mind here (if he does have a well-developed idea in mind).

Hallquist is right to suspect that I don’t have the most well-developed theory of knowledge. I am a hobbyist philosopher, and I haven’t thoroughly considered the available epistemological positions. Like Wes Morriston, it’s easier for me to say what I think is wrong than to say what I think is right.

Eventually I’ll take the time to write some in-depth posts about epistemology, but for now I can only repeat what I said in my post On Seeking Truth.

I see truth-seeking as a practical enterprise. I don’t try to defend Grand Principles of knowledge and epistemic normativity. Rather, I see a story of humanity bumbling about the universe, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t:

Recently, humanity awoke in a strange and beautiful universe. We did not know where we came from or what we should do, but we did our best to survive. We made some guesses about what things existed and how they worked, and most of those guesses turned out to be wrong. It turned out there was not a magical being that would give us a good harvest if we sacrificed virgins to him every so often. It turned out we were not at the center of a small universe. It turned out disease was the product of microorganisms, not sin or demons. It turned out earthquakes and tsunamis were the product of shifting tectonic plates. The universe was full of surprises.

So the problem I have with intuition and many other ancient approaches to knowledge is that they just don’t work very well. They are constantly leading us astray. So why trust them?

That’s all for now.

  1. Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, page 34. []

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

RedKing February 10, 2010 at 8:15 am

I admit that I don’t have a very advanced grasp on epistemology, but it seems to me that we have very strong reasons for accepting things like “our senses are reliable” or “an external world exists” without proof. First, how would I even function without assuming that at least some of my senses are reliable? What would I do and how would I act if I thought that none of my senses were giving me accurate information, or that I didn’t exist?

Secondly, I think it’s pretty much impossible to argue that our senses are universally unreliable. The conversation would go something like this:

“Our senses are completely unreliable.”
“Can you give any examples of this? Well, no, not anymore, since anything you show me or argue with would have been conveyed via the senses, so you’ve cut off any way of arguing your position. I can now just assume that I’m not actually seeing you, and you’re not making an argument in the first place. I win.”

So what are we left with? We have to assume that at least some of our senses are accurate, otherwise we’re talking nonsense. This doesn’t mean that all of our sensations are completely accurate reflections of an external world, of course, but that’s not what anyone is arguing anyway.

Not believing in God, on the other hand, doesn’t leave us with this problem. I can deny that God exists without an explicit contradiction of the kind above.

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Briang February 10, 2010 at 8:59 am

Luke,

Have you read Kai-Man Kwan’s article in Blackwell’s companion to natural theology? I think his approach to religious experience makes more sense to me then Plantinga’s. His basic approach is to argue that while our experiences (from senses, memories and religious) are not infallible, a reasonable person should trust his experiences unless he has reason to doubt them.

This approach doesn’t make religious experience (or any other experience) immune from contrary evidence, but it doesn’t put one in the position of trying to escape a Cartesian-type doubt either.

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Steven Stark February 10, 2010 at 9:00 am

“So the problem I have with intuition and many other ancient approaches to knowledge is that they just don’t work very well. They are constantly leading us astray. So why trust them?”

I think that very fruitful, even essential, parts of life are dependent on intuition – aesthetics and morality are among them. I do not have a problem with leaning on our intuitions in these areas, and I would include a basic idea of God in with that. The problem is when people abuse intuition, by ignoring cross-checks with the other senses. For instance, “God exists” may be very open-ended and outside the ability to be cross-referenced. However, “Noah’s flood actually happened” is something that can be cross-checked, so relying on intuition completely is irresponsible.

Whether a person believes in God or not, in a very basic sense, is a matter of taste – and like aesthetics, we can offer reasons for our choices, but certainly no proof.

Also we might remember that our intuitions have been honed by natural selection in the same way that our empirical senses have been – and presumable for the exact same purpose – to apprehend something in some way.

It’s dangerous to trust our feelings at the expense of empirical observation (cross-checking), but it’s also dangerous to ignore our intuitions completely.

I look forward to reading other people’s thoughts.

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lukeprog February 10, 2010 at 10:19 am

Briang,

I’ve only skim-read Kwan’s article so far.

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Erika February 10, 2010 at 10:23 am

I think that Luke and many of the comments are vehemently agreeing that:

- senses and intuition are somewhat reliable
- it is reasonable to accept one’s senses and intuitions when forming beliefs
- it is not reasonable to expect people to accept your senses and intuitions when they are contrary to their own
- but it is reasonable to expect people to question their senses and intuitions when other evidence contradicts them

Or am I missing something here?

