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God’s Outside the System March 1, 2010

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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A common argument defending God’s existence is that god somehow transcends the normal bounds of existence, which is to say that god exists beyond existence.  I think this argument is weak and fails in several ways.

1.  Systems theory

There is only one real system in the world – everything.  Now this everything is not a material everything, it literally includes everything that can possibly influence or be influenced by the elements within the system.  Therefore God is necessarily part of the “world” system because presumably (in order to be of any interest whatsoever) god both influences and is influenced by what goes on.  This definition of influence is the only meaningful way to put boundaries on existence and transcends materialism or whatever.  If it exists, it exists.  Simple as that.

2.  Biblical backing

While not something I have dug into in great depth, I have yet to see a direct biblical description of god as being outside of creation in a meaningful way.  Sure there are references that could be interpreted that way but these are far from convincing (although I am open to being corrected).  In fact the bible seems to me to say the exact opposite.  The entire old testament descriptions of god clearly challenge this notion.

3.  Evidence

Assuming god somehow transcends creation, it seems a fools errand to try and demonstrate god’s existence in any meaningful sense.  You might even say a god that transcends creation could not even be said to exist or not exist rendering the entire discussion as a bit of a joke.  There is certainly no evidence that anything can exist in the way that god is suggested to exist.

4.  Wordplay

It is very easy to say anything you like.  I can talk about a square circle for example.  The concept itself has no backing other than linguistics however.  I could even argue that square circles exist outside of the universe where the rules of geometry don’t work.  It sounds superficially compelling but it is utter nonsense.  I see no reason to take the notion of existence transcending existence as anything different.


Conclusion

I believe that the notion of a god transcending existence is simply wordplay and not built on any strong theoretical or evidential foundation.

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Comments»

1. Damian - March 2, 2010

Hey, good to see a blog entry after such a long hiatus. Last year I had a long and fruitless (pun intended) conversation with Dale about this topic on his blog. Check it out. It was after this that I realised that I was wasting my life away discussing issues of God, reality and existence and became decidedly disinterested in transparently incoherent square-circle wordplay arguments.

2. Damian - March 2, 2010

(starting at comment #9 in the linked blog post above)

3. Dale Campbell - March 2, 2010

Hey Ian/Damian,
Although talk about God (or even the idea of God) would naturally be an inexhaustible thing, the first thing that I really do think we can comprehend/apprehend about God (or even the idea of God) would be what God is not.

The basic monotheistic conception of God is that God is not the stuff we’re made of or looking at, and that everything we see, listen to, smell, taste or feel is not itself God.

1. Systems Theory
First, I’m sceptical whether we can even use systems theory to analogously relate ‘all things’ (which we don’t –and potentially cannot ever– know completely) to a ‘system’. We’ve no clue if all phenomena we currently observe is 99% of such a ‘system’ or less than .000000000001% of such a ‘system’. I genuinely fail to see how this concept of an imagined ‘system’ contributes to talk about God.

I’d also want to add that such an (imaginary/conceptual) ‘super-system’ (SS) would necessary differ in its essence from all systems found within the SS. The circulatory system is sustained by systems which encompass it, which are sustained by other systems… (insert regress here) The thing to see here is that every system which we can describe (anywhere near completely) will always be a system which not only can be but must be influenced by something outside the system.

Positing a ‘super-system’ which is in need of no originating, sustaining, developing or other kinds of influence from outside the system is to posit a system unlike any/all systems we observe. Reality appears to be contingent ‘all the way down’…

2. Biblical Backing
No need for me to go there for this discussion, really.

3. Evidence
I think my comments under ‘systems theory’ are equally relevant here.

4. Wordplay
(this also relates to Damian’s comment)
I’ll push back here that we ALL use words, so please don’t pretend that some of us are ‘playing’ with words and others are using them normally. Language conveys meaning imperfectly, and even science requires metaphor.

If God (as monotheistic conceptions hold) is indeed the transcendent being who originates, sustains and completes (all three of these words are massively metaphorical, of course) reality, then conversations about this God (or the concept) will naturally have the (as I say, inexhaustible) potential for words to be used for description/discussion.

The simplest word has always been Creator – but then we encounter questions such as ‘what created the creator’ – for which we have to eventually draw a distinction between things that are created and things that are not created.

So what if we have to talk about words? That’s part of working toward mutual understanding? (i.e. what do you mean when you use the word ‘x’??)

4. Ian - March 2, 2010

@Damian:

Call me a sucker for punishment but I still seem to enjoy these discussions 😉

5. Ian - March 2, 2010

@Dale:

Although talk about God (or even the idea of God) would naturally be an inexhaustible thing, the first thing that I really do think we can comprehend/apprehend about God (or even the idea of God) would be what God is not.

I don’t think it is inexhaustible. God either is something or god isn’t.

The basic monotheistic conception of God is that God is not the stuff we’re made of or looking at, and that everything we see, listen to, smell, taste or feel is not itself God.

That doesn’t actually say anything.

1. Systems Theory

You misunderstand systems theory and are using the colloquial use of the word system. A proper system is defined as the set of all things that can influence things within that system. All proper systems are closed by definition which means the only real system is everything. If another system exists we cannot possibly know of it’s existence because knowing that would influence our behaviour and necessarily be part of our system. There may be infinite different systems but they are necessarily 100% completely and utterly unrelated to each other.

To see if god is part of our system we need only ask two questions (actually either one is sufficient on their own but bear with me):

1. Can god (however defined) influence anything in this system?
2. Can god (however defined) be influenced by anything in this system?

If you answer yes in any way whatsoever then god is part of our system, by definition.

Positing a ’super-system’ which is in need of no originating, sustaining, developing or other kinds of influence from outside the system is to posit a system unlike any/all systems we observe.

Correct – because we haven’t found any boundaries to our system yet. It may either be self contained or infinite, there are no other options.

Reality appears to be contingent ‘all the way down’…

Not quite – reality appears to be contingent ‘as far as we can tell’. Small but very significant change.

4. Wordplay

I’ll push back here that we ALL use words, so please don’t pretend that some of us are ‘playing’ with words and others are using them normally. Language conveys meaning imperfectly, and even science requires metaphor.

Indeed but there are degrees here. Talking about an electron is a very precise concept relatively speaking. Talking about god is a very imprecise concept. The two words cannot be used in the same way.

If God (as monotheistic conceptions hold) is indeed the transcendent being who originates, sustains and completes (all three of these words are massively metaphorical, of course) reality, then conversations about this God (or the concept) will naturally have the (as I say, inexhaustible) potential for words to be used for description/discussion.

At what point does the impreciseness render the discussion meaningless? I would think “massively metaphorical” is probably a good criterion lol.

The simplest word has always been Creator

Really? I think it is a pretty complex word.

– but then we encounter questions such as ‘what created the creator’ – for which we have to eventually draw a distinction between things that are created and things that are not created.

What created the creator has nothing to do with the definition of a creator.

So what if we have to talk about words? That’s part of working toward mutual understanding? (i.e. what do you mean when you use the word ‘x’??)

Oh I am all about definitions and more importantly definitions that are as precise as possible. We don’t have anything like a precise definition of god so discussions about the entire concept are necessarily vague. When we can properly understand what something really is, we can explore it with meaning. When we don’t, anything goes.

6. Dale Campbell - March 2, 2010

Ian,
Permit me to focus on one (hopefully central) point for the moment?
I say “The basic monotheistic conception of God is that God is not the stuff we’re made of or looking at, and that everything we see, listen to, smell, taste or feel is not itself God”, to which you reply “That doesn’t actually say anything.”

Can I press you to be specific as to why/how it (in your view) fails to say anything? It seems to me that it says quite a bit about what God is not.

7. Ian - March 3, 2010

I think it doesn’t say anything for three main reasons:

Firstly you are essentially saying that god is not something we can experience via our senses. This is basically saying god is nothing from our point of view.

Secondly (and slightly ironically given the first reason) there is still an essentially infinite set of possible “things” (in the loosest possible sense of the word) that meet the criteria given because once you rule out it being part of the world we know, anything is possible.

Finally this definition doesn’t get you even one tiny step closer to an ability to demonstrate the concepts relationship with reality.

8. Dale Campbell - March 3, 2010

Ian,
To be fair, I think you’d have to admit there’s a difference between a) whether or not the statement communicates meaning (which it does), and b) you having subsequent questions with the meaning the statement communicates (which I’ll respond to now).

Firstly you are essentially saying that god is not something we can experience via our senses. This is basically saying god is nothing from our point of view.

Actually it doesn’t even mention anything to do with senses. It is merely a distinguishing statement that desks, trees, squirrels and supernovae are not God. The question of how God is experienced/sensed, and/or the relationship of God’s existence to our senses is a subsequent question. A fine question to ask, but not directly related.

Secondly (and slightly ironically given the first reason) there is still an essentially infinite set of possible “things” (in the loosest possible sense of the word) that meet the criteria given because once you rule out it being part of the world we know, anything is possible.

