I’m beginning to think this.
Here’s the problem: the probability of God’s existence is given by Bayes’ Theorem:
p(G|E) = [p(E|G)/p(E)]p(G)
Translated: the probability of God’s existence given a body of evidence equals the probability of the evidence given God’s existence divided by the probability of the evidence just in itself, times the probability of God just in Himself.
A lot of ink is spilled trying to show that p(E|G)/p(E) is high (p(E|G) is called the likelihood) : these are all the arguments that try to show that something would be very improbable on its own, but would be expected if God exists. That is, there is something so intricate, complex, well-designed that it couldn’t happen by chance: God must have designed/created it. Or better, God’s designing/creating it is a better explanation than nature. Examples: the Fine-Tuning argument, Intelligent Design Theory.
Atheists and theists argue back and forth about whether the likelihood of God given some body of evidence is high. But I don’t think this is the biggest issue with the above argument. The real problem is not regarding p(E|G)/p(E). The problem is with p(G). We have no way of knowing what it is. We don’t even have a ball-park figure. We are completely clueless.
Why is this so important? Atheists/naturalists tend reject evidence for God’s existence in principle (not explicitly, but in practice), in that they think that no evidence could ever be better explained by God than by nature. Even if such evidence is presented, atheists will immediately look for an alternative natural explanation, and if none are found, they will say that it’s better to say “We don’t know what caused it” than to say “God did it.”
Prejudice? Not necessarily. Atheists do this because they think (implicitly if not explicitly) that p(G) is really low. That is, God is an inherently improbable being. This is usually because they are thinking of one of the highly anthropomorphic versions of God found in pop culture. These gods are physical beings. And complex physical beings without further explanation are inherently improbable, as Richard Dawkins correctly argues. Thus we are better off not using God as an explanation, regardless of the evidence.
But, I say, God isn’t a physical object, but a Spirit, an immaterial mind. The sort of probability analysis done by atheists only works on physical objects.
But then the question arises: what is p(G)? And, to tell the truth, I have no idea. Sure, God is supposed to be a necessary being; this would make p(G) = 1. Putting aside the arcane metaphysics that would now arise, I say that I’m not interested in the objective or physical probability presently (here p(G) = 1 is an objective probability). That’s about reality, a reality that we may never be sure about. What I’m interested in is epistemic probability, the probability, relative to what we know, of God’s existence.
Example: The objective or physical probability of a coin landing heads or tails isn’t 0.5. It’s either 0 or 1 (the laws of physics determine this). But we don’t know which. Either outcome seems as probable as the other. So from our point of view it’s 0.5. The latter is epistemic probability. That’s what I’m interested in here. God’s physical probability is either 0 or 1, but we don’t know which. So what’s God’s epistemic probability?
I can’t answer that either, for I have no epistemic probability for p(G). The way we assign these sorts of probabilities doesn’t apply to non-physical objects. Physical complexity is out. So is relative frequency.
So we are stuck. It doesn’t matter what the likelihood of God is. So argue away William Lane Craig and Robbin Collins! Even if you are successful, you won’t establish God’s existence.
Of course, atheists who demand a heavy burden of proof on God because God is inherently improbable are also wrong. They assume low p(G). But we don’t know that either.
I’ve noticed a pattern with atheists; they believe this pretty plausible statement:
(PS) God is not necessary to account for the observable features of the world.
Seems innocent enough. For what it means is simply that it’s possible to explain all that we observe without reference to a deity. The typical atheist response to any sort of theism is to paraphrase Laplace’s (apocryphal?) quote “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The paraphrase can be long or short: long if it includes models of infinitely old universes or the multiverse. This is considered not only justification for atheism, but an unanswerable objection to theism.
But when taken this way, it’s not as innocent as it seems. It of course implies that just as long as it is possible to explain the universe without God, we shouldn’t believe in God. This equivalence also seems pretty plausible, and pretty innocent. But then, consider this equivalence:
God is not necessary for explanation = It is possible to explain the universe without God = It is not impossible to explain the universe without God.
