A Socratic Dialogue: David and Thomas

David. Thomas, my good friend, how surprised I am to see you here in front of the local church!
Thomas. Why, David, are you so surprised?
David. Frankly, I did not feel that you were the church-going type.
Thomas. As a matter of fact, I was born Jewish. I can see by the look on your face that you are now more confused than ever. However, let me explain myself. I find it enriching to go to any service which I can, regardless of whether it is to be found inside a church, temple, or mosque.
David. I am quite intrigued, why is this so?
Thomas. For they all pay reverence to God.
David. O, is this more important to you than the abounding differences of rituals and the like?
Thomas. Yes, for me, prayer to God is of the utmost importance and I do it any chance I can get.
David. So, clearly, you believe in God.
Thomas. Not only do I believe in God, I know he exists.
David. That’s quite a bold statement to make. One would not say that they had knowledge of something if they were not certain of exactly what it was that they had knowledge of, correct?
Thomas. Absolutely.
David. Hence, I trust that you must have the utmost certainty to make such a bold claim.
Thomas. I do.
David. With this knowledge of God, I assume you refer to yourself as a theist.
Thomas. I do.
David. By theist, you acknowledge the term to refer to one who believes in God and acts as if he exists?
Thomas. Correct.
David. At the same time, you would not say that you are agnostic. To be agnostic would mean to not have the knowledge required to be able to make the claim of God’s existence. An agnostic would not believe in God for he would not know enough to base such a belief upon.
Thomas. I would not call myself an agnostic by any means.
David. Furthermore, you would never associate yourself as an atheist. For as an atheist is one who does not only deny the existence of God, but adamantly claims to know that God does not exist.
Thomas. Such a person is clearly wrong.
David. Why do you say that?
Thomas. Because, God does exist.
David. It seems at this point, you will have to explain to me how you know how the God you refer to does in fact exist. But before I get ahead of myself, I must inquire as to the nature of the God you know to exist. You earlier claimed to pray to God as often as possible?
Thomas. I do.
David. I wonder why exactly you pray to God. I have always reckoned that when one does something to honor another, it is to gain favor from that other person. For example, a visiting ambassador who meets another ambassador may present him with a gift. This gift is to entice favor. Would you agree?
Thomas. Yes, of course.
David. The visiting ambassador may also choose to shake the other ambassador’s hand, or to bow, depending on what is customary. The choice to bow versus to shake hands must be based on the use of reason in determining which way is the best to honor the other?
Thomas. I agree.
David. But while the bow of a head or a handshake can be attributed to an act of honoring, does it not also induce favor from the other person, as honoring shows favoritism?
Thomas. I am not sure what you are getting at, but regardless, I agree that to honor someone is done to gain favor from that person.
David. Would you say that you pray to God to honor him, or to gain favor from him?
Thomas. I pray to honor God.
David. But did you not just show, through our example of the visiting ambassador, how honoring another is as you said “done to gain favor from that person.” Do you still agree with that statement?
Thomas. I said it, and I stand by what I have said.
David. Then just as the ambassadors honor each other in order to gain favor from one another, likewise your honoring of God must also result in attempting to gain favor from him.
Thomas. This would seem to be the case.
David. At this point I would like to ask you the nature of the God which you pray to. Does he possess infinite wisdom, being both all-knowing and all powerful?
Thomas. Of course.
David. Does he command humans to do his bidding, or is he commanded by them?
Thomas. He commands humans.
David. Having infinite wisdom, all actions which he would make would be based off this infinite wisdom?
Thomas. Yes, of course.
David. Hence, having infinite wisdom, and basing all his actions off of this quality which he possesses, he would know exactly what to do in all respects.
Thomas. Correct.
David. Do humans have infinite wisdom and knowledge?
Thomas. Of course not.
David. Can something which lacks infinite wisdom and knowledge tell something with infinite wisdom and knowledge how to act, providing it with additional information?
