Monday, March 07, 2005

God and Santa Claus

For Sam Harris and many others, the beliefs in God and in Santa Claus are on a doxastic par.

But Harris is a radical, one who opposes both beliefs in both their conservative and in their liberal versions. Theological liberals say stuff like, "God is the warm feeling we get when we are with the people we love," or "God is our highest ethical aspiration," or "God is our ultimate concern" (Tillich). Harris is right to oppose such asinine pablum. Better no God-talk than this drivel. Harris put his point against the theological liberals somewhat as follows when I heard him on C-Span on 6 February 2005: "That’s like getting rid of the fat man in the red suit, but holding on to the elves and the sleigh." Or it would be like saying that one believes in Santa Claus but that Santa Claus is the wondrous spirit of giving that comes upon the land around the time of the Winter solstice. (Compare Cactus Ed Abbey’s snort: "Piss on earth, good swill towards men." Somewhere in Confessions of a Barbarian.)

Theological liberals ought to make a clean sweep and simply deny the existence of God rather than try to hold on by redefining ‘God’ to mean something it cannot possibly mean. God cannot be a feeling, warm or otherwise, any more than God can be whatever happens to be your ultimate concern. Of course, one can say things like, "His God is Jim Beam" or "Her God is golf," but such talk is so loose as to be meaningless.

So I follow Sam Harris in rejecting the wishy-washy liberal compromise. Where Harris goes wrong is in failing to see that comparing God to Santa Claus makes very little sense. Of course, anything can be compared to anything else: apples can be compared to sparkplugs, mesas to mammaries, and all four are comparable in respect of being mentioned now by this blogger. But there are two important differences between God and Santa Claus, or rather their respective concepts, that undermine Harris’ deprecatory analogy.

First, God is such that, if he exists, he cannot not exist, and if he does not exist, then he cannot exist. This is what is meant by saying that God is ens necessarium, a necessary being. This was Anselm’s Discovery (to employ a title of one of Charles Hartshorne’s books), and its correctness is independent of the soundness of either of Anselm’s versions of the ontological argument. (Proslogion II vs. Proslogion III). The idea is that either God exists in all metaphysically possible worlds, or in no metaphysically possible world. Equivalently, God either exists necessarily, or is impossible. God cannot be a contingent being. He cannot just happen to exist, or happen not to exist. If God were a contingent being, he would not be "that than which no greater can be conceived" and would not be worthy of worship. Santa Claus, however, must be a contingent being, a fact derivable from his being a physical being. God is necessarily noncontingent; Santa Claus is necessarily contingent. So there is one point of disanalogy.

Another is that Santa Claus is at least in part a physical being, whereas God is purely spiritual. Some will balk at the notion that Santa C laus is physical: "He does not exist, so how can he be physical!" This is to confuse existence with physicality. Consider the biconditional:

1. X exists iff X is a physical entity.

(1) does not stand up well to counterexamples. My thoughts exist, but it is highly dubious that they are physical. Numbers exist, but it would take some fancy footwork indeed to show that they are construable in terms of merely physical items. And aren’t some merely possible objects physical? There is that bookshelf I have been planning to build. It does not yet exist, but if I were to build it, it would exist. The point could be put as follows. The concept of a bookshelf is a concept that could be instantiated only by a physical particular. In that sense, a merely possible bookshelf is a physical thing. The same goes for various sorts of impossibilia. A perpetual motion machine is nomologically impossible. Yet if, per impossibile, one were to exist, it would have to be a physical object. The ether for which the Michelson-Morley experiment failed to provide evidence presumably does not exist. Yet 19th century physicists believe that it existed. When they abandoned their belief that the ether exists, they did not abandon it by replacing it with the belief that the ether is nonphysical; they abandoned it by replacing it with the belief that the ether does not exist. Same with phlogiston, caloric, and all the rest of those physics posits good and gone.

Because of these and other counterxamples it is beyond doubt that (1) is false. This stymies any attempt at identifying existence with physicality. I can also show that even if – per impossibile! – (1) were necessarily true, existence still could not be identified with phsyicality. But I’ll save that for an separate post.

In sum, the concept of God is the concept of a purely spiritual necessary being, whereas the concept of Santa Claus includes neither of these marks. The two concepts are separated by a deep ontological chasm. Nothing I have said is evidence of the actual existence of God. But what I have shown is that atheists who compare God with Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, etc) are not seriously engaging theistic ideas. They think of God as some sort of ‘feel-good posit,’ some sort of anthropological projection (Feuerbach) or wish-fulfillment (Freud).

Here, then, is a central problem in the debate between atheists and theists. I am tempted to call it an asymmetry. Many theists take atheism seriously, as a Jamesian "live option," but few atheists take theism seriously in like manner. They just cannot take it seriously as something that could be true. It is to them obviously false and the point of arguing against it is not to convince themselves that it is false but to convince theists and fence-sitters that it is false.