That is, the Laplacian retort implies that to reasonably believe in God we have to show that it’s not the case that it’s not impossible to explain the universe without God. That is, we have to show that it actually is impossible to explain the universe without God, otherwise we are irrational to believe in God. But that’s a real leap. No one has shown that it is impossible to explain the lunar landing reports without an actual lunar landing. Or, more serious, no one has shown that it is impossible to explain the observations regarding global warming without there actually being a serious human-caused effect. Still, it’s not reasonable to deny the lunar landings or human-caused global warming.
What atheists are asking for, in essence, is an absolute proof of God’s existence, for that’s the only thing that would meet the requirement of showing that it’s impossible to explain the universe without God. But few theists even pretend to be able to prove, with certainty, that God exists. It would be foolish indeed to think that one can really rule out all the infinitely many ways observations can be naturally explained.
So just because God isn’t necessary (i.e., it isn’t impossible to explain the universe without God) doesn’t mean that belief in God is irrational. More is needed.
My guess is that at this point atheists will say: on your reasoning fairies, Zeus, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be justified, if one rejects that because none of these are needed for explanations that it is therefore unreasonable to believe in them.
I say “no.” For there are other reasons to reject these things: they are inherently improbable.
“But isn’t God also?” an atheist might retort.
I say “no,” for the God of classic theism is not made of spaghetti, nor does He have wings and live in a garden, nor is he buff and throw lightning bolts. The Flying Spaghetti Monster, fairies, and Zeus are inherently improbable, mostly because they are physical beings with superpowers: complex entities with no physical explanation of how they got here. But God is non-physical, timeless, spaceless, unlimited in power. God is thus not improbable for any of the reasons these other silly beings are.
At bottom, the real atheist argument isn’t about God being unnecessary; it’s about atheists anthropomorphizing God to the point that God really is inherently unlikely.
But a final reply might be: “But isn’t the God most people worship rather man-like. Doesn’t that make God rather improbable? Removing the earthy attributes of God takes the whole meaning of God out of God for most people.” I say that one can commit the fallacy of false dilemma here: just because God isn’t like the statues found in ancient Greece or the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t mean that God reduces to an abstract object of some kind. Theists believe, minimally, that God is personal. God is a mind. This is a view that in between the extremes of muscular lightning-bold throwing dude and the concept of the triangle. One can still see God as a person without making Him like Thor.
So the whole “God Not Necessary” thing is really an atheist confusion stemming from the idea that God either must be some muscular Zeus-like being, or so un-God-like as to not be God at all.
Here’s the debate if you want to watch it yourself :
The point in contention: Does current cosmology provide evidence that raises the probability of God’s existence? Craig argues for a hearty “yes,” Carroll for a hearty “no.” A main point of Craig’s is that the universe had a beginning, and that this beginning implies a transcendent cause.
I admit I was dazzled by the science. Or maybe “he blinded me with science.” (My apologies for that 80’s reference; I couldn’t resist). “Blinded by science” is not far from the truth, on my view, for I don’t think the real issue is scientific at all.
For here’s what I was mainly hearing from Carroll:
1. We can come up with coherent, consistent models of a beginningless universe.
2. God is not a serious scientific hypothesis because God is not well defined. We should stick with natural hypothesis and exclude God right from the start.
Regarding 1, he brought up some science that is too technical for me to dispute; dazzled, I concede. But I don’t think it does as much work for him as he thinks it does. For what does this amount to other than that it’s possible that the universe has no beginning? It’s also possible that I’m adopted, or that I will die today in a car crash. But should I believe these things? What Carroll is doing here is a merely a retreat to the possible.
What Carroll needs isn’t that he can coherently, without contradiction, describe a mathematical model of a beginningless universe. That’s not good enough. To refute Craig, he needs to show that it’s more reasonable to believe that the universe doesn’t have a beginning than that it does. That, in my opinion, he didn’t do. In fact, I don’t think he even tried to do this. For him, mere possibility is enough (a view held by many atheists).
Regarding 2, the main complaint is that it is difficult to come up with evidence that could, in principle, count against God’s existence. A theist could always find a way to squirm out of the hiddenness of God, pointless suffering, the mishmash of revelation, and so forth by ad hoc additions to his view of God. Also in favor of this is that God as a hypothesis doesn’t provide much that scientists want in terms of technical information about the universe. Hence scientists aren’t interested in God as a hypothesis.