(Also, Luke, your comment preview functionality implies that using ul tags to make a list displays bullet points, but then they do not actually appear. That seems like a bug.)

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Baywolfe February 10, 2010 at 10:23 am

I’m going to side with Nietzsche on this one. Morality should be, and often is, developed based on who you dominate. In “Good and Evil” he discusses the difference between the Hero Moraility (Ancient Greece and others) with the Slave Moraility (Christianity and others).

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Hermes February 10, 2010 at 10:33 am

Steven Stark: I look forward to reading other people’s thoughts.

I agree, and have very little to add.

The main thing I’ll emphasize is that “God exists” is not intuitive, it is cultural and it is learned. Note the capitalization; “God” not “a deity” or “gods” or any other potential powerful and aware force(s). Daniel Everett’s research of the Piraha tribe shows that not only don’t they have some deity or spirit concept, they also handle quite a few other concepts differently as well. Their simple and direct view of the world, when compared to many abstract and complex views voiced here, shows many ‘intuitive’ ideas are really abstractions coming from culture. (Note that I’m not waxing nostalgically for some lost Eden that the Pirah or some other traditional tribal groups have.)

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Erika February 10, 2010 at 10:37 am

Hermes, I think you have a legitimate point, but I think that the same thing can be said about a lot of our intuitions, such as beauty. (E.g., the beautiful buxom renaissance woman would be considered fat today.) The line between natural intuition and cultural intuition is blurry, and I do not think that we should limit intuition to only natural intuitions.

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Hermes February 10, 2010 at 11:05 am

Erika, thanks.

As for beauty, much of that I would assert is intuitive and that while style (in this context ‘culture-based abstractions’) is not beauty, if style is ladeled on thick enough it can plaster over objections about something or someone not being a good example of beauty.

For example, thin or rubenesque as a style reflects cultural preferences that you probably can list for yourself. Yet, if the person in a portrait or a photo is noticeably asymmetrical, has lumpy/blotchy skin, or some other deformity they are not considered beautiful without an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ injection of some powerful cultural want (such as money or power).

As an aside, note that I did not mention, nor do I limit, the discussion to nature or natural … anything. If the evidence at hand happens to be describable as natural (as opposed to some other category), then that’s just support for nature being an important category while others may not be as important or at all. That, though, is a different conversation.

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Chris Hallquist February 10, 2010 at 11:11 am

Comments:

(1) Thanks for clarifying the conversational norm / doxastic norm thing.

(2) It’s worth clarifying what’s meant by a Moore-style view. Taking your inspiration just his “Proof of the External World,” you might take on a “pointing to something proves it” view, and I was suggesting Luke might want to embrace such an approach, but Moore’s epistemology went beyond this. He’s also known as the founder of intuitionism in ethics, and can be seen as a precursor to Shafer-Landau. Broadly, the approach is to start of believing whatever seems obvious to you, though being willing to modify it based on evidence and arguments. A Moore-inspired argument for this approach is that any argument for distrusting what seems obvious to us will have to depend on other things that seem obvious to us, but probably less-obvious than the beliefs the argument is supposed to undermine.

(3) I like the point about wanting an epistemology that works, in practical terms, for getting at the truth. This is a problem with Plantinga’s epistemology–it isn’t designed to get at the truth, but rath to insulate Christians from ever having to change their beliefs. But it isn’t obvious that the intuition-heavy methods of many analytic philosophers haven’t worked very well. Many philosophers would say that there are cases of arguments where one or more premises don’t have much going for them beyond the fact that they seem intuitively obvious, and the argument looks decisive in retrospect. Indeed, I would say that there are many straightforward counterpoints to common religious claims that are like this. These are plausible examples of where intuitionistic methods have worked to discover something.

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lukeprog February 10, 2010 at 11:29 am

Thanks, Erika. I’ll be redesigning the website soon; hopefully that will clear up the bugs. Unfortunately, I am not a web designer!

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lukeprog February 10, 2010 at 11:34 am

Hallquist,

“Many philosophers would say that there are cases of arguments where one or more premises don’t have much going for them beyond the fact that they seem intuitively obvious, and the argument looks decisive in retrospect. ”

Yeah, those are usually arguments I don’t find compelling. :)

The plain fact is that when intuition was our only method of truth-seeking, we were dead wrong about damn near everything. Our intuitions did not evolve to be truth-tracking. Indeed, I think this is what’s right about Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism. One place he goes wrong is in assuming that we haven’t been quite successful in correcting our intuitions through more reliable means (e.g. science).

