Sunday, October 14, 2007

Possible, Possible, Possible: Overdrawing the God Account

If we do our due diligence and try to consider all the most substantial defenses of God seriously it is evident that inadequacies in the arguments leave them at best able to argue for possibilities, not actualities. There are insurmountable objections to the God positions and arguments. But even if we overlook a host of problems, at most they might show that God possibly exists. Even if we are exceedingly charitable and grant these arguments their preliminary conclusions, they still don’t close the circle—they don’t give us grounds to conclude that God exists. What is frequently happening in these situations is that theists acknowledge difficulties on one topic and expect to be able to overcome those difficulties with a successful argument elsewhere. But when we look at the problems with the whole network of justifications, it becomes clear that there is no actual anchor for the whole tenuous fantasy.

Consider the first cause argument. The universe must have begun to exist, it is argued. And everything that begins to exist must have a cause. Therefore, the universe must have had a cause. Therefore the cause of the universe is God.

Consider design arguments: The universe, or objects in it, exhibit properties that seem to indicate planning, purpose, design, or intent. The best or only explanation for the presence of those properties is that some designer was responsible. Therefore, God designed the universe.

Consider miracles: Many people claim to have witnessed miracles performed by other people who claim to have divine powers. The testimony about those miracles is taken to be evidence that some supernatural event occurred. Therefore God exists.

Consider evil: It’s even more damning that when confronted with the problem of evil as counter-evidence for the existence of God, prestigious philosophers and conscientious believers are reduced by their own admission to arguing that it is possible that there is a God and it is possible that this possible God has a plan (that we don’t understand) that justifies all the gratuitous suffering.

Even if we allow that there was a first cause, or that the universe had a designer, or that miracles occurred, the strongest conclusion we can infer from these arguments is that it is possible that God was responsible. It’s possible that an all powerful, all knowledgeable, and all good being was the first cause, but an argument for a first cause doesn’t require that conclusion. There’s always the powerful alien problem, or the possibility of a lesser divine being, or magic dragons, and so on.

It’s possible that the designer of the universe is the all powerful, all knowledgeable, and morally perfect God of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but the design argument doesn’t require that conclusion. At most, the design argument would show that some force with a plan introduced order. Again, that force could be aliens, Allah, a lesser deity, an idiot god, a committee of idiot gods, and so on.

It’s possible that miracles (if they occurred) are authored by God, even though having divine properties are not required to perform them. The force that brought them about might only have enough power or knowledge to do that feat, but is a far lesser being than God.

It’s possible that evolution had some supernatural intervention to help it along, even though an argument for intelligent design doesn’t require an omni-God to be that helper. Aliens, and idiot gods again.

It’s possible that the feelings of a sublime, divine, cosmic supernatural force you’re having are brought about by contact by God, even though we know that contact with God isn’t necessary to induce those feelings. Fasting, sleep deprivation, hallucinatory drugs, and aliens again.

It’s possible that your cognitive faculties are working correctly and the feeling of having veridical access to God is in fact veridical, even though it is not necessary for the feeling to be veridical in order for it to feel like it is. History has shown us over and over again that merely having an intense feeling that you are right is an unreliable guide to when you are.

And it is possible that every single instance of suffering in the history of sentience is actually part of the plan (that we don’t understand) of a possible God. It’s also possible that there is no such plan and no such being.

An important note is that I am not alone in singling out these problems with these arguments. Some of theism’s most accomplished philosophical defenders like Plantinga, Hick, Swinburne, and Van Inwagen acknowledge the short comings of these approaches to the God question.

There is a stunning gap in justification here. In order for a belief in God to be justified for a person, that person needs to have grounds that render the belief likely to be true. It won’t be enough to just sketch out possibilities on every side of the topic: Well, possibly God was the first cause. And possibly God had a reason for tolerating evil. And it is possible that the designer was God. And it is possible that if God designed us, then when our cognitive faculties are functioning properly, we will have a reliable, justified belief that there is a God.

If it is possible that one of the winning lottery numbers tomorrow will be 39, and it is also possible that one will be 7, and another one will possibly be 71, we don’t now have reason to think that the group of numbers: 39, 7, and 71 will probably win the lottery tomorrow.

Theism isn’t reasonable until we have some grounds that make it probable. All of these possibilities added up don’t make theism reasonable.

The believer can’t keep dodging the burden of proof forever. They are writing checks all over town to answer the challenges about these different lines of defense, but there’s no money in the account. If a table has 4 possible legs, we can’t expect it to stand up.


