On False Claims of Certainty

Monday Math is off this week. School starts in just two more weeks, and I have been making a last push to have as much of my books done as I can before it does. Cuts into my blogging time, alas.

Which is a shame, since there is plenty of fodder. For example, Peter Enns has a new essay up over at Huff Po. It’s title is “Atheists Are Believers, Too” I suspect that everyone reading this could reconstruct Enns’ argument from that title alone.. Still, let’s consider the specifics.

Things start off well with this:

Christians sometimes claim to be certain about spiritual matters. This can be everyday things like, “I know this new job is right where God wants me,” or more important issues like, “I know the Bible is the word of God,” or, “I know Jesus is the Son of God.”

But Christians do not have sure knowledge of these things. They believe them — deeply and sincerely, and for all sorts of reasons — but they do not know them in the same way that we know that fire will reduce a book to ashes, that there are billions of galaxies in the universe, or that gravity works. Some Christians claim this kind of knowledge, but they are wrong.

The same goes for Christians — and any religious person — who would say, “I know God exists.” No one can know that God exists in the sense of proof or logical demonstration. Rather, people of faith believe God exists for all sorts of reasons that can’t be laid out in a spreadsheet or observed through a telescope.

If only the essay stayed at that level! Alas, things now deteriorate quickly.

Atheists are in exactly the same boat.

What holds true for religious people when they talk about God holds for atheists when they talk about not-God.

Really? Exactly the same boat. Seems a bit strong. Let’s see how Enns defends this.

Some atheists claim to have a sure and certain knowledge about spiritual things. “I know — through reason, logic, and evidence — that God does not exist.” These atheists feel that their position is intellectually superior to a belief in God. God does not exist because what cannot be established through “reason, logic, or evidence” is not real.

This sounds rational and objective, but there is a lot of belief tucked away in this assertion. Atheists do not know God does not exist; they believe it.

There are very few atheists who claim metaphysical certainty about spiritual matters. Certainly many of the most prominent atheists — Dawkins, Myers, Hitchens, Harris — claim no such thing. Moreover, the claim is very rarely that things that cannot be established by reason, logic or evidence are not real. Instead we claim simply that we cannot have confidence in the existence of things that cannot be approached with those tools.

So far, so banal. Things really get going in the next paragraph:

To say that God’s existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God. This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition.

Reason, logic and evidence are Western ways of knowing? I think a few Easterners might wish to dispute that.

People familiar with this genre know that where the phrase “ways of knowing” appears, high-grade gobbledygook is sure to follow. In every area of life except religion we expect existence claims to be backed up with evidence and argument. As it happens, rather a lot of theists down through the years have claimed that we do, indeed, have strong physical evidence for God. Given that, I hardly think atheists can be faulted for applying their intellectual faculties to the question.

As for emotion and intuition, please spell out for me how either one provides a reliable reason for believing in God. I cannot even imagine what it means to treat “emotion” as a way of knowing. And many of us have no intuition at all that God exists. In fact, such intuitions as we have lie entirely in the opposite direction. Why should I trust the intuitions of theists over my own?

It also reduces God to an object, a thing, a being among all other beings, whose existence is as open to rational inquiry as anything else. It is an old argument but a good one: any god worthy of the name is the source of all being, and therefore not one more being alongside all others subject to rational control. Any god like that isn’t God at all.

People can think what they want about God. My point here is simply this: no one knows whether our intellectual faculties can determine with certainty whether there is a higher power, prime mover, or whatever you want to call god. That is a belief.

False claims of certainty are far more the province of religion than they are of nonbelief.

There is, however, a bigger point here. Right up until Darwin arrived on the scene it was considered obvious by nearly everyone that there was scientific evidence for some sort of intelligent designer. Some went even further, arguing that the Christian God specifically could be inferred from nature. There is no reason in principle why there could not be such evidence.

The charge that this sort of reasoning reduces God to a thing is simply fallacious. It does not have anything directly to do with God at all. It is merely taking what we know about nature and asking whether we need to invoke an intelligent designer to explain it. In the past, the complexity and adaptedness of organisms seemed to provide the necessary example. Nowadays theists routinely invoke consciousness, or the fine-tuning of the cosmos for the same purpose. I do not find their arguments persuasive, but the relevant point is that they are not diminishing God in the slightest by thinking along those lines. They are merely engaging in abductive reasoning, trying to find the best explanation for what we know about nature.

Also, all people, atheists included, believe worthwhile things for which there is no compelling evidence whatsoever. For example, many people — scientists, philosophers — believe in the principle of uniformity: what we observe now of the laws of nature happens everywhere in the universe, always has and always will.

I happen to believe this is true, but what I believe isn’t the point here. The point is that there is no empirical evidence for this principle, nor can it be logically proven. In fact, there is no evidence for the principle at all unless we assume it to begin with.

Why do people accept the principle of uniformity? Because it can be used to construct coherent scientific explanations of the universe, and that is a good reason to accept it. But this is not too far from what religious people say about their faith. Religious beliefs can be used to construct coherent explanations for things like why there is something rather than nothing.

There is so much wrong with this.

