Sunday, December 17, 2006

Concept and Reality

Can God create a rock so big he cannot move it? The easy answer would be "yes he can, but if he is omnipotent, he evidently has not yet chosen to do so." But seriously, what if we find some inconsistency in our notion of God? Are we then obliged to conclude by the law of non-contradiction that God does not exist? I say no, if we are clever enough to distinguish between concept and reality.

Such an obligation would depend on a certain proposition, here stated in logicky terms:

For all real entities x, if our concept of x is not logically consistent, then x does not exist.

Important to my argument is the distinction between a real entity and our concept of it. These two things are what St. Anselm would have called "a thing in reality" and "a thing in the mind", respectively. Though in order to think about some object, say a rock, we must have some concept of what that rock is, the rock and our concept are distinct; one is "out there" and the other is in our brain. Of the two, only the thing in our brain can properly be said to be logically consistent or logically absurd. Only propositions can contradict and a rock is not a proposition.

With this understood, I can provide an easy couterexample to the above-mentioned rule: Let us pretend that we have two theories of physics known to us and call them Q and R. Let us pretend that each theory, on its own, is an amazingly accurate and poweful explanation of a great deal of physical phenomena, and the two together account for pretty much everything we know for sure about the physical world. Let us pretend that not a few successful technologies have been developed based on these theories. But then, let us further pretend that these two theories are logically inconsistent with each other, that is to say, if we combine the two, we end up with some contradictions. What then would we do? We might do like Hegelians and find in Q a thesis, then find in R its antithesis, then try to find their synthesis in some theory S. Failing that, we might just choose to live uncomfortably with Q and R's inconsistency; we might resign ourselves to the idea that physical objects are not perfectly comprehensible. But at no point would we doubt the existence of physical objects; we've run into them too many times in our own experience to do that.

Therefore, since we would not allow such a situation to disprove a known reality, we cannot honestly say we affirm the proposition stated above on pain of inconsistency. We could modify it to say:

For all real entities x, if we are not sure x exists and our concept of x is not logically consistent, then x does not exist.

But this modification is not reasonable. By the definition of "real entitiy", the existence of a real entity does not depend on our knowledge of its existence. Therefore, we cannot use this rule to disprove the existence of some external reality, even if we doubt that entity's existence.

Like any other external reality, so it is with God. When a traditional Christian says they believe in God, they mean that the object of their faith is an external reality and not a concept, though of necessity they must have some concept of what God is. If she runs into contradictions when contemplating God, she does not need to become an atheist. She might just choose to consider the highly probable possibility that her understanding of God is not perfect.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Deserving Heaven

Getting to spend eternity in Paradise for a lifetime of good deeds is like getting paid $10,000 to mow a lawn. Whatever it is, it isn't deserved.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Pagan Urge

While on a trip to Ghana with the Gospel Choir, Professor Jelks said something which was memorable to me. He said to some of us in the group (and I paraphrase to you), 'I woke up this morning and stepped outside my room and saw the sun and I felt like worshipping it. Then I thought to myself, "Hey, I'm a Christian, I don't worship the sun!"'.

In spite of my stodgy Christian self, which tenses whenever it senses anything theologically liberal, I sympathized with him. The sun really is something wonderful, when you think of it. This was especially clear in Ghana, where it shines through the harmattan haze gloriously onto forests, fields and jungles, and rises and sets each day at nearly the same time year-round. I totally agreed and still do agree, that the sun does and should inspire worship. After hearing that observation from a regular person, I started to understand why so many pagan religions worship the sun - and so many other parts of nature, for that matter. I "feel them", in the current idiomatic sense of the phrase. It's not just about the practical benefits the sun brings, or its apparent power, but about an ineffable feeling it and other parts of nature inspire.

It did not take much thought for me to realize that this feeling did not threaten, but rather vindicated Christianity; because Christianity vindicated the feeling. If, in response to these urges, we worship the sun; if we dance it front of it and pray to it and make offerings to it, we express our feelings. But our feelings are absurd when we take into account the fact that the sun is a perpetually exploding ball of gas which is not aware of anything, including our love and adoration for it. Pagan worship makes sense inasmuch as it is a natural response to our feelings. It does not make sense inasmuch as it is an attempt to communicate appreciation to something that does not perceive appreciation. My Christian theism had this problem solved even before I posed it. It only took a moment to realize that I can act out these feelings for the sun by worshipping the God that created it. The same goes for the moon, rivers, trees and every other thing I happen to like. Indeed, I can express this feeling for anything and everything at once by worshipping the creator. God, by definition, desires and appreciates worship. If we sing praises to God, he hears. If we exalt him, he's glad of it. The urge to worship is not only genuine, it's functional. Also, it's efficient. There aren't enough days in the year to have a festival for every aspect of nature that awes us. There aren't enough people to maintain a priesthood for each cult we might create. The Ephesians worshipped Artemis because they only had time and energy for Artemis. Take away their local patriotism and they still would have neglected Zeus and Aphrodite and Ares out of practical necessity. In this respect, a monotheist can accomplish what a polytheist cannot even attempt.