Metaphysical Masturbation And The Basis For Logic

Christian apologists like to delve into philosophical problems in a similar vein to how they like to delve into scientific findings. Not to understand them, but to point out flaws that are somehow supposed to prove that god exists. These arguments are classical god of the gaps arguments, but the gaps are in human reasoning, not in scientific knowledge.

A primary argument that is put forward is basically this: All knowledge is based on human reasoning, but what are the premises of logic? How can we prove human reasoning to be valid? In their case god is placed as the ultimate first premise, the perfect basis for logic and reason. What can the opposition say?

The truth is that there are no final definitive answers for this. You cannot prove logic with logic. If logic dictates that evidence proves something, then even evidence cannot prove logic. Logic is purely axiomatic, we accept its premises without proving them. Does this mean that everything we know could be false? Yes. Everything we know could be false. I am going to attempt an analogy:

Think of the universe as a machine, our senses as lights on the machine and our bodies as switches on the machine. There are many switches and lights, and things are possibly happening in the machine that we cannot see. What we can do is activate switches by our actions. When we activate a single switch a specific light will come on. When we activate another switch another light comes on. When we activate switches in certain rhythms or patterns certain sequences of lights and colours of lights are activated in return. Do we truly know how the machine works? Are the lights the function of the machine, or are things happening behind them? What can we tell about what is happening in the machine based purely on the lights?

The answer to this is that we can only know anything about our own internal reality. We can only see the lights and activate the switches. Many mysteries could lie inside the machine, but we simply can't see it. This is a barrier between our senses and the external universe which is called the phaneron.We cannot know for certain whether anything beyond it exists, just like we cannot know whether there is anything happening in the machine other than the activation of the lights based on the switches we activate. In truth all we are could exist only in our minds. We imagine ourselves and the world around us.That is the job of our brains.

There is a second important component to this analogy, already alluded to in the preceding paragraph. When we activate certain switches, certain lights go on. Gradually we learn how the machine works and we create methods for finding new workings of the machine. As time passes by we learn more complexities of it. Maybe one day we will figure out what is happening inside it, or maybe, that there is no inside to it at all. This is basically what the activity of science is. If we were completely wrong about logic, would we have been able to make the machine work in the way we wanted it to? Although not entirely improbable the probability of this is low. Whenever you are wrong about the workings of something eventually the error gets multiplied and everything you think should work fails horribly. If you are wrong about the operation of a stove, it will burn you, if you are wrong about baking a cake, it will flop.The basic advantage of science is that we can bring the effects we intend on the world with exceeding and improving accuracy.

Happily we have an example of a system where the tenets were wrong on the other hand, causing its consequent failures to multiply into madness and absurdity. That system is religion. Religion bases all reasoning on the existence of god. Hundreds of years later we can look back and name the period when we tried religious epistemology the Dark Ages. Theologians desperately pressed buttons but their theories of how the machine worked was wrong. The lights would flash randomly at them, alarming them and causing them to become angry at each other and engage in wars and atrocities. Nothing worked. Gradually however, as the god premise was slowly and painstakingly removed from philosophy, and science was born, the lights started to come on predictably and in spectacular fashion. It seemed as though we may never know what happens in the machine, or whether the machine actually exists, but we at least knew that we could finally start to learn how to operate it.

Where does that leave us. What is the basis for logic? We don't know. Does that make it valid to posit that the basis for logic must be god? No. Did the existence of god as a premise for arguments yield useful results? Mostly no (some by accident). Did science and scientific scepticism yield working results? Yes. Is there a reason to believe that logic and science works? Yes. Why? Because "science, it works... bitches!"

The Intellectual Bankruptcy Of Christian Apologetics

Having spent some time with apologists one theme has become obvious. They know that they have no intellectual grounding for their beliefs. They know that deep inside them, they rely on faith alone to "feel" the presence of god. Outwardly they will never admit this, and they think that by extension everyone else also holds similar faith only positions to them.

