Friday, May 8, 2009

Episode 40 Unintelligible God

What do people mean when they say they believe in God? Supernatural, incorporeal, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent—it’s easy to rattle off a list of divine attributes. We can say these words but do we really understand what they mean? For this episode the Doubtcasters examine the god concept itself—his metaphysical nature, abilities and attributes—to see if they can meet even the most minimal standards for coherence and intelligibility.

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Amenhotep said...

Dudes, great podcast - loved it. I just thought I'd share a little thing with you that I've been thinking about ever since banging my head off the wall from reading Alvin Plantinga's inane reformulation of the Ontological Argument (you'll have come across it I'm sure). Without labouring the point, things like "omniscience", "omnipotence" and even "good" and "evil" are bandied about as if they have a meaning of their own. As if they are "attributes" that something can "possess".

This is a fallacy, chaps - let's take it down.

Essentially, it is not that "things" have "attributes" - the truth of the matter, instead, is that SYSTEMS have BEHAVIOURS.

Think about it. If we say a person is "good", what we really mean is that person A, given situation B, is likely to behave in fashion C, and we will attach the label "good" to that behaviour. If we say a banana is yellow, what we really mean is that this banana system, when an input of white light is supplied, will yield an *output* of yellow light. The "isness" of the system just doesn't enter the equation.

It ends up being meaningless to talk (a la WLCraig) of "beings" or "ontological necessity", because attributes are NOT "things" - they are descriptions of expected behaviours.

It is not at all clear that "omniscience", "omnipotence", "omnibenevolence" or "omnipresence" are incorporable within such a view, which gives another way of looking at Tyson's thing about the shape of something being red.

Anyway, not to wax on about it, it's something to think about. Keep it up!

Luke said...

Another great show!

You said of Stobel that "even Craig is better." That makes it sound like there are much better apologists than Craig. Care to name names?

I can't think of any who are better than Craig, though I can see how you'd get that impression if only see his debates instead of reading, say, his 100-page chapter in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

Surely you don't think Plantinga is better than Craig?

But who, then? Taliafero? Goetz? Groothius? Copan? said...

Great episode. I've been listening for a few months, and wanted to encourage you to keep it up.

I especially liked the logic argument of an omnipotent god by some definitions of "omnipotent" would be unable to do things that we are able to do. That was a fun thought experiment.

Anonymous said...

Lots of actual philosophy in this episode! Finally we're all children of Ludwig Wittgenstein now...even the other posters here are into perfect usage of words. Nice.

On that note, are you guys true A-theists? Or more like agnostics? Ya know and kind of Saganism? Cuz I was an atheist but now I'm agnostic...and there's a huge difference IMO. I don't like being lumped in with atheists any more (less actually) than I like being lumped in with pagans!

And of course God could make a tofu turkey hot enough that even "he" could not eat it (you still call god "he" ffs!)'s the "why" that I like to me that path leads to the truth about God.

I have found that if one takes language about God to it's fullest degree of simplistic logic one can more perfectly understand false dilemmas you discussed in this show. Not saying you were wrong, you just weren't exact enough in your thinking to be right.

But you touched on two of my favorite realizations:

1. We have attributes of infinity (divinity) in us.
2. "Could God commit suicide?".

Keep up the good work, loving the humor fellas.


P.S. When F.N. said "God is Dead" he meant that those that claim to follow God are not actually doing it and should be ashamed of themselves. This is why he created the concept of Uber-Human. He wasn't saying God is actually dead. A common mistake to be sure, and a grave one!

sincerity77 said...

I liked your story from Toni, who had met Lee Strobel. A follow-on argument occured to me when I heard Strobel's assertion that one can hallucinate the sun dancing but not a human being. Does Strobel believe in ghosts? Are there not many eyewitness accounts of the ghosts of human beings? How can he assert that noone could hallucinate the figure of a person?

Meredith said...

Hey... do you know of any good apologetics podcasts? I realized I have a bunch of atheistic ones but every time I try to get a different view, I can't stand to listen to them because they're so awful.
They just... they're all so terrible.

PS: Keep making podcasts! It makes my day when I find a new episode on my ipod.

UnBeguiled said...

Best show yet! I think these are the best atheological arguments, because when I engage an honest Christian, he is forced to retreat to the position of an unknowable God.

At which point, I just ask "Then why are you talking about God?"

Or quote Wittgenstein:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

(Hey, any chance you guys will boot Luke off the show? He's kind of an asshat.)

Seriously, your show has really grown on me, I love it. Thanks, keep it up.

Fletcher said...

UnBeguiled --

I'm assuming you're joking about kicking Luke off the show. I don't really get the joke, but I assume it is a joke.

Luke will not be getting kicked off. And it's entirely possible that you're confusing him for me when it comes to the "asshat" comment.

UnBeguiled said...


Yes. I'm joking. I was trying to riff the somewhat running inside joke poking fun at Luke. Maybe it's not a running joke and I've just listened to the same episode too many times.

Besides, all three of you asshats sound the same anyway.

Please do a show on TAG and presuppositional apologetics.

UnBeguiled said...


I like your criticism of Plantinga's modal logic argument.

I like to parody all forms of ontological arguments by using the imaginary label "necessarily existent".

