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« on: December 19, 2011, 12:27:28 pm »
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One of the main charges against atheists is: "How can an atheist be moral"?  The argument is that morality comes from God, and that without a set of rules from a creator, there is no basis for saying something is right or wrong.  Atheists usually respond to this rather defensively, saying that one can make personal value judgments to develop a sense of right and wrong, God is not necessary for this.  While this is definitely true, I don't think it's the only or even the strongest counterargument one can make.  Suppose there is an all powerful God.  How does it follow that God is necessarily good?  As Alan Dershowitz once pointed out, power has certainly not equaled goodness where humans are concerned.  Why then should it necessarily be a feature of a deity that has unlimited power over the universe?  If God is not necessarily good, it follows that even if religious rules and commandments do indeed come from God, obeying them is not necessarily morally right. 
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« Reply #1 on: December 19, 2011, 12:33:47 pm »
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You don't even need to go there.  Philosophers have been designing moral systems that have nothing to do with God for over 200 years now.  You can take your pick.
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« Reply #2 on: December 19, 2011, 09:00:30 pm »
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The last set of questions I think betokens a slight misconception of how morality is conceived of as working under a traditional/'standard' Western religious worldview. Right and wrong, in this view, flow from attributes of God's nature, so the way a universe is constructed will inevitably be such that its creator's characteristics will be reflected as, among other things, moral attributes. So morality as such doesn't preexist the universe but is created as a function of it. If morality does preexist either the universe or any being that might be in the business of creating it then God is not the first cause and hence isn't God as defined in Western monotheism; when you're to that point, you're best advised to remember that religions that think of things in this way generally don't assume that God or gods are automatically good (though they may be likely to be so for various reasons).
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« Reply #3 on: December 20, 2011, 07:44:03 am »

I think one of the more convincing arguments for this position runs that morality requires free will and free will requires an extra-natural sphere which then in turn requires God.

None of the claims in that are uncontroversial of course.
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« Reply #4 on: December 24, 2011, 01:37:06 pm »
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Atheists can be moral if they behave morally, just like anyone else.  If there can be such a thing as an immoral believer, there can be such a thing as a moral atheist. 
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« Reply #5 on: December 24, 2011, 01:58:46 pm »
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Atheists can be moral if they behave morally, just like anyone else.  If there can be such a thing as an immoral believer, there can be such a thing as a moral atheist. 

Sure they can.  Even if you get past Gustaf's point about free will (which I believe is a good one), I'm sure anyone can adhere to a set moral standard.  The real question is what does an atheist believe to be moral?  It is why, in my opinion, politicians running as independents have an inherent disadvantage.  Voters notice an R or D by a candidate's name and have some idea of what the candidate stands for even if they know nothing more about them, but an "I" by the name is a blank slate.  An independent could be an anarchist, communinst, facist, libertarian, or something in between.  Certainly an independent can be as Republican as any other Republican or Democratic as any Democrat, but since they give no hint of their beliefs in their party affiliation, the average voter may have no clue what to expect.  Similarly, an atheist could act within the moral precepts of Roman Catholicism as well as the average Catholic or adhere more strictly to the tenants of Sunni Islam than the average Sunni Muslim.  However saying you're an atheist does not convey any sense of what you hold to be moral.  If you wish to convey to what system of morality you hold, describe yourself as an Objectivist, Utilitarian, Christian Atheist, Hedonist, Nihilist, etc, this says volumes more about your moral convictions that simply saying "I'm a moral Atheist."
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« Reply #6 on: December 25, 2011, 07:10:44 am »
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I think this is an interesting point.  I've never read a particularly compelling theistic argument for how one ascertains omnibenvolence, or from what omnibenevolence originates (certainly not omnipotence?)

I think one of the more convincing arguments for this position runs that morality requires free will and free will requires an extra-natural sphere which then in turn requires God.   None of the claims in that are uncontroversial of course.

Ay, what argument is this?  I'm not sure to what your antecedent ("this position") refers, but in any case, what you're saying is not ringing any bells.
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« Reply #7 on: December 25, 2011, 08:13:49 am »
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I think this is an interesting point.  I've never read a particularly compelling theistic argument for how one ascertains omnibenvolence, or from what omnibenevolence originates (certainly not omnipotence?)

