Sunday, July 24, 2016

Validating God - for Dummies

I, the believer, get to define God.

Not completely, but I take what I have heard from my parents, my siblings, the kids in the neighborhood, and my Sunday School teachers, and I fashion a mental picture of God that may - or may not - resemble other concepts of God that others may have. Does my God-Concept match the one in the Bible? Maybe a little, but I’ll discover decades later the problem with that. Does my GC match the God of classical theism? You must be kidding! I won’t know what that is for another 30 or 40 years.

If and when I try to validate my GC against reality, you can imagine what I’ll come up with. If there’s a "Standard", mine won’t be it. Regardless of how far my God-Concept deviates from some norm, if I want to be justifiably confident of my GC, I should frame it as a hypothesis that can be compared against the real world to assess its validity.

As a bonus, developing a justificatory argument that defends my view of the proposition “God exists” prepares me to win hearts and change minds should I ever bring it out into public to debate a dissenter, and also helps me to identify gaps, weaknesses and outright flaws. Who knows, I might have to modify or discard some or all of my GC and adopt a new one that provides a better explanatory framework!

Now, where do I start? How can I test my God hypothesis against the real world to verify its plausibility? I’ll start with something accessible to me, like how often God answers prayers. Granted, this ability is not explicitly embodied in a “classical” definition of God, but seeing as how I don’t expect to see her, him, it as a physical person, the answering of prayers is the closest the lay person can get to detecting God's existence.

So ... I pray. And sometimes my prayers are answered - HALLELUJAH! But if I’m honest with myself, is it an expected result? Should I expect that a prayer is answered on occasion? Could there be a simpler explanation? Of course, so let’s try something tougher - let’s try praying for an amputee’s limb to be restored. And - as we know - this never happens. It. Never. Happens. So we have a negative result on our test of the hypothesis that God answers prayers. But there’s a snappy rejoinder to this disconfirmstion of God’s existence, the ever-useful “But God works in mysterious ways”. And the counter to that inane bit of apologia is that you’ve just declared God to be an unreliable subject for observation. Which means we can’t know anything about her. Which means we don’t know if God has our best interests in mind. Or which means we don’t know whether God is interested in us at all. Or which means God could be a trickster, or evil, or not there at all, because when we declare “But God works in mysterious ways”, we’ve pretty much ruled out any hope of doing more than speculating. So maybe we should shut up a while.

While there is lots more to be said here, I’ve summarized my initial thoughts on validating my (hypothetical) God-Concept. Keeping in mind the problems of reliability in going from a real-world occurrence to a human perception, to a human interpretation and eventual rationalization, you can see how many hurdles we face when trying to justify that the God that you (or I) believe to be real actually exists

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Natural Model of the Universe

I was reminded by SecularOutpost about a paper from Physicist Sean M. Carroll titled Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists.

I’ve reread the entire paper twice in the last several days because I admire what Carroll says AND how he says it. One paragraph has always jumped out at me. Read it for yourself below, then I’ll explain why.

The essence of materialism is to model the world as a formal system, which is both unambiguous and complete as a description of reality. A materialist model may be said to consist of four elements. First, we model the world as some formal (mathematical) structure. (General relativity describes the world as a curved manifold with a Lorentzian metric, while quantum mechanics describes the world as a state in some Hilbert space. As a more trivial example, we could imagine a universe which consisted of nothing other that an infinitely long list of ”bits” taking on the values 0 or 1.) Second, this structure exhibits patterns (the ”laws of nature”), so that the amount of information needed to express the world is dramatically less than the structure would in principle allow. (In a world described by a string of bits, we might for example find that the bits were an infinitely repeated series of a single one followed by two zeroes: 100100100100…) Third, we need boundary conditions which specify the specific realization of the pattern. (The first bit in our list is a one.) Note that the distinction between the patterns and their boundary conditions is not perfectly well-defined; this is an issue which becomes relevant in cosmology, and we’ll discuss it more later. Finally, we need a way to relate this formal system to the world we see: an ”interpretation.”

Back when I stopped being Christian in the ’70’s, I still retained this slight suspicion that reality still contained some supernatural aspect. Years later, as I tried to assemble a somewhat accurate picture of reality, I backed in to the idea that the universe that I can observe consists of space and time (later, “spacetime”), matter and energy, and exhibits behaviors that could be observed, and could help me to validate my mental picture of it. Naturally, I tried to imagine where supernatural things might fit into this picture.

