Monday, December 06, 2010

God, Theology, Evidence and Observation

PZ Myers has an an interesting blog post on Terry Pratchett who is suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer’s disease. This is what PZ says:

The casual cruelty of nature is one example of the absence of a benevolent overseer in the universe. For another, I'd add the fact that Pratchett has been afflicted with a disease with no cure, of a kind that will slowly destroy his mind. We're left with only two alternatives: that if there is a god, he's insane or evil and rules the world with wanton whimsy; or the most likely answer, that there is no such being and it's simple chance that leads to these daily haphazard catastrophes.

PZ Myers’ comments remind me of Darwin’s loss of faith, a process that, I believe, was progressive and apparently linked to his observations of nature and above all to the tragedy of his daughter’s death. Now, let me say this: PZ has my full sympathies for what is not an unreasonable conclusion; even those of us of faith are challenged by the age old problem of suffering and evil especially when it is close to home. The number of times this challenge has lead to a loss of faith in the faithful is uncounted. So let him who is without sin cast the first stone at PZ.

But let’s get this clear: Firstly the above statement by PZ is overtly theological; it works from the presumed nature of God, His moral obligations and how He relates to the world. It is a counterfactual argument based on what PZ concludes should not exist if a benevolent God exists. Secondly, the argument being used is not entirely metaphysical and non-observational as clearly PZ is making a comparison between his implicit concept of God and his observations of the cosmos. Ergo, God is an entity for which there is observational evidence relevant to His existence or non-existence.

Is PZ’s alternative belief in what he refers to as “simple chance” a dynamic which provides a deep metaphysical explanation for the way things are? Seemingly not: Chance is a conceptual derivative of disordered patterns. Thus “simple chance” is little more than a name for a particular class of pattern. What I think PZ really means here is that he can’t believe a benevolent overseer would allow such patterns, patterns which are the source of “haphazard catastrophes”. Once again a theological argument is being invoked to draw conclusions about God’s existence or otherwise, based on observed patterns.

In conclusion PZ says “the most likely answer, [is] that there is no such being [as God]”. Does this mean that he has not entirely closed the door on God? In some ways it might be good thing if PZ does close the door completely, because the only God he can think of must be "insane, or evil and rules the world with wanton whimsy."

God suffers with man: Christianity hits the problem of innocent suffering head on


Cliff Martin said...

Thank you! It requires no special mental gymnastics for PZ to set his own parameters for "god" and then, by these imposed imaginings, rule this god out of existence. As you suggest in your closing sentence, we can all be thrilled that PZ's god does not exist! How dreadful if he did.

Timothy V Reeves said...

Thanks very much for the comment Cliff. Looks as though you know what it is to have deep sorrow close to home.

Given the sufferings of this world I actually draw the very opposite conclusion to PZ’s counterfactual: If there is a God then He must be extraordinarily forebearing loving and gracious, because He need not have otherwise created our particular world and brought upon Himself the divine suffering it entails!