Belmont Club


The Usual SuspectsThe venue selected was improbably beside a bar, whose door was barred by a number of hefty bouncers. But I looked at the address and there was no mistake. The Oxford mathematician John Lennox, who had debated Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the question of the existence of God was due to speak somewhere in the building. Lennox had recently written God’s Undertaker, a book which while ostensibly about the God is really about knowledge. A line of well-dressed men and women was forming in a small vestibule beside the bouncers. I had discovered the entrance to the upper floors. None of the elevators worked, so the crowd eventually trooped to the alleyway behind and made their way up the fire escape.

Lennox’s presentation would be instantly familiar to anyone who has thought long and hard about information issues. He reasoned from the existence of a bedrock of mathematically accessible information which made intelligibility possible. Hence the world was deeply structured in some fundamental way. In such a world it was more plausible to inquire into the purpose of the structure than to pretend it didn’t exist. He made his points from Godel, Turing, Watson, Einstein and to my mind thoroughly demolished popular atheism with the same comprehensiveness with which a Richard Dawkins might destroy a simple, unsophisticated country preacher. Having given the subject more than a fair amount of thought, I was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d more or less gone over the same ground independently — although without the same rigor — to arrive at a slightly different conclusion.

Like Lennox, I believed that categorical atheism was ludicrous; that the most logical position one could reach purely on the wings of reason was agnosticism. The value of the bit field representing the truth about the existence or nonexistence of God was a null. It wasn’t categorically either a zero or a one; and therefore our provisional answer to the question, if we had to have one, would have to be based on intuition or a guess, which I suppose you could call faith. Faith in atheism or theism. No one has yet created a Theory of Everything, and produce as it were, a formal proof of atheism right beside Godel’s ontological proof of the existence of God.

The group I had fallen in with repaired to a nearby steakhouse, where over red wine and the first fillet mignon I have ever eaten in my life, we went over Lennox’s arguments. Asked for my opinion, I adventured that Lennox had asserted the easy part: that the world is intelligible and therefore, in some deep sense, purposeful, or at least capable of expressing a purpose. It was fairly easy to establish the weak form of the existence of God, but what Lennox had skipped over was discussion of the strong form: the form most of us are interested in. The question of whether this deep structure which we dimly perceive can hold any love for us. Whether the universe contains such qualities as love, pity, justice. Whether a sparrow falls to earth counted into the deeps of eternity. That’s the kind of God we are interested in, not the God of mathematics. Surprisingly I found that the answer to the question of whether those qualities could exist had to be yes, simply we exhibited some of those qualities. And therefore they existed. But somehow evil, falsehood, hatred and perversion must by the same argument exist as well. Human beings are frightening tokens of what may lie around us. We have only just begun to explore the nature of information; and if the null — if agnosticism — was all I thought we could “prove” it was prudent to assume we might actually happen upon a non-null answer. You had to go through life prepared for the eventuality that you might meet God or the Devil. We aren’t sure enough to exclude either possibility. Lennox’s own tendency was to conclude that the preponderance of evidence (not proof but the weight of the indications) suggested a huge opportunity to participate in a life which we would be fools to ignore. Humanity, in his view, was obviously invited to participate in a world of meaning; they could glimpse it through a partially opened door. It would be crazy to pretend you couldn’t see it.

Coming back to base (the computer) I found someone had sent me a link to a site called IMINT & Analysis, which described the excesses and poor coverage of the Russo-Georgia conflict in great detail, but which incidentally illustrated how humans intuitively seek structure and meaning in the incidents they observe in life. Sean O’Connor observed that evidence of a large scale Russian build up prior to the Georgian incursion could not be established, although it could not be ruled out. “Given the recent history of the Georgian situation, it would be illogical to assume that Russia had not at least outlined plans for a military action against Georgia. Russian troops based in Georgia pre-conflict were described as peacekeepers; peacekeepers would not be necessary were it not for the potential for open conflict, and where there is potential there will most assuredly be a contingency plan. But does this mean that Russia purposely created an environment where such a contingency plan would be called into action?” No. Does but does the evidence mean that Russia didn’t purposely invade Georgia? The answer is again no.

O’Connor was on much stronger ground going on to describe some of the more blatant errors of the press and made the point that too often facts were twisted to fit the narrative: the Russians were the good guys; the Russians were the bad guys; the Georgians were aggressors; the Georgians were the victims. But the facts could support many narratives. He wrote:

Neither Georgia nor Russia are entirely without fault in the current conflict. Georgia escalated the conflict by attacking the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali following clashes with separatists. Russia took it to a wholly different level with a massive military campaign designed to deny Georgia the ability to inflict further damage to South Ossetia. However, misreporting and deliberate distortion of the facts by the worldwide media has led to a convoluted picture of the events that have taken place. The fact that so many of the most commonly reported news items can be disassembled piece by piece with a few minutes of research places doubts on the credibility and objectivity of these establishments. When dealing with Russia after the cessation of hostilities, it would be wise to remember that there is no evidence to suggest a preplanned and orchestrated campaign to allow Russia to invade South Ossetia and Georgia. Painting Russia as a resurgent Evil Empire is a sign of unsubstantiated bias and nothing more. After all, Russia did warn Georgia that escalation was possible, and Saakashvili chose to give them the excuse needed to ensure the integrity of South Ossetia, perhaps permanently. Arguing that Russia’s methods were overkill is one thing, accusing them of trying to take over the Caucasus is another thing entirely.

They are certainly two entirely different assertions, and the answer to which was which remained unanswered. But although we didn’t have the answers we would be fools not to seek it. The absence of evidence isn’t the evidence of absence. Until Western journalists were actually allowed to visit the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali, the newspapers routinely repeated the claim that it had been “destroyed” by the Russian or the Georgian Army. “But a trip to the city on Sunday, without official escorts … almost all of the buildings seen in an afternoon driving around Tskhinvali were still standing. Russian-backed leaders in South Ossetia have said that 2,100 people died in fighting in Tskhinvali and nearby villages. But a doctor at the city’s main hospital, the only one open during the battles that began late on Aug. 7, said the facility recorded just 40 deaths.” What does that say about intent? If someone asked me whether Russia purposefully invaded Georgia I might have to answer that I couldn’t prove it either way. But that doesn’t mean that the question, even if I never find an answer, is meaningless. What do you believe — about the Russian invasion?

Dave Kujan: Do you believe in him, Verbal?

Verbal: Keaton always said, “I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.” Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.

Tip Jar.