- Theo Naylor Marlow
The Infinite Dead-Ends Of Deistic Disagreements
A thought, or perhaps a series of thoughts, came to me over an unusually philosophical dinner. We found ourselves, as all normal 17-year-olds usually do, debating (or discussing, I’m not entirely sure) the amount we could know about God. Somewhere in the many twists and turns the conversation took, there was a common thread: that we would, if we lived in a paradise of logic, treat every observation and belief with agnosticism, and by extension that, due to their nature, we will never know our own creator.
The first of those threads is clearly an exercise in useless thinking. It is the kind of thinking that makes people laugh at philosophy. It is true that the philosophical-sort have a proclivity for saying useless, impractical things (and that is the beauty of it: valueless statements have great value in this field). But yes, the ‘problem of induction’, as it is traditionally named, might just be the crowning achievement of philosophical pretentiosity. It is at the same time fascinating, and also utterly meaningless to even the most high-strung, ivory-tower-inhabiting armchair thinker out there. To understand why, first understand what the problem of induction is, exactly.
It goes something like this: induction is the way in which we make conclusions from our observations. All scientific experimentation is in one way or another induction: you make observations (for example, the colour of swans) and having made said observations, make a conclusion about what you are studying (in this case, all swans are white). The exact same method can also be applied to any cause – effect situation; this seems obvious at first, but it is important to understand induction, and its complement, deduction, before rummaging deeper into any problems associated with it. Deduction is quite different from induction – to deduct something means to use existing concepts or ideas to reach a firm, non-falsifiable, conclusion (provided the logic is sound). Oft cited examples include 2 + 2 = 5 4 or ‘all unmarried men are bachelors’. In effect, any example of deduction is a tautology, only the input has been rationalised with a bit of logic to reach the output.
The key distinction to be made, however, has to do with how we value these two forms of reasoning. Deduction should be considered immutable: 2 + 2 will always equal 4 because we have made it so. The idea of ‘two sets of two’ is literally the same as ‘4’. Things get trickier with inductive reasoning. When you induct-ify to a particular conclusion, that is a contingent piece of knowledge. That is to say, it is dependent on the surrounding realities of the world. All swans may not be white in 50 years – a rogue AI might meticulously alter the genes of every single swan in existence to produce a stock of entirely purple swans. Unlike arithmetic, our ruminations on the hues of swans are not guaranteed constants.
This makes any piece of induction unreliable because it is in itself a circular argument to claim that things will stay the same because they have in the past. When one makes such a claim, one inducts the fact that swans have, on the whole, been white for most of the time. To then use this piece of induction to defend induction is rather like the CIA exonerating itself of all crimes in an internal CIA report.
Now that you know why everything you ever saw, or thought, is unreliable and meaningless, you might be wondering what this has to do with God. Unsurprisingly, it has a lot to do with God.
This is because, to postulate on supernatural beings, we are in effect making certain assumptions about said being. When a Christian laments the fact that God allowed 7 members of her extended family to be immolated in a government sponsored firebombing, she assumes God has a human outlook on emotion and thus cares about their crispy end. Similar assumptions are made when anyone talks about God. When discussing the existence of God, or a creator, we are limited by our own powers of reason and our own modes of logic. By the problem of induction, however, how can we assume anything about a being so immensely powerful?
Allow me to explain what I mean by this somewhat concisely: our understanding of the universe is that it is bound by certain rules. The fact that a deity who created the universe might have had the ability to create matter from fuck-all nothing, something we primates have found to be quite tricky, we must guess that this creator does not follow the rules (this is in itself an assumption, but if you want to go that far, why bother thinking?). This is a hesitant logical leap, but it is the only I shall make, and the argument still stands without it. Given that our creator does not follow our rules of physics, logic, and reasoning, it seems to me an impossibility for us to make any ground in guessing first and foremost what that creator is like (our tiny brains would probably immolate presented with such mind-boggling information), and secondly whether or not they exist, because any reasoning or logic we use in this pursuit probably doesn’t apply to the creator. Any inductive arguments we make about regression, design or logical necessity are, at the risk of saying ‘God works in mysterious ways’, like throwing pebbles at a wall and expecting it to collapse. Even as I write this, I am using my own pathetic powers of logic to conclude that those powers are, indeed, pathetic compared to our creator. This might not make any sense whatsoever, and that is probably my fault, but I think I have put across a fairly sensible reason for why trying to prove, or even comprehend, a creator is an ‘infinite dead-end’ – every turn you make is doomed to end at the same point, that point being that the creator is totally and completely removed from our way of thinking, which includes our way of proving things exist.
There is a clear objection that might have become apparent: couldn’t this be applied to every piece of knowledge we think we have? There is a hypothetical case to be made about being agnostic about everything. This is the primary thrust of the problem of induction – we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that knowledge we believe to be irrefragable are always true. But it is true that, to any reasonable person, this is almost meaningless. There is no possible way of conducting one’s life while also taking every single sensory experience with a pinch of salt. There must be some discernment here: only certain grave and serious matters warrant us bringing such a fundamental doubt onto the field. And I would argue that whether or not we have a creator is one of those grave and serious things. While it might be a little unwieldy to tell your bully that in fact, no, you are not ugly, because his perception of vision might be mistaken, it is certainly not so cumbersome, and is in many ways intellectually stimulating, to give self-doubt, and human-doubt, a seat at the table when debating something like ‘God’.
Will I contort this argument to support some kind of atheism? Naturally. It’s rather simplistic, however, and very much open to disagreement. The simple premise is that it is not worth believing in things that we cannot empirically observe, comprehend, or ever comprehend. As they have no material form and cannot be observed, they have no bearing on our day to day lives, and because we cannot understand it, the debate is cyclical and will inevitably devolve to gut feeling. That is not to say that gut feeling is not often very useful, or that debate is pointless – there is no such thing as a pointless argument, and no-one can ever leave an argument unscathed by their opponent’s opinions. However, I find no fault in choosing not to engage much in the discussion of creators – some questions will never be answered.