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How can we know there is a God?

Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby postodave » 15 Feb 2009, 10:38

I know things like pleasure and pain, though I certainly can't define them. I couldn't communicate this knowledge to an alien who has had no experience of such things. I can only say "Pain is nasty", or "Pain hurts." ie. Pain is painful. I can tell you that I feel pain when various nerves are stimulated and various chemicals slosh about in the brain, but unless you also have had a direct experience of pain, all such talk would be meaningless. The nervous impulses, the chemicals, are not the experience.

Exactly - although to use the word meaningless could be putting it too strongly. I have never had a psychic experience but when people describe them to me I can understand what they mean.
In chemistry, we have elements that aren't made of simpler atoms. Perhaps we also have elemental experiences that can't be broken into simpler experiences.

Yes - in philosophy they are called self evident experiences. The incorrigible experiences you describe above are one type of experience that has generally been recognized as self evident. The mathematical and logical examples I have already given are other kinds.
I think it's the same with God. Faith is a gift. Unless God opens our eyes, we will never see. To the blind, all God-talk will be meaningless. The most sane prayer of all is this: God, if you exist, if you are good, open my blind eyes. Believers need to pray this prayer as earnestly as anyone. What makes me so sure my God is not a mere idol, a human construct? (Pretty likely, I reckon.) It reminds me of Moses. The thing he most desired was to see the face of God... not some proof of God, but a direct experience.

My point exactly and my challenge is to put it across to a bunch of FE students and staff in 30 minutes! And I have realised since I began this thread that to do this I need to argue that the traditional limitations on what kinds of experiences can be recognized as self evident are themselves theories and are not substantiated by the evidence. That is to say self evident truths do not need to be limited to maths, logic and the incorrigable and can also apply to religious experiences.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby agingjb » 15 Feb 2009, 14:17

I think that some distinction can be made between a truth that is self evident to someone that they can convey to another person and one that they cannot. I would say that learning elementary arithmetic and hearing of the experiences of the mystics are different.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby postodave » 15 Feb 2009, 16:55

There used to be mathematical systems without zero. But most people would agree that adding a zero makes a mathematical system more powerful--and better able to make calculations about 3 apples, and 100 foot tall building and 33 year old men.

This is a pragmatic argument. It can be applied equally to other aspects of maths.For example you could say we cannot ever know that 1+1=2 but it is useful to assume it does. So why do you restrict this to the argument about zero?
AllanS's point about the communicability of experience is valid too. I don't know that any of us could communicate our experience of God in a way that a convinced atheist wouldn't sneer at.

I'll let you know if I get any convinced atheists when I speak. I could be into a rough ride if as you say I'm attempting the impossible. But the point is I don't need to communicate my experience because my experience would not normally be the basis for someone else's belief anyway. What I hope to do is to encourage people to pray something like Allan's most sane prayer; I will be arguing that that is the only way to know there is a God.
I personally have not seen the face of God. But my faith is based more on the validity of other parts the system where I do have experience. A mathematical system which includes a zero, is more powerful than one which doesn't. Zero does exist in many ways, but while you can see 2 apples, you cannot see 0 apples. Similarly, thinkers, such as Lewis, who allow reference to a God, create what for me seem to be more powerful and reliable descriptions of reality, than those who don't--even than theologians who try to diminish the importance of God. Of course this is also because most of Lewis' writing focuses on the things which are seen, 2 apples--the unseen is central to his system but it is not what he spends most of his time talking about. That is what I see as a connection between mathematics and theology--though it would be interesting to have some one like Stanley's perspective.

I would suggest that this experience itself, the experience of a particular view of the world just making sense is itself a religious experience though of a different kind to a mystical experience. Are you not feeling this to be true rather than having a set of proofs that shows it must be true. In the same way the convinced atheist feels his way of seeing the world to be true. The difference is that the atheist often feels his way of seeing the world is the only reasonable way of seeing it; hence the sneering. But not all atheists are like that and some Christians are.
I think that some distinction can be made between a truth that is self evident to someone that they can convey to another person and one that they cannot. I would say that learning elementary arithmetic and hearing of the experiences of the mystics are different.