Since they fail to move the burden of proof for the god claim, they try to move onto what they deem to be a valid target. This target is naturalism.

I am not going to go into a detailed explanation of what naturalism means, but in a nutshell it means that all things are natural, and there is no spiritual realm. In other words there are probably no ghosts, gods, demons or souls, unless those things are made of stuff. So there are essentially no immaterial things. I am not going to spend hours in metaphysical mental masturbation on this topic, because apologists love this. Essentially it distracts their opponents from the total lack of support they have for their position.

The theist will assert that we need evidence that the natural world is all there is. For example, the arguments usually rely on some of the following things which they might ask. Without answers for these questions, they assert that you must conclude a supernatural realm. Let's look at the questions briefly. Of course each question can be discussed at length, but I am interested in the common theme of all the following:

1. How did the universe start? How did something come from nothing?
2. How did life evolve from non-life?
3. How does consciousness arise from neurobiological processes. The so called hard problem. ([1] Chalmers)
4. How did rationality arise from non-rational processes?
5. How can we rely on logic in a naturalistic universe? Premises are all stacked and initial premises are not justified.

Without answers to these questions, it is apparently totally okay to conclude that an omnipotent deity did those things or in the case of 2) that our souls do it. There are three generalised  problems with all these arguments. They are the same problems as before, so nobody will be surprised if they are familiar with biblical apologetics or indeed the rationalisations of any common believer.

1. Shifting the burden of proof

There is no evidence that there is a god. There is no evidence that there is not a god. We must accept tentatively that there is no god, because if we change the rules then any proposition, no matter how ridiculous, can be considered. In other words if we say that it is okay to believe something that we just asserted without any proof then we are basically opening the floodgates to any hooey, including things like astral traveling, dowsing, and alien abductions.

Why the burden of proof? Isn't this different from the god claim? Well it isn't. It is just renaming things to dress the argument up a little differently, and since some of the questions above are interesting, to the inquisitive mind it could be fun to try and think about these things and the theist just sits back and watches. The truth is though is this:

1. We know the natural world exists because we live in it
2. We have never found any supernatural phenomena
THEREFORE
Naturalism is the default position. If a naturalist asserts that there is no supernatural it may be different. It's the same as the god claim. If you are open to good evidence for the supernatural that is all that matters. It is the responsibility of the supernaturalist to prove that this unseen realm exists.

2. God/soul of the gaps

Believing any bullshit you feel like coming up with until someone proves it wrong is not only stupid, it makes you look stupid when the actual answers are found and it closes your mind to finding the real answers. People who believed that the solar system was geocentric were hell bent on resisting the heliocentric model. Today we laugh at the idiots who held on to the stupid orthodoxy. It is pretty simple, there is no reason to just believe something when there is no evidence.

The intellectually honest position is "I don't know". Theists can always move the supernatural realm back a little as science moves on (they did this when the sublunary model was disproven and the planets were found to be natural). So you can never "prove" naturalism to them anyway, because they have set a standard of evidence that they will change at will anyway.

For instance despite showing a large amount of evidence to a theist that the mind correlates one to one with brain states, he still refused to believe that the mind could be caused by the brain. Drawing on all my knowledge of psychology and the little bit of neurobiology I know did not help. The goal posts just keep getting moved.

3. Personal incredulity

"I just can't see how all of this could have come from evolution/big bang/abiogenesis". The world is a little different when you can't just plug the holes of your understanding with god everywhere and claim to have the absolute truth. Christians even spell truth with a capital T, emphasizing how utterly sure they are. It's not hard to imagine that everything could have come to be naturally. It is not hard to imagine for me that our minds are the products of our brains, and that everything we consider subjective experience is just a sum of the experiences of different mind subsystems. The theist just claims that there is no way, therefore it did not happen.



