2/12/2009

I deny your definition of god

This note is hugely motivated by the talk which Francis Collins gave at Caltech last week, an event sponsored by the Veritas Forum. First, I found the name of the sponsoring group a bit misleading. The mission statement includes
The Veritas Forum at Caltech seeks to explore the possibility of truth, beauty and goodness in every aspect of our academic and personal lives.
The Veritas Forum, more than exploring truth is about making you feel guilty of JC's untimely death IMO. In any case, Francis's talk was utterly disappointing as far as I am concerned and at many places disingenuous. Even more disappointing was the fact that there weren't any Caltech students to roast this guy's crackpot theory in the Q&A session later. Most of the questions later seem to be coming from the very enthusiastic Veritas crowd itself.

Collins started off his talk by giving a brief background of himself, how he grew from agnostic to atheist and then a believer. This was followed by standard already refuted cliches and provided us with "evidence" for god, namely, the Big Bang theory, something from nothing argument, fine tuning of physical constants and the moral law argument. And this was intersperced with other besides the point, sympathy begging lines like his's is a humble quest for truth, atheists have schoolboy theories about god, how he was thrown off when a dying patient asked him "Sir, what do you believe in?", how he matured into a believer etc. He also kept reminding us occasionally that he has been a believer for the last 30 years (and since age brings authenticity, he obviously has to be right) and how his background in genetics and how his experience with the genomics project directed his mature, humble and open intellectual compass towards god. The thing I found most disturbing was his totally misleading commentary on Dawkin's statement in his debates with him (accessible from Time.com ). From what I recollect, Collins said something like (I am still waiting for Veritas to upload the transcript of Collin's talk at Caltech)
Dawkins agrees that he cannot rationally deny existence of god. He also allows something out of nature that would be so impossibly marvelous, awesome and grandeur and nothing like the god we already know. This sounds like god to me. (Veritas audience claps)
Here is what Dawkins actually said
DAWKINS: My mind is not closed, as you have occasionally suggested, Francis. My mind is open to the most wonderful range of future possibilities, which I cannot even dream about, nor can you, nor can anybody else. What I am skeptical about is the idea that whatever wonderful revelation does come in the science of the future, it will turn out to be one of the particular historical religions that people happen to have dreamed up. When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable--but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don't see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.

Collins's line is totally misrepresentative of what Dawkins said. Taken out of context, it kind of implies that Dawkins is deluded and actually a believer. Sure, Dawkins has stated lots of times in the past that he cannot rationally "prove" non existence of god. But I think Collins very well knows in what sense Dawkins meant this. Dawkins has made it very clear many times that he cannot rationally disprove god the way in which Russells teapot cannot be disproved! Ironically, just a couple of lines before this, Collins accuses Dawkins of misrepresenting opponents position and tearing it apart. Looks like Collins just did what he was accusing Dawkins of doing.

Anyway, coming back to my point, I think atheists need to kind of change their reasoning a little bit. There is credence to the argument that just as one cannot prove god, one cannot disprove it either. The reason being one needs to begin with well defined notions before getting into existence and uniqueness results. One cannot talk of proving or disproving things which are not defined to begin with. And my reasoning here is that ALL the definitions of god so far actually do not qualify for being called definitions worthy of proving or disproving. The closest analogy I can draw is as follows. Consider the question "Prove that set A exists or set A does not exist". One does not have to be a rocket scientist to ask back "What is set A? You haven't defined it for me". The same argument goes for god. All the "definitions" we have so far are just plain poetries/philosophies which serve no purpose other than praising the (as yet undefined) lord. So I think, instead of saying "God doesn't exist", it will be better to ask "What do you mean by god?". And if its one of the standard definitions of god, just tear it down and tell them "I deny your definition of god" and thats its not a good definition to talk about existence. Ask them to go home, relax, think and come up with a better definition. Remind them that you are not a nursery kid and that they can't get away throwing words at you. Let me give an example.

B: Do you believe in god?
A: What do you mean by god
B: I mean creator
A: Yeah, what do you mean by creator
B: One who created this universe
A: Yeah, that is what I am asking you. What do you mean by creating?

I can already see some directions in which this argument can proceed. Some are

a. Discussion about time, what is time, what is "before" and what is "after", is it necessary to have a "beginning", what if time is actually a circle, etc
b. Discussion about matter, what does it mean to "create" matter, etc.

In any case, it doesn't take much to realize that the word "creator", the way its used traditionally to define god has no content in itself. Same with words like all knowing, omnipotent, omnibenevolent etc. They are good enough to write poetries and stories and satisfy our wishful thinking for god. For example, what is knowledge? What does it mean to "know" everything? Is google god? It answers pretty well most of the questions I have.

So all the atheists out there, its better, logical and safe to take the stand "I deny your definition of god" rather than outright denying in positive an ill defined and ill posed question. And please don't give the believers the impression that you are tying to approach god in a scientific way (their standard way to chicken out from such arguments is by saying god is beyond science). I agree this is frustrating since the believers conveniently use science whenever it suits them. But then, world is not fair.

5 comments:

Mridul Narayanan said...

Here is my explanation of God -

http://mridul.co.in/Aviyalism/God_is_a_function_stub_to_explain_the_unexplainable

Tor Hershman said...

You deny MY definition of god???
Well, that's just because you ain't viewed moi's lill' video.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_m6qC6FCiY0

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Yet another writing desi said...

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Anonymous said...

hello! It's still fun to read a bunch of definitions of god, no matter what you believe!

www.god-defined.com

collecting worldwide god definitions since late 2009!

thanks, Dan, chicago