I agree wholeheartedly; God either is or isn't. But neither side can prove one way or the other, so...why care? Honestly?
It seems to me that you’re focusing on the wrong question. Instead of asking: ‘Can this proposal (of God’s existence) be true?’, try asking: ‘Can this proposal be coherently qualified as knowledge?’ I don’t think that it can. And I think that the sooner we clearly raise this objection with the theists the better for our species.
I’m going to attach here a short essay that I haven’t yet been able to upload to my blog (because I can’t access from where I am). It’s not an easy read, but try to bear with it and I’m pretty sure that you will find it both relevant and interesting.
How Do You Know?
This essay has been condensed from correspondence with friends and critics based on my main essay (Truth?) and another of its subsidiaries (Crystal Blue Persuasion). In each of these I imply both that I have a functional procedure for knowledge selection, and that this is unusual. In Crystal Blue Persuasion I suggest that none of our ancient systems of institutionalized irrationality can be functionally selected. I mean by that that they cannot be justified as knowledge through any procedure that we can honestly see to be capable of such. I offer as an implication from this that all of us who do now believe ourselves to have a functional procedure should move to opening our dialogs with theists at that level. Specifically, that we should extend to them the invitation that if they will first work with us to arrive at a procedure that both parties can actually understand to be able to select proposals then we will work with them to apply that procedure to their theistic proposals. And then, if selected, that we will immediately and publically embrace those proposals.
The answer to such an invitation that I would expect from an intellectually honest respondent would be: “OK then, go ahead and put your own knowledge selection procedure (KSP) on the table. Explain it to me as clearly as you can, and I will either accept it, or question it, or suggest modifications, or offer what I believe to be a better counter proposal”. I am writing this essay to do that. I will briefly outline my own KSP, and then answer what I anticipate will be the main questions or objections to it.
First, in overview, the procedure functions as a linear hierarchy. By ‘linear’ I mean that it must yield a clear determination on any proposal submitted to it, as it has no branch points and terminates in a single and unambiguous selection gate. By ‘hierarchy’ I mean that I cannot select through a lower gate any proposal that I can see to stand in logical opposition to one that is selectable through a higher. This also obligates me to a continuous process of internal sifting and refinement of my entire body of knowledge. In reference back to Point #1 of my main essay (Truth?), the procedure explicitly yields ‘best available’ knowledge, but it just as explicitly rules out anything that I might reasonably call ‘truth’.
5. I accept at my highest level of certainty all proposals grounded in observations that are both objectively measurable and on-demand repeatable. I include in this blanket acceptance of all of the current proposals of science. I admittedly don't know all of these, but (A) I can clearly understand the scientific method (how it selects proposals as knowledge) and can see that measurable and on-demand-repeatable observation is its ultimate determinant, and (B) I can see that in general and across the board the proposals themselves work. I drive the cars, talk on the cell phones and fly in the airplanes whose designs I can understand - through the amount of scientific knowledge that I do have - to be based exactly upon scientific proposals.
4. I accept all proposals that are grounded in my own direct observations, but which fail on one or both of the critical qualifications for Level 5 (so, are not objectively measurable, and/or are not on-demand repeatable). I would offer my proposals that are outlined in ‘Spirituality sans Theism’ (another of the subsidiary essays to ‘Truth?’) as good examples of Level 4 acceptance.
3. I have accepted a great many proposals (ideological, ethnic, political, historical, etc.) merely on the basis of their having been passed to me before I had enough knowledge at Levels 4 and 5 – and thereby associated development of reason – to have any kind of effective BS shields in place. This is the level at which I am most actively engaged in raking back through and weeding out, to increase consistency with my proposals embraced at levels 4 and 5. But I am finding this process slow and hard. In the meantime I must sadly accept that much of my knowledge held at this level is simply wrong.
2. I accept proposals that appear to be being offered in good faith and by generally reasonable people who don't stand to gain appreciably from my acceptance. This is the level of honest speech with people who seem to know their subjects, and the reading of apparently authoritative books.
1. I accept proposals from any source whatsoever (politicians, lawyers, comic books, fortune cookies, etc.) if they are sufficiently emotionally gratifying and/or consilient with enough of what I am already holding as knowledge at higher levels.
The first objection that I anticipate to this is that #3 is not functioning as an honest selection level. That I have had to insert it as a fait accompli, simply to account for much of my present knowledge. I will admit that, but offer that no believable human KSP could be constructed without something like Level 3. I will also note that I would have liked to change the order of Levels 2 and 3. Level 3’s dominance is again more an issue of fait accompli reflection than choice.
To return now to my opening paragraph’s offer: I will embrace, on the spot, any theistic proposal that can be selected as knowledge through this procedure. Or, if any theist wishes to propose an alternative procedure that I can understand to be equally capable of discrimination between knowledge and non-knowledge, I will generously switch to that (being, after all honestly desirous of finding agreement with him), and so – assuming him to be able to complete the step of showing me that his procedure does indeed select them – to all of his theistic proposals.
Let me state bluntly that I believe this to be an unprecedented offer. That the debate between our two sides can be seen to have been in progress for at least the past 2500 years, but that throughout this period each side has been accusing the other of unfairness in their insistence upon application of their own epistemological rules of engagement. My offer is to proceed on the basis of any coherent set of such rules whatsoever. To finally settle our disagreement through submittal of their theistic proposals (or our logically exclusive naturalistic ones, the result will be the same) to any set of selection gates that can actually be understood* to be capable of settling disagreements.
*To be clear: I don’t think that selection through desire (feeling the proposal’s ‘truth’ in one’s heart) can be so understood. Desire can be seen to be selecting now, and to have been selecting throughout our species’ history, logically exclusive proposals. In what sense can we say that a selection gate that we can see to be passing both X and not-X is selecting? Selection through the authority of holy texts, or through numerical reinforcement (“well, all of my friends and neighbors believe X”), and – so far as I can determine – through all of the theist’s other traditionally referenced gates, can be seen to suffer from this same problem. To consider as an example only the texts: Those of the Christians say X, while those of the Muslims say Y (which, observably, logically excludes X), while those of the Jews say Z (which, observably, logically excludes both X and Y), and so on. I would suggest that the clearest observation that can be made about all of the theist’s traditionally referenced gates is that they are unable, in any coherent sense, to select. I think that we should go ahead and point this out to them. Let them answer the charge, or if they can’t, let us see what fresh progress this realization may open up in our debate.