Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Rats in the ship

Ray says (over on Pandagon) "it is quite possible to be an agnostic, believe that the existence of God cannot be disproven, and yet believe that it could, conceivably, be proven -- by example.

Sort of like the mathematical distinctions between things like np-complete, np-complex, and so forth: Knowing that you can't prove that a solution of type [x] exists doesn't mean that one won't come up; it just means that you can't know in advance, and that failure to find such a solution doesn't mean that one doesn't exist. Or, as Zen Master Rumsfeld would have it, there are your known unknowns, and your unknown unknowns...

I think that if you asked most agnostics, "Can you conceive of any set of circumstances which would convince you that God exists?" that they could, indeed, do so. Carl Sagan's "hidden messages in the digits of Pi" is a fun and subtle example; the sudden announcement, by a thundering and disembodied voice from the sky, that "I AM GOD, AND FROM THIS POINT FORWARD ALL PEOPLE NAMED 'DAVE' WILL HAVE BLUE EYES," followed by the discovery that such a thing had, in fact, transpired, would be a somewhat less subtle proof-by-example. I would submit that either anyone who could emerge from such a demonstration with their doubts intact would have to be considered an atheist, or that the term "God" would have to have lost all meaning."

I can't see that the second of these - the eyes thing - would have any proof value at all. It would prove that a being existed who called himself God who had power to change eyes, but it wouldn't prove that that entity had any resemblance at all to anything that had previously been known as 'god'; and as 'god' is a noun as well as a name that would mean that he might be 'God' but wouldn't have any better claim to be 'god'.

If the digits of pi did indeed spell out the text of the old and new testaments, correcting a few obvious typos, that would be more telling, but still not decisive. The point is, as Kiekergaard said, the kind of 'god' we've invented is over and above humanity to the extent that we don't really have any point of contact. If an infinitely wise and powerful being could speak, we couldn't understand him, because our 'minds' touch at no point. There is, correspondingly, no chance of proving his existence. K moves from this to existential faith, I go the other way, but I accept his argument that it's faith or nothing.

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