Sunday, June 01, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 11

Peikoff’s arguments against God. Peikoff, in his book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, provides several arguments against the existence of God. The arguments are all “metaphysical” in the bad (i.e., Aristotelean) sense of the word; that is to say, they are all guilty of attempting to determine matters of fact by means of logical or moral or rhetorical constructions. The existence of God, however, is an entirely empirical question: either there’s convincing evidence for God’s existence or there isn’t. It is in respect to the evidence that we must judge the question. Metaphysical reasonings based on so-called “axioms” are cognitively useless.

Peikoff claims that all the arguments for God’s existence contradict the Objectivist axioms:
Is God the creator of the universe? Not if existence has primacy over consciousness.

Is God the designer of the universe? Not if A is A. The alternative to “design” is not “chance.” It is causality.

Is God omnipotent? Nothing and no one can alter the metaphysically given.

Is God infinite? “Infinite” does not mean large; it means larger than any specific quantity, i.e., of no specific quantity. An infinite quantity would be a quantity without identity. But A is A. Every entity, accordingly, is infinite.

Can God perform miracles? A “miracle” does not mean merely the unusual…. A miracle is an action not possible to the entities involved by their nature; it would be a violation of identity.

Is God purely spiritual? “Spiritual” means pertaining to consciousness, and consciousness is a faculty of certain living organisms…. A consciousness transcending nature would be a faculty transcending organism and object. So far from being all-knowing such a thing would have neither means nor content of perception; it would be nonconscious. [OPAR, 31-32]

These arguments against theism are even worse than the rationalistic arguments made on the theistic side, such as the wretched cosmological and ontological “proofs” for God’s existence. They all seek to leverage the scandalous vagueness of abstruse terms to reach conclusions that the premises cannot support.

Two of the three Objectivist axioms are tautologies. The problem with tautologies is not that they are false, but that they are trivial: nothing of any consequence can be derived from them. The tautology existence exists is logically consistent with every proposition about existence, including the proposition God exists.

Peikoff’s first argument makes uses of the one non-tautological axiom, the axiom of consciousness, which claims that “one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” Rand believed that from this axiom (with assistance from the other two) sprung a further principle, known as the primacy of existence over consciousness. This is a rather incoherent distinction. Since consciousness (as Rand’s second axiom declares) exists, then consciousness must be part of existence. So what then does it mean to say that existence is primary over consciousness? What Rand is really asserting is the primacy of that portion of existence that is not conscious: that is, she is asserting the primacy of matter. Primacy in what sense? Well, here’s where we run into problems of ambiguity. Rand claims that those who deny the primacy of existence believe that existence is “created” by consciousness. Plato, Christianity, and German Idealism are all presented as advocates of this view. Unfortunately, no Objectivist has ever provided any evidence of a genuine platonist or Christian or German Idealist who actually holds that view. Idealists don’t believe consciousness creates existence. Nor do they believe in the primacy of consciousness. What they believe in is the primacy of the contents of consciousness—which is something different. Where those contents ultimately come from is a matter of debate between various idealist factions; but I’m not aware of any faction that declares that all of existence is “created” by consciousness.

When Peikoff declares that God can’t be the creator of existence because existence is primary, what has he established? He’s established nothing. No theist, Christian or otherwise, ever asserted that God created existence. God, it is claimed, created the “heavens and the earth” or the “universe”—which, again, is something different. Since God existed before the creation of the universe, any notion of God creating “existence” is absurd. Peikoff is here playing fast and loose with the term existence, trying to use it as if it were a precise synonym for universe or material world.

