Saturday, April 19, 2014

Crude Apologetics

In the blog post that inspired my prior piece on physical and mental worlds, Jeffrey Jay Lowder refers to an exchange between he and a Dangerous Idea commenter “Crude” about the nature of Naturalism, and it’s efficacy in explaining the world. The Dangerous Idea thread can be viewed here, while the prime mover for all this was at Axis of Jared.

I often find these exchanges interesting as much for their similarity to other blog/Twitter/Facebook dialogues as for any novel new apologetics that I might encounter. In this instance, “Crude” switches between criticisms of naturalism and atheism often enough to give me the impression that he (or she) couldn’t quite zero in on exactly what in Lowder’s comments was worthy of criticism. But he had sound bites, and wasn’t afraid to use them.

I'll apologize in advance for using soooo muuuuch of the material on Dangerous Idea in this post. It's for my benefit - to condense and focus the flow of arguments so that their strengths and weaknesses can be observed close up.

To give some context, this Lowder reply to Dangerous Idea commenter Legion of Logic gets Crude's attention :

Metaphysical naturalism entails that there is a physical universe, whereas theism does not. So the fact that matter exists is evidence favoring metaphysical naturalism over theism.

Crude engages with Lowder:

That doesn't seem right at all. First, it seems trivially false when we see the list of theisms on offer (polytheism of the sort that involves Zeus, etc, would swing right against it - those gods were apparently physical beings), and second, 'naturalism' is notoriously hard to define (I always refer to the SEP entry of naturalism to illustrate this.) Third, you'd need to define 'matter' and 'physical universe'.

Crude’s claim that “the list of theisms on offer“ is a counterargument to naturalism sounds like he accepts “the list of theisms on offer” at face value - that they are a real part of the physical world. This is completely off-the-wall. If this is supposed to serve as a counter-argument to naturalism, it's utter nonsense.

Crude’s criticism of Krauss is equally unclear:

it seems like if it were in fact the case that 'physical universe' was required by naturalism, then Krauss' speculations - even such as they are, non-ultimate - would seem to strike against *naturalism*, not theism. After all, there'd be a point at which there was no physical universe, just laws or a system or a force. But if the mere existence of laws or a system or a force is compatible naturalism, then it's hard to see what isn't - you can even get classical theism under an umbrella that big.

I’ll take a guess that he’s reducing Krauss’ conception of the universe at the absolute beginning to “mere existence of laws or a system or a force“ without explaining how he arrives at this. So, it's a straw man, or a guess, maybe something else. I don't see what his point is, so I can't accept it as a counterargument either. Wasted words.

...then...

[Lowder]:

Assume for just a moment that the universe is factually necessary (as opposed to logically necessary, metaphysically necessary, or factually contingent). How do you go from "the universe is factually necessary" to "atheism is still out in the cold."

[Crude]:

A brief googling tells me that you're talking about a Swinburne conception here, with the 'factually necessary' being a brute fact. If that's accurate, then you're right on back to inexplicable magic, and the issues of metaphysical necessity and contingency are left unresolved.

Again, it appears Crude reduces this rather hastily, to bad effect (“you're right on back to inexplicable magic“). In any discussion, the participants will rely on some axioms that they hope are generally accepted by all. In this exchange, Lowder assumes physical entities that we know about, or can eventually know about, are all that exists. By extension, any originating cause of the world would be physical (my words, not his). Crude (I assume he’s taking the Theist position) assumes God in place of the physical things that Lowder presumes. Crude attacks Lowder by ridiculing the axioms for natural explanations as “magic”, while ignoring the fact that magic is the essence of the Theist project. The irony is deep here.

Bottom line? Crude doesn’t like Lowder’s axiom(s), while privileging his own with no justification. He can't make a persuasive argument that way.

