Monday, August 20, 2007

I much prefer to believe they wear miniskirts

Christopher Hitchens has an observation that I'd like to expand on:
One of America's most seminal books is William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he argues that the subjective experience of the divine can be understood only by the believer. I have just been finding out how true this is. You hear all the time that America is an intensely religious nation, but what you don't hear is that there are almost as many religions as there are believers. Moreover, many ostensible believers are quite unsure of what they actually believe. And, to put it mildly, the different faiths don't think that highly of one another. The emerging picture is not at all monolithic.

This is true not only in America but everywhere you go. Back in the 80s professor of mythology Joseph Campbell said that what you call God is not the same God that someone else is referring to. You just have to scratch the surface and ask people for a roster of God's qualities to find this out. People have all sorts of ideas who God is, what his traits are, and for that matter whether it's a he or a she or whatnot, what this entity's will is or if it has one in the first place, what s/he permits and proscribes or whether morality even figures in its nature, whether it is omnipotent to the point of transcending the principle of noncontradiction and is able to do illogical things or just peri-omnipotent or simply a lot more powerful than we are, whether God became human or not at all, whether God sent emissaries and harbingers or whether such stories belong in the realm of mythology, whether God is one or many, whether or not God is the product of a yet more transcendent being, etc. etc.

But the problem is not that there is such a great number of differing beliefs on who/what God is. That is the effect of the underlying problem. The Gordian knot here is that there is no way to test and falsify any belief about God. Now, if you cannot test any hypothesis how can you know whether it's true or false? We are talking about reality here, not just idle word or mind games. The basis for saying that a claim or hypothesis of ours is true or false is whether it conforms to reality. So we need to be able to test it against reality out there.

In a situation where no disconfirmation is possible, the number of hypotheses simply flourishes. You never get to trim and prune away any of them since it's a free for all wherein just about anything goes. Hence, after millennia theologians are still arguing among themselves about the nature of God, but they will never be able to converge on the truth precisely because they can't test any of their hypotheses and find out which ones are really false.

Imagine that there is no way to test and falsify hypotheses about the nature of a certain planet P. Some claim that P is 50,000,000 light years from earth. Some claim it is only 10 light years. One group says it's in the direction of the Orion Nebula. Others point diametrically opposite it. While still others point us in another direction. Some hypothesize it is as large as Jupiter. Some say it is 5 times as massive as our Jovian planet. While yet others say it's closer to the size of the Earth. There are those who claim that it is inhabited by a billion species, half of which are quadrupeds the size of cats. Others argue that because it is so massive its gravity does not permit anything but microbial life. But then those who say it's as small as the Earth disagree. One camp doubts it has an atmosphere at all, while those on the extreme end of the spectrum claim it has a crushing envelope of sulfuric gases 10 times our atmospheric pressure. And so on and so forth. Now you see that if there is no way to verify/falsify any of these claims, all these hypotheses remain standing. And you can surely add your own to the lot. Thus, in time the number of speculations can increase. But until that day when someone can perform observations and gather evidence as to the real nature of P, we cannot say which of the hypotheses is wrong and which ones are more or less on the right track. The lack of refutation and lack of means to refute any hypothesis for some phenomenon is a curse that dooms any epistemology for that phenomenon. In short, we cannot know anything about P. One is forever stuck at the level of speculation.

Going back to the nature of God, the problem is even worse. In our example above we at least know with absolute certitude that planets exist. But as in arguing how many magic flying reindeers Santa Claus really owns, no one has even conclusively established that a god--any type of god--in fact exists. And so all the hypothesizing and beliefs about God's nature is about as productive and edifying as believing that fairies prefer miniskirts over gowns.