Reality Conditions

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Answering my Readers: the Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church edition

Alana has asked me to give my opinion, from a scientific point of view, on an argument for the existence of God that she copies from the Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Catechism seems to be a sort of FAQ about the basic doctrines of this church, and according to this website it has non-official status. Its author is one one Rev. Constas H. Demetry. The non-official status is fortunate, because as a good “Neville Chamberlain atheist” I do not wish to offend anybody’s faith, least of all that of a commenter who was nicely asking a question, and I must say that I will be highly critical of Demetry’s level of both scientific knowledge and philosophical acumen. I understand that one cannot expect very complex and precise philosophical arguments from a FAQ, but one should at least avoid elementary mistakes.

The paragraph Alana quotes (adding the conclusion of the argument, which she didn’t quote) says:

Q. About subtopic (a), How is it proved from the existence of the universe that there is a God apart from it?

1.) The universe, (the earth and the heavenly bodies) could not come into being of itself because it consists of matter, which is inert. (A body is called inert, when it of itself, without external influence, cannot change its state.) Therefore there must be a personal Power apart from it, which gave it its beginning. And this personal Power is God.

The conception the Reverend has of matter seems taken straightly from scholastic philosophy, with no contamination from modern science. It is unclear what is to be understood by the “state” of a body, but on any natural reading, the assertion that matter is inert in the defined sense is false. As a very simple example, take an lump of an unstable element, such as uranium; left to itself and without external influence, it will emit spontaneously (at times not predictable except in a statistic, probabilistic way) a radiation of particles (radioactivity) and its atoms will transform gradually into different ones. Contrary to what I hastily wrote in a comment to the previous post, this also can happen to elementary particles: the muon, for example, transforms spontaneously into an electron, a neutrino and an antineutrino, even though it is currently believed to be elementary (not composed of more basic particles). There are hundreds of other examples one can give of material systems that change their state without external influence, and one does not need fancy complicated physics: how about a digital clock, continuously updating the display? An ordinary alarm clock, suddenly ringing? A volcano erupting? And so on…

But leaving aside all this, the argument is still an obvious non sequitur. Substituting the definition of “inert”, the structure of the argument is:

(1) Matter cannot change its state without external influence.
(2) Therefore, it could not come into being of itself.
(3) Therefore, there must be a personal Power apart from it, which gave it its beginning.

How does (2) follow from (1)? (1) is only about how matter can change, while (2) is about how it can begin to exist. Okay, perhaps we can allow for “coming to exist”, as a subspecies of change, though it sounds strange. But (3) certainly doesn’t follow from (2) and (1). No argument is made to show that matter could not have existed forever. Even if such an argument could be made, it still wouldn’t follow that it was created by a personal power. “Personal” qualities (consciousness, intelligence, purposefulness, etc.) are empirical features of the world that we see exemplified in only a few beings on the surface of a tiny planet. To attribute them, without any argument, to the unknown First Cause of the universe is to make a gigantic leap in reasoning that cannot be left unjustified.

I see this as the main stumbling block of cosmological arguments for a deity, even those that are much more sophisticated than this one. I do not find the case for a First Cause or a Necessary Being persuasive (I think I can conceive perfectly well an infinite regress of causes or explanations), but even if there is an Ultimate Explanation, maybe it takes a “formal” nature more akin to a physical or mathematical principle than to a Being; and even if it is a Being of sorts, I have never seen any good reason to suppose it to be a personal one. Most of the arguments for this that I have seen depend on a spurious dichotomy between Matter and Persons (or in other words, between mechanical and teleological explanations), together with a spurious conception of Matter as “inert” and Persons as “active” (or in other words, of mechanical explanations as always needing further ones, while teleological ones get a free pass as acts of will.)

