"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Making me a theist

What would it take to convince me of God's existence?

Ebonmuse – for those of you who don't know – is one of the more informed bloggers on the subject of atheism and religion: his knowledge of both certainly outstrips mine*.

(*I realise this is damning with faint praise)

Through this recent post I stumbled across his 'Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists', which got me thinking about the level of evidence needed for me to change my mind on the subject. Ironically, given that Ebonmuse's atheism seems far more solid than my own (which often borders on a lazy agnosticism), it looks as though I'd actually require more evidence than he would.

For example, in the first category of evidence (things that would convert him on the spot) he lists:

Verified, specific prophecies that couldn't have been contrived.
If the Bible, for example, said, "On the first day of the first month in the year two thousand and ten, the pillars of the earth will shake and a great part of the New World will be lost to the sea," and then January 1, 2010 comes and a tremendous earthquake sends California to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, I would become a believer.

I wouldn't.

If an individual could consistently predict – with significant accuracy – future events, then it would certainly prove that prophecy was possible, but it would leave completely open the reason why: It could be a divine being with knowledge of the future, or some yet undiscovered law of physics, or aliens, etc. Just because someone claims that X is the reason they can see the future is no evidence that it really is X.

He also suggests:

Scientific knowledge in holy books that wasn't available at the time.
If the Bible (or any other religious text) contained some piece of knowledge that the people of the time couldn't possibly have known but that is now known to be true, that would be highly convincing to me. A passage about the atomic theory of matter or the heliocentric solar system would be interesting, but not conclusive, since the Greeks, for example, proposed those ideas long ago independent of any claim to divine revelation. A mention of the theory of evolution would have been impressive. A reference to the germ theory of disease, or the laws of electromagnetics, would have been compelling. But what would be indisputable proof would be an elucidation of a truly modern theory of physics, such as relativity or quantum mechanics - not just something that the people of the time couldn't possibly have known of, but something so counter-intuitive that the odds against guessing at it correctly would be staggering.

This would certainly be impressive – but far from conclusive (or near conclusive) evidence of the divine.

The only valid response to detailed scientific knowledge in a ancient religious text would be a) scepticism and b) curiosity. The most reasonable explanation would be that it's a hoax and that the details were added at a later date – when it was more readily available. Ruling out this possibility would bring us no closer to explaining how such knowledge was present, but leave a mystery with numerous possible answers: a divine being, time-travel, aliens, etc. Just as with prophecy, on its own a reference to information about the universe far ahead of its time does not logically lead to a specific explanation.

The same objection can be made to his third suggestion:

Miraculous occurrences, especially if brought about through prayer.
If cities condemned as sinful by preachers tended to explode in flames for no apparent reason, if glowing auras of holy light sometimes appeared around believers to protect them from harm, or if atheists and only atheists were regularly struck by lightning, this would be compelling proof. But it wouldn't have to be so dramatic; even minor but objectively verifiable miracles would do, especially if they could be invoked by prayer. If a hospital did a double-blind study to determine if intercessory prayer helps the sick, and it was discovered that only the patients prayed for by members of a certain religion experienced a dramatic, statistically significant increase in recovery rate, and this result could be repeated and confirmed, I would convert. This one shouldn't be so hard, especially for the Christians - after all, Jesus told them that they would be able to work miracles through prayer!

If prayer works then all it proves is that prayer works – the how and why remain unexplained, the only rational response is to suspend judgement until further evidence has been acquired. The same goes for any miraculous event.

While:

Aliens who believed in the exact same religion.
And one more, though this one is just a bit off the wall. If humanity was to contact an extraterrestrial civilization, and if said extraterrestrials had a religion that was exactly like some religion on Earth, I would become a believer. (Though it would raise some interesting theological problems for Christians. Does Jesus have to travel to every planet in the universe individually, dying and being resurrected on each one?)

...though compelling is similarly open to scepticism: evolutionary 'forced moves', extraterrestrial influence, etc.

Any one of these raises fascinating questions about the universe and the current theories we have about it, but would fail to convince me of the divine. If all were true – if we lived in a universe in which prophecies came true, religious texts presented knowledge of the universe far beyond their time, miracles happened regularly and we'd encountered aliens who believed in the same God – then what we'd have is a large amount of circumstantial evidence which made a powerful argument for the existence of the divine yet failed to provide direct evidence of it.

So what would convince me?

This:

Any direct manifestation of the divine.
I'm not that hard to convert; I'll be happy to believe in God if he tells me to in person, as long as he does it in such a way that I could be sure that it was not a hallucination (for example, in the presence of multiple reliable witnesses, none of which are in a highly emotional or otherwise altered state). Where are the voices speaking out of burning bushes, or out of thin air when people get baptised? In Old Testament times, Moses saw God so often that he knew him on a first-name basis. Why doesn't this happen any more today?

Although as well as ruling out the possibility of hallucination, God would also have to convince me that I hadn't gone insane – which, given He's the most powerful being in the universe shouldn't be too difficult.

That's all I'd need.