I once thought it obvious that there could be only a few ways to reconcile the supernatural with the natural. 1) the supernatural is the framework upon which the other things rest. 2) we exist wholly within some supernatural environment. 3) the supernatural is separate, but somehow meaningful in ways that are unclear. 4) we - and the universe - ARE wholly supernatural, and we just don’t recognize it (Or refuse to acknowledge it). Clearly some of these ideas overlap, but that’s what I can recall.

Once I had my framework for thinking about the universe to validate my (4) suspicions on what the supernatural might be, ideas of supernatural agency in the universe started to drop by the wayside. By the start of the new millenium, this informal process was complete - I was functionally - if not consciously - atheist. So what’s that have to do with Carroll’s paper?

When I read Why (Almost All) Cosmologists Are Atheists a few years ago, it validated the approach I had taken to arrive at a naturalistic world view. The specific paragraph that I quote above, although more eloquent and more complete than I was thinking, essentially turns into this for laypeople like me:
  1. describe what entities there are in your system
  2. describe how they behave
  3. define the extent of the system
  4. compare your model to reality and articulate it for review

Easy as pie!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Objective Moral Values - the 2016 Edition

I tried to post the following on The Secular Outpost , but Disqus yakked up a hairball when I tried to log in, so I’m posting it here. Read the post first, if you’d like context. Jeffrey Jay Lowder was inviting an open discussion on objective moral values.

I’m with the “approachable scientifically” contingent.

As a non-philosopher, I get stuck on the term “objective”. Given that objective means true or false regardless of what people think about it, and that morality is a body of standards regarding right and wrong behavior, then I can imagine some spongy “globally recognized standards” that might obtain for long periods of time. I find truly objective morality - true or false regardless of what observers think about it, presumably eternally - impossible to pin down without stipulating some bedrock thing(s) that we agree not to investigate further.

I can envision it boiling down to this: We procreate, and adopt behaviors that make procreation more likely. To become social, we adopted more complex behavior to help families, kin, clans and communities thrive. So, I might be able to derive some objective moral values and duties that apply universally, eternally to basic social creatures.

If that is what we’re trying to discover, then yes, I’m convinced that objective moral values exist, as a set of properties and behaviors of biological creatures that succeed at being social.

Once we move beyond that, it starts to appear to this untrained eye as a bunch of engineering exercises performed by people with different outlooks and goals. Thought-provoking, but abstract.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Lrrr's Toothpick

I can’t remember what caused this to pop into my head, but it’s stuck. So I need to get it out.

Russell’s Teapot

is an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) to illustrate that the philosophic burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims rather than shifting the burden of proof to others, specifically in the case of religion.

It (kinda) takes the form “I claim there’s a china teapot orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars. You can’t disprove it, therefore I expect you to accept that my assertion is true”.

Since claims of God and lesser supernatural things often take this general form, it surprised me to hear - not too long ago - a theistically-inclined correspondent claim that you could in principle prove that said teapot does not orbit the sun as described, thus the analogy does not apply to God (so if Russell's Teapot is your go-to rejoinder to the claim that God exists, well, you’ve failed, Mister Godless Heathen).


When Russell first brought this analogy into the public consciousness c. 1952, it was in practice impossible to disprove the existence of the teapot. The technology didn’t yet exist, and certainly the will and resources to undertake such a low reward endeavor didn’t (and still don’t) exist. But wait - there’s more!

The Russell's Teapot analogy is actually too narrow in scope, given what we know about the cosmos today, if you take it literally. Which you shouldn’t. Because it’s an analogy.

Scale the analogy up to fit the cosmos that we observe today, and you could claim that there’s a pure diamond toothpick that was once owned by Lrrr, Ruler of Omicron Persei 8, that now floats freely between the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy. In principle, it could be verified. In practice - extremely unlikely!

That crystallizes what I think is the point. You - Miss Straw Woman That I Constructed For This Exposition - want me to accept that God exists because I can’t prove she doesn’t. You - Miss SWTICFTE (for short) - present me with 2 equally fruitless options: believe in something that has never been verifiably observed in history, or commence my search of the cosmos to prove that it doesn't exist. That pisses me off. You're trying to get me to waste my life, and I won’t do it. There are other alternatives in life, and THAT is where I may find a fruitful path.