Response to Blair Reynolds, The Doctrine of God

(Quite) a while back, I received a response of sorts to my personal interpretation of the word god I believe I actually fished this response out of the abandoned mail in my copy of windows eudora, which I found I could import into gmail. Back during my fit of writing ideas (2008-02), I pulled it out of the archives and put it in the queue. The actual writing of my response has been during the last week.

Looking over the message again, I realized it might be a published article rather than a personal response. Indeed this seems to be the case, as a search turns up several copies, such as this one.

I suppose I was reluctant to respond because the essay is thick with technical theological terms, implying a corpus of knowledge with which I have no familiarity. The copy I linked above includes a short biography, which indicates that Blair Reynolds does in fact have a doctorate in theology. I can still agree or disagree however, regardless of what the academics think of it.

On the whole, the essay has a number of interesting points, and seems to agree about as well with my philosophy as a it can in a theistic context (used only to mean “in contrast to atheistic” – I don’t know if it may carry other meanings as a technical term).

First part:

‘Unbiblical’ isn’t a very strong argument for me. Given translation, editing, and other effects of time, it’s hard to trust that the bible of today is the same as it was when first written. And even then, how it differs substantially from anything written today. Not useless of course – deep reflection on many works will produce insight, and the world’s holy books carry a long history of recommendation as sources of inspiration. But I’m not going to spend too much time splitting hairs on the description of a being beyond perception.

Perhaps I should step back a bit. My definition puts god as a quality of the universe instead of a being. If we take the bible as the distilled wisdom of the ages, and it’s description of god as describing the property of virtuous order, it might be more interesting. The statement “God is incarnate throughout the entire universe, which functions as his body.” fits reasonably with this view.

The questions raised become fertile ground for further reflection. The main issue here is whether god is changing or unchanging. Ask instead whether the principle of order is changing or unchanging, and it becomes as profound to me as perhaps the question about god is to a theist.

I think the thing that bothers me most about theistic position is _beingness_, especially the “changing affective states”. I don’t see emotion in a principle. Unless, perhaps, you view the order as a human invention (name for a collection of phenomenon) and the mood as a reflection of the collective mood of humanity.

Second part:

Argues that the attributes of god are reflected in his creation, which in turn reveals aspects of the creator (made in his own image?) The middle part of this section seems somewhat hesitant, talking on both sides of many issues and not really picking either.

Surrounding that ambiguity are the interesting ideas “Moment to moment, we are different persons” and “what is beautiful in one context or era may not be in another” This reminds me of the Quecha (Mayan) idea of pacha, or time-place. You can change your scenery by moving, or by waiting, but the one thing you can’t do is hang on to the same thing forever, it will never be quite the same twice. (Aside: it occurs to me that much of computing, and science in general, is composed of efforts to resist this effect.)

If we view the order as a human artifact, this is clearly true. As humanity changes, the definition of a well ordered and beautiful world changes. This raises an interesting question: if the definition of a thing is constantly changing, can we even usefully talk about whether a thing changes, if the name never refers to the same thing twice?

Going back to the first part about seeing the creator in the created, the circularity is dizzying. As a human concept, the idea of god or ultimate order reveals more about the definers than the defined. Yet we see this as a quality of the universe, exactly that which has given rise to ourselves, which itself seems to reveal the pattern.

Third part:

This is a mostly theistic argument. Perhaps I like it so much because it so beautifully attacks another theistic argument. If god is unchanging, life has no meaning, because nothing you can ever do can affect god, the one true and ultimate thing in the universe. The whole concept of free will can be likened to the old adage of a tree falling in the forest.

Of course the argument doesn’t actually prove anything about god – just which view we as humans in search of meaning find more comforting.

There is one qualifier, however. Even if we can’t ‘change’ a thing by talking about it, we can change how we define it (edit our own beliefs) which in turn affects how we interact with that thing. Maybe we can’t change god/reality, but our beliefs about these things can have a profound affect on our daily lives. For more mundane things (or if you believe that the essential is itself changeable) those interactions have ripple effects. Consider the Obama effect, a race performance gap that disappeared all but overnight after Obama won the party nomination.

And how does this affect my worldview? I can’t change the nature of the universe though logical discourse anymore than one can change god through logical discourse. But I do select particular facets of the universe and call them good or bad. If you specify these facets precisely enough, these principals can be considered constant. Whether those principals are ‘important’ or ‘good’ is not necessarily constant.

Once you’ve picked a set of principals, you can say the world express those principals to greater or lesser degrees, and this degree is subject to our influence. The world is also filled with other conscious beings like ourselves who experience joy or suffering in proportion to this agreement.

Perhaps a more biting reflection is that a world with an unchanging god is essentially undistinguishable from a world without god. For me the conclusion is the same in both cases: with no ultimate judge, what matters is the well-being of ourselves and our fellow travelers.

Fourth part:

Treats directly the concept of whether god is a part of the world, or apart from the world. Another thing I’ve never liked about theism – something apart from the world is beyond perception, and beyond knowing. Such an untestable concept is just the kind which would be used by a charlatan seeking to control a mass of people. Since I can’t trust that this isn’t the case, I can’t accept any idea of god that places him beyond question (or rather, beyond answer)

While the offered argument seems reasonable, it doesn’t do any more to assuage my fears – even with god part of the world, he is still beyond knowing.

Fifth part:

The monopolar prejudice, or ascribing one aspect to god and the opposite aspect to the the rest of the world. I agree that if there is any ultimate nature to the world, it must contain all aspects of that world.

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