Monday, 13 September 2010

Putting faith in it's place

This is an edited version of one of my favorite essays, enjoy!

Imagine you enter a strange room where a computer tells you that hidden somewhere in the building is a cube. Then it asks you “what does the cube contain?” Most of us would recognise this to be a futile question. The cube could be large or small. It could be a solid block, or a vacuum chamber of nothing but sparse particles of gas. Or it might contain any of billions of permutations of familiar or novel objects. You could never give a precise, justifiable answer. But if you were asked, “what does the cube not contain?” you could give many answers. For example, the cube couldn’t possibly contain the Amazon river, the planet Mars, or absurd objects such as a bed made of sleep; in fact there’d be more perfectly valid answers to the second question than you could list in a million lifetimes. This illustrates an interesting asymmetry concerning the contents of this cube. Despite there being countless possibilities and impossibilities, without evidence from the cube itself we can only ever make valid, justifiable arguments about what is not inside the cube, not what is. It’s true that someone claiming, for example, that the cube contained nothing but a wooden spoon might be right, but since without evidence they could provide no valid justification for such a claim there’d be literally no reason for someone to accept it.

What if we were talking about a realm of existence independent of our universe that like the concealed cube was physically inaccessible to us? Would things be different? Would we be able to deduce precisely what occupied such a realm, such as a Divine Being? No, there is the same asymmetry as before. Countless kinds of being might exist independently of our universe; countless logically impossible beings cannot. But while we can list many kinds of being that can’t exist there because they violate logic, we can’t list those (if any) that do. Any attempt to argue that a specific divine being exists in an inaccessible realm of reality is an attempt to argue for the impossible or the unknowable. Logic alone can refute impossible beings, but it can’t show that possible beings exist without evidence. If you can’t at some point provide verifiable, measurable evidence for this specific being you claim exists, all the argument in the world won’t establish your claim as fact. This is one reason why as soon as anyone claims the have a logical argument that requires the existence of one personal creator of our universe we know it will be fallacious because they failed at a basic level to understand what’s required to establish such an existence claim. It’s just a question of identifying where the errors are.

For example, the theologian William Lane Craig has asserted that our universe had an original cause, which because it created our time and space, had to transcend time and space. Transcending our time and space doesn’t necessarily mean something transcends all time and space. However, his conclusion that this non-temporal, non-spatial cause would have to be a changeless disembodied mind is more seriously flawed. A changeless mind is by definition non-functioning. Minds and purposeful creation depend on change. Craig’s changeless creator is self-contradicting and belongs to the category of the logically impossible.
However seemingly plausible they may sound to the unwary or the already persuaded, all popular arguments for the existence of god’s are based on false premises and/or false conclusions and unjustified presuppositions:

Cosmological argument : The cosmological argument is an argument for the existence of a First Cause (or instead, an Uncaused cause) to the universe, and by extension is often used as an argument for the existence of an "unconditioned" or "supreme" being, usually then identified as God.

Arguments from complexity: an argument by proponents of intelligent design that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved from simpler, or "less complete" predecessors, through natural selection acting upon a series of advantageous naturally occurring chance mutations.

Argument from contingency: In the scholastic era, Aquinas formulated the "argument from contingency", following Aristotle in claiming that there must be something to explain why the Universe exists. Since the Universe could, under different circumstances, conceivably not exist (contingency), its existence must have a cause – not merely another contingent thing, but something that exists by necessity (something that must exist in order for anything else to exist). In other words, even if the Universe has always existed, it still owes its existence to an Uncaused Cause.

Moral argument: The argument from morality is one of many arguments for the existence of God. This argument comes in different forms, all aiming to demonstrate God’s existence from some observations about morality in the world.

Ontological argument: An ontological argument for the existence of God attempts the method of a priori proof, which uses intuition and reason alone. The argument examines the concept of God and argues that if we can conceive of God he must exist.

Argument from degree: The argument from degrees or the degrees of perfection argument is an argument for the existence of God first proposed by mediaeval Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas as one of the five ways to prove God in his Summa Theologica. It is based on ontological and theological notions of perfection.

Mind-body problem argument: The mind-body dichotomy is the view that "mental" phenomena are, in some respects, "non-physical" (distinct from the body). In a religious sense, it refers to the separation of body and soul (Paul, Letter to the Romans 7:25; 8:10).
Argument from beauty: Its logical structure is essentially as follows:
1. There are compelling reasons for considering beauty to exist in a way that transcends its material manifestation.
2. According to materialism, nothing exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations.
3. According to classical theism, beauty is a quality of God and therefore exists in a way that transcends its material manifestations
4. Therefore, to the extent that premise (1) is accepted, theism is more plausible than materialism.

Anthropic argument: In physics and cosmology, the anthropic principle is the collective name for several ways of asserting that physical and chemical theories, especially astrophysics and cosmology, need to take into account that there is life on Earth, and that one form of that life, Homo sapiens, has attained rationality. The only kind of universe humans can occupy is one that is similar to the current one.

Transcendental argument: The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God (TAG) is the argument that attempts to prove God's existence by arguing that logic, morals, and science ultimately (though unwittingly) presuppose the Christian worldview, and that God's absolute nature is the source of logic and morals.

Argument from reason: The Argument from Reason is an argument for the existence of God largely developed by C.S. Lewis who once delivered this compendious formulation of the argument:

“One absolutely central inconsistency ruins [the popular scientific philosophy]. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears... unless Reason is an absolute [,] all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based."

However, 100 invalid arguments don’t accumulate into a single valid one. Many people with theistic beliefs don’t get tangled up in pursuing doomed arguments like these. They know they can’t prove god with logic and have no need to do so. They realise their beliefs are personal and that others are entitled to different views.