I think that depends on the type of mystical experience. If you are talking about the ineffable type then this is true. And those who have these experiences often achieve them after years of striving and even then would say that neither the doing nor the not doing guarantees the experience. But if you are talking about the experience that follows from Allan's 'most sane prayer' then the prayer itself is a way of inviting the experience so just as I can say look here is 1+1 making two now do you see so I can say here is a way of opening yourself to God.
When I used to read the stories of people like Lewis and how they became Christians I got the impression that they became Christians because it was the only rational conclusion they could reach. I felt a bit inferior for not having that kind of experience. For you see just before I became a Christian I had switched from being hostile towards Christianity to sort of hoping it could be true and I asked at a meeting how I could get faith. Someone told me to ask God to reveal himself to me and that is what I did and ultimately that is what he did and argument had something to do with it but not a lot.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby Xara » 15 Feb 2009, 20:20

postodave wrote:But 0 is by definition an absence, a lack, an emptiness--a name for something which does not exist. There is some difference between 0 and all the other numbers.
...
1 is are presence, 0 is an absence. But mathematics becomes more valid when it allows reference to an absence, and not merely presences.


I agree with you that that is how 0 should be seen. Unfortunately Step Theory says that 0 has a quantity, no matter how small. Step Theorists say that you must divide down to 0, therefore you never reach absolute 0, only a smaller fraction. Unfortunately Step Theory is not only a branch of maths, it is a centrepiece. Thus we may not subtract down to 0.

Didn't you and I have this conversation 25 years ago? ;-)
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby AllanS » 15 Feb 2009, 20:31

postodave wrote:Exactly - although to use the word meaningless could be putting it too strongly. I have never had a psychic experience but when people describe them to me I can understand what they mean.


If I said I can perceive a new color, that it's sort of crunchy, like walking on gravel, would you be any closer to experiencing that color? Wouldn't my explanation be meaningless? But I guess it's a moot point. A good God would reveal himself to all, in some measure. Paul seemed to think that everyone has an intuition of God that they either nourish or destroy. Otherwise, either God wouldn't exist, or he wouldn't be good.

This explains why those who believe aren't stunningly different from those who do not. If I could see, yet lived with blind men, my life would be radically different from theirs. I don't see such a difference between believers and unbelievers. However, if believers are gradually seeing more clearly, and unbelievers are gradually seeing less clearly, the difference would be slow and incremental. This has been my experience. To those who have, more will be given.

I need to argue that the traditional limitations on what kinds of experiences can be recognized as self evident are themselves theories and are not substantiated by the evidence. That is to say self evident truths do not need to be limited to maths, logic and the incorrigable and can also apply to religious experiences.


I like it. The set of self-evident truths is not itself self-evident.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby postodave » 16 Feb 2009, 00:17

Hi Xara. You said
postodave wrote:But 0 is by definition an absence, a lack, an emptiness--a name for something which does not exist. There is some difference between 0 and all the other numbers.
...
1 is are presence, 0 is an absence. But mathematics becomes more valid when it allows reference to an absence, and not merely presences.

ActuallyI think Coyote said that. I can remember you being very into this 25 years ago. I can't remember which side I took and I may have changed my views. In any case I'm not familiar with step theory but in far as I have thought about it I would agree zero is a quantity. I don't even understand the argument that is being pursued here and I'm asking questions to make sense of it. Coyote seems to be saying God is actually an absence but the hypothesis that he exists helps to make sense of the world. Or he seems to be saying it cannot be known that God exists but the hypothesis makes sense of the world for him. In either case he is comparing God to Zero but I am not sure if he is advocating a form of religious non-realism or not.
Hi Allen
I like it. The set of self-evident truths is not itself self-evident.