I thought atheists stayed away from such nebulous, idealistic notions such as ‘infinity’? 🙂 But again, such an ‘infinite set’ (or ‘super system’) is purely an imagined, conceptual thing, and not simply “the world we know” (we ‘know’ the world finitely, not infinitely!). Therefore, we don’t have criteria by which to insist that a) the universe is a closed system or b) that a God must be a part of the universe-system. If this means that anything is possible, so be it. If it’s true it’s true. We just simply cannot say, given our finite knowledge of the world.

Finally this definition doesn’t get you even one tiny step closer to an ability to demonstrate the concepts relationship with reality.

Again, our notions of ‘reality’ are finite, and we don’t ‘know’ reality completely, so we don’t have some objective standard against which to test the boundaries or open/closed-ness of the world.

9. Ian - March 3, 2010

To be fair, I think you’d have to admit there’s a difference between a) whether or not the statement communicates meaning (which it does)

Does the phrase “a square circle” communicate meaning?

Actually it doesn’t even mention anything to do with senses. It is merely a distinguishing statement that desks, trees, squirrels and supernovae are not God.

A carrot is also not a desk, tree, squirrel or supernova so that doesn’t help us much.

The question of how God is experienced/sensed, and/or the relationship of God’s existence to our senses is a subsequent question. A fine question to ask, but not directly related.

I agree this is a shift in focus but it is related in the following sense: For the concept of god to have meaning we must be able to relate it somehow to our impression of reality. If we cannot relate to the concept, it can’t really have any meaning to us can it? And this is especially true when you say what it isn’t rather than what it is.

I thought atheists stayed away from such nebulous, idealistic notions such as ‘infinity’?

It’s a strictly defined mathematical concept. Sure it is pretty mind boggling in consequences but it is very clearly defined.

But again, such an ‘infinite set’ (or ’super system’) is purely an imagined, conceptual thing, and not simply “the world we know” (we ‘know’ the world finitely, not infinitely!).

You missed my point which was that saying god is not something we know of doesn’t narrow down what it actually is in any meaningful way.

Therefore, we don’t have criteria by which to insist that a) the universe is a closed system or b) that a God must be a part of the universe-system.

Actually we do, by the definition of a proper system. You are putting an arbitrary boundary on the system and are insisting god is outside the system. The boundary itself however is imaginary and not based on anything.

If this means that anything is possible, so be it. If it’s true it’s true. We just simply cannot say, given our finite knowledge of the world.

Again you missed my point which is that if anything is possible then nothing has any meaning.

Again, our notions of ‘reality’ are finite, and we don’t ‘know’ reality completely, so we don’t have some objective standard against which to test the boundaries or open/closed-ness of the world.

We don’t need to know reality completely to test whether god is within the boundaries of the system. If god can somehow influence or be influenced by the system in even the smallest way, then god is by definition part of the system.

10. Dale Campbell - March 3, 2010

Ian,

There’s so much I could respond to, but I don’t want the conversation to be too atomised. I think a helpful point for us to focus on is my challenge that we don’t have any complete knowledge of any closed systems. Every ‘little’ system is contingent upon larger systems, and the largest system we know (the universe) is imagined to be contingent on a multiversal system. It’s all ‘open’ all the way up (or down, so to speak).

Both ‘the system’ and ‘infinity’ are not only known partially/finitely, but more importantly are conceptual and thus could be said to be inferred upon the world rather than extrapolated from observation. Again, in which experiment/observation do we see the total (and closed!) sytem or ‘infinity’? (btw, ‘closed system’ and ‘infinite system’ are in tension with one another, methinks)

And if we don’t know the ‘boundaries’ of reality (which we don’t), then how can we ‘test’ whether God is within them or not?

Would it help to re-word the suggestion in terms of God being the ultimate System in which all systems operate (or ‘on which’ all systems are grounded – or in which ‘our system’ operates)?

I really do hear what you’re saying about influence demanding inclusion in the system. I get it. But I maintain that we don’t (indeed, probably can’t) know that our world is a closed system.

11. Ian - March 3, 2010

I think a helpful point for us to focus on is my challenge that we don’t have any complete knowledge of any closed systems.

I don’t challenge that, in fact I agree entirely.

Again, in which experiment/observation do we see the total (and closed!) sytem or ‘infinity’?

Your first point renders this point irrelevant. Having said that, ultimately the system must either be closed or infinite. This is really just another way of saying the system is either finite or infinite. There aren’t any other options.

And if we don’t know the ‘boundaries’ of reality (which we don’t), then how can we ‘test’ whether God is within them or not?

Because if god is not within the boundaries (be they finite or infinite) of our system then god is completely and utterly irrelevant to the system. Two things in different proper systems cannot inter-relate.

Would it help to re-word the suggestion in terms of God being the ultimate System in which all systems operate (or ‘on which’ all systems are grounded – or in which ‘our system’ operates)?

That could help but you need to be very precise with language – those three options are quite distinct. Also remember that those subsystems you talk about are not proper systems – subsystems are open systems and arbitrarily defined so saying god is the “supersystem” is missing the point. I suppose there is a trichotomy here: god can either be

1. the entire system
2. part of the system (i.e. a subsystem)
3. Irrelevant to the system

Since you have defined god by what it isn’t, we can rule out 1. It is therefore either 2 or 3.

I really do hear what you’re saying about influence demanding inclusion in the system. I get it. But I maintain that we don’t (indeed, probably can’t) know that our world is a closed system.

We have no idea where the boundaries lie (or even what the nature of the boundaries are) but that doesn’t change the fact that it is either closed or infinite. Remember an open system is really just an arbitrarily defined subsystem of a bigger system.

12. Dale Campbell - March 3, 2010

Ian,

ultimately the system must either be closed or infinite. This is really just another way of saying the system is either finite or infinite. There aren’t any other options.

Erm… first, there are other options than closed or infinite: finite and open. The system (by which I mean our universe) could perfectly logically be dependent for its origin and continuation on an influencing force – basically exactly like all mini-systems we see. I can hear you say ‘but if it influences, it is in the system’ – what precedent to we have for saying this??? again, your ‘un-influence-able system’ definition is based on nothing we know evidentially, no?

Two things in different proper systems cannot inter-relate.

How do you evidentially know this?

I suppose there is a trichotomy here: god can either be

1. the entire system
2. part of the system (i.e. a subsystem)
3. Irrelevant to the system

Since you have defined god by what it isn’t, we can rule out 1. It is therefore either 2 or 3.

No, I think it’s perfectly logical to have other options, such as 4. creating/upholding the system…

Remember an open system is really just an arbitrarily defined subsystem of a bigger system.

would you agree that our universe is just such a ‘arbitrarily defined subsystem’? how, to put it another way, do we know that our universe is a) a closed/infinite system or b) an open/finite system? we don’t know nearly enough about our system to say a), and i reckon everything appears to point to b).

13. Ian - March 4, 2010

Erm… first, there are other options than closed or infinite: finite and open.

A finite and open system is merely a subsystem.

The system (by which I mean our universe)

And this is perhaps the core of our problem: our universe is not necessarily a proper system.

could perfectly logically be dependent for its origin and continuation on an influencing force – basically exactly like all mini-systems we see. I can hear you say ‘but if it influences, it is in the system’ – what precedent to we have for saying this???

It is simple logic which expresses itself in systems theory. Take a (sub)system such as a single human. Now we know that we cannot describe everything that happens in that system without referring to something outside that single human (including environment, other humans, resources, etc) so therefore that human is not a proper system, it is a subsystem of a bigger system. We might say that the system is the earth. Again however we cannot describe everything that happens inside the earth system without referring to something outside that system. Etc.

It is worth noting that, while I am using spatial examples above, a subsystem’s boundary is actually defined by three issues: spatial, conceptual and scale. Conceptual issues refer to the nature of what is considered. Talking about our universe might be a materialistic boundary creating a subsystem that doesn’t refer to non-materialistic things (should they exist). Scale boundaries are when you consider a human as an element rather than the atoms that make it up.

again, your ‘un-influence-able system’ definition is based on nothing we know evidentially, no?

Not true. A system simply includes everything that is in the system, defined by what can influence or be influenced by it. We have no evidence to suggest our universe is either closed or infinite but it ultimately must be one of the two.

How do you evidentially know this?

It is by simple definition. If two systems can interrelate, then they are both part of a larger system.

No, I think it’s perfectly logical to have other options, such as 4. creating/upholding the system…

If you have a system and something that creates or upholds that system then the proper system is both the system and the creator/upholder. The original system is just a subsystem.

would you agree that our universe is just such a ‘arbitrarily defined subsystem’?

It depends. If by universe you mean the 4D space that we know that stretches out from the big bang, then almost certainly this is an arbitrarily defined system. We could of course define the universe as the proper system we find ourself in and then no, the boundary is not arbitrary.

how, to put it another way, do we know that our universe is a) a closed/infinite system or b) an open/finite system?

It must be either closed or infinite. If it is open and finite then we are talking about an arbitrarily defined subsystem. The aspects outside that subsystem that contribute are part of a larger system including those aspects.

we don’t know nearly enough about our system to say a), and i reckon everything appears to point to b).

No, it is a true dichotomy. Either a proper system is closed & finite or it is infinite. A proper system cannot by definition be open so b is not an option. Our “universe” may well be open and finite but that isn’t relevant.

