Friday, September 23, 2016

Can we ever know if god exists?

A recent issue of New Scientist (Sept. 3-9) is billed as "The Metaphysics Issue: How science answers philosophy's deepest questions." This is probably not going to make philosophers happy.

Several of the articles are devoted to the "big questions." According to New Scientist these questions are normally left to philosophers but the editors go on to say, "Now, though, scientists are increasingly claiming them as their own ..." Let's look at one of the questions: Can we ever know if God exists?. Here's the part I want to discuss ...
No one has proved that God exists, but then no one has proved there is no God. Is working out the truth a supernatural feat?

... Gallons of ink and blood have been spilled over this question but have largely got us nowhere. Belief in a god or several gods is a leap of faith. So is disbelief. The only coherent and rational position is agnosticism.
Really? Disbelief in Thor, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and Gitchi Manitou is a "leap of faith"? I have not been convinced by any evidence that these gods exist. Is that irrational and incoherent?

Agnosticism, in its simplest form, is the position that you can never prove that gods exist and you can never prove the negative. I am an agnostic and so is Richard Dawkins. It's the rational position you have to take in philosophy class when anyone asks if you can disprove the existence of all gods. But philosophy class is just about the only place where this stance is practical. In the real world you have to take a stance. You either believe in some of the gods or you don't believe in any of them.

In the real world, you can disbelieve in something without committing yourself to proving that it doesn't exist. For example, I don't believe there are fairies at the bottom of my garden. With respect to gods, this form of disbelief is the position of many (most?) atheists. They simply don't believe in gods. They have not been convinced by any arguments for the existence of any gods. Atheism, in this sense, does not mean that you deny the existence of gods. That's why many of us are atheists AND agnostics.1

It's just childish nonsense to say that failure to believe in something is a "leap of faith." The author of this article, Graham Lawton, may have been thinking of something else when he wrote "disbelief." Perhaps he was thinking more in terms of disbelief meaning "rejection of gods" but that's not a common meaning.

It is coherent and rational to say we can never prove there are no gods just like it's coherent and rational to say we can never prove the absence of fairies at the bottom of my garden. That's almost trivial. I don't know why everyone makes such a big deal of it.

It is also coherent and rational to be an atheist who doesn't believe in any of the gods. On the other hand, I don't think it's coherent and rational to reject 99.99% of the gods but believe in one of them. That's truly a leap of faith.


1. Some people—John Wilkins is one—adopt a different definition of atheism. They think an atheist must deny that any gods exist. This is why he is a nonbeliever but not an atheist. He is an agnostic who doesn't believe in any gods. According to his logic, he could also be a theist and an agnostic as long as he's willing to admit he can never actually prove his god exists. (I know a Jesuit priest who is a theist and an agnostic.)

19 comments :

  1. "They think an atheist must deny that any gods exist. "

    Do you not deny that fairies exist in your garden? I do.

    With zero evidence for, total track record against, and no inherent logical coherence, there is zero reason to not deny the existence of gods.

    John Wilkins is right - stop slipping back into Philosophy class.

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    1. I agree with Dawkins. He lists seven categories of belief in his book The God Delusion (p. 51). The first one is "strong theist." The last two are:

      6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not.'

      7. Strong atheist, 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'

      I'd be surprised to meet many people in category 7, but I include it for symmetry with category 1, which is well populated. It is in the nature of faith that one is capable, like Jung, of holding a belief without adequate reason to do so ... Atheists do not have faith; and reason alone could not propel one to total conviction that anything definitely does not exist. Hence, category 7 is in practice rather emptier than it's opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants. I count myself in category 6, but leaning towards 7—I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden.


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    2. John Wilkins is right - stop slipping back into Philosophy class.

      John Wilkins believes that agnosticism is the only rational choice. He said,

      ... I remain an agnostic in general terms, and so far as I can see, there is no way that could ever rationally change. There will always be conceptually possible [supernatural beings] that are beyond empirical, and hence scientific, debunking and disproof.

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    3. But anything is conceptually possible given enough lucubration, even a square circle. But we know that a square circle does not exist in the real world.

      And, by any realistic standard, gods do not exist. What other hypotheses do we feel intellectually compelled to defend which:

      1) have zero supporting evidence

      2) Have a consistent track record of never once being true

      3) are logically incoherent?

      I don't think there is one.