Central Content Publisher said...

In addition, I've heard believers argue something like the following:

Consider that there were multiple lotteries whose possible outcomes were [1,2,3], [0,2,8], and [2,30,64], but we could only pick one number to enter in all three lotteries. The most likely, best answer, would be 2. Likewise, God is the best answer across all questions.

Of course, the problem with this argument is that there's an assumption that all questions which might result in God must have the same result. And so the problem of possibility comes to life again.

Anonymous said...

My favourite response to proofs for the existance of god, is to ponder whether a truly omnipotent being could make a universe in which its presence was undetectable, even by logic? If yes,then how can one be so sure it didn't.

On the other side, to borrow from Sam Harris's recent speech. (but not his views).
If our universe turns out to be "not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose", then it is hard to find too much fault with strange allegorical mythical litterature, on the grounds of strangeness alone.
Maybe we should at least examine these myths, to see if they promote "love and curiousity" (assuming we all share Mr Harris's faith in these central values), before wasting alot of time proving the god-myths are too strange (illogical) to be true.

Jon said...

To Paulv: After examining most of the monotheistic myths (of coarse their myths), I have discovered that they are mainly opposed to curiosity and love. I don't think I have to quote from the texts, for it is obvious to any who has retained any reading of them. Various versus are crystal clear. Now, what about history, take Galileo or Giordano Bruno just as two basic examples of what happens to curious minds who live in a time where myth is the rule of law, or what happened to Spinoza. Or what about the Christians and Jews who were angry at Einstein because he did not see things their way. Clearly these myths did not foster their societies or the laws of their societies to be conducive to curiosity and love. What about Sharia law? The creationism trying to creep into public schools? Have you read 'Panda's and people'? Clearly that book based on myth is a brain drain perfectly made for the deliciously idiotic. If American law was based on the Bible (Biblical Law) and Christian myth instead of the secularism of the framers, would not we be a paranoid and idiotic society based upon anti-curisity (for all the answers are in the Bible)? You appear to assume (maybe that is not what you mean) that atheists have not examined these mythical texts. Have you examined these texts objectively? Can you give me a simple philosophy of what they say and mean as a whole? I take what they mean as "believe that these people talk to god, that these miracles happen, do what god allegedly wants and what these people say, or else bad things will happen to you. Maybe you are just posing hypotheticals or are just joking? Maybe what you just wrote was kind of like what Steven Colbert does on his Comedy Central show - to show the absurdity of fallacious and simple-minded thinking.

Anonymous said...

The believer can’t keep dodging the burden of proof forever.

The evidence is against you on that count.

Anonymous said...

I was not attempting to joke.

The first part of my comment was an attempt to show people who have a proof for the existance of god, that by insisting it is a "proof", they are in fact either diminishing what god can be, or claiming they know the mind of god.

The second part starts with a part of a recent post by Sam Harris
where I saw an acknowledgement that science does not offer us a simple explanation of the universe. At times it seems like we are again debating how many angels, googals of universes, or hidden dimensions, there might be on the head of pin.

I am fairly sure that I will never fully "understand" quantum electrodynamics and so I have to take it to some extent on faith or trust, the full extent of its implications. And there has been alot of pseudo-science or pseudo-religion if you will, on the implications of quantum mechanics, which try to render the mathematical equations, into an allegorical form. The point being that many of us will only ever understand the universe in this inexact, if you will permit me, perhaps even mythical form.

I am not that well read on mythic litterature. Most human societies as far as I know, had some form of mythic litterature including creation myths.

To answer one of your points...

If the majority of Christians accept evolution (don't believe in the litteral truth of the Adam & Eve creation myth) then you don't need to destroy religion or Christianity, to keep creationism out of schools. This is useful to know from a practical point of view of using beneficial alliances to acheive common goals. But also, I think, it is correct to acknowledge that the proof that religion in any form is incompatable with truth, love or curiousity has not been made. And if we are trying to stamp out simple, untested beliefs, then we may need to include that one. For the more dangerous and destructive we paint religion, the harder it is to account for how well it has survived evolutionary pressure, unless it must also carry with it some enormously benefitial qualities. For unless we claim that religion is divinely inspired, we should at least acknowledge that (as it has only human vectors of transmission) that it is under significant pressure to evolve towards if not benefitial, at least harmless forms. The four year war in Gombe (amoung some of Jane Goodal's chimpanzees) shows us that war and other seemingly senseless violence arrived in the species well before religion. I am just not as convinced on that evidence alone, that religion can be solely blamed for wars, or alot of what Hitchens blames it for. Especially since it is not accompanied by any desire to understand religion in relation to other similar human inventions that can evoke strong loyalties like nationalism.

