Tuesday, September 12, 2006

If the Devil thinks there is no God...

I have read the Devil's Kitchen's post on philosophy, atheism and the scientific method and I agree with the substance, that there is no evidence for a god and that logic therefore dictates not believing he exists any more than we believe that Klingons do.

However, I disagree with his belief that philosophy all ultimately comes down to semantics. I also disagree that agnosticism is necessarily logically weak. First, all philosophy is not semantic. I'll use a few examples from my favourite philosopher at the moment; Nietzsche:

"If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does."

Compare this to the utilitarianism that underlies the political stance exemplified by Layard and his search for popular happiness through security and you'll see more than a semantic difference.

N.B. The reference to the Englishman is, I think, analagous to modern day lamenting at Americans. When Nietzsche wrote we were the economic leaders and people expressed their envy in accusations of excess materialism directed at us.
"The formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal."

The same point restated. Both are from the Twilight of the Idols.

Finally, possibly my favourite passage from any source, anywhere:

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it?"

From the Gay Science. The significance of this is worth a discussion that I don't want to linger on in this post but it should be pretty clear that it really isn't getting at semantics. How do we adjust to the effective death of faith that underlies traditional moral codes (with some hints at the answer)?

The death of God marks a fine point to move on to discussing whether agnosticism can be logically justified. I would justify it along the following lines.

If God does not exist then he is dead and it is up to me to come up with my own moral code. To use my own moral and logical senses to look at the world around me and decide what I treasure or despise without the crutch of bibilical scripture promising divine retribution against those who disagree with me.

If God does exist then this conclusion does not change. Firstly, while God may punish me for doing something wrong this can also be done by other figures of authority such as the state and cannot be the basis of morality. Murdering someone is not wrong because I will go to prison or hell for it. Something is not morally wrong because you are punished for it.

The alternative to this may be that we should do what God wills out of gratitude for our creation or his sending Jesus down to Earth to pay for our sins. However, creation is an easy give for the omnipotent and sending your son down to pay for sins that would not be sins but for a moral code that you (God) have yourself created seems mean spirited. For Jesus to be a sacrifice in good faith implies that there must be a moral code independent of God's will.

Finally, and most importantly, if God has created us it would seem that he has troubled himself greatly to provide us with the capacity to make independent moral judgements. If you wanted a follower you would create an ant. I think that if God exists he will think more highly of someone who makes use of the superb mind he gave us rather than someone who merely reads his morals off a cheat sheet.

As such, religion tends to the same nihilism as non-belief and this means that whether or not God exists I face the same freedom and challenge: to form a morality based on what I can see, hear and understand. This means that the existence of God is not a fundamental question for me and I consider myself a committed agnostic.


Devil's Kitchen said...


You misunderstand me; DK's first rule states [emphasis mine. Naturally]:

"All philosophical arguments boil down, at base, to nothing more than a discussion of semantics."

I did not maintain that all philosophy is semantics, only that two people who are arguing a philosophical point will, in the end, always end up discussing the precise meanings of the words that they are using.


Matthew Sinclair said...

Okay, your rule either relies upon everyone being a pedant, and not being able to get past semantic differences, or all philosophical arguments being impossible to separate from semantical differences.

I assumed you were arguing the latter and argued that differing premises could remain after semantical bullshit.

The idea that philosophy turns people into pedants is, I agree, more plausible although I hope to God (j/k) that it isn't true.