The whole situation is very unfortunate. You cannot change someone's mind if they are that willfully resistant. You can just point out that their mode of thinking is poor. One thing that holds true that I have learned is that "humans are not a rational species, humans are a rationalizing species" (I read that somewhere). That means that someone will devote a considerable amount of time to rationalize a strong belief instead of spending time trying to disprove that belief. I spend a lot of time reading apologetics blogs and they are terrible just so I can be sure that I give the other side a chance.

Essentially they are reduced to attacking scientific epistemology, because that is what sceptical atheists use to figure out which beliefs are reasonable, and at the same time they have to pretend like they still respect science. When I read apologetics, I always try to replace their proofs for god with other conclusions. Their proofs work equally well for things like solipsism in some cases, or aliens creating us in some other scenarios. If multiple alternative conclusions can be drawn and you cannot produce positive evidence for yours, then sadly there is no good reason to hold your position.


[1] http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/chalmers.htm

The Believer's Problem Of Perspective

 In a recent debate, on Alvin Plantinga's EAAN[1], +Sebastian Nozzi stated the following, and asked me whether or not I agree with his assessment of my argument.

You are welcome to read the entire argument if you like, which is located here. Below is an extract of Sebastian's assesment:

You refuse to give a simple yes/no answer to:
One is the emergence of the brain through darwinian evolution. One brain that is capable or reasoning.

The other thing is the quest for truth. Using that brain for discovering the world and making truth assessments of it.

The former has to do with the process of darwinian evolution. The latter not, it uses a mechanism produced by evolution, but is not part of the evolutionary process (unless you think you can modify your DNA by thinking). Agreed?"

Something that I thought respectfully represents your worldview.

So I have to explain why statements like this one is a problem. The reply is written as directly addressing Sebastian, but it could be read in general terms:

When you say truth, you probably mean absolute truth. In my mind there is no such concept. In yours there may very well be such a concept.

If I answer yes, you immediately jump to "Oh so you can know [absolute] truth? How is that possible considering an adapted mind?". You may not state it, but the absolute is present in your mental model of the concept.

It isn't possible to know absolute truth. The phaneron[2] represents the limits of our understanding. It brings into question truths we know.

Do you see how your implied assumptions about how the world works can make you fail completely to understand, and how me answering your question can satisfy us both, because you think I enforced your view, but in fact we mean different things when we say the same things.

Another example


Markus keeps talking about the universe being an "accident". I tried to explain early on in the post that the terminology does not make sense. His assumption that there is agency makes him conclude that without it everything must be an accident, but an accident implies an intended outcome, and an accidental one. If a droplet falls on a leaf, is it an accident? Nope. You require an agent for an accident to occur at all.

So from a strictly naturalistic point of view nature does not deal in accidents, nature just is. Carl Sagan described nature as being indifferent. Granted that still appeals to some sort of agency (probably only for the sake of explanation), but it gets the point across that nature has no intended purpose or outcome.

Even if accident is meant in a kinder way consider this: If I get black jack five times in a row, we call it blind luck. If an unintended outcome is good, we call it luck, not accident. Even though I still disagree with the use of the term luck, it removes agency and acknowledges that what has happened is good.

But is it good? Nope. It just is. Nature is what it is, no matter what we think it is. We are often wrong about it too and nature kicks our asses for being wrong. In the middle ages people thought that the plague was the wrath of god, all their piety and dedication didn't make the plague go away. They were wrong, or should I say, us, humanity, was wrong.

Changing Perspective


You will never be able to understand a strictly materialistic view of the world if you cannot flip your perspective around and imagine that the first premise of existence according to you, namely that there is a god, is false or at least not self evident.

Many, if not all theistic arguments suffer from having this premise, either explicitly with presuppositional apologetics, or implied with other types.

In that sense, the philosophical concept that you are trying to use against naturalism, namely that a first premise may be false and make all consequent conclusions false actually applies to the theistic view too.[3]

What is in favour of the non-theistic view is that we can derive new laws of nature from non-theistic methods, whereas theological methods have no useful output. In that sense the naturalistic view vindicates itself by being valuable, and the theistic view is left destitute.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaneron
[3] I realise that the argument is a little different, and mixes in evolution, but it is almost identical to this description.

