The Burden of Proof

In the recent thread on Huntsman , BlaiseP, Tom van Dyke and I ended up in a bit of a digression of atheism and the burden of proof which I thought was worth teasing out, but not on that thread.  The part of the exchange I want to focus on was between Tom and I and went like this:

Tom:

the atheists need better arguments.  They don’t actually have an argument.

Me:

Epistemologically we don’t need one.  Burden of proof is on the claimant.  Occam’s Razor does the rest.

Tom:

I don’t follow you, but burden of proof is shared in any joint inquiry among persons of good will and lovers of wisdom and truth.

Now I’m not entirely sure what Tom means by sharing the burden, but I assume it means something like neither party has the burden of proof, but that each interlocutor should advance their case as best they can, rather than insisting that the other side should do all the work (tom, feel free to correct me if you meant something else).

This sounds like an eminently fair approach, and is the norm in a debate.  But debates are really more oratorical contests than exercises in truth discovery.  In science, the best truth discovery mechanism humanity has yet produced, the rule is different – if you wish to allege something exists it is up to you to prove it.  The doubters get all the advantage, they need not even get out of their chairs until you’ve done all the work to prove your case, only then must your opponent lift a finger.  This may sound like an unfair distribution of responsibility, but in practice there are several good reasons, logical and mathematical, why this should be the case.

Proving a Negative

It is commonly said that you can’t prove a negative, and while this isn’t quite true in all cases it is certainly true that actually disproving the existence of something is a lot harder than proving it.  For instance, if tomorrow morning a massive glowing figure descended from the sky proclaiming in a voice heard round the world that it was God Almighty and then proved it had knowledge and powers beyond mortal ken that would conclusively prove it was God, (ruling out advanced aliens or similar deception would take some work) but it would certainly get my attention.  By contrast, the failure of any being to do this in recorded history does not rule out the existence of a god or gods.  Maybe they’re just not into tacky displays of power.

And that’s the problem in a nutshell.  To actually disprove any god in the logical sense I would have to find something incompatible with the existence of that god.  This is really hard to do when you’re talking about the Abrahamic God since he’s meant to be omnipotent.  If there’s nothing he can’t do then there is no state of the universe that’s incompatible with his existence.  As such there is no possible disproof of God’s existence, and expecting an atheist to come up with one is a bit much to ask for.

Even so, you might just conclude that God’s existence is too well-established to be doubted then.  But this would be a mistake, as I will explain below.

The Law of Non-Contradiction

You see, the argument used above to prove God’s existence will work for the vast majority of gods.  While some gods (like a sun god who rides across the sky in a flaming chariot) are disprovable, even most non-omnipotent deities are sufficiently poorly specified so as to avoid empirical falsification.  I mean, how could you tell for certain that the Hindu gods didn’t exist?  What about Ba’al or Ahura Mazda?

This may seem trivial, but it is anything but.  There are thousands or religions in human history, and they can’t all be right, in fact they are almost all contrary – there is at most one true religion.  To prove yours is right you have to demonstrate everyone else’s is wrong.  And as I said, you can’t do that for a non-trivial set of religions.  So you are left with three options:

A: Believe every religion that you cannot actively disprove is true.  This violates the law of non-contradiction and is therefore one of the very few ways in the universe to guarantee you are wrong.

B: Believe whichever religion you want and handwave away the rest.  In the logic business this is called Special Pleading.  Needless to say, this is not an intellectually honest position.

C: Put the burden of proof on the claimant.  Not all religions can be true, but all of them can be false.  Refusing to believe in any religion without sufficient proof is the only option that is neither incoherent nor intellectually dishonest.

But, you may well say, isn’t atheism a claim of sorts?  And it is mutually exclusive with other religions.  So why does it get special treatment?  For this we need to leave logic behind and visit my home ground: math.

The Law of Conjunction

The Law of Conjunction is one of the foundational rules of probability theory.  I’ll skip the whole math lesson, but the short version is that the probability of a bunch of things happening together is less than the probability of any one of those events happening.  The classic example is: “There is a woman named Mary.  Is it more likely that she is 1: A bank teller or 2: A feminist bank teller?”  The correct answer is 1, whatever the chances are of a given woman named Mary is either a feminist, a bank teller or both, it is mathematically impossible to construct a set of probabilities where Mary is more likely to be a feminist and a bank teller than just a bank teller.

The Law of Conjunction ties in well with Occam’s Razor.  So long as you’re careful to define complexity correctly (I’ll leave off discussing Komologrov Complexity  because that’s a little outside my area of expertise) the simplest explanation for a phenomenon will be the most probable.  So if you want me to add a god to my model of the world, you are going to have to make up for the reduction in probability by adding explanatory power – in other words you need to show me that there are things in the world that make more sense if a god exists than not (this is another way of saying I want evidence).  And since any god is a very complex phenomenon you’re going to need a lot of evidence to convince me.

But this is all a matter of probabilities, am I not admitting a chance that a god exists?  Well, yes I am, but that means nothing.  It is extremely difficult to be 100% certain of anything, and I would suggest most kinds of knowledge can’t be known with 100% certainty.  If you’re willing to accept that it is OK to believe unlikely things in favour of more likely alternatives, you end up accepting things like it is perfectly valid to believe that exposing yourself to the Cherenkov radiation of a nuclear reactor will give you superpowers because, hey there’s a chance right?  It’s not like any nuclear physicist can say there’s a 100% chance it won’t.  Refusing to heed probabilities dissolves all knowledge into a postmodern fog where all ideas are equally valid, and we don’t want to go there, now do we?

I guess this is just  a long-winded way of saying that if you  want me to believe in your god or gods, I’m going to need you to show me evidence, and until someone does I don’t feel it at all unreasonable to assert that there is almost certainly no God, nor any other gods either.

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289 thoughts on “The Burden of Proof

  1. Ruh-roh.

    The question is, does Tom have the energy? I imagine not.  We all have better things to do this weekend of all weekends.  Mine’s packed.

    (Yeesh, this has to appear now.  Oh well, probably for the best.)

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    • The atheist says there is no god while the agnostic says he doesnt know. Though on the latter count people of faith have to be agnostic because they are saying that they dont know, that they have faith which is not a thing which is supported by reasons. (After all, if it were you wouldnt call it faith). Which is why calling people of faith believers seems a bit strange.

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          • Then wherein lies your beef?   I managed to sum up the problem without invoking the entirely irrelevant argument from Komologrov.   You will find that complexity is not the atheist’s stalwart friend when it comes to cosmology or nature.   The universe is a probabilistic beast, quite beyond anyone’s definition.

            If mankind consoled himself with gods and attributed the outworking of fate to their quarrels atop Olympus, he was new to the world.   The atheist has concluded there is no God and loudly preaches his sermon as if his statements arrived Quod Erat Demonstratum.   Even you won’t go that far,  sprinkling the foo-foo dust of computational complexity upon the matter, not a whit different than the theologian, equally out of his depth, ascribing the outworkings of the universe to God’s Plan and consigning the contradictions within his own dogma to Mystery.

            Now computational complexity is where I live and breathe and write invoices.   The framework of this universe is one of rules, curious rules, rules we cannot square up with each other.   The cosmologists and mathematicians give us remarkably ugly reconciliations through String Theory and unseen dimensions.   I do not trust their conclusions as Kepler couldn’t trust Galileo’s conclusions:  the evidence didn’t support them.

            Nobody has demanded proof of the agnostic.   Proof shall be demanded of the atheist.  Mr. Popper gives us another sort of logic, that of falsifiability, one which pops the bubble of atheism as surely as the Big Bang inflated it.

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            • At the risk of riling you, I assume you believe in unicorns then?  And how about the Laundry Dryer Sock Gremlins?  You surely have lost an odd sock over the years, yes?  Prove to me they don’t exist.  Ah, you’ve checked the dryer, inside and out, right?  They don’t live in the dryer; that would be silly.  I can assert all day that this gremlin exists and you really can’t do a damn thing to prove it doesn’t.  Oh sure, you could say that, of all the evidence that has come to light through your disemboweling the dryer and investigating its pipes, you have yet to find one shred of evidence that one would exist save your missing sock.  But can you conclusively disprove its existence?

              I’m know Tom bristles when comparisons of these kind of things are made with God(s), but it is no different in terms of proof.  Just because something is considered sacred, holy, and venerated does not exempt it from the same scrutiny we could give to the Sock Gremlin.  I think agnostics and atheists are simply siblings on a timeline. 

              I think the absolutism of the true believers on either side is the problematic thing.   But when the agnostic says he doesn’t know, isn’t he really saying that no solid evidence has been given to convince him that a God does exist?  He is still open to any, but to this point he remains a skeptic?

               

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              • Dime store rhetoric about the existence of unicorns and the Sock Monster (which you got from Dr. Science, two points for you right there) won’t prove God doesn’t exist.   Karl Popper did exist.   Since the argument for or against God resolves to an unfalsifiable position, we must allow for his potential existence.

                How did Jefferson put it?   But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

                The atheist’s argument is really against Religion, not God.   So is mine.  Religion has ever been the enemy of science and freethinkers, homosexuals and many anther class of persecuted persons.   Though my neighbor may say there are twenty gods or no God, it’s when he starts in trying to get his cheap God-isms into the lawbooks I get very concerned.  I have said we would be best served as a nation to elect Atheists to high office, mostly because they’re the only ones capable of Castin’ the Ol’ Stink Eye upon these creepy religious types, intent upon subverting our freedoms.

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                • No, but considering unicorns and sock monsters to be absurd does not somehow separate their probability from that of God.  Which is I think what you’re saying. (Sometimes all you really smart guys are so well versed in your own terminology and language that you presume others to be equally well-versed, as it is with the Popper reference.)

                  But I do think one can be agnostic and anti-religion just as one can be atheist and completey neutral on the matter of religion itself.

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                • “Since the argument for or against God resolves to an unfalsifiable position, we must allow for his potential existence.”

                  Yes, AND we must also allow for the potential existence of FSM, the invisible pink unicorn, Baal (my personal favorite), dinosaurs, Cthulhu, Trondh’vagen of the Forbidden Realm (I just made that one up), Hamlet, Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the White Walkers, resurrected Steve Jobs, and pandas.

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                  • Yeah, and that’s where I imagine you get a whole bunch of back-pedaling.  Not to mention hostility that you’ve poisoned the well by including them in the same reference as the believer’s God.  I’ve witnessed it in these very threads here at the LoOG.

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                    • It’s entirely possible that, in my usual state of ignorance, I’ve missed your point, but I thought we were on the same page and that, when arguing that if you have to conclude the possibility that God exists and, because of this you have to argue that all the other deities “possibly” exist, this is where people start to give a bunch of resistance to that idea and act all offended that you even include those other “ridiculous” deities with theirs.

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                  • I’m afraid so. The atheist has concluded, that verb’s sorta important in this context, that God doesn’t exist.    Please don’t trot out the FSM or Baal, o kudasai, it’s all been said before.   When atheists start in on that sermon, and it seems to be the only one they ever preach, they sound exactly like so many street preachers telling people all the other religions are stupid and they’re the only ones with any sense.  It’s bad hermeneutics.   If the atheist is to get along without God, let him also quit preaching sermons, as if he had received some special revelation, a phenomenon he denies anyway.

                    James K has gone to considerable trouble to point out why proof is important.   If proof is demanded of the religious, the atheist might furnish some counter-proof.

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                    • Your point was a mere recapitulation of Russell’s Teapot.   My point remains Jefferson’s point about what my neighbor believes about one god or twenty gods.

                      I don’t need a terribly strong wall to defend anything.   Hopefully all I require is a mere theatrical scrim.   See, the atheists need to learn better manners.  You know I’m right about the Offensive Street Preacher rhetoric.   Not content with offending people of existing faiths, the Offensive Atheist Street Preacher feels he must make up hypothetical religions and equally hypothetical believers  to offend.   I would have thought human history would have furnished enough grist for that mill and evidence for enough offensive street preachers to make his case but the Atheist feels he must recapitulate every error of religion on his way to enlightenment.   But when confronted with the lack of evidence for his own conclusions, oh well, Popper’s Falsifiability is now called a weak wall.   Let the atheist eat his own cooking.

                      Me, I sense religion is mostly bunk but this Higher Power is very powerful bunk, capable of changing people’s lives for the better and often enough for the worse.   Call it self-delusion or whatever you wish, like gravity, its effects are real though we lack an explanation for it.

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                    • I’ll generally agree with that. You see, I am not an Atheist Street Preacher. I just have never encountered God in my life. I’m forced by the unique nature of my human condition to interact with only that which I encounter, good Mssr. Pascal.

                      Thus, I’ll continue to play with my children, respect my teachers and parents, type words into my computer, fiddle with the knobs and levers in my shower until I’m comfortable, and like any good Spinozan, more than occasionally contemplate infinity. If I ever encounter the concretion that you call God, I hope I’ll comport myself admirably.

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                    • Spinoza was a fine thinker, one of the very best.

                      When I contemplate infinity, I realize something’s wrong in my equations.   Nature abhors a vacuum and mathematics abhors infinities.   Unbounded functions and Cantor sets are useful shortcuts but they don’t appear in the real world.

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                    • “Cosmos” or “universe,” Mr. Carr? If you refer to the universe, then it is indeed finite — very vast, and the limits of which may be theoretically undiscoverable, but in fact finite; there is only so much matter, so much energy, so much space. Anything purported to be beyond that is a null set, like a 91st parallel of latitude on a globe.

                      “Cosmos” could include a null, and an infinite, set such as can be found in mathematics.

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              • I’m know Tom bristles when comparisons of these kind of things are made with God(s), but it is no different in terms of proof. 

                Unless your Sock Goblin can ignore causality, it’s very different.

                “Proof” isn’t the right word.  We can’t prove that *we* exist, in the axiomatic sense.

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                • Why can’t it?  If I believe it can, why shouldn’t it be able to.  God seems to be able to.  And this is where Tom bristles.  I understand his question isn’t about reason and the mind and proof but more about emotion and the heart.  Which is fine, but it makes a bunch of assumptions before impugning people for not being able to move beyond their doubts and come to his conclusions or frame of reference.

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                  • Mr. Boggs, I “bristle” only at those who argue against classical theism yet remain completely unaware of the arguments for it.

                    Our mutual friend Mr. Stillwater confesses that Cahalan and I have been employing a language he does not understand.  Which is fine, but how can anyone then say he’s unconvinced by arguments made in a language he doesn’t understand?

                    That was my original point, and it’s been illustrated by this discussion.

                    The rest of what you describe is “theistic personalism”—which I would never argue here—some perception of a direct experience with God.  I may have had some; on Tuesdays I believe I have, by Thursday I’m completely convinced I have not.

                    If you’re still reading this, or if anyone is, I’ll tell you what I learned from this discussion, a point that sort of dawned on me while participating in our joint inquiry.

                    Aristotle could not have written the Psalms.

                    Aristotle was perhaps the first “classical theist.”  And although Thomas Aquinas picked up the torch of classical theism, one day he was saying Mass and had a “religious experience.”  Chesterton recounts:

                    It was to Reginald that he gave that last and rather
                    extraordinary hint, which was the end of his controversial career,
                    and practically of his earthly life; a hint
                    that history has
                    never been able to explain.
                    ...
                    His friend Reginald asked him to return also
                    to his equally regular habits of reading and writing, and following the controversies of the hour. He said with a singular emphasis,
                    "I can write no more." There seems to have been a silence; after which Reginald again ventured to approach the subject; and Thomas answered him with even greater vigour, "I can write no more.
                    I have seen things which make all my writings like straw."

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                    • “Mr. Boggs, I “bristle” only at those who argue against classical theism yet remain completely unaware of the arguments for it.”

                      I cannot speak for all, but in our talks on religion this is a powerfully unfair and unaware description of what occurs.

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                    • Well, in all honesty, as I said to Blaise at an earlier point, some of you guys are so well-versed in the language of the tallweeds you reside in, you end up talking over us laymen and then, when we try to enter a discussion, get hammered for not knowing what in the hell anyone is talking about.  Now I understand the onus is on me to go do the learnin’, and between my other life, I try.  I went to Feser’s blog and looked around a bit.  I still worry that I don’t get him because of his own comfort with terminology that is beyond me just like I’m often flummoxed reading you or Jaybird or Blaise or hell, any of the other thirty or so guys who are regulars here. 

