Monday, June 23, 2014

The Prideful: A Highly Personal Tirade

Probably my worst failing -- definitely my most persistent one -- is pugnacity. Eagerness to blow the bugles and charge into battle ill becomes one striving for the degree of humility appropriate to any fallible man. What has made me this way, I cannot be certain, but it seems to me that it must be coupled to another of my longstanding shortcomings: pride.

There is such a thing as just pride: sincere pride in one's achievements that makes room for the equally just pride of others. A pride that refuses to exalt oneself above one's fellows or to denigrate others of lesser attainments. There's a gray zone between that and the sort of self-worshipping pride that renders one obnoxious, but all the same it's usually possible to be certain that one is on the "right side" of that boundary.

Now, as it happens, I'm a Christian. That is, I accept the theology stated in the Nicene Creed. The code of ethics that accompanies that theology preaches against (excessive) pride as one of the seven capital sins: the seven dispositions of attitude and emotion that can easily lead one to commit a mortal sin. However, I'd like to think I'd appreciate the dangers inherent in excessive pride even without the Church to tell me so.

But not everyone appears to be aware of that danger:

So long as you believe in a magical man in the sky and that the existence of government is a necessary evil you do not get to call yourself a freedom weenie. Sorry!

That comment, attached to this essay, was of course submitted by "Anonymous." It's the reason for this screed, which is likely to be more a purgative for me than entertainment or edification for you.

I don't look down on anyone who declines to believe in God. I maintain that atheism is as defensible a posture as theism, for a simple reason: It's impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God. One can adduce a variety of observations as potential evidence for either position, but it will always be acceptable, for us who dwell in Time, to proclaim oneself unpersuaded by any or all of them. Proving the existence of the entity monotheists refer to as God is impossible because Man's knowledge and capabilities are finite, whereas by postulate, God's are infinite. Proving His nonexistence is impossible for an even simpler reason: proving that any individual thing does not exist is impossible.

We can prove the existence of specific categories of objects -- i.e., objects defined to possess certain characteristics -- by finding examples of them and demonstrating their possession of the characteristics demanded. Inversely, we can disprove the existence of such a category by demonstrating that the characteristics demanded contradict one another. But in the case of a hypothesized entity postulated to be:

  • Unique;
  • Outside our material reality;
  • Omniscient;
  • Omnipotent;
  • Benevolently disposed toward Man;

...such tasks are simply beyond us. Indeed, they would be beyond any intelligence that dwells in Time, for God by necessity must stand outside Time itself, having created it as He created all the rest of the reality we know.

All of which makes both theism and atheism matters of faith rather than logically impregnable conclusions -- and which makes insults and denigrations founded on belief or nonbelief in God an obvious example of excessive pride.

Notably, the great preponderance of those who hurl insults for holding to a faith are unwilling to confront the impossibility of proving their own position. The usual exchange runs roughly as follows:

Atheist: Prove that God exists.
Theist: I can't. It's a matter of faith.
Atheist: Come on! There is no God and you know it.
Theist: You mean you know it. Can you prove it?
Atheist: I don't have to. It's obvious.
Theist: But you can't prove it, can you? I believe in God for my own reasons. I don't insist that you agree. You're the one asserting your belief as a fact that I must accept -- but you can't prove it.
Atheist: You believe in God because of your upbringing, no other reason.

Note the evasion. Nearly all of them do it. The pseudo-Objectivists are among the worst. But in some cases there comes a bombshell:

Theist: Sorry. I was raised in an atheist household. I became a Christian as an adult.
Atheist: What? Then why did you...?
Theist: We call it faith: the acceptance of a proposition without a demand for proof, for personal reasons that need not be persuasive to others. But you should be familiar with that. Atheism is a faith too.
Atheist: (Usually unprintable.)

The degree of pride that usually accompanies dogmatic atheism makes that last observation absolutely unpalatable, even though it's absolutely correct. But the blow to the dogmatic atheist's intellectual self-exaltation is impossible for him to shrug off. In short, he hasn't the necessary humility to allow it.

Concerning government and whether it is or isn't a "necessary evil," this too admits of a range of defensible opinions. Philosophically, anarchism -- the rejection of the necessity of formal institutions of government -- is very attractive. There have been anarchic societies that managed quite well for long periods, most notably pre-classical Sumer, medieval Ireland and medieval Iceland. However, one can argue that the conditions that made those anarchisms viable no longer exist and might never exist again. Like the existence of God, it's an argument that cannot be settled.

Among the more interesting aspects of the debate are these:

  • A government need not exist for some specific minimum length of time.
  • Neither does it need to cover some specific minimum area on the globe.
  • Neither does it have to adhere to some specific set of processes for reaching its decisions and actions.
  • Neither -- and this is the hardest part to accept -- does it have to concern itself with justice.

A government is an entity which possesses the privilege of wielding force and the threat of force against individuals and other organizations, and which is pre-indemnified for doing so, over a delimited group of persons, or a delimited region of space, or both. But a lynch mob possesses all those characteristics. So also does a vigilance committee. Indeed, though we could argue the case of the Mafia for decades, it is well established that in several American cities the Mafia was for decades more important to the administration of justice than the "real" government.