Mel Gibson, amoung others, had the courage (and stupidity) to try to nail down all the worlds evils to a single religion. Why should we stop so easily at naming all religion as the culprit. It seems as pat an answer as saying men cause violence. A quick look at hyenas might inspire us to dig deeper. Attacking all religion, is not much more intellicully honest than Mel Gibson, jumping to the conclusion that all Jews must be bad, because he has run into (in his mind) many that are. While maybe nobody would be killed in Harris's final solution for religion, I am not sure nothing would be lost. Let's study it a bit more to be sure it is as guilty as claimed, and not just a scapegoat for something else.

The values of love and curiousity, espoused by Sam Harris are espoused (perhaps not to the same degree) by certain religious traditions in addition to other values. The arguments in favour of these values, are not really scientificly derived. I don't dispute them as good. I think like in the evolution of the peacock, the choices we make about what is desireable, has more effect than the concious reasoning that goes on in the peahen that is making the choice.

I am not saying you shouldn't ridicule litteral interpretations of texts. Just that the wisdom they contain (if any) may be more in the values they espouse. We can destroy fundamentalism, and destructive religions by destroying all religion, but it is not the only way, and I would argue it is not the best way.

Jon said...

Thanks for the clarity Paulv. Now, allow me to clarify and points of my own: I don't think that we should stamp out simple untested beliefs, instead we should test them (through both reason and scientific methodology) in order to make better judgements and improve our beliefs. If we belay judgement forever then we will stagnate or worse. Concerning your third paragraph on the analogy between understanding and faith in science. I don't agree. We should not equate our scientific ignorance with our ignorace of metaphorical creation myths. There is a distinction between coming to understand the implications and truth value of quantum mechanics and science in general and coming to understand the truth value of metaphorical myths. Take the uncertaintly principle of Q.M. or General Relativity - it is empirically verifiable in a lab or through a telescope while at the same time being consistent with math and reason - not just in principle. I'm sure you could study it and see it for yourself to a satisfactory degree without simply appealing to faith in the experts.

One more inexact analogy: Take the theory of the evolution of microbes - sure I will always have incomplete knowledge concering the modes of evolution of all of them throughout all of time, but I can still know through reason and empirically verifiable near certainty that the theory is consistent, coherent, and for the most part correct. It is not the same kind of "knowledge" as say a moderate religious person who tells me or thinks: "well I'm not sure that global warning via human causes is a 'factual theory', therefore I will not budge a finger to change my actions in life concerning it". Of course we should not paint all moderate religious people that way, but there is a problem with religious thinking that is conducive to being complacent about the worlds problem: "have faith in the face of danger" instead of reasoning and acting to change it, faith as putting your head in the sand for comfort, jsut like the thinking of the North Korean and Iranian governments' ideologues. Not to paint all North Korean officials or moderat religious people that way - just stating that it is obviously conducive to that thinking because it is what is encountered when we look at the world.

Concerning evolution: We shouldn't confuse 'beneficial for survival' with what is 'morally beneficial'. The North Korean and Iranian governing style has survived incredible obstacles, their systems have constant pressure put on them, yet they evolve with what the world throws at them. They have a beneficial survivability mechanism (through fear and force and ideology), but they are obviously not a morally beneficial system. The actions of Rape as an evolutionary survival force has survived through millions of years, but it does not make it morally beneficial. I think as a society we can evolve beyond Chimp brutality, or government/ideology/religious brutality. Nothing should be scapegoated, but everything should be critiqued.

Tell me the points that you think I have been immoderate or innacurate in and I will respond to your critiques if possible.

Jon said...

To any: here is the reality concerning faith based myth beliefs and possible future consequences.

"Americans do not believe that humans evolved, and the vast majority says that even if they evolved, God guided the process. Just 13 percent say that God was not involved.

Support for evolution is more heavily concentrated among those with more education and among those who attend religious services rarely or not at all.

There are also differences between voters who supported Kerry and those who supported Bush: 47 percent of John Kerry’s voters think God created humans as they are now, compared with 67 percent of Bush voters.

Overall, about two-thirds of Americans want creationism taught along with evolution. Only 37 percent want evolutionism replaced outright.

More than half of Kerry voters want creationism taught alongside evolution. Bush voters are much more willing to want creationism to replace evolution altogether in a curriculum (just under half favor that), and 71 percent want it at least included.
60 percent of Americans who call themselves Evangelical Christians, however, favor replacing evolution with creationism in schools altogether, as do 50 percent of those who attend religious services every week.

This poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 885 adults interviewed by telephone November 18-21, 2004. There were 795 registered voters. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus three percentage points for results based on all adults and all registered voters."

Greek myth has it's merits - gives you morals of stories and is entertaining. In reality religious myth beliefs do not operate that way in the world.

Anonymous said...

I don't have much to add. If the focus is on testing beliefs, and value system (via game theory or other means) then we are in agreement. There are many value systems outside of religion that may be as destructive as some of those inside and we need to be careful not exclude possible meritorious side effects in the studies.

We should also acknowledge that science has not solved the universe, so many ultimate questions cannot be tested at this time. Or that we may only be able to prove that one value system has a slightly higher probability of achieving a better outcome.

The numbers on creationism in the U.S. surprise me since many "main stream" churches (Episcopalean and Roman Catholic, do accept evolution of the species). Should I find it heart-warming that churchgoers are not following their leadership here?) I don't think the numbers are that high here in Canada, and overt creationists have paid a high price in recent elections here.

It would be nice to rid the world of aggression, but it appears that aggression does give an evolutionary advantage so it is unlikely that we can get rid of it entirely in this universe. The best we may be able to do is to limit the damage it can cause, so as not to lose the benefits.

In the case of religion, and other things that arouse strong emotions, I think we may be in a similar situation. We would not have many wars, if we did not have the capacity for strong emotions, but I am not sure we would be better off if we were to be incapable of them.

Jon said...


If the government grants money to private and charter schools through faith based initiatives, then the teaching of creationism in "public" schools has been achieved, for the difference between private and public schools has been broken down.


I disagree with your "slightly higher probability of achieving a better outcome ideology" for it is not a slightly better outcome that the earth revolves around the sun instead of vice versa, it is a magnanimously better outcome with almost infinitely better explanatory power. Concerning your god of the gaps analysis - well that argument has been getting exponentially weaker over the years so again, it is not a matter of a slightly better conceptual and observational scheme, but instead one of a magnanimously more powerful conceptual scheme.

Anonymous said...

I hope this does not appear twice, It did not appear to take it last time.

I have been looking around to confirm your evolution polls and came across this from the Pew Research Center, which I am not familiar with. If you have a negative view of this body I would like to know it.

It seems to record strong differences with religious positions on global warming, and evolution, even amoung Christian traditions.

This coupled with the fact (I am trying to find the source) that as many as 1/2 of scientists believe in a god, but the percentage that doesn't accept evolution or global warming is much smaller.

If the way "religious belief myths operate" causes Christians to deny evolution, why do so few scientists who profess belief, deny evolution, and why so great a difference amoung sects.

The other problem I see, is that in Canada anyway, church attendance has never been lower. I think certainly that in the US church attendance is lower than it has been. So the correlation may indicate a causality in the opposite sense. That is, those who deny evolution, are more likely to attend church (to be supported in their views), than that church or religion cause a denial of evolution.

Point 1.

The Stokes trial was about allowing evolution to be taught. It was not (correct me if I am wrong here) about not letting anyone teach creationism. If we don't think that evolution can lick anyone on a level playing field on facts alone, then we need to despair for democracy as well. That being said, we need to ensure that charter schools teach about evolution by setting curriculum standards that their accreditation is dependant upon. And tell them the evolution does not affirm or deny the existance of a god, anymore that the earth goes around the sun affirms or denies the existance of a god. (This is not really the role of atheists to tell them, but they should be told)

Point 2

I agree that for many myths, there is a clearly better outcome. Knowing and accepting the truth has enormous evolutionary advantages. The Inca's studied the stars and made calandars and sacrificed virgins to placate their gods to ensure good harvests. We know now that the calandars gave them a big advantage in knowing when to plant, and the virgins thing, was an unnecessary drain on the system. But they didn't know that. They had no way of isolating real and fictitious effects. And the big benefit of the calandar hid for a time the futility of the sacrifices.
I dropped out of nuclear physics at one time in my life, so when I say I will never know understand QED theory, it is more a personal admission, than a statement that no-one will ever understand it. But it left me with the impression that we don't really understand probability. But I do think that some political and moral decisions will never be as clean as science facts. We can reason and come up with a probably best solution for greatest gain, and a probably best solution to avoid the greatest loss. How much risk we accept, what we value more will help decide. Not without science and logic, but still not really dictated by science either.

Anonymous said...