First, religion does not provide a coherent explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. It simply asserts that there is a God behind our reality, and then declares by fiat that this God exists necessarily. The whole notion of necessary existence is deeply unsatisfying, but if we are stuck with it then I do not see what is gained by assuming the thing that exists necessarily must be intelligent.

Second, let us grant for the moment the assertion that the principle of uniformity cannot be defended by logic or evidence. The fact remains that there is no evidence against it, and this puts it in a far better position than the hypotheses of theism. We have strong evidence against the existence of the Christian God in the form of the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness. Theologians have their little arguments to make in trying to defuse these problems, but they have not been terribly successful.

Third, religious believers usually claim far more for their beliefs than merely their practical usefulness. We are typically meant to think that they have a keener understanding of ultimate reality than the rest of us, or that it is only by thinking like they do that one can have a secure basis for morality. People believing what they have to believe to get through the day is one thing, but trying to align public policy to those beliefs is quite another. Relentless bigotry towards homosexuals, support for oppressive sex roles in the name of “traditional family values”, attempts to limit the availability of abortion and to infantilize women who seek them, resistance to important medical research, and casual contempt for atheists are not the result of people hypothesizing things for the sake of providing cogent answers to metaphysical questions. They are the result of a pathological way of thinking, one that is positively encouraged in too many of the nation’s pulpit’s Enns’ little whitewash of religion simply fails to do it justice.

Let us skip ahead to the end:

Oddly, some Christian fundamentalists and some atheist fundamentalists suffer under the same delusion, that their view on ultimate reality is fully supported by reason, logic, and evidence.

Both are wrong.

For both the religious and atheists, there is mystery. Atheists are free to be atheists, but they don’t know any more than anyone else.

So let me see if I understand the situation. Christian theists claim not only that God exists, but that he assumed human form, lived a sinless life, and died on the Cross for my sins. They tell me that if I fail to accept their claims, which are defended, apparently, on the basis of emotion and intuition, then I will meet a grim fate in the afterlife.

Atheists, by contrast, claim simply that there is no good evidence that those claims are true and substantial evidence that they are false.

But we’re all in the same boat?

Enns’ argument here is based entirely on a bogus caricature of atheism. There are no atheist fundamentalists claiming metaphysical certainty or denying that there are mysteries in the universe. By contrast, there are plenty of religious folks, not just fundamentalists, who claim a great deal of certainty on topics about which they have no basis feeling certain. This false certainty has profoundly negative impacts on our discourse and politics.

Comments

  1. #1 Aaron
    August 16, 2010

    It also reduces God to an object, a thing, a being among all other beings, whose existence is as open to rational inquiry as anything else.

    So God is no thing? God is No-Thing. Nothing? Works for me.
    So God is not a thing, but exists? Even abstract things can be investigated rationally and can be said to exist, even if only as a mental construct.

    It always bugs me how theists consider God to be beyond the question of existence or non-existence, while insisting he exists. It is like saying God is good, while also saying that God should not be judged. They are oxymoronic statements.

    Some others (specifically Christian): He is wholly man and wholly God. 1 =/= 2.

    He is three in one. 1 =/= 3.

    He is perfectly merciful and perfectly just. Apple =/= Orange.

    He is all-knowing, and is all-powerful. Up =/= down
    etc…

    It seems most theists concept of God is just one big contradiction. One big hunk of cognitive dissonance.

  2. #2 The Science Pundit
    August 16, 2010

    Some atheists claim to have a sure and certain knowledge about spiritual things. “I know — through reason, logic, and evidence — that God does not exist.”

    This all depends on how you define gØd. I find the standard omni-gØd definition to be incoherent. All the omni-’s are internally contradictory (eg. Can gØd make an object that she/it can’t move?) and cross-contradictory (eg. the problem of evil). So with respect to the omni-gØd, I’m as certain that she/it doesn’t exist as I’m certain that there are no square circles.

    Of course, as a skeptic, I’m willing to acknowledge that one might be able to conceivably devise some strange non-euclidean surface where a square circle could exist. And likewise, there might exist some strange metaphysical plane where that beast could exist, but in any normal universe, that gØd cannot possibly exist.

  3. #3 Jerry Coyne
    August 16, 2010

    Nice job, Jason. One other point is that the principle of uniformity is not accepted simply because we have to in order to do science. There’s ample evidencethat the laws of physics, or things like the speed of light, don’t vary over time and space. We can predict the motion of planets, for example, using the same principles that apply to objects on earth, and those predictions work. In claiming that scientists use the “principle of uniformity” the same way believers use faith, Enns is betraying his deep ignorance of science.

  4. #4 The Science Pundit
    August 16, 2010

    @Jerry Coyne

    Also bear in mind that believers use the principle of uniformity in their daily lives, so even if you were to grant it as an unprovable assumption, they’re still making more assumptions then we are (which makes atheism/naturalism more parsimonious than faith).

  5. #5 Andy
    August 16, 2010

    Thanks for this post, Jason.

    I HATE this whole “atheists have faith too” meme. This is an argument made only by sophists and fools—but it sticks in the minds of many fair-minded people because it seems to make sense (“yep, just two different ‘ways of knowing,’ one no better than the other…”).

