Wednesday, May 14, 2014


I recently had a nice discussion with some friends about the challenges of identifying as Catholic given numerous problems that flow from standard Catholic doctrine combined with the hypocrisy and scandal within the organization. In that friendly conversation, I came up against not one, but two deepities. These beguiling but ultimately fallacious phrases are commonly encountered, especially, it seems, when matters theological are discussed. Read on if you don’t want to be fooled by them.  

Let’s  begin with an example of a deepity I know you’ve heard before. Ready for a deep thought sans Jack Handey? Here it is:

Love … is just a word”.

Does that sound somewhat interesting or even a little shocking to you? Does it make you question whether you ought to deflate your ideas about the importance of love? (Even just a bit?)

Here’s the thing: this sentence can be read in two ways. On one reading, it seems to say something profoundly counter-intuitive: while we normally think of love as being so important to our lives, it’s actually “just” a word. On the second reading, it is trivially true that the word ‘love’ is a word. The word ‘mucous’ is a word, too. So what? The amazing thing is that somehow, the obvious truth of the second reading seems to rub off on the first, making it seem true; love is just a word, isn’t it? Sorry, that’s actually false. You can’t find love in the dictionary because love is not a word. ‘Love’ is, but love is an emotion, a condition, a feeling.

The key features of a deepity are contained in that example. On one reading of a deepity, a statement is true, but trivially so. The second reading seems to say something profound but is actually false. The truth of the first reading somehow makes the false but profound reading seem true, so the phrase is attention-getting, makes you go, “Ooooh , how interesting, how cool, how deep”. But you’ve been fooled. It’s actually banal and false.

Here are some other examples: “Whatever will be will be”, “Everything happens for a reason”, “You learn about nothing in philosophy”, & “Beauty is only skin deep”.

Back to the conversation I had with my Catholic friends: the first deepity that came up was one you’ve probably heard before. Get ready to be moved:

God … is love”.

Sounds profound, doesn’t it, as though God has somehow been explained or defined? “Ooooh. Deep.” But ‘God’ can be redefined to be anything we want. Trivial. My son might say, “’God’ is peanut butter”. He might then ask for a God and jam sandwich for lunch.

I wonder if people use this deepity and similar ones like “God is the universe” or “God is nature” because redefining the word ‘God’ as words that signify things that exist (like love, nature, and the universe) makes it seem as if God exists, too.

Here’s the rub: the universe is the universe, nature is nature, and love is love, and none of that tells me anything about what one thinks God actually is. We already have these words and they already have their uses. If ‘God’ is just synonymous with ‘love’, it doesn’t help me one iota to be able to tell my wife that I God her. What is needed is a definition for God such that it’s possible to see if the concept maps onto reality in some way. 

If you’re using the word God, it seems to me that you have to be talking about some kind of intelligent mind that is either disembodied or exists in some other dimension and that is responsible in some way for the universe. Those are necessary, (though not sufficient) to define what one (everyone?) means by God, so if those concepts aren’t part of what you mean by God - and they are no part of what anybody means by ‘love’ - then not only do I have no idea what you’re talking about, I doubt that you have any idea what you’re talking about. Notice that it is another thing entirely to say that God is loving. At least that makes sense because 'loving' is an adjective that one might use to describe the intelligent agent known as God in which one might believe. But if you believe in God because you think that God is love, I’m sorry to inform you that you don’t believe in God, you just believe in love. This deepity just creates confusion.

The second deepity I encountered seemed more interesting to me, or at least I hadn’t heard it before. See if you can spot why it’s a deepity. Here it is:

No one will ever argue God into or out of existence!

First reading:  arguments don’t make things exist or stop existing. True, but trivially so. I can argue that I need scrambled eggs for breakfast but that won’t make them suddenly exist on the table in front of me, and I can argue that nuclear weapons should be disposed of, but that won’t make them cease to exist. Trivial.

Perhaps the idea that is meant to be conveyed is that arguments will never eliminate belief in God from humanity, but that’s trivially true, too. After all, despite piles of independent photographic evidence, there are still people who believe that theEarth is flat. This is simply to say that irrational people will always exist. Who’d doubt that (and who'd want to be counted among their numbers)?

The idea that I think is meant to be conveyed is that arguments can’t change people’s beliefs about the existence of God, and while that would be profound if true, it’s obviously false, and I (among countless others) am living proof that it is. The person who can no longer reconcile a single occasion of pointless natural suffering on Earth (let alone the constant onslaught of it) with the idea that all is planned and managed by an omnipotent and morally perfect agent is succumbing to the evidential argument from evil. Countless agnostics and atheists will point to some version of the problem of evil, for example, in their otherwise painful and unwanted deconversion from theism.

To claim that evidence and argument would not change one’s mind under any circumstances – that they can’t - is to claim to be irrational. It's a conversation stopper. 

In religious circles, believing despite a lack (or in spite) of good evidence and argument (to the contrary), ie. faith, is celebrated and deepities such as this one are part of that dance. Such faith, we are told, is a virtue. But let’s see this claim for what it really says: irrationality is a virtue. I have a feeling that my old friend who shared this amusing deepity with me would reject that claim. I have a feeling that any sane person would, for believing despite a lack (or in spite) of good evidence and/or argument (to the contrary) is the definition of a delusion. In his classic novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig wrote, “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion.” 

If I'm wrong, and this deepity isn't a deepity at all because both readings are true, then it would seem that Pirsig was right.

Got any deepities that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

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