Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Deism, huh, what is it good for?

I've had Deism on my mind a little bit over the past few days. I'd like to make a few comments. For some reason, I feel drawn to using a FAQ style for doing so, so I will.

What is Deism?

For those that don't know, the definition for the term is
Belief in the existence of a supreme being, specifically of a creator who does not intervene in the universe. The term is used chiefly of an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind.
It is worth keeping this definition clearly in mind because there is a lot of obfuscation about Deism out there, much of which I now suspect is intentional.

Is Deism a form of theism?

Only in the very loosest sense of the term, but this is really an interesting point to bring up. If what I've read on the matter is accurate, it seems that the terms "deism" and "theism" were essentially synonymous, with the term "deism" preferred, until Deism became a thing in the 17th and 18th centuries. The terms diverged at that point, leaving theism to refer to belief in the existence of a supreme being that does intervene in the universe.

That many religious people, particularly apologists of various kinds, are eager to include Deists in their rolls tells me that they're getting fairly desperate for the appearance of wider belief than is warranted. The reason is clear: Deism directly contradicts every brand of theism on the does not intervene in the universe point.

It is, in my opinion, therefore best not to consider Deism a form of theism. Particularly, whatever religious apologists might try to have us believe, the majority of people who believe in God (generally: theists) do not believe in the Deistic God. They believe in a living, breathing, interacting God of this world that answers prayers, performs miracles, and will one day judge the living and the dead. If you have lost sight of this fact already while reading this, let that be a signpost for you to realize how quickly and easily apologists can get into this Deism or philosophical stuff and make their audience forget entirely that what they're talking about isn't what they're really defending.

Can Deism be refuted?

I think it is likely that the answer here is "no." I'm quite sure I cannot do it at this point, although I've spent some time trying. The reason I suspect that the answer is a fairly unequivocal "no" is because Deism is potentially unfalsifiable and, at the very least, likely to lie directly on the other side of any coherent epistemology that we can create. Do note that the flip side of this statement is that if Deism cannot be refuted, then it cannot be proven either. Deists, and religious apologists depending upon arguments for Deism, would be wise to take notice of this fact.

Should we accept Deism, then?

No, I don't think so. I certainly do not, even though I cannot refute it. I'm perfectly comfortable dismissing Deism because it's (very nearly) good for nothing, and that which it is good for, so far as I can tell, can either be done better in other ways or is outright harmful.

On what grounds can we dismiss Deism?

It's useless for any honest use.

What is it good for that could be done better?

Deism stuffs a proxy into a hole in our knowledge about how the universe came to be, if that wording even makes sense to use. That proxy doesn't answer any questions, although it gives the appearance of answering this fundamental question about the nature of the universe. A good analogy for Deism in this case is that we have a box with a round hole in it, and wanting for a round peg, we stuff the hole full of cotton balls so we can call it filled.

Because of the general utility to mature, informed thinking presented by being willing to accept having no answer to particular questions, dismissing Deism may, in fact, be a net benefit to people, especially those who are Deists primarily to stuff cotton in the "where did the universe come from?" hole. (And is there any other reason to be a Deist?)

What is it "good" for that is harmful?

Making philosophical-style arguments. The cosmological arguments, e.g. the infamous Kalam Cosmological Argument, are arguments for Deism, not any brand of interventionist theism, whatever an apologist might want to try to sweep under that rug.

This is harmful because, since it is unlikely that Deism can be refuted, it gives a veneer of plausibility to the existence of a "supreme being" that "created" the universe and everything in it, that being always being called "God." This convention people use is very convenient for religious apologists who want to state that "'God' exists" and then use that statement to slip into "my God exists."

I think it would be an interesting thing to see if the Deist God was given a completely different name than "God," maybe "Dod" or something like that. That wouldn't erase all of the apologists' slip, but it would make it harder to apply.

Because the creator "God" idea is tied to the God-concepts behind most brands of theistic religion, misusing the term "God" to apply to this Deistic idea gives false credence to the unsupported claims of theism, and so the harms that come with theism and theistic religions are partially predicated on this bit of verbal imprecision and intentional equivocation.

To summarize:

Deism is not exactly the same thing as theism, and while a supreme creator of the universe may be a necessary feature of theistic religions, it is not sufficient to justify any of them. It is unlikely to be provable or disprovable, but ultimately, the Deistic hypothesis is (slightly worse than) useless and should therefore be dismissed after the requisite consideration. Beware any religious apologist trying to pull and argument for Deism on you as if to convince you of the beliefs and claims of their particular religions. At best, the tactic is extremely weak, and at worst, it's outright dishonesty.

