Saturday, December 12, 2009

Perpetual Motion Machines and an Argument Against Agnosticism

For decades, the patent offices have been besieged with applications for patents on perpetual motion machines, anti-gravity devices, and other kooky contraptions. Eventually the offices in the U.S. and Britain had received so many and had wasted so much of their resources investigating them, they made a policy that they would not consider any application for a perpetual motion machine patent unless the author could produce a working model.

We could say that the offices migrated from being agnostic about their possibility to being defeasible atheists about them. The laws of physics are not completely known, and we could always be surprised, but countless failed attempts to produce such a machine and their knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics have made it reasonable for them to conclude that such a thing is naturally impossible. I also think we can agree that this conclusion is eminently justified and for them to remain agnostic about the existence of such a device would be silly, unnecessarily cautious, and disingenuous.

We’re in similar position about God. Agnostics have the view that they don’t know whether or not God exists. So the ordinary agnostic acknowledges that none of the various cases that are often presented for the existence of God is sufficiently compelling. The question is, in an epistemic situation where there is no compelling evidence for the existence of a thing, what are the circumstances that warrant deciding that no such thing exists versus merely suspending judgment about it.

Our situation is very much like the situation with regard to perpetual motion machines. We have countless examples of gods that people have thought were real, but turned out to be mistakes. See 500 Dead Gods. We have a good understanding of what is often really going on in those mistaken cases. People are subject to enthusiasm. They are prone to make mistakes. A variety of psychological phenomena seem to contribute to the occurrence and powerful character of religious experiences. Science has offered us natural explanations that supplant the divine explanations. And so on.

Furthermore, like the perpetual motion machine, the God hypothesis, if true, would fly in the face of countless other physical facts that we know about the world. We have never been able to corroborate a single instance of an immaterial soul that exists without a body. There has never been a single observable case of a consciousness, human or divine, that was able to exist without a functioning brain and nervous system. In every case where a supernatural, spiritual, or spooky cause or entity has been alleged to be real, our investigations have found nothing. Prayers don’t work. Nature is causally closed such that events within it are always precipitated by other physical causes.

There are things we do not know, of course. But there is every indication that we will continue to uncover the physical, mechanical, chemical, and biological causes for those things with empirical science just like we have done with everything else. Given what we do know about nature, discovering that there is an invisible, being with a consciousness that exists beyond the natural realm and who interacts with the natural realm would be about as plausible as finding out that the moon really is made of green cheese. We can’t say that such a thing is deductively impossible, but it is completely absurd. And someone who insisted on being agnostic about the possibility is being only marginally less irrational than someone who insists that it is true because they have a magic book that says so.

Being agnostic when the evidence for God is so poor and the evidence in favor of naturalism is so good amounts to a sort of ad hoc foot dragging. That same agnostic would never claim that the only reasonable position is to suspend judgment about a cheese moon, or invisible elves, or Thor, or Santa. In order for agnosticism to be justified in such a situation, there must be some evidential considerations that elevate the remote possibility into the range where the claim is nearly as likely to be true as false. The mere possibility that it is true never justifies treating it as a live enough hypothesis to warrant suspending judgment. There must be more going for the claim before we can give it that sort of respect.

So if atheism about Sobek, Paluga, Thor, Gefjun, Krakus, and all the others is justified, then which hypothesis is left standing and what are the considerations that boost it up out of the class of already rejected ideas? If, against all the odds, you’ve got a perpetual motion machine then by all means let’s see it. Otherwise, the only reasonable position to take is that no such thing exists.


MrAllenU said...

Nice post.

I especially like that last sentence of the post! :P

Pomegranate said...

Great blog.

Anonymous said...