      Now, if a god does someday make himself evident - I will change my view. Indeed, if this god actually improves humanity's lot, I will happily genuflect. But until then, it seems to me that the only valid scientific stance is Choice #7 : "There is no god" (given present evidence). Modifying that to "There almost certainly are no gods, but I will leave some very small space open for one" is just hedging one's bets against a charge of philosophical sloppiness. But, in the real world, we should think like rational scientists. And that is Choice #&, isn't it?

      Choice #6 doesn't cut it, because the very concept of a supernatural entity which is omnipotent but undetectable is incoherent, given what we know about matter and energy. Might we be wrong about this? It doesn't matter, it seems to me. Future revelations may change our stance, but until then, shouldn't Choice # 7 hold sway?

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  2. Isnt this a form of Russell's teapot argument? Dawkins has brought this up as a reason why belief in God is not reasonable. In fact, hes brought it up every single time hes spoken at just about every event over the last 30 years. And hes brought it up innumerable times in writing. I think pretty much every person who debates religion brings this up. Why doesn't the argument every advance? Its as if every writer for HuffPo or Salon or New Scientist is approaching the topic for the first time and hasn't done the slightest bit of background reading.
    The only thing the comes close to a reasonable argument for God is the fine-tuning argument- and that isnt a very good argument. I think all debates should be focused on the details of that.

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  3. I never ask a atheist to prove that God does not exist. I always ask to provide evidence that the natural world is all there is, and needs to be, and that naturalistic explanations top theistic ones when it comes to explain the cause and mechanism of the physical world. Most atheists think its enough to say they do not belief in any Gods. But that is not enough. They need a positive case that stands on its own feet. Neither is it justified to claim ignorance and endorse a agnostic standpoint, when you have a limited range of possible mechanisms at hand. So the burden of proof is on both sides. It happens, as usual, that naturalism explains almost nothing in a satisfying manner, and what it explains, it explains badly ( biodiversity through evolution ). In short : There is no justification and good sufficient reason to endorse naturalism. Thats why atheism is based on personal preference, not on reason. And yes, naturalism is also a position based on FAITH. The faith, that the natural/physical world is all there is.

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    1. OK, so let's narrow things down a little.

      When is something no longer faith? 50%? 75%? 99%? 99.999%? 99.999999%?

      We're at that last one, if not higher for naturalism. Not even just by evidence for, but by lack of evidence for the alternatives.

      I can not see an elephant behind me. I can not hear an elephant behind me. I can not smell an elephant behind me. Therefore, there could possibly be an elephant behind me? How does that make even the remotest sense?

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    2. When is something no longer faith? 50%? 75%? 99%? 99.999%? 99.999999%

      It all depends who says it. Naturalism has not even one piece of evidence for the origins of life but they call it all science and they would not admit it that it all is 100% faith based.

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    3. "Naturalism has not even one piece of evidence for the origins of life but they call it all science and they would not admit it that it all is 100% faith based."

      Not true, but let's say it is true. Just because we don't have an answer does not mean you get to make up any old bullshit and state it's true. I don't know the square root of 650,569,231 but I can't say it's the letter T and expect people to believe it.

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    4. Otangelo,

      "I always ask to provide evidence that the natural world is all there is,"

      You fail to notice that naturalism can be held as a a conclusion tenable until evidence comes that tells otherwise. You also fail to notice that the problem with anything other than the natural is that such thing is always ill-defined. How can anybody claim that there's something that we haven't taken into account, that they call "supernatural"? If such thing exists, and if it is part of reality, wouldn't then it be natural? What exactly would make it anything other than natural? How would anybody distinguish each from the other? Arbitrary definitions?

      If you want it to be magic that breaks everything we know about nature, then why and how could you prove that it exists? What would it be like?

      See? the problem is all yours, not mine. I see naturalism as the default position, needing no proof, because nature is right there undeniably. You would be an idiot to deny that there's the natural. So, instead of coming up with fantasies, we blame what's right there for all to witness. Why would this need any defence? Be very precise. It's not enough to say that we should not ignore your fantasies, when your fantasies lead you directly and unambiguously to refuse to listen to very clear explanations if the conclusions conflict with your fantasies. If you prefer your fantasies to honest exchange, then your fantasies aren't worth be taken into consideration. They're fantasies of a stubborn idiot.

      "and needs to be,"

      Again, who cares if it "needs to be" or if it just is? I don't. It's here, that's all we can actually test and check, and verify. Contemplating fantasies might be fun, but we have to acknowledge that fantasies are fantasies regardless of our preferences.

      "and that naturalistic explanations top theistic ones when it comes to explain the cause and mechanism of the physical world

      Natural explanations top theistic "explanations" just because they're not based on mere fantasies. That's proof enough. Theistic "explanations" are foundational;y fantasy explanations. It doesn't make sense to demand evidence that naturalistic explanations top fantasy explanations. It's fucking obvious.