14 comments:

  1. First of all I'd like to agree with you that the label "deism" (and even "God") in and of itself carries a lot of theistic Abrahamist baggage with it, including entire holy books, that deserve to be thrown out like bathwater. But I also think the concept has at least one philosophical leg (which is not necessarily all that weak) to which I'll return.
    With respect, and with a questioning mind, even better than "where does the universe come from?" as a question, to me, would be "what is the ontological status of the physical laws of the material universe?", seeing as they do not seem to be material or physical, yet they can be grasped by our minds (physical or not), and they describe physical reality (which exists for us only because we have minds which perceive it in the first place). Thus if the laws are dependent on a mind-based substrate, then such laws could/would be the result of a universe based on mind (idealism). This gets us somewhere in the vicinity of Leibniz, where everything is monads, which are also minds with perception and awareness that contain all mathematical laws, and as subjects they contain every predicate, and they perceive the rational ordering of the universe (but not at first, because while they are evolving, subjectively each one doesn't understand everything yet in a rational way). The problem is that everyone (including Leibniz, although he was writing to a Christian audience, and charitably interpreted, his philosophy wouldn't necessarily require an arbitrarily powerful divine creator) wants to invoke the supreme being at the beginning of creation, when it is clear that to evolve to such a complex mind is actually what happens at the end of evolution (like the Omega Point). At the beginning stages I would propose some kind of monistic idealism (again like Leibniz) and/or panentheism and/or "pan-proto-psychism." Minds evolve, so at the beginning there must be the least evolved mind that, as one possibility for example, evolves through something like Hegel's dialectic to become the Absolute mind (the monad evolved to the most complex Monad, or "God" or "Dod" or "Mod", if you will, which rationally understands everything in an infinitely logical, mathematically deductive fashion). Yet in some sense if the laws exist to begin with, then we can invoke a mind-based reality (monadic in the sense that monads, like seeds, contain all the laws of nature and mathematics like DNA) to account for the laws, which are unaccounted for on naturalism (the round hole in the box). Behind all this is some kind of "divine will" or "mind energy" that keeps things moving and evolving forward.
    It's this last bit which I think gives the deist/dodist a leg to stand on. Given the knowledge of the source of all physical laws, what need would we then have for a God/Dod concept of any sort? What we ideally want is some kind of rational account for the entire system, whether Dod or not. Again, this doesn't seem scientifically possible, so reaching for a higher concept is likely going to be the path one may want to take if one seeks to understand the entire picture. If there is a scientifically and philosophically sound basis for the laws of nature, I sure haven't heard what it is (and it sure ain't Jeebus). All I seem to find are scientists throwing their hands up in the air, like "well we really don't know, but we sure wish we did! Maybe we will soon, maybe never!?" If matter is just energy then what is energy at all if not mind? Even if there is an answer, I don't think scientists know what it would look like, so how will they know when they've found it? Especially if they start throwing out notions like "Deism" from the start? It may yet be a useful philosophical handle, but if no one is grabbing it, how can anybody open the window to see what's really out there?

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    1. That Deism could offer "some kind of rational account for the entire system" does not make it useful. See the paragraph about cotton balls. That, in fact, is *exactly* the point of that paragraph.

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    2. I think "physical laws" as understood by science are their own kind of cotton ball (after all, they most certainly aren't physical, and it's not like they really mean 'law' in any kind of traditional sense either, so that language has its own baggage as well), but science doesn't even know it's looking for a "round peg" (I mean, there are not yet even hypothetical solutions to what 'physical laws' ARE, so it's more like saying we need an anti-hole when we don't even know what that could be). Idealism in general is far more useful as a cotton ball than deism in general. Deism without idealism is no better than any other ad hoc creation myth.

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    3. I think you should read a little about ontic structural realism.

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    4. Very well, thank you for the recommendation. I can do that and certainly will make the effort to learn more before I comment further.