1. There exists one possible world with a necessarily existent pink unicorn.

2. A necessarily existent pink unicorn in one possible world will exist necessarily in all possible worlds.

3. This is a possible world.

4. The pink unicorn exists in this world.

I think Plantinga uses an imaginary attribute called "maximal greatness".

Anyway, your exact point was made recently by Taner Edis on his Secular Outpost blog.

Amenhotep said...

Unbeguiled, yep - sometimes I find that the Sausological Argument is helpful in understanding ontological arguments.

1. The Omnisausage is defined as a maximally perfect sausage.

2. It is possible that the Omnisausage exists.

3. From 2, we can therefore say that there is a possible universe in which the Omnisausage exists.

4. In order for the Omnisausage to *be* maximally perfect, I must be having it for my tea tonight.

5. Therefore, if the Omnisausage exists in a possible universe, it must exist in the *actual* universe, and I *must* be having it for tea tonight.


Actually, part of the ontological pantsness also involves the concept that when we can say something is "possible", we are NOT necessarily saying that there is a "possible universe" in which it is true - we are merely saying that we don't have enough data to prove the converse - quite a different thing.

Also, the ontological argument cuts both ways - we could say that it is possible that god *doesn't* exist, which means there is a possible universe in which it doesn't exist, which means that omnipresence is logically impossible; if there is a possible universe in which an omnipresent god does *not* exist, then it cannot exist in *any* universe, including the *actual* one. But this is just as silly as Pantinga's argument really.

Then there is the cosmological argument - as soon as you replace the word "being" with "system", the Kalam argument disintegrates in tatters. Job done.

Thanks for the pointer to the Secular Outpost blog - haven't read it before, but it sounds good.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to pop out to the shop to buy some tomato sauce and Dijon mustard...

JohnFrost said...

I've got a question guys--you talk a lot in this episode about the illogical inconsistencies of God; but what about the illogicalness of things like Quantum physics? Why is being logically inconsistent such a problem?

Amenhotep said...

Quantum physics illogical? Zut alors! Counter-intuitive, yes. *Fiendishly* counter-intuitive, indeed. But it is immensely logical. It's just a different kind of logic from the type we're used to :-)

UnBeguiled said...

Why is being logically inconsistent such a problem?Because without logical consistency, communication is impossible.

If someone tells me the Christian god is 'good', and then tells me the Christian god sends people to hell, then I have no idea what the word 'good' could possible mean.

So nothing is communicated by calling God good.


Light acts like a wave when investigated one way and seems more like a participle when investigated another way. That's not illogical, it's just weird, and we have nothing in our medium sized world to analogize that with.

What do you mean by logical anyway? Unless we all agree to classic logic (A is A), then we cannot have a conversation. Otherwise, having a conversation and not having a conversation would be the same.

Daniel said...

Great latest podcast! Thanks for the work you guys put in to the show! Would you consider posting a list of what you guys would consider essential counter-apologetics books? You mentioned George Smith and Michael Martin in the podcast, but an "essential reading list" would be nice.

Torgo said...


I listen to Stand to Reason on a regular basis. I almost never agree with Greg Koukl, the host, but he's among the most rational and consistent apologists I've heard. Craig's Reasonable Faith podcast isn't bad either.


Torgo said...

Any chance you guys would post Toni's entire letter? I'd love to read everything about the Strobel encounter.

Her/his question to Strobel about Catholic miracles reminded me of a question I hope to ask William Lane Craig someday, and I'd love some feedback from everyone in the comments about it. One of the pillars of his argument for the historicity of Jesus and the resurrection is the consensus of New Testament scholars that Jesus existed, the tomb was empty, and his followers had experiences of him after his death. Assuming Craig thinks this appeal to experts is warranted, is he prepared to accept another one?

I've heard Craig on at least one occasion say that while he agrees with much of the scientific understanding of evolution, he doesn't agree that human beings evolved from primate ancestors, but that we are a special creation. But this is not the view of the majority of evolutionary biologists, of course.

Since Craig accepts the opinions of experts in the case of the historicity of Jesus, should he not also accept the opinions of the experts on human evolution? Shouldn't he give up one or the other? Either accept human evolution on the basis of expert consensus, or drop the consensus of experts on the historicity of Jesus as a major element of his argument for the resurrection?

I'd love to hear any opinions on the merits of this criticism of Craig.

UnBeguiled said...


I don't find evolution in the index of my 3rd edition of Reasonable Faith, but I will take a guess at what he would say.

First of all, Craig knows that the Bible is true because he claims he has learned this directly from the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it logically follows that the Bible scholar consensus must be true!

He has no similar Holy Spirit testimony about evolution.

I'm kidding. I doubt he would make that idiotic a case. The problem with dealing with these guys is all there arguments are post hoc. They have a dogma, then cherry pick evidence to support it. You should not expect evidence or rational argument to be persuasive, because their epistemic justification goes the other direction:

What they believe leads them to the evidence they accept, rather than the evidence leading them to what they ought to believe.

Page 30 of RF:

"Suppose someone had been told to believe in God because of an invalid argument. Could he stand before God on judgment day and say," God, those Christians only gave me lousy arguments for believing in you. That is why I didn't believe"? Of course not! The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God's Holy Spirit."

Right out of the horses mouth.

Anonymous said...

Hey guys, congratulations on a fantastic podcast. You've got a fan all the way from New Zealand.