When Peikoff declares that God can’t be the designer of the universe, because that would violate A is A, he is once more trying to draw non-tautological rabbits from tautological hats. A is A merely asserts the identity of any specific symbol of consciousness to itself. Objectivists try to extend this self-evident but tautological notion of identity into a kind of declaration of the intelligibility of reality. Things must have identity, or else how could we ever come to know them? This implicit premise of Objectivism, masked by the often repeated mantra A is A, is problematic in several directions. While it is true that intelligibility is a precondition of knowledge, this does not mean that intelligibility is also a precondition of existence as well—not if we wish to be consistent with realism. Realism asserts that material objects have a place, movement, origin and destiny of their own, regardless of what the individual may think or fail to think about them. Embedded in this view is the possibility of both error and unintelligibility. Since the object of knowledge lays beyond the realm of consciousness, the possibility not only of error, but of partial unknowability cannot be ruled out of hand. As Santayana once noted: "There may be surds, there may be hard facts, there may be dark abysses before which intelligence must be silent, for fear of going mad." Although every existent must have a nature, that does not mean that every existent is identifiable to consciousness. Not every aspect of the universe exists for the convenience of our intellects. To think otherwise is to flounder into the morass of idealism.

While implicit notions of intelligibility indicate the essential incoherency of the third Objectivist axiom, even more serious is its lack of specificity. Objects, this axiom asserts, must have identity, but it may be any identity. Therefore no specific identity can be ruled out of hand. For this reason, Peikoff’s is wrong to assume that A is A contradicts the theistic premise of God as a designer. If the universe actually was “designed” by God, then that is the identity the universe manifests—end of issue.

Peikoff next asserts that God cannot be omnipotent because “no one can alter the metaphysically given.” But how does he know this? That statement cannot be deduced from any of the axioms, because the axioms don’t contain any empirical content. If God exists and is capable of altering the “metaphysically given,” then his existence and identity are included in these supposed facts. There is nothing in the Objectivist axioms, if taken in their self-evident sense, that would necessarily over-rule this.

Peikoff’s take on infinity is bizarre. “ An infinite quantity would be a quantity without identity,” he asserts. But here he commits the error pointed out earlier of confusing what is identifiable to the human mind with what exists in reality. On realist premises you cannot assume that everything that exists must be intelligible (i.e., identifiable) to the human mind. It is possible that some things may be unintelligible. Hence we cannot rule out the possible existence of infinity.

Nor do miracles violate the so-called “law of identity.” If nature of the universe is such that miracles are possible, then miracles are part of the identity of the universe. Again, it’s important to appreciate how useless metaphysical arguments are to ascertaining facts of reality.

The final objection that Peikoff raises to theism may be the silliest. If reduced to essentials, it would read as follows: God cannot be purely spiritual because a purely spiritual entities are impossible. And not only that, but since non-spiritual entities lack both the means and the content of perception, they can’t be all-knowing. Yet this all rests of the assumption that only physical bodies can be conscious. While this may be true, it doesn’t follow from the Objectivist axioms. As to Peikoff’s additional assertion—I don’t see what the point Peikoff is trying to make in raising it. On the (gratuitous) assumptions of his own argument, a non-physical spiritual entity cannot possibly exist. But if such an entity is impossible, why is he claiming that this impossible entity can’t also be all-knowing? If it can’t exist, questions about whether it is all-knowing are beside the point. So why bring it up?

Peikoff concludes with the following assertion: “At every point, the notion [of God] clashes with the facts of reality and with the precondition of thought.” For better or worse, Peikoff’s metaphysical arguments only address the second of these two problems, i.e., the preconditions of thought. He doesn’t make a factual case against God. Facts involve presenting evidence, and Peikoff provides no evidence, just rationalistic speculation. Even worse, his “precondition of thought” arguments rest on idealist premises. Reality cannot be solely judged on the basis of preconditions of thought—not unless you assume that all of reality is amenable to human thought. That is an assumption accepted by various forms of idealism. But a realist must recognize the possibility that some aspects reality might be unknowable; and this assumption defeats Peikoff’s “preconditions of thought” argumentation at its core.

15 comments:

Damien said...

I find it ironic that Peikoff who regards religious people as irrational and his own views as the height of reason, uses logical fallacies to argue against the existence of God.

Anonymous said...

The individual who makes an asertion that God exists has the obligation of proof. Proof consists of objective evidence identified by man's sense perception processed by his only faculty of knowledge, reason. There is no objective evidence of God. An assertion without evidence is neither true or false it is arbitrary. In conclusion the assertion of the existence of God deserves no consideration except for the manifold destructive consequences of its embrace.