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28 Comments:

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Faith is absolutely dependent on mystery, though (the possibility rather than certainty of hope and redemption if a certain path is followed in life) . If sufficient proof is brought to light, the mystery disappears and one is left with the generally more predictable consequences of cause and effect. The concept of Free Will, in particular, becomes hopelessly compromised if one knows, rather than suspects, that action A leads to eternal bliss, and action B leads to eternal damnation. Selfless action will become obsolete, as each person becomes largely preoccupied with acting in ways that will ultimately secure his/her own salvation. We would judge The Good Samaritan very differently if the story included his absolute knowlege, rather than faith, that his pious act would be eternally beneficial to him as much as the man he saved.

7:47 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I'll be happy to believe in God if he tells me to in person, as long as he does it in such a way that I could be sure that it was not a hallucination

Even if your experience is verifiably genuine, how would you know it's of God and not some fairly powerful being having us on? See any number of sci-fi plots. As somebody I can't be bothered to Google once said, any reasonably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

For any scientifically inexplicable occurrence that seems clearly the result of some deliberate action, the strongest conclusion that could be warranted is: the existence at that time of being or beings unknown who were willing and able to bring that occurrence about.

5:08 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Incitatus,

Alex and I have been batting around the concept of faith over on Facebook - if you get a chance you should pop over and have a look.

Tom,

I'd completely overlooked the possibility of being tricked - I'm obviously far too trusting when it comes to deities (real or otherwise).

(It was Arthur C. Clarke)

6:35 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Two very quick points, as I've used up all my blog time debating Matt on Facebook.

1. Matt seems to be saying that the only thing that could possibly convince him of the divine would be a coercive display of brute force by the divine being in question.

God would also have to convince me that I hadn't gone insane – which, given He's the most powerful being in the universe shouldn't be too difficult.

Essentially God would have to control Matt's mind. Seeing as how this has not happened, all we can conclude is that a God of this sort does not exist. In fact the God of Christianity is not all that concerned with mental assent. He's after your heart. Even the demons know of God. The God of Christianity wants you to trust him to the degree that you know him.

2. Matt is demonstrating such a hyper skeptical epistemology, that to apply it consistently would leave life essentially unlivable. For instance, to use the approach he is using, I would have to suspend judgement on whether or not my wife loves me, whether or not my son is my own, even whether or not I am now sitting at my computer typing. It would seem you'd need to be rather bent on avoiding something, or insane to take this approach.

8:24 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

I think you're exaggerating my scepticism quite a bit - in the cases you list you have good ground for believing those things to be true, as they cohere with the rest of your experiences (unless your wife continually sets fire to your stuff, your kid looks like the milkman or you don't have a computer).

In the case of a divine being, such an experience would be so far beyond the relentlessly naturalistic nature of everyday life that the bar is set accordingly high.

A God would require a fundamental rejig of how I see the world - aliens, etc. wouldn't.

So the latter is the more rational explanation.

9:01 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
I don't think it's that I was exaggerating your skepticism, I think what made my comment seem so ridiculous is that I was applying the epistemic stance you take towards the divine and applying it consistently to other areas of life. By this I was attempting to show that you have placed the bar so high that no amount of evidence could possibly convince you of God's truth.

I don't see why this is justified.

You live in a world where you experience yourself to be a conscious free agent able to perceive yourself and enact your own purposes within this world. Through the work of other conscious free agents you learn that our universe had a beginning and that the conditions in which we exist are unfathomably highly ordered and balanced. The complexity of all known reality is shot through with elegant mathematical principals and intricate symbiotic relationships from top to bottom. The nagging suspicion that there is a "right and wrong" is a concept that even the most hardened of atheists are reluctant to jettison. Whether or not we intellectually assent to the notion, we all live as though it were true. We can't seem to help it.

What does the atheistic world view have to say to this?

"Maybe these things just happen."

I fail to see what in the "naturalistic" comings and goings of everyday life cause the concept of God so worthy of the unshakable skepticism you give it. To my mind every moment I have in this life is evidence of a mystery that goes beyond even the most sophisticated of naturalistic theories.

You speak rightly when you note that the reason you place the bar so high for God is because of a fundamental way you have come to see the world. World view shifts are difficult to pull off since we attach so much of the rest of our knowledge to their moorings. Even so, I submit that it would be foolish of us to give special treatment to our fundamental views simply because they are difficult to change. If the totality of evidence warrants a revision (and I believe it does) I'd say we are more than within reason to follow the evidence where it leads.

Unshakable proofs and absolute certainty are false commodities. The best we have to work with are probability based assessments given the evidence we have on hand. Given that, I still see the concept of atheism as falling utterly flat when held up against the totality of my life experience. It just doesn't cohere. I suppose that's why I find our discussions so interesting. You still seem to think that a Godless universe best explains the data. What makes things interesting is that I still cannot see how you pull that off without destroying yourself in the process.

9:12 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I don't think it's that I was exaggerating your skepticism,

Scepticism doesn't require us to suspend judgement - just to accept that pretty much anything can be doubted and questioned.

The more out of the ordinary the claim, the greater the level of evidence required to support it.

The only evidence I think capable of justifying belief in a divine being would be direct revelation - and even then, like any belief about the external world, it would still be open to scepticism.

