Friday, May 1, 2015

The Definition of God, Dammit (Part Two)

[Note: This entry is ancillary to last year’s blog, “The Definition of God, Dammit.”]

Does God exist? Before we can even attempt to answer such an awkward question, a universally acceptable definition of God is the most fundamental matter that must be settled. Whether or not any god can be said to exist will lie in our ability to define what qualifies as a god. If we are unable to define what a god is, then can God really be said to exist? How would we recognize God? Without a standard we can all agree upon for what qualifies as a god, we are faced with several prospects: That all definitions of a god are possibly valid, all definitions are invalid, or all definitions are at least worth considering because one may in fact be correct. Yet without that universal definition, we can’t be sure who is right and who is wrong. It may also be that God indeed exists despite our ability to define the extraordinary, but if we are unable to identify the qualities associated with a god as a means of recognition, then the whole concept of a deity existing in reality is rather useless if not downright irritating. Like elevator music. 

Can God be universally defined? Despite our seemingly advanced ability to communicate, we have not been able to adequately do this. Hindu's have a certain idea about what a god is, while Muslims have something entirely different in mind. No two religions ever appear on the same page (duh, otherwise they’d be the same religion). It cannot be the case that all concepts of God are equally valid because many religions exclude the possibility of other gods besides their god(s). What it comes down to is this: for a god to exist there must be one definition of what characteristics constitute the deity, so that we are able to identify God in much the same way we are able to identify a coconut, being that there is a general consensus of what the term “coconut” means even regardless of the language being spoken. With that definition we are able to recognize coconuts as being what they are. Either we have a term that identifies an entity or entities as a god or gods, or we do not. If not, the rational man cannot conclude God exists because you cannot believe in what has no definition*. Feel free to become an atheist by default.

[* You might be thinking that if you were to encounter something you did not know the name of or have a name for, you could believe in the existence of something for which there is no definition. This is false. You may not realize it, but whichever one or more of your senses has perceived the whatever-it-is has attached certain characteristics to the whatever-it-is as a means of recognition. Only if deprived of all your senses would you not “recognize” anything.]

Is it the case that the idea of God is so incredible that the human mind (designed by God some would say) simply cannot define the word? That is in fact the argument of many agnostics. However, agnostics cannot show that this is not possible, merely that it just hasn’t happened yet. Hypothetically speaking, if a clear cut, unilateral definition of God were handed down tomorrow, agnostics would have to wrestle with that definition and come to a conclusion one way or the other. If the agnostic is going to suspend judgment about the existence of God based on lack of a definition, again, there is no practicality whatsoever in supposing that God might exist, unless the agnostic is accepting a form of Pascal’s Wager**. If God actually does exist (ahem, citing a proper definition) I wonder if the G-man forgives such ambivalence.

[** From Wikipedia: Pascal's Wager (also known as Pascal's Gambit) is Blaise Pascal's application of decision theory to the belief in God. Pascal argues that it is always a better "bet" to believe in God, because the expected value to be gained from believing in God is always greater than the expected value resulting from non-belief. Note that this is not an argument for the existence of God, but rather one for the belief in God. Pascal specifically aimed the argument at such persons who were not convinced by traditional arguments for the existence of God. With his wager he sought to demonstrate that believing in God is more advantageous than not believing, and hoped that this would convert those who rejected previous theological arguments. The incompleteness of his argument is the origin of the term Pascal's Flaw.]

The problem is that even as great as our communication techniques are, they are often inadequate in explaining just about anything, object or concept, when you really want to be a prick about it. Asking for the definition of “X” is a time honored tradition among philosophers meant to demonstrate that an opponent has no idea what they are talking about. If a chair is defined as an object that you sit on that usually (but not necessarily) has four legs and back support, well then, lots of things might qualify as a chair. Lots of things might also qualify as a god, but if we’re talking about the “One True God,” then only one definition will do.

That brings us to “conceptual failure.” Have you ever had an idea that seemed reasonably clear in your own mind but that you found difficult to put into words clear enough for another person to understand? This doesn't make an idea automatically false or invalid, but without clarity what good is this idea of yours in the first place? A god may be well defined in someone's own mind, but that this definition probably has little universal acceptance implies a conceptual failure. For atheists this is not a problem; we don't go around trying to define that which does not exist. An ambiguous concept doesn’t exactly lead to credibility, folks.

Sometimes the problem lies with the words we use to explain ourselves. Words sometimes have different meanings depending upon the context in which they are used. For example, suppose I say to you, "I'd love to own a Jaguar." If we're talking about luxury cars the meaning of my statement is obvious. On the other hand, if we're talking about exotic pets perhaps you would try to talk me out of such an idea being that I can barely keep a house plant alive. On the other, other hand, if I’m talking about luxury cars and you think we’re talking about exotic pets, this might as well be an episode of “Three’s Company.”*** You see, context can be used to manipulate words to create all kinds of puns, double entendres, or plain ol’ confusion for the unsuspecting. Frankly, it's amazing that any one knows what anyone else is talking about. Arnold sure didn't know what Willis*** was talkin' 'bout.

[*** Showing my age here, folks.]

What we could really use is a language in which one word meant one thing regardless of context. Until then there will be no suitable definition of God, which is no doubt a great relief to the believer. After all, this will mean that God cannot be shown whether to exist or not and faith can rush in to prop up a theists’ righteousness. At the same time, though, the theist faces the dilemma that despite all the faith in the world, all concepts of God should be considered equally valid since prove their point linguistically. Though the theist appeals to faith in hopes that they've picked the correct religion with the proper definition of God, they cannot disprove anyone else’s definition of a god. That’s a mighty big hurdle to clear. What the theist is not admitting here is that really, they're playing Russian roulette with God. Well, go right ahead and blow your brains out guys. It'll be your defining moment.

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