    Few things are as infuriating as people falsely equating science and religion, as though science were an ideology or a “worldview.”

  6. #6 RBH
    August 17, 2010

    I’ll repeat here the comment I made on Butterflies and Wheels, lightly editing it. Enns is quoted as writing

    Religious beliefs can be used to construct coherent explanations for things like why there is something rather than nothing.

    OK then, just what is that explanation–a description of the how and when and identification of the relevant causal variables–and why should one give it any credence? Or really, given the multiplicity of mutually exclusive religious beliefs out there, perhaps the appropriate question is ‘Just what is that explanation, and why should one give it any credence relative to a so-called explanation produced by another of those mutually exclusive religious belief systems?’

    Shoot, one can use the Ainulindalë to construct a coherent ‘explanation’ for why there is something rather than nothing: Tolkien did it. What (in Enns’ view) would make that a lesser explanation than, say, the Bible’s multiple mutually inconsistent ‘explanations?’

    Jerry’s comment captures it:

    There’s ample evidence that the laws of physics, or things like the speed of light, don’t vary over time and space. We can predict the motion of planets, for example, using the same principles that apply to objects on earth, and those predictions work. In claiming that scientists use the “principle of uniformity” the same way believers use faith, Enns is betraying his deep ignorance of science.

    There’s that pesky testability notion that we as scientists agree is critical to evaluating views on these topics. The religious have no such touchstone, and that’s one of my main bitches about religious knowledge claims: there is no mutually agreed and principled way of resolving disputes. Schism and/or suppression are it.

  7. #7 Stewart, aka Luigi
    August 17, 2010

    In an interview a while back, Charles Taylor, of Templeton Prize notoriety, was asked what he thought of the atheist bus campaign in Britain. The interviewer even provided the words of the bus slogan – ‘There’s probably no god, so just relax and enjoy your life.’ Revealingly, the usually circumspect Taylor described it as hilarious in its fatuousness – ‘as if anyone’s going to have their mind changed by a slogan’. He then started going on about this new, angry atheism, as if this slogan was proof! A more classic case of projection I’ve never encountered. Taylor seemed to miss completely the fatuous Christian slogans on t-shirts, car bumpers, Church billboards and the like, which outnumber the atheist ones by, what, 10,000 to one? What’s more, how many Christian slogans have you read that say ‘Jesus probably saves’, ‘Jesus probably loves you’ or ‘Jesus might just possibly be the answer’?

  8. #8 csrster
    August 17, 2010

    That should be the next atheist bus slogan “Jesus Might Save – But He Very Probably Doesn’t”.

  9. #9 Anton Mates
    August 17, 2010

    Also bear in mind that believers use the principle of uniformity in their daily lives

    As does every human being who’s ever lived, so far as I can tell. If you make any decisions based on prior experience–if you don’t stick your hand in hot water twice–then congratulations, you’re using the principle of uniformity. It’s fundamental to science, sure, but that’s not why we accept it. We accept it because we can’t help doing so. It’s axiomatic to human thought, and probably to the thought of any creature that has thoughts and learns from experience.

    Belief in God? Not quite so universal.

    And yeah, Enns is basically just saying “Remember, atheists, you can’t disprove global skepticism, so ha!” I’m sure that will be very helpful, someday, when an atheist actually claims absolute and certain knowledge of something. But so far, the only atheist I’ve heard of who even came close to that position was the Raving Atheist. And look what happened to him….

  10. #10 That Guy Montag
    August 17, 2010

    Sigh, the Problem of Unduction argument again, or “uniformity” as it’s called here. I’ve issues with the logic of the problem as it’s generally constituted but I’ll also add that we actually have a lot of evidence for the general proposition that the universe follows laws. Fundamentally we need to remember that because law following is a property of a universe, it’s subject to the law of the excluded middle. This means that we’re stuck with only two possible options: either the universe is law following or it’s not. It seems to me that people who feel comfortable saying that we can’t assert uniformity just haven’t tried the trick of trying to imagine what it actually means for the universe not to follow laws. One you actually try to imagine what the universe would look like without laws you’ll quickly realise that we don’t live in that kind of universe therefore we must live in a universe which does.

    There are other problems philosophically which crop up after this but they’re a touch more technical than I’d like to get into in this comment and can be dealt with fairly easily by being careful about the difference between the normative and the metaphysical aspects of epistemology.

    P.S An interesting question that’s cropped up for me is what the best possible description of a genuinely chaotic universe be? Would that universe be one where for instance a cat is as likely to be a hamburger as a kipper; would it be a giant undifferentiated mass of particles or a vast expanse of tv snow? What about space and time? Any takers?

  11. #11 That Guy Montag
    August 17, 2010

    Isn’t it frustrating when you take an hour to write a comment, proof it four times because you’re that anal, and then still manage to misspell Induction.

  12. #12 That Guy Montag
    August 17, 2010

    Oh no Anton, you fell for Hume you poor bastard. Hume on induction is all right when you remind yourself he’s just asserting that we shouldn’t commit Post Hoc and other such fallacies; on the Metaphysics of knowledge he’s just confused.