                      But it wasn’t until you and North had your back and forth that I may have seen some light:

                      First, you said: but He is Being itself, what keeps the atoms spinning, the molecules cohering, so that we have our keyboards to type our nonsense on at this moment.

                      Therefore, if God is Being, then all sorts of logical inferences can be drawn on How Shall Man Live? and What is the Best Life?

                       I am totally down with that discussion.  I’m open to this possibility.  Where I get a bit queasy is the place where this discussion, and some of the conclusions reached by some, turn into prescriptions, not just for themselves, but for everybody else as well, just like you might get a bit chafed when those reaching the opposite conclusions, try to prescribe to you.

                      And this is where North put it rather eloquently:

                      But I’d hazard that a theology based only on what can be philosophically and logically supported by a theistically probable deity in square one would be a very light weight vehicle indeed. Certainly I agree there likely would be insufficient juice to power a Bible, maybe enough to power a small pamphlet or perhaps a thin booklet?

                      At the end of the day, I agree that asking for any sort of conclusion about your question is nearly folly.  Discussing the possibilities and the ramifications of those possibilities, not so much.

                      As to the Chesterton bit, I find it almost symbolic that your cut and paste required so much effort to actually read; as though this search for truth or insight about existence or God is not a linear or straightforward endeavor.  Thanks for the reply.

                       

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                    • Our mutual friend Mr. Stillwater confesses that Cahalan and I have been employing a language he does not understand.  Which is fine, but how can anyone then say he’s unconvinced by arguments made in a language he doesn’t understand?

                      This is disingenuous as best. I’ve read all the same ancient theologians you both cite as evidence for the deep and rich language of theism. I find them lacking. So my complaint isn’t that I don’t understand those guys – it’s that I don’t understand the language you are employing in this current debate. Primarily because on my view it’s incoherent. Patrick wants to reduce arguments justifying God as being something beyond human capability, which seems ridiculous on it’s face. You want to reduce the ‘burden of proof’ to a shared burden that excludes evidence, logical argument and conceptual entailment from the debate. Yet those are the only tools we have to determine the truth of a claim. So on my view, you want me to engage in a ‘discussion’ over the burden of proof issue without recourse to the tools normally permitted.

                      So, no, I don’t understand what you guys are saying. It’s fundamentally incoherent.

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                    • Mr. Stillwater, that you don’t understand something does not make it “fundamentally incoherent.”

                      Further, taking you at your word that you’ve read and understand the arguments of classical theism, that you would choose to debate Mr. Cahalan or my poor self instead of discussing [refuting!] Aquinas, Anselm and Aristotle is what’s fundamentally incoherent or at least foolish, per my original argument about discussion and debate.

                      WTF, dude? Why screw with Pat or me if you can refute the greatest thinkers of theism???  You’d be more famous than Hitchens or Dawkins!

                       

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                    • Tom, You’ve really lost the plot here. The initial claim was that the theist has the burden of proot. You have objected to that strenuously (STRENUOUSLY!). But yet, you now say that in order for my claims to have merit, I must refute classical theological arguments supporting the existence of God. But that means not only that you do think theists have the burden here, but that they’ve met the burden.
                      Of course, I reject that claim since I think those arguments are unsound. So in my view they haven’t met the burden. But what those arguments demonstrate is that theists admit they have the burden in the argument – that without an affirmative argument to believe in a metaphysical possibility, the belief is just unicorns orbiting Pluto.

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                    • Mr. Still, you show no evidence you know the arguments for classical theism.  If you do, your reply is that you find them unconvincing.  This is playing Immovable Object, and not fully participating in the discussion.  Anyone can play Immovable Object.

                      Neither did I ever say theism has no burden of proof.  Of course it does, and has offered some via metaphysics, a metaphysics that doesn’t include unicorns, which are irrelevant here.

                      No, I haven’t lost the thread.  Playing Immovable Object is OK in a debate, but this is a discussion.

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                  • It’s a powerful indictment, RTod, this I will admit.  Whether it applies on the whole to the Gentlemen of our League, I hope not.  I have been quite proud of the minimum of noise and the great good will exhibited in this particular discussion, and noted my appreciation in a previous comment [#69]:

                    I think y’all are doing just fine without me in these recent comments.  I think they’re great—Thrasymachus has retired to the sidelines, as he should.  Peace, brother, and to all here gathered.  This here LoOG achieves the impossible sometimes.

                    But as to the character of what happens outside the League’s hallowed halls, again, I’ll direct to Prof. Ed Feser’s blog.  A short scrolldown should provide the necessary substantiation:

                    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/

                    Feser’s on the front lines of this thing.

                    And Tod, should you want to provide the necessary substantiation for your own comment, that there is a general awareness of the arguments for classical theism, pls do.

                    Chris, my frequent foil, quite stood out as one who was clearly aware of them, way back Comment 56, on the first day of this:

                    https://ordinary-times.com/blog/2012/01/14/the-burden-of-proof/#comment-226468

                    That said, I’m with Tom on this one. We have to ways we can play this: we can approach it from a logical standpoint, or we can approach it from a more personal, sociological, historical, and psychological standpoint, where logic is not irrelevant, but not at the center. James K has chosen to take the former path (though I’m not quite sure how conjunction plays in it all). If we’re playing on that ground, Tom’s approach is the right one. What’s more, Tom has in his arsenal a host of complex, well thought out arguments, formed over the last couple millennia, and the atheist has some much less promising ones. So in a sense, the burden of proof on the atheist is at least as great as that on the theist, not because of anything related to the myriad gods posited by humans today and through history, or because of specious folk logic like proofs of negatives being more difficult (any negative can easily be restated as a positive), but because the theist has a few thousand years of good ammunition in his quill.

                    Chris chose not to participate in this, but his starting point already gave him standing.  He has acquainted himself with the discussion, the vocabulary, the language.  He does not start at the turnip truck level.

                    And lest you think those arguments are solely about the existence of God, they are not. Each says something quite important, and quite specific, about the nature of God as well. I’m thinking specifically of the various cosmological and ontological arguments. Logically, Tom and his theist brothers and sisters are at the advantage.

                    Chris’ agreement with those arguments is not in evidence, but he gets a place at the grownup table whenever he wants it, just for this.

                    As for [most] everybody else, they’ve made up for what they don’t know about classical theism [and it stands in opposition to the New Atheism] with an appreciation for the seriousness of the topic and have behaved accordingly.

                    I do not “bristle” at them.  I have all the time in the world for persons of—excuse the expression—good faith.

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      • Isn’t everyone an agnostic in this taxonomy? Any believer who entertains doubts in good faith from time to time is agnostic. Any non-believer who concedes as an intellectual matter that the existence of God is overwhelmingly improbably but ultimately unprovable is an agnostic. Richard Dawkins is, therefore, as much an agnostic as Rick Warren. Slapping the same label on both men creates a mirage of similarity in attitude towards the ultimate question which seems nearly dishonest.

        If we were going to be really honest, we’d define the issue of faith and uncertainty as a spectrum, perhaps with ultimate endpoints. We could diagram it on a scale running from a position of absolute certainty in the existence of God (if you prefer “at least one supernatural entity,”) to a position of absolute certainty in the non-existence of God. In the middle is true and equally balanced uncertainty, a claim that the existence of God is equally as likely as the non-existence of God. For ease of discussion, let’s quantify the absolute extreme theistic side as X = 100 and the absolute extreme atheistic side as X = -100.

        What I think we’d find is that among people who seriously engage the topic tend overwhelmingly to cluster at, but not on, two or possibly three points along this spectrum. Very few “believers” or “theists” would, if they were honest and sober in their self-description, put themselves at the extreme of X(100). They have doubts from time to time, but the doubts are not large, durable, nor particularly powerful. I visualise this as a cluster centered around X(95), plus or minus 4 points. Conversely, most “atheists” adopting a similar posture of sobriety and seriousness would cluster around X(-95), again plus or minus 4 points. They’re pretty darn sure there is no God, but they concede they cannot be absolutely certain.

        We could complicate but further clarify the picture with Y and Z axes — Y being the degree to which one asserts the knowability of the objectively correct position along the X axis (the degree of one’s agnosticism about agnosticism itself), and Z being the degree to which one attaches importance of the objectively correct position along the X axis to matters of importance beyond the question itself, perhaps most often morality but potentially ranging on matters of scientific inquiry, appropriate forms of government, etc. For instance, you might be at X(95) and I might be at X(-95), but we might agree that it’s very unlikely the question can ever be objectively resolved, meaning we both are at Y(-95).

        I suspect in a three-dimensional taxonomy, we’d still observe most people going near, but not all the way to, the extreme corners of the cube thus described. We’d have eight cluster points instead of two. But we really only need concern ourselves in this discussion with what I label the X axis, since that was the point originally raised.

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        • – I like what you’re doing here, bringing out the inexactness of the terms.  In my opinion, another problem with these labels and their application is the association of faith with epistemological certainty, as if they were the same thing or the former necessarily implied the latter.  For my part, I’m a person of faith, but I’m also epistemological uncertain that God exists or that God’s existence can be proved via reason.   Faith I define as a response to what one believes or suspects to be sacred; one can make the response of faith with or without certainty.

          On the other hand, the religion which I confess–Catholicism–proclaims authoritatively that certain knowledge of God’s existence can be attained by human reason.  Maybe so, but I find wanting the so-called proofs offered so far.  They rely too much on questionable philosophical presuppositions.

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        • I dont know. I think a lot of people cluster aroundthe 60-70%  (or even just off to one side of the 50%. The problem of course is that there is social pressure to inflate your degree of belief.) on both sides of the issue. The people who are at the 95% are more strident and therefore more prominent, but I doubt that most people are such strong believers. Most self described believers (that I know of) just follow the motions and just say yeah they probably believe. Few believers are so strict with the way they adhere to religious requirements that they claim apply to them that it could be best explained by inflated self reporting of belief.

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          • I confess to the susceptibility of assuming that most people are like me, an assumption that is not well-founded. Using this taxonomy, I’m right around X(-95) myself and so it’s easy and natural for me to assume that most other people are like me at least with respect to having formed a strong opinion — so it’s easier for me to understand how someone could be X(95) than how someone could be X(40).

            So yeah, absolutely. My assumption about polarization could be wrong, and there really are, as you propose, several cluster points. Or it could be a smooth continuum more or less from end to end. I’m just saying it’s important to recognize that we’re talking about a spectrum rather than stovepiped classifications.

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          • My experience with believers (defined loosely as, say, X(>20)) is that there is a small-to-medium-sized cluster around 95, trending toward 99 (though I’d actually prefer we say that the range zone around the clusters at the extremes be +/- <5, becasue I think a lot of people on both sides would put an emphasis on the last .999 of that), and a cluster around 60-70.  My experience with atheists is that they indeed cluster in one place around X(-95) with the range as described, and also trending toward 100.  Agnostics I think are pretty evenly spread anywhere between X(25) and X(-85).  Obviously, this is entirely impressionistic.

            I do want to make one emphatic point about stridency and outspokenness. Given the structure Burt sets up here, which Murali embraces, to explicitly separate certain behavioral or credal “quantities” (the extent to which folks believe this as opposed to that, or act a certain way as opposed to acting in a directly opposite way) from each other, it is remarkable to see Murali choose to assert that stridency (and I assume he would involve outspokenness to some extent in an assessment of stridency) simply tracks with the X value, rather than realizing that it could be a fourth dimension in Burt’s scheme.  It shows how deep seated that connection is in the minds of critics of atheists.  I know some very quiet X(-95)ers myself.

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              • But we can test that ‘usually’ claim, precisely by putting them on different axes and seeing what the picture looks like when we plot the one as a function of the other.  But to do that requires actually separating from each other in our minds what are in fact separate quantities.  De-linking them.  Destroying the assumption.

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    • An atheist is someone without a deity.  There are two popular definitions of agnostic; someone who doesn’t know if a deity exists or not, and someone who thinks knowledge of deities is impossible.  It is possible to be both an atheist and agnostic at the same time.

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      • Steve, someone who thinks knowledge of deities is impossible is of course going to be an agnostic, but he is not an agnostic merely in virtue that belief. Instead he is an agnostic because believing that knowledge of deities is impossible implies that they don’t have knowledge about deities. It is this latter belief (i.e. I dont know) which makes them agnostic. Someone who thinks divine knowledge is impossible just also thinks that agnosticism about God is the only rational position possible.

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        • I don’t think this is exactly right.  The inventor of the term, Huxley, stated that certain problems were not capable of a solution.  For instance, Huxley wrote of the story of the demons cast into the herd of swine that he could not with certainty say that such a thing did not happen, but that the story as related is utterly incompatible with our natural understanding of the world.  If Christianity is “correct”, and if Christianity relies to some extent on the authority and inspiration of the Gospels, and if the Gospels contain problems of this sort, is a resolution even possible?

          There is a difference between saying, “I don’t know if Jesus was the Son of God because he has not yet returned in glory” and “I don’t know if Jesus was the Son of God because what is claimed about about him doesn’t make sense.”  That’s the difference, as far as I can tell, between agnosticism in the two commonly used senses of the word.  Most people in my experience take agnosticism in the former sense.  Also in my experience, with atheists Huxley’s sense of the term is not incompatible with their sense of atheism.

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      • I’ve never heard this difference set forth, but it makes sense.   But I’m afraid you’ve opened the door rather wider than you wished, for Islam believes Allah is unknowable and fundamentally incomprehensible.   Most of Islamic scholarship (until the doors to interpretation were stupidly shut by the dogmatists) used to proceed along the lines you describe, circumscribing any definition of God from their work on how human society ought to act on what they understood to be true about him.   Quite the reverse, they said any attempt to describe God, however well-intentioned, would always be a form of blasphemy:  better to describe Allah in terms of what he was Not.

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        • Blaise, the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides used the same method, that we can begin to say what God is not, and work from negative inference.

          Maimonides was a physician in Islamic Spain, and was well-familiar with Aristotle via Islamic thinkers such as Ibn Rushd [Averroes].

          Aquinas built on the work of both men, and of course Aristotle himself.  What Aquinas said was that although God would be far beyond our ability to understand Him, our puddin’ heads can understand somewhat via analogy to what we can understand about ourselves, about man.

          For instance, love.  We cannot comprehend the infinity of what divine love would be, but we can analogize it to human love, the love of a parent for child, or in the case of Solomon’s Song of Songs, even for a lover.

          Insufficient, but it’s the best we poor humans can do.

           

           

           

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  2. JamesK, anyone can play Immovable Object.  “Your arguments do not convince me.”

    Note that I used “joint inquiry” in the original, not “debate.”  Discussion is where it’s at.  In a discussion, the Immovable Object is simply not holding up his end.

    As for comparing exploring the question of God to the physical sciences, such a method kills the discussion in its crib.

    As for my own part in these things, I argue only for the possibility of God, via the arguments of classical theism, not revelation like the Bible, nor through theistic personalism.  There are atheists who are knowledgeable enough about the arguments of classical theism, and no theist worth his salt dismisses their knowledgeable objections.

    But although such debates have some value as an exercise, in the end they leave us where we started, because one side’s purpose is not to seek truth, only error.

     

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    • I agree that “I’m not convinced” isn’t sufficient response to an argument in favour of somethign existing.  My point was that the discussion / debate / search for truth must begin with the person who wants to make a claim justifying that claim as best they can.  If the other person doesn’t find the explanation convincing then they need to explain why, mere assertion is not sufficient.

       

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        • That’s a good question but gods don’t help answer it.  After all, we’d then have to explain why there’s a god instead of no god.

          It seems to be there are only two alternatives:

          1) There was no first cause, but instead an infinite number of causes stretching backwards in time.  This leaves no room fro a creator.

          2) Something exists without being created.  You wish to label that thing God, but why not just say the matter and energy of the universe exist without being created instead, since we can be pretty sure they exist?  This doesn’t even require revising the laws of physics since they already state that matter-energy can’t be created or destroyed.

          This is the trouble with god-based explanations – they don’t explain anything.  You’re left with the same question you started with, but you now have another entity in your model of the universe taking up space.

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          • As I noted below I don’t have an issue with #1; if true it makes God not needed.  I don’t understand #2.  If 2 is an alternative to 1 — something you might call God explains how time/space/matter and energy got its start.  Kalam’s cosmological argument says only things that have a beginning (the universe) need a cause.  So if God doesn’t have a beginning, it needs no cause.  That’s why, as I see it, you need to stick with #1 in order to prove atheism.

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            • I guess I see it saying that if we’re willing to say that God always existed, thus needing no creator, why is it any different to say the universe always existed, thus needing no creator.  But I’m probably misunderstanding it.

