It has been said – I know this for an incontrovertible fact, as I’m the one who said it – that an argument founded on a false premise, no matter how perfectly and seamlessly logical, is worthless. This applies to arguments about any and every subject under the Sun. If your premises are wrong, your argument is trash.
There’s more than one way for one’s premises to be wrong. They could be incomplete: lacking in some tenet required for the issue at hand. This is often the case in arguments about theological subjects.
I have a great admiration for mathematician-philosopher Raymond Smullyan. He’s written at length about many philosophical subjects, and his cogitations are frequently illuminating, always entertaining at the very least. But the greatest of logicians – and Smullyan is surely among them – will go wrong if his premises are false or incomplete. I think this is the case in the arguments about the existence and nature of God that Smullyan puts forth in his book Who Knows: A Study of Religious Consciousness.
Rather than proceed at once to the place where Smullyan and I part company, allow me a few words of preface. Smullyan’s thought is valuable, first in that he’s willing to entertain ultimate questions: Is there a God? Is there a devil? Is there a hell? Why does “natural religion” differ from codified religion, in every instance? Second, he approaches them as a logician, moreover a logician of great power and refinement who knows good reasoning from bad. There is much to be learned from Who Knows. However, one of the things the reader should learn is how vital it is not to be confined by premises drawn from, and solely relevant to, the temporal realm.
Consider the following snippet:
…suppose there really is a God who influences some people to believe in Him by some means we do not understand. Then I would hardly regard the belief of those so influenced as a superstition—even though they had no objective evidence for the belief.
For me, the highlighted word goes to the central problem of Smullyan’s approach: He disdains to consider private experiences as evidence. But why should private experiences be dismissed as “not evidence?” Granted that they cannot be used as objective evidence. Granted that one who seeks to persuade others cannot rely on them. But to those who have had them – yes, I’m one such – they are real. And they can be remarkably persuasive.
Later on, we have this:
On the negative side, I certainly regard the fact that God does not communicate with us in a generally recognizable fashion, plus the sufferings and evils of the world, as very strong evidence against a God—certainly an all-powerful and all-good one, as many define God to be.
Smullyan has just dismissed the conscience, “the still small voice” inside each of us that counsels him away from evil, as a channel of communication that God might employ. Why? Because he can’t hear what my conscience says to me? That’s hardly a substantial objection.
Now comes the capper, upon encountering which I concluded that Smullyan had gone badly wrong and could no longer find his way:
Thus, on the one hand, the remarkable design of the world suggests a planner, but the imperfection of the world virtually rules out a perfect planner.
But what is perfection? To say that something is perfect is to say that it is finished: that is, that no further changes remain to be made to it. As another great and underappreciated philosopher has said, perfection is finality. The perfect thing is a thing whose creation is complete.
Contrast this with the notion, which Smullyan must hold at some level, that perfection involves the absence of want, or pain, or evil. Such a world cannot exist under the veil of Time. Time, married to any set of physical laws, must inevitably produce both conditions we would find desirable and conditions we would find undesirable…some of them outright lethal. Our reality is such: one in which time, physical laws, and their working-out will sometimes benefit us and sometimes harm us. Add to this the nature of human consciousness, in which each of us makes his choices alone. As we are not a race of angels – unfallen angels, at that – human desire is guaranteed to produce strife and evil, for not all accept the moral laws built into our temporal nature.
In a way, Smullyan has reprised the problem of free will. If God is omniscient, how can we have free will? After all, He knows what we’ll do in every nexus of decision we face. That implies a predetermination of the choices of every creature, Man included. Free will, under those assumptions, must be an illusion.
But Smullyan has omitted the premise that makes all of theism acceptable. I wrote about it in Shadow of a Sword:
“I never really got that part,” Christine said.
Ray nodded. “Understandably so. It seems paradoxical. I don’t really think we’re expected to ‘get’ it. Just accept it on the evidence.”
The room had grown dim. It had gotten quite late, but neither Ray nor Christine was in any hurry to conclude their chat.
“What makes it hard for most people,” Ray said, “is that we tend to think of God as just a very powerful temporal entity, like some sort of super-magician. But He’s not. He created time. He looks down on it from above, the way you or I would read a map. He knows the path we follow because He knows all the paths we might follow, and what might flow from every one of them.” He sat back and reflected for a moment. “So our time-dependent language about ‘choosing’ and ‘knowing’ gets us into trouble when we try to apply it to God.”
If God stands outside time, all else, including free will, maladies, disasters, and human evil, becomes possible without disturbing in the least the conception of a benevolent, loving God and free will for every member of Mankind. Indeed, no conception of a benevolent God would be consistent without that premise.
It is a classical error, the sort that traps the logician inescapably, to apply temporal reasoning and constraints to God. There is absolutely no justification for it…yet philosophers have made the very same mistake for many centuries. Thereby hangs a tale of legions of intelligent and well-meaning men who fancied themselves qualified to reason about God – His existence, His characteristics, and His Plan – and have found themselves caught in thickets of logical impossibility to which their limited viewpoints, especially their inadequate premises, doomed them from the very start.
I could go on, but I’ll spare you. The watchword, as it so often is, is humility: to accept that however powerful our minds, our knowledge is both conditional and incomplete. With humility, we can learn; without it, we are bound by our own preconceptions. In no domain is humility more important than in our approach to that which our eyes cannot see: God the Creator, who stands above us all, and whose Plan no human conception can encompass.
Food for thought.