  13. #13 Ender
    August 17, 2010

    Just call me a militant agnostic. There is no evidence that there is no God, there is no evidence that there is one. Anyone who believes there is a God or believes there is no God is holding an unfalsifiable faith position.
    The essay was poor though.

  14. #14 Anton Mates
    August 17, 2010

    For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God. This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition.

    Makes perfect sense to me; it’s obvious that Chandrasekhar and Susumu Tonegawa got their Nobels for feeling really deeply about stuff. You might not know that the world’s most accurate scientific instrument is the human heart, but that’s just one of the timeless truths we can learn from the mysterious Orient.

    It also reduces God to an object, a thing, a being among all other beings, whose existence is as open to rational inquiry as anything else. It is an old argument but a good one: any god worthy of the name is the source of all being, and therefore not one more being alongside all others subject to rational control. Any god like that isn’t God at all.

    …so privileging Western ways of knowing is bad, but privileging Western-style hardcore monotheism is cool? Because Enns just dissed the hell out of Hindusism and Shinto and about four hundred flavors of paganism and indigenous religion here.

  15. #15 Anton Mates
    August 17, 2010

    Because Enns just dissed the hell out of Hindusism

    Hindusism being very much like Hinduism, only Shiva’s third eye wears a spiffy monocle.

    Montag @10,

    One you actually try to imagine what the universe would look like without laws you’ll quickly realise that we don’t live in that kind of universe therefore we must live in a universe which does.

    On the contrary–once you try to imagine what the universe would look like without laws, you’ll quickly realize that it could look exactly like this one.

    An interesting question that’s cropped up for me is what the best possible description of a genuinely chaotic universe be? Would that universe be one where for instance a cat is as likely to be a hamburger as a kipper; would it be a giant undifferentiated mass of particles or a vast expanse of tv snow?

    Any of the above, or none of the above. One can’t claim that any particular description is the “best” without contradicting our assumption of total chaos.

  16. #16 That Guy Montag
    August 17, 2010

    Anton:

    An interesting comment. I’d kind of like a bit more detail on your first objection because it’s more key to my argument. Maybe you could start with what you mean by a universe without laws because it sounds like it differs from mine.

  17. #17 Birger Johansson
    August 17, 2010

    If you permit a little faecetiousness (it is getting late in the day here), let me quote Scott Adam´s Dogbert: “…Things move from lower complexity to higher complexity….What if God is in our future instead of our past!”

    At that future point, belief in god would be like believing in the mailman, or something equally mundane. Since we have seen no manifestations of physical constants being altered, or stellar systems getting turned into Dyson spheres, I will stick with the null hypothesis: There is no god (yet).
    And a hypothetical inactive god that does nothing except burning random bushes has almost as little impact as the solar neutrinos, and, like them, can be ignored in our daily lives.

  18. #18 eric
    August 17, 2010

    Jerry Coyne @3: One other point is that the principle of uniformity is not accepted simply because we have to in order to do science. There’s ample evidence that the laws of physics, or things like the speed of light, don’t vary over time and space.

    Yet another point in favor of uniformity was made by Feynman in the posthumous “Six Not So Easy Pieces.” Our conservation laws (energy, momentum, etc…) derive deductively from incredibly simple principles. There is no need to travel the universe testing whether momentum is conserved in the next star system. In any universe where energy is quantized and you can physically move in a circle (returning where you start), conservation of momentum is logically, deductively required. At every point. At every time.

    Feynman doesn’t go into the proof (the book is based on his lectures, and in this lecture he just said ‘its beyond the current discussion’), but the point is that in many cases the answer to the question “why is this law uniform” is pretty simple and not philosohpical or metaphysical at all: its uniformity is deductively required based on what we observe – even if the average human (me included) can’t intuitively grasp the deduction.

  19. #19 Vicki
    August 17, 2010

    The problem is that the “god” they’re saying we can’t disprove isn’t the “god” they talk about most of the time. Nobody builds their life around an undetectable “god of the gaps” whose existence and nature are unknown: they build on ideas like “god is powerful and wants me to do X, Y, Z.” If a god exists who took human form, s/he was detectable by humans while in that form. A god as powerful as people keep claiming wouldn’t have lost her/his/its ability to perform miracles just because humans invented microscopes and tape recorders and the printing press and so on.

  20. #20 Ender
    August 17, 2010

    Is that true then? “They” must be a bunch of dicks. Thank Goodness we aren’t “Them”. Also thank goodness you didn’t specify who “they” are, so your opinion isn’t falsifiable.

  21. #21 Richard Wein
    August 17, 2010

    Jerry wrote:

    One other point is that the principle of uniformity is not accepted simply because we have to in order to do science. There’s ample evidencethat the laws of physics, or things like the speed of light, don’t vary over time and space. We can predict the motion of planets, for example, using the same principles that apply to objects on earth, and those predictions work.

    I don’t really think that gets to the heart of the matter, because Enns can always respond: how do you know things aren’t different beyond the observable universe, or anywhere in the observable universe you happen not to have looked?

    The more fundamental answer to Enns is this. The principle of uniformity is basically the same thing as the principle of parsimony. And scientists don’t employ parsimony just because “it can be used to construct coherent scientific explanations”. They employ it because parsimonious thinking has produced effective explanations, that is ones that enable us to predict and control the world around us. Religious explanations may be “coherent” in some weak sense (though often not even in a weak sense). But they have not helped us predict and control the world around us, at least not since science came up with better explanations. Worse, religious explanations are generally inconsistent with parsimonious thinking.

