01 July 2011

Do you believe in zero?

If you believe in zero, then what proof do have of it's existence? How seriously would you take someone who claimed that, given a lack of proof, zero must not exist and that those who continue to use it are suffering from the “zero delusion.” Or that believers in zero must be under a spell that should be broken because of how prolifically it was used in the systematic oppression of minorities of all kinds throughout most of recorded history especially by the Nazis and other genocidal maniacs.

Personally, I do not believe in the literal existence of zero. Zero is a concept we humans developed through our imaginative capacities to logically deal with gaps in our understanding. I am happy to use the concept, in spite of it's immoral use by others, because zero is an indispensable placeholder that signifies an absence of information. It is indispensable because it allows me to imply that information is absent and still proceed with extremely useful mental processes that require some form of information.

God is the same kind of concept. If you go back to the beginning of this piece and substitute the word 'god' for the word 'zero' in those first two paragraphs then nothing logically changes, though, of course, the connotations do.

Consider that Albert Einstien, when he wanted to concentrate his mental capabilities on the physical forces that comprised his expertise, had to ignore other forces in the world, such as political forces, in order to gain productive insights. There are always an unknown number of forces at work in reality at all times and it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that we can, like Albert Einstein may have done, productively encapsulate the forces we do not want to consider at one moment in a placeholder concept signified by the term 'god.'

Given this understanding of the concept, then the question of belief does not properly apply and questions of existence are also non-starters. Zero is not a faith proposition, and I suggest to you, that god is not a faith proposition either. God is a concept we created as a necessary placeholder for our ignorance of the fullness of reality. Use of the term, by definition, admits of ignorance. Therefore, invocation of god when considering causal forces necessarily implies an unwillingness to probe further into the actual causes of the phenomena under consideration. Invoking god in the course of a causal conversation is a resignation that the forces are unknown and/or unknowable.

This is where politics steps in. When power is cultivated upon ignorance, then those who wield that power have a vested interest in maintaining the ignorance upon which their power is based. And the denial of god is also a political move. Denial of god is the arrogant claim that reality is entirely known, or at least knowable. There is no basis for this claim other than speculation based on establishing or expanding a position of power for those who claim special access to knowing reality. Claims of special access to either god or reality are necessarily born of arrogance and/or maneuvering for power.

The point-by-point sketch of an argument that follows was started with the intent of curing allergies to the word 'god' and it's many synonyms. When all positions that invoke god (by that term or a synonym) are automatically considered to be dangerously delusional (ala Richard Dawkins book title), or at least foolishly mistaken, then there is a clear lack of mutual respect. I suspect that this ironically self-righteous position unnecessarily alienates too many people with perfectly reasonable views.

If the argument could be accepted as a reasonable view on both sides of the chasm centered on the use of the term 'god' then perhaps more inclusive and productive public dialogue on the nature and valid applications of religious thought and practice can happen. If we can agree on the specific form of ignorance asserted in this argument, then labeling positions that use the term 'god' as delusions, mistakes, or spells to be broken is fundamentally disrespectful and inappropriate in civil dialogue.

Even if agreement cannot be reached then those who accept this argument should still be able to circumscribe the role of causal belief within the doctrinal dimension of religious life, then deal with all the other aspects of the doctrinal dimension plus the other six dimensions of religion (mythic, social, ritual, experiential, ethical and material) as issues separate from the use of the term 'god,' and it's synonyms. My hope is that preventing allergic reactions to the word 'god' in this way would encourage more respectful public dialogue.

The argument is built on materialist assumptions, so some people may not be comfortable with its premises. But, if this argument is true, then using the term 'god,' or one of it's many synonyms, is effectively an admission of a specific form of causal ignorance that should, in principle, be acceptable to everyone who is honestly interested in respectful public dialogue to address abuses of science, religion, and our planet.

Sketching The Argument
  1. All human symbolic communication is mediated by some form of mapping, even if the realms mapped have no basis in reality.
    1. The only complete map of anything is the thing itself.
    2. No practical map can ever be complete.
    3. Practical maps serve a purpose and the map can be either adequate or inadequate to the purpose.

  2. Animals, including humans, construct biologically encoded maps of reality.
    1. Biologically encoded maps must be incomplete since they are inherently required to be a practical guide to the preservation of the individual animal and/or it's genes.
    2. The biologically encoded maps within humans are capable of representing a lack of information, as is the case with the concept of zero.
    3. In some instances, like zero, humans accomplish the feat of cognitively handling a lack of information by creating a placeholder that enables the system to act as if there is information when there is not, in fact.