You live in a world where you experience yourself to be a conscious free agent able to perceive yourself and enact your own purposes within this world.

No I don't. I experience myself as a being who "feels" himself to be acting freely, but cannot justify that feeling in light of the evidence - as far as I'm concerned, determinism explains our behaviour far better than the Libertarian concept of free will, which is pretty empty.

If the totality of evidence warrants a revision (and I believe it does) I'd say we are more than within reason to follow the evidence where it leads.

Then present the evidence.

I still see the concept of atheism as falling utterly flat when held up against the totality of my life experience.

I feel exactly the same with the Christian concept of God.

But then this plurality isn't a problem for my worldview, which actually predicts this kind of divergence in beliefs - given that we're limited beings ultimately driven by natural selection.

10:16 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
"The more out of the ordinary the claim, the greater the level of evidence required to support it."

Fair enough. The following are a few things I see to be highly extraordinary claims: Marvelously complicated systems capable of creating self conscious "beings" have a habit of appearing out of nothing. Humans are mechanically determined meat machines. Nationalist ethics that involve the extermination of undesirable people groups is ultimately no more right or wrong than an ethic that says "love those who hate you".

The knife cuts both ways on that one.

"The only evidence I think capable of justifying belief in a divine being would be direct revelation - and even then, like any belief about the external world, it would still be open to scepticism."

Here again you seem to be under the assumption that the most rational and rigorous route to take is this sort of Cartesian skepticism. It feels to me like you are saying if you can doubt something, you then ought to doubt it. But that is ridiculous! If direct experience of the knowledge in question was required for justifying a belief, then you would know only a miniscule fraction of the knowledge you now hold. I see no reason why knowledge of God should be subjected to the sort of impenetrable epistemic grid you are forcing it to into.

"No I don't. I experience myself as a being who "feels" himself to be acting freely, but cannot justify that feeling in light of the evidence"

If it looks like a horse and walks like a horse...

So you are telling me that the everyday experience you have of making choices that could go one way or the other are insufficient evidences and that you are willing to simply toss them out (yet still live as though you were free) in light of what now? Does it go something like: "I" am a brain. Brains are material. Material is mindless matter reacting in determined fashion off the natural laws. Therefore "I" am determined. Is that the gist of it? We'll come back to this. I just need to muster up the energy to start writing on it.

"Then present the evidence."

To a guy who says nothing would warrant a belief in God other than direct evidence? To a guy who sees himself as a determined being reacting? Why bother? And I don't mean that to sound crass. I really wonder what the point would be within your professed world view.

"I feel exactly the same with the Christian concept of God."

I hope that this will not always be the case. Though I admit it would seem a miracle would be needed to change your mind. From what I know of you, I'm not sure your heart really has all that far to travel.

"But then this plurality isn't a problem for my worldview, which actually predicts this kind of divergence in beliefs - given that we're limited beings..."

As does mine.

"...ultimately driven by natural selection."

natural selection doesn't "drive" anything. If a purely materialist viewpoint is to be adopted, then whatever the "big bang" was (and whatever specified the constants which allowed for this universe to exist) is that which "drives" us. And drive us it does, right down to the illusion of your freedom and the will you have to continue arguing with me. You are a puppet with no one pulling the strings. What a lonely place that must be.

You are more than that brother. I know it.

10:52 PM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Hey guys!

I have been very busy with school, so blogging has taken the back burner for now. I have my grading pen ready for the fifty lab reports before me. So, just a quick remark for the moment.

Alex, you seem to be hinting at Intelligent Design when you write,

Marvelously complicated systems capable of creating self conscious "beings" have a habit of appearing out of nothing.

Have you considered so-called "invisible hand" explanations for life? I wrote a short piece on this: Irreducible Complexity or Self-Assembly?

9:03 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Timmo,
Glad to hear you are busy with some actual work for the time being!

"Alex, you seem to be hinting at Intelligent Design when you write..."

I'm not so sure how committed I would wish to be to some of the various positions within the intelligent design movement. You bring up the notion of "self" assembly. However, I'm not sure how you wish to attach the concept to what I am saying. Are you bringing it up intending to support my argument, or do you mean it in some way to challenge me?

Personally, I see this notion as completely supporting my vision of an intelligence behind the system we call our universe. How else do the parameters of an initial state become so precisely tuned as to eventually bring about a state where material within the system comes to "self assemble" in such as way as to "perceive", have moral convictions, engage in acts of self expression, love etc...?

I don't need to ascribe to "special acts" of creation, though I don't need to rule them out either. In my mind, it's beside the point.

1:12 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Marvelously complicated systems capable of creating self conscious "beings" have a habit of appearing out of nothing.

So you don't believe in God any more?

(Kidding!)

Why would the universe have to come out of nothing? There was probably something back then, but a something we have no experience of yet.

It feels to me like you are saying if you can doubt something, you then ought to doubt it. But that is ridiculous!

Why?

It's the basis for scientific investigation, probably rationality as well - we create hypotheses about the world and then proceed to test them through empirical observation, discarding and adapting them as we go along.

I think it's quite probable that Poland exists, as the idea coheres extremely well with what I know about the world and I can't see any reason why people would maintain such a fiction. But if presented with convincing evidence to the contrary I'd be forced to revise my views.

