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August 10, 2006

Author Seeks Advice -- 2

Is the possibility of a God unlikely or illogical? This is one of the larger questions to wrestle with as I write this tale of disbelief. Carneades -- the third century BCE Athenian Skeptic, who will be a major character my story -- comes close (close as a Skeptic can) to arguing that it is illogical.

I try to present one of the more interesting and difficult of his points in the following paragraph (one of the most dense I have written in what wants to be, for the most part, a popular, narrative history):

Carneades, whose arguments are presented with great thoroughness by Cicero, also undertakes to prove that it is not possible for any living being to have the attributes of a god. His point, in part, is that to be alive is to feel - to be susceptible to external stimuli. That means being susceptible to change as a result of external stimuli. Pleasure changes us. Pain certainly changes us. That which we desire and that which we try to avoid have, by definition, the potential to change us. An immortal being would not change because in change is the possibility of dissolution and potentially even death. Hence, Carneades concludes, a feeling being cannot be immortal.

Two questions:

1. Is this too dense? (Obviously, I'll keep trying to improve the writing.)

2. Is Carneades' logic here (or my presentation of it) persuasive?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 10, 2006 6:48 PM


I do not see the logic where one must be mortal to feel pain or pleasure. The assumption here is that to be alive requires death. We may not know of any life that avoids this assumption, but it does not follow logically that no such life exists or can exist. Life does not have to avoid change to avoid death. Change does not logically lead only to death. It could lead to a deeper awareness of living. It could lead anywhere and go everywhere while avoiding death. We assume death is a constant because it is a constant for us--now.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 10, 2006 8:45 PM

It mostly works for one who seems to be a lover of density; makes me want to keep reading, perhaps more importantly. (I do wonder if you're providing a footnote, at least, that comments on what it might mean to quote a well-connected Roman to represent the views of a controversial (and colonized) Greek thinker?)

More specifically: "to be alive is to feel - to be susceptible to external stimuli. That means being susceptible to change as a result of external stimuli." Is there a step in the logic between 'susceptible to external stimuli' and 'susceptible *to change as a result* of external stimuli' that could be articulated a bit more? Is his focus on sensory experience alone as the foundation for 'being alive'? Pain and pleasure may well change us as a result of encountering external stimuli, but something as complex as desire requires thought in order to experience change, no? Where's the dynamic of thought in relation to change, I guess is my question? [A reductive tangent could be that, e.g., animals (who've been characterized as gods in many religions) are susceptible to external stimuli and one would assume, have the potentiality to change as a result; what about that?]

Posted by: JM at August 10, 2006 9:07 PM

To think about God being subject to change, and whether that is only a mortal characteristic sort of does remind me of God and Abraham dickering over the lives in Sodom..."Lord would you save the city for even 50 good folk?"
"Well Abe, there ain't fifty good folk!!!"
" Well Lord how about..."
...and he gets all the way down to ten...

These are the things that keep me off balance, this God revealed in the Old Testament and then again in the New Testament...a serious disparity.
Biblical Text:Gen 18
22 Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 And Abraham came near and said, "Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? 25 Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
26 So the Lord said, "If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes."
27 Then Abraham answered and said, "Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: 28 Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?"
So He said, "If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it."
29 And he spoke to Him yet again and said, "Suppose there should be forty found there?"
So He said, "I will not do it for the sake of forty."
30 Then he said, "Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: Suppose thirty should be found there?"
So He said, "I will not do it if I find thirty there."
31 And he said, "Indeed now, I have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose twenty should be found there?"
So He said, "I will not destroy it for the sake of twenty."
32 Then he said, "Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but once more: Suppose ten should be found there?"
And He said, "I will not destroy it for the sake of ten." 33 So the Lord went His way as soon as He had finished speaking with Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

Does that account smack of a divine God of omniscience and love or of a human imagination?

Well of course that is called an anthropopathism. Using human pathos to explain God, but what if instead everything called revelation of god is man trying to explain himself by the leverage of calling his own character, his own politics divine?

Waaahhhh! Deconvert or not??? It is so hard.

