Sunday, January 28, 2007

God vs. the Flying Spaghetti Monster

There's an interesting post over at Bill Vallicella's blog on whether belief in God is in the same rational boat as belief that there is a tiny china teapot orbiting the sun, an angry unicorn on the dark side of the moon, or the flying spaghetti monster. Bill says no, and I agree.

He notes a number of salient points of difference. The most important is simply that there are lots of principled, positive arguments for God's existence grounded in very general features of reality (for a sampling, see here), whereas there are no such arguments for lunar unicorns, flying spaghetti monsters, and such. Moreover, many theistic arguments have had defenders from among the brightest minds who have ever lived (e.g., Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, etc.). To my knowledge, no one - or at least no one of recognized intelligence, erudition, and sanity - takes belief in celestial teapots, lunar unicorns, or flying spaghetti monsters seriously.

Another relevant issue here is the burden of proof. Bertrand Russell seems to think that belief in God is just as unsubstantiated, and therefore just as irrational, as belief in a celestial teapot. But, as the preceding paragraph (and Bill's post) shows, the two cases are not at all on par with each other. Here's what I wrote in reply to Bill:
Every claim faces a burden of proof in that it is always fair to challenge the claim by asking for its grounds or justification. That said, ... it seems to me that the extent of this burden can be modified by at least three factors:
  1. Prima facie plausibility. All other things being equal, one who makes a claim having less prima facie plausibility has a greater burden of proof than one who makes a claim that has greater prima facie plausibility.
  2. High stakes. All other things being equal, the more deleterious the consequences of a claim's being false, the greater the burden of proof on the one making the claim....
  3. Conventional stipulation: In some contexts (e.g., a formal debate, or a criminal trial) there is a conventional burden of proof that each of the participants implicitly accepts.
Assessments of (1) and (2) ... exhibit a degree of audience-relativity. Thus, an atheist like Russell may judge that the idea of God is so antecedently implausible that, given the inconclusiveness of the standard arguments for God's existence, the theist has failed to meet his burden of proof and thus has failed to establish his rational bona fides in believing in God. A theist or an agnostic, however, may find the traditional theistic arguments more than adequate to establish the rationality of theism because they don't judge theism to have such a high prima facie implausibility.

Granting all that, however, ... Russell fails to appreciate the fact that principled arguments can be given for theism and that, even if all of those arguments prove unconvincing, that's still a lot more than can be said for invisible unicorns and such.


At 2/01/2007 11:17 AM, Blogger stunney said...

Something I wrote a while back....

One objection to theism which I've come across is based on a misunderstanding. It's the Flying Spaghetti Monster objection (also known as the Goldfish Bowl objection, and as the Invisible Pink Dragon objection).

I'll go with Goldfish version because I came across it in that form first.

There's a goldfish, living in a goldfish bowl. The goldfish infers that there must be a Big Goldfish beyond the bowl, who created both the goldfish and the bowl.

The analogy suggests that human believers in God think of God as an Invisible Big Man (with a long white beard, etc), though this point isn't really crucial.

The reason this is to misunderstand the theist's argument is because goldfish morphology, no more than human morphology, isn't really the thing to be explained by the theistic inference. The objection takes the goldfish (and the goldfish bowl) as being the key phenomena to be explained. But of course, it's the goldfish's putative rational mind that is the key thing to be explained. (The parody implicitly attributes to the goldfish a rational mind because the goldfish is capable, in the parody, of making inferences.)

In other words, it's the existence of Reason as such and its reflection in the rational structure of reality which needs explanation. Only, so the theist contends, can a metaphysically ultimate reality endowed with reason do this.

In other words, the metaphysical ultimate has to be rationally mind-like. And, the theist adds, all the phenomena associated with mind in addition to rationality also need such an ultimately mind-like explanation---e.g., value (both moral and aesthetic, or goodness and beauty for short), consciousness, meaning, purpose, and so forth.

If reason is reliable in relation to knowledge of reality, in other words, then something analogous to rational mind must be ontologically fundamental, metaphysically basic---and necessarily so.

The only reason the Big Goldfish (or an Invisible Pink Dragon or a Flying Spaghetti Monster) seem to work as parodies of theistic belief is because one is implicitly endowing these fictions with rational mindedness. But then it's the endowment of rational mindedness as such, not goldfish, or dragon or spaghetti monster physical morphology which is playing the real explanatory role in the mock analogies.

Ironically, the Big Goldfish/Invisible Pink Dragon/Flying Spaghetti Monsters parodies thus actually themselves support the intuition that Mind is ontologically fundamental, and hence display an implicit and amusingly subconscious philosophical preference for theistic rather than materialist explanations of the world.

At 2/07/2007 7:26 PM, Blogger dmtphilosophy said...

Dear Alan,

Flying spaghetti monsters and teapots are things immanent with respect to the universe. God - if He exists - is utterly transcendent. Proving the transcendent and proving the immanent are such radically different proposals that it is questionable whether the same word "proof" should be used in both cases. For a skeptic to blithely compare reflection on God's existence with reflection on the existence of a china teapot is to betray a gross misunderstanding of the categories of the discussion.

Every demonstration of the existence of God has the same form. The universe, the world, ourselves, or whatever is shown to be radically incomplete. It suffers from a lack of being in some respect or other. This lack of being points beyond itself to the fullness of being, in that being or ground of being that transcends the universe altogether. St. Thomas's Five Ways are variations on this theme.

Whether we buy the argument depends on two things. 1) Whether we accept that the universe suffers from the lack of being supposed, and 2) Whether we accept that the lack of being requires fulfillment in a transcendent being. Whatever our answer, atheist or theist, our basic stance with respect to the universe is called into question when the question of God arises. The question of God is one of the fundamental "limit" questions of philosophy, like the question of freedom. Not so with spaghetti monsters and teapots.

The spaghetti monster argument is not an answer to God, but evidence that the skeptic never understood the question.

David Tye


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