Sunday, December 07, 2008

Atheism in a nutshell

The position of strong atheists — myself included — is that we know that no God exists as confidently as we know any moderately complicated but well-established scientific theory, such as evolution or quantum mechanics.

If one objects to strong atheism it is either just because we are confident, or because we assert a degree of confidence that is not warranted by the actual facts. To object to confidence per se entails epistemic nihilism. If one objects that the confidence is not warranted by the facts, then only the substance of the argument is relevant.

The whole argument is complicated (again, much like a moderately complicated but well-established scientific theory) but it can be briefly summarized.

There are two classes of definitions of god: empirically falsifiable and metaphysical. I adopt Popper's general stance that there's nothing inherently disreputable about metaphysics per se (although there can be bad metaphysics just like there can be bad scientific theories).

The falsifiable definitions of God are actually false: they either make predictions that are definitely falsified by experience (e.g. the Problem of Evil) or they are over-elaborated and overcomplicated restatements of ordinary natural science and fall victim to Occam's razor.

The metaphysical definitions of God either require presuppositions at least as controversial (if not more controversial) than simply assuming the existence of God (e.g. the Ontological argument) or are (again) over-elaborated and overcomplicated restatements of metaphysical naturalism and again fall victim to Occam's razor.

The analysis is somewhat complicated by the sheer number of patently invalid arguments for the existence of God. Invalid arguments demonstrate nothing per se (nb. the fallacy fallacy). However, valid arguments ought to drive out invalid arguments; when one position is riddled with invalid arguments, that's strong evidence that there are no valid arguments to drive out the invalid.

12 comments:

  1. The falsifiable definitions of God are actually false: they either make predictions that are definitely falsified by experience (e.g. the Problem of Evil) or they are over-elaborated and overcomplicated restatements of ordinary natural science and fall victim to Occam's razor.

    Small nit: falling prey to Occam's razor doesn't imply falsehood. Something can fall prey to the razor and yet still be true, as Occam's razor cannot distinguish true from false, only reasonable from unreasonable (occasionally, what is at one time unreasonable turns out true; this doesn't make one less of a fool for believing it at the time that it was unreasonable).

    OTOH, "overcomplicated restatements of ordinary natural science" strike me as not actually falsifiable anyway.

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  2. Small nit: falling prey to Occam's razor doesn't imply falsehood.

    Indeed; I put the "either" in the wrong place.

    overcomplicated restatements of ordinary natural science" strike me as not actually falsifiable anyway.

    Well, if natural science is falsifiable, than any restatement of it would also be falsifiable.

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  3. I think Occam's razor works only in a naturalistic worldview and is evolved from such a worldview. For example in a matrix-like-world Occam's razor would be useless. So would falsiability that would dismiss the anomalies in the matrix even though they would be telling the truth about reality (which is nothing more than the next level of the matrix)
    Even though they don't look any different than crazy people there are people that don't believe in a natural universe. I'm am talking here about those that don't take pills when they get the flue, don't fix their teeth, don't get operations and look only in the bible for cures.

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  4. Logosfera: The phrase "naturalistic worldview" is ambiguous. It is certainly the case that methodological naturalism, a specifically epistemic method, must rely on Occam's razor to distinguish between the infinity of theories that predict a finite number of observations and differ only by ontological complexity.

    So would falsiability that would dismiss the anomalies in the matrix even though they would be telling the truth about reality

    Even in a "Matrix"-like ontology, we are still trying to explain the properties of the Matrix from a phenomenological perspective. Methodological naturalism is just as applicable, and we are faced with the same ontological problem: There would be an infinite number of ways to describe the properties of the Matrix that would account for our phenomenological evidence.

    My post on Materialism and Empirio-criticism is more on point, as is my series on the scientific method.

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  5. By a "naturalistic worldview" I mean the belief that we live in an universe that doesn't try to conceil the truth either counsciously (like the matrix-like universe) or not (God/Devil messing with the fossil record).

    Occam's razor is a tool that can be used only by someone who already ascribed to a naturalistic worldview. What would be the point to use the razor if you believe you're a character in a madman's dream? The same goes with falsiability. If one believes he lives in a matrix like universe than falsiability of gravitation, it's testability would not really prove that gravity "really" exists.

    In my opinion the razor, falsiability are tools developed within and evolved from a specific epistemic stance. That's why Occam's razor didn't come before aristotle and the falsiability didn't come before Occam's razor.

