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Evidence For God?

March 22, 2014

*March 26, 2014* – After much more discussion it has become apparent I did I poor job of communicating my thoughts, and brought some of my own misconceptions to the discussion… a charge I’ve been guilty of using against others. And as it would be dishonest to make changes without explanation, I’ve added an addendum of sorts to the end of this post.

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“Our vibrations were getting nasty — but why? I was puzzled, frustrated. Was there no communication in this car?  Had we deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts?” ~~ Hunter S Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

 

Philosophornication – That’s Phucked Up

 

I describe myself as a skeptic. There is a reason for this. I am dubious of claims presented without evidence, especially when there is apparent personal motive or appeal to authority, and no concern for truth. This carries over to claims of the supernatural, religion and gods.

I’m atheist because I am a skeptic. I don’t like the terms ‘gnostic’ and ‘agnostic’ because I think they invite confusion, welcome diversion, and promote nonproductive chatter. Gnostics were theists that claimed special divine knowledge, so claiming to be a gnostic atheist has extra baggage. But I don’t waiver in my position: There are no gods. There is no evidence for gods. Gods don’t exist.

Recently (maybe they’ve always been around) I’ve seen a proliferation of amateur ‘philosophers’ disputing the validity of this claim, many of them also atheists. And on the twitter timelines of myself and those I follow, they attempt to turn the discussion to “Well, what do YOU consider to be evidence”. An example is here:

http://storify.com/SlagOffTwits/evidence-for-nothing

After much more nonproductive discussion I tried to outline my position more clearly here: Evidence for Nothing

This is why we have dictionaries. Words have meanings. You don’t get to arbitrarily make up personal meanings for words as if that is an accepted use of the term. Evidence for a claim must connect and corroborate. It must be valid. There must be a line one can follow from the evidence to the claim. (And no it doesn’t have to be ‘proof’.) Is it possible to devise a test that A is evidence for B? Is it falsifiable? These are generally accepted tests for validity of a hypothesis. How far can any particular philosophy stray from this and still try to pretend it is relevant?

Something I was introduced to recently (by @SkepticismFirst) is Bayesian philosophy. (Warning: This is 45 minutes of your life you can’t get back… Video here:

Theism, Atheism and Bayesiansim – Part 1 (John Hawthorne).

This is similar to fuzzy logic in that instead of binary decision between two choices, there are can be many possibilities to choose from. A simplistic view, and I hope I say this right, is that probabilities are assigned to these possibilities and normalized as options are eliminated. And this makes sense where the options are limited to the real world. But where this goes completely askew is when it asserts probabilities can be assigned arbitrarily to ‘mythology’, for lack of a better word. In this view God is a rational answer. In fact others have tried to expand the scope to encompass things that have never been expressed as written or spoken thoughts, to even subconscious thought or dreams. And it (mis)appropriates the term ‘evidence’ to describe the options. So life becomes ‘evidence’ for God.

Anyway, I’m not going to claim I am a philosopher, I’m not schooled in philosophy, and don’t wish to make things murkier by mangling terminology… Others have examined and written on this far more thoughtfully and effectively than I can. So let’s see some alternate takes… James Lindsay (@goddoesnt on twitter) provides an excellent examination of the Bayesian theological claim here:

Loftus’s Outsider Test for Faith viewed in HD with Bayes’s Theorem

Another blog (askamathematician.com) that does a good job of outlining both the mathematical concept, and potentials pitfalls when attempting to employ probability follows below. Note that this is an explanation and NOT a calculation or conclusion. Because of the type of problem and the subjective nature of some of the elements (esp. priors), this would and SHOULD differ for each reader.

How do I estimate the probability that God exists?

 

So where does this leave us? Is Bayesian decision making instructive in such a case? Do we learn anything? I think the answer to both questions is NO. And the terminology used by some of the proponents is a major problem as well. Language is a method of communicating thought. This temptation to broaden scope to include incorporate one’s beliefs weakens language, and hence communication of thought. Just peruse the twitter timelines of any of the AtheismPlus/SJW crowd and you will see just where this leads. Discord. Chaos. Confusion. We have enough problems with communicating across language barriers without erecting new intralanguage hurdles.