I see no reason why knowledge of God should be subjected to the sort of impenetrable epistemic grid you are forcing it to into.

How else would you suggest we approach life?

If it looks like a horse and walks like a horse...

But comparison is impossible when it comes to the idea of libertarian free will - because you have nothing to compare us to. You can't say we look like we're free without finding genuine LFW to provide a benchmark.

Does it go something like: "I" am a brain. Brains are material. Material is mindless matter reacting in determined fashion off the natural laws. Therefore "I" am determined.

It goes: cause precedes effect.

Every action we take and decision we make is determined by the person we are: our desires, our tastes, our past experiences, our ability to reason, etc.

To a guy who says nothing would warrant a belief in God other than direct evidence?

You claim that there's strong evidence - so convince me that I'm wrong, that there's a good reason to believe in your God beyond direct revelation. If I'm a rational person then I'd be forced to concede. If I'm irrational then most of this is pointless.

The way I see all this, if you're right then you have an easy task: you have a divine being on your side, I have only my own resources to fall back on.

natural selection doesn't "drive" anything

Natural selection drives evolution, including the evolution of the universe, though the fact that it's able to do this stems directly from the physical condition that resulted from the Big Bang.

10:39 AM

 
Blogger Timmo said...

Alex,

I'm still pretty busy, but once I have a moment I can expand on my previous remark. In the meantime, to pacify those impatiently awaiting, I thought I would share: Dante's Inferno Test.

7:47 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I was hoping for Limbo, but apparently all those zombie movies mean I'm head for the sixth level of hell:

You approach Satan's wretched city where you behold a wide plain surrounded by iron walls. Before you are fields full of distress and torment terrible. Burning tombs are littered about the landscape. Inside these flaming sepulchers suffer the heretics, failing to believe in God and the afterlife, who make themselves audible by doleful sighs. You will join the wicked that lie here, and will be offered no respite. The three infernal Furies stained with blood, with limbs of women and hair of serpents, dwell in this circle of Hell.

5:33 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"... You will join the wicked that lie here, and will be offered no respite. The three infernal Furies stained with blood, with limbs of women and hair of serpents, dwell in this circle of Hell."

Sounds like a typical Saturday night in Torquay during the summertime.

6:50 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

“You shall be encased in a small box and – if you can escape the flames – cast into the depths of the Earth, whereupon the ravages of time shall strip the skin from your flesh. The tiny uncountable devourers of men shall feast upon your entrails, yea, even unto the arrival of the ravenous worms, and all the while you are forbidden from waking into the truth that Hell is a merry fiction spun to part men from their wits…”

I think I must have filled it in wrong.

7:55 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
I've been pretty much out of it these last few weeks. My allergies are killing me like never before. I'm tired all the time and the medication I'm taking also makes me drowsy. Needless to say my blogging ambition has been seriously hampered. But at any rate...

Why would the universe have to come out of nothing? There was probably something back then, but a something we have no experience of yet.

I'm no expert here, but this guy seems to do a decent job of setting up the problem. He ends up concluding that God is not needed in his view. Of course I disagree with him on that point, but it's on other grounds.

Alex says: It feels to me like you are saying if you can doubt something, you then ought to doubt it. But that is ridiculous!

Matt Says: Why?

I think I ought to have used the words "be skeptical" rather than "doubt". There is a difference, as you rightly point out. At some point you need to accept something as basic knowledge otherwise you will never be able to know anything at all. If you were to be a skeptic about all knowledge at all times you'd never be able to act. "doubt" implies a simple lacking of certainty which any healthy individual ought to have. Still we need to place our faith somewhere otherwise we'd never act on anything.

How else would you suggest we approach life?

They same way we evaluate any other bit of knowledge. Taking in all the evidence we can get our hands on, Checking our motives, Comparing whole systems while measuring coherence and correspondence, and dialoging with those who disagree with us. We then make our tentative conclusions based off all these considerations. To approach a given proposition and demand that a coercive sort of direct revaluation be given in order to validate itself... well you are just shooting the tiger while it's still in the cage at that point.

It goes: cause precedes effect.

The disagreement here will revolve around the question: "where does cause come from. Honestly... I'll write on this some day.

Every action we take and decision we make is determined by the person we are: our desires, our tastes, our past experiences, our ability to reason, etc.

The debate here will revolve around the difference between "influenced" and "determined". Along with the question: "what am I?".

Alex says:To a guy who says nothing would warrant a belief in God other than direct evidence? To a guy who sees himself as a determined being reacting? What's the point?

Matt says: If I'm a rational person then I'd be forced to concede. If I'm irrational then most of this is pointless.

From what I understand you see yourself as determined. Do you see our discussions to be pointless then? Or is there a chance your actions do not exhibit faith in the proposition "I am determined". This is what I mean by our life not cohering with a mechanically determined Godless universe. We simply don't live that way.

The way I see all this, if you're right then you have an easy task: you have a divine being on your side, I have only my own resources to fall back on.

