There's nothing like a day at sea to stimulate some philosophizing... The last time I wrote a dialog I picked on the theists, so I thought I'd give the atheists some equal time. :-)
RG: Hello, QualiaSoup. Thanks for taking the time to "chat" with me.
QS: You didn't exactly give me a choice, did you now.
RG: No, I didn't, and that will actually become quite relevant later on.
QS: Hm, that's intriguing. I can't offhand think of any valid points you could make from co-opting my identity in this way, but since I don't have a choice I'll go ahead and suspend my disbelief for the moment. What did you want to talk about?
RG: First I wanted to tell you that I thought that your videos (at least the two that I watched  ) are very good. They're well paced, accurate, and you take very complex issues and present them in a way that I think nearly anyone can readily understand. And you taught me something about bananas that I didn't know before, so I thank you for that.
QS: Don't mention it.
RG: I also wanted to let you know that your videos inspired me to write this blog entry.
QS: Fine, but why drag me into it? Why not just write a normal sort of essay, or put together a video response like everyone else does?
RG: Because "dragging you into it" is actually essential to the point I want to make.
QS: And that would be...
RG: Before I reveal my thesis I beg your indulgence for one more moment so that I can preface my argument with this: I actually agree with nearly everything you say in your videos. In particular, I agree with you that the existence of God (or gods) is untenable on both logical and evidentiary grounds. Nonetheless, I think I can put forward a credible argument that God (some God, the exact nature of which I will get to in good time) does in fact exist.
QS: Normally I would dismiss you as just another kook. People have been trying unsuccessfully to prove the existence of God for millennia. But since you don't seem to be a religious nut (tip o' the hat for the rhetorical priming there...)
RG: Why, thank you kindly.
QS: ... and since you haven't really left me a lot of choice in the matter, I'll stay and listen to what you have to say.
RG: I appreciate that. But please note that I did not say that I was going to *prove* the existence of God. I freely acknowledge that cannot be done. What I said I wold do was present *a credible argument for His existence* (for some value of "His". And, I might add at this point, "existence.")
QS: I'm all ears.
RG: Thank you. First we have to establish what it means to exist. You didn't go into it much in your videos, but you strongly implied an operationalist definition of existence: things exist if they can be *measured* somehow. The example you gave in your video was the wind, which exists by virtue of our being able to measure, for example, its velocity.
QS: So far so good.
RG: So I have a question for you: do you consider measurability to be a necessary and sufficient condition for existence?
QS: No. I go further than that. I take the scientific view of existence: to exist, something has to be measurable *repeatably* and *reliably*, at least in principle. Whether or not we *actually* perform those measurements is irrelevant. There are rocks on the far side of the moon which have never been measured, but they exist nonetheless. They exist because *if* you were to go to the far side of the moon you *could* measure them. The reason God does not exist is that if we could measure Him, he would simply be part of nature and would no longer be God. God is *by definition* impossible to measure.
RG: Not by the definition I intend to use.
QS: Then your definition does not correspond with the popular notion of God.
RG: That issue will indeed lie at the heart of the matter. But we're getting waaaayyyyy ahead of ourselves here. First we have to pin down the meaning of "exist" which will turn out to be much more problematic than the meaning of "God." For example, do unicorns exist?
QS: They do not exist as physical creatures. They do exist as concepts in people's minds. These two different modes of existence are referred to as existence in the wide and narrow senses. So unicorns and God and all other fictional creatures exist in the wide sense but not the narrow sense. But most religious people insist that (their) God exists in the narrow sense.
RG: OK, I'm with you so far. So let's take the wind. Does the wind exist in the narrow sense?
QS: Of course. Why would you doubt it?
RG: Because the wind is not really a "thing" in its own right. What we think of as "the wind" is really just a particular configuration of air molecules.
QS: But that's true of nearly everything that exists (in the narrow sense). Most "things" that we speak of existing don't really exist in their own right, but only as particular arrangements and states of ensembles of other things. At root, everything is just a transient configuration of subatomic particles (or the quantum wave function if you really want to be a purist about it).
RG: OK, we're still on the same page. From now on let us stipulate that when we speak of "existing" we mean in the narrow sense. So let me ask you this: does Borat Sagdiyev exist?
QS: No, he's a fictional character.
RG: How do you know?
QS: Are you kidding? That's common knowledge.
