How Should I Be A Sceptic -- God and gods

[Introductory note from Jason Pratt: the previous entry in this series of posts can be found here. The first entry can be found here.]

In my previous chapter I explained why I think the concept of two or more IFs (whatever their other characteristics may be) leads, one way or another, to a functional proposition of only one IF.

So far when I have discussed a sentient IF (or a SIF), I have identified the IF as 'God'. But of course our history is full of religions where people declare the existence of numerous gods. Notice I have changed the big 'G' to a little 'g' in that statement. I am not trying to belittle this type of belief, but to preserve an important philosophical distinction.

I had to delay this discussion until after I had already covered the issue of what an IF is, and also until after I had established that there was no real point to discussing multiple-IFs (whether sentient, non-sentient, or any mix thereof). Now, I can now safely go back and cover this important distinction. [Footnote: I am also now in a position to cover in more detail what I mean when I contrast a non-sentient IF to a sentient IF--and that will be the topic of my next chapter.]

The IF, as I have been describing It (or Him), is the basis (even the 'base' or foundation) of reality as a whole. What I can discover and reason out about the IF, will affect the scope of intrinsic possibilities of any future propositions I may consider.

If, for instance, I discover that philosophical naturalism must be true, then I must reject as an error any supernatural theory of angels or devils. 'Angels' and 'devils' might still exist, but if naturalism is true they cannot be supernatural in origin or character. It would be a contradiction for entities to have aspects not dependent on Nature, if Nature is the IF--and if naturalism is true, only Nature (one particular system of reality) exists: a philosophical naturalist denies the existence of multiple systems in an ontological sense.

So, any conclusion I reach about reports or propositions concerning angels and devils (for example) should reflect any previous conclusions I have drawn about the characteristics of the IF.

Here is a different example of the same concept. In some versions of Greek mythology, the Fact from which all other things derive their existence is Chaos. It does not think; it is not moral; it makes no choices. It simply reacts and counterreacts according to its own self-existent character. From Chaos, directly emerge the Titans. The Titans cannot overthrow Chaos; and not only are dependent upon it, but also exhibit many of its characteristics. From the Titans come Zeus and Hera, who begin the process of begetting the other gods of the Greek pantheon--and the other gods produce more gods and demigods, humans, etc. (I am not saying this is how the pantheon was developed by Grecian cultures historically, by the way. I am only borrowing one common, and perhaps fairly late, version of the myth as an example for purposes of illustration.) The new gods can overthrow the old Titans because they are not utterly dependent upon them; but they cannot overthrow Chaos. Indeed, many Greek myths illustrate quite well, that (in their own fashion) the gods continue to exhibit the fundamental characteristic of the chaotic Final Fact. (The main difference is that the gods can take actions rather than merely react; and they do seem to have at least a truncated grasp of morality, neither of which are characteristics of non-sentient Chaos.)

The Greek gods, therefore, are not IFs; they are very powerful derivative entities. The entities derived in turn from them, could be less, more, or equivalent in power to them. The gods can trump each other, and to a certain extent they can be trumped by natural processes. (It can be difficult to tell, from story to story, whether these natural processes are or are not supposed to be gods themselves; either way, the principle is the same.) The gods are not supernatural; they are preternatural. And even if in some ways they might be considered to be supernatural (the distinction is sometimes smudgy and sometimes clear, as should be expected in stories told over long periods of time in a culture which developed and honed the practice of principle analysis), Chaos is supernatural to the gods and they still depend upon It.

This example illustrates why, although I consider the question of the existence and characteristics of gods to be interesting and even important; I don't consider it to be one of the first (or even middle) things to discover metaphysically.

Again, I don't mean this to denigrate those religions--I am trying to recognize the real implications of what those religions themselves have been designed to represent or 'say'. Polytheisms rarely (if ever) posit multiple self-existent gods (or Gods, in that case) from the get-go; and I have already explained why I think the very concept of multiple IFs leads to the recognition of a single IF anyway. So I should, and will, postpone the question of the character and existence of gods, until I figure out what properties the IF itself has.

Having explained why I consider the question of the existence of derivative gods to be secondary to (and dependent upon the conclusions of) my main task, I am now in a position to better explain my attitude toward Mormonism.

According to one prevalent interpretation of Mormon theology (though the actual tenets for the notion are, to the best of my knowledge, found only in two sermons, one each by Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow, which sermons are not regarded as canonical authority by the LDS church), 'God' was once a man (presumably human), qualitatively like us, who somehow achieved Godhood on a different world (or perhaps natural universe) and then went off with His wife to establish our Earth (maybe including, if I have understood the claim correctly, this evident natural universe in total).

