Direct continuation of: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 5: Imperfection
Follow up to: Defining Atheist and Agnostic
The general concept of ruling out a god for good is clear — find an incompatibility between one characteristic of God and another characteristic, and you know that god concept cannot exist. For example, if something is defined “circle” but also defined “square”, then you know that cannot exist. The same is true for gods.
But once you’ve ruled out a bunch of god concepts for being incoherent, what’s left? And what are you supposed to do with the remaining concepts? In this essay, I look at that.
What’s Been Ruled Out
So after going through my series, what god concepts are left standing?
…In “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, Part 1: Incompatibility” I ruled out gods that are omnibenevolent, yet create an afterlife of infinite torture. I ruled out gods that are omnipotent but cannot possibly commit sin.
…In “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 2: Omniscience”, I ruled out gods that are omnipotent — because either a god is limited by deterministic laws of cause and effect (not omniponent!) or somehow capable of self-creation, self-authorship, and the full bucket of libertarian free will (incoherent!). I also ruled out gods that are omniscient, but genuinely surprised by how events turn out.
…In “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 3: Evil”, I argued that the Problem of Evil, as currently understood, does not actually work to use existing suffering to rule out omnibenevolent gods. However, in “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 4: Skeptical Theism” and “My List of Theodicy Responses”, I argue that God cannot be knowably benevolent, based on our understanding of existing suffering.
…In “TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 5: Imperfection”, I rule out gods that are perfect.
So, taking all that into account, any god that exists must be (1) somewhat imperfect, (2) not knowably benevolent, (3) not omnipotent, (4) either not omniscient or not capable of genuine surprise, (5) either not benevolent or not a creator of infinite torture.
What Do We Do With What’s Left?
I’ve always thought of myself as an atheist, and of “atheism” as someone who merely lacks belief in all god concepts. But even if we take atheism to require a definition in the strong sense — one who thinks gods do not exist, then I still consider myself such an atheist because I can definitively rule out the existence of quite a wide variety of commonly held god concepts.
However, just because many common god concepts are out, but that doesn’t mean that theism is dead forever.
What if someone puts forth a god that is indeed somewhat imperfect, ambiguously benevolent, and rather powerful but not outright omnipotent? What do we make of an Epicurean god that is powerful, but ambivalent toward humanity and ultimately reducible to deterministic atoms like the rest of us? Indeed, some people would pose such a concept (PDF) as the answer to the atheist’s criticisms.
To this, I take the multi-pronged definition of “atheism” I set out in “Defining the Atheist and Agnostic” — assert definitive nonbelief in the concepts you can rule out, but merely lack belief in the concepts you can’t.
There are many concepts I can’t rule out. I cannot disprove the existence of Russel’s teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or even a hypothetical race of aliens that built the pyramids. However, I can notice that there simply is no successful positive reasons to believe in such a thing. The evidence for gods just doesn’t pan out and suggesting we take such a concept seriously amounts to privileging the hypothesis.
I can also notice that postulating God doesn’t serve to help explain anything. What good is “god did it”? As Paul Amond points out:
For a start, when they say “God is the simplest explanation,” who says that? Suppose instead of Newton, someone had come along and said, “I think that your inverse square law of gravity is much too complicated. I’m going to explain the motion of the planets in terms of woo-woo.” And you say, “What’s woo-woo?” And they say, “The woo-woo is the thing which makes the planets move. It’s the single perfect entity which makes them go round in their orbits. And what can be simpler than woo-woo?
Now, what you might see there is I’ve pulled a fast one because I’ve cheated. I haven’t actually given you the theory. All I’ve done is given you a word. Anybody can say that a word is simple; anyone can say that a concept is simple if they don’t have to explain the details.
I’m done with talking about TheraminTrees’s video series, though I highly recommend you watch the rest of it. In my next essays on atheism, I’m going to explore further why the arguments for God’s existence don’t work, why God amounts to nothing more than privileging the hypothesis, and why “God did it!” is a horrible explanation…
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