Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why Teapots and Spaghetti Monsters Miss the Point

In connection with the topic of my preceding post, I just noticed a comment that David Tye had left on a previous post of mine about half-a-year ago. His comment is very insightful:
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.
A lot of people, including many atheists, mistakenly believe that the questions
  • Does God exist?
  • Does Zeus exist?
  • Do dogs, cats, trees, rocks, quarks, etc. exist?
  • Is there a celestial teapot floating in space between the orbits of Earth and Mars?
  • Is there a Flying Spaghetti Monster?
are all questions about the internal constituents of the universe - whether it includes a being of such-and-such a sort. But the God question isn't like the others, for God, as such, cannot be just another constituent of the universe. Indeed, he can't be a constituent of the universe at all. Rather, if there is a God, he must be a transcendent ground of being, a necessary condition for the possibility of there being anything else. As David puts it, the existence of God is one of the fundamental limit questions of philosophy. It can't be confirmed or disconfirmed in the same way as the others - whether by direct observation or scientific experiment. Rather, it takes metaphysical argument employing substantive (and non-empirical) premises.

Moral: When some atheists say things like this:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours. (Stephen F Roberts)

I do not pretend to be able to prove that there is no God. I equally cannot prove that Satan is a fiction. The Christian god may exist; so may the gods of Olympus, or of ancient Egypt, or of Babylon. But no one of these hypotheses is more probable than any other: they lie outside the region of even probable knowledge, and therefore there is no reason to consider any of them. (Bertrand Russell)
they betray a misunderstanding of the issues. God, if he exists, is not and cannot be just one more deity, alongside the members of the ancient polytheistic pantheons.


At 10/02/2007 2:37 PM, Blogger Jeff G said...

It is worth noting that some contemporary religions do not believe God to be transcendent in the way that your argument requires. (I have in mind the Mormon conception of God.)

With this qualifier in mind, and properly set aside, I am not convinced that your argument takes the theist in the right direction. Sure, pointing out that God is transcendent might make His existence more difficult to argue against, but it also seems to make His existence much more difficult to argue for as well. I see at least three reasons for this:

1) You now have to argue not just for the existence of God, but rather you must argue for the possibility of something being transcendent AND that God is in fact such a "thing".

2) Evidence both for and against God's existence are taken from our usual interaction with "immanent" objects. If transcendence places God beyond evidence which would disconfirm His existence, it would seem to place Him beyond evidence which would confirm His existence as well.

3) If God is seen to transcend the universe in a manner which your argument seems to require, one is left to wonder (or in my case doubt) what relevance God could have to this world at all. If God is not at all immanent, how can He have any relevance to me, my relationships, my behavior, etc. all of which are immanent things?

That said, I do suspect that there is something a little cheap and easy going on with the "I just believe in one less God than you do" line. I am just not convinced that where the argument goes wrong has anything to do with a transcendent/immanent distinction. Beyond this, however, I have not really fleshed out my ideas.

At 10/02/2007 5:45 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Jeff,

Good comments. Let me be clear that by "God" I mean a necessarily existent, personal, omni-being who created the world ex nihilo and can unilaterally intervene in it. By that standard, Mormonism doesn't qualify.

Regarding transcendence/immanence, I think we agree that there needs to be a balance here. The Judeo-Christian tradition has been clear in affirming that God both immanence and transcendence.

Re (1): I don't think this is a big problem. Possibility is generally the easiest sort of thing to argue for - one just point out the lack of any clear contradiction. And "thing" is just a generic term that can be unpacked as need requires. The concept of God (as I've stipulated it above) defines the kind of "thing" God is enough to get started.

Re (2): Right. That's why it would be a mistake to affirm divine transcendence to the exclusion of immanence. We argue for/against God by trying to show that immanent reality either does or doesn't "points" toward the kind of being that God is said to be. (The existence of unobservable physical "things" like quarks is argued for in the same way.)

Re (3): Again, you're right that absolute transcendence is a mistake. But so is absolute immanence. Such a being could not be the ground of being or an ultimate explainer. Such a being would not be God.