  3. When individual humans who are highly responsive to the contingencies in their environment (thus they are both sane and reasonably intelligent) contemplate the complexities of reality they conclude that some of the forces at work are beyond their knowledge.
    1. Given the conclusion of their ignorance of some of the forces that influence their reality, many humans will assign a placeholder, like the term 'god' and it's synonyms, to some sub-set of the forces that influence their reality in order to sustain productive cognitive mapping of a different sub-set of influences that may be within their grasp. (For instance, Albert Einstein, in his role as a physicist, had to ignore some forces acting in the world, like psychological or social/political forces, in order to work productively on his technical understanding of the physical forces that were his primary interest.)
    2. Placeholders for a systematic lack of information beyond the individual level may be necessary for human cognitive maps to be adequate for the purpose of developing accurate cultural maps of reality.

  4. Humans tend to assign human or human-like traits to entities that appear to have the properties of a) independent movement, b) the ability to respond to environmental contingencies, and c) exert substantial influence on the environment.
    1. Given that the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms are by definition representations of complex but unknown forces that may exert substantial influences over the course of human lives, many humans would naturally assign them human or human-like traits.
    2. The assigned characteristics of the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms should reflect a logical combination of the possible aspects of human vs non-human traits and material vs. “immaterial” influences. Like so:

Logical categories for concepts of god and it's synonyms.*
(e.g. animals & tsunamis)
(e.g. minds & magnetism)

* Inspired by Rev. Bruce Bode's sermon series “Four Faiths in the Modern World” which was based on Rev. Fred Campbell's religious education curriculum “Religious Integrity for Everyone: Functional Theology for Secular Society.”


I conclude that god is real since there are clearly forces at work in reality that I don't understand. Those forces include both material forces such as animals, volcanoes and tsunamis and “immaterial” forces such as other minds and electromagnetism. I also conclude that god is correctly conceived in multiple logically-incompatible ways (which includes a diversity of terminology) due to the cognitive structures that are necessary for dealing with a lack of information and the tendency of human animals to assign traits to certain kinds of phenomena.

Logically and morally I assert that all conceptions of god that admit to our underlying ignorance of forces that influence our lives are appropriate, and conversely conceptions of god that deny our inherent underlying ignorance are inappropriate. Inappropriate uses are likely embedded in situations of power inequalities that are advantageous to some individual or group that benefits from the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge. Further, this political caution regarding the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge applies equally to denials of god.


greg byshenk said...

"God is a concept we created as a necessary placeholder for our ignorance of the fullness of reality. Use of the term, by definition, admits of ignorance."

I think that this is almost exactly wrong. First, no additional placeholder is "necessary" for marking our ignorance; "I don't know" is entirely sufficient. Second, I would submit that nowhere is 'God' actually used as a placeholder for ignorance ("mystery" and so forth may be used to explain 'God', but that is a different matter); rather 'God' is actually used (invariably, I submit) as a pseudo-explanation and pretense to knowledge or understanding.

There is a sense in which this is not in conflict with the outline of your argument, but it seems to me to be in conflict with your stated purpose, because the only way of "preventing allergic reactions to the word 'god'" is to fundamentally change the meaning of that word. For example, you reference Dawkins, but it is important to note that Dawkins himself explicitly states that the "God delusion" he writes about is a particular version of 'God' as a supernatural agent. Indeed, I suspect that the majority of 'gnu atheists' would have no objection (at least in principle) to a 'god' defined as 'ignorance', except in that such seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with what those who "believe in God" (however we might interpret that) actually mean by the term.

Don Berg said...

The changing of the meaning of the word is an ongoing historically embedded process. I am not suggesting anything original, I am just presenting the elements of the argument in a new way.

The important question is, given that some atheists agree, are they willing to confront those who alienate theists for using the term 'god'? Can they reign in the incivility of their fellow atheists in order to create a larger and more productive dialogue?

I guess a part of my agenda is also to find out if theists are willing to be more plain spoken about admitting our ignorance. (Given my conclusion I am comfortable counting myself in their ranks.)

By the way, I had several theists review the early versions of this piece before I posted it and I got no objections. Of course my sample was biased and there are always going to be those who are not interested in honest dialogue in any case, so your point is ultimately well taken.

--Addressing your second point:

I am interested in why you think “mystery” is a different matter.

As I understand various beliefs (an understanding gained through a combination of my own spiritual seeking and membership in a couple Unitarian Universalist churches) there are traditions who admit to their ignorance in matters of the divine. As I recall Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell refers to several writings from various traditions in making his own point in this regard.

In the UU churches I attend there are people who use the term 'god' in ways that I do not consider to be pseudo-explanations or pretenses to knowledge. And I am talking about people who self-describe as theists.

greg byshenk said...

