Scipio came to coffee yesterday at Gimme and said he was amused by the debate going on between atheist confrontationists and another group he called accommodationists.
“What debate?,” I said distractedly, noticing that the coffee barista had given me three eyedroppersful of espresso in my cup, because she hates me.
He named names. I had never heard of most of them, so I asked Scipio to cut to the chase and tell me what the Big Deal was.
“Most of the confrontationists want atheism to be the Big Bad Wolf. Think of religion as the three little pigs.”
“That’s a terrible analogy,” I said. The whole point of the story is that the dumb little pigs get eaten but the smart pig survives and the wolf gets killed.”
“That’s not the way it ends,” Scipio said slurping away at his cup, filled halfway to the top with a lovely espresso emulsion. “All the pigs survive.”
“No, ” I said, “That’s Disney. They get eaten. One survives. And the wolf dies a hideous death.”
Scipio frowned. Nothing distresses him more than being bested in a controversy about folk tales, unless it’s being accused of a bad analogy.
“But I see your point,” I said, trying to soothe his feelings. “Maybe at the end of a confrontation there’s a pot of boling water just waiting for you. Never underestimate your opponent. Accommodation reduces the chances of humiliation. But honestly, Scipio, before I worried too much about tactics, I’d want to know how solid the ground was under my confrontational feet–or how solid my house was, if we stick with fables.”
He seemed cheered by the comment. “Let me ask you a question. If you had the choice between telling an atheist he is right or telling him he is wrong, what would you say?”
“It would depend,” I said. “If the atheist said that men are smarter than women, I would say, ‘You’re wrong. You cannot prove a thing like that because the word smart only possesses connotations, not an absolute meaning like ‘the freezing point of oxidane’.”
“Why would you get into a conversation about water with an atheist,” Scipio said, clearly annoyed.
“Why would I get into a conversation about the three little pigs?” I asked.
“If the question was the question of God–which is the only issue you would want to discuss with an atheist, would you tell him he is right or wrong.”
I stared at the darkish brown, scarcely damp bottom of my empty cup. “Scipio,” I said. “Would you agree with me that this cup is empty?”
“Yes,” he said cautiously. “I think we might agree on that.”
“Not so fast. What persuades you?”
He hated this game. We have played it for years, sometimes several times a day. “Our agreement or something else?”
“The evidence is the emptiness of the cup. Our agreement is simply a result of our examination of the evidence, an assessment.”
“But there is no evidence,” I said playfully. “There is only an empty cup. You’re sounding like a theologian: you believe “in all that is visible and invisible?”
“You’re going to lecture on cups now,” he said unhappily, “potens and form and substantia and all of that…please can we get through an afternoon without Aristotle.”
“There is no such thing as an afternoon without Aristotle. There are only geese who think there are. You have to agree that the only way of concluding the cup is empty is to evaluate the nature of the cup–a cup–which is meant to hold things, even though mine held almost nothing and yours held a lot and came with biscotti.”
“Can we talk about the barista instead,” he said, “I think she likes me.”
“No,” I said. “At most she’s an instrumental cause related to fullness and emptiness, and if you ask me, more the latter. But we can talk about the universe,”
“Sweet,” Scipio said. “From coffee cups to the cosmos. Another one of your horrid analogies.”
“Is it full or empty?”
“Please don’t go where I think you’re going or I’ll start quoting Stephen Hawking to you.”
“Until he has his theory of everything figured out, quote away; what do you think he would say to the question?”
“I think he would probably say it depends on gravity, but that the existence of the strong force, electromagnetism, weak force, and gravity point to the fact that it is not empty.”
“God, Scipio,” I squeaked. “You are so…careful. ‘that it is not empty’ is not an answer, it’s a whimper, a pule. I’m not trying to get a Creator out of this conversation, just some fun. -So is it full or not.”
“It’s not full in the eighteenth century sense of full because if it was–I know you–you’d start talking about creation and chains of being. Besides, full is a word like smart, isn’t it? Is it full if it has stuff in it or full if it can’t hold an iota more?”
“Is it full in any sense,” I said, seeing Scipio had also drained his cup.
“I don’t think we can know that, because the universe is not a coffee cup.”
“You mean we can’t look down into its bottom or that we can’t see the limit of its top?”
“Ok, for the sake of an argument that is really becoming tiresome, I’ll grant you that it is full if full means that it is not empty and if it has limits and if we can know something about its limit by observing events. It doesn’t matter that we can see edges, tops, and bottoms because we can know about events and forces. And there aren’t any real edges, anyway.”
“But I disagree. I think it isn’t full. I think it’s as empty as this coffee cup and the microscopic particles that are still invisibly occupying space down below are to full what the planetary masses are to the totality of the universe. Isn’t that what you’d want in subatomic theory anyway? I agree with Richard Feynmann: no one understands quantum mechanics. Not even Stephen Hawking.”
“Listen mate,” Scipio said testily. “I asked a simple question. Would you confront an atheist or accommodate an atheist on the question of God’s existence?”
“I answered your question,” I said, summoning the barista. She pretended to be busy polishing the bar glasses, but smiled at Scipio.