Thomas. Of course not, this is an absurd statement. Possessing infinite knowledge, God cannot learn anything, since he already knows everything furthermore, he could not be convinced to act otherwise as all his actions are already based on his use of his infinite wisdom.
David. Earlier you consented that in addition to honoring God, you also wished to gain favor from him?
Thomas. Yes I did.
David. When the ambassador attempts to gain favor front the other, is he not doing so in order to affect the way the other ambassador acts towards him.
Thomas. Clearly this is the case.
David. Likewise in wishing to gain favor from God, you are doing so in order to affect the way God acts towards you. However, Thomas, as a human being you have limited wisdom and knowledge. We have already concluded that a being having limited wisdom and knowledge cannot, in any way, influence the decisions or thoughts of a being which already has infinite wisdom and knowledge. Hence, you could not expect to influence the decisions of God?
Thomas. Of course not.
David. However, in praying to God you are honoring hint. We have decided that honoring is a means of gaining favor from another. Thus, you wish to gain favor from God. We have further concluded that wishing to gain favor from someone is done in order to hope to influence that being’s decisions. Therefore, it seems that while you acknowledge that you cannot influence the decisions of God, as you have limited wisdom and knowledge and he has infinite wisdom and knowledge, this is exactly what you are attempting to do by praying to him. Therefore, either you are acting in a way which is entirely fruitless, which I doubt you would do considering that you have made it your business to pray to God as many times as you can, or the God which you claim to know that exists does not hold the characteristics of infinite wisdom and knowledge.
Thomas. I do not know what to say.
David. Earlier you agreed that one must have certain knowledge of exactly what one is talking about in order to say that he can know anything about it.
Thomas. Yes, I think this is correct.
David. You also claimed to not only believe in God’s existence, but to also possess knowledge of this fact.
Thomas. I did.
David. The one ambassador shakes the hand of, or bows his head to, the other ambassador for he thinks that this action will induce the intended response, which as we earlier concluded was to influence the others decisions. If it was shown that such an action was ineffective in attaining the intended response, say, if the other ambassador happened to be a panda bear that is unfamiliar with such customs, would the ambassador be foolish in attempting to shake the panda’s hand?
Thomas. I would say he would be acting in a very foolish manner.
David. Therefore, you agree that doing something which will not result in the intended response is foolish?
Thomas. Absolutely.
David. I assume, Thomas, that you do not consider yourself as foolish as an ambassador who wishes to influence the behavior of a panda by trying to shake its hand, or should I say paw?
Thomas. I hope that I will never act in such a foolish manner.
David. However, while the panda most likely would not know what the handshake meant, it could be conceived that such a gesture could be seen, even to an animal, as being done out of good intention?
Thomas. I guess it is possible.
David. What is more foolish, doing something which while perhaps not probable, is at least possibly effective, or acting in the face of the absolute certainty that one’s actions will not have the intended effect?
Thomas. The latter is more foolish of course.
David. However, as we have already said, it is impossible for an infinite God to be influenced by anything, especially not by a limited human being. You admitted that the gesture of an ambassador shaking the hand of a panda could possibly bring about the intended response of the panda acting more graciously towards him. You have also claimed that the ambassador’s attempt to shake the hand of the panda is foolish. At least the ambassador’s actions could possibly have the intended effect. As you have said, trying to influence God is completely futile. Therefore, in spending all your time praying to God, you must be acting even more foolish than an ambassador who shakes the hand of a panda. But of course, Thomas, I do not feel that you are this foolish. Therefore, your God must in fact be able to be influenced.
Thomas. It seems that he must, for otherwise I have wasted an immense amount of my life.
David. But if he can be influenced, he cannot have infinite wisdom and knowledge. Thus, God does not have the qualities you thought he possessed?
Thomas. I guess that would have to be the case.
David. In fact, he must be of a different nature altogether?
Thomas. He would have to be.