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              • At Tom’s request I checked out Ed Feser’s blog.  And one point he drove home very hard was the difference between the easily refuted strawman cosmological argument for God (all things that exist must have a cause therefore God must caused the universe; which is refuted by “what caused God”?  and the turltling all the way down) and the harder to refute Kalam cosmological argument (all things that have a beginning have a cause; if the universe had a beginning — the big bang — it must have a cause; if God had no beginning, God needs no cause).

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                • I guess to me, we replace the word “God” with anything and say that it always existed, it necessarily will need no cause.  This, I’m guessing gets called sophistry, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply.

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                    • But it certainly could be.  And, to me, that’s where I’m OK.  It’s when we get into specifics about this God that I start to geta bit less enamored.  To call the cause of the universe God is one thing, to then extrapolate that this thing also meddles in our affairs and demands fealty and all the rest, well, I’m left with Wendell Berry:

                      The Gods are less for their want of praise.”

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    • But to have a joint inquiry, you need that to be what people have agreed to.  There was this phenomenon that people experienced as lightning, and over time people joined in ajoint inquiry that, through positing explanation and then seeking errors in those, eventually led to our current understanding of the phenomenon.  There was joint inquiry because there was a phenomenon that it was universally agreed was not understood, but yet, still there was this remarkable phenomenon.

      An assertion of some particular proposition does not incur upon others and obligation to treat the question of its truth as the subject o a joint inquiry, however.  there doesn’ have to be a joint inquiry into the existence of God; but for assertions we all encounter early in life we could all very easily go through life never having to face the question.  Rather, we encounter all kinds of real things in the world about which we could have joint inquiries, only to find that frequently we must first deal with a particular proposition about their nature, namely that it is to some extent determined by God, which propositions we are no asked to treat as the subject of a joint inquiry.  But that is indeed special pleading: we have to treat the assertion that God created lightning, or the lightning bug, as the subject of a joint inquiry itself, rather than assess it as a particular proposition that is made alongside others within a joint inquiry we can all agree is justified, about a thing we all encounter, like lightning or the lightning bug. To insist that an explanatory idea like God should be the subject of a joint inquiry is to set up the game so that question we’re exploring is answered by the very structure of the game.

      As for merely claiming that there is the possibility of a god, what do you want anyone to say, Tom?  No, there are still very, very few logically possible things whose nonexistence we can absolutely prove to a 100% certainty.   It’s stipulated in the post.  The purpose of that position can only be to derail  this discussion before it gets moving, because you know that claim just can’t really be a contested one, and that it’s one that, by and large, people don’t actually contest.

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      • This is a really horrible articulation of this problem, but it’s the best I can do at this, or likely any, hour, and I think it gets the point across.  I’ll have a joint inquiry with you into something we can both see and feel and agree exists even if we disagree about its nature, but not about just whatever idea you feel like advancing at the moment.  You could say just anything, and I’d have to give it as serious consideration as I give to why bees buzz around flowers all summer.  It’s just a nonstarter.  I don’t have to have a joint inquiry with you about whatever you feel like putting out there.

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    • This comment system, at this point, maybe be proof of the nonexistence of God, and this point. Argh.

      That said, I’m with Tom on this one. We have to ways we can play this: we can approach it from a logical standpoint, or we can approach it from a more personal, sociological, historical, and psychological standpoint, where logic is not irrelevant, but not at the center. James K has chosen to take the former path (though I’m not quite sure how conjunction plays in it all). If we’re playing on that ground, Tom’s approach is the right one. What’s more, Tom has in his arsenal a host of complex, well thought out arguments, formed over the last couple millennia, and the atheist has some much less promising ones. So in a sense, the burden of proof on the atheist is at least as great as that on the theist, not because of anything related to the myriad gods posited by humans today and through history, or because of specious folk logic like proofs of negatives being more difficult (any negative can easily be restated as a positive), but because the theist has a few thousand years of good ammunition in his quill.

      And lest you think those arguments are solely about the existence of God, they are not. Each says something quite important, and quite specific, about the nature of God as well. I’m thinking specifically of the various cosmological and ontological arguments. Logically, Tom and his theist brothers and sisters are at the advantage.

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      • Chris gets it.  There are 1000s of years of classical theistic arguments, and negating theism at the turnip truck level is what I meant by “atheists don’t have arguments.”

        There are principled atheists with legitimate objections to the classical arguments; it’s not to them I refer.  What I mean is that one cannot be a principled atheist without being aware of the classical arguments for theism, and most don’t know they even exist!

        Invoking the Flying Spaghetti Monster is an advertisement of one’s own ignorance.  The FSM works just fine for classical theism.

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      • We have to ways we can play this: we can approach it from a logical standpoint, or we can approach it from a more personal, sociological, historical, and psychological standpoint, where logic is not irrelevant, but not at the center.

        What is it about those standpoints that you (or Tom for that matter) think are helpful in terms of figuring out whether or not some kind of god exists?

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    • My problem with the whole “opening up the *POSSIBILITY*” thing is that, sure, let’s say that I concede, for the sake of the discussion, the possibility that there is a deity.

      Now what?

      How then should we live?

      And then we start talking about specific traits of the various gods that we have conceded the existence of and now we’re in a place where we have gods that care about this, gods that don’t care about that, and gods that used to believe things but don’t anymore and it’s pretty bigoted that you keep bringing that up.

      I don’t mind acknowledging the possibility of there being a teapot out there. What I mind is the fact that we go from that to discussions of pork products and how, seriously, the tea in this teapot, were you to taste it, would make you never want to eat pork again.

      For the record, however, I am 100% willing to concede the existence of a deity that you would find fairly uninteresting.

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      • JB, you skipped to “special revelation” and the Mosaic Law.  They are not on the table and it’s pointless to discuss The Burning Bush with the vocabulary on offer, the restrictions placed on the discussion before it ever starts.

        The best one could do—and we never even get onto Square One in these things—is that The Burning Bush is possible.  What it said to Moses is unknowable unless we take his word for it.

         

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        • Sure.

          Let’s take his word for it. I concede for the sake of this discussion that the burning bush is possible.

          Now what?

          What will I be asked to concede for the sake of this discussion next?

          My problem is not with conceding the possibility of a teapot. My problem is with having conceded the possibility of the teapot, I now have to concede the china pattern on this teapot, the flavor of the tea, the nature of the tea leaves, the temperature of the tea…

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          • JB, that’s Square Two, religion and faith, not mere theism.  We don’t even get to Square One in these things.  It’s possible to discuss Square Two, but we’d have to ban all those who have not graduated from Square One.  Which to your credit, you are willing [provisionally] to do.

            But this is not the forum for it, per Mt 7:6.  ;-)

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            • I don’t see how “theism” helps us, particularly… unless it is, in fact, the nose of the camel.

              Socrates talked about this.

              Why not just jump to the fun part?

              Of course the answer to that question is that the gods that are *WORTH* talking about are gods that I don’t believe in. The gods that I am willing to concede the existence of aren’t particularly interesting.

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        • we never even get onto Square One in these things

          We can get onto whatever you’d like to get onto, Tom.  Just put us on it.  I don’t think you want to, I think that’s the issue.

          And no one has to be banned for you to do it, either. That’s ridiculous.

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          • I mean, I can’t believe how frequently you imply something like that the real answers, the ones we’d all just have to close the laptops after seeing and completely reassess our worldviews, are just a bit too good for this place and you don’t have time to or even think they should be discussed in a place as sophomoric (or whatever is the issue) as this — and yet they still keep you around as a featured, and apparently valued, contributor.

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          • MichaelD, a popular conception of Jesus is Barney the Dinosaur in beard and sandals.  But Barney never would say that you shouldn’t cast your pearls before swine.  How harsh.  But that’s what Jesus said, and he was speaking explicitly of this sort of discussion.

            Another philosopher said that we should speak of the serious things seriously, and not with the temper of Thrasymachus.

            I take their advice seriously, and it’s been borne out whenever these things pop up on the internet.  Jesus said that not only will the pearls be trampled, but then they turn on you.

            There are many people angry at their former churches, angry at God even.  I certainly understand, but I don’t know how to help.  I don’t know why they hate Tim Tebow or why he makes them so angry.  He seems like a nice fellow, doing the best he can with what he was given. I’m happy for him.

            But his life is just beginning.  He’ll never be a top quarterback, and his body will ache from age 30 onward from the pounding he takes.  And he hasn’t even embarked on his personal life yet, and all the heartache that will entail.  That he’s thankful to God for all the good things so far is good: he’ll need his God even more as things sour, as they inevitably must.  You can win a thousand coin flips in a row, but eventually it comes up tails.

            I like classical theism.  It’s a place for the restless mind to engage after it gets bored with what the merest child can know.  It’s not a destination, it’s a return.

            Aristotle didn’t write the Psalms, nor could he.  To detect God with your mind is not to love Him.  Or to love your neighbor, unlovable wretch that he is.

            I think y’all are doing just fine without me in these recent comments.  I think they’re great—Thrasymachus has retired to the sidelines, as he should.  Peace, brother, and to all here gathered.  This here LoOG achieves the impossible sometimes.

             

             

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            • So if I’m reading you correctly, if I want to know that I’ve read the arguments of the thinkers you have in mind, I ought to have read Aristotle and Thrasymachus on the question.  Anyone else?

              You don’t have to be dragged into our grubby debate in order to let us know who you’re talking about per the classical theists. Because there’s not really any way to know from the phrase alone.

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      • My problem with the whole “opening up the *POSSIBILITY*” thing is that, sure, let’s say that I concede, for the sake of the discussion, the possibility that there is a deity.

        There’s an old ‘possible worlds’ argument that starts with the possibility of God: in some possible world, God exists. But since God is necessary, if God exists in any possible world, he exists in all worlds. Therefore God exists.

        One problem with the ‘God is possible’ premise is the type of possibility we’re taking about: is it metaphysical or epistemic. A metaphyisical possibility means that such a God might in principle exist. An epistemic possibility means that for all we know, God may or may not exist. There are arguments – decisive ones, in my view – that the Judeo-Christian concept of God is impossible (we all know these little arguments – the fundamental inconsistency of being both omnipotent and omniscient, for example, or between omniscience and free will, or omnipotence and logical truths, etc). But even if we grant the metaphysical possibility of God, we still need evidence to believe it.

        The epistemic possibility of God, tho, leads right into James K’s wheelhouse about burden of proof. If the issue is evidence of God, then the theist is limited to testimonies from long dead prophets and witnesses to Jesus resurrection, and ‘first mover’ regressions. The testimonies are subject to the same strain of skeptical inquiry that any other testimony is subject to, and the first mover premise is resolved ad hoc: God was his own creator. Steady state theorists of the universe wonder why that justification doesn’t apply to their theory.

        In short, the mere possibility of God doesn’t resolve any issue in the debate, since it’s possible, along the same type of reasoning, that we’re all brains in a vat. On the other hand, atheists have access to lots of tools to support their views. The evidential burden (as opposed to a cultural one I suppose) rests with the theist.

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        • This is why I prefer to discuss morality to discussing theism.

          Some of us believe in God, some of us don’t, some of us are willing to concede the possibility for the sake of argument…

          *ALL* of us, every single *FREAKING* ONE OF US, believes in a moral order. You can see it in our arguments, you can see it when we get pissed off that someone else said something contrary to their own particular moral code. We *KNOW* for a fact, that X is moral and we *KNOW* for a fact that Y is immoral.

          And the best threads involve people who have X and Y vice versa-ed.

          Exploring the why of this is interesting. Talking about god? The interesting gods are all dead.

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          • Exactly. I particularly liked your point about the teapot vs the design of the vessel, the description of it’s contents. The big problems arise when the amorphous teapot is given a specific set of properties. And drinking from it requires meeting specific conditions.

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          • “*ALL* of us, every single *FREAKING* ONE OF US, believes in a moral order.”  

            Perhaps, JB, but I didn’t get that impression from Mr. Murali’s ill-fated attempt to discuss abortion.  In fact, some correspondents were quite proud of their inconsistency, and refused to state their conception of the moral order, lest they be held to it.

            But if there is a moral order, you have touched on “natural law,” which again points back at the question of God, for such a moral order would be a reflection of His own nature.

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            • The fact that people refuse to state what they think the moral order of the universe is strikes me as far more likely to be evidence that they’ve never thought about it to the point where they’re able to verbalize it rather than evidence that they don’t believe there is one.

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              • I disagree, JB.  The modern man, or the postmodern man, whathaveyou, denies there is an objective moral order, a natural law: it’s not just that opinions on what that law may be differ, it’s that reality itself is for all purposes subjective.

                I won’t attempt

                http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/

                except to note that whatever it is, it exists.

                That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

                Yup, that’s enough for now, probably too much.  But it certainly describes what I saw on poor Mr. Murali’s post.

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                • Have you seen how they respond to such things as wealth inequality or the idea that abortion shouldn’t be on demand? Have you seen them respond to the thought that the Civil War maybe shouldn’t have been fought or that health care shouldn’t be single payer?

                  They rankle like Baptists at the thought of sprinkling.

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                • Tom, I don’t think that all that many people are really postmodernists.  I mean, they’re out there, yeah, but there’s a difference between being a moral relativist and being postmodern.

                  And one can believe in a moral order without believing that there is an objective one.  Or, like me, you can believe that an objective one exists but that it’s unknowable by our silly little minds and thus any attempt to approximate it will be, by definition, flawed.

                  I have something resembling a moral code.  I’m certain it’s not *the* moral code.  That means that if I always stick only to my code, by definition I’m going to be acting immorally sometimes.  I don’t like that, so rather than dogmatically following my own code, I push at it and question it and tear apart the assumptions and try to rebuild it from different perspectives and see what that looks like and worry if it looks substantially different.

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                  • Pat, that’s more an ad hoc collection of sentiments than a code.  Exactly what i saw in Mr. Murali’s discussions.

                    Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.

                     

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                    • It took me three days to decide whether or not I ought to be offended by this and I decided not.

                      And then I thought about it another day and I couldn’t decide exactly why I thought I should be.

                      Thanks for that, Tom. Twas an interesting introspection.

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                    • Haidt is a weepin’ willie, his copious crocodile tears weepin’ all over those Pore Persecuted Conservatives.   That man expounds upon Morality without so much as definition or defense.  What I wouldn’t give to force feed him Hume until he choked!

                       

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                    • Blaise since Jonathan Haidt explicitly enlists David Hume in support for his approach, specifically

                      We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (Hume, 1739)

                      it would be helpful if you delineated their differences for gentle readers.

                      http://dangerousintersection.org/2011/09/29/jonathan-haidt-what-the-moral-sciences-should-look-like/

                      In determining what the moral sciences should look like in the 21st century, Haidt looks to David Hume (also one of my favorite philosophers), who famously concluded that reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the passions. Haidt recommends that we continue Hume’s project by emulating him as follows:

                      1. Naturalist-Hume believed that morality is part of the natural world. Haidt agrees, urging that the natural world is proper approach, “rather than studying Scripture or and a priori logic.” It is most important to look at the world in order to do moral psychology.

                      2. Nativist-David Hume would’ve been a good Darwinian, and he felt that morals are founded on the characteristics of the human species.

                      3. Sentimentalist-Hume believed that morality is guided by personal tastes, which Haidt re-labels “moral intuitions.”

                      4. Pluralist-Hume advocated for virtue ethics rather than the two major alternatives (deontology and utilitarianism). Virtue ethics, which has its roots in Aristotle’s writings, and even some thinkers preceding Aristotle, advocates the practice of one’s social skills in order to be moral. It is a “messy” theory that will cause one to become pluralist or at least non-parsimonious, but this is a good thing. Haidt warns that we should not elevate Occam’s razor into “Occam’s chainsaw.”

                       

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              • The modern man, or the postmodern man, whathaveyou, denies there is an objective moral order, a natural law

                Tom, this doesn’t make any sense. The Hopi had (have) a moral code, as did the Yanomamo, as did the Nazzzies, the Christians, the Greeks, the Muslims, the Apache, the Maasai, the Jainists…

                ‘Natural law’, if there is such a thing, has been discovered by social progress, not undermined by it. But if natural law is what derives exclusively from the Bible or other Judeo-Christain traditions, then he’s right to reject it.

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                • Mr. Still, Aquinas makes the distinction between “general revelation” [natural law, which is accessible by reason] and “special revelation” [the Bible, God speaking directly to man, etc.].  The latter is Square two, and off the table here.  Hell, we haven’t even stepped onto Square One, nor are we likely to.