That is still assuming that God desires to utilize his omnipotence to bulldoze over people, thus acquiring a defeated people. But I have continually maintained that pure intellectual assent is not his top priority. He's after your heart. He's after the whole you. It's not just about convincing Matt that he exists. He's not going to force himself on you. I would see direct revelation as a perfectly valid form of knowledge. We are told that is exactly what God attempts within the heart of every person who has ever lived. He offers to reveal himself to us, but we must be willing to hear him. If you truly want nothing to do with him, he'll let you go. You have a lot of living left to do Matt. Keep checking your heart as well as your head.

10:34 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Hey Alex,

Sorry to hear you're feeling a bit under the weather. Hope you get better soon.

I'm no expert here, but this guy seems to do a decent job of setting up the problem.

The link doesn't seem to be working.

12:08 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

my bad. Try this

12:29 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I'm no expert here, but this guy seems to do a decent job of setting up the problem.

For me, the problems with this guy's comments start here:

"Assuming that prior to the Big Bang there was absolutely nothing I will start from there"

Why make that assumption?

I don't believe we can make any statement along the lines of "before the universe was X", because we have nothing to base that statement on, and talk of something we have no experience of is pretty meaningless.

At some point you need to accept something as basic knowledge otherwise you will never be able to know anything at all.

Depends on what you mean by "accept". We don't get to just pick and choose what counts of certain or near-certain knowledge. I accept the fact of my own existence because the alternative (accepting the fact of my non-existence) is logically impossible.

We can also talk about knowledge on a phenomenological level: I know that I'm experiencing this debate, etc.

Once we step beyond this however, knowledge seems to become extremely provisional and open to question.

Still we need to place our faith somewhere otherwise we'd never act on anything.

I don't agree that scepticism requires suspension of action - I can be sceptical about something and still regard it as the current best option.

It's not the case, as you seem to be suggesting, that either we accept something or reject it: most of my beliefs are provisional - based on my best judgement but still open to question.

From what I understand you see yourself as determined. Do you see our discussions to be pointless then?

I don't think that something has to be chosen in order to be meaningful. I didn't choose to be born, but I still enjoy life.

He offers to reveal himself to us, but we must be willing to hear him.

I see... so when I went through my long theist to deist to agnostic-deist phase I was subconsciously a hardened atheist?

6:25 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Matt,
"I don't believe we can make any statement along the lines of 'before the universe was X'"

Fair enough. Honestly, I am not well read enough in this area to put fourth any strong arguments using it as a basis. The best I can do is simply say that, as I understand it, the current state of play in this realm of physics states that matter and time itself began to exist at a definite point in the past. They are at a loss as to what caused this event. The multi-verse hypothesis is born out of the realization that this universe is ridiculously tuned, therefore there must be an infinite number of universes popping in and out of existence for this one to have a prayer at being a possibility. The only problem with that is that, so far, there is not a shred of evidence to support this theory. Supposing they end up discovering some evidence in the future; we are still left with an immensely complex system that creates universes... a sort of universe creating machine. Were did that come form then? The question is simply pushed back rather than answered. The oscillating universe was the other hypothesis that was explored for a time, but has now been utterly rejected as every possible model they came up with fell apart.

So the point I make is this. Any model we choose to work with exceeds our comprehension. Any model we choose involves some uncreated, timeless, eternal, immaterial, something (UTEIS). We have basically three options on the table. 1. We can simply say "we can't know" and reject the question. 2. we can say that whatever the answer it surly lacks any attributes we would ever call "personal". 3. We can say that this "something" sounds suspiciously like what the ancients called God and entertain the possibility.

To the atheist 1 & 2 are the only possible options. 1. I think is just plain lazy. 2. I think reveals an assumption that is without warrant. In fact I wold see 2 as unjustified since one of the effects of this "system" is sentient beings like us. Most any other "bang" we experience only leads to disorder and chaos. How is it that the "bang" that created our universe has an odd habit of organizing itself into marvelous arrangements even to the point of perceiving itself? It is because of this that I see the supposition that the UTEIS is indeed personal, as an eminently rational position to take. You may disagree with me here, but is not because my position strains reason.

Depends on what you mean by "accept".

Accept is an act of the will. We accept most all knowledge that we act on, even though we could reasonably doubt it. Your "existence" is basically the only thing that you cannot deny.

Once we step beyond this however, knowledge seems to become extremely provisional and open to question.

yes yes. I agree with you and your point is well taken. But what I am driving at is that practically speaking we accept far more knowledge than we reject. Indeed we have "faith" that most knowledge is useful and worthy of trust. Certainly you can step back and second guess every bit of knowledge you hold, but that is paralyzing! We just don't live that way. So my whole beef with you is the application of a hyper skeptical epistemic stance towards knowledge of God, while you live out the rest of your life with a marked absence of such a high level of "proof" required for action. If you would simply say: "Alex if the concept of God made the most sense of the evidence of the whole of my existence then I would consider the possibility reasonable."

Instead you say: "So what could convince me? Any direct manifestation of the divine... Although as well as ruling out the possibility of hallucination, God would also have to convince me that I hadn't gone insane – which, given He's the most powerful being in the universe shouldn't be too difficult."