Clearly, not everyone would willingly bestow the title of government on lynch mobs, vigilance committees, or urban organized crime families. Yet all these exhibit the defining characteristics of governments, at least in some region and for some interval. Since such organizations don't have a constitutional or other formal basis, I maintain that arbitrarily denying them the title is merely an expression of provincialism: a baseless attachment to relatively recent forms and conventions which would never have troubled those who ruled over most of Man's recorded history.

Accordingly, if you dislike "necessary evil," try "inevitable," though I doubt it will improve the flavor.

I don't expect everyone to agree with the logic of the arguments above; there aren't that many skilled logicians in the world, and few of them bother to read Liberty's Torch. But I'd rather not have my still troublesome tendency to scream and leap (see below) evoked by cowards who have nothing to offer but insults. It's bad for my blood pressure, which I have to watch carefully these days.

So, "Anonymous" who thinks himself smarter and more realistic than me: All you have done is flick me on the raw and compel me to demonstrate why I consider you an arrogant idiot. Nevertheless, Christ has told us to take pity on the less fortunate we find in our path. Therefore, I'll be praying for you. I hope it helps.

"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt." -- Multiply attributed
    "Louis Gridley Wu, I found your challenge verbose. In challenging a Kzin, a simple scream of rage is sufficient. You scream and you leap."
    "You scream and you leap," Louis said. "Great."

[Larry Niven, Ringworld.]


Anonymous said...

Just thought I would sent a quick note to affirm that there is at least one atheist/agnostic who not only agrees with your assessment that "It's impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God", but also the concept that "both theism and atheism [are] matters of faith". I call myself an agnostic these days, rather than an atheist, because I recognize the faith requirement, and frankly, I'd rather not further a line of thinking which cannot be proven. There's a lot more to it, but time is short.

I'd also like to say though that I believe more people need God and the Bible. I don't think most people are mentally robust enough to dispense with them and maintain a moral heading. I was thankfully raised with them, and logic destroyed my faith, but not my humility. Most atheists rail against theism for the same reasons and using the same arguments which they disdain when used by theists. I recently had an argument along these lines with fellow "atheists", and when they found they couldn't prove their points, they resorted to name calling, even though I was of like mind in-principle. VERY interesting.

månesteiner said...

"All of which makes both theism and atheism matters of faith rather than logically impregnable conclusions".

There's a different way to look at that. Both theists and atheists are making an empirical claim. The theist claims that the statement "God exists" is true, and the atheist claims that it is false.

Empirical claims, by their nature, are not provable. They are not the result of "logically impregnable conclusions". Only mathematical and logical claims are provable.

Since no empirical claims are provable we must accept the fact that when we assign a truth value to any such claim that there is no certainty. All we have is a wide spectrum of probability from no evidence, a little bit of evidence, a lot of evidence, to overwhelming evidence. But we never can make it to certainty. Even poor Descartes couldn't prove that he himself existed, though he gave it a good try.

The difference between a theist and an atheist is just a matter of where they fall on the probability spectrum towards the proposition "God exists". If either of them imagines that their truth assignment is certain then they don't appreciate the nature of empirical claims.

Just to quibble a bit more...

"Theist: We call it faith: the acceptance of a proposition without a demand for proof..."

As to the acceptance of any empirical proposition no one should be demanding proof. Evidence is always nice. And a sky-high mountain of evidence is even better. But no empirical claims, even ones which we are convinced are incontrovertibly true, e.g. "jumping into a live volcano will result in death", meet the level of proof. Only valid deductive arguments meet the level of proof.

Francis W. Porretto said...

I would disagree, Mane. An empirical statement is, by the etymology of the word, a statement about facts or processes that are experienced (or not) by men. Claims about existence need not involve personal experience. Besides, claims of experiences involving God are, by their nature, always disputable.

Indeed, existence proofs are the only sort that can be made rigorous outside mathematics and its rules of deduction and inference. such a proof proceeds from the Aristotelian approach to definition: the agreement upon the genus and differentia pertaining to the category of interest, followed by the demonstration that:

1) One or more things that satisfy the genus and differentia exist and can be produced; or:

2) No entity that can exist within the laws of this universe as we know them can satisfy those criteria.

I did mention that I'm a skilled logician, didn't I?

Anonymous said...

That Speaker to Animals quote is priceless! One of my all-time favorites.

Enjoy your blog immensely!


månesteiner said...

Francis, I think we might disagree on the definition of empirical statements. I'm not clear what "processes that are experienced (or not) by men" means.

Empirical statements are claims about the world. X exists, X does not exist, X happened, X did not happen etc. If your sense of "empirical statements" expands beyond that then I'd like to hear a little more about that.

"Claims about existence need not involve personal experience." Agreed.

"Besides, claims of experiences involving God are, by their nature, always disputable."

Empirical claims involving anything are, by their nature, disputable. God is not a special case of an empirical claim.

"Indeed, existence proofs are the only sort that can be made rigorous outside mathematics and its rules of deduction and inference."

Here I would disagree. The critiques that followed Descartes' Cogito specifically challenged existence claims via logic. "I think therefore I am" failed to prove what Descartes hoped it would.

"I did mention that I'm a skilled logician, didn't I?" There's lots of logicians out there :)

I too enjoy your blog immensely.