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                  • Not to beg all the questions against you here Tom, but I’d say that ‘general revelation’ reveals a logically coherent set of principles that provide a compete set of moral prescriptions – like what Patrick described. But what are we ‘divining’? It’s the old puzzle from Plato: is it right because God said it, or did God say if because it’s right?

                    Obviously, I opt for the second of the two choices. The correctness of a moral principle exists prior to the word of God, and independently of the existence of God. I’m really not sure what role God plays in any of this.

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                    • All accurate & true re natural law, Mr. Stillwater, and well put.  The natural law—if there is one—certainly existed before The Burning Bush and “revelation.”

                      That a natural law even exists is largely rejected in this [post?]modern age.  I’d be happy enough that natural law be Square One.  I could discuss that to the end of my days and be thoroughly occupied.

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              • Jaybird,

                You frequently talk about the moral order of the universe.  Can I ask a question about your idea of this?  Not about your views on what it’s contents are, but just its parameters.

                Consider a light-year-cube (or less if necessary) of deep space somewhere that we are, for the purpose of argument, absolutely certain contains absolutely no sentient beings – nothing that can have any experience whatsoever.  Nothing but gamma rays and a bit of dust.

                Does a moral order obtain in that space while it contains only that?

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                • One of my axioms is that “choice” is the smallest atomic unit of “morality”. Between X and Y.

                  If there’s nothing in this space but vacuum, it seems odd to say that it’d be outside of the physical order of the universe, right? It seems similarly odd to say that this space would be outside of the moral order.

                  (I would say that, similar to the physical order, that nothing would be happening in this space. At best, I think we’d be able to say that waves could still be transmitted *THROUGH* it.)

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                    • It would at least have to have the potential for twoness and twoness creating fourness unless we’re stipulating stuff like “this is a universe exactly like ours except totally different at a fundamental level”.

                      At which point… well, sure. I’ll concede pretty much anything for the sake of discussion but I’d be most interested in seeing how this moves us from here to there.

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                    • Well, if it did, then we could say the same thing about morality. Even in a universe where there were no people, we could still sensibly talk about what right action consisted of even if there was no one capable of doing it. If the moral rightness of an action fundamentally consisted of an action perormed by a rational being having certain features (good intentions, good consequences, or being rights respecting or something) then the goodness or rightness of those actions would consist of those features whether or not there was any instantiation of such actions or whether there was any being even capable of performing those actions.

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                  • So the moral order in that space would be something like “When and if any choice ever populates this space, this space will be a space where the moral facts that emerge from that choice will be true facts, like any other space.”

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                    • [Insert your account of how or whether choice (or whatever else) brings about “morality” (as you put it) there.]

                      What I’m asking you is whether the moral order of the space without sentient material is, roughly “This space will be a space in which [that] will occur as it does in other spaces where it does in fact occur, when or if in fact this space is populated by choice (or whatever elseis required to bring about “morality” (as you put it).”

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                    • I mean, that feels to me like asking “could fire exist in a vacuum”. Well… no. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the oxidation of wood, say, is something dismissable. There are a lot of things that make a campfire possible.

                      The fact that you couldn’t make s’mores in a vacuum in space doesn’t demonstrate a whole lot.

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                    • JB, I’m trying to demonstrate anything. I’m trying to understand what kind of thing it is you have in mind when you talk about the moral order of the universe (the entire universe, no less!).  The universe is pretty much everywhere, not just here, so to understand that I feel I need to explore what it would be not just here, where it’s like this (where we could easily just talk about the moral order of human life if we wanted to), but also over there, where it’s quite different.  And so that’s what I’m doing.  I’m not trying to dismiss the idea.

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                    • The moral order of that cube in space is the one you bring to it.   The molecules forged in the hearts of the stars in that cube obey the laws of physics.

                      Morality’s laws, unlike gravity’s laws, presume free will might possibly produce different outcomes from the same initial conditions. Furthermore, we are asked to submit these outcomes to some black box function which would then return a value judgment.  If the actors were only to behave “morally”, (a term I don’t accept, since morality is what I won’t do and ethics are the rules which are applied in the black box function) we would be able to reverse engineer the rules in the black box.

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                    • , so stipulated.   Moral agency.

                      ki yodea elohim, ki, bayowm a-kalakem mimmenu, wanipqahu enekem, wihyitem kelohim yodae tow’b wara.

                      This God knows, on the day you eat it, your eyes will open and you will be like gods, aware of good and evil.

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  3. A few points:

    1. The question of atheism vs theism is a bit loaded if you think the option is No God vs Jehovah vs Krishna vs Thor vs FSM. The question is whether it is No God vs ~No God

    2. Occam’s razor is problematic if you start applying it to things outside the empirical sciences. It is also easy to misapply it too quickly. The law of conjunction mmay well apply to any existing object, butit doesnt translate well into theoretical simplicity. God, according to most modern day conceptions, is not a material kind of Being

    3. We also have to be careful about what we mean by God. Some people, when they talk about God, talk about beings like Krishna and Thor and Baal and Jehovah. Others think that God is the universe or all of reality or the entire multiverse or even logical space. It seems easy to scoff at things like nature or the sun or logical space being called God, but there have been religions whicch have worshiped these entities/concepts as God. And at least some of them may possess the attributes we normally attribute to God. Also, God doesn’t have to be humanoid. Think Cthulu and Yog Sothoth.

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    • 1 – I disagree, each god / pantheon is a separate hypothesis and should be treated separately.

      2 – True, Occam’s Razor needs to be used with care.

      3 – Yes, definitions are very important and I skimped on that in this piece.  I think once we get to talking about more abstract gods the question becomes what does it mean to be a god, and why does it matter whether something is classified as a god or not.

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      • Exactly to your #3.  I can call my coffee cup God or even name it something like “wubbledoo” and claim that it is God.  I can even say that nature is God if I define it strictly as that which is itself in nature.  The problem comes when I somehow take what appears to be order in nature and then trailer in all the other baggage, e.g. virgin births, miracles, entities transcendent to the universe, football loving deities, and then claim that because we can agree on some sense of order in nature means we have to swallow all the accompanying baggage, too.

        This goes back to your feminist bank teller example.  When religions start to get very particualr about the nature of their Gods, they start to pile on the additional layers of specificity that start to make the probability of such a thing less and less.  And having followed Mr. Van Dyke in many of these discussions, it is why I think he leaves “God” to a very vague concept (at least in these forums, he may have a much more specific model in mind personally).  It’s definitely more probable that something very vague and amorphous with unkown qualities and intentions exists than one with long, white hair who impregnates humans, talks through bushes, and revels in the Broncos success.

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        • It’s definitely more probable that something very vague and amorphous with unkown qualities and intentions exists than one with long, white hair who impregnates humans, talks through bushes, and revels in the Broncos success.

          Who the hell are the broncos? No, God definitely wants the Newzealand All-Blacks to win. (not like those pussy Australian Wallabies)

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        • Exactly to your #3.  I can call my coffee cup God or even name it something like “wubbledoo” and claim that it is God.  I can even say that nature is God if I define it strictly as that which is itself in nature.

          This leads naturally to Ignoticism, which rejects the whole question of “does a god exist” as being too vague to even be debated.  This is a respectable position, though I tend not to call myself an Ignostic because I think 90% of the time we can come to an intelligible definition of a god without doing much heavy lifting.  Since I’m not a philosopher I tend to work on the common understandings of words rather than trying to nail definitons down in an ultra-robust way.

          Still, you and Murali are right that there are special cases where god may not mean what most people think of when they hear the word god.  In those special cases then I would suggest that Ignosticism, rather than atheism is the correct first position to take.

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  4. “I shall venture to add an observation, that the argument a priori has seldom been found very convincing, except to people of a metaphysical head, who have accustomed themselves to abstract reasoning, and they could ever admit of any other disposition? So dangerous is it to introduce this idea of necessity into the present question! and so naturally does it afford an inference directly opposite to the religious hypothesis!

    But dropping all these abstractions, continued PHILO, and confining ourselves to more familiar topics, I shall venture to add an observation, that the argument a priori has seldom been found very convincing, except to people of a metaphysical head, who have accustomed themselves to abstract reasoning, and who, finding from mathematics, that the understanding frequently leads to truth through obscurity, and, contrary to first appearances, have transferred the same habit of thinking to subjects where it ought not to have place. Other people, even of good sense and the best inclined to religion, feel always some deficiency in such arguments, though they are not perhaps able to explain distinctly where it lies; a certain proof that men ever did, and ever will derive their religion from other sources than from this species of reasoning.” -hume, dialogues concerning natural religion

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  5. There are two scales here.

    Mine and yours. A rock that may be more than sufficient to tip your scale may not be sufficient to tip mine. You could say “hey, I had a religious experience!!!” and that would be *MORE* than enough to get you to say that you’ve seen God and thus know that God exists.

    I hope you understand how this rock that weighs a ton for you seems but a pebble to me. (For the record, I don’t take your disagreement with my atheism personally.)

    My problem comes when folks say something like “Hey, I believe in God (so far so good) and I speak to him regularly (fair enough, gotta talk to someone), and He has said to me (uh-oh) that you need to stop eating bacon (sure he did).”

    I don’t mind when you believe in God and use this relationship, or whatever it is, to become a better person, to explore the mine that is your own soul, to flourish, and to otherwise become the best dang person you can possibly be. That’s awesome. More power to you.

    My problem comes when your conversations with God involve how I need to start/stop doing something. How I need to not marry my life partner of X years. How I need to not drink a glass of wine. How I need to not read a particular book or watch a particular movie or vote for a particular politician.

    For the life of me, this reads to me like little more than “I have an opinion, but I am pretty sure that you won’t be swayed by ‘I have an opinion!’ so I am going to say that *GOD* has this opinion and you had best listen because I speak on His behalf.”

    If God is something (or someone) that you use to figure out who you are, then that’s wonderful and I hope you (and He) figure it out.

    If God is something (or someone) that you use to tell me to stop eating bacon, then that’s indistinguishable from you attributing your own damn opinions to something that I don’t believe in in the hopes that I’ll change my mind. Let’s agree on this, if we can: that’s not friggin’ likely. Also, the sheer number of politicians and religious leaders found with amazing amounts of pork products in their refrigerators are doing a great deal of harm to your moral intuitions. (Maybe you should tell *THEM* to ease off the bacon instead of telling me to.)

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    • Mmm.  This is good Jaybird, it’s just not totally on-point Jaybird.  We can have the discussion about His existence without staking to it claims on each other that (separately) we might think the outcome will bring into existence.  We can check those consequences at the door for the purpose of argument.  In my experience, even when this is done really throughly and enthusiastically and earnestly by both sides, both sides still remain very invested in their side, and it’s still a hot time, and a good time if people are in it for the invigorating experience of a good debate, and not  for defending against a threat to an idea that an entire intellectual life or moral worldview is dependent upon.  That doesn’t always happen, though.

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      • That’s the thing, though. There is, fundamentally, a disconnect between the two positions that is fairly well represented by the “WHO HAS THE BURDEN OF PROOF” game.

        At this point in my life, I’d rather come out and say “I don’t believe, here are the best arguments I’ve seen for why I should believe, here’s why they aren’t sufficient” and then leave it at that.

        On a pragmatic level, there’s also a problem where I know a number of folks for whom belief in God is something that gives them great comfort, makes them happier, and perhaps even makes them better. Why in the world would I want to argue to get them to change their minds? Let’s face it: the folks for whom God provides justification for them to be spiteful people aren’t going to have their minds changed by my arguments. The folks whose minds are most likely to be changed by my arguments are the thoughtful and exploring types whose lives probably *ARE* improved by the addition of a deity.

        At the end of the day these arguments, most likely, will harm the folks I like the most, do nothing for the folks I find most irritating, and if they change any minds at all, they will (let’s face it) most likely only accellerate the process for the folks most likely to come to that conclusion anyway.

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        • Yeah, no, it has to be a pretty specific set of circumstances for this to be a really positive exercise.  Everyone has to go in with their eyes open about what’s going to be going on.  You don’t want people to just stumble into a discussion like this unprepared.

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    • @Jaybird  – You write:

      For the life of me, this reads to me like little more than “I have an opinion, but I am pretty sure that you won’t be swayed by ‘I have an opinion!’ so I am going to say that *GOD* has this opinion and you had best listen because I speak on His behalf.”

      This is probably true in most, conceivably all case, but it’s also conceivable that God has given particular people insight into the dos and donts of life and commanded them to spread the word.  The difficulty, as you mention, is that there’s no way to know with certainty that this is what’s really happening.  And even if we assume it to be the case, we arrive at this assumption because the dos and donts proposed make sense to us in some way or another.

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      • The problem is that there are really only two things that “God” tends to say through “His” proxy in these cases, though.

        “This thing that you think is a matter of taste is actually a matter of morality!”

        “This thing that you think is a matter of morality is a matter of morality but you need to come to a completely different conclusion!”

        This tends to give the game away.

         

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  6. I find the notion of a universe that exists without a God of some sort to be uncompelling. Bad narrative. This is not a good reason to believe in God, but it’s better than any reason not to believe in God. If anyone finds worlds with and without a God to be equally compelling, then that argument doesn’t work. Ditto for Jaybird’s I-talk-to-Him example.

    This, to me, is what makes the entire notion of good arguments and bad arguments about whether God exists or does not exist to be… bizarre. It’s like arguing the best kind of bear (black bear, obviously).

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  7. Be careful when you cite Occam’s Razor, because it was originally stated as a pro-religion argument.

    Even its modern form doesn’t end the debate; it just changes the question from “did God create the universe” to “could the universe have come into existence without God”, which winds up being the same question.

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    • I agree this is one place where James left it a little thin.  He begs off defining complexity, but for him, how Occam’s Razor cuts depends entirely upon whether whatever it is we are positing as God scores as relatively (or highly) complex or simple according to that definition.  This goes back in part to the problem of frequently not even defining what the thing is that we are discussing before getting into the weeds (“God is the thing that caused the universe” is a formulation in which God’s existence can only be denied by asserting that the universe has no cause – which is an entirely viable claim, but that is certainly a simpler formulation of God than many others might be). But it also depends upon exactly what would count as simple or complex for the purpose of Occam’s Razor.  I think we need to hear more on that from James.

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  8. ~snarky theist response~

    Position:  God exists.

    Assumption:  God does not exist.

    Observations:

    If God does not exist, then the purpose of life is nothing but relentless and selfish pursuits for self gratification and procreation.

    Contradiction:  I refuse to believe that our world is nothing but a collection of beings relentlessly and selfishly pursuing self gratification and procreation.

    Thus, the position that there is no God must be false, because it leads to a contradictory position.

    Conclusion:  There must be some God.

    ~end snarky theist response.~

    (Note:  The same style of argument works well for the statement that Santa Claus exists.)

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      • On a serious note, that is a horrible line of reasoning.  Sadly for me it’s the best I have on the whole God/No God thing.  I can’t provide better evidence then faith.

        But I also don’t use my faith as a justification for anything other than itself.  I don’t do Good Deeds to please God, and I don’t admonish your Bad Deeds because I fear for your soul.  God gave me a pretty solid brain and if there’s something you shouldn’t be doing, I can use my God-Given brain to come up with a better set of reasons to prohibit it than just “God Says”.

        If I can’t, then either God didn’t make my brain well enough for that kind of reasoning or maybe God doesn’t have a position, or God doesn’t want me to be the one to tell you that.

        Rest Assured if it is really bad, someone else will give you a better reason not to do it.

         

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        • +10

          Teacher,

          As an atheist, I want to pause to thank you and applaud you for your seemingly perfectly calm, and wonderfully honest open embrace of (what I take to be) the main point of faith – which is faith.

          People who don’t have faith in the existence of God, and who are interested in the question (and who might have a hunch about the answer), engage in this logical hurly-burly about the question with each other.  It can be fun, it can be stressful.  It’s rarely calm or serene.

          Those who actually have faith about the answer can engage in the hurly-burly, but I’ve always imagined that it must be of little consequence, like a formal logical game rather than a discussion of the actual question. (It seems like that to me at times and I am among the faithless and interested – but what can I do about that?  I’m faithless and interested.)