Bonus gripe: the “Atheism is still out in the cold” claim is off-topic. The contention between these two is (my words) "Naturalism vs. Theism as an explanation for the world". Atheism (the broadly defined lack of belief in theism) is a natural byproduct of Naturalism, but only addresses a single topic - god. We know (kinda sorta) what Crude means - he doesn't like the general non-belief position - but it's a distraction when he himself appears to be unclear what the topic is.

....more....

[Lowder]:

I agree with that there are theisms on offer which entail the existence of gods (lower case 'g') who are/were physical beings. But that point is not of obvious relevance to my argument, which was an evidential argument against God (capital 'G'), not those other types of supernaturalism.

[Crude]:

Well, yes, I think it's entirely relevant to your argument - since it runs against atheism. I also pointed out the problems with your view re: the God of Classical Theism.

Finally, why are these even 'types of supernaturalism'? I think the natural/supernatural distinction is almost entirely arbitrary here.

I get what Lowder says, and don't get what Crude is saying. He says (simplified) "oh yes it does" without elaboration, then appears to play dumb regarding "those other types of supernaturalism", which are the "the list of theisms on offer" that he just got done touting as a counterargument to Naturalism.

[Lowder]:

This revised version of the argument brings out the problem for S even more clearly.

[Crude]:

Not really. In fact, it just highlights the problems you're getting at each and every step.

Sheesh ... "I know you are, but what am I?" That's not a counterargument. Again.

[Lowder]:

1'. E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.

[Crude]:

First, we're right on back to needing to explain what counts as E. Second, if you define E in a restricted way, idealism still exists as a live possibility. Third, I pointed out that if E is defined as matter, etc, then we're in the situation of atheists arguing that naturalism was out and out false in the past.

Crude's throwing out a hypothetical that Lowder didn't make ("if you define E in a restricted way"). Twice. "if E is defined as matter, etc, ". It appears that Crude is going off on a tangent. Whether he's doing so purposely is not clear.

[Lowder]:

2'. S is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(S) is not much greater than Pr(N).

[Crude]:

And now we're back to the issue of 'N' being pretty vacuous as a definition, and very little principled difference between S and N in the relevant senses.

Taken out of context here, Crude has a point. If N and S are equally probable, then neither interlocutor has an advantage. But it's not meant to stand alone. Lowder presents 4 statements, with the first three as premises to a conclusion. So Crude missed the point.

[Lowder]:

3'. Pr(E | N) =1 > Pr(E | S).

[Crude]:

A view I've called into question on multiple fronts.

Crude failed to address the conclusion (4) of Lowder's original comment. He just really missed the point. Here's what Lowder said:

Let E = the existence of physical entities, N = metaphysical naturalism, and S = metaphysical supernaturalism.

1'. E is known to be true, i.e., Pr(E) is close to 1.
2'. S is not intrinsically much more probable than N, i.e., Pr(S) is not much greater than Pr(N).
3'. Pr(E | N) =1 > Pr(E | S).
4'. Other evidence held equal, S is probably false, i.e., Pr(S | B & E) < 1/2.

What Lowder could have said to clarify was that premise 3 indicates a) all the evidence we have is expected on N, b) little or no evidence we have is expected on S. Crude did not understand the notation, or chose to ignore it.

In conclusion, it appears that these two were talking past each other. I don't think that Lowder was as concise as he sometimes is - a plain English explanation of the above argument may have helped, for example - but Crude seemed to willfully miss the point more often than not.

Another worthy example of bad apologetics.

Physical and Mental Worlds

Jeffrey Jay Lowder defines Metaphysical Naturalism at the Secular Outpost - and in the process defines “physical world” and “mental world”. Let me use those two concepts as brushes for painting my own picture of reality.

Physical world: those things which can be observed, inspected and reasoned about by all potential observers, and to which all potential observers hold a similar understanding. Space, time, matter, energy, and their characteristics, behaviors and relationships are all things that fit this category. We can know what they are, and how they behave, separately and in combination.

