Friday, February 11, 2011

Of dragons, unicorns and boggart-Gods

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Your next door neighbor appears in your doorway. His clothes are burnt to a crisp, his eyebrows and eyelashes are singed off, his hair and face are carbonized, and he is oddly enough close to hysterical panic. “There’s an invisible dragon in my garage!”

No. There can’t be. Dragons don’t exist. But he’s clearly not himself, so you say soothingly, “What did it look like? How tall was it?”

“It was invisible,” he reminds you.

“Then how do you know it was a dragon?” you persist reasonably.

He rolls his eyes. “Take a look at me. Does this look like a cat scratch?”

You try again: “But you must realize what this looks like to me. For all I know, you could have been playing with a stick of dynamite, or fooling around with your blowtorch, or you could have tripped and fallen face-first into a fire ….”

He interrupts you shortly. “But I wasn’t playing with dynamite; I don’t have a blowtorch or a fireplace; there were no F-16s backed tailpipe-first into my garage or any other dumb thing you want to drag in. I was attacked by a fire-breathing dragon.”

 You try one more time. “But if you didn’t see the wretched thing, how do you know it was an invisible dragon?”

“He told me.”

So you try to keep him calm while you try to figure out a way to call the men in white. He’s obviously delusional because it’s so unlike him to play such an elaborate practical joke; of course, he must have somehow set himself on fire, then convinced himself that he heard and spoke to ….

Your mind yammers a thousand different explanations for your neighbor’s extraordinary behavior. But how would you respond if he suddenly demanded of you, “How do you know there’s no such thing as an invisible dragon?”

You don’t. You can’t prove a negative. You’ve never touched, smelled, tasted or heard a dragon; but there are over 6 billion people on this planet whom you’ve never seen or otherwise sensed. You can believe a society of billions of alien peoples exists on a planet millions of light-years away; just because no scientific instrument has picked them up yet doesn’t mean they aren’t real. But you’re not willing to extend your credulity to the invisible dragon in your neighbor’s garage because—why?

The invisible dragon in the garage was precisely how Carl Sagan tried to critique the Christian God. The invisible dragon is related backward to Bertrand Russell’s teapot out beyond the Asteroid Belt and forward to the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorns.

The Christian God, to New Atheists who are enamored of the FSM and IPU critiques, is something like the boggarts in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: He looks mean and frightening, but if you just point your wand and yell “Ridikulus!” He—and all His silly, mentally-crippled believers—will become powerless to hurt you. This style of argument is classified as an ad absurdo or “horse laugh”: the Appeal to Ridicule fallacy.

But the boggart takes its shape and some of its limited power from the memory of the person it faces. The boggart in Professor Lupin’s office would never have been able to harm Harry if Harry hadn’t had prior experiences with real dementors. At the same time, though, the faux-dementor the boggart had become could never harm Harry to the same extent as a real dementor precisely because it wasn’t a real dementor.

In the same way, the God of FSM/IPU arguments, the God against which Sagan posited his dragon and Russell his teapot, isn’t the God of Christian philosophy. The “Christian” arguments in which the FSM and IPU references are sprinkled are very simplistic straw men that have little to nothing in common with the more robust Aristotelian and Thomist arguments. The boggart-God of the FSM/IPU critiques is rendered powerless through ridicule … but it never had power of its own to begin with, because it wasn’t the real thing.

The atheist tries to get us focused on the boggart-God because it distracts us from the real weakness of his position. He can’t know there’s no God the same way he can know there’s no NFL game scheduled for this coming Sunday. He can’t know there’s no immaterial component to the universe the same way he can know there’s no planet inside the orbit of Mercury. Strictly speaking, he can’t even know there’s no invisible dragon or pink unicorn.

In a sense, he only “knows” there are no dragons or unicorns because his materialist philosophy has dictated this “knowledge” beforehand. To his prosaic, empiricist mind, the imagination can only cough up notional entities; it can never lead a person to truth. This is sad, for the imagination is the creative scientist’s most useful tool.

And for the sake of his material, Godless universe, the atheist must bend all evidence to the contrary out of shape so it will fit into some improbable naturalist explanation; he must assume the worst of all sources that testify to the contrary so he can comfortably dismiss them as liars, lunatics, and gullible simpletons. Because he’s a skeptic, he can question all assertions but his own; because he’s a cynic, he can question all motives but his own.

I don’t insist that there are such things as dragons or unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters. But if there were, most likely there would be no radical consequence for my life; I can be just as selfish and self-centered in a universe full of unicorns and a cosmos full of centaurs as I can in a universe without them.

But the Christian God doesn’t exist without consequence to us. And that’s why certain atheists spend so much effort and attention on laughing at their boggart-Gods: They’re not so much convinced the real God doesn’t exist so much as they’re afraid He does.

Enter, Stranger, at thy Riske: Here there might be Dragons.