Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Of Word-Castles and Inverted Priorities

I and many others have been having some fun with commenter "Verbose Stoic" over at Ophelia Benson's post on RJ Hoffman's whine about atheists. Asked to provide instances of the "sophisticated theology" he had been repeatedly asking his interlocutors to revere, VS finally offered a sneering anti-Dawkins book review by David Hart:

We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?

Numerous attempts have been made, by the way, to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity.
Now that is sophisti-micated! "The transcendent fullness of actuality," according to David Hart, once stood on a hillside and declared that the meek shall inherit the earth, that enemies should love each other, and not long after, found itself hanging by spikes after an unfair trial. Verbose Stoic's gloss of Hart is more generous without making any more sense:
To which the reply [to Dawkins dismissal of the ontological argument], quite reasonably, is that something that has necessary existence may well be complex without having to evolve, or as Hart puts it that you can’t directly map properties about the absolute from the properties of the non-absolute.
Neat. Since we're talking about things that once stood on hillsides, shared homilies, and specially-created pre-killed fish before serving them to strangers, we're talking about things that supposedly once existed. We have nothing but non-absolutes from which to map the properties of other things, and we can do this mapping either within or beyond the boundaries of the reasonable and evidence-supported. Since Hart is saying we can't even hope to complete the exercise because the regularities of the observable universe don't obtain in the sky-realm and among the "transcendent fullnesses of actuality" he has in mind, then I say we should go with that and not begin the exercise, even knowing it means dismissing theology, both "sophisticated" and the other kind. The world is not lacking for empty word-castles.

Since some observers get a tummy ache when such assessments come from somewhere other than a venerated stack of books written by established authorities, I would suggest that D'Holbach's Good Sense covers this same ground pretty thoroughly, and Hume's Dialogues puts variations of Hart's mess in the mouth of Demea in order to refute it rather soundly. Both Hume and D'Holbach were dead long before any gnu atheist cooties could soil them, so Hart and the like can click those hyperlinks without fear.

Last and probably least, here's Verbose Stoic establishing the order of operations in theology:
Step 1: Define the properties of the CONCEPT that you are trying to determine the existence of.

Step 2: Use appropriate methods to determine if that thing exists, given the concept you’re studying.

Step 3: Derive other properties that are not essential to the concept from the proofs and evidence you’ve accumulated.
Of course -- study something hard enough and before long it will become sophisti-micated. This approach salvages not just theology but studies in unicorns, orbiting teacups, bigfoot, astrology, palmistry, the prophetic powers of entrails, the protective qualities of severed rabbit's feet, and, well -- so much more, limited only to mankind's collective ability to generate conjectures about vacuities.

You would be right to suspect I have barely scratched the surface of Theology's Fitness as Truth-Seeking Mechanism, it being a minor but interesting entry in Life's Big Questions. There's more -- much, much more -- available from people who know a lot more than I do. Check out more and better consideration of life's big questions in some of these online philosophy courses.

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