Monday, February 06, 2012
The "Straw God" Argument
Videtur ut palea.
-- Thomas Aquinas, on his deathbed
My title reflects a play on words, based on the logical fallacy called the straw man argument. We use the word “argument” loosely, for it is a fallacious -- and unsuccessful -- attempt at an argument; not an actual argument.
The straw man argument is an argument based not upon the actual position of one's opponent, but rather upon what one mistakenly construes that position to be. Sometimes a person indulges in the straw man out of obtuseness; sometimes out of an emotional obsession to win the debate at all cost, without heed for the actual details he is supposed to be opposing. And at other times, a sophist may use the straw man knowing full well what he's doing, but hoping his interlocutor is stupid enough for him to get away with it.
So what is this “straw god” argument? We may say it's a subset of the straw man. It is used specifically in debates between atheists and theists. In a nutshell, the atheist constructs a “straw god” so patently absurd, it can't possibly exist, and then proceeds to knock it down. Then he does a touchdown dance thinking he's won the argument against the proof for the existence of God.
Another metaphor that comes to mind when contemplating this rather puerile antic of the atheist is -- like shooting fish in a barrell.
For, what distinguishes the straw god from the straw man is a peculiar wrinkle -- namely, the fact that in our time, theists unwittingly collude with the atheists in constructing the straw god. I.e., the theist, in our time, believes in the same limited caricature of “god” which the atheist rejects. And the atheist doesn't know any better himself. Both are dupes, and both think they are right.
That is to say, the “god” of most theists today (Christians mostly, as they are most vocal in the public arena of proselytizing discussion and defensive apologetics) is a poorly constructed entity whose existence seems dependent upon materialistic qualities and assumptions.
For most theists these days, it seems, God is some kind of being who can manipulate objects, who thinks and feels much like the theist in question, and who Himself seems to have physical qualities, including spatial and material. Sure, He is also endowed with superhuman powers in order to make Him majestic and to possess the imputed ability to save the world from evil.
There’s at least one glaring difficulty with this, however. Since evil persists, it would seem that God’s power isn’t doing its job. This is the classic Problem of Evil, or Problem of Theodicy. This problem, along with the implied materiality of God, combine to create a God that has logical and philosophical difficulties which remain unaddressed by the theist who persists in his tendency to think of God as a literal Being, rather than as a symbolism pointing toward a transcendence whose reality is evoked by, but remains beyond, all attempts to comprehend him through the only way humans are able to comprehend anything: language and image in the service of reason.
Basically, theists are handing a straw god on a silver platter to atheists, and atheists barely have to lift a little finger to construct Him, in order then to take Him apart and toss Him away, like some dissassembled Leggo. It would be a Pyrrhic victory for said atheist, however, if the God he has supposedly successfully dispatched has nothing to do with the real thing (pun intended).
The Thing Is...
The fallacy of the modern theistic God is that it essentially defines God as a thing -- a grand thing, to be sure: the grandest thing of them all; but still a thing, among all other things in the universe He supposedly created. The logical problem with this is elementary: A thing cannot be the source of all other things, for that thing would have to be more powerful than the sum total of all the things of which it is just a part.
Another problem with this idea of the thinghood of God is that there is no logical reason to conclude that it has the unique quality of not requiring a source itself. I.e., all things have a source in something else: that is part of the nature of thinghood. Each thing has a cause in some other thing, and by extension, out of a nexus of things, and this causation forms a vast web and chain extrapolating back in time. Ultimately, as Aristotle argued, all things (= “everything”) would have to have an ultimate source beyond which there is no further extrapolation of the chain of causation. If God were one thing among all other things, there is no logical reason how or why He would have the unique quality of being the ultimate cause of all other things, and not also, like any other thing does, require a cause causing His existence. Only if God were beyond all things, could we even begin to logically consider such a quality. In fact, that is the logical concept -- the primary concept -- by which to denote the symbolism “god”: as the ultimate source of all things and as such, necessarily beyond all things, and thus not a thing itself.