  22. #22 TGT
    August 17, 2010

    @Ender #13

    There’s plenty of evidence for no God, at least, no God that interacts with the world. Disbelief in God is also quite falsifiable. If God does exist as often described, popping in and making himself known shouldn’t be too hard.

    You position does not appear to be well thought out. It’s easy to be seduced by the middle position in any argument, but the middle is often less consistent than either side.

  23. #23 Joseph
    August 17, 2010

    If you read between the lines, I think this essay is a lot less hostile towards atheism than you might think. The author seems to be getting at this:

    1. The propositions “God exists” and “God does not exist” cannot be epistemological knowledge.
    2. These propositions can be tested for epistemological justification.
    3. The proposition “God exists” clearly fails the test for justification.
    4. The proposition “God does not exist” clearly has a better justification, but that doesn’t make it knowledge.

  24. #24 Forbidden Snowflake
    August 17, 2010

    Rather than “we need to have faith in the principle of uniformity in order to do science”, I would say “the fact that we CAN do science (and, as it was noted, live day-to-day life) is evidence in favor of the principle of uniformity”. Not proof, mind you. But every instance of reliance on the PoU tests it, and it has been passing with flying colors.

  25. #25 Forbidden Snowflake
    August 17, 2010

    Joseph: by all means, the essay isn’t hostile towards atheism. It is, however, very hostile towards a caricaturized strawman version of atheism.

  26. #26 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    August 17, 2010

    To say that God’s existence is detectable with certainty through reason, logic, and evidence is a belief because it makes some crucial assumptions. For one thing, it assumes that our intellectual faculties are the best, or only, ways of accessing God. This is an assumption that privileges Western ways of knowing and excludes other wholly human qualities like emotion and intuition.

    The epistemological reliability of emotion and intuition have been tested. They don’t work very well. The only thing remaining to the argument is special pleading that accessing God should somehow be any different than investigating any other proposition.

  27. #27 gillt
    August 17, 2010

    This should be considered a classic post. Excellent work Jason.

  28. #28 Dan L.
    August 17, 2010

    @Guy Montag:

    I’m not sure I should answer for Anton Mates, but I would guess that the notion he’s working from is that, for example, a random string of binary digits might either be very compressible or not compressible at all. If it’s very compressible, then you have the appearance of structure — but the appearance is spurious. This is a random string, again.

    On the other hand, when we take the analogy out of the CS context and try to make it metaphysical, we’re in a somewhat different situation. It’s clear that the appearance of structure in an abstract bit string can be spurious, but can the appearance of structure in the interactions of subatomic particles be spurious? Or is anything that looks like structure in this context actually structure? One thing to think about here is that the random-but-compressible string is most likely identical to bit strings which are meaningful (not random). Basically, I see what he’s saying, but I’m not sure it ultimately matters; if we’re talking about the entire universe, the appearance of structure could very well BE structure.

    This gets into some brutally abstruse stuff about the relationship of information and structure (which is just my preferred term for uniformity), probably related to the stuff you didn’t want to go into in your comment.

    Here are some of the questions that bug me about the lawless universe: does the lawless universe contain organisms that aren’t made of cells? Does it contain substances that aren’t made of atoms or molecules? Atoms and molecules that aren’t made of electrons and quarks? What does the mix of subatomic particles look like in the lawless universe?

    Obviously, no biological organism could exist without at least local uniformity, so the anthropic principle alone should rule out a truly chaotic universe. Honestly, I think the whole idea is a big category mistake like substance dualism.

  29. #29 Rokkaku
    August 17, 2010

    @Joseph 23

    If you read between the lines, I think this essay is a lot less hostile towards atheism than you might think. The author seems to be getting at this:

    1. The propositions “God exists” and “God does not exist” cannot be epistemological knowledge.
    2. These propositions can be tested for epistemological justification.
    3. The proposition “God exists” clearly fails the test for justification.
    4. The proposition “God does not exist” clearly has a better justification, but that doesn’t make it knowledge.

    Rather than reading between the lines, have you tried reading the actual article? As Jason correctly points out, hardly any atheists – and certainly no prominent ones – do not make the positive claim in the second part of item 1 on your list. So who precisely is the target here? Enns addresses “some atheists” near the start – who are these people? Similarly very few atheists would adopt a position in which *only* reason, logic, and evidence could *ever* be used to solve a problem, but they will (quite correctly) view with skepticism any claims to the opposite. “Emotion and intuition” have been put forward in this essay, as they have in countless hundreds before, even though they have been shown time and again to be completely inadequate and they come this time without any explanation as to why this might have changed.

    The whole thing stinks. It is the ill-informed ranting of someone who wants to feel superior to atheists without even understanding the atheist position.

  30. #30 Anton Mates
    August 17, 2010

    Montag @16,

    An interesting comment. I’d kind of like a bit more detail on your first objection because it’s more key to my argument. Maybe you could start with what you mean by a universe without laws because it sounds like it differs from mine.