You seem to insist that nothing short of mind control would be enough to convince you. At that point there's nothing more for us to talk about. Do you see why I take issue with that?

"I don't agree that scepticism requires suspension of action"

Refer to that little chart thingy I made for you on Facebook here. I am using the word skeptical to indicate that by using our acts of thought (reason) we are not simply unsure of a propositions truth, but we are actually convinced otherwise. If you can think of a better word for "skeptical" I'd be happy to use it. I've noticed the fuzzyness of it myself.

So in light of that, I would agree that we act on all manor of knowledge we are reasonably unsure of, yet I don't believe we would wish to act on knowledge we are convinced is untrue. I am more than willing to accept that the God hypothesis falls into a category we can be reasonably unsure of, yet I feel that to state that action on that hypothesis is unjustified is applying an unreasonable epistemic standard to the proposition.

You say: "If I'm irrational then most of this is pointless."

Then I said: "From what I understand you see yourself as determined. Do you see our discussions to be pointless then?"

Then you say: "I don't think that something has to be chosen in order to be meaningful."

What's it going to be? Pointless, or meaningful? Essentially you are telling me you ascribe to a view where you physical constitution combined with the environment which you live controls you. I do not share your view. If I was to believe that the person on the other end of the conversation simply was unable to do anything other than continue this discussion I would, quite honestly, find our interchanges much less "meaningful". As it stands I believe there are numerous other things you could be doing to occupy your time, yet you choose to continue our discussion. As a result, I find our discussions meaningful.

"I see... so when I went through my long theist to deist to agnostic-deist phase I was subconsciously a hardened atheist"

I don't have a clue man. I don't know your heart. All I can say is that there is a vast difference between intellectual assent to a proposition and saving faith that comes through responding to God. There are far to many who live proclaiming the belief in the proposition "God exists", yet who's lives fail to reflect any real faith in it's implications. Lewis eloquently expresses my point.

"It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as friends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man's choices make out of his raw material. But god does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man's psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises."

9:09 AM

 
Blogger Tom Freeman said...

I’m deeply wary of philosophical arguments that proceed from the current state of physics. A century or two from now, things may look very different. I think it’s pretty well assured by now that something very like relativity theory is true – although I gather there are serious concerns over reconciling it with quantum theory, and something very like that also appears to be true.

But yes, the ‘time itself began’ seems to have a few decades of consensus behind it. If so, though, asking what happened before it is meaningless. And likewise, asking what caused it is meaningless because causation is an inherently chronological concept. So are thought, perception, decision and action, and so any ‘personal’ being existing independently of time could not meaningfully be described as being capable of these things. Which stretches the ‘personal’ notion past breaking point, I’d say.

I’m not sure how much, or how long, a consensus the cosmic fine-tuning point has behind it. But the multiverse idea, as I understand, is (at least partly) a response to this. The dumbed-down version that I’m familiar with is, roughly: ‘Gosh! It’s just right for quarks, electrons, protons, atoms etc. to form. What are the odds? Well, we don’t know. But it seems suspicious. So it could be that this was a set-up, or it could be just chance and that there are other universes where chance has gone a different way.’

Either idea requires some serious extra hypothesising, but Ockham’s razor would prima facie favour the latter. The creator hypothesis postulates something utterly unlike anything we know to exist, whereas the multiverse hypothesis postulates… more stuff. A lot more stuff, for sure, and tucked away in places we’d never dreamed of, but even so, it’s all still just physical and so less of a leap from established entities.

Any model we choose to work with exceeds our comprehension.

If ‘we’ is ‘we in this discussion’, absolutely. If it means ‘the best contemporary physicists’, also true. If it means ‘all humanity for all time’, then that’s unwarranted. It might eventually all come together in some complete explanation.

Any model we choose involves some uncreated, timeless, eternal, immaterial, something

If ‘timeless’ means what I was talking about earlier, then that makes it harder, not easier, to suggest that it’s a personal something. And why ‘eternal’? You don’t have to be a sustainer to be a creator, or vice versa (ask the Hindus). And why ‘immaterial’? And why only one thing? And, at this level of speculation, do we really have any clear feeling for what ‘thing’ means here?

Anyway. I hope you feel better soon, Alex!

10:31 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Hey Tom,
Thanks for the well wishes man. I share the hesitancy you feel about basing any strong assertions on the current state of scientific inquiry. Even so, it does provide a platform for stimulating conversation.

You say:"asking what caused it is meaningless because causation is an inherently chronological concept."

Surly this is not a satisfactory answer. Also, I wonder if "chronology" and "the temporal" need be so tightly wedded as to have one fall with the other. Seeing as how our only experience is of a temporal nature, I find it difficult to imagine any other way. Still, simply because "time" ceased to exist as a flowing sequence, does that necessarily entail that a sequential nature also ceased to exist?

I'm more asking questions that I am expecting answers.

11:08 AM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

I really should read all the comments before posting, lest what I say is redundant but I just woke up and I have a dissertation to write, so here goes:

It is an axiom of social psychology that people cannot predict what they will do in any given situation. Nazis wouldn't have predicted being capable of burning Jews alive. Zimbardo's participants wouldn't have predicted beating up their "convicted" counterparts. Milgram's participants wouldn't have predicted "zapping" someone to death. Asch's participants wouldn't have predicted mismatching lines dues to social influence.