Red Grant said...

If the bible contains an explicit internal inconsistency, then is that enough of a proof that God as described in Bible is a fraud?

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "There is no objective evidence of God."

If so, then why is Peikoff trotting out these speculative metaphysical arguments against theism? If you can make your case on the basis of the evidence, why not stick with that?

Anon: "An assertion without evidence is neither true or false it is arbitrary."

No, that is obviously not true. Before the invention of the telescope, there was no evidence that the planets Uranus and Neptune exist, because neither can be seen with the naked eye. But if someone had said: "A seventh and eight planet exist," that statement, even if "arbitrary," would still have been true.

Anonymous said...

Greg Nyquist wrote "Before the invention of the telescope, there was no evidence that the planets Uranus and Neptune exist, because neither can be seen with the naked eye. But if someone had said: "A seventh and eight planet exist," that statement, even if "arbitrary," would still have been true.

Search for planets followed evidence of forces operating that led to the search for more evidence of the source of those forces. The fact that planets existed prior to man's discovery was a demonstration of the requirement of evidence available to man for the discovery. Man used his knowledge of the physical properties of matter to invent lenses that led to the invention of the telescope. If one contends that there may be evidence discovered in the future of an entity with the atributes of "God" including omnicience, omnipotence, omnipresence, infalibility, capable of reversing the laws of nature the contention is arbitrary. Because one can imagine stone eating gremlins living on an as yet undiscovered object in the universe does not change the assertion of their existence from being arbitrary. The true is the real and man's senses and his faculty of reason are his means of discovering the real and the true. The imaginary concept of "God" has no referents in reality.

Wells said...

If there was a God, we wouldn't be sitting here arguing about it. It would be obvious, and not in some dreamy poetic way, I mean obviously obvious, like the brand on an automobile.

Bill Tingley said...

Greg,

You make a good case about how Objectivists, and Peikoff in particular, smuggle the empirical into metaphysical claims about the existence of God.

I do quibble with your aside that theists are on the flip side of that coin with the so-called proofs of God. Few theists claim these arguments prove that God exists, instead they prove that the existence of God is logically possible.

It is from there we go to the evidence to determine whether a belief in God is justified.

gregnyquist said...

Bill,

I appreciate that few theists regard the cosmological and ontological arguments as actual proofs. In this sense, they are more honest than orthodox Objectivists. However, I think the arguments are still very bad—so bad, in fact, as to be useless for any purpose. The question of God's existence has to be decided in relation to the evidence, and our assessment as to the cognitive value of that evidence.

JayCross said...

that statement, even if "arbitrary," would still have been true.

Peikoff said as much in his book. He simply said you have no obligation or duty to disprove an arbitrary claim.

Luckily, Galileo provided the evidence to bring that claim from arbitrary to clue. Religion does not yet have a Galileo.

JayCross said...

Correction from my last comment: I meant arbitrary to "true", not clue.

I also agree with Wells completely. My best friend and I have often said that if there were a God, not only would it be obvious, but he wouldn't care about stupid stuff like whether you ate meat on a Friday or went to church. The "God" written about in the Bible seems awfully insecure for an allegedly omnipotent being.

Bill Tingley said...

Greg,

"However, I think the arguments are still very bad—so bad, in fact, as to be useless for any purpose."

If you mean they are not persuasive as to the fact of God, I agree. But then that's only true to the exent that the proofs are expected to prove more than the logical possibility of God's existence and the reasonableness of examining the evidence in light of that possibility.

However, if you mean they are invalid arguments, I disagree. As a one-time materialist I didn't find them to be useless. The proofs demonstrated to me that I did not have a logical ground for ruling out God as an explanation for the universe, and so the Objectivist metaphysics I had subscribed to was fundamentally flawed.

I do agree that we have to go where the evidence leads us, and the proofs were useful in removing the Randian blinkers I had donned.

gregnyquist said...

