October 28, 2012

I.  Oerter's Purple Pachyderm

Intro-  This is a three part argument which I shall refer to, overall, as The God is Possible Argument.

The three parts are:

I:  Oerter's Purple Pachyderm
II:  God is Possible
III:  A Preemptive Reply

I grew up in a world that constantly debated science versus religion, or religion versus science. Fundamental issues, for sure, yet somehow it always struck me that it was the wrong debate ... or the right debate, just incorrectly structured.

But I love philosophy (the unexamined life and all that). And I love spooky science, Stephen Hawking, big bangs, string theories, dark energy and the like.  I recently found Robert Oerter's blog which combines these topics. This put me in Hog heaven, as in Harley hog heaven.

So Proud Mary's wheel began to turn. Thank you, Robert Oerter, for pouring such good energy into your blog.  And thank you, John Fogerty, for cleaning a lot of plates in Memphis, and then writing songs about it.

Ok, on to Part I of the argument.

I:  Oerter's Purple Pachyderm

To restate the argument's name accurately it is The Purple Pachyderm Argument by Robert Oerter.  

Robert Oerter is a physics professor and the author of The Theory of Almost Everything (2006), an easy-to-read book which explains the Standard Model of quantum physics to ... well ... everyone.

Professor Oerter posted The Purple Pachyderm Argument on his blog, Somewhat Abnormal, on October 18, 2012, at this link:


I encourage you to go there now to read Oerter's argument, which is an argument against theism. Also, I encourage you to read the comments there ... to follow the action so to speak. It is Oerter's first comment (the 4th comment down in his comment section) which got my big wheel turning. I will quote some of Oerter's material below, but read it all there first. 

Here is a visual I found on photobucket.com to get your motor running.

Purple Space Elephant, by osbornebn
[Ed. Note: I'll put the pic back when I find out where it went! Sorry, editor]

Now from Oerter's blog, which sets out a fictitious dialogue between Pachydermist and Apachydermist, we read as follows:

"Pachydermist:  I believe there are purple space elephants living on the planet Pluto."

"Apachydermist:  Um, OK, what evidence do you have for that belief?"

... and so they argue on ... (my italics)

Apachydermist insists on material evidence before he is willing to accept the notion that purple elephants (God) exist. Every time Apachydermist presses a point about what it means to exist Pachydermist changes the description about what it means to be a purple space elephant, until Apachydermist finally leaves the scene "shaking his head sadly."

In the comments which followed the argument, Ben Yachov (a defender of theism) takes Professor Oerter to task. He does this primarily on the grounds that Oerter has not addressed the problem from the correct standpoint of classic philosophical theism. Yachov says, "You[r] argument is meaningless to anybody who believes in the God of TLS, Aquinas, Scotus & or the Historic Judeo-Christian God."

[TLS is short for The Last Superstitution (2008), a book by Edward Feser, which opposes modern atheism using classical arguments].

Yachov provides various useful links, including one discussing Bertrand Russell's "celestial teapot" argument (see William Vallicella's link in the credits below).  What I take Yachov's arguments to mean is that Oerter's thought experiment represents too shallow an understanding of the classical arguments for the existence of God.

Yachov says:  "Oh Prof Rob when are you going to pick fights with real Gods instead of wasting your time with bit players?"

The Professor comes back with this very interesting remark (quoting Vallicella's blogpost):

"Whether 'a reasoned case can be made for theism' is not the point of the analogy (Russell's or mine). The point is whether there is any EVIDENCE for theism... I can make out a reasoned case for string theory, as unifying the known forces, providing an explanation for the patterns of elementary particles, and so forth.  But until I have some actual EVIDENCE for string theory, I'm not going to accept it as fact."

I was troubled by this remark / argument for days.  Restless even.  Having been trained as a scientist ... accustomed to empirical research ... yet steeped in religion ... while conversant in logical arguments in philosophy and the law ... I had been fully prepared to view (and treat) the Purple Pachyderm Argument as heading to an inevitable draw.

Yet Oerter's argument by analogy had arrested my thought.  Not the general analogy he was making between purple elephants (or celestial teapots) and God. That analogy seemed straight forward enough.  It was the Professor's other analogy, the one between string theory and proof of God's existence, that had me stumped.

Then it occurred to me, perhaps the good professor has proven too much?

What I mean is this: whatever help the string theory analogy brings or does not bring to Oerter's main argument -- that theists lack evidence to support the existence of God -- the use of string theory, as an analogy, supports a different argument, namely the argument that God is Possible.

It is to that argument -- God is Possible -- to which I shall now turn, in Part II.

- Somewhat Abnormal, blog by Robert Oerter, somewhatabnormal.blogspot.com/
- Photo, Purple Space Elephant, by osbornebn, photobucket.com
- John Fogerty, johnfogerty.com
- Maverick Philosopher, blog by Bill Vallicella,

1 comment:

  1. Wasn't this the underlying argument all along? I believe the axiomatic position of the athiest is God is not possible, that of the theist is God is possible. We are now in the position of having to prove an axiom. I wonder though if we (and by we, I mean the three of you well-credentialled opponents) are actually in the position of having to prove or disprove a necessity? Namely, is the possibility of God's existence a necessity to mankind? An entirely different proposition. I may just be standing on shifting sand here or observing an electron in my own quantum cloud.


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