The Boring God

February 3, 2012

Today I stumbled across the blog of Shiraz Socialist, on which is a fascinating post about the mini-controversy surrounding Terry Eagleton’s review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. The post is a review of de Botton’s response to Eagleton’s review, achieving a level of nested meta that Tarski would appreciate. It is well worth a read, and I urge you to do so.

However, there is one part of the post in which SS appears to make a mistake, and that I would like to discuss. It’s this:

Eagleton:

“For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense that Al Gore arguably is. Nor is he a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist. He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.”:

SS:

“This is, in fact, no more and no less than the well-known (and ridiculous, banal) “ontological argument” of St Anselm: “Something than which nothing greater can be concieved”: he then argued that something that exists in reality must be greater than something that exists in the mind only; so God must exist outside as well as in the mind, for if he existed in the mind only and not in reality he would not be “something than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I’d call that a circular argument, not worth the time of day, if anyone asked me.”

Eagleton is here not using the ancient and decrepit ontological argument, rather a relatively more youthful transcendental argument. This is a form of argumentation named by Immanuel Kant, and the clue to Eagleton’s use of it is the very specific phrase ‘He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever’. A transcendental argument is not an ontological argument which relies upon definition, rather it is a consideration of what is required for something to be.

Kant starts out the Critique of Pure Reason with an example of this: we encounter the world as being three-dimensional and being subject to the passage of time, therefore the condition for the possibility of this is that we possess faculties which allow us to encounter the world through the categories of space and time. It is necessarily the case that we encounter the world through these categories, as we cannot conceive of another way of encountering the world. Try imagining the world without space or time if your brain hasn’t melted enough today.

Eagleton’s argument, therefore, is that God is defined as that which is necessary for anything to exist, the condition for the possibility of being. And this is a real problem for Eagleton, for such a definition is fundamentally uninteresting. It tells us precisely nothing about God, and allows for the possibility of God being practically anything – a set of physical laws, a non-sentient process of continuous creation from the void, the Big Bang itself and so on. You cannot derive the Judeo-Christian version of God from it, which is problematic for Eagleton because he explicitly claims that the Judeo-Christian God can only be understood in this way.

It’s pretty clear from this that Eagleton’s God is a long way removed from de Botton’s approved-opiate-of-the-people God, to the point where his God can have no relation with mankind whatsoever, on account of it being defined into tedium. It’s as close enough to atheism as makes no difference, and certainly precludes the vision of hell in which he seems to believe Christopher Hitchens is roasting.

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One Response to “The Boring God”

  1. Jim Denham said

    Thanks for that intersting post and the plug for ‘Shiraz,’ Adam. I stand corrected on ontology vs transcendentalism. As you’ve probably gathered I’m no theologian and was, shall we say, winging it at that point.

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