Sunday, May 30, 2010

Impossible to Prove vs. Just Plain Wrong

As most everyone I know knows, I'm an atheist.

I have been for my whole life, and by the time I was around 12, I had started consciously solidifying philosophical reasons why. This post isn't precisely about that, however... It's about how to deal with spiritualism in other people.

Part of the problem is that - unlike most other atheists - I recognize that atheism is actually a philosophical choice, in some ways no different from believing in a god. In reality, proof of god certainly doesn't exist, but it's also impossible to prove a negative. Just because I have never seen or experienced anything "god-like" and just because there is no measurable sign of a supernatural being of any kind ever credibly observed doesn't actually mean that such a being doesn't exist.

He/she/it might be beyond our perception, or might have existed millions of years ago and has long since left our solar system.

I can't know... I recognize that reality. In the absence of that knowledge, I've chosen to take my beliefs one step beyond agnosticism. As far as I'm concerned, there is a wealth of evidence for why & how the world has come to be the way it is and 100% of that evidence has been attained not by positing some supernatural force, but by the exact opposite. So I feel pretty confident in saying that we don't actually need a god of any kind to explain the world or the people in it.

Science essentially relies on the metaphysical assumption that reality is real and operates on consistent principles, and the epistemological assumption that human beings are capable of objectively experiencing nature and discovering what those consistent principles are through observation, testing and most important - logical reasoning.

I believe this very strongly... Thus the name of this very blog.

Without necessarily going into the whole thing, it's also true that the fundamental philosophies you accept - especially the root of your philosophy like metaphysics and epistemology profoundly effect the way you view and interact with the world. For example, if you believe that reality isn't "real" - that is to say, that the "real world" as we all experience it is nothing but a construct of individual people's independent imaginations - then there is no way you can hold the epistemological view that anything is truly knowable. If you believe that, then every person in the world is either a construct of your own imagination, or we're all sharing one strange common delusion...

In that world, then science would be irrelevant, because there would be no consistency in the universe. Every person in the world would exist with a completely different set of physical laws. Everyone would have a different reality.

So different core beliefs in terms of what constitutes reality and how to obtain knowledge on that reality can result in some wildly different outcomes in terms of morality & ethics, political & religious views, and beliefs on art & aesthetics.

Now, fortunately the vast majority of people operate under the assumption that in fact, reality is real and consistent, and that we can observe patterns and use reasoning to learn about reality. People all grow up learning the same lessons... Fire is hot, ice is cold, trees can be climbed, water is liquid and it's not possible  to walk through walls - at least, not without considerable pain.

This is great cause it means that we all tend to be able to fairly easily communicate with each other and have an immense amount of common experiences on which to base interaction.

But... This doesn't mean people are devoid of superstition and belief in the supernatural.

In spite of most people believing - and acting on - provable observations and experiences in 99% of their dealings with the world, many people  are brought up to believe or develop beliefs in the supernatural  - that is:
Date: 15th century
1 : of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2 a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit)
The problem with a lot of this is that it goes directly against reason as the basis for epistemology. So even though people will rely heavily on reason & critical thinking in every aspect of their daily lives, sometimes they abandon when it comes to their deeply-rooted religious beliefs or in cases where they've allowed cognitive biases and the shortcuts human brains make to play tricks on them.

Here's where I think the whole thing gets interesting though...

Until a believer in the spiritual or supernatural makes a specific, testable claim, there is simply no way to reject their beliefs out of hand on logical or scientific grounds. A lot of atheists never grasp this and wind up over-simplifying the situation and turning into condescending jerks in the process. 

Richard Dawkins sometimes seems like a prime example of this...

A particularly hilarious South Park two-part story arc lampoons Dawkins for essentially asserting that evolution and science disproves the idea of god. I like the episode because it's actually true... Provided that we recognize that the definition of the word "god" is really pretty nebulous and varies from person to person.

That's the important part though... Depending on how you define god, and depending on the claims you establish with regard to the supernatural, the ideas can easily remain in the realm of unfalsifiable philosophical choice. And that, in general, I think is just fine.


The philosophical issues in play are still limited by what is actually possible in reality...

This is why I always say negative things about astrology. No matter what might or might not be true about fate and destiny, or whether or not a mystical being, "the universe" or anything else has some kind of plan for your life - astrology will not tell you what that plan is, and it can't tell you anything about commonality between people born in the same month or on the same day.

This isn't true just because I don't "believe" in astrology or it's goals, but because there are actively reasons why astrology is an invalid means of attaining knowledge. And there are plenty of studies to show that it consistently fails at achieving it's stated purpose time & time again... Here's one reported by the UK Telegraph back in 2003:
"The babies were originally recruited as part of a medical study begun in London in 1958 into how the circumstances of birth can affect future health. More than 2,000 babies born in early March that year were registered and their development monitored at regular intervals.