Given a group of Homo sapiens in the world today, they will largely agree that objects fall towards the Earth, the sun shines in the sky during the day, water is wet, the Earth is relatively solid, and you shouldn’t let flames burn you. One hundred, one thousand or one million random people will almost certainly agree with these statements about the physical world. Anyone disagreeing with these trivial claims will find it nearly impossible to come up with a persuasive argument that something to the contrary is true. Therefore, we often refer to claims such as these as “facts”.

Note that we do NOT attempt to answer “non-physical” questions (purpose, meaning, emotion) when describing a physical world.

Mental world: an individually-held set of understandings, attitudes, beliefs about physical things (both external and internal to the observer), as well as understandings, attitudes and beliefs about what is, what has been, and what could be in the physical world, or in any imaginable world.

We also perceive pain, conceive of purpose, meaning, emotion in this world.

Some Differences:The physical world that we observe - Space, time, matter, energy, and their characteristics, behaviors and relationships - does not necessarily include all that there is. This is important to keep in mind. For example, physicists have models and hypotheses that somewhat predict the existence of “extra dimensionsThe Multiverse, and (separately) multiverses. These are not observed in everyday life, and there’s no good reason for the layman to believe such things are true. Yet, physicists research and test these ideas because there are reasons to think that the models and hypotheses will lead to better understanding of our universe.

In the mental world, there are less reasons to constrain one’s thoughts to that which can be observed, measured and reasoned about. That’s where the idea that the supernatural exists first arises. There was a time when Homo sapiens didn’t have the mental and physical tools to explain phenomena that they observed, so entities with human or animal traits (since that was what they were familiar with) were imagined to explain the phenomena. In more sophisticated imaginations, these entities were explained to exist in a realm beyond the natural, presumably to address their hiddenness . The “supernatural” was thus born.

How does one reconcile the physical world with their personal mental world? I can’t speak for everyone, but

“A wise man apportions his beliefs to the evidence.” ― David Hume

seems to be an effective rule of thumb.

Conclusion: Nothing we observe today leads us to believe that a supernatural realm exists. No one has taken evidence to the National Science Foundation that resulted in a new understanding of the physical world. Faeries, ghosts, angels, demons and gods have no basis in fact. If they do, the evidence should be held up to scrutiny. So, it seems clear to me, and to hundreds of millions of others, that supernatural claims arise in the mental world, and vanish when held up to scrutiny in the physical world.

Believers cannot point to anything in the Physical World and demonstrate the existence of god. They can say “you can’t explain that“, or assert that such-and-such phenomena could only be the handiwork of god, but they can’t make a persuasive case that their assertions are probably true. They can’t take you to someone who can show any research and artifacts, or demonstrate any formulas and measurements that indicate that a deity is responsible for any feature of the universe. Their claims rely on the mental world. Without the mental world, their concepts have no existence.

In contrast, the non-believer can demonstrate physical facts, or take the believer to chemists, physicists, geologists, anthropologists, etc, who can demonstrate and explain features and phenomena in the world that most of us lack the time and tools to understand on our own. Sure, we can’t explain why the universe is here. “Why” questions are not the province of science. Science can tell you “what”. Still, scientists won't give you pat answers for what brought the universe into being, or what caused life to emerge from non-life, because their hypotheses about these haven't been tested and refined well enough to indicate a probable answer. They're working on it, though, with the intention of bringing us closer to the truth. Believers never do that. Their claims never hold up to scrutiny.

If that changes, it will be an interesting day.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The No Good Reason To Believe God result

In The Wrong God Hypothesis I asked the question “could the possibility that there is indeed a god, and we all have in fact got it wrong about god, be a plausible explanation [for the god question]?“

It doesn’t take long to unwind this. The non-believer cites 1) a lack of evidence and 2) a lack of true, valid arguments as reasons for not believing in a deity. So, even if a freely acting, rational agent - such as a deity is presumed to be - does in fact exist, we still have no good reason to believe that he/she/it exists due to 1) and 2) above. The possibility that a deity could exist and there not be a present way to infer or deduce its existence, is the same (as far as I can tell) as its non-existence. If it has no discernable effect on the world, why should we care?

