When I wrote my piece the other day about the Big Theologians' Big Questions for Atheists -- and how embarrassingly weak they were -- there was a bit that I overlooked. And frankly, I'm somewhat disappointed with myself. Yes, it was just one passing phrase in a sea of bad arguments. But it's a passing phrase that cuts to the heart of one of the most basic problems with religious belief, and I can't believe I missed it. So I want to make amends for my sin of omission, and talk about it today.
It's in this question for atheists by philosopher Paul Copan:
Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?
Okay. Here is my question.
How, precisely, do you propose to "explore" this issue?
Like I said the other day, I don't at all concede the "fact" of the supposed fine-tuning of the universe. But even if I did concede that: How do you propose "exploring" the questions of how the universe began and why it seems to be fine-tuned for life? How do you propose "exploring" whether these questions are more or less likely to be answered with God?
When scientists say that they're going to explore the answer to some question -- like, oh, say, how the universe began -- they can tell you exactly how they're going to go about that exploration. Usually in mind- numbingly specific detail. They can tell you what equipment they're going to use, how they're going to measure, how large a statistical sampling, what kind of control groups, etc. And they can tell you exactly how someone trying to prove them wrong would go about doing it.
When theologians say that they're going to explore the answer to some question -- like how the universe began -- what they generally seem to mean is that they're going to sit around in their living room thinking about it.
Now. I have absolutely no objections to sitting around in your living room thinking about stuff. Seventy percent or so of what I do for this blog involves sitting around in my living room thinking about stuff. (The other thirty percent mostly involves reading, looking stuff up on the Web, commenting on other blogs, and talking to people. And sometimes taking pictures of my cats.)
But I am under no illusions about what sitting around thinking about stuff ultimately produces. I am under no illusions that sitting around thinking about stuff will somehow result in a universal truth about the nature of reality. I am completely aware of the fact that sitting around thinking about stuff tells me absolutely nothing other than... well, what I think about stuff.
And even I base my living- room noodlings on stuff that other people have gone out and explored. Evolutionary biology. Neuropsychology. Astronomy. Physics. Explorations that Copan and other theologians seem depressingly unaware of... especially since they shed important light on their most central arguments.
Sitting around thinking about stuff is important. It's useful. It's how we see problems in other people's ideas and theories. It's how we come up with new ideas and theories to test. But it is not "exploring" anything except the insides of our own heads.
This is the question I keep asking: If religious belief is a real perception of an entity that really exists, then why, in the centuries and millennia that we've been "perceiving" that entity, has our understanding of it not improved? Why do religious believers around the world still have such radically differing "perceptions" about God? Why is it that they have no shred of consensus about God... or even any method for arriving at a consensus about God?
And this is a point Ingrid keeps making: Everything that religion has to offer just comes from people. There's no data, no hard evidence. It's all just books people wrote, speculations people have come up with, opinions people have passed down. It's all just stuff people made up.
So again I ask: How would Copan, or any other theologian, propose to "explore" the question of God? How would he propose to "explore" the question of whether the beginning of the universe (if indeed there was a beginning) was created by God? How would he propose to "explore" the question of whether the universe was fine-tuned by God for life to come into being? (And if he did, why did he do such a piss-poor job of it?)
Does he have any definition of "exploring" the question of God's existence other than reading other theologians, and talking to other theologians, and sitting around his living room thinking about it?
Other pieces on this topic:
Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things
"A Different Way of Knowing": The Uses of Irrationality... and its Limitations