A Theist's Honest Opinion Of Atheists

After my last post, about justifying beliefs, I had a private conversation with a theistic friend in my circles. Our opinions could not be different on just about everything, so I decided to try and gain some perspective by asking him the following question:

"What do you think is the error of thinking in atheism? Where do you think we all go wrong? I am curious about this."

The answer is below the line. It is a much more elaborate answer than I anticipated, which raises many points. I withhold my opinions here, and his name, so that everyone can peer into the opinion of the opposite side of the god debate, as I did when I first read this response.
_____________________________________________________________________________

It seems to me that most atheists do not to think the implications of their worldview through. They do not follow the logical consequences of it. Few great atheist philosophers did, but somehow the street-atheist seem not to be interested in their conclusions. I'm referring to matters like values, meanings, purpose, rationality, epistemology, free-will, the existence of the self, etc.

Many atheists think that it's either atheism or Christianity. They seldom contemplate the idea that God, even a loving one, might exist even if many, if not most, of the things found in the Bible were false. Many things which atheists, and me, hate about the Bible could be false, and God still exist (examples: hell, homophobia, killing of innocent people, slavery, outrageous punishments, etc.).

Many atheist demand physical evidence of God, which for the theist is contradictory. The theist regards God to be a spiritual being. No physical evidence could be ever provided. God, being non-material, could not ever be analyzed by science or physical methods.

Many atheists think that science found all the answers or will do so eventually. Especially to fundamental, transcendental questions. They don't entertain the idea that many questions are not of scientific nature at all.

Many atheists think that because most believers believe in things which can not be proven or make no sense, therefore God does not exist. The mistake here is to dismiss something which could very well be real is a “spiritual” sense, but wrong “intellectually”. For example, if you said “I love my partner” and I asked you for reasons, you could give me some but they might all be “wrong” (not subjectively wrong, really wrong). It would not invalidate your experience.

Many atheists insist that on one hand we are machines/automata without free-will, and on the other hand we have values, ideals, morality and responsibility. It seems contradictory to me.

Many atheists simply don't like the idea of there being a God, but are not honest enough to admit it.

Many atheists are more concentrated in dismissing, rather than evaluating and considering, evidence for the existence of God.

Many atheists will try to find another explanation, no matter how speculative, to systematically eliminate the possibility for there to be a God. Even where God, as a possible explanation, would have been a simpler explanation than the alternative. A good example of this would be the Multiverse theory.

Many atheists have too much confidence in science, and tend to ignore areas where science has failed and another explanation might be more plausible. But any explanation involving a personal agent as a cause is systematically rejected a-priori, maybe just because it would be no longer explainable by science only. They insist, no matter the evidence, that the explanation must be naturalistic.

Many, if not most atheists, are very less inclined at looking at the cumulative case, the “big picture”, offered by theism. They rather prefer to attack theism in isolated chunks, believing that addressing all the points separately, then theism has been shown false. The thing is, that theism as a whole presents a rather good cumulative case. This is seldom addressed.

Many atheists think that theists presume to have all answers. Even in theological questions. This is not the case. We are very ignorant about religious matters and don’t claim certainty in many areas.

Many atheists think that only bad things can result from religion, and fail to recognize that many good deeds were also motivated by religious beliefs. True, many things were committed in the name of religion. It does not prove, however, that theism is false. Just that people are capable of being evil and/or stupid.

Most if not all atheists dismiss the personal religious experiences told by theists on the basis of being false, delusional, or something like that. They are more keen at dismissing away these experiences than to consider the possibility that some of them might be true.

Many atheists think that it's about an intellectual discussion. Theists are not there only to discuss and prove somebody wrong. Theists don’t derive their sense of self-worth from winning arguments, or at least they should not.