Theistic definitions of morality tend to have a certain element of tautology in this sense, since morality is typically defined in terms of God rather than the other way around.
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« Reply #8 on: December 25, 2011, 03:22:49 pm »
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I think this is an interesting point.  I've never read a particularly compelling theistic argument for how one ascertains omnibenvolence, or from what omnibenevolence originates (certainly not omnipotence?)

Theistic definitions of morality tend to have a certain element of tautology in this sense, since morality is typically defined in terms of God rather than the other way around.

Right -- but this doesn't seem like any less of a first principle than "morality is just defined this way" to an atheist.
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« Reply #9 on: December 25, 2011, 03:58:41 pm »
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I think this is an interesting point.  I've never read a particularly compelling theistic argument for how one ascertains omnibenvolence, or from what omnibenevolence originates (certainly not omnipotence?)

Theistic definitions of morality tend to have a certain element of tautology in this sense, since morality is typically defined in terms of God rather than the other way around.

Right -- but this doesn't seem like any less of a first principle than "morality is just defined this way" to an atheist.

I'm not sure quite what you're saying or asking here. Obviously an atheist wouldn't have much use for this definition of morality, or at least I wouldn't expect one to.
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« Reply #10 on: December 25, 2011, 07:43:27 pm »

I think this is an interesting point.  I've never read a particularly compelling theistic argument for how one ascertains omnibenvolence, or from what omnibenevolence originates (certainly not omnipotence?)

I think one of the more convincing arguments for this position runs that morality requires free will and free will requires an extra-natural sphere which then in turn requires God.   None of the claims in that are uncontroversial of course.

Ay, what argument is this?  I'm not sure to what your antecedent ("this position") refers, but in any case, what you're saying is not ringing any bells.

I'm not making a point about why atheists can't be moral, but whether morality requires God to exist. There's a difference between belief in God and existence of God as a prerequisite. So this position is the position that God must exist for morality to exist.

I'm beginning to realize that might not have been the question though. I think it's the relevant question however. Whether atheists in fact behave morally or not seems like an empirical question rather than a philosophical one.

I can't really name a philosopher off the top of my head (I'd like to say I invented this argument myself, but that's obviously not true either Wink )I think Kant's position on morality covers parts of this though.
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« Reply #11 on: December 25, 2011, 08:59:40 pm »
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I'm not making a point about why atheists can't be moral, but whether morality requires God to exist. There's a difference between belief in God and existence of God as a prerequisite. So this position is the position that God must exist for morality to exist.

I'm beginning to realize that might not have been the question though. I think it's the relevant question however. Whether atheists in fact behave morally or not seems like an empirical question rather than a philosophical one.

I can't really name a philosopher off the top of my head (I'd like to say I invented this argument myself, but that's obviously not true either Wink )I think Kant's position on morality covers parts of this though.

I guess I didn't pick up on that in your original phrasing, sorry.  I think what I was noting actually is an objection about the argument you're alluding to.
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« Reply #12 on: January 05, 2012, 07:35:44 pm »

I'm not making a point about why atheists can't be moral, but whether morality requires God to exist. There's a difference between belief in God and existence of God as a prerequisite. So this position is the position that God must exist for morality to exist.

I'm beginning to realize that might not have been the question though. I think it's the relevant question however. Whether atheists in fact behave morally or not seems like an empirical question rather than a philosophical one.

I can't really name a philosopher off the top of my head (I'd like to say I invented this argument myself, but that's obviously not true either Wink )I think Kant's position on morality covers parts of this though.

I guess I didn't pick up on that in your original phrasing, sorry.  I think what I was noting actually is an objection about the argument you're alluding to.

Maybe I'm being completely thick now, but what are you noting? That God cannot be proven to be omnibenevolent?
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« Reply #13 on: January 05, 2012, 08:36:23 pm »
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I'm not making a point about why atheists can't be moral, but whether morality requires God to exist. There's a difference between belief in God and existence of God as a prerequisite. So this position is the position that God must exist for morality to exist.

I'm beginning to realize that might not have been the question though. I think it's the relevant question however. Whether atheists in fact behave morally or not seems like an empirical question rather than a philosophical one.

I can't really name a philosopher off the top of my head (I'd like to say I invented this argument myself, but that's obviously not true either Wink )I think Kant's position on morality covers parts of this though.

I guess I didn't pick up on that in your original phrasing, sorry.  I think what I was noting actually is an objection about the argument you're alluding to.

Maybe I'm being completely thick now, but what are you noting? That God cannot be proven to be omnibenevolent?