All these are concepts and distinctions that fit perfectly into the scholastic, medieval view of the world and very badly into the modern scientific one. I’m not saying that modern science can prove medieval philosophy to be “wrong”, except in a few peripheral matters. One can always start from a philosophical system, declared to be a priori known, and interpret the whole of world and science according to it. But I find it more reasonable to begin with modern science as a solid starting point (there is much more agreement among scientists that among philosophers, after all!) and then try to build up a philosophy that squares well with it. And according to such a naturalistic philosophy, purposes and intentions are not free-standing fundamental metaphysical categories but just features of the way we describe and explain at a high, emergent level the behaviour of some very complex material systems –us.

I have sidetracked, however, discussing more general cosmological arguments and my opinions on them, rather than concentrating on Rev. Demetry’s arguments. This is sensible, because Demetry’s next arguments are unbelievably silly. The Introduction to the document does not give any dates, but one can infer from it that Demetry lived in the twentieth century, and not too long ago. Were it not for this, this argument would make me think he was writing in the sixteen hundreds. His scientific knowledge has not surpassed that stage:

2.) The Universe, according to the astronomers, moves, and moves regularly, and in circles (rotates). This rotating movement needed a power apart from the universe to produce this motion, and, in order that the power should not be exhausted or become larger or smaller, a Personal and Omnipotent Power is needed to renew the power which is lost on account of the friction of the motion, and to regulate it so that the motion might always be uniform.

The Universe rotates??? God renews the power lost in the friction???

*shaking my head in disbelief, as if having seen a living fossil in the wild.*

Demetry seems to be taking a leaf from Isaac Newton, who argued that God’s action was needed to keep the solar system perpetually moving because otherwise the perturbations that some planets cause to the orbits of others would make it unstable. But even Newton (and Kepler before him) knew that the planets do not move in circles but in ellipses. And the idea of the whole universe rotating is even more obsolete: it only makes sense in the geocentric cosmology that Copernicus and Galileo overthrowed. It is not only the Reverend’s philosophy that is medieval… Of course, even in Newton’s days his argument was attacked on philosophical grounds by Leibniz, who said it was diminishing of God’s perfection to have to tinker continuously with his creation like a clumsy watchmaker. The point was rendered moot when later it was proven that Newton’s calculations were wrong and that the Solar System can survive by itself without any external tinkering. Nowadays arguments for God from misunderstandings of physical cosmology invoke more usually the Big Bang; their philosophy is not much better (see the link for my comment), but their science is at least updated.

I will not go on with Demetry’s next arguments for the existence of God, which are not much better than the ones above. I will, however, quote a passage that made me jump in my seat when I saw it, from the section on the Trinity. We read:

Q. Can we understand the Holy Trinity?

A. No, because it is a mystery.

Q. What is a mystery?

A. A mystery is a truth which we cannot understand.

So far so good; I would certainly accept that there are many truths we cannot understand at present, and maybe there are some that we cannot even understand in principle (though this would depend on how we understand “truth”; deep philosophical waters await there). Of course I would reject that the Trinity is one such truth, and moreover I would reject that we can ever have warranted belief in a truth if we believe we cannot even in principle understand it; one could also wonder what is meant exactly by believing something you do not understand, beyond repeating the words in an empty way. But certainly there is material there for a thoughtful philosophical or theological discussion. Look, however, how Rev. Demetry tries to argue this matter:

Q. Is it right that we should reject everything which we cannot understand?

A. No, because there are many things which we do not understand, but which exist, and which we use continually; for example, magnetism, electricity, gravity, etc.

*blinks and stares*

Snarky reaction: “Well, the fact that you don’t understand them doesn’t mean anyone else can’t, after just a couple of years of basic physics courses!”

