Analyze This!

There is a rather annoying, unproductive and insulting behaviour that is very natural to human beings who disagree. At some point one party in an exchange may give up trying to convince the other with arguments and instead attack the motives of the other party. Because it is the 21st century,  you will be treated with a nice little psychoanalysis from the person who disagrees with you. According to them, your disagreement stems not from a genuine difference in knowledge or understanding, but a deep seated psychological malfunction on your part. 

Recently, I was pushed onto the couch and analysed by a fellow netizen. Here is the diagnosis they gave me:
"I see now that I have perhaps tread a little too closely to some of your own deeply held beliefs about the world - a set of beliefs that I cannot be sure of but which I suspect are largely a part of the progressive faith. As I see it, you are engaging in motivated reasoning to support your continued adherence to these beliefs that form a central part of your identity." 
Why is this behaviour wrong? Well if you want to convince someone, telling them that the reason your arguments aren't convincing to them is that they have a psychological problem is in itself not very convincing. On a very basic human level, it is also deeply insulting, but there is a much bigger problem with psychoanalysing people on the internet. 

You don't know them very well. We interact with people online through small little stamp sized images and messages here and there. To propose that something as complex as a human being can be known this way is quite foolish. Usually this kind of thing doesn't get under my skin because I know that the person on the other end doesn't know me. Their analysis is based on a very small set of information that doesn't come close to representing me as the complex person I am. 

And every single human being is like this. Every creationist, every anti-vaccer, every atheist, vegan, liberal or anarcho syndicalist is a complex person that can't be psychoanalysed by amateurs on the internet. In fact people who go to intense therapy with psychoanalysts are sometimes misdiagnosed. How then can a random person on the internet have any semblance of accuracy when analysing someone through the interwebs?

Maybe you are screaming in your head that this is a type of ad hominem fallacy, and that is true. The discussion ceases to be about the topic and starts to be about the person: you. It becomes personal.  The merits of the actual arguments fall by the way-side. But this sort of misses the point. It's easy to convince ourselves that the reason our arguments are not convincing is because there is something wrong with the other person. It is the salve we use when we realise that the arguments we expected to succeed didn't work.

The deeper lesson is that we need to look at our own behaviours and arguments first, and at best we can say that our arguments were not convincing to someone else. I made some mistakes in the discussion where I got the free therapy quoted above. I could have done things better. Other people might have different views of reality based on their immediate environment. They might have a psychological need for their beliefs, but really it isn't for us to conclude that about others on internet discussions. Besides, it makes you look like a giant jerk. So before you think of telling someone why you think they haven't changed their minds, consider how little you know about them and how justified you truly are in making such conclusions. This goes doubly for me, since I'm pretty sure I've also done it. 

Agnosticism No More

I'm starting to shift away from being an agnostic atheist. It's been a long time coming, but I've been sort of on the line between adopting the belief that there is no god, and genuine emotional angst over there possibly being one. However after reading +Matt McCormick's piece What’s Left to be Agnostic About? I've done some serious thinking about the topic and feel that I am ready to take the very tiny step necessary to adopting the belief that there is no god. It's by no means an easy step, because despite it seeming that way, I have been asking these questions for years. I always felt that the only fair and rationally justifiable position on the existence of god was that god may or may not exist. The trouble I found is that when defining myself as an agnostic, I wasn't considering what it means not to believe in god. What is god anyway?

Well, we can take various broad definitions, and find ourselves in a place where analysis of god beliefs become mired in endless debates because the definition of god is never quite established. So to be clear, the god I believe does not exist is the god of western philosophy. Philosophy of religion has defined god as basically the monotheistic abrahamic god. This implies that this god must basically possess a few qualities. It has to be 
  1. Omniscient (all knowing)
  2. Omnipotent (all powerful)
  3. Omnibenevolent (all good)
  4. Involved directly in human affairs 
If a definition of god diverges from any of the above, I may feel somewhat agnostic to such gods, especially with regards to the last quality. But nobody else does. Almost everyone in the west finds "gods" which lack those qualities unconvincing, and are atheists with regards to such gods. Gods with finite powers overflow in our history books. Nobody gives them any credibility, so defining myself as agnostic merely to allow for the existence of such entities seems like overkill. 

So what does this mean for my epistemic position? Before I learned anything about theories of knowledge, I recognised that we cannot prove that god does not exist. However in learning more about knowledge, it became increasingly clear that we can't really prove anything to such an extent that the possibility of such a thing is completely removed from reality. So there will always be a possibility that such a being exists and I recognize that in a logical sense, on the condition that apologists can reconcile some of the logical problems inherent in godly superpowers. But I can't pronounce that it is physically possible for such a being to exist. I lack the information to make such a claim, and therefore I think that theists largely assume such a possibility and take it on faith, and I think that due to the cultural baggage of the west carrying the corpse of Christian domination, many atheists grant the physical possibility of such a god even in the face of the logical problems with the superpowers it supposedly posseses. We shouldn't have to. 