      "They need a positive case that stands on its own feet"

      It's astounding the idiocy of thinking that fantasies should be contemplated unless we had explanations for everything in nature. No amount of ignorance about how something happened will make fantasies into anything else but the fantasies that they are Otangelo. Even if you don't believe that your fantasies are fantasies, you should be able to understand that we see them for exactly that, fantasies. That your refusal to understand or even read explanations tell us that your mind is irremediably in fantasy-land. What do you expect? That because you cannot read for comprehension we'll suddenly become believers in your fantasies? really?

      "It happens, as usual, that naturalism explains almost nothing in a satisfying manner"

      The fucking irony! Natural explanations actually explain things Otangelo. Magic fantasy beings explain absolutely nothing. They're non-explanatory by definition. There's nothing to understand with your fantasies. It's all make-believe. How could that possibly be satisfying? Magic is a non-explanation!

      You're authentically an idiot Otangelo. You worked really hard to make me conclude so. I have no option but to conclude so.

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    5. " Neither is it justified to claim ignorance and endorse a agnostic standpoint,"

      It's not ignorance, it's called "Null Hypothesis". If you don't have evidence for your other claimed mechanisms, they don't exist.

      If you want to claim them, you must have observation of some sort, so you can't claim it's not in the purview science. Anything that can be observed is subject to science. If you don't have any observations, you're just making it up.

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    6. Rob wrote

      "If you want to claim them, you must have observation of some sort "

      We know how to detect the "handywork" of intelligence. We can distinguish the traces that intelligence left behind through the faces sculptured on mount rushmore, and the form of a stones on a mountain formed just by wind and rain. We can recognize that someone must have written a message on a sand dune, and that its highly improbable that just natural forces might be a reasonable alternative as origin of the message.

      In uncommon descent we read :

      Start with a standard deck of 52 playing cards. You are told that it has been shuffled thoroughly. Upon examination you find that the deck is perfectly ordered by suit and rank. Will you still believe it was shuffled? Probably not. Do you know you’ve based that conclusion on specified/instructed complexity? Probably not. Our brains are pattern recognition engines. You reach the conclusion intuitively.

      So, in the same manner we can figure out what kind of traces a intelligent acting force would have left in biological systems.

      Coded Information which is complex and instructional/specified found in epigenetic systems and genes, and irreducible , interdependent molecular machines and biosynthetic and metabolic pathways in biological systems point to a intelligent agent as best explanation of their setup and origins.

      So its not justifid to claim to be agnostic based on the lack of evidence. The evidence is around us. The natural world IS evidence.

      Rob wrote:

      " If you don't have any observations, you're just making it up. "

      Does beauty exist? information ? logic ? moral values ? conscience ? Non of these are physical. They are metaphysical, and cannot be tested. Based on your claim, they should not exist.....

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    7. Start with a standard deck of 52 playing cards. You are told that it has been shuffled thoroughly. Upon examination you find that the deck is perfectly ordered by suit and rank. Will you still believe it was shuffled? Probably not. Do you know you’ve based that conclusion on specified/instructed complexity? Probably not. Our brains are pattern recognition engines. You reach the conclusion intuitively.

      I've already explained to you why this example fails. An arrangement of cards by rank and suit is not any less probable than any other arrangement. It just happens to be an arrangement we readily recognize, and we also know this is the arrangement in which they are shipped from the factory. So when we come across such an arrangement we know it likely has not been shuffled.

      If you were to memorize any random sequence of cards, you would equally be justified in being startled if you came across a deck that had been randomly shuffled into exactly that sequence.

      Your analogy to biological systems also fails, because in a deck of cards there are no functional requirements that would favour certain arrangements of cards over others. This would be analogous to natural selection in biology.

      You are also repeating a common strawman argument made by the ID creationists. Those who reject ID creationism do not deny that it is possible to detect design in general. We simply acknowledge the fact that the ID creationists have not succeeded in detecting design in living things.

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    8. OG: "...and that naturalistic explanations top theistic ones when it comes to explain the cause and mechanism of the physical world."

      Since theistic explanations do not exist, I will stick with the naturalist ones. 'Goddidit' is not an explanation. Postulating the mechanisms by which 'Goddidit' is. What mechanisms did God use?

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    9. lutesuite

      the article at uncommon descent continues....