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 11, 2006 3:14 PM

It is only hard because, "it's so easy to fall in love."

It is so hard not to love humans for humans, I mean they are so cute!

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 11, 2006 3:43 PM

I do not suppose I have had that same experience Jay Saul.

I have known a number of people who, I guess you could say, are hard to love. Humans being humans. Perhaps by contrast, god seems attractive.

Perhaps I misunderstand your point though?

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 11, 2006 5:44 PM

George H. Smith in "Why Atheism?" asked: "Can God have an orgasm?" He made a sort of similar point, that feeling pleasure, emotion etc. is incompatible with being eternal and timeless. I just want to know what God shouts when he comes. "Oh, me! me!"

Posted by: Anonymous at August 20, 2006 12:37 AM

George H. Smith in "Why Atheism?" asked: "Can God have an orgasm?" He made a sort of similar point, that feeling pleasure, emotion etc. is incompatible with being eternal and timeless. I just want to know what God shouts when he comes. "Oh, me! me!"

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at August 20, 2006 12:38 AM

Something I found kind of sweet, but with a truth to it is the Disney movie "Tuck Everlasting"...everlasting life was certainly not portrayed as such a treat afterall.
"What we Tucks have you can't call it living. We just... are. We're like rocks, stuck at the side of a stream. "
And again..."Don't be afraid of death, Winnie. Be afraid of the unlived life. "

If there is anything I am learning by putting life as primary to all else, with or without gods...is to boldly and adventurously live Life!

I don't know if it is clear to all what I am saying, but yes a life must be felt to be lived, and time must be woven into it to feel, to sense and perceive it, it must be passing. ...At least life as we now know it, and whether by heaven or by evolutionary leaps into a yet unknown sphere of this that we call Life, we know it best by spending it to the end fully.

Posted by: Bonnie Kim at August 20, 2006 1:37 PM

I like the topic, but the question is equivocal, specifically, in the term "god".

To the huge body of evangelicals (and many others) god is personal, active, and supernatural. To very many others there's the "Einsteinian god" that Dawkins talks about in his new book - one that's either just another name for the natural world, or one that's outside the natural world but doesn't act in the world). There's some room between these, but they are fairly substantial poles of the equation.

The latter is pretty much extra-logical. It's just a matter of convenience in naming. Saying you "believe in god" is code for saying you acknowledge the existence of the world.

The former stance on the other hand, seems to be the one to which the Carnaedes quote is relevant. I don't think Carnaedes is very persuasive to the modern thinker. Reasoning by analogy from finite cases to infinite cases is always very tricky. The characterization of gods as "eternal" and "timeless" come from their characterization as "infinite". We expect increasingly longer-lived entities to be decreasingly susceptible to change. But when you reach an actual infinity, the ideas get more complicated

There are just as many natural numbers (0, 1, 2, ...) as there are rational ones (fractions). Very counterintuitive, yet true because of the infinity. But not all infinite sets are the same size, there are more reals than natural numbers. And these are "simple" examples of infinity.

On the other hand, I'd say that the existence of a supernatural, personal god is illogical. A hidden assumption in virtually every scientific experiment ever performed is that there are no supernatural effects. Any time an experiment confirms a hypothesis, there's implicitly evidence against the existence of a supernatural entity mucking about with the world.

Science is athiest (in the weak form - what's often mislabeled as "agnostic"). The undeniable effectiveness of the scientific approach to explaining and controlling the world is enormous evidence against the existence of a god who can answer prayers, or who has a "chosen people".

There've been several attempts to "prove" the efficacy of prayers. Sometimes they see "evidence", but a few percent of statistical wiggle ain't really much proof of an all-powerful deity. Usually they don't find any. On the other hand, given the gap in belief between, say, the Americas and Europe, or Asia (which is largely athiest - again, the weak sense, which includes Buddhists) you'd expect all the people praying for their relatives to have miraculous recovery from terrible diseases to have a real impact on the mortality rates of the diseases.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 1, 2006 7:43 AM

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