14. Dale Campbell - March 4, 2010

Attempting to summarise:

So you admit that your position is not based on any scientific evidence or observations of any closed or infinite sytems, but is based on conceptual logic (‘systems theory’)?

15. Ian - March 4, 2010

By definition we cannot observe a closed or infinite system except from inside that system. That is kind of the point!

Having said that, this aspect of systems theory is trivial to test since it predicts that every subsystem we observe will not be a closed system. And sure enough we have never observed a closed subsystem so it has not been falsified.

This isn’t some controversial or complicated topic – it is very simple and straightforward. The only stumbling block as far as I can see is your reluctance to put god within our system and that makes no sense to me since that is essentially saying god is irrelevant.

16. Dale Campbell - March 4, 2010

For me, the monotheistic position is simple/un-complicated too – God created and sustains the world.
And saying that God or something is ‘in our system’ seems hard to do as long as we don’t know whether or not it is a subsystem or a super/infinite/’closed’ system…
Can you agree that we don’t know this?
In other words, if you’re positing that the universe or ‘our system’ is a system that is either closed or infinite, then could not someone just as logically claim that God is the ultimate closed/infinite system ‘in’ which we exist?
Whilst I understand how systems theory works, it seems our experimental knowledge of the world (both macroscopic and microscopic) will never conclusively demonstrate that our world is a closed or infinite system. God will always be a logical possibility (and I’d even say that the ‘chain of open-ness’ [both ‘up’ and ‘down’] would suggest that the world is contingent).

17. Ian - March 4, 2010

For me, the monotheistic position is simple/un-complicated too – God created and sustains the world.

I’ll resist biting on that one for the moment 🙂

And saying that God or something is ‘in our system’ seems hard to do as long as we don’t know whether or not it is a subsystem or a super/infinite/’closed’ system…

It is very easy to do. Does your god influence anything that we could possibly know about? If yes, then your god is part of our system. It doesn’t matter if the system is infinte or closed then. (incidentally the term supersystem doesn’t really mean anything to me).

Can you agree that we don’t know this?

Of course, I’ve never said otherwise. It isn’t doesn’t really matter though – what is important is that it must be one of the two.

In other words, if you’re positing that the universe or ‘our system’ is a system that is either closed or infinite, then could not someone just as logically claim that God is the ultimate closed/infinite system ‘in’ which we exist?

People can claim whatever they want and if you want to use god to name the proper system we exist in then that is fine. However it then makes no sense to define god by what it isn’t because there is nothing (relevant) that it isn’t. That feels a bit deistic though?

Whilst I understand how systems theory works, it seems our experimental knowledge of the world (both macroscopic and microscopic) will never conclusively demonstrate that our world is a closed or infinite system

I tend to agree from a practical point of view although it is, at least in principle, possible to show that a system is closed.

God will always be a logical possibility

No one has ever disputed that point. However I don’t think most proponents of god would be satisfied with stopping there 🙂

(and I’d even say that the ‘chain of open-ness’ [both ‘up’ and ‘down’] would suggest that the world is contingent).

I’m not sure I follow this in the context of this discussion?

18. Dale Campbell - March 4, 2010

Ian,
Can you admit that precisely because we don’t know the ultimate nature of our world, ‘systems theory’ does nothing for or against the monotheistic concept of God?

A couple of further things about the monotheistic notion of God – which may help?

God is said to be the source of all existence, so full of existence that God can give it away freely to all created things. Thus God would be ‘more than real’ and ‘more than existing’.

Whereas Deism sees God as acting once to create and not acting upon creation again (hence the notion of a ‘distant’ god), Monotheism holds that God not only creates, but sustains creation – as well as acting in various kinds of ways to transform creation.

So the Monotheistic God is said to be a) distinct from the world, but b) still able to act upon the world in various ways. With our ‘subsystems’, we see one act upon another without blurring the distinction between the two subsystems. Humans act upon one another without becoming one another. Yes, this inter-personal acting is part of a larger system (communal/social/biological), but at the subsystem level, they do act upon each other and remain distinct.

So systems theory, given what we know about the world, is perfectly compatible with deism, monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, etc. (some form of agent(s) distinct from the world, yet acting upon it).

19. Ian - March 5, 2010

Can you admit that precisely because we don’t know the ultimate nature of our world, ’systems theory’ does nothing for or against the monotheistic concept of God?

What it does is dispel the myth that there is any proper meaning to “outside” reality or “outside” the system. Saying god is outside of reality for example is not an overly useful statement because it either means “reality” is an arbitrarily defined boundary or god has no relationship to “reality”.

@distinction about monotheism/deism: I’ll leave that for another discussion 🙂

So the Monotheistic God is said to be a) distinct from the world, but b) still able to act upon the world in various ways.

What do you mean by the “world”?

With our ’subsystems’, we see one act upon another without blurring the distinction between the two subsystems. Humans act upon one another without becoming one another.

They are certainly physically distinguishable in terms of patterns but it is important to note that a human considered as a proper system simply wouldn’t function. Therefore, although useful in abstract terms to help describe what we see, a human is an arbitrarily described subsystem. From certain points of view (either large scale or small scale) the existence of a human is incidental at best and the universe could easily be described in full without any reference to the human subsystem.

Yes, this inter-personal acting is part of a larger system (communal/social/biological), but at the subsystem level, they do act upon each other and remain distinct.

My point is that the subsystem level is arbitrary and based on convenience and our object based view of the world. Their distinctness is a matter of arbitrary definition.

So systems theory, given what we know about the world, is perfectly compatible with deism, monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, etc. (some form of agent(s) distinct from the world, yet acting upon it).

Of course it is, provided that deity (or whatever) is part of the proper system that we are part of. If you recall, my initial post was dispelling the myth that god is outside the system. My point is that if a god exists then it is either part of (or all of) the system. This arbitrary barrier between us and it has no particular meaning.

20. Dale Campbell - March 5, 2010

Ian,
Our knowledge of our ‘world’, our ‘system’, our ‘universe’ is such that all of those forms of theism are perfectly possible – even those forms of theism which maintain the distinction between God and the world/system/universe.

The main thing I’m not happy to say about God is that God is “part” of some”thing”. The monotheistic God is, by definition, the ultimate reality that gives existence to all other real things. I’m happy to say that God acts upon and ‘in’ our system, though – maybe that would help our discussion?

Monotheism holds that God’s reality (loosely called ‘heaven’) transcends ours (loosely called ‘earth’), but is also ‘joined’ to it, in ‘relationship’ to it, and active within it. A kind of over-lapping and inter-locking, so to speak. And I’m sure that we could multiply examples in our system of over-lapping (sub)systems; so it shouldn’t be hard to conceptualise (and nothing we observe in our arbitrarily defined reality could ever demonstrate otherwise).

21. Ian - March 5, 2010

Our knowledge of our ‘world’, our ’system’, our ‘universe’ is such that all of those forms of theism are perfectly possible

Of course they are. So are an infinity of other things. The next question (beyond the scope of this discussion) is whether we actually have a reason to suppose it is actually probable, not just possible.

– even those forms of theism which maintain the distinction between God and the world/system/universe.

I would contend that world, system and universe are not (necessarily) synonyms. You need to carefully define what you mean by each term.

The main thing I’m not happy to say about God is that God is “part” of some”thing”.

I realise you aren’t happy with it but I am arguing that you don’t have much choice 🙂 If god is outside a particular “thing” then fine. But all that means is that there is a bigger thing that includes both god and that thing.

The monotheistic God is, by definition, the ultimate reality that gives existence to all other real things.

Those words are still empty concepts to me but that is a discussion for later.

I’m happy to say that God acts upon and ‘in’ our system, though – maybe that would help our discussion?

Perhaps, except that I suspect you won’t accept that in saying that you are saying god is therefore part of the system. You haven’t given me a reason why this isn’t the case except that you don’t like it.

Monotheism holds that God’s reality (loosely called ‘heaven’) transcends ours (loosely called ‘earth’), but is also ‘joined’ to it, in ‘relationship’ to it, and active within it. A kind of over-lapping and inter-locking, so to speak.

If that is your claim then ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ are subsystems of a bigger system. You could call it ‘heaven & earth’ if you like.

And I’m sure that we could multiply examples in our system of over-lapping (sub)systems; so it shouldn’t be hard to conceptualise (and nothing we observe in our arbitrarily defined reality could ever demonstrate otherwise).

There are an infinity of them, because subsystems are arbitrarily defined. I think you want to make the ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ distinction “special” but there is neither need nor justification to do so and it confuses things.

22. Dale Campbell - March 5, 2010

Ian,

“…the world/system/universe.”

I would contend that world, system and universe are not (necessarily) synonyms. You need to carefully define what you mean by each term.

The lack of our ability to precisely define/measure the scope/scale/open-closed-ness/etc. of all of these is kind of precisely my point.

“I’m happy to say that God acts upon and ‘in’ our system, though – maybe that would help our discussion?”

Perhaps, except that I suspect you won’t accept that in saying that you are saying god is therefore part of the system. You haven’t given me a reason why this isn’t the case except that you don’t like it.

It’s not just that I don’t “like” it, it’s just that it fails to account for the largeness of the monotheistic concept of God – his transcendence. Also, that concept of God’s utter freedom to act. Monotheism holds that whilst God dynamically/actively relates to his changing creation, nothing ‘acts’ upon God.