Researchers looked at more than 100 different characteristics, including occupation, anxiety levels, marital status, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, mathematics and reading - all of which astrologers claim can be gauged from birth charts.

The scientists failed to find any evidence of similarities between the "time twins", however. They reported in the current issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies: "The test conditions could hardly have been more conducive to success . . . but the results are uniformly negative."
The claims have been tested. They didn't pass.

No matter what you believe, there are valid and invalid means of obtaining information. So even if you strongly believe that the fate exists, the future is predictable and that the stars and the planets have some effect on people's personalities... Even if you're actually right about all that (in spite of extraordinary evidence to the contrary) - astrology is still the wrong way to find out the answers to those questions.

Just like even if you believe that there are spiritual ways of healing yourself from illness, homeopathy still doesn't work.

This puts me into an awkward position as someone who wants to be respectful & tolerant of other people's beliefs and as someone who cares deeply about truth and rational thought. There are plenty of things that on an intellectual and philosophical level I simply cannot prove or disprove. If you tell me your conception of god is a spiritual being that fills you with hope in times of struggle, or - like Deists used to believe - god is an entity that created the Earth and everything in it at the beginning of time but is uninvolved in anything now, I have no way to know if you are correct.

So based on the fact that I have limited knowledge and cannot actually prove those particular beliefs wrong, I think I owe you some base-level respect. As such, I don't usually get too worked up about people's private religious views.

The problem is, a lot of things - like astrology and homeopathy, and even the very paradoxical idea that there could be such a thing as an "all-powerful" god - are simply.... well... wrong.

They are either demolished via overwhelming evidence through testing and scientific observation, or they are demolished by logic. The very statement "all-powerful" is fraught with logical paradox. A common demonstration of this is the phrase;
"Can god make a rock so big he cannot lift it?"
Note that no matter how you answer the question, god is incapable of doing something - either in the creation, or in the lifting. That statement itself disproves the very notion of an all-powerful god...

Point being; logic disproves the contradictory & impossible concepts and evidence can be used to demonstrate the extreme unlikelihood of anything else.

What I'm really trying to say here is that I think a distinction should be made with regard to making comments or "respecting" different beliefs.

I opened this blog by talking about metaphysics & epistemology... I did so for a reason. I believe - as does most of the rest of the world, whether they say so or not - that reality is real and consistent. And I believe that there are effective & ineffective ways of understanding reality. These beliefs have rewarded me constantly throughout my life... Just as they've rewarded pretty much everyone else in the world who's been able to cross the street without getting hit by a bus, boil water at 100°C or fly across the country in an airplane.

But it does mean that some ideas and beliefs aren't just a matter of opinion - but are actually right or wrong.

When people are wrong, I actually think we all have somewhat of a duty to attempt to correct them. There is no benefit to anyone to holding an incorrect view of the world. Being wrong only causes people to misjudge their surroundings and misallocate their resources. For me personally, I want people to let me know when I'm doing something that isn't going to work or if I'm wasting my time pursuing ideas that simply aren't correct.

It's also important to note that being wrong isn't a crime! We're all wrong about all kinds of things all the time, and that by itself is perfectly ok... No one is born with any knowledge of anything.

But choosing to continue to believe things which are wrong in spite of knowledge and availability of evidence and logic just seems to be a tremendously bad choice to me. I'm not sure why I should be asked to respect that choice.

What do you think?


DrJ said...

I agree with the thrust of you post, and from my experience, the folks who are in the mysterious category (those who DON'T seem to care if their beliefs are true), generally hold beliefs primarily because it makes them feel better. To you and I, truth is of paramount importance, but some feel that they define their own truths, and there may be nothing we can do to combat that conceit.

Sean W. Malone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean W. Malone said...

I think that's a particularly excellent point, DrJ...

It also causes me to waffle a lot on what is worth pushing and what isn't. I think when things are absolutely false, they're worth challenging.

But when it's a belief - as you said - that helps make people feel better and which isn't falsifiable, I find it hard to justify mocking people too much for that. I'm talking about concepts of afterlife, quasi-metaphorical souls, god defined as feelings of love & hope. Things like that.

One thing that I think about a lot is the concept of "love". Neuroscientists & cognitive psychologists will often talk about dopamine, seratonin, oxytocin, hormones, adrenaline... And explain powerful feelings in terms of the "how" while largely being unable to explain the "why".

The specific mechanisms that go on in the brain are far less interesting to me than all the other aspects of it. The choices we make, who we find attractive and how our personalities, our values, and beliefs come into play... "Love" and other deep emotions simply aren't adequately explained by chemicals.

That doesn't mean there is some kind of other-worldly mysticism, but I don't necessarily blame anyone for thinking that there is.

DrJ said...

Funny that you mention love, because those who espouse theist apologetics will point to as something that science can't explain. We can't explain it, even though we all know it exists, therefore it has to be rooted have it's cause in some "unexplainable" force.

