15 July 2013

Christian apologetics: the endlessly moving target

I have several persistent frustrations with Christian apologists.  One is their incessant attempts to "prove"  the existence of God using a priori reasoning as though empirical knowledge of the world can be attained through little more than rational introspection. Another is the frequent shifting of the burden of proof through appeals to mystery and that which cannot be disproved (that is, almost anything imaginable).  Another still is that the very concept of God and the concepts used to describe him/her/it  are virtually infinitely amorphous, such that they can be molded to rationalize any belief at all.  The very meaning of "God", "existence", "causality", and virtually every such related concept all lack universally agreed upon definitions, and can be defined as needed to retrofit any belief already assumed to be true.

Let's take something as simple as "existence". To be. God, supposedly, is a being which exists without a physical form or body, and independently of space and time. These things probably sound really awe-inspiring to the apologists who trumpet such descriptions of their pet deity, but what the hell does that even mean?

Take this excerpt from a recent comment thread with alert reader Steven Garmon. Steven's a big fan of Aquinas' "Argument from Motion", which uses the concepts of potentiality and actuality as a causal argument for God's existence. 'Potentiality' simply represents a possible change, and 'actuality' is the realization of that change. The original argument goes like this:
  1. Evident to our senses in motion—the movement from actuality to potentiality. Things are acted on.
  2. Whatever is moved is moved by something else. Potentiality is only moved by actuality.
  3. Unless there is a First Mover, there can be no motions. To take away the actual is to take away the potential.
  4. Thus, a First Mover exists.
In our chats, Steven defined God as "pure actuality"... which prompted me to make the following objection:
If God is pure actuality, then he cannot possibly change; any act of will or mind represents a change in potentiality to actuality, which would by definition include a willful act of creation. If you define God as pure actuality, then you've just conjured up a static being that can have no thoughts and do nothing... which ironically is a lot like what atheists say about God!
This is a pretty air-tight objection. But, never one to acknowledge a blatant failing of logic, the Christian apologist is the ever-resilient interlocutor who responds with the ever-reliable defeator: the rules don't apply to God! Steven says,
Of course God cannot change, for the concept of change requires time. This is why God is said to be outside of time. If you think of our illusion of time as linear then God can be conceived as present at every point in the line. Therefore God doesn't change from point A on the line to point B. Rather he is present at both points and this lines up adequately with him being pure actuality.
There are several things to be said in response here, not the least of which is that apologists who make such arguments dig themselves into a pretty deep hole. If God exists as pure actuality and cannot change, he cannot make decisions, create, destroy, or do anything at all – at least not in any way intelligible to us, because you have to redefine those concepts to mean something completely different than what we ordinarily take them to mean. Instead, God exists, somehow, as the full realization of all possible possibilities. He can't will himself to create something, because he by definition is always creating. This also annihilates human free will, since God's judgement upon mankind was already in place before the world was created (and, bizarrely, would remain after the world was destroyed per the book of Revelation). Since God is just sort of a static "thing" that does not experience anything temporally, then from his/her/its perspective all actual events – including its own subjective experiences – are happening simultaneously.

This just goes to show how nonsensical it is to talk about "existence" without space and time. It might be tempting to say, for example, that God could "choose" to experience something temporally; but that would immediately create a contradiction since choice by definition implies a temporal sequence of events. You'd have to redefine the word "choice" entirely, so that it doesn't resemble much of anything that we would recognize, and then you've simply created something so abstract as to be unintelligible. And in that case you've only succeeded in conjured up something that, even if it does exist, might as well not exist. What, after all, is the difference between something that doesn't 'exist' in any intelligible sense of the word, and something that doesn't exist at all?

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