More serious reaction: We do understand magnetism, electricity, and gravity; I can write, in just a couple of lines, the equations that these phenomena satisfy in all conditions that have been studied so far. Of course, this understanding is not complete: we don’t know for sure if these same equations hold in other conditions we haven’t tested yet; indeed, we have reason to believe they don’t hold –for example- at very small length scales, and we do not understand what equations replace them. But exactly to the degree to which we don’t understand these phenomena, we lack as well any warranted beliefs about them. To the extent that we don’t understand gravity at the quantum scale, we do not hold the belief that gravity “exists” at that scale, and in that sense we “reject” it, or at least we remain agnostic. So as an analogy to the Trinity, this is absolutely dreadful and backfires completely against the Reverend: following the analogy would be a good reason for me to not believe in the Trinity. Even knowing next-to-nothing about the theological conception of the Trinity, I am sure I could write a better defense of it than this one, in the spirit of Sean's recent post.

I hope I have answered Alana’s question without being too aggressive or dismissive. I do not think that religious people are necessarily stupid or even irrational (see here), and I think some theological arguments deserve to be taken seriously. But I'm sorry to say that I cannot take seriously those of Rev. Constas H. Demetry.

By the way: Readers asking questions or petitioning for posts on subjects are a good way of making me overcome my natural blog laziness. So, is there any other topic you would like to see discussed here?

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  • Actually, it would fit very poorly into the scholastic, medieval view of philosophy, where matter means something different; and, for different reasons of course, also denied that all change required external influence. Strictly speaking, Demetry's argument is exactly the sort of view that was common in the Enlightenment (based on the broadly Cartesian view that matter, understood as physical extension, was inert).

    By Blogger Brandon, at 2:57 AM, September 06, 2007  

  • Thank you for the correction, Brandon. It's good to have someone to make me notice when I speak out of my depth. I should have known better than to use "scholastic" as a catch-all term for "outdated". That is so 1600s!

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 10:48 AM, September 06, 2007  

  • Alejandro - this is an interesting intellectual exercise, as with all these proofs about the existence of god. However, since there is no (scientific, i.e., 'real') evidence for the existence of (a) god, the burden of proof is on the believers.

    I mean, how do I prove that Santa Claus ('Papa Noel' to you and me) does not exist? Since I have not been to the North Pole myself, it could be claimed that there really is a man dressed in red who builds toys for children the world over with a whole bunch of helpers. I do I prove that such a thing does not actually occur? I can't, of course.

    But, on the other hand, and re-reading your post, the believers have an argument and you provide the counter-argument, so that is indeed a good intellectual exercise.



    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:13 PM, September 06, 2007  

  • Hi Changcho,

    While I basically agree with the substance of your argument (we ought not to believe in the existence of things of which there is no scientific evidence), I depart from the average "scientistic atheist" in that I think this argument ought to be an end-point rather than a starting-point. Dawkins and others use it as a sort of conversation-stopper, without realizing that it begs all the really interesting philosophical questions. Is it true that science is the only "rational" way of knowing? Is it true that there is no essential difference in the concept of God and empirical concepts like Santa Claus that warrants different epistemical treatment? Is it true that abstract, philosophical arguments divorced from scicence are "intellectual excercises" unrelated to reality?

    I would, in the end, answer all these questions in the affirmative as much as you; but it is in those questions that the real philosophical battles are fought. Saying that there is no more scientific evidence for God than for Santa (or for invisible unicorns, fairies or the Flying Spaghetti Monsters, other favourite comparisons) is not going to persuade any theist with a minimum of philosophical sophistication. It is true enough, but it is a knockdown argument only for someone who already leans towards a naturalistic philosophy. Arguing for and constructing such a philosophy is where the real work is.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 9:17 PM, September 06, 2007  

  • Isn't this just Aristotles unmoved mover?

    By Blogger Frank, at 12:24 PM, September 07, 2007  

  • The wikipedia article is surprisingly weak, here is britannica:

    By Blogger Frank, at 12:26 PM, September 07, 2007  

  • Frank: yes, it is a version of the argument. Aristotle's was the first of a long list of arguments (known as cosmological arguments) that tried to prove the need of God as a creator from the need of a "first cause" or "ultimate explanation", or something similar. Thomas Aquinas and Leibniz had their own versions.

