Sunday, 24 July 2011

Irrelevant Arguments

How it is people come to believe what they do and why is a very different story to the arguments and reasons used to defend such beliefs. As Michael Shermer argues in The Believing Brain, beliefs come first then come justifications. The danger for all us who wish to hold beliefs for rational reasons is that often those reasons are mere rationalisations.

I've been reading a recent back and forth between various academics about the cosmological argument, and it's got me wondering just why the cosmological argument matters. What does the origin of the universe say about the role of an interventionist deity who shares many anthropic traits and will grant us eternal life if we only would believe the right thing? Very little really, even if it were an argument for a deity it wouldn't be able to infer any of the traits and characteristics that we call God. So why waste any intellectual energy on it?

Perhaps it's that philosophers of religion waste intellectual energy on it, perhaps it's that the origin of the universe craves an answer. Though from my perspective, it's an irrelevant argument. Would the failure of the cosmological argument disprove God? would the success of the argument demonstrate God? In both cases, I'm pretty sure the answer is no. It's no, not because we've sat through and worked out the metaphysical implications of the argument, but it's no because the cosmological argument has little to do with the belief in God itself.

A few months ago, I got into an argument with someone who was obsessed with the notion of a necessary being. His argument went something akin to the following:
  1. X is necessary
  2. If X is necessary, then there needs to be a necessary being

  3. Therefore, God exists
What the X was is irrelevant, as is the argument in general. Why if something is necessary there's a further necessary step to a being is beyond me, but what was even more beyond me was how that related to an interventionist deity who the person had a personal relationship with.

I don't think this is true of all arguments, at least some arguments (like the design argument or personal revelation) seem consistent with what this interventionist deity is meant to be. A weeping statue or cancer going into remission at least have that sense of being about what people profess to believe in. If something is outside of space and time, can it have actions within it? It seems an odd question, especially when it's placed up against having a personal experience of God's presence.

This is no-doubt going to come across as arrogance from a non-philosopher who doesn't properly value philosophy of religion; that I don't grasp the nuances of the arguments that otherwise make them self-explanatory as to their value in the search for God. And if that is the case, please don't just dismiss me on those grounds, but explain why it's important. Why are arguments like the cosmological arguments, so abstracted from what it is people believe and why, are arguments that need to be taken seriously? To quote philosopher Julian Baggini:
Academics in particular maintain the illusion that, on the contrary, things like the complex details of the latest revision of the ontological argument might actually matter when it comes to determining whether or not God exists. If they did, we might see more regular changes of mind. As it is, philosophers of religion seem to be at least as consistent in their fundamental commitments as anyone else.


Dhorvath said...

Does not the existence of a force with intent unbound by our universe's laws provide a level of framework on which to hang a personal interventionist deity? If the cosmological argument actually worked, was rigourous in a fashion that brooked no dispute, it wouldn't prove that an interventionist diety exists, but it would provide for something which has a similar scope thus making the idea of a deity closer to what we know to be. I think that's the seduction, building a framework on which to hang a deity, and not a gallows sadly.
So we get people who think that between their arguments for creation, design, souls, and so on, they have provided a framework in which some sort of deity makes sense. That also seems to act to hide the flaws in any specific line of reasoning, it's a house made of straw that they can't enter, but it looks promising from the outside.

llewelly said...

It's primarily a comfort issue. The message that your particular god created all things is comforting to religious people.

Religions need origin-based arguments for God because they have origin stories. Christians often argue God's commandments must be followed because God created all things. Notice how frequently God is referred to as "The Creator".

The ontological argument repeats the message that God created the universe. That's a message believers need to hear, because without it, little of their religion makes sense.

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