Modern theists, however, tend to use language strongly implying that God is some kind of thing -- a being or entity. Most of them never bother to defend God as being beyond things, and thus being not a thing. All that matters to them, it seems, is that He be powerful and majestic -- and, of course, loving and good (but being loving and good wouldn't matter much if God couldn't deliver).
In fact, God not only is not a thing, He is also not a being, per se -- since the word being implies thingliness. Indeed, the philosopher Eric Voegelin rightly translates the classical Greek word ta onta -- which was meant by the Greek philosophers (pre-Socratics, Platonists, and Neo-Platonists) to denote the things (all the things) that comprise the cosmos -- as "being-things". Things that are. Things that exist. So, if God is "a being" -- even one with a capital B -- he would perforce also be a thing: a being-thing. A thing that is. (And what things aren't...? Well, imaginary things, one would suppose -- but let's not get ahead, or beside, ourselves.)
This is why the Christian mystic philosophers (beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, later articulated by Thomas Aquinas, and further explained by the more modern 20th century historian of Christian philosophy Etienne Gilson) used oddly paradoxical locutions such as that "God is so beyond everything, He is beyond being itself". However, Aquinas also noted the paradox this sets up with the other traditional Christian theological affirmation about God: that He is the "Supreme Being" (or in Aristotelian language, which was absorbed into medieval Christian philosophy, the Primum Ens, the "Foremost Being"). This remains an insoluble paradox, which the aforementioned Etienne Gilson has masterfully studied in the records of medieval philosophers and mystics.
Not to go too far afield here, but basically the structure of the paradox vacillated between affirming that God is the Supreme or even Only Being -- and that God is beyond all being. Regarding the first pole of the paradox: after all, Biblically, as YHWH, his ontology is set up as "I Am Who I Am", and the idea of divine creation of things was developed to mean that all things of creation, including man, are derivative beings -- they only have their being, their existence, through the creative gift of God. (This, in turn, sets up the problem of pantheism getting in through the back door, insofar as the things of creation, under this understanding, would seem to be composed of the "stuff" of divine reality -- but let's not get ahead, or beside, ourselves.)
When, however, from the other angle, so to speak, we regard the ontology of the things of creation, and when we must seek a way to affirm the Creator's utter dissimilarity from His own creation (to avoid the aforementioned pantheism) by underscoring His transcendence from it, insofar as things are or exist, we must follow the mystics and affirm that God is beyond being. He may be the source of being, but he is not part of being. From this angle, then, being partakes of creation, and the Creator must then not be a being in any sense.
The motivation for even setting up this pole of the paradox at all stems from the affirmation of the reality of creation in Judaeo-Christian thought -- which distinguishes it from Eastern thought, particularly strands of Hinduism and Buddhism, for which the reality of the cosmos acquires a curious sense of unreality, dream, or even illusion. The Western way, however, has always been (pace certain Gnostics, some influenced by Eastern thought, to denigrate the reality of this world) to take seriously the reality of creation, the actuality of the cosmos. This cannot be accomplished, however, without setting up the paradox of God's ontology as being both the highest being of all beings, or even the "only" being from which the being-ness of things comes to be -- and as beyond all beings and beyond being itself.
Graeco-Roman/Judaeo-Christian theology, then, tries to embrace all of reality -- the reality of the cosmos and the reality of that ineffable, awesomely strange What that transcends the cosmos even as it remains its ultimate and complete source -- rather than to truncate reality into shape to fit some manageable logic.
The result of the former, necessarily, is paradoxical language that does not dissolve the mystery. The result of the latter is logic-chopping, by which God's existence for one camp is assured, damn it, with massively tangible thingliness as the Grandest Thing of All, and for the other camp is laughed at as a ridiculous scarecrow gathering crows on its pathetic straw shoulders. The one is an idol for the mind; the other is for idle minds.
At any rate, none of the more complex history of the philosophical dimension of this, pioneered by countless Jews and Christians over the centuries, seems to be of much concern to most modern theists, nor most modern atheists, who (respectively) would rather defend or attack a much easier target, the Straw God.
And each side thinks he wins.