    I don't know which one is the most likely inspiration for Demetry's. At first I thought Aquinas or other scholastic, but Brandon's comment made me realize that this was just uninformed guessing. If he says that the argument resembles more closely some made in the Enlightenment I am willing to believe him.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 3:57 PM, September 07, 2007  

  • Thank you, Alejandro.

    I did feel that this catechism was very shaky in these areas but I wanted someone who knew more about science to tell me that I was right.

    I appreciate what you said to Changcho, it does seem that too many people beg the questions. I am not a very thoroughly educated woman but I am aware that as you said, the real philosophic work has to be done in those areas that are so easily passed over, by believers in religion and science alike.

    And don't worry that you were too agressive or dismissive. I wanted honesty, to see what was the worst that could be said with honesty and I chose to ask you because I felt I could trust you to do that. My faith in God is something other than can be either knocked down or bolstered with scientific arguments, but I am not sure how else to describe it.

    I will make one response, on the idea of believing things without understanding them. Especially Eastern theology but also other Traditional theology (this would exclude evaneglicalism) has something called apophatic theology. It teaches that after you learn and affirm the basic "truths" about God, such as that God is good, has knowledge, and so on, you must progress to a stage where you deny everything about God. You say, for instance that God is not good. You say this not to affirm that he is evil (the opposite of good) but to affirm that the God which truly exists is beyond anything that you are possibly capable of meaning by the word good. If God is the Source of my existance, then I would expect him to be something just so completely Other.

    Perhaps Reverend Demetry was referring to this "via negativa" when he spoke of believing what you don't understand. But I felt at the time, and more so now, that he weakened his meaning by trying to support this idea with pseudo-science. A God so straightened in existance that he can be defined and proved in rationalistic or scientific terms is the God that can be knocked down by the same. I think theologians make a big mistake when they do what this man has done.

    Again thanks for your time and honesty.

    By Blogger Alana Asby Roberts, at 4:47 PM, September 11, 2007  

  • Hi Alana. I'm glad that you were satisfied by my post. The catechism is indeed very shaky in all scientific matters; it makes many more gaffes that I didn't get into because they would extend too much the post beyond your specific question.

    I had heard of the "via negativa" before. Jorge Luis Borges has a beautiful essay ("De Alguien a Nadie") explaining how it is a natural tendency for the superlatives glorifying something to turn with time into absolute negations, because attributing any particular positive quality comes to be seen as denying some other one, and the only way of being Everything is to be No-thing. He refers how it happened with God in the West, with Buddha in the East, and even with Shakespeare in literary criticism. One of my favourite short stories by him, Everything and Nothing, is based on the same idea.

    I am unsure, however as to whether and how the "mystery of the Trinity" is related to the via negativa. Brandon, commenter above, is the person to ask those questions to. He knows his theology more than twice better than I know my physics.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:14 AM, September 12, 2007  

  • By the way, I've fixed the link to the catechism, which was broken before.

    By Blogger Alejandro, at 11:18 AM, September 12, 2007  

  • What a beautiful story - in a sad way, of course.

    I don't think the via negativa would say that God is no one simply because it denies that he is someone. He is more than someone. Or to put it backwards, what is personality in us is ephemeral compared to that in God which we must assume it refers to.

    The personality of God is exactly what the doctrine of the Trinity describes.

    Well, if we are indeed the highest intelligence aware of our world then we shouldn't believe what we can't understand, that would be irresponsible. But again, if God made us, then we should expect to find that our belief in Him particularly (though not of electricity, etc.) would be required to exceed our understanding. But it's wrong to say that nothing can be understood about this doctrine. It's just that it opens out on a door of Being necessarily beyond our own being and that land cannot be traversed by our intelligence. If it could, it would not be what it is.

    By Blogger Alana Asby Roberts, at 6:33 PM, September 12, 2007  

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