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ildi February 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Speaking of whom, anybody planning on attending the Alvin Plantinga Retirement Celebration Conference?

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lukeprog February 10, 2010 at 1:38 pm

If I lived near Notre Dame, I would probably attend.

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Kyle February 10, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Luke,

I’m not clear about what you’re saying. Do you think it is reasonable to start with those beliefs that seem to be true, and to work on that basis reflecting upon ones own beliefs and refining them as one begins to understand them better?

At times you seem to endorse such a view, and at other times you think that it is flawed.

“I feel it in my heart so it must be true”

This is not what Plantinga argues for. Feelings do not guarantee truth. Plantinga argues that what makes a belief knowledge is whether or not it originates in a properly functioning cognitive faculty. He also argues that all that is required is the truth of that, not that it be known. Just in the same way that a non-circular argument for perceptual beliefs is not possible. A sceptic about perceptual knowledge would hardly be impressed by a scientific investigation of perceptual knowledge, since science depends upon our perceptual faculties it will not convince anyone who seriously doubts those faculties.

But it’s hard to see how this helps Reformed Epistemology or moral non-naturalism. Plantinga cannot say, “Look, here is God,” and Wielenberg cannot say, “Look, here are moral values.”

Why can’t the same thing be done in the case of God or morality. Can’t you just “see” that torturing babies is wrong? When some say they cannot I am perplexed, but that doesn’t really detract from how obvious it seems to me. That doesn’t mean that I think my intuitions guarantee truth, but it going to take a lot more than someone disagreeing with me for me to give it up.

Imagine Moore was talking to Berkeley, and tried to prove to him that physical objects existed, and said, “Look, here is a hand”. That would not convince Berkeley, but does that mean Moore should also give up his belief?

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Desperately Seeking February 10, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Looking around today for philosophically informed defenses of theistic belief and Christian belief–quite different, but usually found together in the same mind–I know there are two flavors to be found. One is Plantinga’s reformed epistemology. Another is natural theology as exemplified by Alston, Quinn, Swinburne, McGrew and McGrew, and Craig.

Is there some third sort of defense that stands apart and deserves equal attention? (Or am I lumping my naturals together in a confused way?)

(I know there are also bare-believers of a Tillichian sort, but I wouldn’t classify them as Christian, and only marginally as theistic.)

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lukeprog February 10, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Kyle,

Like I said, I know this is all an oversimplification and I’ll write more about epistemology later. Thanks for your questions.

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lukeprog February 10, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Desperately Seeking,

I suppose there’s a third category of those who don’t think their Christian beliefs are warranted at all, they just believe on faith.

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Steven Stark February 11, 2010 at 9:40 am

Hermes ““God exists” is not intuitive, it is cultural and it is learned.”

I think if we define God specifically, then you are certainly right. The English language I speak is cultural, but the desire to communicate is perhaps intuitive. So there is an intuitive desire in humans to look in wonder up at the sky, to seek, etc. The specifics of their conclusions are certainly culturally driven. I should point out, however, that there is no clear distinction between intuition and something “learned”. Surely it’s a sliding scale, and cultural evolution is as real as genetic evolution. Thanks for your point.

Luke,
“Our intuitions did not evolve to be truth-tracking”

I think our intuitions evolved for the same reason our senses evolved – they contributed to our survival. Any claim of truth beyond that is perhaps intuitive. I do not claim that intuitions, feelings and contemplation are perfect at all. But aren’t they really what life is all about in the end? And aren’t the empirical senses ultimately only good when they contribute to a greater sense of feeling, like happiness?

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Hermes February 11, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Daniel Everett’s research of the Piraha tribe

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Hermes February 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm

[ ignore last post please; I sneezed! ]

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Hermes February 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Steven Stark: I think if we define God specifically, then you are certainly right. The English language I speak is cultural, but the desire to communicate is perhaps intuitive. So there is an intuitive desire in humans to look in wonder up at the sky, to seek, etc. The specifics of their conclusions are certainly culturally driven. I should point out, however, that there is no clear distinction between intuition and something “learned”. Surely it’s a sliding scale, and cultural evolution is as real as genetic evolution. Thanks for your point.