    Good question. I suppose I’d say something along the lines of Dan L.’s post: A universe is lawless if it contains no phenomenon or collection of phenomena for which a significantly compressible description exists.

    The point of “significantly compressible” is that a hypothetical outside observer could presumably describe any phenomenon–no matter how chaotic–just by writing a really long list of “A occurred at coordinates X_A, and B occurred at coordinates X_B, and….” But that’s probably not good enough to be a law; a law ought to be, in some sense, significantly simpler than a straightforward description.

    And yes, I know that there can be any amount of gray area between “significantly simpler” and “not significantly simpler.” Almost no law proposed by human scientists falls into that gray area, though; generally we’re talking about a few sentences which are meant to describe thousands or millions of datapoints.

    How about you? What’s your definition of lawlessness?

    Dan @28,

    I’m not sure I should answer for Anton Mates, but I would guess that the notion he’s working from is that, for example, a random string of binary digits might either be very compressible or not compressible at all. If it’s very compressible, then you have the appearance of structure — but the appearance is spurious.

    Actually, I’m fine with saying that a compressible string is “truly” structured–my objection is, rather, that an incompressible string may have compressible substrings. Whatever snippet of the string a human observer has read off so far may be compressible, but there’s no guarantee that later elements of the string can be extrapolated from any compressed description of the bit she’s already read. If she doesn’t assume a principle of uniformity, she can’t even estimate the probability that the rest of the string is compressible.

    Basically, I see what he’s saying, but I’m not sure it ultimately matters; if we’re talking about the entire universe, the appearance of structure could very well BE structure.

    But, as Richard Wein says, we never are talking about the entire universe if we’re speaking empirically. We can say that there’s apparent structure in what we’re looking at right now, and in what we remember looking at yesterday (which is not necessarily what we did look at yesterday). But without a principle of uniformity, we can’t say that this structure applies to the rest of the universe–both the places we’re not looking, and the places we are looking if we check back again tomorrow.

    I think Richard’s right that the principle of uniformity is more or less equivalent to the principle of parsimony, by the way.

    Here are some of the questions that bug me about the lawless universe: does the lawless universe contain organisms that aren’t made of cells? Does it contain substances that aren’t made of atoms or molecules? Atoms and molecules that aren’t made of electrons and quarks?

    Again, I think the only possible answers here are “maybe” or “sometimes.” Any more definite answer would constitute a law.

    Obviously, no biological organism could exist without at least local uniformity, so the anthropic principle alone should rule out a truly chaotic universe.

    No biological organisms could exist indefinitely without local uniformity, it’s true. But without global uniformity you can’t rule out things like Last Thursdayism, so the anthropic principle is difficult or impossible to apply. For all I know the chaos happened to assemble me and my local environment a millisecond ago, with all my fabricated memories, and will tear me apart again in a millisecond more. Or maybe the region of local uniformity has lasted for 13 billion years, so my memories and the apparent past of the universe are quite real, but it’ll terminate tomorrow.

    Do I believe these possibilities, or consider them worth worrying about when I’m going about my life? Nope. I don’t think anyone does, except maybe for people with particularly weird kinds of brain damage. Still, I don’t think they’re the kind of thing you can disprove or even show to be unlikely. As with other flavors of radical skepticism, all you can do is shrug.

  31. #31 AL
    August 18, 2010

    About the “Principle of Uniformity”, intelligent brains correlate stimuli, so we should expect that in a universe with intelligent brains, there will be correlated stimuli and thus some degree of “uniformity.” Uniformity in essence, is required for there to be intelligent beings. Thus I would argue that the principle isn’t unproven and taken on faith, it is logically necessary and could not be any other way.

  32. #32 Anton Mates
    August 18, 2010

    AL,

    About the “Principle of Uniformity”, intelligent brains correlate stimuli, so we should expect that in a universe with intelligent brains, there will be correlated stimuli and thus some degree of “uniformity.”

    I don’t see how your conclusion follows from your premise there. Intelligent brains can do a lot of things–they appreciate opera, for example. It doesn’t follow that any universe with intelligent brains is logically required to contain opera.

  33. #33 Ender
    August 18, 2010

    “There’s plenty of evidence for no God”

    No there isn’t, there is plenty of no evidence for God, but that’s not the same thing. There’s plenty of no evidence that there are any Aliens in the universe, but if you try to persuade me that I should believe that there are no Aliens anywhere then you need to provide evidence.

    “Disbelief in God is also quite falsifiable. If God does exist as often described, popping in and making himself known shouldn’t be too hard.”

    How would you distinguish between God and an lying but incredibly powerful being?
    That’s besides the point though, falsifiable in this context refers to our ability to falsify the hypothesis, not some possibly-fictional deity’s ability. There is no test we can devise to prove that ‘there is no God’ is false, therefore it is unfalsifiable.

    You position does not appear to be well thought out. It’s easy to be seduced by the middle position in any argument, but the middle is often less consistent than either side.

    Thank you for your cutting critique of my position from the 36 words I’ve said about it.

    Luckily in this case the middle is no less consistent than either side, and I have not chosen it simply because it’s in the middle but because it is the only position which does not require you to believe something unprovable and unfalsifiable.