RG: You shouldn't believe everything you read on Wikipedia. Borat is different from other fictional characters. Unlike, say, Harry Potter, you can find people who have actually *met* Borat, who have seen him with their own eyes, who have touched him and hence in some sense "measured" him. Indeed, many of those encounters are documented on film. So by your own criterion, Borat exists.
QS: No. The criterion was that the measurements be reliably repeatable. If you do enough experiments you will find that Borat is actually Sacha Baron Cohen *pretending* to be Borat.
RG: But why should that imply Borat to be non-existent? You admitted earlier that the wind exists, but it is nothing more than a particular configuration of air molecules. So Borat is just a particular configuration of Sacha Baron Cohen, but that doesn't mean Borat doesn't exist.
QS: You're playing with semantics. In some sense, yes, Borat exists. But Borat does not have many of the qualities that are normally attributed to him. For example, he was not born in Kazakhstan. In fact, he was never born at all because Borat is not a *person*, he is a *persona*.
RG: But quibbling over whether Borat is a person or a persona is not a disagreement about Borat's *existence*, it is a disagreement about his *nature*.
QS: OK, I concede point. Borat exists, but he is a persona, not a person.
RG: Good enough. Now, does the fact that Borat is a persona *matter*?
QS: Of course it matters.
QS: Good heavens, where to begin? Persons are bound by physical constraints that personas are not. Personas are ephemeral (like the wind), persons are not (like air molecules).
RG: But just because something is ephemeral doesn't mean it can't have an effect on the world. The wind, for example, can knock things over despite the fact that it is ephemeral. Borat can offend people despite the fact that he is ephemeral.
QS: But it isn't *really* Borat, it's *really* Sacha Baron Cohen.
RG: I could as well say it isn't *really* the wind, it's *really* the air molecules. It's just semantics. When the air molecules have the configuration we call "wind" they have the effects of the wind. When Sacha Baron Cohen has the configuration we call "Borat" he has the effects of Borat. The two situations are completely analogous. You cannot deny the existence of Borat without denying the existence of wind.
QS: OK, fine, but what does any of this have to do with God?
RG: I'm going to argue that disputes that are usually framed as disagreement about God's *existence* are really disagreements about His *nature*. Furthermore, if you reframe the argument in this way, you will find a surprising amount of agreement between atheists and theists about God's nature.
QS: I doubt that very much.
RG: I know. But I think that's because you tend to conflate *theism* with *fundamentalism*. There is no reconciliation with fundamentalists. The fundamentalists are simply wrong, as I'm sure you would agree. But not all theists are fundamentalists. Karen Armstrong, for example, is a theist but not a fundamentalist. And though I don't have the data to prove it, I suspect most people who consider themselves theists are likewise not fundamentalists. I believe that reconciliation between non-believers and such people (in the sense of coming to a mutual understanding of both God's existence and His nature) is possible.
RG: Let's start with existence. Has anything I've said so far changed your view about whether or not God exists?
QS: Absolutely not.
RG: I didn't think so. So let's try a different question: does the *idea* of God exist?
RG: Then suppose we *define* God as this *idea*.
QS: Such a definition is circular and hence vacuous, so say nothing of the fact that it bears no resemblance to what people normally consider to be "God".
RG: You're wrong on all counts, but let me start with the last one. Wold you not agree that one of the things that people say of God is that He can heal the sick?
RG: Are you familiar with the placebo effect?
QS: Are you saying that God is a placebo?
RG: Sort of, though without the disparaging implications. Non-believers have a tendency to pooh-pooh placebos. The placebo effect has been something of an embarrassment to mainstream science. And yet it is undeniably real. It is also, at least so far, somewhat mysterious.
QS: It's just a matter of time before neuroscience figures it out.
RG: That may well be. One of the points of honest disagreements about God's nature is whether or not He is supernatural. Until science *actually* figures out how the placebo effect works we cannot *definitively* rule out the possibility that it is a supernatural effect (or, to put it in scientific terms, that it involves new physics). But regardless, everyone can agree that this healing effect, whether you call it the placebo effect or the Power of Faith or God, is undeniably *mysterious*, at least at the moment. Furthermore, until science *actually* resolves the question of how placebos work, the belief that science *will* resolve it is an article of faith.
QS: Science has a pretty impressive track record of resolving these kinds of mysteries. You seem to be arguing for the God of the gaps.