Re God of the Gaps:

The idea that science has cornered god to certain areas not yet known is I don't think good for atheists to accept. As a failed physicist, I see science as digging into the basement, into space and time, quantum effects. Since all science theory rests like a mansion on top of this foundation, every thing is still really up for grabs. All we can say we have eliminated for sure is simple notions of god, or causality. That doesn't make science useless, we should just not expect it to answer questions about what existed before this universe anytime soon.

Carlo said...

The possibility phenomenon is driven by modal logic. We have twin worlds in Phil of language and Gettier examples in epistemology consisting of painted mules and barn facades. We also have seen modal logic's force in Phil of religion arguing that we cant know gods' work ergo it is possible we cannot possibility know all solutions to a greater good. I do have respect for logic but it can be a bain sometimes for the pursuit of knowledge. It appears that the use of logic can distract form the real issue at hand by giving rise to counter examples that carry no valuable knowledge of the real world. Its not that I have an axe to grind with logic. Quite the contrary. I have great respect for the disciple. But it is so easy to misuse logic. We should not be convinced that because we cant know x for certain that we don't know x. Even arguing for x to be probable appears to be susceptible to counter examples. Daniel Dennet suggest that thought experiments are intuition pumps. They are often misused by eliciting intuitions that are incorrect. In short, modal logic gives rise to the argument of possibility. It unfolds the subtleties of language that sentential and quantified logic cannot - the relationship between 'If and then'. The link below describes what Daniel Dennet has to say about thought experiments.

Jon said...

First point: Your "half of all scientists" argument does not address the fact that this is a huge difference compared to the general populace. Also the vast majority of the best scientists for example - over 90% of the U.S. 'National Academy of Scientist do not profess belief'. Even those greatest of scientists that still say they have belief hold to a more vague and murky notion which is very different from many of the others in the pew.

Now to my last point: It appears that when we compare any liberal democracy in the 1st world with those "nations" of the middle east, there seems to be a trend. The trend is obvious so I will not state it. This does not grant that there will be relative peace in the middle east if they were not inflamed with those divisive passions, but it does appear that if they were not - then there would be one less giant issue to fight over.

Anonymous said...

I am not as concerned with disproving the possibilities of God's existence as much as i am concerned with getting people to get over their stubborness of dodging proof and giving an endless amount of possibilities. Is it possible for the minority to convince the majority? Is it possible for the minority to get the majority to break away from this "Material Christianity," or this religion and pop culture "phenomena." Or is the majority going to continue to whine like a child who refuses to get a shot no matter how much information you throw at the child proving that it will help them. Or do you grant and accept that the child, given his ignorance and stubborness, is intellectually incapable of grasping the information that will benefit him later. It seems, with this post, that the majority is comfortable being the whiny, stubborn kid, which is very unfortunate. I would hope that one would at least attempt to strengthen their belief or even their faith, by studing and practicing their religion and belief in God. The ignorance of their religion and stubborness to believe otherwise, or even question, is obvious in society. The ignorance is evident in the study by the Gallup Organization that only 42% of adults were able to name as many as five of the Ten Commandments correctly. Also 38% of Americans believe the entire Bible was written several decades after Jesus' death and resurrection. The stubborness has also made me aware of the competition between thiests on faith and belief in God. "I know more about God than you do!" "Have you even read the New Testament?!" These are comments that i have heard and force me to conclude that the typical person and apparent theist is not battling the atheist's views and evidence but the views and evidence of fellow theists. These conflicts between theists make it hard to accept or acknowledge the endless possibilities the typical theists give and make me question the validity of their knowledge to base their possibility. Again, i am addressing the typical person in society as opposed to the rare person who legitimately studies and practices the true knowledge of God, a "true" theist.

Rolando M (192)

Anonymous said...

What would count as grounds for believing in God? I think you're correct in pointing out that, at most, the theists only get the possibility that God exists. How much probability would be required in order for an individual to be justified in believing that God exists?

Alan Moore said...

Matt, epistemology is certainly not my field, but there is something that does not sit right with me.

Justified beliefs often do not require a formal proof, we often base our beliefs on mere possibility. I have in mind a court of law. Juries regularly find the accused guilty based solely on circumstantial evidence, a series of possibilities that (somehow) add up to make the act probable.

Granted, there are problems with our legal system, but this certainly does appear to be a normal and acceptable form of reasoning. I think this needs to be addressed. It is likely that the evidence in court is often stronger than in the proofs of god, but the form of the argument is the same, and this post is a criticism of the form, not the strength.