If God were (or even could be) a ‘part’ of a system, then God would be not only able to be ‘acted upon’, but would possibly even be dependent on that system – which is basially to ignore or refuse the monotheistic concept – and, with no logical or observational reason to do so – and with logical reasons (following the infinite regress to it’s logical infinite end) and observational clues (contingency all the way up – and down) to do so.

In short, it looks like the world is caused (as everything seems to have a cause). Nothing we see exists outside of a causal chain/relationship.

23. Ian - March 5, 2010

The lack of our ability to precisely define/measure the scope/scale/open-closed-ness/etc. of all of these is kind of precisely my point.

Then on what basis can you possibly say that god is outside these?

It’s not just that I don’t “like” it, it’s just that it fails to account for the largeness of the monotheistic concept of God – his transcendence.

It doesn’t need to account for it, that isn’t how it works.

Also, that concept of God’s utter freedom to act. Monotheism holds that whilst God dynamically/actively relates to his changing creation, nothing ‘acts’ upon God.

That doesn’t really make sense to me because it implies the state of the “world” has absolutely no bearing on the acts of god. If god’s actions are dependent on the state of the “world” in any way then the world necessarily acts on god via information exchange.

If God were (or even could be) a ‘part’ of a system, then God would be not only able to be ‘acted upon’, but would possibly even be dependent on that system

This is a misunderstanding of system theory.

– which is basially to ignore or refuse the monotheistic concept – and, with no logical or observational reason to do so – and with logical reasons (following the infinite regress to it’s logical infinite end) and observational clues (contingency all the way up – and down) to do so.

In short, it looks like the world is caused (as everything seems to have a cause). Nothing we see exists outside of a causal chain/relationship.

I’d like to take this further (the infinite regress/first cause argument) but first we need to get clarity on this systems issue.

24. Dale - March 6, 2010

agreed re: getting clarity on the systems issue.

My main contention is that our knowledge of the universe is such that we do observe interconnectedness (layers of systems from sub-atomic to cosmological, etc. – as well as having over-lap and relationship from (sub)system to/with (sub)system)…

…but our knowledge of the universe is such that any notions of the ‘whole show’ or ‘everything’ or ‘the total sum of all phenomena’ or ‘the complete, ultimate system’ will always be partial, tentative, speculative, incomplete, etc.

More than this, when it comes to relating our knowledge of the universe to theological propositions, our knowledge is such that (like it or not) many kinds of theism are tenable.

25. Ian - March 8, 2010

My main contention is that our knowledge of the universe is such that we do observe interconnectedness (layers of systems from sub-atomic to cosmological, etc. – as well as having over-lap and relationship from (sub)system to/with (sub)system)…

This much I agree with. Do you also acknowledge that the definitions/boundaries of these subsystems are largely arbitrary?

…but our knowledge of the universe is such that any notions of the ‘whole show’ or ‘everything’ or ‘the total sum of all phenomena’ or ‘the complete, ultimate system’ will always be partial, tentative, speculative, incomplete, etc.

Well in principle it could be complete but I doubt we’ll ever get anywhere near close to it, so for our purposes I agree with this. However it isn’t really an important aspect of this discussion – we don’t need to know everything.

More than this, when it comes to relating our knowledge of the universe to theological propositions, our knowledge is such that (like it or not) many kinds of theism are tenable.

I have never said otherwise and in fact if you think about the nature of this particular conversation, and in particular the original post, I am actually (implicitly) assuming some form of theism is true and then arguing that those who claim their god is outside the system don’t understand systems.

26. Dale Campbell - March 8, 2010

And my point (re the undefinablility of the ‘boundaries’ of the system) is that those who have a problem with a claim of a God ‘outside’ the system don’t understand systems either. The only systems we’ve ever seen are over-lapped with and encompassed-and-encompassing other systems. We have no coherent understanding of a singular, independent, self-originating/sustaining System – and therefore can have no coherent way to counter a claim that God is ourside our system.

By the way, where/when have you encountered/seen/read theists using the specific word ‘system’ when trying to communicate the theological notion of transcendence? Because of the fuzziness of the notion of a whole/singular/complete ‘system’, I’d propose it would be better for theists not to use the word ‘system’ at all when trying to speak of God’s transcendence. However, I can imagine an atheist like you introducing the ‘system’ language to counter the claim – which would be equally unhelpful.

27. Ian - March 8, 2010

I think I need to jump back a step because I am not convinced you have understood my point about systems.

A proper system is defined by the set of all elements that interact to modify members of that system. We can see that a human (for example) is not a complete system because it cannot be defined without reference to things outside the human. Therefore a human is described as an open system for the purposes of analysis and this is another way of saying it is an incomplete system, or more precisely, a subsystem or a larger system. There is also no particular significance to the human subsystem when considered as part of the larger system and the larger system could be described fully without specific reference to that subsystem as a whole.

Now I can make an easy step from here: If god exists and has some influence over this human then god is an input to the open system of the human, and therefore is part of the same larger system the human is in.

Now you may choose to arbitrarily define a system such that all things non-god form a subsystem with god outside it (which is what I feel you are doing) but systems thinking doesn’t allow that to stand as the “final word” because the stopping point is arbitrary. The only point at which you can stop adding elements to the system and call it closed is if there are no more influencing elements. This may or may not be possible with the system we find ourselves in, hence our system is ultimately either closed or infinite. We don’t know which but we don’t really need to know.

Therefore god if it exists is part of the system. It may transcend a human’s perspective of the system without contradicting systems thinking but it cannot be outside the system in a more objective sense.

By the way, where/when have you encountered/seen/read theists using the specific word ’system’ when trying to communicate the theological notion of transcendence?

I haven’t and I suppose my point was that it shows 🙂

28. Dale Campbell - March 8, 2010

Ian,

We can see that a human (for example) is not a complete system because it cannot be defined without reference to things outside the human.

And it appears that our universe also cannot be defined without reference to things outside other than the universe. In other words, reality appears contingent all the way up/down. Ultimate explanation/description evades us (do we really think we’ll EVER be absolutely sure we’ve found the smallest, most indivisible component of matter?)

If god exists and has some influence over this human then god is an input to the open system of the human, and therefore is part of the same larger system the human is in.

Dave Barry once described golf as ‘trying to put a small ball in a small hole with ill-purposed utensils. And I’m inclined to say that ‘systems theory’ is an ill-purposed utensil to not only discuss the ultimate nature of our universe, but also to discuss theism! 🙂

But i press on: It would immediately follow from Monotheism (transcendent AND immanent God) that God was some kind of ultimate system-of-all-systems, which (as it were) ‘reached’ down all the way down through (and affecting/influencing/upholding/sustaining) every concievable sub-system down to whatever the simplest phenomena of reality might be.

29. Ian - March 8, 2010

And it appears that our universe also cannot be defined without reference to things outside other than the universe.

If this is the case then this isn’t a problem – it simply means the system is bigger than the universe and therefore the universe is an arbitrary boundary.

Simple question: can “reality” be described without reference to god and still be a complete (1) picture? If yes then god is irrelevant. If no then there is a bigger (2) system which accounts for this.

1. Complete in the sense that all interactions can be fully explained.
2. Bigger in the sense it includes at least one more element, so not necessarily physically bigger (elements are not necessarily physical) nor different in scale nor temporally different.

In other words, reality appears contingent all the way up/down.

I think we’ve covered this before but can you briefly define “contingent” as you are using it here?

Ultimate explanation/description evades us (do we really think we’ll EVER be absolutely sure we’ve found the smallest, most indivisible component of matter?)

Well in principle, if it is a closed system in terms of scale (e.g. quanta) then we could but we may never know if even that is true. This isn’t an argument for or against systems thinking or my point that god is part of the system however.

And I’m inclined to say that ’systems theory’ is an ill-purposed utensil to not only discuss the ultimate nature of our universe, but also to discuss theism!

I am almost convinced now that, despite my explanations to the contrary, when you hear the word “system” you automatically insert the words “materialistic” and “as-seen-by-humans” alongside it. Neither are assumed nor required in systems theory – it is far more general than that.

But i press on: It would immediately follow from Monotheism (transcendent AND immanent God) that God was some kind of ultimate system-of-all-systems, which (as it were) ‘reached’ down all the way down through (and affecting/influencing/upholding/sustaining) every concievable sub-system down to whatever the simplest phenomena of reality might be.

Does this mean that saying god is not something is a mistake? Or does it mean that god simply has an effect on everything? Neither concept is excluded by systems thinking. The only caveat is that god either is the system, or god is a prolific influencer of all system elements.

30. Dale - March 9, 2010

Ian,
I really do get what you’re saying about systems theory transcending only material things, and being a conceptual framework referring to things within a set of influences, etc. I really do.
The main thing I can’t make square up with monotheism is that God could be ‘contained’ or ‘limited’ to a system. The creative act(s) of the creator god are free, and not due to any compulsion from an ‘outside’, ‘containing’, ‘limiting’ or ‘influencing’ force.

