Thursday, September 08, 2011

I Was Wrong

Apparantly Christopher Hitchens debated Tony Blair, on the topic of 'Religion does more harm than good' at some prestigious debate in Canada or something. You can buy a transcript of it, or watch it here

Hitchens and Blair convinced me I have been wrong. Religion is small and petty and not the originator of the behaviour that threatens our welfare. On the whole, religion is a force for good, most religious people (that I meet) are good people and arguably less harmless than the average individual. Which I guess for my social circle is probably a big call. But it is no bigger than the general observation, that I believe: 'People are basically good.' you take the incidence of bad things (theft, murder, assualt etc.) and divide it by the number of opportunities to do those bad things and you'll find that badness is rare.

So so for religion, for every individual member of a religious organisation that molests a child, there are a bunch that feed and clothe the poor. But don't get confused, this is neither an argument for nor against religion. It suggests that religion is largely irrelevant.

The basic behaviour that is protected and sheltered and fostered by religion is the source of almost all of man's inhumanity-to-man, Us-Them thinking. But this is no different than that fostered by sporting competition (at it's most negligible) and nationalism (at it's most damaging).

I am now probably entering a phase of undedicated thought to foster an understanding of what should actually concern us, that narrative goes something like this:

We have a tendancy to organise around capable leaders, people who put simply - use resources efficiently. To put it slightly more complicatedly, are better at taking resources and producing for us, than were we to employ resources for ourselves as individuals. If you can identify such benign people it makes sense from self interest to strip down resistance or friction to them employing their faculties.

Then ultimately these leaders are succeeded, and the succession process is vulnerable to corruption by wilful or subconscious self-interest. Namely some tools employ the organisational structure to parisitically consume more resources. They do so freely, because the organisation consists of people who have formed a habit of trusting their leadership and, perhaps in a truism, follow their leaders.

But there are still things to be said about God, that I feel like saying, burying, leaving behind now. They are pragmatic issues.

Omniscience and Inscrutibility

For me the debate over matters metaphysical needs to go here. One means by which the god meme survives is his inscrutability, his designs are not apparant from any real world observations, we must trust that when bad or meaningless tragedies happen to good people it is part of some greater design that we can't possibly comprehend.

This allows us to believe in a benign and sentient entity, because he knows all we can have faith that things will work out great over eternity. We have faith that no matter what, ultimately we are headed towards some meaningful and rewarding destination, all of us, part of it.

This requires a vast intellect, but suffers from practicle problems. There are so many (known) variables in the universe that to optimise our destinies, means that by definition omniscience requires an understanding of the impact of every single one of those variables. There is a debate as to whether free-will really exists or not, but nevertheless to us, individuals it is a convincing illusion. Omniscience suggests that beyond contemplating every quantum outcome of electron movements to optimise our spiritual destiny, god has contemplated every possible act of free will.

That is, there will be one optimal dimension, one actual Universe, that we presume to live in, and then every single other alternate version of reality that god discarded as sub optimal. But by definition, god's knowledge of those alternate universes must be complete, so thoroughly complete that how are we to know our entire existence isn't within the discarded thought experiment of god. We have no way of determining whether we are just the 'thought-output' of god's omniscience or living in some inscrutable 'reality' that is the ultimate output of God's thorough optimisation of our universe.

The fact that god's designs can't be scrutinised through observance of the natural world leaves us unable to tell whether we do or don't matter, whether we are mere thoughts of some omniscience or some reality external to god's omniscience (if that's even possible).

How unsatisfying, this is the kind of dissatisfaction that religious apologists seldom understand, and thus keep debating athiests at a very low bar. They (apologists) don't understand that under the sheer complexity of what omniscience entails, that atheism is in fact both a simpler explanation, and more comforting. Reality is what it is, some brilliant and glorious accident, some natural phenomena that we were lucky enough to have happen, for no reason at all. A true windfall.


Omnipotence is far less of a metaphysical headache than omniscience, it suggests that god can do anything. Thus, the afore mentioned known variables are in fact accepting that omnipotence entails miracles, not even worth describing. Everything is a variable to god.