The next question may be what nudged me away from agnosticism about god's existence. I would probably say that if apologists and theologians couldn't create convincing arguments in 2000 years for an entity that literally runs the universe, I see no rationally compelling reason to lend such an idea any real weight. That's not to say that we shouldn't take their arguments seriously, but I don't think we should see every apologetic argument as having any realistic chance of being convincing. In fact, a god not existing is completely consistent with failing apologetics, constant divergence between believers and a world that is easily explained by the most libertarian of gods: nature. 

I guess the next question that me from about 2 years ago would pose to me of today is whether this puts me in a precarious position, having to scour the entire universe to disprove god. This is not the case. It is true that I do carry a heavier burden of justification, but I don't find it significantly heavier than the one I had before. If you take the general idea that if a god like the one above did exist, that certain things would be a certain way and that our current state of affairs is sort of weird and unexpected, then that directly contradicts the existence of god. Apologists have responses to these ideas which I am aware of, but their explanations are not as harmonious with the knowledge we possess as the simpler answer, which is that there is no god. If that changes I should find myself shifting back into agnosticism, and if it's good enough I may shift to theism. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in, theism is less rationally justifiable than atheism, and it seems unlikely that this will change in the near future.

I should probably address the argument from ignorance claim that might be flung my way and the good old "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" claims. Let's suppose that there is a common belief that dew is the result of pixies watering the plants every morning. It doesn't take long for anomalies to start pouring in. Why don't they show up when it's dry? Why do they water my car's windscreen if it isn't a plant? Why can't we see them? Now pixieologians can come up with all kinds of clever reasons why that which is apparent is not true. It is quite apparent that there are no pixies, just as it is quite apparent that there is no god. The absence of the pixies were their downfall. At best we shouldn't believe things that give us no no rational reasons to believe them, and we shouldn't cling to beliefs as long as someone can find an explanation, no matter how contrived or invented, to reconcile that belief with reality. Most people frown on the attempts of conspiracy theorists to explain things in contrived ways that some central authority is actually in charge behind the curtain, but when apologists do it we praise their efforts because we've put their beliefs on a pedestal. Just as I am not agnostic about moon landing conspiracies, I won't be with regards to god. With things like science it's different. Reading gradually pulls you in with increasingly convincing arguments. Being convinced just kind of happens without strain. All the questions that seemed odd about pixies, like why they water my car if it isn't a plant, becomes perfectly easily to explain in scientific terms. The anomalies melt away. Theists have to constantly deal with pangs of doubt because there is a large, dark cloud of doubt looming over their beliefs. There aren't articles on the internet about how to deal with doubting evolution or e=mc2. Shouldn't this be surprising if theism was so obviously true and apologetics was so good?

It's taken a lot of thinking, reading and discussion over the years, but I think it would be healthier for me not to lend the credibility to god beliefs I had as an agnostic; not to let mere possibilities lure me into false equivalence between possibility and likelihood. That may change and if it does I am perfectly open to that change and will eagerly refute whatever mistakes I made here. I will continue to take apologists seriously, because I believe we should take all people and their ideas seriously. What I won't do however, is keep pretending that there is a significant possibility that their abject and continued failure is going to turn around.

(PS. If you know theists or apologists that would enjoy reading my blog, please share this with them. I think I can here an echo in here! It's hard to build a diverse audience in such a polarised issue. Thanks!)

Skeptical Theism: If We Can't Win, Everyone Must Lose

It's hard to find relevant images to abstract philosophical concepts okay!?

Sceptical theism is the idea that the best way to respond to evil is essentially to say that God works in mysterious ways. I will try to express why I think this is a weak defense and why I think that the argument from evil still works. 

To put it another way, the sceptical theist responds to the argument from evil by saying that: 

We cannot know whether a particular event that causes suffering was permitted or executed by god in order to prevent a greater evil in the future or bring about a greater good in the future. 

My primary problem with this objection to the problem of evil is that it itself is a type of theodicy, because sceptical theists are not indifferent to the moral nature of god. There is still an inherent belief that god does not allow any unnecessary suffering. In the mind of a sceptical theist then, they have absolutely no justification for the apparent suffering in the world, and the moral nature of god is unknown. I would see sceptical theism as strong as it is exactly because it is a position that has retreated from more stronger claims that apologists usually hold. This also explains why it isn't mainstream. It's implication is that even though the problem of evil does not justify absolute belief that god does not exist, it is a good justification for agnosticism. 

To suggest that god's reasons are inscrutable to man creates a scenario where we cannot judge god as a character whatsoever. Such a lack of capability strikes a serious blow to a god with which you can have a personal relationship. How personal of a relationship do you really have with a being that murders babies and drowns kittens but you just don't know why they do that? It's even worse, because your belief that they have only good intentions when horrific acts happen under their watch is supported by blind faith alone.

Sceptical theism violates a central idea in scepticism, and that is the idea of withholding judgement. You can't claim scepticism and at once be committed to one side of an argument despite agreeing that you have no justification to hold a position. In a desperate attempt to grant the usual weakness of responses to the problem of evil sceptical theists essentially grant the problem of evil most of its power and cripple their own philosophical position in every other quarter. For apologists promoting the idea, it may seem like a victory. At best it is a pyrrhic victory, and at worst it is a devastating defeat with a good PR campaign back home. 

If you want to read more, the IEP has a pretty good coverage of Sceptical theism. What I've said is nothing new, but hopefully a good short primer to the subject.