I concede this as well. But, again, this doesn’t do what he thinks it does. Part of why he thinks God is a bad explanation is that no technical advancement is made. This isn’t a sign of falsity; it’s only a sign that God isn’t useful relative to secular science’s goals. But surely one of the goals of science, whether secular or not, is truth. Even if God as an explanation doesn’t provide technical information, it still might be true that God did cause the universe to exist and/or fine-tuned the physical constants. Furthermore, there are other goals than secular goals that a scientist might have: for example, he might want a transcendent sense of purpose. God provides that.
But there is a deeper argument Carroll might be making: the fact that God as a hypothesis doesn’t provide technical information might be a reason to believe it’s false, or at least that it isn’t very probable. This is because lack of details that we can get from the hypothesis might make God unfalsifiable and untestable.
My reply is that naturalism is also unfalsifiable (I have argued this in many of my posts). Suffice it to say that atheists won’t allow the supernatural as an explanation for anything: they would rather say “We don’t know what caused it” than to admit a supernatural cause. If that’s true, then there could be no evidence, even in principle, that could disprove naturalism. This doesn’t show that naturalism is false; what it says to me is that there are choices theists and atheists make at a very fundamental level that lead to irreconcilable positions. None of these choices can be judged as more rational than their competitors (though I do think some are wiser than others). These choices determine how all else will be interpreted.
What I mean by all the that is this: the intuition I’ve had for a long time, and grows stronger with every atheist I listen to, is that atheists have different goals than everybody else. One might be tempted to say that they seek truth, while believers seek comfort. I suggest this is false. What atheists seek is technical utility: they want information that allows us to predict the movement of stars, build a better mousetrap, solve equations. Their science helps them achieve this. But the actual truth of things may go well beyond this, and may even, at points, contradict this. And it may be that there are more important things than curing polio or building a rocket to Mars, such as morality, purpose, and the sense of the transcendent.
The dream I’m speaking of is a complete naturalistic explanation of everything in the natural world. We unify quantum mechanics with relativity theory. We have a satisfying explanation for the fine-tuning of physical constants, and for the big bang as well. Turning to neurobiology, we can predict human behavior; everything from what we choose for lunch to why we go to church to why Russia invaded Crimea. Add to this that we can predict any of the mental states humans will report, given information from the brain and from the environment. We will know how and why we do everything we do. What’s more, computer scientists will have solved the problem of artificial intelligence. Machines will be able to pass the Turing Test. They will be able to do everything we do. In short, everything in the physical world, including our existence, the behavior of our bodies, and feelings we have, will be explainable completely in terms of physical causes. What would this mean for religion? Will religion become completely untenable for any educated person?
Well, what about consciousness? I’m not talking about consciousness in the sense of reacting to stimuli, or second-order awareness of one’s behavior. I’m talking about the wonderful inner movie discussed by David Chalmers. The “what’s it like” to be conscious. The experience of red, or a banana, or of Mozart. It still seems that even with an explanation of why we do what we do in place there won’t be an explanation of consciousness itself. We might be able to correlate experiences with brain states; in fact, let’s suppose that we do. We correlate the taste of banana with some neuro-event. We know exactly when you will have that sensation. Also, let’s suppose that we can show that our personalities (memories, knowledge, choices) depend completely on our brains. But still, how a physical object can have such an experience in the first place remains rather mysterious.
In fact, the mystery of consciousness has driven materialists to rather bizarre extremes. Paul and Patricia Churchland deny its existence. Daniel Dennett pretty much does the same. On the other extreme, Galen Strawson takes it to imply panpsychism: the view that all matter is inherently conscious in some way, for how else could consciousness arise from just matter?
“But what about our personalities, memories, etc., depending on the brain?” replies the naturalist. Well, I can imagine myself with different memories: I might have had a different life. I can also imagine changing my personality. I can even imagine myself with impaired reasoning. So I could, hypothetically, imagine myself with a different brain, or at least with different whatever the brain is linked to or correlated with. But I can’t imagine myself without myself; without my single point of view of experience. Without that I cease to exist.
So it seems that some mystery just might remain even after the completion of the naturalist project. Still, this is a far cry from religion. Could more be said?
