Monday, May 12, 2014

Consensus on God?

Richard Carrier explains the role of Expert Opinion in his latest post "On Evaluating Arguments from Consensus". Upon reaching the reference to Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, it dawned on me just how riddled with problems concepts like "conventional wisdom" ("CW") and popular opinion are.

Take the idea that God, gods, or the supernatural exists. In the world today, I presume the majority believe in a higher supernatural power or realm. This despite the lack of a jot of evidence or a tittle of rational argument that something supernatural exists. What are the chances that this majority are correct? First assume that most of us are not capable of making a correct judgement about things that we are not expert on. Conventional WisdomThis eliminates the vast vast majority of subjects that we laymen can discuss concretely and accurately. In fact, using myself as an example, 20 years in software development qualify me to claim expertise on some areas of software development, but in the overall population of software developers, I might rank in the 70th or 80th percentile. Could you go to me for software development expertise? In a certain context, absolutely. In all contexts? No, only in some cases. Can we infer something from this specific example to possible expertise on the subject of God?

First, we can say that no one has practical experience in the field of God. Face it, it is conjectural. If you were to set out on a program of research to find God, you’d have to define what you’re looking for in terms that could yield a sensible result. A god of the Greek persuasionQuestions like these will immediately muddy the waters: do we search for a general higher power, an ultimate highest power, a power described by existing sacred texts, a power described by philosophers to cover the general case? What constitutes good evidence that we’ve observed God? Can other researchers duplicate the tests and achieve the same results? How do we infer God’s concrete nature from these results? How do we map our observations and the inferences we make onto the current philosophical, theological, religious and/or spiritual landscapes - or do we carve out a new (scientific?) landscape in which to repose our findings?

Compare this conjectural research project with the current state of thought about God. There are philosophers that consider the nature of God - a specific instance like Yahweh, or the general case as in “the ground of all being. There are theologists that take specific formulations such as Yahweh, and supporting texts (the Bible, adjunct Jewish texts, apocrypha, commentary on all of the above) and develop theses about right belief, right living and so on. But where is there someone who can be called an expert? The pastors, deacons, bishops of any particular church are not experts with concrete God experience. They are practitioners in running churches, helping church-goers live in accordance with right beliefs and practices, nurturing the religious community, organizing and delivering charity (good for them!!!). Not one of them can bring a God experience to a neutral third party for evaluation, and have that deemed to be evidence for the existence of God.

This has always bothered me, and Dr. Carrier formalized the problem by pointing out how and when expert opinion is to be valued. A church, and the general congregation that accepts and reinforces the beliefs and practices of that church, are all non-experts. They have no claim to authority in a global sense, although the individual could choose to allow other individuals to assert authority over them for various reasons. Outside the church, those beliefs and practices are of lesser interest. Moreover, anyone claiming expertise must (after Carrier) be familiar with the best arguments against their claims, and be able to address them. When you start to evaluate the claims that affirm and negate the existence of God - and more generally, the supernatural - you then have a series of alternatives that can be judged for their effectiveness in explaining phenomena in the world. By this point, you then conclude that physical evidence for the supernatural does not exist, and rational argument for its existence is fundamentally circular, bare assertion, argument from personal incredulity, or appeal to emotion.

A jury - Twelve Angry MenWhere does that leave us when looking for experts on God? We don’t have experts on God. We have people who claim authority - as individuals or as representatives of a religion or sacred text - but no one that we can really acknowledge as an expert. So we return to Condorcet’s Jury Theorem:

When “each voter has an independent probability p of voting for the correct decision” then:

If p is greater than 1/2 (each voter is more likely to vote correctly), then adding more voters increases the probability that the majority decision is correct. In the limit, the probability that the majority votes correctly approaches 1 as the number of voters increases.

On the other hand, if p is less than 1/2 (each voter is more likely than not to vote incorrectly), then adding more voters makes things worse: the optimal jury consists of a single voter.

Since individually, the vast vast vast majority of us are not experts on God, then a consensus on God is of no value to us, and there are no experts to then refer to.

...a consensus on God is of no value to us...

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