I have a number of problems with this proposal (presuming I have understood these Mormons correctly): for instance, I think it is untenable to claim that natural properties can somehow develop into previously nonexistent supernatural properties. But more to the point of this chapter, I think such a philosophy might as well, at bottom, be some type of atheism--not theism.

Naturalistic atheism would not, in principle, exclude the possibility of a naturally produced creature eventually attaining massive natural power and then doing many of the things attributed to God by the Mormons (or by any traditional theism, actually). God would be a naturally produced entity; He (or, rather, he) would be 'a god', not God. He would still be, admittedly, the most interesting thing Nature (or some Nature somewhere in reality) has produced; and it would admittedly be prudent to obey such a powerful creature, in the same way that it would be prudent to obey King Arthur--or Stalin.

[Footnote: insofar as proper names go, it might be sufficient to say that he is 'God' if he is unique; but then one of the points to Mormonism is that any of us can attain exactly the same kind of development, and be exactly the same kind of entity as 'God'--and purportedly this happens on a fairly regular basis. The superiority of God to exalted humanity would only be the superiorities of a father to any of his natural descendants within a species.]

The Mormons thus seem to be telling me about an emergent god. That may be well and good, but I want to find out what the characteristics of the final Fact are. And, not coincidentally, 'traditional' Judaism and Christianity (and Islam, which also claims Judeo-Christian historical/theological roots but which is not connected to Mormonism) are trying to tell me about that Final Fact--what I am calling the IF. Of course, so is atheistic naturalism. One set of philosophies tells me the IF is sentient, one set tells me it is non-sentient. The Mormons seem to be telling me the same thing the atheists are telling me, or they might as well be, except with some unusual historical details.

[Footnote: the unusual historical details would, in many cases, be ones I happen to agree with, of course. The LDS Christian and I would disagree on the meaning of some of those historical details; but then neither, I suppose, am I likely to have total agreement on interpretation of meaning with any theologian even within the 'traditional' branches of Christianity.]

So the Mormons must be quite right about at least one thing: either they or we 'traditional' Christians (or both) have gotten far off the tracks. But maybe I can get some hints about the correct answer by checking out potential IF properties and the consequent implications. [See first comment below for a deferred footnote here.] Looking for the characteristics of the IF will give me at least a potential handle on what to make of existence/characteristics claims concerning entities which are (by the characteristics notably ascribed to them in their own stories) themselves derivative.

[Footnote: I understand there is another, perhaps less prevalent, type of Mormonism, wherein the three persons of God are treated as ontological IFs in themselves. I have already noted recently, though, how multiple-IF claims end up pointing toward a single IF after all, upon which the IF claimants would themselves be dependent. While my analytical examples were limited to two IFs, the principles work out just the same with any greater number of multiple IF claimants. This leaves me in much the same position, in regard to this variant of Mormonism, as to the more popular 'developmental' Mormonism: either way, the claims point back to an overarching IF; and as a metaphysician, my first concern is with figuring out the properties of that IF, insofar as I can.]

But throughout my book I have been dividing one of the chief potential characteristics, into sentience vs. non-sentience. Some of my readers may ask whether this is a facetious division; or at least, should I not introduce a third category? There are some pantheists (not necessarily all) who would claim that the IF is mindless yet purposeful--or words to that effect. So this is where I will focus my next chapter.

[Next time: SIF/n-SIF vs. ??]


Jason Pratt said…
.......[first deferred footnote here]

I want to emphasize, however, that I am not arguing, in this chapter, that this aspect of the theology of the Latter-Day Saints is certainly wrong. I am only making use of a LDS theological position as an example of a distinction between a sentient Independent Fact, and a derivative-though-supremely-powerful creature. My first positive goal ought to be to discover whatever I can about the characteristics of the IF--and the implications of those characteristics.

I also understand, so far as I know at the time of this writing [late 1999], that no authoritative source within the LDS church has specifically stated that God, having once been a finite and mortal man, was produced as such by a foundationally non-sentient reality. I only ask them to understand, in turn, that such a doctrine of God's pre-existence as a finite mortal human, implies God's own derivativeness from something else; and so--not having heard further from them that the formerly mortal human God was himself produced by a truly final and transcendent God--the result implies an ultimate atheism to me. Call it a technical agnosticism if you wish; but if we are not to even consider or hope to worship the IF, but restrict our worship and regard 'as God' to these lesser entities instead, then the result is to shut out one option open to an actual agnostic, leaving over... what?

In any case, I think it is proper for me, if I am going to think about such issues, to discover so far as I can the properties of the foundational IF: and at this time, the LDS doctrine--popularly accepted as it is, though without officially canonical status as it may be--is that the God they are proposing is not the final truly Independent Fact of reality. (Although the President of the LDS church or the Quorum of Twelve Apostles may clarify this at a future date.)

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