          You acknowledge that reliance on faith to support a proposition is something less than an argument that is likely to convince others to adopt that position.  And you have (what seems to me to be the on-point response) to that concern, which is that that, too, is not the point of faith.  The point of faith is to help you decide what to believe in for yourself.  And as a justification for a belief under those constraints, it is up to only you whether it is sufficient, meaning that anywhere outside of your own head, it is sufficient (again, to determine only this: what you believe).  I myself have certain beliefs that are justified only by faith, if only this one: my belief that among my beliefs, certainly one somewhere in my head must be justified only by faith.  There is nothing wrong with it.

          But nevertheless, the question of God’s existence is one that has become of interest to people for whom faith is not a sufficient reason to settle on an answer (and this goes for those inclined to either answer: not all believers have faith).  So the hurly-burly sessions are scheduled and attended.

          And in those hurly-burly sessions, it is pretty well conceded by all sides that, for the purpose of the discussion, faith is indeed not a sufficient reason for one to conclude that God exists.  Otherwise, again, no hurly-burly session.  So in the sessions, what tends to happen is either that people will deny that faith is a reason that they believe the way they do (because it would undermine their ability to maintain that they think their belief is justified by reasons other than faith), or the assertion is made, in order to balance the playing field, that, while their beliefs are in part supported by faith, so are those of those who have an opposing belief (and sometimes those actual beliefs are misportrayed in order to make that assertion more tenable).  It is unfortunate, but then that’s the hurly-burly for you. (On balance, I still like the hurly-burly – quite a bit, in fact.)

          But you have faith.  It is the basis for your beliefs.  The hurly-burly doesn’t matter to you (maybe it’s of interest to you, maybe not), because reasons beyond faith don’t matter to you – and that’s because you have the domain where the beliefs for which faith is a sufficient reason reside rightly defined: your own brain.  It doesn’t matter to you if to state that faith is sufficient reason for your beliefs have some consequences for whether the reasons you give have any effect in convincing others that your beliefs would be justified as their beliefs.  Because that is not the purpose for your reasons.  And so you say: “I can’t provide better evidence than faith.”

          And I appreciate it a lot.

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          • In the last substantial paragraph there, let me make sure it is clear: I’m saying that faith is your reason for belief as to the specific question being discussed here, not that all your beliefs have only faith as their reason (which you make a point of saying in strong way).  It wasn’t clear in the language (“your beliefs” just stood in for “your belief on this particular question”), but that was my meaning throughout.

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    • Actually, Teacher, that it’s in man’s nature to seek meaning is the beginning of the discussion “Why is there something instead of nothing?”  It’s entirely proper to start with that which we can know—that man has a consciousness that asks “why”—and attempt to work forward from that.  The theory of “Mind” is interconnected with the question of God.

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      • Then your interlocutor has not accepted an appropriate structure for argument. Dialogue becomes difficult and degenerates into contradiction. Opinions polarize, emotions rise, understanding diminishes.

        In argument, there is necessarily a burden of proof. That burden of proof rests either with the proponent, or with the opponent. It cannot be “shared.” If there is no burden of proof, an argument is not underway. It might be a lecture, it might be a conversation, it might be any number of other things that we might like — but the subject here is persuasion.

        Not all statements are argumentative, but some statements are misunderstood as such when they are not so intended. The appropriate response to an unwanted argumentative statement from one’s interlocutor is a clarification that the purpose of the original statement was explication, not persuasion, ideally accompanied by license to disagree. Else, the interlocutor is likely to assume that argument had been solicited. 

        But one should be quick to forgive another for assuming that a given statement is offered as argument. Argument is so useful a device for reaching truth that it has become nearly instinctual, so deeply ingrained into our culture has it become. The problem arises from the fact like other kinds of instinctual behaviors — sex, running, speaking — we all possess at least minimal ability to engage in this activity untrained, but practice, training, and experience elevates its quality considerably.

        I love argument. It is small-d democratic, deeply honest, and the vehicle by which a strong community of independent minds is created. Argument requires both parties to submit to the possibility that the other party may have a superior card to play in the exchange. It requires both parties to accept that their counterpart brings intellectual value to the table. Properly deployed, it is one of the best intellectual devices yet devised to weed out incorrect concepts from one’s pursuit of truth.

        I despise mere contradiction. It breeds tribalism and balkanization of communities, erodes the value of truth, forecloses good faith, obstructs sometimes-necessary compromise, inhibits the formation of consensus, and a steady diet of it is likely ultimately physically as well as psychically unhealthy for the addict. I deeply regret the fact that the popular culture of our nation has substituted contradiction for argument, volume for logic, and repetition for evidence.

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        • Mr. Likko, we watch too much Law & Order and don’t read enough Plato.  The adversarial method is not the only way to truth, in fact it’s a poor one.

          The winner of a debate is the one who has formally made his case better and more error-free than the other, not the one who got to the the truth.  A flawed argument can hold greater truth than the unambitious negative one.

           

          Proving the other guy wrong—or simply scoring debating points on some facets of his larger argument—may win debates, but debate—the sophistic arts—are unconcerned with truth.

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          • I write of argument, not rhetoric, sophistry, or even advocacy. Agreed that this is not the only vehicle on the road to truth. But I believe that it is a useful and often optimal one — when all parties engage according to appropriate rules. The productive argumentor is ready, willing, and able to discard an adopted position that is demonstrated to be inferior.

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            • Inferior to what, Burt?  Implicit here is that both sides are making affirmative arguments, not just one playing Immovable Object.

              Of course debate—the sophistic arts—are unconcerned with truth!  Because demolishing the internal inconsistencies of the New Atheists doesn’t prove there’s a God either, although it wins the debate.

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              • The “inferior” to be discarded is an argument that does not withstand the process of argumentation. If my argument is inferior to yours, then yours is superior to mine. If I am arguing in good faith and en eye towards the truth, then upon your demonstration of the superiority of your argument I will abandon my position and adopt yours.

                We risk falling into a mere exchange of contradiction, when it becomes difficult to determine which of P or ~P is superior to the other. Good faith argumentors will understand that their discussion has reached such an impasse and agree to disagree. Advocates and sophists will continue beating the horse into glue well after that point has been reached.

                IMO, an argument about of the existence or non-existence of God is doomed to reach that point and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard every argument there is on both sides, argued both skillfully and poorly. Consequently, such discussions are only rarely of interest to me anymore, although I sporadically enjoy doing some weeding with those whose opinions differ from mine to search for common ground, even if the only common ground we find is a mutual admission of ultimate uncertainty (I’m at -95, your’re at 95, which means that we’re both willing to admit that we each may turn out to be wrong despite being pretty damn sure that we each are right).

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                • Mr. Likko, without an appreciation of the arguments of classical theism, the discussion might as well be about quantum physics.  Prove quantum physics to me.  In this comments section.

                  The Flying Quantum Spaghetti Monster.

                  You’re quite right about why these things can progress no further than, “I reject your opinion.”  At the turnip truck level, quantum physics can fare no better than the realm of opinion either  I personally have never seen a quantum physic, nor any evidence of one.

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                  • Is your contention with this analogy that other people have proved the existence of God, or that Quantum physics has not been proven?

                    Or just that if Burt is not conversational in a very advanced science discipline he has no place questioning you?

                    I’m confused.

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                    • Mr. Kelly, I’m reiterating my previous:

                      There are principled atheists with legitimate objections to the classical arguments; it’s not to them I refer.  What I mean is that one cannot be a principled atheist without being aware of the classical arguments for theism, and most don’t know they even exist!

                      Without the proper homework done, it’s impossible to discuss either theism or quantum physics beyond calling it a matter of opinion, not argument.  The turnip truck level.

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                  • I couldn’t possibly undertake to “prove quantum physics” as I am not even remotely qualified. Fortunately, I don’t have to; people with the skills, training, and experience in that field have already done this. I only have to indicate why it is reasonable for me, a non-expert, to rely upon their expertise with reference to credentials, peer review, experimental demonstration of predictive power, etc.

                    Such experts indicate that you have seen, and are at this very moment as you read my remarks seeing, evidence of quantum physics not only at work but usefully exploited, in the form of your computer functioning as evidence that electrons jump from one location to another under appropriate circumstances, such as have been created on a microprocessor.

                    Similar kinds of assurances of expertise to opine upon the workings of the supernatural are, by the very definition of the supernatural, necessarily lacking. (This does not mean that those possessing credentials, experience, etc. in the study of the ultimately unknowable realm of the supernatural haven’t made significant contributions to society, particularly as regards morality.) At the end of the day, you either buy the cosmological argument or you don’t — and you either buy it on faith or reject it on skepticism, which may (I’m not sure of this) be simply a matter of unconscious preference.

                    Should you possess this faith and I not, we nevertheless need not foreclose the meaningful exchange of ideas between intellects, nor the mutual regards of friendship. Of such exchanges between non-identical parties is a pluralistic society made. ¡Viva la pluralisma! And to paraphrase the elsewhere referenced-Stephen Hawking, that is all I have to say.

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                  • If what you want is for people to say “we use Argument From Authority as our basis for a belief in quantum physics”, then fine.  That’s going to be true of nearly everyone you meet.

                    The thing is, we don’t have to.  We can go study the theoretical predictions made by quantum physics, we can study the experiments performed to test those predictions, we can make our own judgements as to the validity of those experiments and the analysis of the data gathered, and we can–in potential, if not necessarily in actuality–conduct our own experiments repeating those of previous researchers to verify their results.  We rely on Argument from Authority because we have seen extensive research by that Authority, and we could reproduce that research if we needed, so reliance on Authority in this case is reasonable.

                    (side note:  this is why Climategate is such a problem.  Not so much for the climate-change research, but for the fact that it undermines people’s belief in the validity of the research work being done on their behalf.  If the Authorities who’ve been doing this work are lying about what they did and what they found, then who can trust any of it?)

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          • Proving the other guy wrong—or simply scoring debating points on some facets of his larger argument—may win debates, but debate—the sophistic arts—are unconcerned with truth.

            Not to be too adversarial :) but I don’t think this is right. Proving the other guy wrong goes a long ways to establishing the truth. In fact, it’s a necessary part of it. if your complaint is that too often debate takes the shape of a sporting event, then you have a point. But that’s not the fault of ‘adversarial debate’: it’s an essential part of it.

            But I also think that the point of adversarial debate is to have your beliefs challenged and to defend them. If you take that out of the equation, then why engage in the types of discussion we often have here at the league? In your case, I wonder to what extent your beliefs have changed as a result of discussions with liberals or libertarians. I know in my own case that they have changed, and precisely due to adversarial challenge. If yours haven’t, then I think you’re probably viewing differing view merely adversarial, rather than being views that can be independently defended. And that’s not a very good way to honor the truth.

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            • In an attempt to discern between philosophy and sophistry, plato distinguishes between argument and dialectic:
              “Str. They cross-examine a man’s words, when he thinks that he is saying something and is really saying nothing, and easily convict him of inconsistencies in his opinions; these they then collect by the dialectical process, and placing them side by side, show that they contradict one another about the same things, in relation to the same things, and in the same respect. He, seeing this, is angry with himself, and grows gentle towards others, and thus is entirely delivered from great prejudices and harsh notions, in a way which is most amusing to the hearer, and produces the most lasting good effect on the person who is the subject of the operation. For as the physician considers that the body will receive no benefit from taking food until the internal obstacles have been removed, so the purifier of the soul is conscious that his patient will receive no benefit from the application of knowledge until he is refuted, and from refutation learns modesty; he must be purged of his prejudices first and made to think that he knows only what he knows, and no more.” the sophist

              In the context of the current discussion, exploring the implications of your opponent might be more fruitful than a head-on argument for (a)theism?

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              • If the question is an objective one – who has the burden of proof? – then I think understanding the implications of your opponents beliefs are irrelevant. You identify the terms, set the parameters, then argue.

                If you’re saying that refuting your opponent isn’t sufficient to change their minds, then I’d wonder why they’re engaging in the debate to begin with.

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                • It’s probably some of both.
                  Defining the terms and setting the parameters constiutes about 90% of plato; and judgong by this thread it’s the main substance of metaphysical dispute.
                  If we’re arguing about policy, then polemics are important.
                  If we’re arguing about God, then such a procedure is likely to be unsatisfactory.

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            • Mr. Stillwater, proving me wrong doesn’t make you right.  Finding the flaws in my argument is merely finding the flaws, not an affirmative search for the truth.

              The testing and honing process has value, of course.  But gravity existed as a truth—as a reality—long before Newton came up with a satisfactory explanation for it.  Whatever refutations were made of previous explanations had value, but brought us no closer to the truth.

              There’s a testing process even in discussions, but that’s the sole purpose of debate, and that is insufficient for our needs.

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              • Mr. Stillwater, proving me wrong doesn’t make you right.

                No. But by definition, it makes you wrong. Then we move on to the next argument, and the next. And I present my argument in support of the competing view. In an argumentative framework, the one you’re rejecting here, proving one side is wrong constitutes ‘winning’ just so long as the other sides view isn’t refuted. We’ve increased the number of false beliefs. We may have even increased the number of true beliefs.

                I mean, this isn’t new stuff here, or trivial, or simply rhetoric. It’s how knowledge is gained, how true statements are distinguished from from false ones. It’s not binary, of course. In interesting discussions, things are a bit more nuanced. But if the majority of relevant evidence supports P over Q (let alone a decisive refutation) yet one party still insists on believing Q, that person needs to provide a further account of why they do. If they can’t, then that belief isn’t justified, even in the most minimal understanding of that word. (Tho a person is still entitled to hold that opinion.)

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                • Mr. Still, by “competing view,” you’re describing a discussion, not a debate.  The burden of proof is shared—well, not shared, but assumed by both parties.

                  “Excellent.”

                   

                  If you look at Plato’s dialogues, there is certainly testing of ideas.  This is part of the process, part of the whole.  Debate is simply cordoning off the testing part; there is no whole.

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          • Gentlemen, I demur.  Classical theism is not evangelical.  Nobody’s trying to convince anybody of anything—it’s a philosophical attempt to explain reality.  If you’re not interested in listening to the discussion—the millennia of arguments for classical theism, as Chris well-observes—then you’re not participating in the discussion, just throwing rocks at it from the gallery.

            By contrast, the “evangelicals”—that is, those seeking converts to their religion—aren’t classical theists at all, and are not using reason as their method.  It’s usually a “theistic personalism” that appeals to all the other dimensions of man, the human being: his feelings, his “search for meaning,” his gestalt.

            Chesterton: “Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of ‘touching’ a man’s heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it.”

            So who are the true men of violence, those quietly discussing the question of God, or those throwing rocks from the gallery?  It seems to me that the discussion doesn’t exist in the first place without the former group, and therefore the latter has no right to squat down in the middle of it and dictate new rules of engagement.

             

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              • KenB, JamesK dragged me into this in his OP.  Believe me, I’m staying at as long an arm’s length as possible, in fact, arguing yr point, that even a Square One is not achievable here.

                And since I’m not an evangelist for classical theism, I have no desire to hit anyone over the head with it.  [See Chesterton, cited elsewhere in this thread.]  Note I haven’t actually mentioned any of the arguments for classical theism, only noted that they exist, should anyone be sincerely curious.

                Per Kirk’s cite of Plato, just pointing out the 90% of the argument, its proper foundations, is heady enough of a task.

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          • Gentlemen, you flatter me.  I can only assume you’re feeling burdened by the responsibility of keeping the conversations flowing here and are trying to trick me into shouldering more of the load.

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  9. For the sake of the discussion, I will arbitrary define “god” as “some entity, possessing the characteristics of (a) awareness of self, (b) purpose, (c) knowledge exceeding the computational capabilities of the universe (d) the ability to ignore the laws of the physical universe, including causality”.

    In science, the best truth fact discovery mechanism humanity has yet produced, the rule is different – if you wish to allege something exists it is up to you to prove it.

    As edited, I agree with this statement.  As originally stated, I don’t.

    If you’re talking about inquiry into the empirically measurable universe, this is a fine approach.  It has no relevance at all into the question of, say, “is this work of art a good one?”

    Empiricism works great when you can measure stuff.  If you can’t measure stuff, it’s the wrong tool to use; the assumptions are not relevant.

    Generally speaking, if you want proof, stick to math.  If you want observable knowledge, stick to science.  If you want truth, you need to use philosophy, those other two tools don’t cut the mustard.

    The Law of Conjunction

    The Law of Conjunction does not apply.  We have no basis, whatsoever, to make any probability claim regarding the existence of an entity as described in the first paragraph.  Since the entity is not bound by the rules of the universe, we similarly cannot say that adding this entity, conceptually, to the set of “things that exist” affects the probability at all.  Let me borrow your example:

    “There is a woman named Mary.  Is it more likely that John is 1: A bank teller or 2: A feminist bank teller?”