David. As knowledge of something is based on knowing exactly what one is talking about, it would seem that you could not have knowledge of God’s existence after all since you are not even sure of his characteristics. I recognize that you will not like the conclusion we have arrived at. However, as you see, you cannot claim to be a theist, having knowledge of God’s existence, as you are not even sure as to how he has a nature which is susceptible to influence.
Thomas. I still consider myself a theist.
David. I see that you do not wish to forgo your earlier stance so quickly. However, who was it who commands the other. Do people command God?
Thomas. Of course not, God commands people.
David. Ahh, I see that you are able to recall earlier when we made this statement. Would you agree that influencing someone is similar to commanding them, as they both involve the other person changing their course of action?
Thomas. Yes, I would.
David. You still maintain that humans can influence God, even though you are not sure as to why they are able to do so, as we have not yet determined the exact characteristics of the God which you earlier so adamantly claimed knowledge of?
Thomas. I do.
David. And if influencing is essentially the same as commanding, human’s ability to influence God is just a nicer way of saying that they are able to make God accept certain commandments. The ability to make another accept certain commandments is what is meant by commanding someone, is it not?
Thomas. It is.
David. In this way, people not only can influence God, they can also command him to act in one way or another.
Thomas. That is impossible, the God which I know to exist cannot be commanded to do anything. He gives the commandments.
David. It seems that you are caught in a contradiction. You pray to your God to influence his actions. However at the same time, you agree that influencing God is the same thing as commanding him to do something. You say that such an action, commanding God to do something, is impossible. Hence you say that this God, who you are not exactly sure of his character, both can and cannot be influenced.
Thomas. It seems that I am not even faintly aware of how God can be both influenced as well as not influenced, for this is a contradiction, and while I cannot understand his exact nature, I am certain it could not include a contradiction. I must concede, David, that I do not know God’s nature at all.
David. And as we have already shown, if one does not know something’s nature, one cannot be certain to know anything about it, including its existence. Hence, to attempt to influence the behavior of something which not only cannot be influenced, has either an unknown or an absurd nature, and also cannot even certainly be known to exist, would be the most foolish thing imaginable?
Thomas. It seems I have been acting foolish all my life.
David. Thomas, do not be so hard on yourself for I do not think this to be the case. I would rather say that you are simply incorrect in associating yourself as a theist, if by a theist, we mean someone who knows for certain the existence of God. Why is it that you wished to gain favor from God in the first place?
Thomas. Because I feel that he has done so much for me, I wanted to pay him back so that he would continue to look after me as he has in the past.
David. It seems clear that you acted with good intentions. I feel that acting with good intentions is appropriate. Would you agree?
Thomas. Sure.
David. I also think that acting out of good intentions is more important than worrying about whether one is foolish or not. Would you rather be acquainted with someone who had good intention, but may act foolishly, or someone who did not act foolish, but had bad intentions?
Thomas. I would rather deal with someone who was foolish but had good intentions.
David. Hence, it would be foolish for a person to have bad intentions and also hope to gain your acquaintance?
Thomas. I guess so.
David. Therefore, one who has bad intentions is foolish in of themselves. Would you say that having bad intentions is the opposite as having good intentions?
Thomas. Yes.
David. Therefore, having bad intentions should lead to acting in an opposite fashion as one who has good intentions would be led to act.
Thomas. Yes.
David. Foolish is of course the opposite of acting not foolishly. Therefore, if someone with bad intentions is to act foolishly, and someone with good intentions acts in an opposite manner, how must that person act?
Thomas. Not foolishly, of course.
David. Hence, I would say that since in serving God you acted with good intentions, you acted not foolishly. However, I would say that it is foolish for you to continue to call yourself a theist, as such an action would not be with good intentions, but rather out of stubbornness.
Thomas. It seems you are right. I see now that I clearly do not know, and hence, I really am an agnostic. I just hope that this whole exercise was not merely wordplay.
David. Thomas, I assure you, all self-evaluation has its merit.