Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Proving a Negative as an Apologetics Manuever

I ran into a pair of the worst apologetics arguments imaginable last week. So bad that it took me days to get my head around them. I discuss the first of these here.

The passage that incensed me was

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

There is enough wrongness packed into these two sentences that they could stop a charging bull elephant. Let me paraphrase them to dig out the core thought: “Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist”. I don’t know if it’s my business to try to unearth the reason why they think this is a persuasive argument that God exists - but I can comment on whether the argument is persuasive.

The obvious first question is “Is this a coherent claim?” Isn’t the claim “Disbelief in The Invisible Pink Unicorn is wrong because no one can prove that The Invisible Pink Unicorn doesn't exist“ just as coherent? Aren’t the two questions then equally persuasive in making their cases for their subjects? Shouldn’t we be able to assert the same about Allah, Zeus, Odin, Mithra, Ashur, Enlil, Chemosh, Baal, Vishnu, Marduk, Yaluk and others, and expect our interlocutors to respond? Won’t all of these claims tend to make their cases equally well?

The answer, of course, is “no”. No, you can’t expect your interlocutors to respond to claims like this because you’ve left out something essential. First, assuming you’ve chosen “God” as the object that you claim can’t be proved to not exist, you must acknowledge the implied claim you’re making that “God exists”. You’re asserting that the object referred to as “God” is an actual thing for which existence is an attribute.

Imagine the following conversation:
A: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
B: Are you claiming that God exists?
A: Yes
B: Which God are we talking about? What attributes does it have that I can test?
A: [responds with explanation]
B: [requests clarification on what level of certainty is required for proof]
A: [provides clarification]
B: [proceeds with testing prior to presenting results]
Then imagine this alternative conversation:
C: Disbelief in God is wrong because no one can prove that God doesn't exist
D: Are you claiming that God exists?
C: No
D: Then what are you talking about?
C: [no response]
D: [ends conversation]
The implied claim that “God exists” gives claimant A something ostensibly real to discuss. Respondent B can then request a list of the claimants best evidence and arguments that this object exists, and begin an examination of the positive claim “God exists”. If the level of certainty reaches what the participants agreed to, then they may assent to the claim. Other outcomes may result as well. A resolution is possible in principle.

The absence of the positive claim “God exists” - on the other hand - raises the question of what claimant C could possibly mean. Without clarification of what the subject of C’s claim is, the words “no one can prove that God doesn't exist“ has no meaning because, using C’s own refusal to acknowledge the implication that “God exists“, no real subject exists to discuss. D is under no obligation to continue.

What I’ve omitted is that the idea of “proof” is not one that is relevant outside mathematics, even though the word is used in lay conversations everywhere. The real challenge - if both parties are amenable - is to establish a level of certainty (think of a Bayesian probability between zero and one) that the parties agree will serve as confirmation in lieu of “proof”.

Then let the fun begin!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Folly of Atheism

I stumbled upon this blog post titled "The Folly of Atheism" via Twitter user @Cand_Apologetix. It only took a couple of paragraphs to pique my interest, particularly this passage:

Atheism is the belief system that believes God does not exist.This attempt fails because, well, no one can prove that God doesn't exist!!

Since no comments are allowed for this post, I couldn’t thoughtlessly blurt out the first snarky thing that popped into my head, which is probably a good thing.

Earlier this week, I had actually published two posts analyzing The Folly of Atheism - a much longer version of this post that dissected the opening paragraphs, and a follow-on that looked briefly at the more formal arguments that he laid out.

But then I thought better of it.

This is probably the first time I've ever deleted a blog post. I realized that it didn't serve anyone for me to criticize The Folly of Atheism in depth - it is so bad that 60 seconds skimming over it will convince you of that without requiring any verbose piling on from me. Sometimes, stuff is just so vacuously, vapidly inane that you!re better off to just keep moving, so that's what I've chosen to do.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On having faith

I don’t believe in God because there is no good reason to, but I **am** interested in the terms “faith” and “belief”, so I’d like to discuss them from an a-religious point of view.