In response to your "important question", I would submit that the main issue is not the word 'god', but the concept behind it. If someone truly wants to use 'god' to refer to 'the unknown', then I (and I suspect most atheists), won't have any strong objection. That said, I (and I suspect some others) will have at least some concern about doing so, and that lies in the question of why, exactly, one wishes to rehabilitate that particular word, which word has a vast train of accreted
meanings (both explicit and implicit). The concern I would have is that, almost invariably, when someone wishes to use the word 'god' in some non-standard way, what they are actually doing (knowingly or not) is attempting to smuggle in at least some set of the implicit meanings of the word. If one wishes to refer to 'ignorance' or 'the unknown', then we already have perfectly good terms that permit us to do -- and without the potential (indeed, I would submit almost certain) confusion and ambiguity the follows from redefining a word that is taken by many to mean something quite different.

If the point is to somehow bridge a gap between theists and atheists, then doing so be redefining 'god' strikes me as doomed to failure at the outset, because your proposed redefinition is one that (so far as I understand it) at least the overwhelming majority of theists will not accept. There may be some set of UUs who have no problem with it, but pretty much every Christian (and I don't refer here only to raging fundamentalists, but pretty much anyone who truthfully endorses one of the standard Creeds), every Muslim, and probably the vast majority of Hindus and most religious Jews, very much appears (at least) to have something very different in mind when they use the word 'god'. Such theists believe that 'god' (or gods) are agents, who have acted in certain specific ways that we can and do know about, and that there are at least certain specific things that can and are known about 'god'. Having spent some time in a mainline Christian church and discussing things with family members and their friends, I find that most Christian theists (at least) very much do "believe in the literal existence of" 'god'. Further, I suspect that the suggestion that 'god' might not have a "literal existence" would lead to your being considered an atheist.

I consider "mystery" a different matter because 'mystery' seems to be a part of theology (and note that if 'god' is a placeholder for "ignorance", then theology cannot exist). As I noted, I submit that 'god' (or 'gods') is invariably used as a (pseudo-)explanation. From "why did the river flood?" to "why did my child die?", "the river god is unhappy", or "god wills it" is presented as an answer, and what almost invariably follows is the question of how to influence that 'god' to will differently. (I would note that if I am correct in this, then 'power' is not something added on to 'god'-talk, but a fundamental part of it, in that 'god'-as-explanation is merely another part of our human attempt to control our world.) I consider 'mystery' to be a different sort of thing, because it is used theologically when some knowledge or understanding of 'god' is shown to be deficient.

Don Berg said...

Since you speak with such conviction about the beliefs of the majority of theists I hope you have passed a link along to your sources so they can weigh in on the validity of my perspective.

greg byshenk said...

C'mon Don, don't you think that's a bit cheap? If you think I'm wrong, then say so. If you think that I'm sufficiently ignorant not to be worth talking to, then say so. But don't play this passive-aggressive game.

Yes, I claim to have some good idea of what the majority of theists think, and with good reason. I was raised as a more or less main-line protestant in middle America, and have an extended family that still sends me messages about the place of God in my life. I've spent a sufficient amount of time in the bosom of the American protestant community to have (I think) at least some reasonably good idea of what that community thinks.

Apart from this, at least for the USA, there are the data about the large percentage of theists who believe in things like Biblical inerrancy (if not literalism), special creation, the literal flood, etc. etc. etc. And the (at least apparent) fact that anyone honestly endorsing one of the standard Christian creeds, or that "there is no God but God, and Mohammad is his prophet", would at least very much seem to be endorsing specific beliefs about some concept of 'god' that is not merely "a placeholder for our ignorance".

Don Berg said...

I guess that did come off cheap, but I was actually serious about getting theists to chime in. (I was also in too much of a hurry to reflect on how that would come across.) The theists I mentioned running this by are not UU's but attend mainstream Christian denominations or at least have publicly claimed to be Christians.

I also was raised with protestant religion to some degree and have many relatives who share the latest chain e-mail with God's latest blessing.

There is also some amount of lumping conservative and liberal religious positions together and taking the conservative position as defining. Religious conservatives would likely react against my position. But I know people who have attended a conservative church for years but when pressed do not defend the beliefs in detail. They seem to be more interested in the social cohesion of the church than in the belief statements. I am sure that one person I have in mind would answer a survey with support for the beliefs, but they are more motions to go through for the other benefits of membership.

And liberal churches/mosques/synagogues, which covers some of all of them, certainly would be generally open to hearing my position, though some may not accept it.

So it seems to me that your dismissal of my position and the enterprise that generated it are based in legitimate concerns about conservative religion, but that my position is valid and the enterprise has potential within liberal religious communities.

greg byshenk said...

Perhaps I am merely insufficiently familiar with the beliefs of "liberal religious communities", but I find the idea that any actual theist would go along with this to be extremely unlikely. To be sure, if someone is a churchgoer who is there for the companionship and finds the belief system irrelevant, then s/he could perhaps go along with this idea. Then again, such a person could perhaps go along with any ideas about the belief system, if indeed the belief system is irrelevant to their "religious" life.