I’m curious as to your assertion that a god which was truly ‘out the system’, would be irrelevant to the system, even if still existing. This picture of an existing-yet-irrelevant god affirms transcendence, but how can it rule out any possibility of the god choosing to act upon and/or within the system? Indeed, how would we distinguish a) ‘system behaviour with no god-influence’ from b) ‘god-influenced system behaviour’??

31. Ian - March 10, 2010

The main thing I can’t make square up with monotheism is that God could be ‘contained’ or ‘limited’ to a system.

I think this is looking at things backwards. The system is only as limited as the elements it contains. In other words it is defined by what it is, it doesn’t define what is in it.

The creative act(s) of the creator god are free, and not due to any compulsion from an ‘outside’, ‘containing’, ‘limiting’ or ‘influencing’ force.

None of this has any bearing on its nature as a system.

I’m curious as to your assertion that a god which was truly ‘out the system’, would be irrelevant to the system, even if still existing.

It is entirely possible for infinite proper systems to exist but for each of them to be complete systems, no aspect of any of these systems can possibly interact in any manner whatsoever whether by information transfer or anything else. If even the slightest interaction can occur then the behaviour of the system cannot be completely described and therefore the proper system is larger.

This picture of an existing-yet-irrelevant god affirms transcendence, but how can it rule out any possibility of the god choosing to act upon and/or within the system?

Because if the god can act upon or within the system then the system cannot be fully described using only the elements within the system and therefore needs to be expanded to be considered a proper system.

Indeed, how would we distinguish a) ’system behaviour with no god-influence’ from b) ‘god-influenced system behaviour’??

This is a really important point and would actually be my question to you regarding whether or not god exists. Also a specific answer to this question really depends on what god is defined as. If god is defined as the system itself then a and b are indistinguishable but this isn’t as profound as it sounds since that relegates the god concept to nomenclature. On the other hand if god is defined as anything less than the entire system then it must be defined in such a way that (a) and (b) are different.

32. Dale Campbell - March 10, 2010

you’ve given two options, whereas I think there’s a third (in italics):

god is the system
god is less than the system
god is more than the system

The fundamental difference between God and the world is an ontological one: God and the world are distinct in their ontos/essence.

It may be fruitful to distinguish also between different kinds of systems (based on different kinds of influence sets)?

A biological subsystem (i.e. ‘dog’) influences and is influenced by the wider/total biological system (all life) – which, of course, influences and is influenced by a non-biological/cosmological system…

Monotheism, it seems, posits a theological kind of systems understanding; with God the Creator as the Master System which influences (creating influence, sustaining influence, caring influence, developing influence) all sub-systems ‘within’ the Master System. This understanding seems fully consistent –or at least harmonioius– with systems theory.

33. Ian - March 10, 2010

god is the system
god is less than the system
god is more than the system

My point (which I’m sure you’ve taken by now lol) is that the third option requires establishing an abritrary boundary to the system in question.

The fundamental difference between God and the world is an ontological one: God and the world are distinct in their ontos/essence.

That’s fine. It just means the “world” is not a proper system in your theory.

It may be fruitful to distinguish also between different kinds of systems (based on different kinds of influence sets)?

Not really – these are conceptual boundaries and therefore are arbitrary. A biological system is necessarily a subsystem because it isn’t complete. A proper system could be considered a collection of all “influence sets” as you put it.

Monotheism, it seems, posits a theological kind of systems understanding; with God the Creator as the Master System which influences (creating influence, sustaining influence, caring influence, developing influence) all sub-systems ‘within’ the Master System. This understanding seems fully consistent –or at least harmonioius– with systems theory.

There isn’t really any need to describe this as “a theological kind of systems understanding”, it is just systems thinking. I am not sure what you mean by “master system” but that aside, I take it you accept god as either part (or all) of the system within this schema?

34. Dale Campbell - March 10, 2010

For me there’s a huge difference between the implications of the following two statements:

God is a part (component) of the system
There is a systemic relationship between God (Master System) and the world.

Perhaps a key difficulty has to do with (again) the word ‘system’ and the fact that our only example of a complete system is strictly non-observational/conceptual.

Perhaps a statement like this could help:
“There is a systemic relationship of influence between God and the world.”

Again, for me, we end up with an infinite regress of possible (even logically necessary!?) systems which could contain other sub-systems within them. We don’t seem to have any experimental evidence to support the notion that the world is infinite… So then, with systems theory pushing us logically towards infinity and observation suggesting a finite world, we can see a resolution of this tension in the monotheistic notion of a Master System influencing and encompassing all sub-systems.

35. Ian - March 15, 2010

There is a systemic relationship between God (Master System) and the world.

This statement (and in particular the phrase “systemic relationship”)doesn’t really have any meaning in systems theory (unless you’d care to define one?).

Perhaps a key difficulty has to do with (again) the word ’system’ and the fact that our only example of a complete system is strictly non-observational/conceptual.

This isn’t really important – systems are a pretty simple construct that are largely self-defining.

“There is a systemic relationship of influence between God and the world.”

I don’t see how this can be anything other than saying there are two systems, god and the world, and they interact.

By definition this means that they are both part of one system.

Again, for me, we end up with an infinite regress of possible (even logically necessary!?) systems which could contain other sub-systems within them.

I don’t see how you get to this point. And even if we do get to this point, I don’t see how it is a problem?

We don’t seem to have any experimental evidence to support the notion that the world is infinite…

Why do we need any?

So then, with systems theory pushing us logically towards infinity

It isn’t…

and observation suggesting a finite world,

It really depends on what you mean by world here… string theorists would argue otherwise.

we can see a resolution of this tension in the monotheistic notion of a Master System influencing and encompassing all sub-systems.

This doesn’t make any sense… I don’t see what problem needs resolving, and even if I did, I don’t see how this could resolve it?

36. Dale Campbell - March 15, 2010

I’m not sure how much further we’ll get. I simply just don’t see anything in systems theory that would prevent God being an infinite master system in which all that we know exists/functions/depends-on.
As long as you’re cool with that, then no more from me is needed?

37. Dale Campbell - March 15, 2010

…on this post 😉

38. Ian - March 15, 2010

I simply just don’t see anything in systems theory that would prevent God being an infinite master system in which all that we know exists/functions/depends-on.

Except that “infinite master system” is undefined in systems language.

I have another way to view this (one last stab if you will lol). You tend to say things like “god transcends reality” or “god is the master system” or “god is outside the system”. These concepts rely very heavily on a boundary to “reality” or “everything” or whatever such that god can be outside it. My point is that this is an artificial (and somewhat archaic) way to look at the world. If god exists, and there are things that are not god, then god is part of the “world” we live in. Sure god might operate in such a way that it underpins everything or whatever – but that just means that if you are right then our view of the world is a poor one for seeing the world as it actually is.

39. Dale Campbell - March 15, 2010

Ian,
Indeed, in systems language, a ‘infinite master system’ is undefined – yet it seems we both claim that the label can be applied to God (me) or the universe/’everything’ (you).

Your last stab is helpful, so a few more comments:

Science (scientists, actually) already assumes regularity/intelligibility when it looks at the world – meaning they don’t consider non-regular phenomena. What they have already done is to make a category distinction, this time between ‘natural’/’regular’/’repeatable’ phenomena and anything which may or may not happen that is not ‘natural’/’regular’/’repeatable’. It only considers the former.

My point is merely that we make – and indeed should make category distinctions. Causality in the world, for example, points us on – like a signpost pointing into the fog – to an infinite regress of former/prior causes and finer/smaller phenomena. As you say, we don’t know where the ‘edge’ is, and we’d have no way of knowing how close we are to an ‘edge’…

diagrammatic form would be something like:

???? ????
big bang quantum physics

Monotheism posits a whole, completely distinct ontological category, which is on a wholly different explanatory/causal plane; and it is perfectly rational, scientifically responsible, and logical in doing so… AND (!!!) I highlight that because God is said to exist in this ontologically distinct way, monotheism does not rely in any way upon a ‘boundary’ to the world/things.

It is actually the ‘systems theory’ objection to this posit-ion which effectively has to invent such a system ‘boundary’, and does so, again, not based on any experimental evidence, and only a conceptual idea of what a ‘total system’ must be.

40. Dale Campbell - March 15, 2010

OK, so the diagram thing didn’t work… it must have thought I was doing html?

41. Ian - March 16, 2010

Indeed, in systems language, a ‘infinite master system’ is undefined – yet it seems we both claim that the label can be applied to God (me) or the universe/’everything’ (you).

I don’t mean undefined as in we don’t know what the boundaries are, I mean undefined in the sense that frakturbulotriassverbotagon is undefined.

Science (scientists, actually) already assumes regularity/intelligibility when it looks at the world – meaning they don’t consider non-regular phenomena.

Not quite – science assumes observability (directly or indirectly), and doesn’t consider non-observable phenomena. Sure that means science excludes non-observable things but that is simply a practical and quite reasonable approach.

As you say, we don’t know where the ‘edge’ is, and we’d have no way of knowing how close we are to an ‘edge’…

Sure, but when/if we get there we know it is part of our system which is really the key point here.