As soon as you recognize that self evidence is person-relative that is a consequence. There are some remarkable examples that back this up. Brouwer's rejection of the excluded middle which had always been held to be self ecident, Russell's paradox which located a contradiction between two of Frege's self evident axioms. Carl Jung who was a very precocious child yet did not intuit the axiom of equals as self evident - on the other hand by the end of his life he did 'know' there was a God and said so on TV
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby AllanS » 16 Feb 2009, 03:52

I asked my kids at school if the number zero exists.

"Of course," they said.

Then I asked, "But how can nothing exist? If it exists, it must be something."

Ah, the look on their faces as the thought sunk in. Makes teaching worth the pain.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby Coyote Goodfellow » 16 Feb 2009, 16:15

postodave wrote
Coyote seems to be saying God is actually an absence but the hypothesis that he exists helps to make sense of the world. Or he seems to be saying it cannot be known that God exists but the hypothesis makes sense of the world for him. In either case he is comparing God to Zero but I am not sure if he is advocating a form of religious non-realism or not.


Comparing God to Zero--check.
The rest of it is sort of thinking out loud about how to make an argument based on the system rather than a particular element. That having an absence at the center of your system--as long as it is stable and behaves in predictable ways when referenced through things like 10,568+80,00--need not be seen as making the system less valid. I still think the tangibility of zero is on a different level than that of 1. And a similar thing could be said for God in relationship to more tangible things like the Lord's Prayer or communion. I am not definitively arguing for the existence or non-existence of either God or Zero, but saying that both occupy analogous positions within their respective systems so that both existence or non-existence have been argued by people who agreed on the validity of the system and the usefulness of the concept. Rather than trying to make a definitive statement about either God or zero, I am trying to put them both in the same category of ambiguity: the absence at the center which makes the system more valid.

And to a certain extent I am trying to compare specifically the Judeo-Christian God to zero, and other religious systems (like the Roman Gods) to mathematics without a zero. You can build Ziggarauts with them, but not airplanes or skyscrapers. Although I haven't done enough work to verify this, I've often heard zero touted as a very revolutionary concept--which is why I put it on a different level than 1+1=2.
postodave wrote
I would suggest that this experience itself, the experience of a particular view of the world just making sense is itself a religious experience though of a different kind to a mystical experience. Are you not feeling this to be true rather than having a set of proofs that shows it must be true. In the same way the convinced atheist feels his way of seeing the world to be true. The difference is that the atheist often feels his way of seeing the world is the only reasonable way of seeing it; hence the sneering. But not all atheists are like that and some Christians are.

Faith cannot be completely based on proof--and I've never found arguments about the necessity of God convincing. But I am trying (and failing) to construct an analogy between systems.
And true enough that there is sneering by both Christians and atheists. And to a certain extent by assuming they are sneering, I was myself belittling the more conscientious atheists.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby mitchellmckain » 16 Feb 2009, 21:21

AllanS wrote:I asked my kids at school if the number zero exists.

"Of course," they said.

As usual the existence question is smokescreen and meaningless. The correct question is: What is zero? What is this thing we call zero and what would it even mean to ask if this thing exists? That is the problem with existence questions like "does God exist?" You make the completely unwarranted assumption that everyone knows what you are talking about.


AllanS wrote:Then I asked, "But how can nothing exist? If it exists, it must be something."

Now that is a prime example of begging the question. When you ask the question, you are already presuming that it is something that can exist. Let us ask this question instead: Is there a thing which is nothing? If "nothing" truly derives its meaning from no-thing then the answer would seem to be no. In this case doesn't the question "can nothing exist?" simply mean: Is it possible that the state of afairs might have been that there is no thing which exists? I think it is clear that this is not the state of affairs, but can we presume that what is must necessarily be the case? We say that God is self-existent and by that we mean that God necessarily exists. But just because we say this doesn't make it so. We just have the same question in a different form: "can nothing exist?" = "is there any self-existent being?"