Many atheists believe there is a (false) dichotomy between science and religion. That for one to be "true" the other has to be "false". Less drastic than this, is the view that science and religion conflict with each other. True religion should be sympathizing with science, but indifferent to it. True religion, on the other hand, should be very concerned about the scientist. True religion is about the personal relation of the individual with God and one another, about spiritual values and growth. Unfortunately many religions are "corrupted" and do make claims about scientific reality. That should be left to science. Consider: if God is true, did he not have created the physical world as well? He would be the ultimate scientist/engineer and hold these activities in high regard.

Many atheists believe that science proves that religion is false. Science might have proven that certain ideas (superstitions) associated with religions were false, but the inference can not be done that science proves that there is no God and can not be. It will even remain a philosophical / metaphysical question.

Many atheists believe that faith means believing in something in spite of evidence to the contrary. But if you ask a theist they will give you another definition completely. Regardless of whether the theist is justified in their beliefs, this difference in definition / interpretation of the word "faith" leads to a lot of misunderstanding and false accusations on part of the atheist. Usually no effort is done to see what the theist means.


Justifying Belief

What I don't understand when arguing with christians is that they have been pushed back so far that they can only reasonably argue for a deistic god. Since a deistic god is so non specific as to be almost completely meaningless, it makes me wonder if they don't wonder whether it is.

I don't say this without experience. I used to consider myself a deist before I transitioned to atheism. I did not surrender easily. I was pretty dumb in some ways. I did not read up on a position until I held it, and I did not consider reading any positions against those positions either. I would awake at night and think really hard about what my beliefs meant. I've always enjoyed contemplation like that. I did have some outside influence, but mostly I stubbornly refused it, because I felt as though I had to find answers myself.

The eventual reason I left deism, and consequently identified myself as an agnostic was this: If there is a deity who created the universe, but has no other effect other than the creation of the universe, and was undetectable, what is the purpose of holding the belief at all? Such a deity does not care if I believe, and so it makes no sense to believe in it. I had also concluded that the deity of deism must not be like us at all. Who says it must be a bearded man? What gives us any reason to suppose that this deity was like us? I guess my deism kind of melded into pantheism a little, but not for long. After about a year or so I became an agnostic.

This was comfortable to me. Some part of me felt like I could hold on to the comfortable idea because I was on the fence. The most shattering day in my life was probably the day I finally read something that I couldn't ignore. Someone was claiming that atheism simply meant without belief, and since agnostics do not believe, they are atheists. I mulled over this and reread the paragraph over and over. Some random person on the internet had just thrown my comfortable worldview on its head.

After days of contemplation I was shocked to realise that I was in fact an atheist. I realised that the agnostic label was just something that was giving me comfort, that I knew the idea of fence sitting could not actually work, and that was not what agnosticism meant anyway. If a theist asks me "what if you're wrong" they are totally ignorant of the painful process of turning your entire world upside down. I kept asking myself that question. Sometimes I felt trapped, unable to believe, but if I was wrong I was destined to hell. I knew that I had come too far. I had stepped off the precipice. There was no way I could believe again unless all my reasons were wrong. In such a long arduous thought process, that was not likely.

It took me a long time to calm the panic, but I did it with the belief that if there were a god, he would not be so cruel as to give me the mental ability to relinquish my faith with no way of regaining it and then punishing me for it. I even imagined that god welcomed atheists in heaven, congratulating them for not believing something without evidence. I just did this to calm myself down. Eventually the panic started going away and I felt comfortable, no, happy, no, better than bloody ever!

Ghosts, demons, spells, heaven, hell all melted away. I was free from invisible threats. It is an amazing feeling, an indescribable relief, a new freedom from intellectual barriers.