      In the meantime, I'm curious whether you have an opinion on this paper entitled "The myth of reductive extensionalism" by Itay Shani: http://www.academia.edu/670055/The_myth_of_reductive_extensionalism

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  2. I too reject deism, but not for utilitarian reasons. First, I think that theism has a more plausible explanation for things like religious experiences and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Secondly, there is no Biblical support for deism and is possibly antithetical to deism. Thirdly, I think that it is strange that God or “Dod” would go to the trouble of creating the universe, fine tuning it and then just stand back and watch it unwind. Although we mostly agree on this topic, there are some points of clarification/correction that I wanted to point out:

    --I generally agree that deism can’t be refuted, especially if by refute you mean prove with near certainty. However, if naturalism could show with a high degree of probability that the universe and everything in it can be accounted for naturalistically then we could say that deism is implausible. Also, if theists could show with a high degree of probability that God has interacted with the world then we could say that deism is implausible.

    --I’m sure that you realize this, but I’ll say it anyway, to say that deism “is useless for any honest use” doesn’t mean that deism is false.

    --You say that, “Deism [and I assume that you would say theism as well] stuffs a proxy into a hole in our knowledge about how the universe came to be, if that wording even makes sense to use. That proxy doesn't answer any questions, although it gives the appearance of answering this fundamental question about the nature of the universe.” The problem here is that naturalism is in the same boat with deism/theism. If you posit that the universe and/or that the natural laws and subatomic particles are contingent objects that just exist as brute facts then the cause of everything else is inexplicable and has no scientific verification. You’re plugging the hole in our knowledge with a brute fact.

    --Just because the so called “infamous” Kalam Cosmological Argument could be in support of deism doesn’t mean that it follows that it is necessarily an argument that exclusively supports deism. The argument shows that a creator God created the universe; it doesn’t show that necessarily God had no further interactions with the universe, so the sufficient condition of God not interacting with the world any further is not met. The full array of God’s attributes can’t be deduced from the Kalam, but there are other arguments such as the argument from religious experience and arguments from the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that help flesh out a theistic God.

    --It is categorically false that all cosmological arguments could support deism. Thomas Aquinas, who was an Aristotelian who believed that it was impossible to show with absolute certainty that the universe began to exist, argued for a God that sustains the universe from-moment-to moment which is something that most theists believe. So, Aquinas’ first through third ways deal with God sustaining motion, causation and being—if God stops sustaining the universe then it will cease to be. A variation on the argument from being supports a sustaining God; this argument observes that things like people are dependent on organ systems which are dependent on organs which are dependent on tissues which are dependent on cells which are dependent on molecules which are dependent on atoms which are dependent subatomic particles, and deducing that this regression of the chain-of-being can’t go back infinitely. The argument deduces that there must be something that isn’t dependent on anything that sustains all the other links in the-chain-of being—that thing is God.

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    1. The first sentence of my first response should have read, "I too reject deism, but not for pragmatic reasons." Apparently, I had John Stuart Mill on the brain when I wrote that.

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  3. You can appreciate the absurdity of God as an explanatory theory by considering the things that the theory supposedly explains: weeping statues, liquefying blood, water turning into wine, corpses returning to life, and the big bang.

    The God theory supposedly explains things in the world and the existence of the world itself. But when you look at what those things in the world are you discover a collection of grotesque and freakish events. Abandoning the attempt to explain things in the world seems like a step in the right direction.

    But what about God as an explanation for the existence of the world itself? The problem here is that our only experience of explaining things is that of explaining things within the world. We don't know whether the very concept of explanation can be applied to the world as a whole from an imaginary position outside it.

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    1. Thomas Fenton wrote: “You can appreciate the absurdity of God as an explanatory theory by considering the things that the theory supposedly explains…”

      Why absurd?

      Thomas Fenton wrote: “The God theory supposedly explains things in the world and the existence of the world itself. But when you look at what those things in the world are you discover a collection of grotesque and freakish events. Abandoning the attempt to explain things in the world seems like a step in the right direction.”

      This is the slippery slope fallacy. You’re saying that if we grant that water may have been turned into wine once then the world is just full of chaos and we should just throw up our hands and give up explaining anything because there is no order or regularity in the world. This reasoning is fallacious because it doesn’t follow that because of a possible momentary, local suspension of the natural order, that God established, that there is no natural order or that we can’t explain anything; granting that momentary suspensions of the natural order do not lead us to throwing up our hands and giving up on explaining anything. Clearly the usual working of the natural order vastly outweighs the momentary suspensions of the natural order.

      Thomas Fenton wrote: “But what about God as an explanation for the existence of the world itself? The problem here is that our only experience of explaining things is that of explaining things within the world.”