It seems to me there is a really fundamental problem, right at the outset of your text. That is, do you "not believe in the literal existence of" god? Surely, on of the most fundamental (if not the fundamental) distinction to be drawn between theists (of whatever stripe) and atheists (again, of whatever stripe) is whether something properly defined as 'god' (or 'gods') actually exists. Which needs to be read, I think, as 'literally exists'; for 'existence' doesn't seem to be the kind of thing that can be metaphorical, figurative, or some other such thing. And also as something more than merely an idea. Atheists, after all, understand that people have ideas about 'god'. But having an idea is insufficient, for people have ideas about unicorns and fairies at the bottom of the garden. If I'm not misreading, you seem to be suggesting that one can be a theist even though one does not believe that god or gods exist.

I recognize that I may be mistaken, here, but I fail to see how any actual theist -- even the most "liberal" -- could endorse this. Again, this need not apply to someone who attends a church (or its analogue) without any investment in theism, but this seems to be the sort of case that is more extreme than even the most liberal sort of theism.

Don Berg said...

“...the most fundamental ... distinction to be drawn between theists ... and atheists ... is whether something properly defined as 'god' (or 'gods') actually exists. Which needs to be read ... as 'literally exists'; for 'existence' doesn't seem to be the kind of thing that can be metaphorical, figurative, or some other such thing. … [Y]ou seem to be suggesting that one can be a theist even though one does not believe that god or gods exist.”
This gets us right back the central point of the post. How do you answer the question posed in the title of the post? Is zero to be dismissed with the unicorns and fairies? If not, should zero be taken to exist literally?

Let's take some other examples: Does time exist? Does mind exist? I believe in both of these entities, but not literally in the sense that I take my chair to exist. I believe (following the lead of embodied realists such as George Lakoff) that the entities of time and mind are necessarily conceptualized metaphorically because they do not have the kind of material instantiation that a chair does. They exist, but not literally.

My chair literally exists.
Unicorns and faeries do NOT exist.
Zero, time, mind and god exist, but not literally.

We have nonliteral concepts of actually existing entities because that allows us to productively handle the complexity of the real world. We have brains that create reality simulations and those simulators work far better for the purposes of anticipating reality with the concepts like zero, mind, time and, perhaps, god.

Of course, any tool in our tool box can be misused. There is a big difference between Jimmy Carter swinging a hammer with Habitat For Humanity and “Maxwell's silver hammer coming down upon her head.” So it is with the non-literally existing entity of god; as a concept it has been grossly misused and I am of the opinion that it is more productive to reject the misuse of the tool rather than refuse to use the tool (and then insult those who still use it.)

Embodied Realism Resources:
Philosophy In The Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
Where Mathematics Comes From by George Lakoff and Raphael Nunez

greg byshenk said...

Very well, to go back to the original question, no, zero does not exist. Yes, it "exists" as an idea or concept, but that is true of every idea, including that of unicorns and faeries. When we say that something named by the word X "exists", what we mean (at least I think) is something more than that the word exists, which we might gloss by saying that it actually refers to something (here we can let 'thing' be interpreted broadly) that is actually existent in the world in some form that can be picked out as a referent, and that "exists" independently of the word, concept, or model.

I'm not that familiar with Lakoff (though I think I might have run across his ideas a time or two), but you seem dangerously close to suggesting that any concepts that fit in a model are therefore somehow actually existing. I say "dangerously" here because, there have been (perhaps still are or will be in the future) models including unicorns and faeries, yet you want to say that they do not exist, while their status seems to be no different than your "non-literally" existing examples. If I have a simulation (mental model?) including faeries at the bottom of the garden, does that mean they exist?

Let me also comment on your idea of a 'tool' by suggesting that the 'god'-concept is actually a bad tool. And that this follows from your own argument. I more or less agree that 'god' (or 'gods') originates as a placeholder for ignorance. The problem is that once someone applies that concept, it is difficult (perhaps impossible, particular given the accretion of existing meanings around the concept) to avoid "assign"ing that concept additional characteristics. And this seems to me to be serious, because it doesn't actually help you recognize and deal usefully with ignorance, but instead replaces it with false (or at least wholly unjustified) beliefs. As Twain said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." A "tool" that not only fails to repair a problem, but only makes it worse, isn't one we need in our collective cognitive toolbox.

Don Berg said...

my latest reply didn't fit here so I posted it: http://blog.attitutor.com/2011/07/do-you-believe-in-time-and-mind.html

thefisherlady said...

believing in God or not does not change God. He remains the same, no matter what, yet shows Himself to those who by faith, believe in Him.
I will pray He gives you faith my friend. It is such a gift to actually see the Maker of this amazing world in which we live.