Basically
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« Reply #14 on: January 05, 2012, 09:04:10 pm »
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Obviously one can't prove omnibenevolence without first defining goodness, and most struggles are between one 'good' and another 'good'.

Also obviously, God's existence (if one takes it as a given, which I know you don't, but still...) makes His position on what is and isn't 'good' the one that really matters in the end.
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« Reply #15 on: January 05, 2012, 10:27:00 pm »
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Also obviously, God's existence (if one takes it as a given, which I know you don't, but still...) makes His position on what is and isn't 'good' the one that really matters in the end.

But why?  Just stating that it's true begs the question.  How could you possibly ascertain this?

I'm not sure it's obvious even beyond that, since some traditions posit a God that isn't at all benevolent.
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« Reply #16 on: January 06, 2012, 02:47:44 am »
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Also obviously, God's existence (if one takes it as a given, which I know you don't, but still...) makes His position on what is and isn't 'good' the one that really matters in the end.

But why?  Just stating that it's true begs the question.  How could you possibly ascertain this?

I'm not sure it's obvious even beyond that, since some traditions posit a God that isn't at all benevolent.

All right. God as defined in Western philosophical and theological traditions. To an extent morality becomes tautological at that point. To an extent morality is tautological anyway. The way to ascertain it would be to have God existent and judging one based on such-and-such standards.

Precisely what omnibenevolence means in practical terms is, though, a bit difficult to nail down one we realize that in a worldview that assumes God as absolute Creator it's an almost entirely reflexive concept.
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« Reply #17 on: January 06, 2012, 04:41:40 am »
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Also obviously, God's existence (if one takes it as a given, which I know you don't, but still...) makes His position on what is and isn't 'good' the one that really matters in the end.

But why?  Just stating that it's true begs the question.  How could you possibly ascertain this?

I'm not sure it's obvious even beyond that, since some traditions posit a God that isn't at all benevolent.

All right. God as defined in Western philosophical and theological traditions. To an extent morality becomes tautological at that point. To an extent morality is tautological anyway. The way to ascertain it would be to have God existent and judging one based on such-and-such standards.

Precisely what omnibenevolence means in practical terms is, though, a bit difficult to nail down one we realize that in a worldview that assumes God as absolute Creator it's an almost entirely reflexive concept.


I think you are also making an assumption that if there was a god, it was capable of conscious thought. Part of the reason why I doubt the existence of one is that all thought requires matter and energy; you cannot 'think' without electrical impulses bouncing around brain matter. Since notions of a creator god pre-exist the creations of both electricity and matter, then how could a deity possibly think to then act? Unless of course you simply make an exception for the deity. If you end up having to make exception after exception to justify a concept then you end up defending what is indefensible.
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« Reply #18 on: January 06, 2012, 07:30:43 am »

I'm not making a point about why atheists can't be moral, but whether morality requires God to exist. There's a difference between belief in God and existence of God as a prerequisite. So this position is the position that God must exist for morality to exist.

I'm beginning to realize that might not have been the question though. I think it's the relevant question however. Whether atheists in fact behave morally or not seems like an empirical question rather than a philosophical one.

I can't really name a philosopher off the top of my head (I'd like to say I invented this argument myself, but that's obviously not true either Wink )I think Kant's position on morality covers parts of this though.

I guess I didn't pick up on that in your original phrasing, sorry.  I think what I was noting actually is an objection about the argument you're alluding to.

Maybe I'm being completely thick now, but what are you noting? That God cannot be proven to be omnibenevolent?

Basically

I don't really see how that relates to my point though? My argument does not seem to require God being omnibenevolent?
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« Reply #19 on: January 06, 2012, 02:06:53 pm »
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All right. God as defined in Western philosophical and theological traditions. To an extent morality becomes tautological at that point. To an extent morality is tautological anyway. The way to ascertain it would be to have God existent and judging one based on such-and-such standards.

Precisely what omnibenevolence means in practical terms is, though, a bit difficult to nail down one we realize that in a worldview that assumes God as absolute Creator it's an almost entirely reflexive concept.

Like Andrew says, this answer doesn't work.  You can't just define the problem away.  You can say that omnibenevolence is an intrinsic part of anything.  It could be an intrinsic part of my cat who, coincidentally, is really nice.  Why do you presume it's an intrinsic part of God and not of something else, or of nothing?  How do you observe this to be true?  Considering that God is ostensibly omnibenevolent and yet terrible stuff happens, it's not as if this can uncontroversially be accepted as a tautology even if God does exist.