AllanS wrote:Ah, the look on their faces as the thought sunk in. Makes teaching worth the pain.

I wouldn't feel proud of making my student think that such an argument has any merit. I have known professors who get off on sowing confusion among their students but I do not admire them.

But perhaps you simply mean a look of the wheels of their minds beginning to turn in order to figure out what, if anything, is wrong with what you have said.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby postodave » 16 Feb 2009, 22:41

We say that God is self-existent and by that we mean that God necessarily exists.

I'd see this as another piece of question begging. To say something is self-existent is to say it does not depend on anything else for its existence (or if you like for the fact that it exists I am not trying to smuggle in a point about things depending on God in an ongoing way). To say that something necessarily exists is to say it could not have not existed. These are not the same thing they are quite different.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby Micah » 17 Feb 2009, 04:20

Step Theorists say that you must divide down to 0, therefore you never reach absolute 0, only a smaller fraction. Unfortunately Step Theory is not only a branch of maths, it is a centrepiece. Thus we may not subtract down to 0.


I think all numbers are ideas, and those ideas have always existed. If you believe that there has always been an infinitely holy God, that brings with it the idea of absolutely zero imperfections or sin. All mathematical concepts have always existed in the mind of God (if there were any that haven't, He wouldn't be an all-knowing God). So even zero or abstract concepts such as imaginary numbers have always existed.

It's kind of weird when you realize that numbers were never created by God--they just always were, along with His mind. Just like there was always love in His nature, with no beginning or end to it.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby agingjb » 17 Feb 2009, 09:45

I wish I'd never mentioned maths (arithmetic actually) as a restricted domain in which some sort of certainty was available. And let's just say that I'm glad that, when I was learning simple arithmetic, I wasn't confused by being presented with metaphysical concepts that would have challenged Plato.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby mitchellmckain » 17 Feb 2009, 10:50

postodave wrote:
We say that God is self-existent and by that we mean that God necessarily exists.

I'd see this as another piece of question begging. To say something is self-existent is to say it does not depend on anything else for its existence (or if you like for the fact that it exists I am not trying to smuggle in a point about things depending on God in an ongoing way). To say that something necessarily exists is to say it could not have not existed. These are not the same thing they are quite different.

You did not make any case for any question begging argument. You have only pointed out that "self-existent" and "neccessarily existing" are distinct philosophical attributions. However I am dubious of making such a distinction in regards to God. Consider the following two dialogues?

1) What created the universe?
God created the universe.
What created God?
God is self-existent.

2) Why does the universe exist?
God created the universe.
Why does God exist?
God necessarily exists.

I find the distinction between these in regards to God a little dubious because the it makes this answer in the first dialogue rather flimsy and easy to circumvent. What happens if we leave God out of it?

3) What created the universe?
The universe is self-existent: nothing created the universe.

4) Why does the universe exist?
The universe neccessarily exists.

The atheist typically argues the third, resorting to a cyclical universe (or some prexisting state such as "foam") after the discovery of the Big Bang. But can the atheist argue the fourth? I do believe, however that Christian theologians have quite often argued the second.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby postodave » 17 Feb 2009, 12:10

That's very clearly put Mitch and on the whole I agree. It's just that I have not found any of the arguments for God's necessary existence persuasive and neither have the majority of atheists. Take a look at the famous dialogue on proofs for God's existence between Russell and Coppleston for example.
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Re: How can we know there is a God?

Postby AllanS » 17 Feb 2009, 21:09

I wouldn't feel proud of making my student think that such an argument has any merit. I have known professors who get off on sowing confusion among their students but I do not admire them.


You are an earnest chap.

But perhaps you simply mean a look of the wheels of their minds beginning to turn in order to figure out what, if anything, is wrong with what you have said.


My students argued that zero, like all numbers, was an idea, not a thing, and a perfectly valid answer to certain sorts of questions. "How many elephants are in my room, right now?" Zero.
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