  34. #34 eric
    August 18, 2010

    [TGT] There’s plenty of evidence for no God
    [Ender] No there isn’t, there is plenty of no evidence for God

    We can write Einstein’s famous equation as E=mc^2+kx, and say that there is plenty of evidence that k=0 for any and all variables x. Then we can repeat this add-a-kx-and-state-k=0 for every single equation in physics, chemistry, and so on.

    “Any variable x” includes the divine action variable. Saying ‘plenty of evidence that k=0 for divine action” is equivalent to saying God has no impact. That might not be metaphysically equivalent to saying God doesn’t exist, but it does mean that we have plenty of evidence that pragmatically speaking he might as well not exist.

    IMO when someone shows why a deity is irrelevant, the counter-argument “you only proved irrelevance, not nonexistence” is a pretty weak defense. Feel free to disagree with me on that, though. Maybe you think its a strong defense.

    [TGT] Disbelief in God is also quite falsifiable. If God does exist as often described, popping in and making himself known shouldn’t be too hard.

    [Ender]How would you distinguish between God and an lying but incredibly powerful being? …There is no test we can devise to prove that ‘there is no God’ is false, therefore it is unfalsifiable.

    You missed TGT’s point. He’s not saying generic deism or the entire range of possible gods is falsifiable, he’s saying that the observed non-direct-intervention of a deity is a strike against the standard modern monotheistic view of god as omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscent. That’s why he said “as often described.”

  35. #35 Ender
    August 18, 2010

    “We can write Einstein’s famous equation as E=mc^2+kx, and say that there is plenty of evidence that k=0 for any and all variables x. Then we can repeat this add-a-kx-and-state-k=0 for every single equation in physics, chemistry, and so on.”

    Any and all? So it holds true for x = the number of sandwiches I’ve eaten today? And x = the time taken to spay a cat?
    I don’t really know what you mean here. Can you expand on it?

    “Any variable x” includes the divine action variable.

    What is a divine action variable?

    “IMO when someone shows why a deity is irrelevant, the counter-argument “you only proved irrelevance, not nonexistence” is a pretty weak defense.”

    If the question is ‘Does a deity exist’ then showing that a deity is irrelevant would itself be irrelevant.
    To defend your belief that a deity doesn’t exist by proving one is irrelevant is a very weak defence, IMO, you’re welcome to disagree with me too.

    You missed TGT’s point. He’s not saying generic deism or the entire range of possible gods is falsifiable, he’s saying that the observed non-direct-intervention of a deity is a strike against the standard modern monotheistic view of god as omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscent. That’s why he said “as often described.”

    He is not saying that. Allow me to quote him saying the same thing you quoted him saying.

    “Disbelief in God is also quite falsifiable. If God does exist as often described, popping in and making himself known shouldn’t be too hard”

    He is saying ‘Disbelief in God is falsifiable because popping in and making himself known shouldn’t be too hard.

    This is not correct, for the reason I explained above.

  36. #36 eric
    August 18, 2010

    I don’t really know what you mean here. Can you expand on it?

    You seem to have got it. # sandwiches eaten does not seem to change e=mc^2. The spectacular accuracy of the equation without such a term is evidence that any non-zero “sandwiches eaten” term is absent. Same goes for gods.

    Gods are in the same category as sandwich eating. If you’re satisfied that experimental observation has eliminated the latter as a factor, you’ve got to rationally accept the same conclusion for the former. Or you can take Hume’s approach and say we are never justified in conclusively eliminating either. But even Hume admitted that result is somewhat ridculous.

    He is saying ‘Disbelief in God is falsifiable because popping in and making himself known shouldn’t be too hard.

    This is not correct, for the reason I explained above.

    Look, he’s just bringing up the problem of evil. Sure, there are many descriptions of god that would be consistent with complete non-interference, even in the face of unnecessary but terrible suffering. That’s not the point. The point is that the current popular description isn’t really consistent with such behavior.

  37. #37 Wowbagger
    August 18, 2010

    Being able to posit a possible god, for which there are no possibly means of validation is one thing; trying to posit that that description applies to the Christian god, on the other hand, is another.

    The Christians using this kind of excuse want to have their god-cake and eat it too. They want to claim that the reason science has found no evidence to support the existence of god (and much to support the non-necessity of god) is because god is ‘outside of’ science – while at the same time wanting to believe that he created the universe, loves and cherishes us, and sent Jesus to die suffer a temporary inconvenience so he could forgive us for doing what he created us to do.

  38. #38 AL
    August 19, 2010

    I don’t see how your conclusion follows from your premise there. Intelligent brains can do a lot of things–they appreciate opera, for example. It doesn’t follow that any universe with intelligent brains is logically required to contain opera.

    Uniformity is required for intelligent brains to exist and do what they do. Opera is not. (Although as an irrelevant aside, I’d argue that uniformity is required for opera.)