RG: Again, sort of. At the end I will argue that there is one gap for which there is good reason to believe that science will not fill it. But what I really want to argue for is God-as-an-idea. But (and this is very important) I want to argue *against* the concept of God as *merely* an idea. To reduce God-as-an-idea to God as *merely* an idea is as great a mistake as reducing Darwinian evolution to life-as-an-accident.
QS: I'm not quite certain whether the concept of God-as-an-idea strikes me as absurd or merely useless. But I'm pretty sure it's one or the other.
RG: It will turn out that God-as-an-idea has many of the same properties as God-as-deity (as conceived by non-fundamentalists). He/she/it can heal the sick (courtesy of the placebo effect). He/she/it can be influenced by prayer (ditto). He/she/it can perform (certain kinds of) miracles. He/she/it can serve as a basis for morality. He/she/it is mysterious. Some limited insight into his/her/its nature can even be gained through so-called holy texts, or through meditation and ritual.
QS: I buy all that. But none of that changes the fact that this kind of God is *fictional*.
RG: Absolutely. The mistake that atheists make is not in saying that God is fictional, but in saying that God is *merely* fictional. It's a mistake of the same sort that fundamentalists make when they say that Darwinian evolution is merely random. Randomness is in fact an essential component of Darwinian evolution. But it is not *merely* random. God-as-an-idea is fictional, but it is not *merely* fictional, just as Darwinian evolution is random, but it is not *merely* random.
QS: Darwinian evolution is rendered non-merely-random by the addition of a second essential element, namely, natural selection. Does God-as-an-idea have analogous essential element that separates it from "ordinary" fiction?
RG: Yes, but it's a little harder to characterize. It doesn't yet have a neat label like "natural selection" or "placebo effect". As far as I know no one has really explored this in depth. I've called it the elephant in the atheist living room but that's not a very good label. But the basic idea is this: there are manifest phenomena that emerge from human minds that are undeniably real but beyond the current reach of science. The placebo effect is one such phenomenon. Self-awareness is another. Qualia, like the flavor of chocolate or what it feels like to be in love or to be angry are another. Science can explain the external manifestations of these things, and may even be able to explain the physical mechanisms that underlie them. But science cannot possibly ever explain what it feels like to be hungry, or to be lonely, or to be loved or to be you. God is what you get when you stop sweeping these things under the rug as "mere" anything and start admitting them as a vital part of your reality.
QS: I don't sweep these things under the rug, I just understand them as manifestations of physical processes in my brain.
RG: But that cannot possibly give you a complete understanding of these things.
QS: How do you know that? Our knowledge of how the brain works is incomplete. How do you know that science can't *possibly* give us a complete understanding?
RG: Because of your own criterion for scientific reality: to be amenable to scientific inquiry a thing has to be *measurable*. And subjective experience is, by definition, not measurable. If it were measurable it would not be subjective.
QS: But subjective experience *is* measurable. If I'm in pain, for example, you can measure my physiological responses. You can do brain scans that show distinctive patterns depending on what my subjective experience is at any moment. And the technology for doing these things is still in its infancy. There is no reason to supposed that some day we won't be able to tell exactly what someone is thinking and feeling by scanning their brain.
RG: We can actually do better than that. We can even today tell things about someone's mental state by scanning their brain that they themselves are not consciously aware of. And that is exactly my point. There's this huge disconnect between the objective and the subjective, and it goes both ways. There are things in our subjective experience that are not in the physical manifestations of that experience, and vice versa.
QS: But science could still some day get a handle on all of that.
RG: No, it couldn't.
QS: Why not?
RG: Because at its core, subjective experience is fundamentally incompatible with the laws of physics.
QS: Remember that bit in the beginning where I said you weren't a kook? I should like to retract that now.
RG: Hear me out. All the known laws of physics are symmetric in time and space. That is, the laws of physics are the same everwhere and everywhen. Getting to that point is considered one of the crowning achievements of physics. But qualitative experience is not symmetric with respect to time and space. It has a privileged frame of reference: here and now. The laws of physics by their very nature cannot account for that.
QS: Of course they can. My here-and-now is not the same as your here-and-now. Everyone's here-and-now is anchored to the physical manifestation of their brain, which the laws of physics have no trouble describing as being present at a particular place and time.
