“This all men speak of as God” is the conclusion to the third of Thomas Aquinas’ “Quinque Viae”, commonly thought of as the quintessential proofs of the existence of God. The other four end with permutations on the same theme. While a lot of people (including me) think they are severely faulty, philosophers keep resurrecting one of other of them with some extra decoration in the form of additional words, definitions and/or concepts; a recent attempt is by the well-respected Alvin Plantinga. Presenting it in a talk, Keith Ward (who is one of the brightest people I’ve met, and has multiple doctorates and professorships including ones from both Oxford and Cambridge to prove it) said “If you think this raises an interesting question, you’re probably a philosopher; if you think its rubbish, you’re probably not a philosopher”.
I am clearly not a philosopher by that definition…
I raise this because what Aquinas (who was pretty much the Keith Ward of his day) was looking for what he would almost certainly have considered an objective perspective of God, a derivation from first principles. Where he ends up, in each case, is an appeal to what “everyone thinks”. In point of fact, however, my primary reason for dismissing the Quinque Viae is that I do not accept that that is what God is in any of the cases Aquinas raises; his premise is therefore invalidated by a sample of at least one. It is, to be sure, something which a lot of people have historically thought of God in each case, but I am proof that these are not universally accepted – and so, these days, are quite a lot of other people, particularly those who were not brought up on a diet of Plato and Aristotle.
Before moving further, I want to examine the word “faith”. Most of what I say here will relate to the concept of “belief”, i.e. an understanding of how things actually are, but the usage of faith in the New Testament convinces me that Christian faith is not a matter of intellectual understanding at all. Its value range is more in the field of “love and trust”. Both of those are emotional states, and are not reached through reason (though arriving at them may be assisted by a bit of reason), they are at root entirely subjective. People frequently love where there is no rhyme or reason, and trust where there is no justification for it. Love, in particular, just IS; rightness or wrongness doesn’t come into it, so if I can say that love is right irrespective of whether it’s rational, I think I can probably say that faith is too. Yes, people can have faith in radically differing people or things, but it is still faith.
You can, however, easily believe a wrong thing. Quite a lot of people believed that the world was going to come to an end in 2000 (and then 2012, and indeed rather a lot of previous dates, depending on the set of people involved; I think the current favourite is somewhere in the 2040s). They were wrong, or at least wrong absent some bright spark saying “Yes, it did come to an end, but it was immediately replaced with an exact replica, including the memories of all the people in existence” or something of the sort.
There, immediately, is one of the problems we face in saying a belief is wrong. The Amstrongites who were the subject of Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails” thought up some very inventive reasons for why they were right about the end of the world despite appearances (not, as far as I know, that one…). Granted, what I am talking about here is not “what is going to happen”, which is relatively easy to falsify, but “how things are in and of themselves” with specific reference to God or the All. I want to concentrate on beliefs about God, and to accommodate Buddhists and Taoists, I need to expand that to include beliefs about the ultimate reality of existence, as neither religion is strictly theist. It is abundantly clear that people believe a very wide range of things about God/reality, and they are not consistent with each other.
This is commonly called “Ontology”, which is a difficult topic in philosophy, and I’ll return to the philosophical aspect.
Let’s say that I say that I believe in the Invisible Pink Unicorn (by observation we know that she is invisible, by faith we know that she is pink, praised be her hooved horniness). Surely I can be demonstrated to be wrong about that? If nothing else, for something invisible, the concept of “pink” is without meaning. In addition, surely that is so radically different a God-concept from (say) that of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of Pastafarianism? (I choose these common atheist gibes as being things which in all probability no-one actually believes in, so as not to offend, say, the reader who is a Cargo Cultist or suchlike…)
Well, another problem is rather forcibly revealed in the state of modern Physics. Is a photon (or any other fundamental particle) a particle or a wave? The two are inconsistent, but both appear to be true – for some value of true. Is one of these a kind of scientific equivalent of an Invisible Pink Unicorn? I can’t tell you.
Most people know the story of the elephant, examined by a set of people in the dark – one says it’s like a tree, another like a fan, another like a rope, another like a porcelain spear, another like a snake. Rumi wrote of this, concluding “Each of us touches one place and understands the whole in that way. The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant. If each of us held a candle there, and if we went in together, we could see it”.
God-concepts are, I think, something like that. All we can actually say is what whatever it is that is God looks like in our experience – and that is firmly subjective. We are, in addition, very unlikely (at the least) to continue believing in a God-concept which doesn’t work for us, so I assume that if any serious body of people possesses a God-concept, then that works for them.
This is the problem with saying anything about ontology, the way things are in and of themselves, i.e. the objective fact; ultimately all we can say about ontology is that if we assume a particular ontology, it explains our subjective experience. Yes, we might appeal to the fact that no-one believes in the Invisible Pink Unicorn – but that is an argumentum ad numerum, and so a logical fallacy…
My position on ontology is, I find, roughly equivalent to that of W.V.O Quine, who wrote “As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. . . For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer’s gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits.”
Quine, you will note, despite being an atheist, admits the possibility that the Homeric gods are the equivalents of physical objects (think “particles”); he, however, clearly does not find them useful.
And that is a subjective judgment.
Of course, in the parable of the men examining the elephant, if they say what they experience is (say) a tree trunk then they are mistaken. They are commonly portrayed as doing just that – and as a result, they are all wrong. Similarly, I would lay odds that fundamental particles are not exactly either a wave or a particle, so both of those views are essentially wrong.
So, while I think we can all be right, we can equally all be wrong. The difference is in whether we claim ontological truth rather than phenomenological (what is perceived) truth; if we do, we are almost certainly going to be wrong.