I therefore have massive doubts that one can predict what will convince one of the existence of God. There is always room for doubt. Cognitive dissonance works both ways, for religious people and non-religious people alike. Whatever followers of Antony Flew may say - and I wholeheartedly agree with him about the presumption of atheism - about atheism not being "positive belief", evangelical Christians DO have the right psychological intuition that atheism and agnosticism are both religious positions as much as theism is.

If God appeared to you and your friends at the time of the day when you are most awake and lucid, it appears that the evidence is incontrovertible. But is it? Perhaps it was the nachos you had for breakfast. Perhaps it was common conversation you shared. Perhaps they're tricking you and secretly think you're insane. Perhaps there's an evil genius who is tying to systematically deceive you. Perhaps you're a brain in a vat.

I just re-read my comment and decided that I need caffeine. Nevertheless, here's a more lucid summary:

Axiom 1: Human beings are rubbish at predicting their future behaviours and attitudes in any given situation.
Axiom 2: Cognitive dissonance works equally well for both atheism and theism. Unlike philosophers, psychologists see no reason to distinguish the two attitudes/beliefs.(i.e., there may be a conceptual difference, but there is no psychological one).
Axiom 3: Most people who know anything about epistemology are sceptics (pardon the British spelling. I'm from an ex-colony.) of some sort. It's not difficult to shift from the nuanced scepticism to the Cartesian systematic doubting that we officially eschew. Again, this is a psychological (not philosophical) axiom.

So, qua psychologist, I suggest that these 3 axioms lead me to conclude that Matt will not change his mind about God even if God appeared in all his glory (etc.) in the presence of the 12 most most trustworthy men and women on the planet.

What WILL convince Matt (or anyone else?). I submit: Social influence and cognitive dissonance. Try going to church every week, participating actively in the community, donating to religious causes, etc. For years. And make sure you go to those ones with lots of "healing" rallies. After several years, your critical faculties will be dulled and you will find yourself collapsing into Christian theism of the most conservative kind. Doesn't ALWAYS work, but then nothing does.

Re-read my post-comment summary. Awfully long. And reflects my decaffeination. Sorry. I'm just feeling really sceptical about the ability of evidence (as we normally construe evidence) to convert people to any religious position. Or the ability of philosophical debate for that matter. I'm not sure what we can do about our intrinsic irrationality.

4:01 PM

 
Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Before I leave I will post one more comment on this sentiment:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Something like this was said here (by Matt?). It's one of these common methodological assumptions (e.g., Ockham's Razor).

Hume said as much when he dismissed miracles. But I worry about how we go about assigning a priori probabilities for any given proposition. There is a first time for everything, and despite reading much about Hume's arguments, I can't for the life of me see how we can believe ANYTHING if he's right. (Is this argumentum ad ignorantium?) Irreligious people say miracle M didn't happen because miracles don't happen. Religious people say "Yes they do, look at miracles A, B, C, D, and E." And the irreligious Humean responds, "Those don't happen either because miracles don't happen." Surely there's something wrong with this... I submit that whatever the merit of miracle claims are, atheists shouldn't fall back on the "the God hypothesis is a priori improbable" kind of argument that Matt seems to fall back on. Stick to the argument from evil, and let THAT be the foundation of your claim that God is improbable.

Secondly, a comment on methodological principles in the God debate in general. Take the cosmological argument as the argument I take to be most convincing. This argument contains TWO methodological principles: The Principle of Sufficient Reason, and Ockham's Razor. Theists see no reason to abandon the PSR, and so we argue that the universe (small-u) requires explanation, and that God is the most parsimonious. Atheists who concede the PSR say that the Multiverse Hypothesis is more parsimonious as it has less ontological KINDS. (This is like Matt's distinguishing aliens from God). I have 2 problems with this. First, it's not clear to me that we should always prefer the account with less ontological kinds -- having billions of universes we cannot see/measure/whatever seems gratuitious, certainly more so that belief in one God. Secondly, ontological kinds are notoriously difficult to count. WHile it is intuitive that aliens are more like humans than God is, this might not be so. Maybe. At any rate, this is a small-u cosmological argument...the arguments against which must be different (and more powerful) for big-U comoslogical arguments.

But that's another matter for another day.

4:17 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Damn, so much to respond to and so little time to do it...

I think Tom covered most of the pre-Big Bang issue, but I just want to deal with this comment:

How is it that the "bang" that created our universe has an odd habit of organizing itself into marvelous arrangements even to the point of perceiving itself?

It doesn't, the vast majority of the universe is chaotic and decaying. Throw together enough material with certain behaviours and you'll probably get some sort of system forming through their interaction, but these are just temporary structures - once the hydrogen, etc. is used up and the stars die we'll have no means of supporting ourselves and die off as the universe heads for heat death and collapse.

(at least according to our best theories)

Your "existence" is basically the only thing that you cannot deny.

But that's my point - we can be sceptical about most things, even Gods.