RG: Ah, but you are making an assumption here, namely, that subjective experience is necessarily bound to a particular physical embodiment. There is a famous thought experiment in philosophy: suppose we put you under a general anesthetic and create an exact atom-for-atom duplicate of your brain and body. We then destroy the original "you" and wake up the duplicate "you". What would be the subjective experience? Philosophers argue about this a lot, but there are only three possible answers: 1) the subjective experience is indistinguishable from simply going to sleep and waking up again, 2) the subjective experience is somehow distinguishable or 3) it is not possible to do this experiment even in principle because the processes going on in the brain are inherently quantum in nature, and it is not possible to duplicate a quantum state. Let's assume for the sake of argument that 3 is not the case. (All indications are that the processing in the brain is fundamentally chemical, not quantum, so in principle it should be possible to do the duplication.) So now we have only two possibilities. If (1) is correct then we have proven that subjective experience is not bound to a particular physical artifact, and so subjective experience transcends physicality in exactly the same way that, say, information transcends physicality. If (2) is correct then we have proven that subjective experience cannot possibly be the result of purely physical processes, since we have two physically identical systems with two different subjective experiences. Either way science fails fundamentally to explain at least one aspect of subjective experience.
QS: There's another possibility that you have not taken into account. It may be that subjective experience is bound, not to a particular physical artifact, but to a particular physical configuration. In other words, possibility (1) is in fact correct.
RG: We can rule out that possibility as well by simply not destroying the original you. If subjective experience were bound to a particular physical configuration we would necessarily have the same subjective experience in two different locations. But that's not possible because by definition a single subjective experience is bound to a particular place and time. Both copies of you might have subjective experiences that are qualitatively identical, but they would not be the same experience.
QS: OK, let's not quibble over this. What has all this to do with God?
RG: Spiritual experiences are subjective. Some people experience them more than others. It's rather like experiencing color. Some people are color-blind and can't distinguish between, say, red and green. It is impossible to explain to such a person what the subjective difference between red and green is. They can understand in the intellectual abstract that they are different wavelengths of light, and even that they are different colors (because they can distinguish between red and blue), but they cannot ever know the subjective experience of being able to distinguish red from green. There is a "spiritual blindness" that that prevents some people from experiencing God in exactly the same way that color-blindness prevents some people from experiencing red and green. Such people tend naturally to become atheists. I myself am one such person. I have never had a spiritual experience in my life. The closest I've come is a sort of euphoria that I feel when I finally get a piece of code to work after fixing a particularly hard bug. Nonetheless, I can understand in the intellectual abstract that some people have these experiences, that they are as real to them as red and green are to me.
QS: I would call those delusions.
RG: Spiritual experience spans a very broad range. Some kinds of spiritual experience are fairly labelled as delusional, like schizophrenics who hear voices. They really do hear voices. It actually sounds to them like someone is talking even though no one is really there. (It's actually not so much the voices per se that make schizophrenics crazy as the fact that there's often no way to get them to shut up.) But to dismiss *all* spiritual experience as delusion is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
QS: OK, I'll buy the general notion of spirituality as something that transcends science and is, at least in some cases, not actively harmful, and possibly even useful in grappling with (here's a label for your elephant) existential angst and certain other maladies. That's still a long way from saving your soul by nailing a guy to a cross.
RG: Granted. I already conceded that fundamentalism cannot be reconciled with science. But surely at this point you can see how the idea that, say, Jesus died for your sins can be a legitimate belief in the subjective realm of spirituality?
QS: I would have conceded that straightaway. It is not at all unusual for people to have imaginary friends.
RG: Ah, but Jesus is a very special kind of imaginary friend. He is an imaginary friend whom a great many people share in common. And when imagination becomes communal it becomes a fundamentally new kind of phenomenon: it becomes a shared subjective experience. It becomes an effective weapon against despair and solipsism. It becomes a more powerful healing agent through the placebo effect. In short, it becomes God.
QS: But it's still just an idea. It never rose from the dead or tuned water into wine.
RG: But that doesn't matter, and if you think it does you are missing the point. Whether Jesus actually, literally, physically turned water into wine only matters to the fundamentalist, with whom we have long since parted company. But to the non-fundamenatalist theist this is simply irrelevant because that is not what God is about. For the non-fundamantalist theist, God lives in the spiritual realm, in the realm of mythos rather than logos.
QS: But the realm of mythos isn't *real*. It doesn't *exist*.
RG: And here we come full circle, and I have one final question for you: do *you* exist?
QS: What a ridiculous question. Of course I exist. Oh, wait...