Monotheism posits a whole, completely distinct ontological category, which is on a wholly different explanatory/causal plane;

Could you give an example of a causal or explanatory use of this distinct ontological category that doesn’t fall within regular causality or explanatory systems?

and it is perfectly rational, scientifically responsible, and logical in doing so…

Sure, anyone can posit anything they like 🙂

AND (!!!) I highlight that because God is said to exist in this ontologically distinct way, monotheism does not rely in any way upon a ‘boundary’ to the world/things.

Except it isn’t me that relies on this boundary, it is you that needs it! You need god to transcend something, to be outside something. I am arguing that if god exists in that manner then that “something” is an entirely arbitrary description or sub-system boundary. The boundary isn’t a real or meaningful thing. Sure it might be related to a limit to perception or comprehension by humans but that is still an arbitrary thing.

In other words I am arguing for less boundaries than you are, not more 🙂

It is actually the ’systems theory’ objection to this posit-ion which effectively has to invent such a system ‘boundary’,

I don’t get what boundary you are talking about that systems theory requires. (also see previous point)

and does so, again, not based on any experimental evidence, and only a conceptual idea of what a ‘total system’ must be.

The concept of a complete system is pretty simple – it is the totality of influences such that all things of any form can be explained using only elements inside the system.

42. Dale Campbell - March 16, 2010

Sure that means science excludes non-observable things but that is simply a practical and quite reasonable approach.

Yes, a quite reasonable approach for gaining knowledge of observable things.

Could you give an example of a causal or explanatory use of this distinct ontological category that doesn’t fall within regular causality or explanatory systems?

human dignity should suffice as an example – or anything on the ‘value’ side of the fact/value distinction; different ‘stuff’ (ontology/essence), different causes/explanations.

Sure, anyone can posit anything they like

…except (apparently) a God who transcends and acts within a system? 😉

I am arguing for less boundaries than you are, not more

‘boundaries’ may not be the most helpful term (my bad!), as it instantly suggests spacial imagery. Better for me to speak of an ontological distinction – or a categorical distinction. God is not, in his ontos/essence, the same kind/category of ‘thing’ as the things in the system.

43. Ian - March 17, 2010

Yes, a quite reasonable approach for gaining knowledge of observable things.

Now you just have to perform a miracle and demonstrate the existence of non-observable things such that there is even any point considering them. (remember observing doesn’t just mean seeing in physical form).

human dignity should suffice as an example – or anything on the ‘value’ side of the fact/value distinction; different ’stuff’ (ontology/essence), different causes/explanations.

So you are saying that values have nothing to do with environment or the brain or the soul (shudder) or any other logical causal link – they happen some other way? We can certainly observe values exist, and we can certainly trace their origins in many cases. Why do we need this mystical other sort of explanation?

‘boundaries’ may not be the most helpful term (my bad!), as it instantly suggests spacial imagery.

Not to me it doesn’t. Boundaries are either spatial, scale, or conceptual.

Better for me to speak of an ontological distinction – or a categorical distinction. God is not, in his ontos/essence, the same kind/category of ‘thing’ as the things in the system.

You do realise that in doing this you are creating an entirely unnecessary and arbitrary conceptual boundary? You are essentially forcing god outside the system for no reason.

44. Dale Campbell - March 17, 2010

…demonstrate the existence of non-observable things…

so… we ‘observe’ (not as if it could take a physical form, of course) moral, prescriptive value-based ideas.

We can certainly observe values exist, and we can certainly trace their origins in many cases. Why do we need this mystical other sort of explanation?

Not sure what you mean here. I’m not talking about the reason why people might have values – I’m talking about the truthfulness of the values themselves. Not someone’s belief that humans have value, but their actual value itself – this is what I mean by the ‘value’ side of the fact/value distinction. Values themselves are not ‘scientifically’ discerned. The appreciation or rejection of their real existence cannot be done with pure ‘science’.

You do realise that in doing this you are creating an entirely unnecessary and arbitrary conceptual boundary? You are essentially forcing god outside the system for no reason.

I’m just taking seriously what the monotheistic concept is actually saying – and demonstrating that it’s coherent with what we know, and btw, perfectly harmonious with the continuation of the scientific project.

45. Ian - March 17, 2010

so… we ‘observe’ (not as if it could take a physical form, of course) moral, prescriptive value-based ideas.

Well I don’t accept prescriptive values but that is an entirely different discussion. That aside, yes we can observe value based ideas. What we don’t observe is values in the absence of a sentient valuer.

Not sure what you mean here. I’m not talking about the reason why people might have values – I’m talking about the truthfulness of the values themselves. Not someone’s belief that humans have value, but their actual value itself – this is what I mean by the ‘value’ side of the fact/value distinction. Values themselves are not ’scientifically’ discerned. The appreciation or rejection of their real existence cannot be done with pure ’science’.

Ok – so give me an example of rejecting a value without reference to anything scientific (that isn’t just an opinion – because I assume you aren’t just referring to opinions here?).

I’m just taking seriously what the monotheistic concept is actually saying – and demonstrating that it’s coherent with what we know, and btw, perfectly harmonious with the continuation of the scientific project.

This is a dodge. Do you still maintain god is outside (in the proper systems sense) of the totality of the system we live in?

46. Dale Campbell - March 17, 2010

Ok – so give me an example of rejecting a value without reference to anything scientific (that isn’t just an opinion – because I assume you aren’t just referring to opinions here?).

how do we ultimately distinguish between ‘fact’, ‘truth’ and opinion? i.e which one does the statement ‘humans have inherent worth’ belong to?

This is a dodge. Do you still maintain god is outside (in the proper systems sense) of the totality of the system we live in?

I maintain, as per monotheism, that God is both transcendent (free, independent, unlimited by and beyond anything) and immanent (active, close, near, works within the ‘system’).

47. Ian - March 17, 2010

how do we ultimately distinguish between ‘fact’, ‘truth’ and opinion? i.e which one does the statement ‘humans have inherent worth’ belong to?

Off the top of my head I’d define those three terms as follows:

A fact is a verifiable observation independent of an observer
An opinion is an unverifiable observation dependent on an observer
I’d say that truth is a more woolly concept loosely based on a hypothetical continuum of accuracy for both facts and opinions.

Given those definitions “humans have inherent worth” is clearly not a fact and so it is an opinion (and incidentally it is one that I fundamentally disagree with, although I might be persuaded if you tack on a “to humans” at the end).

I maintain, as per monotheism, that God is both transcendent (free, independent, unlimited by and beyond anything) and immanent (active, close, near, works within the ’system’).

You still haven’t answered my question 🙂

48. Dale Campbell - March 17, 2010

Indeed, your ontological view of reality doesn’t allow you to believe in an actual, objective ‘worth’ for human beings (or anything). And I scarcely need to point out that this would leave us without any way of determining the superiority of differing views regarding human worth. “humans have worth to (some) humans” becomes merely a different opinion to “humans have no worth to (some) humans”.

Now I don’t argue for human omniscience concerning morality or anything else, so one would expect people to come to different moral conclusions for various reasons. But there is no scientific reason to say that objective, prescriptive morals (and the goals which they are necessarily based on) do exist – and there is no scientific reason to see Truth as a woolly thing 🙂

And to use systems language and hopefully ‘answer’ your question, the monotheistic transcendent/immanent view of God is such that I must answer both yes AND no to the question “is God outside the system?”

49. Dale Campbell - March 17, 2010

oops 🙂 should be “…thre is no scientific reason to say that objective, prescriptive morals do NOT exist…” rather unfortunate error! 😀

50. Ian - March 17, 2010

Indeed, your ontological view of reality doesn’t allow you to believe in an actual, objective ‘worth’ for human beings (or anything). And I scarcely need to point out that this would leave us without any way of determining the superiority of differing views regarding human worth. “humans have worth to (some) humans” becomes merely a different opinion to “humans have no worth to (some) humans”.

While this is an entirely different discussion, I will simply say “yes”.

But there is no scientific reason to say that objective, prescriptive morals (and the goals which they are necessarily based on) don’t exist [edited]

Which is entirely the wrong way to look at things. We care about what does exist, not what doesn’t.

and there is no scientific reason to see Truth as a woolly thing

No it is simpler than that – it is a very difficult term to define in a non-circular manner hence there is debate over whether the term even means anything – hence it is wooly.

And to use systems language and hopefully ‘answer’ your question, the monotheistic transcendent/immanent view of God is such that I must answer both yes AND no to the question “is God outside the system?”

Which is a nonsense answer (analagous to me describing my position as both theist and atheist) but given it seems to be all I am going to get I’ll let it drop.

51. Dale Campbell - March 17, 2010

Ian,
‘the wrong way to look at things’ –> if you’re doing science, maybe, but if you’re looking for truth, then scientific presuppositions, goals, and methods don’t limit you.

‘Truth difficult to define in non-circular manner, etc.’ –> Is it ‘circular’ or ‘consistent in various areas of discussion’? Again, this is all not really about science, but philosophy and epistemology anyway.

‘a nonsense answer…’ –> it’s no more nonsense than saying that a cone can be viewed as a circle and as a triangle – it’s all dependent on one’s view.

52. Ian - March 18, 2010

‘a nonsense answer…’ –> it’s no more nonsense than saying that a cone can be viewed as a circle and as a triangle – it’s all dependent on one’s view.