I suppose at this point, people go down the path of Pascal’s wager, but that doesn’t seem to be a good bet, since we know there’s a distinct possibility that we’re wrong about whatever we think of as god. We're most likely betting on the wrong horse.

So where are we?

We’re back at not having sufficient reason to believe in god. Whether or not it exists is not meaningful when there's no way to be affected by its hypothesized existence.

Don’t worry - be happy!

The Wrong God Hypothesis

Justin Schieber - of Reasonable Doubts podcast and debating fame, made a claim on Twitter that

Given theism ... we have some reason to expect God to reassure us when we need it most.

to which I wondered out loud “what if the believer expecting reassurance is believing the wrong god?” Call this the “Wrong God Hypothesis”. This sounds very Bronze Age, in a “my tribe’s god is the one true god, and all other tribes worship false, or lesser gods” way, but what if? It may not be compelling to a philosopher like Justin, but the thought that we all had it wrong powered me further away from my religious belief in the ’70’s into the 2000’s, where my information was more complete, my thinking tools were better, and I was more confident and, hopefully, mature.

I’m not questioning Justin’s claim, but of all the possible worlds that could exist, including the one that I presently believe to be true - nature - could the possibility that there is indeed a god, and we all have in fact got it wrong about god, be a plausible explanation?

I’ll explore this further to see if this makes sense.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The OT explained

In the Old Testament, Yahweh is depicted as the hapless, ne'er-do-well younger neighbor kid to the cool gods like El.

A hapless, ne'er-do-well band of Canaanite outcasts adopts him as their mascot, and zany highjinks ensue.

I think that's the general theme.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Better Arguments

Keith Parsons tackled the question “Can the Arguments of the “New Atheists” be made Stronger?“ in response to criticisms of the same by Ed Feser. It subsequently lit off a loosely-related firestorm in the comments section that resulted in a series of posts by Feser and Parsons - but that’s not the point here - yet.

Parsons makes a real nice point that I quote in full:

...the gravamen of Dawkins’ contention [that “religious beliefs are based merely upon faith and not upon evidence”] can be re-stated as the charge that there is a great disparity between the assurance with which major religious claims are generally asserted and the actual epistemic credentials of those claims. Creedal claims are often presented as so manifestly true that those who willfully reject them are regarded as deserving of temporal or eternal punishment, or perhaps as invincibly ignorant. In this case we might expect that those creedal propositions are as well established, as irrefragable and apodictically certain as claims can be. Yet this seems not to be the case. Every such set of tenets is doubted by very many ostensibly rational, intelligent, and well-informed people. This alone is reason to think that the strength of the claims of religion is often overblown. Further, if creedal claims are manifestly true, it must be the case that each of the propositions constituting those claims is (a) clear, coherent, internally consistent, and compatible with other creedal claims, (b) either obviously true or established beyond a reasonable doubt, and (c) such that if established by reasons, those reasons should be readily apparent to any serious inquirer, since if the reasons for believing a proposition are too obscure, abstruse, or arcane, this could be a legitimate reason for not accepting it. However, it is highly doubtful that conditions a, b, and c are met with respect to the creedal claims of any religion.

No further comment from me is necessary, except to say that these three points are worth remembering when examining claims of any kind, no matter who makes them.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Miraculous

I use the word "miraculous" occasionally. It doesn't mean that I believe in miracles. It means that I find a phenomenon wonderful and unexpected, maybe inexplicable. Take the human brain, for instance. Thought is a wonder. It is amazing. I don't understand it, so I refer to it as "miraculous", but that doesn't mean that I think it's truly a miracle.

It's hard to give up words and idioms that carry supernatural connotations. I will probably not try very hard to give them up unless they cause problems in my life. In the case of human thought, I think it's miraculous, I just don't take an extra step and attribute it to a supernatural cause. That's all.