My problem with Russell et al. is that they refuse to take the transcendence of God seriously (and thus refuse to take the idea of God seriously). They want to judge the question of God's existence solely by standards that are appropriate for wholly immanent things.

At 10/02/2007 6:22 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

One more thought, Jeff.

I just reread my post, and I can see how one might get the impression from it that I take God to be absolutely transcendent and not at all immanent.

Just to clarify, that is not my view. I do think that God must be transcendent (pace Mormonism), but I don't think that a proper understanding of transcendence precludes immanence.

Cosmological arguments (and cosmic fine-tuning design arguments) are arguments for divine transcendence. Other theistic arguments (religious experience, miracles, some biological design arguments) are arguments for divine immanence. I think both are important for a well-rounded theism.

At 10/18/2007 6:06 PM, Blogger Clayton said...

I have a very basic worry. The atheists are making an epistemic point. I cannot see how a metaphysical point about immanence vs. transcendence addresses that point.

At 10/19/2007 2:53 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Clayton,

Yes, the concerns of Russell et al. are primarily epistemic, but what I think he and others fail sufficiently to appreciate in this context is that the proper means or methods by which the existence or non-existence of God is to be ascertained are not independent of the metaphysical nature of the being in question.

If God were relevantly similar to a teapot, then the lack of direct sightings of 'God' would carry some weight. But the two cases are not relevantly similar.

At 10/21/2007 11:51 PM, Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Can't they just add a dimension of transcendence to the Spaghetti Monster?

At 10/22/2007 9:28 AM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hello BDK,

Your suggestion strikes me as objectionably ad hoc.

God's transcendence is a direct and necessary consequence of his being the ground of being.

The FSM, by contrast, is not posited as a ground of being, or even as the greatest possible being. Moreover, the FSM's spaghettihood renders it essentially physical, and therefore non-transcendent.

At 10/22/2007 11:47 AM, Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Ad hoc?! In their quest to construct a reductio, they can add any property they want to make Zeus, teapot, FSM as close to what you believe in. That's the whole point! So they left out some properties, focusing on the unobservability. To focus on that is to miss the overall structure of the claims.

Whatever you say they missed, they can add. They are allowed infinite creative flexibility to construct a reductio. Instead of denying the premise you'd need to show why their conclusion (general religious skepticism) doesn't follow.

So while I think your argument in this post doesn't work, that doesn't imply the FSM argument for atheism is a good one.

At 10/22/2007 1:41 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

The original FSM is meant as a reductio, and so is your modified FSM. My claim is that your modification - tacking transcendence onto a base model FSM - is ad hoc because it's just an arbitrary "add on" that has no systematic integration with the FSM's other properties. Worse, it's incompatible with those other properties (whatever else it may be, spaghetti ain't transcendent).

Unlike FSM, God's transcendence, omni-attributes, and so forth, are not "add ons". Rather, they unpack what it means to be the ground of being and the ultimate exemplar of all pure perfections.

The FSM, however modified, just doesn't seriously engage with the God hypothesis. To construct a version of FSM that would engage one would have to start by dropping "flying", "spaghetti", and "monster", all of which are incompatible with God's core attributes. Given God's status as a metaphysical limit case, every such analogy is going to limp badly.

FSM arguments argue, in effect:
(1) The FSM is relevantly similar to God.
(2) It is irrational to believe in the FSM.
(3) It is irrational to believe in God.
But (1) is clearly false, and without it the argument doesn't go through.

At 10/22/2007 11:35 PM, Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

This post has been removed by the author.

At 10/22/2007 11:38 PM, Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I know this is ultimately sort of a silly argument, but I am pressing it because I find it very interesting: I am not trying to be clever or cutesy, and I appreciate you bearing with me here.

Could FSM-ists say "Jesus had mass, weight, right? FSM is like that. A worldly manifestation of a divine being, which we'll call X (which, via some theological ninja, is identical to the FSM). This divine presence created the universe, and then did nothing else. Now, prove the (invisible) FSM does not exist."

At 11/20/2007 10:53 AM, Blogger Mike said...

If you do want God to be immanent, I think you're still faced with the same problems. If you're content with transcendence then I think you're on to something.


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