      And the problem with the naturalistic explanation is that our experience shows that things don’t cause themselves to exist and that material objects have a cause of their existence or state. To say that the universe caused itself to come into being is absurd. To say that the universe and/or subatomic particles and the natural laws are contingent objects that just exist as inexplicable brute facts is implausible.

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  4. Hello Keith,

    I'm not saying that the Universe caused itself to come into existence. I'm saying that we should be wary of ever trying to explain the existence of the Universe. In order to do that we would have to mentally step outside the Universe. I'm not sure that that can be justified. Trying to do it is likely to lead to confusion. Consider my version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

    Everything that begins to exist has a physical cause.

    The Universe began to exist.

    Therefore the Universe has a physical cause.

    Wait a minute, that's not right. Let me try again:

    Everything that begins to exist has either a physical or a non-physical cause.

    Now we have a problem. Let's list all the things that have physical causes and all the things that have non-physical causes. The list of things with non-physical causes contains the rag-bag collection I mentioned earlier: weeping statues, water turning to wine, the big bang etc.

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    1. Thomas Fenton wrote: “I'm not saying that the Universe caused itself to come into existence. I'm saying that we should be wary of ever trying to explain the existence of the Universe. In order to do that we would have to mentally step outside the Universe.”

      You’ve said what you think is not the explanation of the world, but you’ve haven’t explained what you think the cause is or why you think that this cause is plausible. James and his skeptical buddies have snickered amongst themselves and wondered why I keep harping on this issue. Thomas, the reason why I’ve been so persistent in pursuing this issue is that much like Socrates’ search for a wise Athenian I’m searching for a wise atheist who can explain why they think that naturalism is highly likely. Respectable atheist philosophers like Bertrand Russell have said, “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.” Graham Oppy, another atheist philosopher, wrote, “If there is anything contingent in the world, then there is brute--i.e., inexplicable--contingency in the world. Hence, if there is anything contingent in the world, then there are things--events, facts--that simply have no explanation.” Thomas, we both know that contingent physical objects just aren’t are, they have causes for their state of being, so I’m asking you why you think that anyone should find these statements to be highly likely, let alone plausible?

      Thomas, I’ve made a case, that has held up under scrutiny, for why I think that theism is likely, but I have yet to encounter a good case for why naturalism can better account for the things I’ve mentioned. Why do you think that naturalism is plausible, Thomas? Saying that, “we should be wary of ever trying to explain the existence of the Universe” is a cop-out. You’re answering my answer with a non-answer. Non-answers aren’t plausible. You’ve ruled out the universe causing itself, so that leaves us with option 1) the universe has always existed 2) some contingent physical object has always existed as a brute fact and caused the universe to come into being or 3) an uncaused eternally existing entity caused the universe to exist. Since you’re an atheist option three is ruled out, so do you find option one or two plausible? Why do you find this option plausible? If you can’t explain why you think that naturalism is plausible can you direct me to a wise atheist who can answer this question?

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  5. Keith, I'm sorry that I'm not the wise atheist that you're looking for. I can't offer wisdom but let me have another go at making my point. The problem, as I see it, is that in your imagination you have just stepped outside the Universe and watched God create it. When I tell you that's wrong you challenge me to step outside the Universe and see who really created it, if it wasn't God. I'm not going to tell you who really created the Universe, I'm going to tell you that you're not actually allowed to step outside it in the first place.

    As I said, explaining things is what we do in the Universe. There is no reason to think that that process can be continued outside the Universe. I'm sorry if that's a cop-out.

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    1. Thomas, you have nothing to apologize for you as you are among a large group of intelligent people who have not been able to present any good reasons, outside of the universe or inside, to think that naturalism is plausible. As to the universe, I think it is unlikely that we’ll be able to come up with a definitive explanation for it, but I can’t abide by the notion that we can’t come up with models or reason out what the probable cause (or lack thereof) of it is.

      Thomas, you’re willingness to dialogue with me earns my sincere respect. Socrates’ search annoyed people to such a great extent that the leaders of Athens had him executed. I know that my search has annoyed some people as well, but you have showed a great deal of patience with me, and I think that your actions are admirable.

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    2. Thank you very much, Keith. I always try to debate in a respectful way. Remember that everyone who comes here must think that the debate is worthwhile. It's unfortunate but inevitable that tempers will fray occasionally.

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