Let me loop back to the first paragraph. When someone gives me arguments for deism, but actually believes in christianity, I find it bizarre to think how they can think that arguing for a deistic god makes sense. Not arguing for their own god, but their own god is still the one true god. In other words, with so many gods to choose from, they probably know that their specific god does not have a very good case. This is similar to a criminal who faces evidence of his wrongdoing, but he chooses to argue for a reduced sentence. He knows that denying the evidence will fail, and he is therefore willing to admit wrongdoing to a lesser extent. I just don't understand how someone who is honest with themselves can possible conclude that it is okay to argue for something that they don't personally believe in, and ignore the defence or arguments for their actual beliefs.

In that sense I can admire the guy who rants in capital letters about hell fire, or who promises to pray, or who pleads with me to get down on my knees and feel jesus entering me, but someone who is intellectually sharp enough to realise that there is no evidence for that religion but still believes it does not deserve any kind of respect, because it is an intellectually dishonest position.

The Final Wave Of Doubt

Just about every person has doubts. Doubt is a feeling that gives us pause to consider our beliefs. Doubt is very important. The problem with beliefs is that traditionally everyone was cocooned in to a small community called a tribe. If you doubted tribal norms and customs, you would have very little outlet. At the risk of being ostracized, or worse, the best course of action was to quell your doubts. You had to convince yourself of the rectitude of your tribe. To think otherwise would just relegate you to misery, and to express it was unthinkable.

Eventually societies grew into city states. Social circles grew larger, and consequently any deviation from the norm of the tribe would be okay within the city state. Cities were the first places where people with multiple beliefs could actually get along. There were places in Roman cities for instance were very multicultural, and you could live much freer there than under the communitarian rule of a tribe, where everyone's business was everyone elses business too.

But there was still a limit. People were still under the impression that locality meant the only true way of life. Travel and trade changed this. People started to look elsewhere and see other places where people thought they were also right in their customs and beliefs, and this engaged another wave of doubt in humanity. Trade hubs in the ancient world were always very liberal and progressive as opposed to their more insular cousins elsewhere in the realms. People had to get along to engage in gentle commerce, so a heathen meant a profit. It also meant that we could do what all humans do, namely form relationships with our fellow man. In this case we could cross pollinate our knowledge with theirs. This was a massive move in pushing society forward. In fact the black death was responsible in part for the regressive dark ages because societies became more insular due to dwindling numbers.

The next wave of human doubt came at the beginning of printing and general literacy. Being able to read meant no longer only getting the opinions and views of those you are in direct contact with, it also meant reading the views and opinions of those you may never have come into contact with. A good idea could spread and instill doubt in those who thought that their immediate contacts were right and true in their beliefs. Literacy and printing were in large part the reason for the protestant reformation, the reclamation of religion out of the ruling papacy, and the enlightenment, philosophy and science that nudged the world closer to the modern day. People could read Plato and Aristotle and Epicurus, and had to incorporate this knowledge into their world views. The enlightenment largely affected the intellectual classes of the time, and this had massive sweeping effects on technology, but the philosophy did not reach the common man. It took some elite education mostly to get a hold of these ideas, and most enlightenment guys were part of some sort of aristocracy. But things are changing.

In the previous paragraphs I have explored the limitations to the reach of contrary worldviews, namely first that a small tribe disallowed dissenting views, secondly that cities allowed a larger circle but were limited by local upbringing of residents, thirdly that contrary views were limited to those who had personal contact with everyone, and finally that an aristocratic education was necessary to understand and spark interest in philosophy and science.

The final limitation is falling away with the advent of the internet. Fairly soon the best education will be available to every single human being, if they choose to make use of it. The intellectual growth of mankind is already evident, I myself being an example. I am not a native english speaker, but I can look up words online, along with their etymologies, connotations, antonyms or common usage for example. Other topics are open to all, and this instills the final wave of doubt. Given all this information, how can we incorporate it into our worldviews? The only limit that stands in our way now is our own bias and our own laziness. I am generally positive. I think we can embrace the final wave of doubt and enter into a new era of enlightenment, where all of humanity has matured. I know it might seem difficult to see from our current vantage point, but a look back into history provides a much more positive view, and I hope this post drives that idea home.