    We don’t even yet have in evidence that John exists; the question is nonsensical – the correct answer to the question is “3 – we have no way of knowing with any probability”.  We can say that it is more probable that Mary is a bank teller than a feminist bank teller because Mary is an object in the observable universe, who is bound by the laws of the universe, including the laws of probability.

    God, using our working definition, is not bound by the laws of probability.

    The Law of Non-Contradiction You see, the argument used above to prove God’s existence will work for the vast majority of gods.

    Mis-applied.  The Law of Non-Contradiction can be used to question the validity of a particular religion, sure.  It doesn’t have any application to the existence of a paranormal entity.

    If you want to draw an analogy from mathematics, the existence (or lack thereof) of the divine is analogous to the parallel postulate in geometry, while the laws of physics, the laws of probability… those are the other axioms of the Universe.

    You can’t prove or disprove the parallel postulate using the other axioms in geometry, although lots of mathematicians tried for a long, long time.  It is either true or it’s not, and whether it is or not gives you different geometries.

    Another example, from philosophy: you can’t prove or disprove the law of the excluded middle; either it holds and your logic is bivalent… or it doesn’t and you’re ternary or dialectic or something else.

    You can’t prove or disprove the existence of an entity that is not subject to the laws of the universe, using the laws of the universe.

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    • I like/hate it when a comment like this expresses exactly what I wanted to get at but more artfully than I can.

      Personally, my understanding of faith changed when I read Fear and Trembling.  Even Anselm said “Therefore do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.”  Faith is absurd.  By necessity.  I stand with Kierkegaard in amazement at Abraham’s faith.  As for belief, that word originally meant something much closer to ‘love’ (be-lieben) than an abstract acknowledgement of truth.  My belief doesn’t rest on burdens of proof, it is a movement of my heart and my soul.  Upstream, Tom talks about square 1.  For me, it is this absurd step (Dr. Jones on the ledge) that is square 1.  You can’t proceed without the leap of faith.  Doctrine, specifics, etc. (which can be heated and contentious) can only take place in the spirit of faith.

      Which is not to say morality cannot be discussed without the leap of faith.  When it comes to the moral structure of society, recourse to God should not be necessary.  For, as per Anselm, through belief comes understanding.  Which should be used to carry the burden of proof.

      I know the above will turn a lot of people off.  It will seem like I am trying to use faith as a shield to rational examination.  I am not.  I find all of the above arguments fascinating and try to grapple with them in my own way.  What I offer is simply my take on the issue.

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      • I like/hate it when a comment like this expresses exactly what I wanted to get at but more artfully than I can.

        Thanks, that’s always nice to hear for the silly ego in the back of my head that I don’t listen to much, but still have to admit is there.

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        • Not at all — I’m glad to see that someone better versed in the maths and logic than I can express better what I was thinking when reading the OP.

          I have been playing lately with the idea that the law of non-contradiction is like a scalpel:  it is the sharpest most powerful tool in a set of very narrow simple circumstances.  Euclid’s proof by contradiction of root 2 as irrational is incredibly powerful.  But we know exactly what we mean by root 2 and by irrational.  When we move into complex systems with hard definitions, the law of non-contradiction is trivially true, but not useful.  God either exists or not.  True.  But what do you mean by God?  Exists?  Multiple statements from religions that are contradictory can’t be simultaneously true . . . but are they literal?  Metaphoric?  Literal and metaphoric at the same time?  How can we even talk about literalness when we are discussing an entity that, by definition, escapes our ability to capture it in language?

           

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    • If you’re talking about inquiry into the empirically measurable universe, this is a fine approach.  It has no relevance at all into the question of, say, “is this work of art a good one?”

      True, the goodness of art is strictly subjective, so you’d have to ask the question in the form of “is this art good by criteria X?” or you end up in a muddle.  But the existence of a god is not a subjective question, they either exist or they don’t, it’s not a matter of perspective (barring some marginal cases due to definition clashes).

      Generally speaking, if you want proof, stick to math.  If you want observable knowledge, stick to science.  If you want truth, you need to use philosophy, those other two tools don’t cut the mustard.

      How could you possibly separate truth from falsehood without evidence?

      We don’t even yet have in evidence that John exists; the question is nonsensical – the correct answer to the question is “3 – we have no way of knowing with any probability”.

      Not true, unless we know for certain John doesn’t exist, the relative size of the probabilities comes out the same way.

      God, using our working definition, is not bound by the laws of probability.

      Not true, the laws of probability are true by construction, not even omnipotence permits you to violate them.

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      • How could you possibly separate truth from falsehood without evidence?

        Do you believe in free will?  Do you believe that you are in fact alive, on this real world?  How do you know you’re not in the matrix?  None of those things can be supported by evidence.  You either believe them, as true, or you don’t.

        In math, what is true is what we decide is true (the axioms) and then those things that can be derived from those axioms.  There is no evidence.  Things are, or they are not.

        Not true, unless we know for certain John doesn’t exist, the relative size of the probabilities comes out the same way.

        John is a dog.  The probability of both events is zero.

        John doesn’t exist.  The probability of both events is zero.

        John does exist, but in this reality, men cannot be bank tellers.  The probability of both events is zero.

        John does exist, but in this reality, men are always feminists.  The probabilities are the same.

        John does exist, but in this reality, there is no such thing as a feminist.  The question is nonsensical.

        John is my nickname for an object in quantum superposition.

        I can keep going.  You’re assuming that “John” must operate under the same laws that Mary operates, because you’re carrying a lot of baggage – a lot of assumed axiomatic truths – that maybe don’t apply at all.  John isn’t an entity like Mary.

        Not true, the laws of probability are true by construction, not even omnipotence permits you to violate them.

        I think you and I have a very different idea of what omnipotence means.

        Is the strong law of large numbers true?

        If I can roll a die from now until the end of time, and always roll a six, I’m violating the strong law of large numbers.  I’m doing something that is outside the bounds of the laws of this universe.  I’m making a miracle.  It’s a pretty small one, but it’s a miracle nonetheless.

        Omnipotence pretty much means ignoring probability.

        Which set theory is true, ZFC or primitive set theory?  They can’t both be true simultaneously.  Which geometry is true, Euclidean geometry or spherical?  They can’t both be true simultaneously.

        But of course they are.  They’re just different sets of axioms, describing a logical system.  It just happens that they’re describing different logical systems.

        You’re asking a question that roughly analogous to a metamathematics question, except you’re only using tools of one mathematical system to try and investigate another one with completely different axioms.  That doesn’t work.

        If God exists, he is unlike Mary.  He can’t even really be meaningfully described in the same language you use to describe Mary.

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        • Do you believe in free will?  Do you believe that you are in fact alive, on this real world?  How do you know you’re not in the matrix?  None of those things can be supported by evidence.  You either believe them, as true, or you don’t.

          Free will?  It depends on what you mean by free will.  I certainly don’t believe in some kind of mysterious force that somehow allows humans to act independently of the laws of causality, but if you mean that people have preferences and try to act so as to bring preferred outcomes about then yes.  I disbelieve in the former for the same reasons as I disbelieve in gods (complex hypothesis, no evidence), and believe in the latter because it is broadly consistent with people’s behaviour.  As for living in a simulation, if we’re living in a simulation there are two universes instead of one – and the second one has to be specified in a bit of detail (they have to have the means of creating realistic simulations of a whole planet), so that is a less elegant hypothesis than one in which just this universe exists.  In any event I try very hard to avoid “just believing” anything because why would something I came up with in my own head necessarily have any connection to anything outside my head?

          John is a dog.  The probability of both events is zero. etc.

          If I know John  is a dog, then sure, the result is different but if I don’t know then I just add my estimate of the probability that John is actually capable of being a feminist and a bank teller to my calculations.  This will still return a result consistent with the law of conjunction.

          I think you and I have a very different idea of what omnipotence means.

          If you believe in something that can create contradictions in logic then you have a problem, because that is impossible and any hypothesis is more likely than that.

          If I can roll a die from now until the end of time, and always roll a six, I’m violating the strong law of large numbers.  I’m doing something that is outside the bounds of the laws of this universe.  I’m making a miracle.  It’s a pretty small one, but it’s a miracle nonetheless.

          No, you’ve changed the probability distribution of the dice,you haven’t violated the law of large numbers.  That’s still impressive, but not a violation of mathematics.

          You’re asking a question that roughly analogous to a metamathematics question, except you’re only using tools of one mathematical system to try and investigate another one with completely different axioms.  That doesn’t work.

          What you are demanding is a total re-write of not just the laws of physics but the laws of mathematics and logic just so you can shoehorn in a god that has no explanatory power, no observable effects and for whom we have no reason to even suppose exists in the first place.  That is about as special as special pleading gets.

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          • It depends on what you mean by free will.

            The definition that I always use is, when given the options between X and Y (or X and Y and Z (or X and Y and Z and Aleph (or…))), the possibility to have chosen Y is non-zero even if X was the choice made.

            (The problem with this, of course, is that it is non-testable though, in my personal experience, I would say that there are times that I have acted that “feel” like nothing more than reacting and times that I have acted that “feel” like I am actually exercising moral agency.)

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          • If I know John  is a dog, then sure, the result is different but if I don’t know then I just add my estimate of the probability that John is actually capable of being a feminist and a bank teller to my calculations.  This will still return a result consistent with the law of conjunction.

            You cannot estimate the probability of anything relating to God, James.  That’s kinda sorta my point.  You’re missing an important insight when you get to step two.

            If you believe in something that can create contradictions in logic then you have a problem, because that is impossible and any hypothesis is more likely than that.

            Oh, no, if God exists then logics are an expression of God, that’s nearly certain.  But you need to read a lot more logic, you’re making statements in bivalent logic only.  There are lots of logics, and you can make statements in them that are nonsensical in bivalent logic.

            This means that you’re currently stuck trying to shoehorn God into bivalent logic.  I don’t think you’re going to have much success with that.  And yet we have actual empirical things that defy bivalent logic (objects in quantum superposition, which is why I brought it up) so we already have accepted that there exist things that cannot be fully expressed in bivalent logical terms.  If God exists, God is waaay stranger than objects in quantum superposition.  You have to accept the possibility that you’re using the wrong language to describe the thing you’re trying to describe.  If that’s the case, of course it’s likely you’re going to come to limited and likely erroneous conclusions.

            No, you’ve changed the probability distribution of the dice,you haven’t violated the law of large numbers.  That’s still impressive, but not a violation of mathematics.

            Heh; okay, nobody’s successfully pulled a dodge on that one before.  Okay, so I haven’t violated the strong law of large numbers.  I’ve sure as hell violated something, though, haven’t I?  Some axiom of the Universe? If not the math, the expression of physical laws of the Universe which state that one cannot change a probability distribution without causality.

            What you are demanding is a total re-write of not just the laws of physics but the laws of mathematics and logic just so you can shoehorn in a god that has no explanatory power, no observable effects and for whom we have no reason to even suppose exists in the first place.  That is about as special as special pleading gets.

            No, James, you’ve got it backwards.  I’m not demanding a total-re-write of anything – I’m saying that the things that you’re saying provide you what you think is compelling evidence that God is unlikely are being used incorrectly.

            Tom’s criticism is legit; there are two thousand years of people writing about explanations of God.  You’re ignoring that it is there.  Cantor was a Catholic.  So were most people who wrote most of the things that have built the tools that you are now using to tell me that the thing that they believed in is excluded trivially using the tools they built.

            If anything, this should give you some serious pause, right?

            Maybe you’re disinterested in the question of God’s existence… that’s cool, I have no beef with that at all.  Like I said here, and like Jaybird said above: what we do and why we do it is the discussion that I think is more important to have.  We can have long talks about moral questions without having to bring God into the picture.  But if you *are* interested in the question, then you have to ask yourself: I’m using these tools that were built largely by theists and I’m coming to a (pretty trivial, really – it fits in four paragraphs on a blog post) conclusion that they obviously didn’t come to.  This implies: you’re way smarter than they were (possible, but in aggregate unlikely), you’re using their tools in a way that they would disagree with you (and you might want to check that out some), or you’re coming to conclusions that may be valid but aren’t relevant.

            Let me ask you this, James.

            Print this out, stick it in a folder, and come back to it in ten years.  In the meantime, read Zadeh on fuzzy logic, and Kleene strong logic of uncertainty.  Read Heisenberg and Cantor.  Infinity and uncertainty will break your brain, but it heals in a stronger state.

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            • Patrick, Your argument here seems to be that there may exist an entity so complex, counter-intuitive and description-defying that we can’t possibly understand any of the properties of this entity.

              That’s an argument from the metaphysical possibility of something’s being the case leading to a principled agnosticism about whether that entity is the case. But that’s indistunguishable from the claim that there’s a gaggle of abstract unicorns hovering in orbit aroung pluto: it might be the case – we certainly have no apriori reason to discount it, but we have no affirmative reason to believe such a state exists. I mean, this was pointed out repeatedly in comments earlier in the thread.

              So then we get to apriori arguments – and some aposteriori ones – attempt to provide affirmative evidence to accept the metaphysical possibility as something that actually is the case. All of those can be defeated: the prime mover, the watch-maker, the cosmological argument, the ontological argument…

              So, it still remains the case that even tho you can assert that God, if he were to exist, might be comprised of properties completely beyond our ken – a being that doesn’t interact with the universe, doesn’t answer prayers, isn’t an active participant in people’s lives, is completely unknowable and incomprehensible – the burden is on people to provide an account of why belief in an incomprehensible and in principle unknowable being is justified. That hasn’t been done, to my mind.

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              • That’s an argument from the metaphysical possibility of something’s being the case leading to a principled agnosticism about whether that entity is the case. But that’s indistunguishable from the claim that there’s a gaggle of abstract unicorns hovering in orbit aroung pluto: it might be the case – we certainly have no apriori reason to discount it, but we have no affirmative reason to believe such a state exists.

                No, it’s not indistinguishable from the magic unicorn claim.  Really, it’s not.  Again, like James K, you’re ignoring the extant literature.

                If you were someone who claimed to understand, say, accounting or climate science or engineering but you’d never actually read any accounting or climate science or engineering, would someone who was one of those things think you had anything to say on the subject?

                And yet, a great number of atheists make a great number of claims about theism in spite of the fact that they haven’t read Aquinas, let alone anybody else.

                Look, I’ve read a lot of it, myself.  I’d not call myself an expert on it, in any way shape or form, but I’ve gone through the process of starting investigation into the idea.  I have lots of opinions about the topic, but…

                So then we get to apriori arguments – and some aposteriori ones – attempt to provide affirmative evidence to accept the metaphysical possibility as something that actually is the case. All of those can be defeated: the prime mover, the watch-maker, the cosmological argument, the ontological argument…

                … this is an assertion, and a pretty loaded one at that.  Most of the defeats of, say, the prime mover argument come from a framework where the prime mover is relatively easily disproved.

                My point is that asserting a framework that leads to a conclusion isn’t the point.  Tom’s right: this isn’t about proofs or debate, it’s about discussion.

                So, it still remains the case that even tho you can assert that God, if he were to exist, might be comprised of properties completely beyond our ken – a being that doesn’t interact with the universe, doesn’t answer prayers, isn’t an active participant in people’s lives, is completely unknowable and incomprehensible – the burden is on people to provide an account of why belief in an incomprehensible and in principle unknowable being is justified. That hasn’t been done, to my mind.

                This isn’t right.  Again, look at the question of whether or not the parallel postulate is “correct’.  You’re insisting that I need to provide a burden of proof to choose it as true, or not true.

                My point is that you can assert it to be true, and you can assert it to be not true, and the interesting question is: does that get you anywhere?  What’s the difference between spherical geometry and plane geometry?  What can you do in one that you can’t do in the other?  And, given all that, does it tell us anything about which geometry we should accept as the “true” one?

                You can’t have a “burden of proof” for God, Stillwater.  This is like insisting we have a burden of proof for existence.  We don’t.  We *can’t*.  We either believe that we are here, in a Universe that exists, or we believe we’re stuck in the Matrix, or somewhere else.  You can’t “prove” to me that we’re not stuck in the Matrix: by definition, all evidence is suspect on that question.  Hell, we can’t even prove that we think, in the free will sense; there are comments right here on this thread that question whether or not human decision making is causal or not.