I don't really see how that relates to my point though? My argument does not seem to require God being omnibenevolent?

I suppose it's possible for God to establish moral standards and then behave against them.  Your argument is that there are no moral standards without a God, no moral standards without omnipotence, or what?  Are you folding "ability to create objective moral standards" into omnipotence?  In any case, it still problematizes your argument; if God isn't definitionally omnibenevolent (whatever that is), it makes the question of "why should we trust this entity on moral issues?" even more confusing.
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« Reply #20 on: January 06, 2012, 04:31:02 pm »
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@Gustaf:

Kant does affirm the the existence of a God (rather than the existence of the noumenal idea of God that is the a priori condition for the possibility of rationality) as a prerequisite for the possibility of morality. It's one of the postulates of practical reason.
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« Reply #21 on: January 06, 2012, 04:43:29 pm »
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All right. God as defined in Western philosophical and theological traditions. To an extent morality becomes tautological at that point. To an extent morality is tautological anyway. The way to ascertain it would be to have God existent and judging one based on such-and-such standards.

Precisely what omnibenevolence means in practical terms is, though, a bit difficult to nail down one we realize that in a worldview that assumes God as absolute Creator it's an almost entirely reflexive concept.

Like Andrew says, this answer doesn't work.  You can't just define the problem away.  You can say that omnibenevolence is an intrinsic part of anything.  It could be an intrinsic part of my cat who, coincidentally, is really nice.  Why do you presume it's an intrinsic part of God and not of something else, or of nothing?  How do you observe this to be true?  Considering that God is ostensibly omnibenevolent and yet terrible stuff happens, it's not as if this can uncontroversially be accepted as a tautology even if God does exist.

Forgive me, but I remain mystified as to how one could possibly define any kind of absolute as opposed to subjective morality contra God in the event of God's existence. Again, if God has the position with regards to the universe that He's constructed as having in Western thought. If it's otherwise I don't honestly understand why we would even be talking about this.

With response to Andrew, I'm also mystified as to why exactly one would apply the standards of the universe to God, in general. Asking why features of the physical universe don't apply to God is preassuming a materialistic outlook that doesn't hold water when God comes into the picture. We might as well ask how God can see the entirety of the universe when He hasn't got an optic nerve or retina. It presupposes a materialist conclusion. (It also presupposes the absolute and universal truth of the current Western construct of what constitutes 'thought', but I'd rather not get into that.)
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« Reply #22 on: January 06, 2012, 09:00:30 pm »
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The original question of the thread was whether people could be moral if they were atheists.  On the traditional Christian metaphysical account, goodness, strictly speaking, constitutes the divine essence, so that nothing could be good without God.  But, even if we were to accept this account, the question of being does not necessarily implicate the question of any individual creature's belief.  One could conceivably still be good, or do good, without believing in God's existence, even if the believer insists that goodness has its origin in God's nature, which is unknown to or denied by the non-believer.

As for other conceptions of the divine that do not attribute to the divine goodness or intentional consciousness, such conceptions certainly exist, and indeed require that moral goodness has some other origin.  It's still a perfectly reasonable thing to discuss, at least.

As for Andrew's comments about thought and the materialist assumptions behind them, I think the argument he is making rather goes something like this (and please correct me Andrew if I'm wrong):  What we know to be "seeing" and "thinking" are invariably processes that require a nervous system and a brain structure of a certain complexity, and thus we cannot really conceive of anything that we could properly call "seeing" and "thought" that does not involve these material preconditions.  If God is supposed to be a spiritual being who does not have material existence, then either God does not really "see" or "think," and such activities can only be metaphorically applied to him or her or it, or there is simply no such being as the God spoken of by the Christian scriptural traditions that attribute states such as consciousness and will to him.  It's not an argument that necessarily makes unwarranted assumptions about God, but rather an argument about the nature of sensation and consciousness as we can conceive of them, and how far, or whether at all, we can attribute these processes to supposedly non-material beings. 
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« Reply #23 on: January 06, 2012, 10:22:31 pm »
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The original question of the thread was whether people could be moral if they were atheists.  On the traditional Christian metaphysical account, goodness, strictly speaking, constitutes the divine essence, so that nothing could be good without God.  But, even if we were to accept this account, the question of being does not necessarily implicate the question of any individual creature's belief.  One could conceivably still be good, or do good, without believing in God's existence, even if the believer insists that goodness has its origin in God's nature, which is unknown to or denied by the non-believer.