That’s about it, though I would point out that, as opposed to the sky, there were no feelings of wonder and awe when looking at mountains. They were ‘repulsive … infertile’ (Jonathan Miller, lost reference. :-( )

Note that my use of capital-G “God” was explicitly a cultural reference and was mentioned to include it in the category of generic deities that many people do not see “God” (or Allah) as a member of, mainly because they reject or simply ignore all other deities. Many societies bathe in that kind of unreflective bias towards a very narrow view of the world.

I’d add in Daniel Dennet’s comments in “Breaking the Spell” and attributing intent to inanimate objects as a biological imperative for humans (but not all other creatures, mostly for larger animals that lack predators for a large number of generations).

Somewhat conversely, but still skeptically Bruce Hood (~4:00 through 8, money at 6:30+) covers how children gain supernatural ideas and how adults can regress to them.

Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity (start at 5:00, money at ~6:30+ & ~13:15, 15:00-17:00) talks about ‘a Genius’(aka muse/…); as a magical divine entity as a buffer and a ‘source’ of creativity.

The mistake that I think many people make is that these ideas and intuitions either envelop a person and replace a more sane assessment of reality (as shown by Hood, Dennett, Shermer, …), or they are not respected as a part of our intuition (E. Gilbert) and that we stiffly have to reacquire them.

[ rant follows ]

I think that the staunchly religious (as an example) had their intuitive selves put under constraints by socialization, threats, isolation, and repetition of some very narrow and unfounded ideas in a self-referential social group of like thinkers. That is, they were indoctrinated.

In the process, the intuition and the sense of others and our other selves (including as Gilbert discusses the nagging or available ‘genius’) melds to the new environment. The self then restrains itself by use of the intuition and the muse/genius/’invisible friend’/… and the person who is hobbled in this way has a distortion of reality (listen to invisible apple analogy starting at ~8:15, money at 10-14, take the rest with a pinch of salt) controlled by a narrow social conscience or dictatorial policeman. (Similarly, this is also documented in the presentation by Evid3nc3′s on his reversion from Christianity as Luke pointed out a few days ago in a News Bit post; http://www.youtube.com/user/evid3nc3?blend=1&ob=4&rclk=cti#p/c/A0C3C1D163BE880A )

I’ve always had an active imagination and reign “it” back in as needed. “It” does not control me, but I let “it” go at times while I tag along for the ride. As such, I would not be surprised if most people already allow some of that muse/genius/’invisible friend’ lunacy but realize it must be subsumed to be healthy. We can see the origins of this in young children that attribute intent to an object, as well a less healthy variety of it in adults who cuss or beg equally non-sentient objects to ‘just work’ when they should be calmly assessing what they know and what they can do at the moment.

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Steven Stark February 11, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Hermes,

I only hope that I have time someday to explore all those links you provided! Thank you.

I am familiar with Dennett and evolutionary reasons why religion has evolved. I think it makes sense.

I think that where I am coming from is this:

If a person chooses to believe something, that in some way is unknowable – such as the idea that something is responsible for the creation of the universe, for instance, then is it unreasonable to make this “leap”? Especially if there are good reasons for believing it – such as the tangible goods that may result in leading a life as if this proposition were true. I think it is fine. I think it is a matter of taste, and like an aesthetic value, people can hold this idea responsibly (or irresponsibly – all too often!). It is also responsible to think that holding this “soft” belief is unnecessary.

I associate the fundamental idea of “God” with feelings and senses before the thinking mind steps in to interpret. If I choose to believe that there is some sort of good or truth, then that is fine – especially when it offers empirically provable benefits – more meaning, a feeling that we are a part of this universe – as opposed to outsiders, etc.

gotta run, take care, Steven

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Robert Gressis February 11, 2010 at 7:59 pm

“Is there some third sort of defense that stands apart and deserves equal attention? (Or am I lumping my naturals together in a confused way?)”

There’s Kant’s way. Belief in God is a consequence of belief in the right kind of morality, to put it succinctly.

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Hermes February 11, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Steven, I tried to narrow it down to just a few minutes of the best parts, but to be honest most of those links are worth going through from end to end once or twice. (Exception: 2nd to last link ‘how_to_control_a_human_soul’ often wastes time on the author’s political ideas.)

As for the rest, I have two very focused comments;

* People can’t choose to believe.