But it isn’t a circle or a triangle is it?

53. Dale Campbell - March 18, 2010

the point is that what someone insists is ‘just’ a circle or ‘just’ a triangle might indeed have more ‘substance’ – maybe there are other dimensions (other modes of ‘ontos’/essence).

54. Ian - March 18, 2010

Sure, but all that means is that they were wrong to insist that. However that doesn’t mean all people who insist circles exist are wrong, nor does it mean that the cone is outside the system.

55. Dale Campbell - March 18, 2010

Yes. naturalism is wrong to insist that nature is all there is. And yes, insisting that nature exists is not wrong. And whilst it doesn’t mean that God would be ‘outside the system’, esp. if God would necessarily be the capital-S System ‘in’ which nature subsists.

56. Damian - April 12, 2010

Well, I followed this discussion and wasn’t surprised to see that it didn’t really come to a satisfying conclusion.

Ian, I think you nailed it in one with your comment on the notion of a god transcending existence being simply wordplay. I would go one further and say that to deny the statement, “There exists nothing other than things that exist” is to descend into incoherence. It’s the equivalent of saying p&¬p (or, A is not equal to A).

57. Dale Campbell - April 12, 2010

that’s still in an ontologically monist framework, Damian, which assumes only one kind of (and way of) existing. Like the Flatland assumption that there are only 2 dimensions.

58. Damian - April 13, 2010

Well, no. It means that you have intentionally altered the words ‘exist’ in that statement so that they both mean different things. i.e. “There exists (a type of existence that includes God) nothing other than things that exist (a type of existence that does not include God)”. But this is wordplay.

59. Dale Campbell - April 13, 2010

Not surprisingly, I don’t really care that you think it’s wordplay. The concept is clear enough, even if our familiar friend English isn’t the most helpful for getting the concept across.

60. Cameron - June 3, 2010

John 1:1 demonstrates that the Logos (or Christ, v 14), is outside of time, or is eternal. The Greek grammar would be clear on this. It starts with “en arche en” (=in the beginning was), while the second “en” is in the imperfect tense, which implies that before The Big Bang (of Christ speaking the universe into existence) Christ “was”. He always was, even before the beginning.

He always was with God, and has always shared the same nature as God, hence “kai theos en o logos”.

Further, verse 3 shows that all things were made by him and that without him not anything was made that has been made. This is an all inclusive statement of everything finite.

This also coincides with Gen 1:1, “in the beginning God” which assumes God’s existence prior to a created exitence, and Ex 3:14 where Yahweh refers to himself as “I am”. We view time as past, present, and future, while God views past, present, and future always in the present since He is eternal (from a human illustration).

God is necessarily part of the “world” system because presumably (in order to be of any interest whatsoever) god both influences and is influenced by what goes on. This definition of influence is the only meaningful way to put boundaries on existence and transcends materialism or whatever.

God is part of the world in the sense that He upholds it and everything finite within His own being. Col 1:16-17 and Acts 17:28 back this. All finite existence is sustained by Christ’s eternal existence. I would agree that Christ influences what goes on, but not that he is influenced by what goes on contrary to anything He knows, permits, and ordains from eternity. So in this sense, God is the “system”, or is the “world” by way of upholding everything within his own being. He is all of existence because according to Scripture if God went away then all of existence would go away. I have no problem with this Scripturally.

61. Ian - June 24, 2010

Just a friendly suggestion: I recognise the fact that the bible says something is of significance to you and I can respect that. But I hope you can respect that the fact the bible says something really is of little significance to me. If the bible says that “x is true” then it is the bit in speech marks that interests me – not that the bible says it.

God is part of the world in the sense that He upholds it and everything finite within His own being. Col 1:16-17 and Acts 17:28 back this.

Can you explain what you mean by the following “Part of” and “world” in that sentence? (just for clarity)

All finite existence is sustained by Christ’s eternal existence. I would agree that Christ influences what goes on, but not that he is influenced by what goes on contrary to anything He knows, permits, and ordains from eternity.

Influence can be as simple as information transfer. Consider you are doing a jigsaw puzzle. The location of the pieces on the table influences your actions such that if they were in different places you’d act differently. Say that your god heals someone’s disease – this action requires the disease be there and observed in the first place otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense. Therefore the rest of the system would influences a gods actions in the systems sense.

So in this sense, God is the “system”, or is the “world” by way of upholding everything within his own being. He is all of existence because according to Scripture if God went away then all of existence would go away. I have no problem with this Scripturally.

Is there anything that is not god in your view?

62. Cameron - June 25, 2010

How do you put my sentences in those big quotations? I want to do that!

But I hope you can respect that the fact the bible says something really is of little significance to me.

The reason I quoted Scripture so much on my reply is because you said on point 2 at the top of this thread:

“2. Biblical backing – While not something I have dug into in great depth, I have yet to see a direct biblical description of god as being outside of creation in a meaningful way. Sure there are references that could be interpreted that way but these are far from convincing (although I am open to being corrected). In fact the bible seems to me to say the exact opposite. The entire old testament descriptions of god clearly challenge this notion.”

So you would be conceding the claim that the Bible doesn’t answer this issue since you haven’t shown me Biblically why my interpretations are off.

Can you explain what you mean by the following “Part of” and “world” in that sentence? (just for clarity)

I mean God is part of everything finite, yet is distinguished from everything finite (what we perceive and label as either energy, matter, or “stuff”) yet is inseparable from it in the sense that He upholds it within himself. I say he is part of it, to my limited understanding, in that he upholds his finite creation within his infinite himself.

Influence can be as simple as information transfer. Consider you are doing a jigsaw puzzle. The location of the pieces on the table influences your actions such that if they were in different places you’d act differently. Say that your god heals someone’s disease – this action requires the disease be there and observed in the first place otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense. Therefore the rest of the system would influences a gods actions in the systems sense.

It’s difficult to use human illustrations and apply them to an eternal being, because God creates the “puzzle pieces” and is sovereign over their positioning in the first place. So not only does God’s miracle require the disease, but the disease requires God’s sovereignty.

Is there anything that is not god in your view?

I distinguish between what is God and what is not God so far by that which is eternal and finite. While I also say that that which is finite is upheld by God within his own being. A view where a god lives inside of the universe (not a single eternal God upholding it all) would be Mormonism. But I’m a Christian.

63. Ian - June 28, 2010

How do you put my sentences in those big quotations? I want to do that!

Like you do italics except use the word “blockquote” instead of i so it looks like <blockquote>thing to quote</blockquote>

So you would be conceding the claim that the Bible doesn’t answer this issue since you haven’t shown me Biblically why my interpretations are off.

They can potentially be interpretted that way with modern eyes but there is an implied time-before-time feel to most scriptural references. After all I don’t think anyone even today has any idea what “outside time” actually means other than “doesn’t operate the way everything we know operates”. As soon as you allow those rules to relax then anything is possible but not meaningful. As for systems thinking, for the bulk of the bible god is portrayed as distinctly involved in the system and seems quite different from “everything”.

I mean God is part of everything finite, yet is distinguished from everything finite (what we perceive and label as either energy, matter, or “stuff”) yet is inseparable from it in the sense that He upholds it within himself. I say he is part of it, to my limited understanding, in that he upholds his finite creation within his infinite himself.

I’m not trying to be difficult but that doesn’t really mean anything to me. In other words I can’t relate that description to anything I know about the world and make it meaningful, even if I grant the premise that supernatural things can exist.

It’s difficult to use human illustrations and apply them to an eternal being,

Which raises a broader question – how can you know any of this?

because God creates the “puzzle pieces” and is sovereign over their positioning in the first place. So not only does God’s miracle require the disease, but the disease requires God’s sovereignty.

That isn’t an answer to the question I asked. That just says that there is a reason for the disease. I want to know if the existence of the disease in anyway has any influence on god. It doesn’t matter if god created it.

I distinguish between what is God and what is not God so far by that which is eternal and finite. While I also say that that which is finite is upheld by God within his own being.

Not really an answer. Consider a cat, which of the following is true:
a) All of the cat part of god
b) Part of the cat part of god
c) None of the cat part of god?

If a, then presumably that translates to “god = system”. If b then which part is and which isn’t? If b or c then god is only a subset of the entire system.

A view where a god lives inside of the universe (not a single eternal God upholding it all) would be Mormonism. But I’m a Christian

Here is where the fundamental nature of systems thinking seems to elude so many people. If we take “universe” to mean the proper system which we find ourselves in then if god upholds it, then god is part (or all) of the system. We would be in a universe with a god.

64. Cameron - June 30, 2010

Thanks for showing me how to do that :T

They can potentially be interpretted that way with modern eyes but there is an implied time-before-time feel to most scriptural references. After all I don’t think anyone even today has any idea what “outside time” actually means other than “doesn’t operate the way everything we know operates”. As soon as you allow those rules to relax then anything is possible but not meaningful. As for systems thinking, for the bulk of the bible god is portrayed as distinctly involved in the system and seems quite different from “everything”.