                If you’re looking for a burden of proof, you are never going to find the answer to your question.  James originally brought up:

                For instance, if tomorrow morning a massive glowing figure descended from the sky proclaiming in a voice heard round the world that it was God Almighty and then proved it had knowledge and powers beyond mortal ken that would conclusively prove it was God, (ruling out advanced aliens or similar deception would take some work) but it would certainly get my attention.

                You can state, assertively, that the being is God, or that the being is an alien (a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as the saw goes), or that humanity is undergoing a mass psychosis… or that this isn’t happening at all, and that you who think it is have had a trip to crazy town and you’re actually chained to a bed in Arkham raving like a lunatic.

                If such an event occurs in your experience, you have to admit, right now today, that you have no way of knowing for certain which of the explanations in that last paragraph is the true one.  There’s no way you can suss out a burden of proof to begin with.

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              • the burden is on people to provide an account of why belief in an incomprehensible and in principle unknowable being is justified. That hasn’t been done, to my mind.

                The Immovable Object method of discourse, Mr. Stillwater?  Yes, it’s quite addicting.  Many folks can’t shake it.

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                • Patrick and TVD,

                  You two are talking a langauge which is really unfamiliar to me. Wrt reading the great theologians thru antiquity, I admit that I have read them (some) and contemporary spiritualists as well. If find their arguments unpersuasive insofar as they are justifying a religious object. Insofar as you think they might be trying to describe a spiritual experience, then there’s nothing to argue about, since subjective experiences admit no argument either for or against: they’re simply experienced. Drawing further conclusions about those experiences, however, and presenting an affirmative picture of the world (ie., or God) based on those subjective experiences places the topic squarely in the realm of standard argument, and so burden of proof and evidence independent of the subjective experience are fully in play.

                  As to the immovable object claim Tom,  I really don’t know what you – or Patrick for that matter – are talking about. If you make a statement to the effect that ‘God exists’, then questions regarding both why you think this as well as what you’re referring to by ‘God’ (specific properties, etc.) are entirely appropriate. You have a burden to meet here, since the statement ‘God exists’ (according to any conception of God) is either true or false. It’s more than mere opinion.

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                • My point is that you can assert it to be true, and you can assert it to be not true, and the interesting question is: does that get you anywhere?

                  This statement in particular reveals the difference in how we approach the issue. You’re thinking of God as tool, as having instrumental value for problem solving. (Or that the truth of a claim or system of thought is determined by what you can do with it.) That’s an inherently reductionist view of God, and maybe even eliminativist. But that’s not what anyone here is arguing.

                  By hypothesis, the issue of burden of proof applies to real entities, and claims about states of affairs that purport to be true or false. Not claims that have instrumental value or the acceptance of which provides utility.

                  Also, I think the suggestion that claims about God are similar to claims about being in the matrix reinforces the argument I made above: that the metaphysical possibility of God isn’t a sufficient reason to believe such an entity or state of affairs is the case. An affirmative argument must be put forward. The fact the for all we know we could be wrong doesn’t cut any ice in the theism debate, just as it doesn’t wrt whether or not we’re actually in the matrix.

                   

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                  • This statement in particular reveals the difference in how we approach the issue. You’re thinking of God as tool, as having instrumental value for problem solving. (Or that the truth of a claim or system of thought is determined by what you can do with it.) That’s an inherently reductionist view of God, and maybe even eliminativist. But that’s not what anyone here is arguing.

                    That’s not what I’m arguing, either.  Sorry, this is hard to communicate. I’m not arguing, for one thing.  I’m trying to clarify.

                    What I’m saying is that the tools you are attempting to use are not appropriate.

                    By hypothesis, the issue of burden of proof applies to real entities, and claims about states of affairs that purport to be true or false. Not claims that have instrumental value or the acceptance of which provides utility.

                    You’ve moved on to step 2.  I’m trying to get you to see that there are alternate step 1s.

                    This is a reasonable hypothesis for scientific inquiry.  It is not a reasonable hypothesis for metaphysics, metamathematics, or philosophy, except by assertion.

                    Here’s another analogous example from mathematics.  Are the noncomputable numbers “real” real numbers?  The Russian school of constructivists argues that we ought to be using the constructables, not the reals, as the main basis for higher mathematics; I’ve heard the noncomputables called “an artifact of the improper construction of the reals”.

                    Which system is “right”?  The answer is *neither* (IMO).

                    Also, I think the suggestion that claims about God are similar to claims about being in the matrix reinforces the argument I made above: that the metaphysical possibility of God isn’t a sufficient reason to believe such an entity or state of affairs is the case.

                    Sure.  I’m not arguing that that this ought to be sufficient reason to believe anything.  Hell, *I* don’t believe that it is sufficient reason to be a deist.

                    The atheist argues that because you have insufficient reason to believe something, the answer is, “It isn’t”.  This is an error unless reality only consists of things that are empirically real.  “Nothing unreal exists” is an assertion, it’s not provable either.

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            • I’ve not encountered a single one of those ancient arguments that stood up.  Dawkins defeats Aquinas’s 5 arguments in about 3 pages in The God Delusion.

              In any event, I think I’m going to have to end my participation in our discussion.  It’s clear to me that we are using very different modes of argument and reasoning and you won’t be able to convince me yours is valid.  Equally I suspect I cannot convince you yours is invalid.

              It’s been fun Patrick.

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              • JamesK, you drag TVD [meself] into this then go all Flying Spaghetti Monster and Richard Dawkins on me?

                Richard Dawkins doesn’t even understand the arguments you say he “refuted.”

                You just pulled a Dawkins on us, JamesK and abandoned the marketplace of ideas, closed up shop.  But nobody’s trying to convince you of anything.  You squatted down in the middle of the discussion of the question of God and started making new rules.  You, however, are trying to disconvince others.  You got an agenda and ’tis you who gotta put some burden of proof saddle on your own back.

                Passive-aggressiveness is not argument.

                We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

                Oh, really?  Well, it’s not self-evident to me.  Prove it, pal, right now and to my satisfaction, or we gotta start over from scratch.

                Next time you gin up one of things things, James, include me out, OK?   I was obliged to defend my position re the OP that you dragged me into; with all due respect, you hit and ran.

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                • I explained myself as well as I possibly could, and when it was clear I had hit an impassible point in the discussion I decided to bow out, and only the specific conversation with Patrick since I can’t have a productive conversation with someone who denies the validity of standard epistemological tools when used against their hypothesis.  I was having trouble maintaining it as a civil conversation, so I thought bowing out was preferable to igniting a flame war, especially since I like and respect Patrick and he doesn’t deserve it.

                  You offered one argument in favour of a god: Why is there something rather than nothing?  And I gave a reply: “God is not an answer to the question, it just pushes the question up a level.”

                  That’s a proper back and forth right there, not a hit and run.

                  Other than you want me to what, read a few dozen books that are centuries old?  As if I had any reason to suspect that someone who thought the Sun orbited the Earth had anything useful to say about the structure of the universe?  If you don’t like Dawkins’s take on Aquinas, point me to a summary of his arguments you think is sufficiently charitable and I will read it, and I will reply to it.  Or if another thinker works better for you, give me them instead.  Put up what you feel are the strongest arguments in favour of a god’s existence, and I will engage them with due care and attention.

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                  • I can’t have a productive conversation with someone who denies the validity of standard epistemological tools when used against their hypothesis.

                    James, I’m not denying the validity of the standard epistemological tools for empiricism.  You’re conflating empiricism with epistemology.

                    Now, there’s certainly nothing illegitimate about saying, “I’m an empiricist” or “I’m a constructivist”.  It might lead you into places you find uncomfortable (if you’re an empiricist and you believe in free will for example), but that’s a cases problem that you might not even have.

                    There’s also nothing wrong with accepting skepticism even if you *aren’t* an empiricist, and saying, “Even accepting abstract idealism as the framework instead of empiricism, I still don’t buy the deism argument because it doesn’t sway me”.  Mostly I’m a skeptic; I don’t buy the deism argument because it doesn’t sway me.

                    Any one of those is legit.  But you’re going to be flummoxed by deists and their belief system(s) if you don’t grok the underlying difference is that they’re generally not skeptical empiricists.  Dawkins doesn’t get this.  He rejects anything except skeptical empiricism as a framework of thought.

                    It’s one thing to say “I don’t agree with it” and another to not realize that it’s actually a thing, itself.  I’m not entirely certain Dawkins understands that it is a thing, itself.

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                    • I can’t speak for Dawkins, but as far as I’m concerned it’s not so much that I don’t recognise non-empiricism exists, but rather that I don’t think it should exist.

                      I mean, how can you hope to get the right answer (or an answer that is more right at least) without appealing to evidence?  What else can you use?  Introspection may have some validity when discussion the mental sate of human beings because you’re effectively generalising from observations about your own mind, so that still evidence of a sort.  But one thing we can be sure of is that the majority of people are wrong about the correct religion (if any) because no religion has majority support worldwide.

                      So rather than arguing further, let me ask you a question to help clear up my confusion?  What epistemological rule are you using, and how well can you reasonably expect it to work?  What checks does it have against making mistakes?

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                    • I mean, how can you hope to get the right answer (or an answer that is more right at least) without appealing to evidence?  What else can you use?

                      Empirical evidence when possible, always.  Sprinkled always with a liberal dose of reason, keeping in mind my confirmation biases and occasionally whanging them off of contentious folk who will challenge ’em for me so that I’m not taking into account my confirmation biases with more biases.  That gets you past ballistics and basic positivist natural science.

                      When dealing with mathematics, logic and the axioms.  When dealing with metamathematics, mostly how bendy it makes my brain because the “right” answer isn’t the right question to be asking.

                      But if we learned anything of value, at all, in the 20th century, we learned that any formal system of knowledge has holes in it.  And not just trivial holes, either… big gaping wide holes that cannot be filled with the knowable using the rules of that system of knowledge.  The noncomputable reals are the ones that make the order of the set bigger than aleph-null.  All of the computable numbers, even the computable irrationals, are isomorphic to the naturals.  Heisenberg borks absolutism of physics, we already know that we cannot know everything.  The idea that everything is provable in mathematics if you just work at it long enough is dead.

                      Decision trees are great for solving certain types of problems.  They suck at others. If a physical device based on the real world, with the maximum amount of operations, can never solve Go – a stupidly simple set of rules under a manifestly finite boundary condition – doesn’t this bode terribly for the idea that we can know much, really, in the grand scheme of things?  Computers can beat us at Chess, but that’s not because they’ve solved it.  They just can exhaustively crack the decision tree a wee bit farther than we can.

                      When you get down into the tall weeds and the quiver of empiricism and logic and reason is nearly empty, as it of necessity must be not just some of the time but most of the time if you’re asking yourself really tough questions – what you want to know is not something you can expose to the measurements that will give you predictability… whatcha gonna do?

                      I remember at one point talking about the difference between a good proof and a bad proof with a computer science undergrad who didn’t like abstract math, and he grokked it immediately.  Good code is beautiful, just a like a good proof.  Bad code is ugly, just like a bad proof… even if they’re structurally correct.  It’s a sucker’s world we live in, where “we know it when we see it” is for all its stupid, braindead limitations… for some questions, it’s still the best thing we’ve got, because nothing else is going to work anyway.  Sure, we should try it all first, though.  No argument there.

                      The deist, believing in something that can alter the Universe at will (which, by pure reason is possible, and by empiricism cannot be exposed to be untrue)… they have spent a long time making thought palaces that are, themselves, beautiful to look at.

                      They are, in my estimation, unlikely to approximate cap-T Truth due to the subject they’re trying to encapsulate, but that doesn’t invalidate the beauty of them.  To see it, though, first you have to accept the idea that the Right Answer is Not Always Knowable Anyway.

                      Then, of course, you’re likely to be suckered into the jump where it’s comforting to create something that knows the right answer, because the idea that there just isn’t one right answer to all questions is an answer people, on the whole, have been reluctant to admit just might be the case, after all.

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                    • Based on your most recent comments I think I understand where our epistemologies diverge.  The divergence is  what to do in evidence-poor environments, where it’s hard to say anything with any confidence.

                      Your approach appears to be to say “we can’t know about this using epistemic criteria like evidence, so we are justified in using non-epistemic criteria (like the pleasantness of the hypothesis) as a sort of tie-breaker.  Is that right?

                      My approach is based on the idea that we basically can’t know anything for certain anyway, knowledge (once you get outside the narrow space of axiomatic logic) should be expressed as a probability anyway.  SO the question becomes: what range of probabilities can we give to the hypothesis that a given god exists?  We can always say something about this range, even if we know very little.  And above all else I don’t hold with believing in anything unless that belief can justify itself in terms of explaining something.

                      For this purpose, there are two types of god: the kind with observable effects on the universe (answering prayers, riding a chariot across the sky, whatever), and the kind that doesn’t (a deist “watchmaker” god).  The first kind isn’t unknowable, anything with observable effects can be tested for.  As for the second kind I fall back on Occam because a universe with a god in it is less probable than one without that god all things being equal (I cannot accept your position that the laws of probability don’t apply here because you shouldn’t be re-writing your understanding of how knowledge works unless you are already highly certain that a god existed and if you know that, why bother with this exercise?).  A deist god adds nothing to our understanding of the universe so I say cut it away.

                      Basically I think we never really have a choice in what we should believe, so the tie-breaker principle never comes up.

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      • Also, if you’re at all in a question-answering mood, Pat, can I ask you, if you were to set about to make a list of the most important implications of this line of argument that you’ve set out here, and if you were to stake something valuable to an assurance that it did not exclude any of the most important two of those implications, what two or three or four or more implications would you feel like you absolutely would not want to leave off of it?

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      • Just incidentally, Pat, does God exist?

        I’m not sure.  I don’t say that to quibble, I don’t know.  I do highly suspect that if God exists, it is very unlikely that God meaningfully resembles any religion’s idea of what God is.  I also suspect that if God exists, God is supremely unconcerned with whether or not humans believe in God.  God is more interested in what we do and why.

        Should I believe He exists?

        I will defer to Jaybird’s answer, above.  If believing God exists makes your existence a better one, that’s a good enough reason right there, something the New Atheists Tom legitimately complains about don’t grok (to their detriment).

        Kyle and Renee both obliquely touched on an important maxim of mine: reason is the tool we should use, imperfect though it is.  If God exists, and the moral purpose of the Universe is knowable by God, it is not fully knowable by us, limited brains we are… but we will be held accountable for our reason and judged within its limits, not for our belief and adherence to rules.  Any God that would exist that would be interested in morality is going to take me to task for several things when I get before the Gates.  Some of those I’m going to have to suck it up and confess human weakness.  Some of those, though, I’m going to offer my defense based upon my reasoning.  I don’t think God would be interested in a defense on dogma.

        I’ll have to think about that last question.  I’m not sure I understand it.

         

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        • If believing God exists makes your existence a better one, that’s a good enough reason right there, something the New Atheists Tom legitimately complains about don’t grok (to their detriment).

          The notion that believing falsehoods is good for you is so fundamentally ridiculous I can’t even imagine what I could say in response.

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          • The notion that believing falsehoods is good for you is so fundamentally ridiculous I can’t even imagine what I could say in response.

            Dude. Be more charitable.

            Instead of seeing the proposition that “believing falsehoods is good for you”, try the proposition that “believing falsehoods regarding trivia is not necessarily bad for you and, if applied properly, can have a euphoric effect upon oneself in the same way that alcohol, a deadly poison, can be a pretty good way to pass the time with friends on a Friday evening.”

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            • The thought experiment that immediately came to mind with this was, if one discovered that one’s mother or father was unfaithful during their childhood and they were blissfully unaware of it, would it really be making their life better to shatter that illusion?

              I must say I agree with Pat & JB here.

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              • would it really be making their life better to shatter that illusion?

                That’s a different issue, it seems to me: whether anyone ought to purposefully reveal painful facts to another just because they happen to be true.

                The issue on the table, tho, is whether theists or athiests or no one has the burden of proof, and what constitutes meeting that burden. You’re supposition here is that atheists (or maybe theists?) have a killer-yellow argument that would blow up all Faith/Unfaith if heard. That’s not the case. But if it turns out that during the discussion I offer arguments which indirectly shatter your faith (not likely) then that’s because you’ve taken seriously arguments you were entierely willing to hear and think about.

                Or: there are utilitarian arguments justifying white lies. But if the child comes and asks you whether his father cheated on his mother when he was young, then you have a different choice to make which isn’t strictly utilitarian.