They believe or they do not believe. Beliefs are often less mailable than knowledge, as beliefs rise up from a similar source to intuition. While knowing something can be challenged simply by knowing more or finding out you were mistaken. If they can choose without knowing or believing, they are guessing. While the word belief is often used as ‘I guess’, it is not used like that in the conversations that occur on these types of forums.

* I like your analogy of “God”, though I would recommend making it more generic unless you mean specifically Yahweh+Holy Spirit+Jesus or just Yahweh. I’d be on board even more if it were more of what E. Gilbert talked about. Additionally, when I look at the benefits of religious belief, I think back to Dennett’s “belief in belief” and then compare it to actual real-world results that show that higher levels of religious belief are negatively correlated with a healthy society.

There are simply too many people abusing our better muses and our real lives in the interest of religious dogmatism and the power it gains them. The Greeks would consider it a clear tragedy.

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Steven Stark February 12, 2010 at 10:46 am

Hey Hermes,

Good thoughts:

“If they can choose without knowing or believing, they are guessing.”

I would say that every part of life has some degree of guesswork in it. A central idea in Eastern thought, is that living inside this guessing, the “Don’t know mind”, is a wonderful thing. I agree, though of course, our lives are making calculated gambles as to what beliefs (hard or soft) will benefit us.

“There are simply too many people abusing our better muses and our real lives in the interest of religious dogmatism and the power it gains them. The Greeks would consider it a clear tragedy. ”

too true.
“higher levels of religious belief are negatively correlated with a healthy society.”

I tend to see religion as a response to negative political situations. Although, then the cart can certainly turn around and pull the horse!

I think that all religions are man-made. When I say God, I am thinking more of what Karen Armstrong would call “the god behind god”. I realize that my language is different than “strong” theists on these forums, but language is our slave, not our master. And I feel the word “God” is still the best choice for what I mean – though there are close seconds – compassion – love – ultimate unity….maybe some others?

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Hermes February 12, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Agreed, up to the use of the proper noun “God” for a generic K. Armstrong style deity. I’m a fan of her work and Joseph Campbell’s, though I do not agree with them.

As for what Armstrong talks about in her books, I would contend it is woven into and wells up from our psychology and ancestry, and is not some external self-sufficient entity. She may want to keep her toe in the ‘external deity’ world, but very little of what she says and a bit of what she says puts her descriptions of source deities in the realm of a very handy concept to cover some human experiences and not an actual self-sufficient other entity.

Using the proper noun “God” for anything that’s a specific named deity — specifically anything not the common name for the god of Abraham causes quite a bit of confusion. The followers of the religions derived from Abraham’s deity all assume that you mean *their* deity when the proper name capital-G “God” is used. Who can blame them? They’ve capitalized it. They’ve sat on it for centuries. Why are you to make it into something that’s not their deity? That’s why I don’t use “God” if I don’t mean “the god of Abraham”.

If I mean “a deity” or “a group of deities” or “some generic god”, I say that. In this case, if you mean some kind of spiritual level or a psychological level, then I encourage you to emphasize that spirituality or psychology even if it is awkward in a sentence because otherwise you’re creating a huge misunderstanding with the other person. Even if they smile and nod in agreement, they probably are thinking something entirely different and you aren’t communicating with them, you are talking to yourselves.

I’ll give an example of what I mean that is brutally unfair and distorted, and allow you to consider it as a template for fair and entirely real examples you may have encountered yourself.

* * *

Christian: “God is love!”

Me: “So, is your idea of a god only love?”

Christian: “You believe in love, don’t you?”

Me: “I don’t have to believe it, I know that there’s love.”

Christian: “When you experience love, you are experiencing God.”

Me: “OK.”

Christian: “So, you believe in God?”

Me: “I suppose so, using those terms.”

Christian: “Then you must believe in Jesus, the great flood, … .”

Me: [Grrrr...]

* * *

The word “God” is unashamedly used as both bait and switch and to ignore all possibilities that aren’t the True-Christian(tm) brand of Christianity that the one specific person you’re talking to subscribes to. Pointing out that there are 30,000~ sects is both ignored and actually is beside the point, because the presupposition is still there in the minds of the True-Christian you’re addressing.

