Saturday, February 16, 2008

Positivism and Poetry

During that debate featuring Christopher Hitchens that I went to a few weeks ago, about the existence of God, he mentioned in passing that two writers (a British journalist and a Polish/American humorist) had an amusingly succinct debate on the concept of “the Chosen People” that went something like this:

How odd
Of God
To choose
The Jews

To which the equally brief retort was:

Not odd
Of God
Annoy ’im

These poems also serve as a tiny reminder of a fact that seems fairly obvious to me but that is sometimes contested by highly intelligent people on both sides of the religion/anti-religion divide (oddly, to my mind): “God” is not a meaningless word (Hitchens agrees and tried to prevent the moderator from leading the debate down that road at one point, dreading his opponent’s lengthy, praise-filled definition of God).

I don’t think we’d be having conversations like the ones implied by my blog entries this month or comprehending poems like the (highly efficient) ones above if “God” were just some meaningless jibber-jabber along the lines of “abracadabra.” It suggests to most listeners something along the lines of “intelligent creator-force at work in the universe, undergirding existence, possibly shaping morality.” Most everyone agrees on this, I think, regardless of whether anything exists that actually fits that definition or physically could fulfill that role.

But in the first quarter of the twentieth century, around the same time that that first poem was being written — and around the same time that Karl Popper was arguing, basically correctly, that useful claims ought to be in principle testable and falsifiable — some in the philosophical movement called positivism argued that a claim such as “God loves the institution of marriage” is not merely untestable but literally meaningless, since it cannot be tested. They claimed to have no idea what the “God” part of that sentence refers to, since it is nothing that can be detected in observable reality and is therefore, they argued, just noise.

Oddly enough, since this argument seems so resolutely atheist (agnostic?), I have heard essentially the same argument advanced — sometimes by religion-friendly Jewish people (riffing a bit too much, I think, on the traditional idea that God is complex and ambiguous and mysterious) — as a reason that one cannot be an atheist, since you cannot conclusively deny the existence of something that you can’t even pin down and fully describe.

Combining these two positions, Rabbi Sherwin Wine coined the term “ignosticism,” the view that useful debate about God and God’s existence cannot currently occur since we do not have any meaningful definition of the crucial term (my companion at the Hitchens debate, Daniel Radosh, is basically an ignostic, he says, and in a way so is my arch-materialist mathematician friend Chuck Blake).

But despite the vast amounts of brain power that have gone into formulating the positivist/ignostic position, I think it’s as wrong as saying that we cannot understand the sentence “I checked in the closet, and there was no boogeyman.” All words are at least a little ambiguous, as was often noted by Wittgenstein (who coincidentally or not looks a bit like one of this month’s Lolita Bar debaters, math buff John Derbyshire). Wittgenstein, of course, made this point around the same time that the positivists and Popper were doing their respective things (sometimes all in the same room in face to face conversations). Despite the inescapable ambiguity, though, we manage to carry on having mostly-meaningful conversations.

So I say (ambiguously or not): There is no evidence of a God, and therefore God very, very likely does not exist — just like unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

If this disqualifies me as a positivist, I can live with that. Incidentally, if some think it strictly speaking disqualifies me as an atheist (since so many people wrongly insist that one must be 100% certain to be an atheist, as if any non-moron is ever 100% certain of anything), that’s fine, too — I don’t care too much about hair-splitting labels. Still no God, folks, which is the important thing.


Jacob said...


On a related point, another riposte, the provenance of which escapes me, went:

But no so odd

As those who chose

A Jewish god

But spurn the Jews.

It’s clever enough, I suppose, but of decidedly mixed appeal to a Jewish atheist.

Jacob T. Levy said...

I don’t know who that other Jacob is, but I was about to post the same thing [except that the word at the end of the last line should be "choose," not "chose"]. The “spurn” reply is the one I’ve always heard; the “goyim” one is new to me.

Jacob T. Levy said...

According to Kristol via google:

the initial doggerel is from William Norman Ewer, and the “spurn” reply from Cecil Browne.

Laura said...

Since it’s a slow night at the Reference Desk, I might as well do what I’m paid to do and contribute that the “goyim/annoyim” retort is attributed to Leo Rosten, humorist and author of The Joys of Yiddish. Most reliable sources attribute the first bit of doggerel to Ewer, in a 1924 collection entitled The Week-End Book. Hitchens quotes the exchange in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere (2000), but he attributes Ewer’s lines to Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover.