Apr. 17th, 2012

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Tell a Christian that you are an atheist because you find the evidence for theism thoroughly unconvincing and the odds are pretty high that you will, at some point, be told that he doesn’t have enough faith to be an atheist, or that you need faith in the non-existence of gods just as much as he needs faith in the existence of his. At first blush, this sounds at once superficially reasonable, obviously false, and profoundly bizarre.

It sounds superficially reasonable, because the objection that my atheism is not founded on an absolute certainty and absolute proof is of course correct. It sounds obviously false because the word “faith” is typically used to describe a positive belief in something for which there is insufficient empirical evidence, and is not a word suited to describe skepticism, whether justified or unjustified. It sounds profoundly bizarre because many Christians use the word to describe a purported virtue of trusting in the existence and benevolence of their god in spite of the lack of such evidence (the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen).

Part of the problem is that the word “faith” is a vague one on which we may both equivocate and have genuine misunderstandings. I use it to describe belief that is not justified by rational evidence, because in any situation where there is evidence we have other words to describe it, but I recognise that anyone who uses the word in conversation with me may mean just that, or equally well something different, such as a religious belief that they perceive to be supported by evidence, as a synonym for “confidence”, or something else altogether.

Then again, a disingenuous approach some debaters will use is to conflate them intentionally, a logical fallacy known as equivocation. You might say that I have “faith” that if I sit down my chair will bear me up, just as you have “faith” that your god exists—but they are clearly not the same kind of faith, since I have ample evidence that my chair will support me, and furthermore this evidence is available to anyone who wants to inspect it: You could (if you truly doubted it) have photos, videos, contemporary eyewitness testimony, or if you were truly dedicated you could come visit me and see for yourself. Moreover, the supportive quality of chairs is not contrary to anything in common experience; it’s not (as Sagan would say) an extraordinary claim. This approach is apparently used to justify the evidence-free kind of faith by implying that it is equivalent to obviously rational forms. It is not. My confidence in chairs is based on facts and observations that could be amply supported against someone skeptical of chairs; unless you can provide facts and observations in favour of your deity, it’s not the same thing at all—and if you can then let’s talk facts and evidence, not “faith”.

More promising is the notion that I need faith to be an atheist—faith not quite supported by evidence, that is—just as the theist needs faith to be a theist. Some theists, indeed, are known to dismissively quip that “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” (by implication of which faith is a bad thing, since more of it leads to us sinful atheists—but that is by the way). However, this also falls down flat on closer inspection.

First of all, we all subscribe to most of the same basic premises or assumptions in dealing with the world, theists and atheists alike. We all operate on the assumption that the external world is real and that our senses provide us with systematic information thereof. Even a hypothetical, reductio-ad-absurdam biblical literalist has no choice: Without the empirical evidence of his eyes and ears, he could read no scripture and hear no sermons. So clearly, in terms of the basic appreciation of what exists, we start from the same position.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, as Occam’s Razor slices, and I choose to stop there. I accept the truth of premises that cannot be denied without resort to solipsism, but thereafter I demand evidence before I accept anything as true. This post goes into more detail, but in brief, since it is always possible to invent an infinitude of ideas, explanations, and purported entities, my choices are always going to be either refusal to accept any without evidence, attempting to accept all of them, or picking and choosing in an ad hoc fashion.

This all sounds rather abstract, so let’s consider this tweet from @repenTee:

@haggholm as I think about it ur conjectures are based on faith no evidence 2 prove that God doesn't exist somewhere in the universe.

(Pardon his spelling; it’s a tweet.)

The problem with this protestation is that although it is true that I have no direct evidence that no such thing as his God is floating about somewhere in the interstellar void, nor do I have any evidence that there aren’t two gods. Or three. Or ninety-six point four. Or, for that matter, a giant magic space-duck ’round whose mighty bill six supermassive black holes revolve. This shows the insufficiency of “there is no direct evidence against it” as an argument to accept any proposition: It opens the gates to all manner of silly things. I want to remain intellectually consistent, so I must approach all these disparate and sometimes contradictory claims (there is exactly one, are exactly two, three, four gods… cannot all be true) with the same approach. I do, and so accept only the ones whose existence is supported by good evidence. Therefore I am an atheist.

(This is of course what Russell’s Teapot was created to illustrate, along with its more modern successors—the Invisible Pink Unicorn, Sagan’s invisible dragon, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and so on.)

So as Bertrand Russell observed,

…I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

I believe that this sufficiently deals with equivocation, and dismissing the idea that the lack of positive disproof of a proposition (in spite of lack of positive evidence for it) is sufficient grounds to believe in it. We’re left, then, with the notion that the atheist’s confidence that there are no gods is on par with the theists’s faith in his because both positions have evidentiary support. The same @repenTee provided this frank and illustrative example in a blog comment:

…The faith we've entered into is not without evidence. Much as biologists observe cellular structures so we have observed nature and from it conclude that these things have been created by God. As we have observed people, places and things we conclude that something greater than ourselves must exist. Who this God is from that point we may differ but the theist never concludes that God exists apart from evidence....

Unfortunately, the analogy with biologists falls rather flat when we consider that the biologist’s inference from observation is only the first stage of scientific investigation. In the canonical simplification of scientific inquiry, this is observation leading to hypothesis formation. A biologist might for example observe cells in agar, see some interesting things, and conclude that cells reproduce by fission…but it doesn’t end there. If a biologist submitted a paper to a journal with no more substance than “here’s what I saw and here’s what I conclude”, it would be rejected and might not even receive the grace of a note explaining why. Rather, the biologist must use this point as a starting point only and ask questions. If I am right, what does that imply? What else should I be able to see? Can I follow up on that, and do I see what I expect? More importantly, what if I am wrong? What should I expect to see if I am wrong, and can I check up on that?

Indeed, some very great scientific truths have been discovered thanks to ideas that were arrived at in very ad hoc fashion, but turned out to be true. August Kekulé famously arrived at the structure of the benzene molecule from a dream of the Ouroboros, a snake biting its own tail. Einstein developed a lot of ideas from Gedankenexperiments and his sense of scientific aesthetics. The ultimate source of an idea is not so very important, whether empirical observation or irrational impulse—you may observe nature and draw the wrong conclusions; you may hallucinate and by chance have a correct idea. The key is not where the idea comes from, but how we can tell if it’s correct or erroneous.

This is of course the principles of falsifiability and (implicitly) replicability, two of the great cornerstones of the scientific enterprise. We accept no one’s word that something is true just because it seemed reasonable from what they saw. We expect them to explain in quantitative detail what difference their idea makes, so that we can make predictive statements and check whether it’s correct. Note that this goes beyond merely looking for consistency. I can make up all kinds of crazy ideas that are consistent with facts. I can claim that the world is such as it is because the giant magic space-duck willed it to be so, and this is consistent with facts. But it’s not an idea to be taken seriously because I cannot say “If the space-duck exists then we should observe X; if it does not then we should observe Y.” Before I accept the truth of a proposition, the existence of any entity, it must be clearly meaningful to say that it is false—and of course that meaning must turn out to be counterfactual.

So let us return to the quote from above:

…The faith we've entered into is not without evidence. Much as biologists observe cellular structures so we have observed nature and from it conclude that these things have been created by God.

At this stage, what’s been described is hypothesis generation. There’s nothing wrong with generating hypotheses, and no wrong way to do it (only more or less productive ones), but hypotheses must not be mistaken for validated theories, for truth. How do you know that your idea of divine creation is correct? What predictions have you (or any theist) ever made that would detect divine agency—what evidence should be sought to verify that your god created something rather than just natural processes? If you have not looked for it, then it’s not comparable to what a proper biologist does at all; it’s the brainstorming phase, not the publishable work that actually gets a scientist respect and tenure.

This is also the big problem with a deist god. Certainly it violates no evidence, but nor does it leave any evidence or make any predictions. To say that there is a god, but it leaves no traces of itself for us to find, only sounds less crazy than to say the same of a magic space-duck because we are culturally conditioned to take gods more seriously.

The objection to deism is also applicable to certain views of theism—that is, those that fall into the trap of the God of the Gaps. Over the centuries, some defenders of religious faith have insisted that what we cannot scientifically explain must be the work of their god—the orbits of the planets, say, or the origin of life. As Kepler, Newton et al explained orbital mechanics, these defenders of faith had to admit that the planets weren’t pushed along by their god—but “ah”, they’d say, “gravitation itself is surely the power of God”. Along comes Einstein and explains gravitation as geometry, the consequence of deformations in spacetime, and gravitation turns out not to be an intangible force after all. “Ah!”, exclaim the defenders (or their intellectual descendands), “but then spacetime must be due to God.” And so on—with every new discovery, their god is redefined so as not to conflict with facts. But this god can never generate a meaningfully falsifiable prediction, because every falsification is inevitably explained away with a new redefinition.

Indeed, earlier versions of these beggar-gods, deities who would hide in any nook or cranny that science had yet to illuminate, did generate falsifiable hypotheses, such as “the planets could not remain in stable orbits but for the mystical power of God”—which turned out to be false, neatly disproving them.

The only gods that remain to be dealt with are the ones with more meat on their bones—ones who generate falsifiable claims: Gods such that their followers ought to be able to come up and tell me: “These are the verifiable (or falsifiable) differences between two models of the world: One such as it is or would be with my god in it; one such as it is or would be without him.” That is a god that needs to be evaluated on an individual balance, the evidence for and against it weight—especially that against it (as attempted falsification yields better evidence than mere consistency-with-established-facts).

I’d welcome such falsifiable evidence.


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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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