A Q&A with Peter J. Steinberger

The Problem with God

This week our featured book is The Problem with God: Why Atheists, True Believers, and Even Agnostics Must All Be Wrong, by Peter J. Steinberger. Today, we have a Q&A with Professor Steinberger, in which he addresses objections to his argument, discusses the “reassurance” offered at the end of his book, and explains why his conclusion should be as troubling to atheists and agnostics as to theists.

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Question: In The Problem with God, you seek to understand the psychology of god-belief, and, in doing so, you explore the beliefs of ordinary folk. But is that the best approach? If we want to ask questions about god’s existence, why should we rely on ordinary folk? The question of God’s existence may seem unanswerable to me, but, then, so do questions about theoretical physics. Just as questions of physics are best decided by experts, by physicists, why shouldn’t we look to relevant experts when addressing questions of ontology?

Peter Steinberger: For the most part, in questions of science, the problem is not simply or primarily, or not really, conceptual/logical. The problem is largely a lack of information. So we do experiments or field investigations or calculations in order to get more and more information about how things operate in the world. The problem with God is not like this at all. The problem is not that we lack information. The problem is that our thinking is confused, in the sense of being self-contradictory.

I reject your distinction between psychology (very broadly conceived!) and ontology. The expert in ontology does not seek to describe how things in the world really are. Rather, he or she seeks to describe what we must believe about how things in the world really are if we are to be at all coherent, which is to say self-consistent. There are, in my view, no other ‘experts’ in ontology. In this latter respect, I believe that I follow (inter alia) Kant, Quine, Strawson, Putnam, the so-called Pittsburgh School and a great many others. The thing-in-itself is and will always be inaccessible. The goal of ontological inquiry, rather, is to reconstruct those metaphysical commitments that are and must be implicit in our engagement with the world and without which that engagement – thoughts, beliefs, theories, intentions, actions, etc. – would be unintelligible and incoherent. I see my book as a (perhaps crude) attempt to follow what I believe to be the fundamental aim of philosophical analysis, namely, to reconstruct rationally our own shared conceptual apparatus, i.e., to be clear about what we really think, and to do so in order avoid contradicting ourselves, hence to avoid thinking and talking nonsense (which is what self-contradiction is). Theism, atheism and agnostic are all examples of self-contradictory nonsense – or so I argue in the book.

Question: Your argument rests on an endorsement of (assumption of?) a cause-and-effect world. And, at one point, you make the argument that this endorsement is inevitable and (therefore) universal. But throughout the history of science, what seemed like common-sense ideas of space and time were forced to change drastically in response to new findings, like those of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo (among many others). It seems possible, if not likely, that similarly fundamental parts of our conception of the universe will be supplanted by new ideas. Given the centrality of cause-and-effect assumptions in your argument, does the possibility of a fundamental shift in our understanding of reality worry you?

Peter Steinberger: I am unaware of any engagement with the world at any time or any place – ordinary or otherwise – that doesn’t implicitly presuppose a commitment to the belief that nothing can come from nothing and that every effect must be preceded in time by a cause. Scientific engagement with the world is, in this respect, no different. Science is (apart from the job of classification or categorization) the activity of pursuing cause-and-effect relationships. Such an activity presupposes a world composed of cause-and-effect relationships. Given this, I simply don’t believe that any scientist really thinks – deep down – that something (e.g., the big bang) can come from nothing.

As an analogy, imagine, for instance, that an expert claimed to prove that the law of non-contradiction is false. Such a claim would be unintelligible and incoherent since the very idea of proof presupposes the law of non-contradiction. And similarly/analogously, if the scientist claims to be able to explain the world without recourse to the logic of cause-and-effect, such a claim would be unintelligible and incoherent since the very idea of scientific explanation presupposes that nothing can come from nothing and that every effect must be preceded in time by a cause. Faithfully employing the logic of cause-and-effect is what scientific explanation is all about.

Question: In your final chapter, you claim to offer reassurance. But how reassured should I be? Given our total ignorance of what’s in play here (the not-quite-‘something’ that’s apart from the world of cause-and-effect), why should I think I’ll find value there? Yes, it’s humbling that there will forever be something outside of my intellectual reach. But beyond that? Can we be confident that your “not-quite-‘something’ that’s apart from the world of cause-and-effect” gives us any kind of hope?

Peter Steinberger: The ‘reassurance’ that I offer at the end of The Problem with God is, indeed, the thinnest, tiniest, most furtive, fugitive and elusive kind of reassurance imaginable. It is, of course, impossible to know – or, rather, to ‘know’ with the scariest of scare-quotes, since knowledge, as we understand it, has nothing to do with it – whether the ‘something else’ to which I allude is good or bad or benevolent or cruel or indifferent or vicious or saintly or banal or whatever. But worse, it is impossible to know if predicates such as these would even be apt. Still worse, it is impossible to know if the very notion of predication is at all pertinent. Indeed, it is doubtful that even the predicate of existence is apt – since, as I argue, to predicate existence is to be committed to the logic of cause-and-effect. And it is for this reason that I insist that the very phrase ‘something else’ is and must be wrong. The only thing that could be right – or, rather, ‘right’ – is completely and entirely unutterable/unthinkable. And so the reassurance that I propose is simply that the sheer horror and terror of a world of meaningless, endless, infinite cause-and-effect cannot be our destiny – or at least not for the reasons we might think.

Question: You’re clear that you want to reject both belief-in-god and also atheism. However, would you agree that your argument will likely be far less troubling to the atheists than to the believers?

Peter Steinberger: I certainly understand that, as an empirical matter, my argument will be less troubling to atheists than to theists. But it shouldn’t be. My view is that atheism – and agnosticism as well – are every bit as incoherent as theism. If readers don’t get that point, then in a sense they’ve really missed my argument.

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