I just started reading Dennett's "Freedom Evolves" and I particularly like the way in which he defines (paraphrasing Giulio Giorelli)a human soul: We have a soul, but it's made up of lots of tiny robots. Now that I'm older, and I have begun stowing away those old platitudes and superstitions about the "whys" of things, I am warming to the way in which previously mystified phenomena can be described poetically and elegantly, and still respect the way in which science has discovered the "hows." For example, I no longer have a serious issue using the word "spiritual" as a metaphorical flourish. I do not believe a spirit or soul, as defined by millennium of theologians, exists, but I truly believe that I have experienced things that provoked such a profound emotional reaction (and evoked a deeper understanding and appreciation of myself and the world) that parallel those that theists describe as "spiritual."

I don't think this is a contradiction for me as an atheist, and I abhor those anti-theists who feel it necessary to carry on a semantic flame war, bent on eliminating even the secular usage of religious terminology, in an effort to denigrate theology.

In the end, I am saddened by the fact that many theists hold these beliefs so firmly that they cannot accept what is rational and logical even though it's smacking them on the forehead, but I hold out hope that there is always a chance for people's minds to be changed.

Jeremy said...

Can god make a rock so big he cannot lift it?

Really? Now you are just being silly. You can't disprove an all-powerful god with a question like that. Besides, what would "lifting" a rock the size of the universe look like? How does one "lift" a super-massive black hole?

You were right on when you said that things which cannot be tested have to be accepted or rejected on faith, but those things, like Astrology, which CAN be tested should be tested and rejected.

The problem I have with those who argue for logic or skepticism, is that they are very good at identifying logical fallacies in others, but ignoring their own. I'm sure that if I argued that the Earth must be created because it is "fine-tuned" for life, you would logically cut that argument to shreds, but your "creating a rock to big to lift" is making the same mistake. You can't disprove something just be constructing a fake scenario and then showing the scenario to be self-contradicting.

Sean W. Malone said...

"but your "creating a rock to big to lift" is making the same mistake."

Actually, it's not making the same mistake at all.

I was illustrating that logic can be used to disprove specific claims if those claims are by their very nature contradictory.

The very concept of something being "all-powerful" is in and of itself built on contradictory premises. NOTHING can be all-powerful by the mere fact that to be so would require such a being to engage in paradoxical activities.

Since that's impossible, I can say that "God", or anything else, cannot be "All-Powerful".

The point is not that God cannot "exist" in some form... That I cannot prove - but that there are finite limits to what form that might take... Contradictions in terms only make a person's chosen god less & less likely to be possible.

And... The physical size of the metaphorical rock is completely irrelevant.

There are an endless variety of such paradoxes.

"Can god create a poison so powerful he could not withstand it?"

The *point* is that there are two possible answers, yes & no.

If you answer "Yes", you are saying that God can in fact create the poison, but that he cannot ingest it. If you say "No", he cannot make the poison (or move the rock, etc.) in the first place.

Thus; either answer you choose results in an activity out of bounds for your supernatural being... EITHER way, god cannot do something. The existence of such a paradox disproves the very essence of the concept being discussed.

Now, maybe people are just being euphemistic and their claims aren't that god is omnipotent in truth, but just more powerful than people. Fair enough... In that case, I don't have a problem with the logic of that argument - though I do have a problem with it's lack of evidence.

Jeremy said...

Actually, there is only one possible answer to that type of question: "That is a stupid question." As are all such gotcha style questions, regardless of who is asking them. Which came first the chicken or the egg? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? When did you stop beating your wife?

I think I have a different definition of all-powerful then. In my mind, a being that can create a large rock, and still lift it, or create a deadly poison and not be killed from it, is more powerful than a being which can create large rocks but can't lift them, or can create poisons and kill themselves. I, for example, can create poisons that would kill me by mixing common chemicals, and I can create large rocks out of concrete that I cannot lift, but that doesn't make me more powerful than God. QED: You have a bad definition of "all-powerful".

And for wanting more evidence, I cannot blame you there. I want more evidence of God also, it would make faith much easier. But when you take the position of accepting which ever has the preponderance of evidence (as I think you are saying), than the process is necessarily subjective. You and I may see the same evidence, and weigh it differently. I'm certainly not going to mock you for finding the (lack of?) evidence for God uncompelling. And I will join you in mocking astrologers and those who claim NASA faked the moon landing.

Sean W. Malone said...

"You have a bad definition of "all-powerful"."

No... I'm taking the term at its face value.

If you don't actually mean "all-powerful", then don't use the term - instead I recommend saying something like; "god is really, really, extra powerful... way more powerful than human beings".

That would force me to prove or disprove the claim on the basis of evidence... Which as you weasel around different definitions, I'm sure that I couldn't plausibly do.

But don't use the superlative if you don't actually mean it.

I didn't make up the claims of omnipotence... I just pointed out that they are logically contradictory and impossible.