However, when you’re not so willing to respect difference, when you disparage, attack, or work to create disadvantage for others because they don’t share your beliefs it shouldn’t surprise you when those you try to oppress object to this unreasonable attitude and expose the flawed arguments that shore it up. A belief in one or more gods might sustain you in your own life, but when you pressure others to adopt your beliefs and participate in practises associated with those beliefs you give up the luxury of not having to explain yourself. You give yourself the burden of proof. And certain reasons that might seem sound when justifying a belief to yourself, such as “But OBVIOUSLY he exists”, or “He cured my illness”, or “I feel his spirit inside me” are simply not valid when your trying to establish existence claims to other people. However passionately you express them you can’t pester and bully people then retreat behind “faith” when challenged on your behaviour. And if you can’t demonstrate that god’s exist, resorting to emotional blackmail to try and get people to believe is a dishonest tactic.

When those who don’t believe in gods show theistic claims to be invalid, it’s often claimed that they are trying to prove gods don’t exist. In fact all they’re doing is exposing flawed reasoning and encouraging intellectual honesty. It’s understandable that when some have their claims debunked it’s an uncomfortable feeling, and employing red herrings (“why do you need to prove God doesn’t exist”) becomes an attractive way to wriggle out of their mistakes. But debunking claims about the existence of gods is just showing those who make such claims that they can’t assert what they are trying to assert.

The question of defining divine entities is where the problems begin. As soon as you define any god you must justify why you have defined it that way, giving a valid reason for each quality you’re attributing to it. Many who realise they can’t justify any particular definitions avoid them all together. But without definition there’s no adequately formed concept to have a belief about, and this is the stumbling block when people are asked to define the gods they claim exist. As their divine definitions become more specific they have more to justify, the flaws in their logic become more numerous, and their arguments become easier to refute. Conversely, as their definitions become vaguer the entities their proposing ceases to have any practical relevance. Ironically, the way many people define gods means that as well as having no logical support they can’t be supported with evidence either. For example, as soon as you say “God X is non-physical” you have proposed a being that can’t be quantified, tested or perceived, even in principle. You literally have nothing to work with. When trying to justify non-physical entities people will often point out that “we can’t see the wind, but we still know its there” however, this analogy is flawed. We know the wind is there because it is physical, not only can we measure it and perceive it directly through our sense of touch it can knock us off our feet and destroy buildings. The physical force it exerts could hardly be more dramatic, indeed we use that force to generate electricity. By contrast, it’s not even clear what a being with no conceivable physical characteristics is supposed to mean. Even if you were proposing an entity that had a different type of physical existence making it undetectable to humans you’d have enough trouble explaining how you knew it was there.

Many claim that the existence of particular gods can be demonstrated, that their powers can be manifested physically and that these physical manifestations count as evidence. But even if we were to witness an event that genuinely challenged our understanding that wouldn’t justify inferring any specific divine agency. At most it could indicate power, intelligence, and/or technology that is unknown both in its number and its nature. Imagine a group of people unfamiliar with electronic technology being duped into watching a carefully staged CGI animation of a man turning into a lion. If they thought they’d just seen evidence of divine magic we’d know that conclusion was false and due entirely to an illusion of technology beyond their experience. Likewise, if you were to see something genuinely jaw-dropping, like stars spelling out words in the sky, you’d have no basis for drawing any reliable conclusions about the specific causes of what you are witnessing. You could be having your brain expertly controlled by aliens or you could be having a psychotic break from reality. We already know that brains can conjure up richly detailed worlds when we dream and that their dysfunction can cause us to hallucinate. If some kind of intelligence was responsible, anything with the ability to manipulate physical matter or our perceptions to that extent could easily disguise itself so we could never be sure of its identity.

With such fallible brains and such limited technology, a spectacle like this would simply be beyond the scale of what we could apprehend or investigate. Could life forms of vastly greater intelligence and power exist beyond the current reach of our perception and technology? Certainly. But even if we were ever to find evidence of greater intelligence that would still not constitute evidence of specific gods. Even if some kind of intelligence initiated the existence of our universe there’s nothing to say what the nature of that intelligence was. Whether it was a single rather than a collective intelligence; whether or not part of that intelligence remains interested in the universe let alone the affairs of humans; whether or not that intelligence is aware of our tiny planet let alone capable of communicating with its inhabitants; or even whether or not that intelligence still exists.

When you impartially review an actual claim that for example, “One divine universe-creator currently monitors and judges every human life” the layers of unjustified assumption needed to make such a claim become starkly apparent. One would be no less justified in proposing “a race of aliens that created our universe with an advanced machine and annihilated themselves in the process”. As soon as you propose any specific being the nature of whom can’t be reliably examined and quantified, even in principle, you’re talking about a non-scientific concept that is insupportable by either logic or evidence. Without logic or evidence at your disposal you have no grounds for insisting that anyone agrees with you.

You certainly have no grounds for bullying and ostracising them when they don’t. But if that’s the way you deal with independent thought your fallacious arguments will continue to be exposed until you grow out of your need for everyone to subscribe to your faith-based ideas. When you start being honest with yourself about what you know and what you do not know, you’re likely to realise that you’re in no position to be shouting the odds. And when you understand that it’s behaviour that has the practical impact on our lives, you may realise that it’s not whether we believe in god/s but how we treat each other that says the most about tour character. If you attack, condemn, or use emotional blackmail on people because they don’t share your belief in one or more gods, you invited to consider what that says about you and how it square with the values you claim to embrace.

Omni ignotum pro magnifico

Every unknown thing [is taken] for great, or "everything unknown appears magnificent".

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