Bill,

I find it fascinating that you found the proofs helpful in coming to understand the logical possibility of God's existence. That has not been an issue for me, because as a fallibilist who accepts Santayana's critique of metaphysics, I already accepted the view that anything is logically possible. Whether it is empircally possible is another question, however. In a sense my criticism of both the cosmological and ontological arguments for God, as well as my criticism of the Objectivist metaphysical arguments against theism, are based on the notion that mere "logical" possibility is not very important.

I would also add that there are better arguments for the mere possibility of God, such as those presented by Anthony Flew in his case for deism.

Bill Tingley said...

Greg,

"That has not been an issue for me, because as a fallibilist who accepts Santayana's critique of metaphysics, I already accepted the view that anything is logically possible."

It was for me. Because most of my study of philosophy had been confined to Objectivism at the time, I had conflated the actual with the necessary. (Although, of course, like so many things Objectivist, I did not do so in a consistent manner.) So the proofs prompted me to make inquiries that I had not made before.

"Whether it is empircally possible is another question, however."

True. Then beyond that is whether the evidence does justify a belief that God exists. My objection is not with the person who finds the evidence wanting. It is specifically with the Objectivist who declares the evidence needs no examination.

He justifies this punt with the claim that God's existence is not logically possible. Yet he does not support that claim without smuggling in empirical premises (and flawed ones at that), as you wrote.

This is why the common Objectivist retort that he has no obligation to prove his denial of God's existence falls flat. By claiming that his denial is logical and not empirical, he is making the greater claim than the theist about what is true -- viz., God cannot exist vs. God's existence is possible. Thus, the burden is upon the Objectivist to make his case against God.

Short of claiming omniscience (a point on which Flew effectively skewers George Smith), I just don't see how the Objectivists can justify their claim that the existence of God is a logical impossibility.

Jay said...

I agree with most of this post. Despite calling myself an Objectivist I've never used these arguments to deny God. I usually talk about evolution, natural selection, and the fact that more of religion's claims are refuted by science every decade and century.

RogueChinchilla said...

Anon Said:

"Search for planets followed evidence of forces operating that led to the search for more evidence of the source of those forces. The fact that planets existed prior to man's discovery was a demonstration of the requirement of evidence available to man for the discovery. Man used his knowledge of the physical properties of matter to invent lenses that led to the invention of the telescope. If one contends that there may be evidence discovered in the future of an entity with the atributes of "God" including omnicience, omnipotence, omnipresence, infalibility, capable of reversing the laws of nature the contention is arbitrary. Because one can imagine stone eating gremlins living on an as yet undiscovered object in the universe does not change the assertion of their existence from being arbitrary. The true is the real and man's senses and his faculty of reason are his means of discovering the real and the true. The imaginary concept of "God" has no referents in reality."

Lets focus specifically on:
"The true is the real and man's senses and his faculty of reason are his means of discovering the real and the true. The imaginary concept of "God" has no referents in reality."

How do you justify what you perceive is real beyond your conscious perception of it?

How many times throughout history has man's ascertainment (based on his faculty of reason, which is based on his perception) been proven wrong by science?

A man can perceive something to be real, but that by no means dictates that their personal analysis is the truth.

Also here is something interesting I found on "www.objectivistcenter.org"

"Objectivism holds that it is possible to be certain of a conclusion, and that there is such a thing as truth. But being certain depends on scrupulously following a logical, objective process of reasoning, because it is only that kind of thinking that allows us to formulate true ideas. To be objective, people must know how to define the terms they use (so they know what they mean), base their conclusions on observable facts (so their beliefs are anchored in reality) and employ the principles of logic (so that they can reliably reach sound conclusions)."

This states that to be certain of a conclusion, one must be objective, or base their argument on observable facts.

How can Peikoff be certain of his refute of God's existence if he has no observable matter from which to work with?

Furthermore... what about the existence of the unobservable? If something is unobservable, then it is impossible to obtain objective information about it. Therefore it is impossible to be certain as to whether or not they do, or do not exist. Doesn't this give the unobservable the possibility of existing? It seems logically sound as well. Black holes are unobservable as they can not be perceived directly. Neither can the thoughts in my head, seeming as no one can read my mind (or so I assume).