    Let me rephrase my point in a different way: Imagine we live in a universe where there is absolutely no uniformity whatsoever, i.e., the “principle of uniformity” is manifestly false. Now ask yourself: can an “intelligent” being in such a universe really possess such a thing as “intelligence?” Can it hold a coherent thought? Can it have a consistent memory? Can it notice patterns in nature, or correlate stimuli? The answer to all of these things is no, because all of these things require some degree of uniformity. In other words, for there to be intelligence, there must be uniformity. The principle is not one that is taken on faith and unproven, it is one that is logically necessary, in the same way that “cogito, ergo sum” is logically necessary, or a weak version of the anthropic principle is logically necessary, and simply could not be otherwise given the facts.

  39. #39 Anton Mates
    August 19, 2010

    AL,

    Imagine we live in a universe where there is absolutely no uniformity whatsoever, i.e., the “principle of uniformity” is manifestly false.

    Problems: First, I don’t think it’s possible for the principle of uniformity to be “manifestly false” (or manifestly true, for that matter). Even the most chaotic-looking universe could be totally uniform, governed by rules we just haven’t hit upon.

    I’m also not sure that any universe could be ever completely free from local uniformity. Even a totally random process is going to produce occasional pockets of apparent order; failure to do this would itself be a uniform property.

    With that in mind:

    Now ask yourself: can an “intelligent” being in such a universe really possess such a thing as “intelligence?” Can it hold a coherent thought? Can it have a consistent memory?

    Yes, it could. It simply has to exist in a pocket of local uniformity long enough for a single thought to occur. It might be doomed to degrade back into the chaos a split-second later, but it wouldn’t know that.

    And it could have any pattern of memories imaginable, depending on how its nervous system happened to get thrown together. That includes both consistent and inconsistent sets of memories, of course.

    Can it notice patterns in nature, or correlate stimuli?

    Possibly not, but this hardly matters, since it has no means of verifying whether the patterns it perceives are actually objectively found in nature. It could certainly believe that it’s noticed patterns in nature; that is, its sensory perceptions could be consistent with the patterns it hypothesizes.

  40. #40 R O'Brien
    August 19, 2010

    Shoot, one can use the Ainulindalë to construct a coherent ‘explanation’ for why there is something rather than nothing: Tolkien did it. What (in Enns’ view) would make that a lesser explanation than, say, the Bible’s multiple mutually inconsistent ‘explanations?’

    Tolkien was writing fiction. If you don’t know what fiction is, perhaps a librarian can help.

    I HATE this whole “atheists have faith too” meme.

    The concept of memes is pseudoscientific codswallop. Even when the neologism meme is used “informally” (for lack of a better word; there is nothing formal about the pseudoscience with which it is associated) it is a mark of vapidity.

  41. #41 eric
    August 19, 2010

    RBH @6: …Tolkien did it. What (in Enns’ view) would make that a lesser explanation than, say, the Bible’s multiple mutually inconsistent ‘explanations?’

    R O’Brien: Tolkien was writing fiction

    Delicious comparison. Though I don’t think O’Brien meant for people to draw the comparison his post naturally leads one to draw :)

  42. #42 hoary puccoon
    August 20, 2010

    re Stewart, aka Luigi @7–

    The British atheist bus slogan, ‘There’s probably no god, so just relax and enjoy your life,’ perfectly describes my religious beliefs, such as they are.

    I do, however, get tired of hearing from ardent atheists–

    That I MUST say, “there is no god.” (Why? If god doesn’t exist who else would care?)

    That the bible is completely, 100% a myth. (including the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Roman Empire? Are you sure?)

    That only atheists can be “true” scientists. (One poster, apparently seriously, argued that Isaac Newton could have accomplished so much more if only he hadn’t been a believer.)

    And the worst one, because it gives ammunition to the Disco Institute, that any person who accepts evolution but believes in god is actually a creationist.

    These are not the claims of noted thinkers as far as I know. (I’ve never read books like “The God Delusion,” because I’m perfectly happy with the strong probability there is no god. When I feel compelled to read about a fictional character, I prefer something with more plot.) But I am giving examples of things commonly said on the Internet. And I suspect they are the basis of a lot of the antipathy to the “fundamentalist atheists.”

    Personally, I think we’d all be well advised to pay more attention to the British buses: ‘There’s probably no god, so just relax and enjoy your life.’

  43. #43 eric
    August 20, 2010

    That only atheists can be “true” scientists.

    That one really bugs me too. There was a poster on another site who claimed mormons couldn’t possibly do new world archaeology right because of their beliefs. I was incredulous. St. Augustine’s advice – its not just for Christians anymore.

  44. #44 Science Avenger
    August 25, 2010

    You know a writer is either an idiot, ignorant or dishonest when he trots out a convenient fiction like “atheist fundamentalists”. What actual atheists actually think is just too darned difficult to deal with.

  45. #45 R O'Brien
    August 25, 2010

    You know a writer is either an idiot, ignorant or dishonest when he trots out a convenient fiction like “atheist fundamentalists”. What actual atheists actually think is just too darned difficult to deal with.

    It is properly descriptive of some atheists (i.e., the invincibly ignorant and/or moronic ones, who rightfully elicit the same revulsion from decent people as a big ass cockroach.)

  46. #46 Science Avenger
    August 26, 2010

    Equivocating invincible ignorance and being a moron as the equivalent of fundamentalism is exactly the sort of dishonesty I was referring to, thanks.

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