I’ve personally never been approached with the claim that “even atheists have faith in something” - or whatever vague criticism is sometimes leveled at non-believers. Before I declare the common definitions that I’ll be working from, let me say that 1) non-believers are probably wrong to claim that faith and/or belief are stupid, illogical or otherwise untenable as epistemological frameworks; 2) some faith-like or belief-like approaches to living have to be used by everyone, so it’s stupid for a non-believer to claim otherwise.


Some definitions:


“Belief is a state of the mind, treated in various academic disciplines, especially philosophy and psychology, as well as traditional culture, in which a subject roughly regards a thing to be true.“


“Faith is confidence or trust in a person, thing, deity, view, or in the doctrines or teachings of a religion. It can also be defined as belief that is not based on proof,[1] as well as confidence based on some degree of warrant.[2][3] The word faith is often used as a synonym for hope,[4] trust,[5] or belief.[6]”

In both cases, the definition “regarding a thing to be true, possibly not based on proof“ seems to match how a non-believer (as I am) applies the terms.

Let me make my case: every time I need to drive somewhere, I have a reasonable expectation that my car will start, and that I’ll be able to drive wherever I need to go. This is based on 1) a general trust that auto manufacturers want cars to be reliable, thus encouraging repeat sales; 2) experience - it’s been several hundred times in a row since my belief in a functional car has failed me; 3) I generally try not to worry that I won’t be able to do what I plan to do. Otherwise, I’d be an emotional wreck. So - I use what might be termed “faith” as an attitude towards my car.

Shiny new car

What would undermine my faith in my car? Well, I bought it used, and for the first several months I owned it, it was a piece of shit. The idiot lights came on, the power steering failed, and eventually the entire electric system shut down. It took several months for the dealer to correct this, during which time I had - with good justification - no faith in this car. It took many months and hundreds of starts to get over the feeling that this piece of shit needed to be junked.

What am I saying?

I started out with faith that this car would work, it let me down and I lost faith, I got it fixed and my faith in it was slowly restored. It was a process, a human, physical process that took about a year.

Now, believers might say “that’s preposterous - faith in God is not like faith in a mere automobile - it's much more transcendent, sublime, meaningful - and the payoff is better!”. To this I say “no, it’s not”. Faith in some unseen entity deserves the same respect as a car does. It has to work. It has to have the properties and behaviors that I expect of it, and when it doesn’t, I need to adjust my expectations of it. And I have done so. God never appears in the universe. Theologians can’t give a clear, unambiguous reason why God would, could or should exist. The world looks exactly like it would if no intervening force were at work, and in the absence of good evidence or good reason to believe otherwise, it makes perfectly good sense to treat God like an automobile that has never and will never work.

It needs to be junked.


Creator God is Illogical

My Tuesday morning interwebzing spun me off into this brief reverie on the possibility of the existence of God. For this post, I’ll assume God is the “creator god” of the Cosmological Argument.

I’ve always assumed that I’m justified in stating that there is a non-zero probability that creator god exists. I assume this justification due to the limits of my knowledge, although I imagine the probability to be approaching zero - say 1 * 10-googolplex on any average partly cloudy Tuesday.

Here’s where creator god becomes untenable: in order to put him (her, it, etc) in a position capable of creating the universe, it's usually claimed to be (quoting Dr. Wm. Lane Craig) “beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent“ - thus creator god must be understood to have an existence separate from this universe. That’s the key: creator god must first exist. So creator god does not create existence. Therefore creator god is not the greatest imaginable being - only a being capable of creating “creator god world” is. But then who created the creator of “creator god world” ... and so on? This has always been the criticism of assertions like “God created the universe” - they reduce to infinite regress, and require defending via special pleading or bare assertion. Illogical!