      Let’s dissect this with a bit of arithmetic. Any arrangement of 52 cards is as statistically likely as any other. A random shuffle has no preferred order as an outcome. One arrangement is just as likely as any other. My windows calculator says there are 8.0658175170943878571660636856404e+67 possible arrangements. That’s 8 followed by 67 zeroes and is calculated by entering 52 and then pressing the n! button which performs the calculation 52x51x50x49x48…x5x4x3x2. That is the complexity part – the number of possible arrangments is huge and there is no physical law that prefers one arrangement over another. Most people intuitively know the number of possible arrangements is a huge number without knowing precisely how huge.

      If any one arrangement is as likely as any other why do we conclude the deck was not shuffled if we find it perfectly ordered by rank and suit? Because we intuitively employ the concept of specified/instructed complexity. The perfect ordering is a specification/instruction . Specification/Instruction can be defined as an independently given pattern.

      The problem with this is that specification/instruction is subjective. It is not a product of nature but rather a product of mind. We can’t, or at least I believe we can’t, come up with an objective formula that distinguishes specification/instructions from non-specification/non-instruction. But that doesn’t negate the fact that specification/instruction is tangible and can be practically employed to discriminate between chance and design as we can see with the deck of cards example above.

      Now let us look at an example of specified/instructed complexity that exists in all living things. Lets see a topoisomerase. The enzyme is far more complex than a deck of cards. It is a sequence of hundreds of amino acids in a folded chain. Any link in the chain can be any one of 20 different amino acids. The order determines how it will fold and what biological activity (if any) it will possess. Was it required to specify/instruct to get the amino acid sequence to make if functional specification?

      In case of proteins in cells, in order to make them, you need a fully setup code, the information to make the right proteins, and the hardware, that is the ribosome, tRNA's etc etc. You need that ALL at once. And the energy supplied at the right place. You need the full minimal set all working, at the right place, correctly interconnected through the metabolic network. And you need a fully setup replicating system, with the error detection and repair system fully in place and working. ALL AT ONCE..... How amazing faith in lucky improbable chemical reations you have. AMAZING....

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  4. Technically, yeah, I'm agnostic, and I used to present myself as such.
    There's so many 9s on the lack of evidence meaning lack of existence, that I now call myself an atheist, even though it's technically not true.

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    1. I'm happy to call myself an atheist because atheists (my preferred definition) are people who don't believe in god(s). It is technically true that I am an atheist. So are John Wilkins and Richard Dawkins.

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  5. The bible says belief in invisible things is not based on visible evidence. Said that long ago.
    Nature is not evidence of God but is the evidence for a thinking being called God. It is the evidence that this glory of complexity could only be done by same intelligence.
    It doesn't show a God but it does show a being made it all.


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  6. Here is post from HeKs at uncommon descent.
    Oh God, it’s the “there just isn’t any evidence” canard again.

    I don’t know how atheists can even make this claim with a straight face anymore.

    Here is a sampling of a few lines of evidence strongly pointing to God’s existence:

    – The origin of the universe (including its matter, energy, space and physical laws) in the finite past

    – The fine-tuning of the physical laws and initial conditions of the universe in a way that allows for the existence of intelligent life

    – The fine-tuning of the universe for discoverability

    – The fine-tuning of our solar system and planet for both life and discoverability

    – The origin of life, which is roughly the equivalent of the origin of biological information

    – Various events in the history of life that seem to show a large-scale influx of biological information that cannot be accounted for by any proposed mechanism of biological evolution that we are aware of. (Best explained by reference to God when taken in light of preceding items)

    – Various other events in history that seem best explained by divine intervention and that would not be expected on naturalism or materialism (such as evidence supporting the resurrection of Christ).

    – The apparent existence of objective moral values and duties, which people can’t seem to avoid invoking even while denying their existence (i.e. sneaking it in the back door after booting it out the front door)

    – Various aspects of the mind, including the apparent existence of free will, the apparent existence of a rational consciousness capable of accurately perceiving external events and reasoning on them in a reliable way, the ability to have subjective experiences, and the ability to have thoughts that are about things.

    These facts, conditions and states of affairs make God’s existence more likely than it would otherwise be in their absence or if they were different than they are, thus they constitute evidence for God’s existence.

    If you want to say you’re not personally convinced and wouldn’t be unless God performed some miracle in front of your eyes for the sake of personally convincing you, fine. You’re entitled to your selective hyperskepticism. But stop claiming that there just isn’t any evidence for God’s existence. If you don’t want to accept God’s existence then it’s time to put on your bib and gobble up the multiverse. Bon appetit.

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