Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The Atheism of Steven den Beste

Steven den Beste sets forth his reasons for atheism with the air of someone inviting a discussion, which in fact he has had with several interlocutors, some of whom, like Donald Sensing, have a diametrically opposite point of view. My own opinion, disregarding all matters of faith, is that it is almost trivially easy to believe in a weak form of deism; but it is accepting the existence of a loving Deity that is problematic.

My own background includes a fair bit of formal mathematical training and I am a working software developer. Like many others in my profession, I find that the very intelligibility of the universe strongly implies an underlying order. Den Beste's argument of atheism from induction, for example, relies on the existence of induction. To the extent that there exists a valid mathematical descriptor of reality, at least in theory, God must exist; and exist in a specific form. This proposition, which I call the "weak form of deism", is easy to accept. There is order in reality, and if we call that order "God", then Q.E.D. (For a more sophisticated version of this simple-minded argument see Kurt Godel's ontological proof.)

But such a God would simply be a collection of relationships, and possibly, initial conditions. There is nothing about such a "weak deity" which necessarily implies caring for us: putting a coin under our pillows when we leave a tooth; hearing the cries of a child in pain; standing on the side of the Allies rather than Hitler. The existence of such a being requires a strong form of Deism: a Loving God. In this respect, the evidence seems to point all the other way. My own six year old son put it this way: "if God made good things, why are there sharks in the sea?" He had discovered, all on his own, the Problem of Evil.

Faith aside, the existence of a Loving God, it seems to me, hinges on the assertion of the necessity of love; in it's mathematical sense. We are all familiar with Dostoevsky's famous proposition that 'if God did not exist, everything would be permissible' and the somewhat stronger restatement 'if God did not exist, we would be forced to invent Him'. This makes perfect human sense, but it does not establish mathematical necessity. Realizing this, one physicist, Frank Tippler, proposed that we should, and can in fact, create a Loving God. In his Physics of Immortality, Tippler attempts to show how mankind could, in the future, become omniscient and omnipotent through entirely physical means, and resurrect everyone who had ever died in a loving reunion.

But why should we, if love is not imperative? We could just as easily use this future human omnipotence to create a Hell and torture the resurrected beings in it for time everlasting. And if love were imperative, why would we need to do it? Surely the weak deity, whose existence we have already established would be bound by the same necessity and create a loving resurrection for us, though in fact achieving it ourselves would be one and the same.

In logical terms, I must be agnostic on the question of the necessity of love. But in human terms, I must be partisan. Like Pascal, I think the stakes are too high to be indifferent. For my own reasons, which are logically no better than Den Beste's, I am determined to act as if a Loving God did exist, and pray to Him as if He did; and that if a resurrection eventuated in time to come, it should be to create a heaven and not a hell. Matthew Arnold once wrote:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

On that darkling plain, whose army are you on? What darkness do you fight?