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                • Why not use a Scientific Fact that every single one of us is familiar with?

                  “How many planets are there in our solar system?”

                  Speaking for myself, and myself only, finding out that I had spent the majority of my life believing a lie had little impact upon my daily life.

                  Diddly squat, actually.

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                  • Jaybird, I’ve agreed with you on too many issues in this thread to deliberately find something for us to argue about. But … what you’re saying above is categorically different than the topic at hand. And certainly nothing hangs in the balance on the ‘burden of proof’ question. To make it similar, tho, the issue you mention above ought to be ‘who has the burden of proof on whether there are 8 or 9 planets’. And then the argument would proceed along pretty standard lines. But to make it relevantly similar, it’d be like my saying in advance of the 8 or 9 planet discussion, ‘I am deeply committed to their being 9 planets’, and then you say ‘well, so much for trying to discern the truth, all I’m concerned about is what follows neglecting it’.

                    In other respects, tho, the issues are similar.

                     

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                    • My response, as is my wont, would be to point out that I, too, was raised to believe that there were 9 planets but I gained new information when I grew up and that new information changed the way I look at the Solar System and now I don’t think that there is a 9th planet.

                      It’s okay if someone else does, though.

                      I used to get irritated when people said “THE 9TH PLANET OPPOSES THIS THING YOU LIKE!” but I’ve lightened up in recent years. I now only get ticked when they say “THE 9TH PLANET OPPOSES THIS THING YOU LIKE *AND* WE’RE GOING TO PASS A LAW IF NOT AMEND THE CONSTITUTION!!!”

                      At that point I get ticked off and start explaining that there is no 9th Planet.

                      Prior to that, however… eh. People can believe what they want about the 9th Planet. It neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket. Plus there’s that whole thing that I was raised to believe that there were 9 planets.

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                    • Look, most of the time I’m a live and let live kind of guy, my grandparents are Christian as are some of my colleagues and I don’t get into religious debates with them.

                      But I always thought most theists thought they had evidential reasons for believing in a god.  I may think they’re wrong, but the thought process is intelligible and let’s face it we’re all wrong much of the time.  I may try to persuade people that they’re wrong in appropriate forums, because if I’m wrong about something I want to know, how else can we improve ourselves but by having our mistakes exposed?  But if I couldn’t handle being around people I thought were wrong about things I’d have lost the last of my marbles before I left high school.

                      But to actually hold as a principle that the agreeableness of a proposition is more important than it concordance with reality?  That is so alien to me I simply don’t know what to say.  That’s not just being wrong (like your example about planets) that’s being wrong on purpose.  It’s the difference between tripping over and deliberate driving your face into the ground.

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                    • But to actually hold as a principle that the agreeableness of a proposition is more important than it concordance with reality? 

                      Oh, I can see how you might think I was saying that.

                      No, not really.  However, if you don’t know and cannot establish the concordance with reality with any sort of probability, the agreeableness of a proposition is likely going to be how you decide whether or not to accept it as a principle, or not.

                      Only crazy people choose to accept uncertain assertions that they find *disagreeable* (or certainly fairly certain unlikely assertions)

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                • “You’re supposition here is that atheists (or maybe theists?) have a killer-yellow argument that would blow up all Faith/Unfaith if heard.”

                  No, it is not.  Faith is faith, and one has it or one doesn’t.  I have yet to see any killer argument of this sort on either side.  Which is why it is still an open ended issue, after all these centuries.

                  As I have said before, I have no wish to make anyone of faith doubt that faith.

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          • Yo dude, TVD never got anywhere near this utilitarian argument for the Noble Lie.  Although it’s intriguing and probably true.  ;-P

            You could probably get to Marxism through the noble theological lie of the “social gospel” easier than through appeals to the intellect.  The passions of the intellect fade far more quickly when confronted by reality.

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        • I realized after posing that question that I wasn’t as interested in your answer to that particular one as I was in the others.  I agree (as I’ve been at pains to say in parts of the thread) that there is a place for belief based on reasons that we wouldn’t say that others should adopt, such as emotional betterment or other betterment of our life.  I was thinking that you’d be aware that I don’t believe in Him from the rest of the thread, and that that presumably means I don’t feel that believing in Him would make my life better (though I suppose you could potentially think that I sorely wish I could believe in him but just cannot because I feel that there is a logical or empirical barrier to that belief and I am not willing to believe a thing that is logically or empirically unsupportable).

          But I do wonder if you place any limits around your injunction to hold this belief if it makes one’s existence better.   Should people, in fact, always for their beliefs by this method?  (Is that just Rortism or an extreme version thereof? Nothing wrong with that, but you have to give up a lot to get it, which is another way to put the last question about which you may still be thinking.)  Or are there questions about whose answers people ought not to form beliefs by this method? How do we know which questions those are as a general matter, and how do we know this is one of those instances?  Does it have something to do with certainty? With public knowledge developed by the method of argument? Something else?

          I’d be interested in a slightly more general treatment of this prescription for how to decide which among the myriad propositions a person encounters in his life he ought to believe.

          I also realize that it is possible that by saying that I ought to believe it if it makes my life better, what you meant was instead to simply say that you decline to say whether I ought to or not.  i completely accept that if that was your meaning – as I said, I realized the question wasn’t as useful as I thought at first.

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          • But I do wonder if you place any limits around your injunction to hold this belief if it makes one’s existence better.   Should people, in fact, always for their beliefs by this method?

            I also realize that it is possible that by saying that I ought to believe it if it makes my life better, what you meant was instead to simply say that you decline to say whether I ought to or not.

            No, people should not always set their beliefs by this method.  On the other hand, if you and I are on a lifeboat and there are sharks all around us and there’s a hole in the boat and we have nothing to bail with and you decide right then to have a break with reality and start believing that we’re floating in a sky-castle, I’m not going to be terribly compelled to point out that you’re about to be eaten.  You might as well have a fun final 15 minutes or whatever.

            I’m the second to last one to tell anybody how they should or shouldn’t set their belief methods (Jaybird is probably the last one).  I’ll quiz people on their belief systems if I think their belief systems are wildly incoherent, but even then I’m not likely to ask them to change unless their belief system includes “I need to eat Pat” or something of the sort.

            But when it comes to non-falsifiable statements, I don’t feel evangelical either way.  God is, or God is not.  We believe, or we do not.  In and of itself, that’s neither good nor bad.  It’s only when we get to nuts and bolts that I take issue with the practical side effects of the individual’s implementation of their God-belief or lack thereof.

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            • I don’t really think you have the option of being this cagey with yourself about how to set your beliefs, do you?  I realize that was not the question, but to some extent, when we choose how to act, we set a maxim for action. To be sure, at some point (and to a point the earlier the better, I concede) we all have to be willing to say to each his own, but do you honestly have that little interest in ever persuading anyone of anything?  I’m a little skeptical.

              And, to presume a bit, I think you confuse Jaybirds methods for his aims.  He cares what people believe, and how: I’d bet on it.  He doesn’t want to control it in any forceful, choice-destroying, or unseemly way.  But if he could get them to choose to, I think he’d want people to form beliefs by a method that he doesn’t have a great objection to.  It would fly in the face of this part of his nature you say he has (and I think are wrong about) for him to comment here as much as he does if you were right about this, I have to think.

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                • There is a gulf between “I think you should X” and me ordering you to X.

                  Absolutely, positively.  And as I say below, I’m exclusively interested in what Pat thinks about the former with respect to forming belief, not at all the latter.

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              • Do you honestly have that little interest in ever persuading anyone of anything?  I’m a little skeptical.

                Oh no, you misconfuse me.  I have lots of interest in persuading people of things.  I am, however, largely convinced that this endeavor is tilting at windmills.

                So I have no expectation of convincing anybody of anything.  Thus, my interest is irrational.  At least I’m honest about that, so I have that going for me.

                There are certain questions that I think people ought to use the appropriate framework to approach the question.  Questions of science, you use science.  Questions of mathematics, you use mathematics.  I do get my dander up when I see someone talking about empirical stuff as if revelation is appropriate, for example.

                The whole reason I weighed in on this thread is because I saw James trying to shove the question of God into the framework of rational empiricism.

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              • “do you honestly have that little interest in ever persuading anyone of anything?”

                Well, you see, if you’re persuaded then you were worth persuading and he was trying to presuade you.  If you aren’t persuaded then you weren’t worth persuading and he wasn’t trying to persuade you.

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            • And to be clear, I’m not asking you when you would in fact ask people to change.  I’m just trying to understand whether, when you say (since I asked) in this case I should believe in God if it makes my existence better (thus creating a category of such cases), there is then also a category of things that if I were to say, “Hey, on Pat’s advice I’m choosing to believe this because it makes my existence better” (and it’s not something where I’m obviously making someone else’s life unjustifiably worse by doing so), you would think to yourself, “Well, I didn’t mean for him to adopt that approach in that instance, and indeed I think there’s something wrong with applying that approach to forming belief on that particular question” — whether or not you then say I should change my approach, or indeed even tell me you think it isn’t the right thing to use it in that instance.

              And then I’m also interested in whether you have an idea about how you would define those categories, and what a generalized way to classify instances in to one or the other of them (or others besides we haven’t encountered yet) might be.

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  10. Just a quibble about the OP “If there’s nothing he can’t do then there is no state of the universe that’s incompatible with his existence.”

    God’s non-existence would be such a state.
    More substantively, the existence of evil migjt contradict the God of the Abrahamic traditions.

    God is not presumptively non-falsifiable, as indicated by debates about theodicy.

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    • It’s the Drake Equation again.

      The framing of the question reveals more about the inquisitor than it does about the answer to the question.

      Usually, a paradox is a sign that your language is limited (not in the sense that you’re an ignoramus or anything, in the sense that the language itself is limited in what it can express), not that the Universe is perverse.

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      • An example of this paradox… The OP’s non-falsifiability is the photo negative of the ontological argument.
        James K and Anselm probably agree with each other more than either would agree with the theists or skepical agnostics on this board.

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  11. I haven’t yet had the time to read through all the comments and I just skimmed the original post so forgive me if this point has already been raised.  Here is where I am:  I know Kalam cosmological argument about everything that has a beginning must have a cause.  They point to the big bang, the beginning of our universe.  I have atheist friends who argue this wasn’t or probably wasn’t the beginning but a radical transformation of a self existent universe that always existed.  Perhaps.  But then I saw Lawrence Krauss note that the universe probably just popped into existence at the big bang without the need for an outside cause.  Can that be right?  My mind says, if there was no “before” the big bang; if time/space/matter/energy didn’t exist and then did, then something outside of TSME must have caused it.

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    • Dr. Stephen Hawking says in Grand Design:

      “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing, Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

      “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

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      • Hawking’s argument was easily scotched: He speaks of space itself—the void—having a nature, that nature being that it must “create itself,” that is manifest itself as matter and energy.  He didn’t go back far enough, for even the void, the fabric of space, was not “nothing”—although it had not material manifestation, it still had a nature and therefore was something.

        More here.

        The great physicist failed at rather elementary metaphysics and logic.  A word of caution about experts dabbling outside their fields.

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        • Well, it’s my understanding (and here I go fairly far afield from my area of expertise, this is more my son’s area) that causality grinds to a halt in a universe before time.  Time itself seems to be an outworking of the universe as it began to expand.   I refer you to Jonathan Oppenheim’s paper on quantum time for a better thesis.

          It’s awfully hard to find Nothing in the universe.   Space isn’t empty, as I’m sure you know.   My answer to Jon Rowe was just putting forward Hawking’s statements about what Krauss was addressing.

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  12. “The winner of a debate is the one who has formally made his case better and more error-free than the other, not the one who got to the the truth.”

    If it’s convincing a jury, it’s usually the more attractive, charismatic party that wins.  John Edwards could engage in all sorts of logical fallacies that the jury probably isn’t even aware of; but enough twinkle in his eyes and he’s likely to win (I say likely because every talent has its limits; I doubt JE could get Charles Manson off).

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  13. Thoughts:

    – All of the “abrahamic” religions promise that if someone, or if enough people, pray for something, that their “god” will answer and provide it. This is demonstrably false, as there are plenty of things which a large number of people pray for only to see it not occur, the response of which is the “Special Pleading” of the god-cultists that “well it wasn’t in His plan.”

    – Buddhism relies on being entirely non-falsifiable by definition. To Buddhists, there are no “special powers” involved in anything, simply the cycle of reincarnation until one’s spirit escapes the cycle. Abrahamic cult followers tend to reject Buddhism because the necessary corrolary to Buddhism is that the Earth we now inhabit is, in fact, the “hell” to which these christians/jews/muslims are consigned, life after life, until they escape to “heaven” aka Nirvana.

    – The various pagan religions are probably the most consistent. For instance, the Wiccans tend to believe in a “supreme deity” (The One), who is more or less hands-off with the world, being so incomprehensibly abstract and powerful to Mortals that It actually decided to create smaller entities to interact with the lesser beings on a level they could comprehend. They have “the Father” and “the Mother”, or “the God” and “the Goddess”, analogues to the Eastern philosophical ideas of Yin and Yang; the God governs active forces, Animals, The Hunt, and the Solar Cycle. The Goddess is the mother of living things, the balance of nature, the growing cycle of the harvest, etc. Then there are the rest of the spirit world, rather in the way the Shinto revere all things as having a spirit – the Mountain itself has a spirit, as does each tree, as does the Forest itself, etc. Wicca even has a better analogue to the Golden Rule, a phenomenon found in Buddhism and two of the three Abrahamic cults (islam lacking for it); the idea that whatever one does is visited back on oneself threefold in a concept not unlike karma, but with much more immediacy. The Wiccan Rede, “An ye harm none, do as thou will” is an expression both of free will and of responsibility; it gives leeway to act as one desires, provided that one FIRST examine the planned action to ensure that it does not harm others (not simply other humans, but any other spirit in the God and Goddess’s realm) and SECOND that the actions should not merely be capricious but done with deliberate intention or “Will.”

    Humorously, Wicca comes closes to enumerating one of the better-known modern expressions of the Golden Rule: “With great power must come great responsibility.”

    – As for Atheism, well, it’s rather trivial to show that mathematically speaking, none of the Abrahamic Cults are likely to be right. Buddhism, if it is right, has nothing to show for it either way. Wicca, and its analogues in Eastern philosophy, likewise do not rely on as much “proof”; indeed, Buddhists and pagan religions are often the easiest to get along with, because they tend to recognize one of the basic truths about human nature that Abrahamic Cults tend to leave out – human experience colors human perception.

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  14. Great discussion thread everyone, wonderful job. I’d like to throw a thought in though as an agnostic my own dog in this hunt plays a rather vague roll; theists generally say I’m a functional atheist and thus am an atheist. Many atheists snort that since I won’t definitively say there’s no God then I’m an effective theist.

     

    One thing I’ve taken from the post and conversation along with a lot of the debating I’ve read on the subject for a while is that, as Tom has asserted, there are two squares to this debate that often get muddled.

    Square one is the rather clinical and philosophical theist/atheist square. What would God logically be defined as, does this defined God logically and philosophically exist, could this defined God logically and philosophically exist.

     

    If your conclusion in square one is that God exists you move on to square two. God exists therefore… you should do this, you shouldn’t do that, you should believe this, you shouldn’t believe that. Tom’s called it the theology square. Obviously if you come to the conclusion in square one that God doesn’t exist square two is pointless.

     

    Theists and Atheists clash furiously in square one, obviously in general neither side can convince the other definitively. The tools of reason and science are of limited value against a being that exists outside the natural laws of the universe. This same nature makes said being pretty hard to positively prove the existence of beyond invocations of faith or personal experience.

     

    My own observation is this: while there are a lot of draws that come out of square one I do note that the theist God that is positively asserted and both philosophically and logically successfully defended (if not definitively defended) is one who is incapable of functioning in square two. The only God theists have been able to persuasively defend the existence of is one who’s will, motivations and desires are virtually impossible to determine. As such this God cannot have any “therefore you should’s” or “therefore you should not’s” attached to him.

     

    My conclusion then, though God may or may not exists his existence is generally functionally irrelevant. Either there is no God or if there is no God who can logically be defended with philosophy and logic who’s will and desires can be defined with enough certainty to support a functioning theology. None of the worlds currently operational religions possess a deity who can pass through the rigors of square one and still retain the logical definability sufficient to uphold their demands and assertions in square two.

     

    So the question of whether there is a God is philosophically and intellectually interesting but is meaningless in a practical or functional sense.

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