This is what creates the necessity of inscrutibility for god to survive in our minds, god is omnipotent, not impotent and thus worthy of our reverence and appeals to his better nature. The reason then that prayers (for new limbs, to walk again, for people to love us... etc.) keep going unanswered, we must accept that getting what we want isn't what we need, is not in our best interests and thus a life characterised of losing everything we have while being ravaged by schizophrenia is somehow in our best interests.

But apologists will happily sing along to vapid lyrics 'God is limitless, he can do anything' but when evidence is demanded to substantiate the claim, the demander is told 'you just don't get it.'

Omnipotence is a claim with practical problems though, for example - free will allows for unethical behaviour, simply defined here as actions that reduce other people's well being. Our omnipotent god simply lets it happen. Here polytheism is more satisfying than omnipotence and monotheism, because you can compartmentalise the influence of each god, and put them in conflict, much better explaining the diversity of outcomes. Yet homeric god's have perished and monotheistic beliefs survive.

Thus you have to accept things like forces of evil, or demigods even if metaphysical in nature (such as Satan or... ah the Galactic overlord of Scientology) must by necessity of definition of omnipotence must be part of their design and optimisation. An omnipotent god MUST create evil agents to do harm, that ultimately are in our best interests.

It becomes practically hard to say how we should spend time scrutinising teachings and offerings of institutions that claim to represent the omnipotent and the inscrutable. Furthermore coming to such lessons and devoting time to learn about these dieties, comes with obligations to behave in a certain way, and even privately think in a certain way and failure to do so comes with punitive measures - punitive measures that can be executed precisely because we are lead to believe that that is an optimal use of his omnipotence.

Here it moves away from inscrutibility to the tantalisingly scrutible. An omnipotent and omniscient optimiser like God, delegates authority to certain people that can then offer explicit answers as to what he has conceived is best for all of us. And unavoidably we can observe that those that receive this delegated authority, are also often materially rewarded, nor appear to need to practice what they preach. (CEO's and Bankers and Economists and Nationalists tend to do the same).

Ultimately though, omnipotence puts an onus on religions to impress us. Those delegated the authority to defend this stance and even up to date with how impressive the universe of 'no god' is. Which is strange because the first material houses of worship were constructed in a time when electric lighting didn't drown out the night sky. I am put in mind of a Carl Sagan quote that once heard is hard to forget:

In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way."


Omnipresence just takes god from any reasonable claim to being a simple and elegant explanation of existence to being practically hard and cumbersome to comprehend.

If you think of reality as some membrane, god's omnipresence combined with omniscience and omnipotence creates every single quark of matter, and dark matter etc. a point of articulation, a point of contemplation and habitation.

What a miraculously complex being this god is, infinitely massive yet smaller than anything science can comprehend. And thus, god's presence everywhere requires us to believe that he feels that when a designated authority to speak on his behalf fucks a child, it is for the best. Or is it? Are we meant to act, presumably not, because god also lives in our heads, whispering to us, what? It would seem 'get outraged' to some, often secular, which seems part of his plan and thus an act of free will and others 'just ignore it/defend it and the church' to others.

It all becomes a practical mess.

The Debate Meanders On

Whilst writing this I indulged in listening to the debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens, and what strikes me about this debate and Dawkins versus Amiable-Irish-Christian-Mathematician nobody, is that it is very easy for the athiest side. They never ask somebody like Tony Blair to explain shit like omniscience and inscrutibility and how anybody can derive authority from such concepts. Instead it is the same claim 'science can explain how, religion can explain why.' which isn't substantiated and has as of Sam Harris been moved on to an evidence based claim that science can answer questions of 'why'. Otherwise it is the same definitional retreats.

It's just sad and old, and hasn't even progressed since Bertrand Russell answered all those existing arguments that keep getting trawled up in 'why I'm not a christian.' And frankly I won't participate in theological debates unless my theistic opponent has read that book at least, and wants to debate interesting questions like how omniscience works.

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