By bait and switch, I do mean that literally. Even if it’s only meant by the Christian (or other theist; I’ve seen the same from Muslims, Jews, and Hindus) as an expression of their own assumptions, they often use it reflexively or overtly dishonestly. They do this by talking about some abstract undefined deity hole and then at the end, they slam the peg named Yahweh+Jesus as the perfect fit for that deity hole. But, it’s not a perfect fit, as they have to go back and carve off quite a bit of the Yahweh+Jesus peg to make it fit the abstract hole they’ve defined. Once that happens, they are left with a non-Christian deity that still lacks positive support for it’s existence. Pure madness, and a total waste of time.

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Steven Stark February 12, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Hermes,

The argument that the term “God” should not be used, but cast aside, is a great argument to have – with good points on both sides.

I have always been more of a fan of the question “What does the word ‘God’ mean to you?” than “do you believe in God?” The former starts a dialogue, the latter tells us very little.

I often use the word God because it is the closest thing to what I mean, as understood commonly. I say “Godspeed” , “God bless you” and “God Damn!” because people know what these phrases mean – it doesn’t require an explanation, and it has little to do with theology and everything to do with connection, care and appealing to a great commonality.

I agree with your point concerning your excellently concocted conversation with the hypothetical Christian. However just because a person can twist my words, does not mean they get to control my vocabulary. And a term like “God” is in a different category than a word like “table”. The latter is the same across cultures. The former is ever-shifting – a mere crucible for what mankind deems important, in common, and mysterious.

Thanks for the great conversation!

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Hermes February 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Steven Stark: The argument that the term “God” should not be used, but cast aside, is a great argument to have – with good points on both sides.

No, I don’t think it should be cast aside but that it should be used appropriately — like Kleenex(tm) and Xerox(tm). If it’s not identifying an Abrahamic revealed deity, then it should not be capitalized and my personal preference is that “god” (small-g) should be phrased as “a god” or “gods” or “a god or gods” not just “god”. If the deity is explicitly the Abrahamic one, I tend to use the name “Yahweh” as it makes it that much more explicit and often that I do not take “Yahweh” as a given or presupposition as the readers or listeners may (even secular ones).

Steven Stark: I have always been more of a fan of the question “What does the word ‘God’ mean to you?” than “do you believe in God?” The former starts a dialogue, the latter tells us very little.

Well, that’s true. There are probably as many “gods” (capital-G or not) as there are people, if not much more.

Steven Stark: I often use the word God because it is the closest thing to what I mean, as understood commonly. I say “Godspeed” , “God bless you” and “God Damn!” because people know what these phrases mean – it doesn’t require an explanation, and it has little to do with theology and everything to do with connection, care and appealing to a great commonality.

It doesn’t require an explanation any more than “Tuesday” or “March” or “gesundheit” does, either. They are either idioms or words bound to the language.

Steven Stark: However just because a person can twist my words, does not mean they get to control my vocabulary. And a term like “God” is in a different category than a word like “table”. The latter is the same across cultures. The former is ever-shifting – a mere crucible for what mankind deems important, in common, and mysterious.

The problem isn’t if someone distorts what you mean by the word “God” it’s that the word “God” (capital-G not lower-g) does indeed mean “Abrahamic deity”. It’s a proper noun, like Sam Edwards, Michelin(tm), or Eiffel Tower. It’s not going to change and constantly shift in your lifetime or in the lives of your grandchildren (baring life extension) no matter how many Karen Armstrongs show up to tweak it.

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Steven Stark February 12, 2010 at 9:15 pm

“There are probably as many “gods” (capital-G or not) as there are people, ”

Absolutely.

“It doesn’t require an explanation any more than “Tuesday” or “March” or “gesundheit” does, either. They are either idioms or words bound to the language.”

Exactly.

Hermes, I am with you on using the term “Yahweh” when describing the God of the OT. Or “Elohim”. Or “El Shaddai”. But “God” is not limited to an Abrahamic deity – even if that is the one that comes to mind first in this part of the world. This is true for me and many, many people. In fact, I prefer to use the term “Yahweh” when referring to the OT, because it creates a separation between the God of the Bible and “God”.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. I could use the term “floobie” – the question is what it means. And I think it is fine to use the term “God” as a crucible for that which is, for that which is mysterious, for that which we hold in common, etc.

- for a fundamental aspect of life that we have access to, but is not satisfactorily described by words or mental images.

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Hermes February 13, 2010 at 4:02 am

Steven, good discussion.

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Steven Stark February 13, 2010 at 11:55 am

Hermes,

Right back atcha. – a very good debate to have.

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