When I see a professor, a supposed authority, say forcefully to a roomful of students that there IS evidence for god, and that this is not problematic and shouldn’t be thought of as such, I am troubled. If a claim such as “life is evidence for god” can have either side of the equation replaced by ANY word and be just as meaningful, how can it possibly be considered evidence, useful, or even sensible? This runs afoul of at least the first 2 ‘bad methods’ discussed in the “How do I Estimate…” link above.

Really, it takes absurd to absurd new lengths. Consider the Monty Python ‘Witch scene’ in The Holy Grail. Absurd, but very funny…

“She’s a witch! What is your evidence? She’s made of wood. How do you know she’s made of wood? She floats. What also floats? A duck! So logically if she weighs the same as a duck she must be wood, and therefore a witch”

…with the same logic as ‘life is evidence for god’, it becomes:

“She’s a witch! What is your evidence? I just said so. Didn’t you hear me?”

It’s so absurd it is not even funny.

 

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Addendum, March 26, 2014…

The original contention of this post is that the statement “life is evidence for god” is invalid. The hypothesis is that if there is life, that is evidence for a life giving god. If there was no life, that would be evidence against a life giving god. It is not a claim that god is responsible. Simply that the hypothesis on its own, regardless of probability, is valid. Considering ONLY this statement, I concede the only reasonable response is that this is true.

The very problem of the ‘life is evidence for god’ hypothesis is that it is so generic and ill-defined that either side of the equation can be changed without in any way changing the inference; something known and testable is evidence for something unknown and untestable. This should be a clue that the hypothesis is poorly formed. That being said, if taken strictly as is with no further rationalization, the hypothesis must be evaluated as true… that is, not that it is good evidence, but that it IS evidence. My initial hesitance to accept this displayed bias.

But… because the equation is so poorly formed and defined, it leaves ‘god’ as replaceable with any other sufficiently ridiculous ‘entity’ that can be imagined. It would seem to be a presupposition of sorts to insert ‘god’ because the description of ‘life-giving’ as the only qualifier doesn’t seem to fit the description of any known god. ‘God’ can therefore be replaced with any other name for an entity, known or unknown, as long as it falls outside the realm of our known reality, and isn’t previously described as incompatible with the claim.

So we have a conundrum of sorts. In the strictest terms the hypothesis is true, yet it can only be true if our current understanding of reality is wrong or incomplete. In all the history of scientific discovery, testing and verification, nothing has ever indicated that there is interaction between a realm outside our known reality with the realm inside. Which is not to say there isn’t a great deal of unknown. Only that when the unknown is explained, invariably the explanation ends up coming from a previous application of empirical or philosophical knowledge, or an extension of the same… not from an entirely new reality.

How do we resolve this? In fact, we can look to Bayes for this as well… Think about it in terms of probabilities; we have, in the broadest sense, two possible sets of answers for any question.  The first set will be composed of answers explained by our current knowledge of reality. The second set will be anything that can be imagined from outside our current knowledge of reality. Because the second set violates everything we know to be true of reality, and has NEVER been shown to be a viable answer, the entire category is dismissed. We don’t need to evaluate every possible scenario from that set. The probability for the ENTIRE set is ZERO. We then move on to evaluate possible scenarios from the first set. This only changes if it can be shown that what we consider reality is incomplete or completely wrong.

However, this is only my justification, post discussion, to explain my position. It is not a defense of my position prior. I do maintain that (to steal a great word I saw @justinsweh use) this is sophistry of sorts. It lends respectability to a statement that can be shown on closer examination to be false.

I would again welcome comments (subtweets don’t help much, but go ahead) and corrections. This is a learning experience for me, so my choice of terms and phrasing may not be proper or adequate.  By all means correct me on this as well. There is a great deal of very dry and non-interactive material to reference on the internet, but it often meanders off into topics I’m not investigating… yet. Actual conversation, even in 140 characters is much better at keeping focus.

Special shout out to Devin (@SemanticV0id) for extraordinary patience in helping me try to understand this, and keeping the conversation going… instead of getting frustrated and blocking me as I might have done in the same situation. Follow him! Do it!

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