    There are always an infinite ways to account for our phenomenological evidence. But the naturalistic approach is the only one that, if true, guarantees the "correctness" of our conclusion. For example supernaturalism, even if true, doesn't guarantee that the supernatural entity that is in charge with thunder is Zeus and not FSM. Matrix, even if it's true, doesn't guarantee that thunder is an "virus", a "normal functioning software", a message from Morpheus, Neo breaking the "sound barrier" (whichever it may be on a matrix universe) etc. On the other hand, if naturalism is true, than thunders are just sounds produced by lighting... blah... blah... (I don't know to describe the whole process).

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  6. By a "naturalistic worldview" I mean the belief that we live in an universe that doesn't try to conceil the truth either counsciously (like the matrix-like universe) or not (God/Devil messing with the fossil record).

    The underlying metaphysical premise of the "naturalistic worldview" is not that the truth is somehow not concealed from us, it's rather that if the universe is trying to "fool" us, we're just as interested in -- if not more interested in -- how we're being "fooled" as we are in the underlying truth.

    If there were a Matrix, the Matrix thus real, and we're interested in how the Matrix actually works: knowledge about the Matrix is knowledge about reality.

    If we're being perfectly fooled by the Matrix, then the operation of the Matrix is all we're interested in. That's all the knowledge that we have, and we cannot tell the difference between running as a program on the Matrix and actually being real at the "rock bottom" of reality; speculation about a Matrix is pointless.

    If we're being imperfectly fooled, then eventually we'll have enough phenomenological evidence using methodological naturalism to know how precisely we're being fooled and the reality underlying the Matrix.

    But the naturalistic approach is the only one that, if true, guarantees the "correctness" of our conclusion.

    Methodological naturalism doesn't "guarantee" correctness. It's merely the understanding that all we can know is all we can know; speculation about what we cannot possibly know is a waste of time.

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  7. Nice post, bro!

    The analysis is somewhat complicated by the sheer number of patently invalid arguments for the existence of God. Invalid arguments demonstrate nothing per se (nb. the fallacy fallacy). However, valid arguments ought to drive out invalid arguments; when one position is riddled with invalid arguments, that's strong evidence that there are no valid arguments to drive out the invalid.

    Oooh. I like that!

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  8. I think the problem is that some religious people confuse:

    * strong atheism with dogmatism
    * atheism with nihilism
    * 'new' atheists with *all* atheists

    ...and so on. It is thus not surprising that they continue to spread atheophobia (fear/hatred of atheists) because they believe atheism to be some sort of nihilistic, immoral and dogmatic monstrosity. When the backlash against their atheophobia comes, they'll only have themselves to blame.

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  9. You may be interested in the No More Atheophobia campaign (http://atheophobia.blogspot.com/) that I am in the process of putting together.

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  10. Finally got back to checking the comments here (I thought I set for emails? Anyway...)

    If there were a Matrix, the Matrix thus real, and we're interested in how the Matrix actually works: knowledge about the Matrix is knowledge about reality.

    If we're being perfectly fooled by the Matrix, then the operation of the Matrix is all we're interested in. That's all the knowledge that we have, and we cannot tell the difference between running as a program on the Matrix and actually being real at the "rock bottom" of reality; speculation about a Matrix is pointless.


    This is the best explanation of why Occam's Razor matters I've seen so far.

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  11. I feel this is related to this article. I was just curious.. I need to look into this more, but how does a universe with probabilistic events at a quantum level compare with a fully deterministic universe under Occam's razor assuming we didn't have the evidence for a probabilistic universe that we have (bell's theorem, casmir effect, the success of quantum mechanics which precludes causes, etc.)? It doesn't seem to me like one option could be viewed as "more complicated" than the other. I'm not sure if one idea makes extra assumptions really. Are the idea's "tied" as far as being the simplest explanations? Is one claim more extraordinary here? I'm not even sure of all of the relevant implications of each scenario. I tried searching this blog for information on Occam's razor. Have you done an article on Occam's razor alone? Thanks. Great blog.

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  12. How would Occams razor apply to ideas such as an eternal universe versus a universe of finite age. Would it even apply. Saying time "begins" to exist is a little odd, and a half-line makes as much sense to me as a line to me. It seems that with ideas like whether the universe is eternal or not or whether the universe is probabilistic or not, Occam's Razor wouldn't apply as nothing extra is really assumed in each case.

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