GOD certainly is not a hypothesis.
A hypothesis can only be part of an objective science. You can experiment upon it, you can dissect it, analyze it.
That’s what Karl Marx has argued: ”unless God is proved in a scientific lab, I am not going to accept him.” What Karl Marx is saying is that, ”I can accept God as a hypothesis, but a hypothesis is not a truth. It has yet to be proved, and the proof has to be scientific.”
But if God is put into a scientific lab, in a test tube, and dissected, analyzed, and we know all the constituents that make God, will it be the God who created the world? And if Marx is going to accept God only then, that means God has to be reduced into a thing.
Then what would be the difficulty in manufacturing God? Once you have analyzed all the constituents of God, all the chemicals, then there is no problem. Get your discovery patented, and start manufacturing God. But that manufactured God will not be the God you are asking about.
God is not a hypothesis, cannot be a hypothesis, because the very word hypothesis takes the ground from beneath His feet. God is not to be proved. If science has to prove God then the scientist becomes higher than God. The poor God will be just like a white rat. So you play around and make boxes, and God moves from one box to another, and you find out how much intelligence God has.

Matt McCormick said...

This is bizarre, anonymous. First, how did you come by all of these deep insights about what God is and can or cannot be?
Second, a hypothesis is an idea that is put forward to explain some phenomena. Believers claim that the best explanation of the universe's existence is God. That is a hypothesis. A very poor one, but it is an attempt to explain the cause of the phenomena.

Anonymous said...

A person cannot be both together – a rationalist and an atheist. It is impossible. Either you can be a rationalist or you can be an atheist. A rationalist cannot believe in anything. A rationalist cannot have any belief – in God or in no God. A rationalist suspends all belief. A rationalist can only be an agnostic; he can only say, ”I do not know.”
The moment you say ”I know,” you are no longer a rationalist. The moment you say ”I know that God does not exist,” you are as irrational as the person who says God exists. You have lost track.
How can you say God is not?
The whole existence has not yet been measured. There are depths upon depths, there is much still unknown. A little is known. Far more remains unknown and unknowable. How can you say dogmatically that God is not?
A rationalist will avoid all temptation of dogmatism. He will say, ”I do not know.” Socrates was a rationalist, but he was not an atheist.
Atheism means you are against theism; you have chosen a belief. To believe in God is a belief; to believe in no God is a belief again. You remain a believer.
To be a rationalist is very difficult, arduous, because man wants to cling to some belief.

mikespeir said...

Thus saith the, uh, Anonymous?

CybrgnX said...

Hey...Anonymous...I am a rationalist and an atheist. As a REAL atheist it only requires stating there is no GOOD evidence for g0d so I do not BELIEVE in it. I do not claim it don't exist as that is a positive statement that I cannot prove.
It is easy to make a perpetual motion machine.....As Heinlein pointed out all that is required is to glue toast to the back of a cat, butter the toast and drop them. They will then spin eternally as each tries to fulfill the law that a buttered toast must land butter-side down and a cat must land on its feet. ;-}

feralboy12 said...

Ah, but when you say "the moon is made of green cheese" that is actually a scientific theory. It makes testable predictions and is falsifiable, which might have happened if the moon landings hadn't been faked (kidding).

Anonymous said...

Agnostic is not a third belief system. You are either a agnositc atheist, gnostic atheist, agnostic theist, or gnostic theist.

Jay said...

I like that link, Anonymous #3. I had seen a similar explanation on the "atheist experience", but having a hot girl explain it to me was even better. A problem that I have with those 4 categories in general is I believe 100% of the world is agnostic when it's put this way. No one can actually "know" if there is or isn't a God. I'm guessing there are "Gnostic" Atheists/Theists that falsely claim they know, but then that would be more of a belief imo, bringing us back to theism/atheism. Another problem I'm having with it is still feeling a need for a 3rd belief, which is where people often put agnostics. It is there for people that feel as much belief towards the existence of a god as the absence of a god. Would they be atheist or theist?

John-in-Oz said...

Apropos of your claim that prayer does not work, its worth noting that this is an overgenarilsation. If praying for something meant it would never happen, then there really would be something supernatural going on. Prayers for million to one outcomes are granted one time in a million. Prayers for impossibilities are granted anecdotally, even if not in our own experience. Vocal prayers that I find a job soon get followed by more job vacancies than keeping my mouth shut is. Prayers for personal courage or self discipline tend to be granted. Prayers ambiguously worded tend to be ambiguously answered.