Yes, certainly. The title of the thread was open-ended, though, so I thought I would explain why, in Western thought, God and morality are constructed as connected (which you've just explained much better than I did. Well done). The last sentence is a very good summary of my beliefs on this subject, since obviously it's not only possible but downright common to lead an upstanding life without having conventional religious beliefs of any kind.

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As for other conceptions of the divine that do not attribute to the divine goodness or intentional consciousness, such conceptions certainly exist, and indeed require that moral goodness has some other origin.  It's still a perfectly reasonable thing to discuss, at least.

I'm thinking here particularly of Shinto, in which (if you're not familiar with it, since I know you have a subspecialty other than Japan) 'gods and animals are free' (pace Orwell); Shinto 'deities' are perceived as acting in a manner similar to wild beasts (understandable, since it's a nature/fertility/'Dionysian' religion), less a power over human existence than a symbiotic existence that can be extremely dangerous to humans if upset, since the gods precisely are not bound by morality and operate on a basis at least partially of tit-for-tat. Indeed in some Shintos (being a folk religion that is about two and a half thousand years old but doesn't have any written scriptures from the first millennium or so, it's the sort of religion that it's even easier to treat as a complex of related but distinct belief systems and cults than most) humans are treated as the gods' 'prey' (these Shintos tend to be more...fatalistic than most; sometimes a god is even treated as having a 'destined prey' whom they must 'consume', either in some spiritual sense or just by the god's attributes being the prey's eventual cause of death, to the exclusion of other humans). It's worth noting that as a Christian I actually don't see any particular reason to disbelieve in the 神 (kami, the word that I'm translating as small-g god) and as a literary anthropologist it is in fact easier and more worthwhile to believe in them at least for purposes of my work; I just can't attribute to them actual divinity, strictly defined.

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As for Andrew's comments about thought and the materialist assumptions behind them, I think the argument he is making rather goes something like this (and please correct me Andrew if I'm wrong):  What we know to be "seeing" and "thinking" are invariably processes that require a nervous system and a brain structure of a certain complexity, and thus we cannot really conceive of anything that we could properly call "seeing" and "thought" that does not involve these material preconditions.  If God is supposed to be a spiritual being who does not have material existence, then either God does not really "see" or "think," and such activities can only be metaphorically applied to him or her or it, or there is simply no such being as the God spoken of by the Christian scriptural traditions that attribute states such as consciousness and will to him.  It's not an argument that necessarily makes unwarranted assumptions about God, but rather an argument about the nature of sensation and consciousness as we can conceive of them, and how far, or whether at all, we can attribute these processes to supposedly non-material beings.  

Oh, I'm not denying at all that 'seeing' and 'thinking' as they apply to God (or any souls without bodies, however conceived of) are at the most analogous to seeing and thinking as we understand them. The parenthetical remark at the end of my post was poorly-phrased. What I was wondering was if it might be questionable to attempt, in this instance, to problematize that analogy, especially if there isn't a better analogy to be put forward. (We could simply make up new terms for the things that God does that are, or that seem, analogous to 'perception' and 'thought process' but I think as long as we all understand what the analogies are there to do there isn't really any need to.)
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« Reply #24 on: January 06, 2012, 11:48:35 pm »
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Forgive me, but I remain mystified as to how one could possibly define any kind of absolute as opposed to subjective morality contra God in the event of God's existence. Again, if God has the position with regards to the universe that He's constructed as having in Western thought. If it's otherwise I don't honestly understand why we would even be talking about this.

I don't really understand how this argument is different than "that's just part of God and we know it is"?

With response to Andrew, I'm also mystified as to why exactly one would apply the standards of the universe to God, in general. Asking why features of the physical universe don't apply to God is preassuming a materialistic outlook that doesn't hold water when God comes into the picture. We might as well ask how God can see the entirety of the universe when He hasn't got an optic nerve or retina. It presupposes a materialist conclusion. (It also presupposes the absolute and universal truth of the current Western construct of what constitutes 'thought', but I'd rather not get into that.)

Without judging God using any standard related to our observation of existence (material or otherwise), how do you arrive at any position about God?  How does your own argument here not demand you take no position on the God matter?
« Last Edit: January 06, 2012, 11:56:44 pm by Alcon »Logged

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