Um, why not non-modern eyes as well? You’re assertions here are not arguments, and you have not dealt with any of my simple exegesis of John 1:1-3. Of course we don’t exhaustively know what “outside time” means, just like we don’t even exhaustively know what “inside time” means! So what?! Thus according to your logic, anything within side time is possible. And in fact it is if “?” is running the universe (which “naturalism” offers) instead of Christ running the universe who is immutable and has a purpose behind how he’s running it. I also already quoted Scripture which shows that God is involved “in” the universe, AND “upholds” it. Please deal with all I have offered from Scripture, since you originally admitted were ignorant of. You wouldn’t like it if you wrote a book and someone interpreted it the one-sided way you’re doing with Scripture. Again, you’re positing the gods or Mormonism, NOT the God of the Bible.

I’m not trying to be difficult but that doesn’t really mean anything to me. In other words I can’t relate that description to anything I know about the world and make it meaningful, even if I grant the premise that supernatural things can exist.

That’s fine if it doesn’t mean anything to you. Again, we can’t exhaustively understand what it means to be “finite”, so why do you expect yourself to make an unwarranted leap and be able to understand from me what it is to have the finite upheld by the “infinite”?

And you can’t say “supernatural” as though it’s distinguishable from the “natural”. This very thread prevents you from being able to do that since even to you “everything is the system”!!! You have to first know what “nature” is (exhaustively) before you can then know what is beyond it or other then it (supernatural). You haven’t done the former, thus can’t assume the latter – within the worldview of “naturalism” that is. So you can’t even relate your view of the system to anything you know about the world, because you don’t ultimately know what the world is in the first place! When you declare that you can’t relate my conclusions of God to anything you know of the world, you really mean your “assumptions” of the world.

Which raises a broader question – how can you know any of this?

Because we’re finite beings who can’t even fully understand what it is to be finite, let alone be eternal.

I want to know if the existence of the disease in anyway has any influence on god.

No. Just like an atom a billion galaxies away wouldn’t. God is the uninfluenced influencer.

If a, then presumably that translates to “god = system”.

I lean towards (a). I’ve already said that in a sense God is the system and the system is God. My answer directly above is consistent with me leaning towards (a) and vice versa. This issue deals primarily with Spinoza’s god. I come to the conclusion that God is the system, yet there are also finite things within the system which also exist. I don’t care if you or I fully exhaust that (for reasons I’ve stated) but that is the Biblical conclusion (which you asked for in point 2), and to me is more intellectually satisfying then anything you’ve offered or anyone else.

Here is where the fundamental nature of systems thinking seems to elude so many people. If we take “universe” to mean the proper system which we find ourselves in then if god upholds it, then god is part (or all) of the system. We would be in a universe with a god.

What do you mean by proper system? I’m saying that God occupies all existing space unto forever and ever, which includes all of our “universe” and beyond unto forever and ever. And this “universe” could be a speck of dust within his eternal self.

65. Ian - June 30, 2010

Firstly I’ll be honest and say there are too many threads in this conversation for me to meaningfully keep up. Therefore I am going to focus on some key points relating to systems thinking. If you want, feel free to re-prioritise the discussion in whatever direction suits 🙂

In light of that, I acknowledge that I haven’t addressed your biblical exegesis and I don’t mind dealing with it in detail at some point but I am going to set that thread aside for the moment.

I am also going to set aside the “supernatural” discussion but again happy to revisit it.

No. Just like an atom a billion galaxies away wouldn’t. God is the uninfluenced influencer.

An atom a billion galaxies away does have an influence here. Not a huge influence (in fact mind bogglingly tiny), and not a direct influence either, but an influence nonetheless. This is commonly (mis)known as the butterfly effect.

I come to the conclusion that God is the system, yet there are also finite things within the system which also exist.

If god is the name of the system that we find ourselves in, then it is standard to assume that there would be finite elements within it.

Do you have any non-biblical reason for reaching this conclusion?

I don’t care if you or I fully exhaust that (for reasons I’ve stated) but that is the Biblical conclusion (which you asked for in point 2), and to me is more intellectually satisfying then anything you’ve offered or anyone else.

Actually I suspect calling the system we live in “god” is deeply unsatisfactory for a theist since it ironically relegates god to near irrelevance. For example are you comfortable praying to a cabbage knowing it is god? Are you comfortable saying that the system has a plan for everyone?

What do you mean by proper system?

I’ve discussed this before, but a proper system is the complete set of influencing elements such that no other elements are necessary to explain all that takes place within the system.

I’m saying that God occupies all existing space unto forever and ever, which includes all of our “universe” and beyond unto forever and ever.

God occupies all space or is all space? It is crucial you are very careful with language and this is a great example because they mean very very different things.

And this “universe” could be a speck of dust within his eternal self.

Could well be. The question is “is it?”

66. Dale Campbell - July 2, 2010

I don’t have time to butt in here again, but some points of Cameron’s sound like pantheism or panentheism (i.e. “God occupies all existing space unto forever and ever, which includes all of our “universe” and beyond unto forever and ever.”). Probably just me being picky with words tho…

67. Cameron - July 29, 2010

Ian,

No. Just like an atom a billion galaxies away wouldn’t. God is the uninfluenced influencer.

That’s fine. In the worldview I’m defending and contending for, it would have an effect on the finite, but not the eternal (which I call God). That was my original point and I assumed you actually knew that was my point.

If god is the name of the system that we find ourselves in, then it is standard to assume that there would be finite elements within it.

Do you have any non-biblical reason for reaching this conclusion?

I didn’t say “god is the name of the system”, I said that God is eternal and upholds all that is finite together within his own being. The fact that I haven’t found any non-biblical sources which back this notion all the more makes be believe Scripture, and that Scripture is God’s inspired word.

Actually I suspect calling the system we live in “god” is deeply unsatisfactory for a theist since it ironically relegates god to near irrelevance. For example are you comfortable praying to a cabbage knowing it is god? Are you comfortable saying that the system has a plan for everyone?

I’m saying God = The System, in the sense that The System = all that exist, and upholds all that exists. God is personal but some things which God upholds are impersonal, i.e. cabbage. So I pray to that which upholds cabbage, yes. Yes, Scripture says God has a plan for everyone. God may plan to forgive others of their rebellion against him, or he may pass over them and leave them as they are.

I’ve discussed this before, but a proper system is the complete set of influencing elements such that no other elements are necessary to explain all that takes place within the system.

So I would say God’s finite universe is a proper system in the sense that he influences everything in it but nothing is outside of him is able to ultimately influence it.

God occupies all space or is all space? It is crucial you are very careful with language and this is a great example because they mean very very different things.

I’m saying both are true in a sense. It’s easier to imagine how God occupies space. But I would also say he is all space in the sense that with his existence there would not be space, anywhere. But I’m also not saying that God is ONLY space when I say he is all space.

Could well be. The question is “is it?”

Of course that’s the question. I simply gave the example of the speck of dust simply to provide an illustration of the worldview that Scripture alludes to.

Dale Campbell,

Scripture makes claims which sound pantheistic, ie. in Acts when Paul says that “in him we live and move and have our being” speaking of Christ. Christian theism differentiates between pantheism in that Christ is personal and creates the finite world, while pantheism says that there’s some kind of impersonal force or oneness of spirit which connects everything.

It would probably better to argue that what I’ve been saying sounds more like Spinoza’s god in the sense that there is a personal element within nature itself. But again, if you look closely at what I’ve presented and what Scripture teaches, this is not the whole picture either.

68. Ian - September 9, 2010

Apologies for the massive delay in replying but I got there eventually…

I said that God is eternal and upholds all that is finite together within his own being.

This means that we are dealing with an infinite system. I am happy if that is your claim. Now we just need a reason to think it might be true and that it necessarily relates to other claims.

The fact that I haven’t found any non-biblical sources which back this notion all the more makes be believe Scripture, and that Scripture is God’s inspired word.

Wait… so if nothing else says what the bible says, that makes the bible more credible? Not the way I’d interpret it but fair enough.

I’m saying both are true in a sense. It’s easier to imagine how God occupies space. But I would also say he is all space in the sense that with his existence there would not be space, anywhere. But I’m also not saying that God is ONLY space when I say he is all space.

I suppose a different way to phrase it would be to say that in the set of things called “god” includes the subset of all things called “space”.

I suppose the real guts of this systems thinking approach is to identify what (arbitrarily defined) subset of system elements & interactions describe what you call god. If it is all elements then god = system and therefore is just a name. If it is less than all elements then what defines what is and what is not in the god set?

69. Cameron - October 16, 2010

The reason to believe in an infinite system is because it’s easy to theorize how any finite system would require something else to hold it together. I just cut to the chase and assume an infinite system, and Scripture is congruent with this.

Wait… so if nothing else says what the bible says, that makes the bible more credible? Not the way I’d interpret it but fair enough.

In theory we must start with an eternal, personal, all-good, triune being. I only know of Scripture referring to that starting point so yes to me that is more credible. I’ve asked many many atheists and theists to show me any text which reveals an eternal God other then Scripture. So far I’ve gotten 0 responses and I’m still counting.

I can’t really distinguish between what is God and what is not God since in a sense everything is part of Him since we exist with in him and without him nothing exists. Just like we can’t distinguish where body meets soul (like the Deathcab song) or how the string within string theory (which doesn’t take up space) makes up that which does take up space.


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