Direct revelation would probably bring me round to the idea, but I'd still harbour serious doubts about it. I'm not singling your God out for anything, just trying to apply a consistent approach to life.

What's it going to be? Pointless, or meaningful?

You seem to be assuming that irrational and determined are synonymous, which I don't agree with. If I'm doing something then I'm most likely doing it for a reason, regardless of whether I "choose" to do it in the LFW sense.

(I know I've rushed through this - but I get the sense that the discussion is going to shift more towards free will)

5:21 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

revvvvvvvd,

I think Hume's argument stands - think of it more in this way: the more out of the ordinary a claim is to someone, the more evidence they require in order to believe it.

Theists see no reason to abandon the PSR, and so we argue that the universe (small-u) requires explanation, and that God is the most parsimonious.

Surely some kind of blind force (along the lines of the laws of physics) requires less explanation than a divine being?

Going back to my rephrasing of the "extraordinary claims..." comment, I think that which explanation is more plausible depends on whether you've experienced the divine in your day-to-day life. I haven't, so the idea of such a being will rarely seem credible.

5:26 AM

 
Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Alex, "The question is simply pushed back rather than answered.

Very much the same way that appealing to a creator simply leads to a situation akin to a pile of turtles stretching into infinity.

The difference is that science anticipates that the next solution will simply provoke new questions; it's primed to confess ignorance every step of the way. For the creationist though, the buck has to stop somewhere, and that's generally with the creator. It has to be fact. There can be no question regarding the creator's autheniticity as the sole creator. That's a considerably weaker position to be in, IMHO, than simply saying "We don't know about that next step, but we'll adress it when we get to it".

11:03 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Incitatus,
"Very much the same way that appealing to a creator simply leads to a situation akin to a pile of turtles stretching into infinity.

I guess the way I see it, God is the only solution that doesn't give us an endless pile of turtles. We live in a wholly contingent universe. By definition, that which is contingent must rely on something prior to itself to be what it is. It is here that atheistic naturalism runs into a problem. For everything in the physical universe to require something prior to it in order to be what it is, you must have the impossibility of an infinite regress.

The only way to keep from spiraling into this situation is for there to be something that gives rise to the whole show, but who's reason for existing does not lie outside of itself. It also cannot be anything other than it is, since this is another attribute of contingency. What any philosophy must have is a necessary "thing" as it's starting point. If such a "thing" can be conceived, it seems most reasonable to give it the title God.

So my point is that the theistic solution to origins is the only solutions that adequately deals with this concept of infinite regress. (at least as far as I know) It is interesting to note that philosophers had been predicting the need for a necessary being long before modern science came to the shocking discovery that the universe had a beginning. Prior to that, pretty much any atheist dealt with the problem by saying that the universe had always "just been there". In fact Aquinas even presupposed that the universe had always been there. He said if the universe had begun to exist, his work would be to easy!

"The difference is that science anticipates that the next solution will simply provoke new questions; it's primed to confess ignorance every step of the way."

Two things on this. One, it sure better be the case that science takes this stance. It has everything to do with the reason science exists! The methodology of science exists to render ineligible the often times puzzling world which exists around us. Oddly enough, the evidence here is pointing towards a necessary "something" which possesses the ability to spin off contingent "other things". The problem here is that science can only make predictions based off the information we have available to us within the universe. That which gave rise to the universe must exist apart from it. Therefore, science will never be able to touch it. That's slimly the necessary limitation of the craft. So I'm afraid ignorance is going to be the only position that will ever be warranted in this area.

Two. What does that mean for us and our "God" theories? Does sciences inability to go "beyond" our origins preclude us from making reasoned estimations about possibilities? If one was to answer yes to this question they would be making the epistemic mistake that for any knowledge to be valid it must cohere to a specific methodology. This view is called methodism. It's essentially unlivable, but it's a mistake often thrown out by the more scientifically inclined. I guess that's understandable since it is the air that they breath. Point is, science should not stop seeking explanations and certain theists ought to stop sticking their heads in the sand. Even so, we are all free to make judgments about where the evidence we do have is pointing and frankly I see the universe having a beginning as a mark in the plus category for theism. For those who don't see it that way, they still need to deal with the problem of infinite regress. (which would apply to uni & multi-verses)

"That's a considerably weaker position to be in, IMHO, than simply saying "We don't know about that next step, but we'll adress it when we get to it"."

Hmmm... I guess I take the position that "I don't know" the vast, vast majority of what is being talked about regarding origins, quantum theory, etc... The scientific theories surrounding these area are all very interesting, but like all science it is subject to revision upon future discoveries. So make no mistake about it—I don't know. But the thing is, my theology is not strictly tied to science. Certainly I try and keep my finger on the scientific pulse and see how my theology is measuring up against the observable data, but when it comes down to it, my theology is based on factors prior to science. I admit some of the findings in quantum mechanics and cosmology are most welcome to inform my faith, but even so, the Copernican Revolution—if it taught the theists anything—ought to caution against theology to tightly wedded to a specific scientific view point.

Hey, how's the weather down there in St. Louis? It's FREEZING up here. I love it though. Fall is my favorite time o'year. To bad it's always so dang short!

Take care man.

8:06 AM

 

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