One thing that comes to my mind is that the naturalist project will never completely be fulfilled. But didn’t I just grant that it does? What I meant with that is that naturalists somehow come up with satisfying (to them at least) natural explanations of everything we now observe. But these explanations will inevitably be given in terms of regularities: events of type A followed by events of type B. These are the scientific laws. But why the laws? Why the regularities? Here there will be no other recourse for the naturalist than to either try to find further regularities that are somehow more basic than the regularities we are discussing that can serve as explanations, or she can say that regularities are just brute facts, primitives. And the first horn in the dilemma of course leads to an infinite regress; eventually there will have to be a brute fact about the laws. And this brute fact will be the mystery.
I guess a naturalist could reply that this sort of brute fact mystery given in terms of further laws is far more satisfying than any sort of religious brute fact aimed at explaining the laws. It will be testable, for one thing (at least in principle, if not in practice). Saying God is an explanation will never be testable.
I am skeptical of this, for as the laws become more and more abstract and brute fact-ish, they will approach the status of metaphysics. Metaphysics, as is well known, isn’t really a part of any empirical science, and isn’t really subject to empirical confirmation/disconfirmation. And there still is the question of why.
I submit that a personal brute fact is better. Granted, there is the risk of unfalsifiability (But aren’t all theories unfalsifiable, strictly speaking?). But a personal brute fact has advantages too. For one, it allows for an ultimate meaning in the universe. Two, it allows for an authority to ground ethics. I think that an explanation that captures the real weight of ethical claims (instead of reducing them to either evolutionary survival behaviors or neural structures) is desirable.
For me, the deciding factor is this: there is the sense that I have of a greater world than mere matter. This is a personal thing, for sure, but a lot of people share it (C.S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory is an excellent introduction to /exploration of this intuition). I think of it this way; which is greater, the paper on which the Declaration of Independence (I’m an American) is written, and the ink in which it is written, or the ideas? I get the sense that the whole physical world is really rather worthless: it gets its meaning from being, using a computer science term, an implementation of something far weightier. You write code for a program, say a calculator, in a high level programming language (e.g., Java). Then it gets compiled into Java bytecode, which is read by a Java Virtual Machine. This machine is itself a virtual computer than in turn translates this information into machine language that the computer can execute, and the computer executes it. When all’s said and done all that’s physically really going on is a bunch of electrons going back and forth. But that’s not the meaning of the calculator. It’s the mathematics that it does for us (and maybe the look and feel of the GUI: Graphical User Interface).
I get the sense that the whole of the cosmos is an implementation of the moral, personal, and the ethical. How it is implemented is a technical detail: a triviality. The real import is in the morals, the values, the people. It is this that naturalism leaves out. It somehow thinks that the implementation is what’s important, the science.
I don’t mean to deny that science has import; it does. But not ultimate import. Understanding machine language is interesting, but using the word processor is more important to us; the first is only a means to the second.
This is, of course, just my own view given my values. Perhaps uber-geeks think the implementation is not only important in its own right, but more important than anything else. Or better, the understanding of the implementation. But understanding itself is also a higher order thing that is itself implemented, which makes it yet one more example of the implementation being less important than what is implemented.
To conclude, even if the naturalist dream comes true, all you will have is a set of instructions about how to implement some important stuff like conscious experience, morality, value, beauty, authority, truth (truth isn’t a physical property; it’s a semantic one). It doesn’t really explain the important stuff. It just tells you about a way to implement it. The real nature of the important stuff will still be the realm of religion, of God and souls.
According to me he does, anyway. Check out the above video.
Key to his sort of deflationary view of consciousness is his rejection of the Cartesian Theater, a place in the brain where all the sensory inputs come together in real time to form a picture for us to see. It’s like a homunculus (little man in our head) in a room with a video screen and speakers that display input from the outside to a viewer. The viewer is our consciousness. Dennett rejects it because (1) when we open up the brain we don’t see a little man inside (joke). Actually his empirical case is that the neurosciences (and experience) are telling us that the processing of sensory information doesn’t occur in a centralized location of the brain, nor at a centralized time, but is distributed throughout the brain. What information counts as conscious is determined by use (how often it is used — how “famous” the info is). This is often determined in retrospect. That is, an image might not be conscious at first, but as it gains popularity in the process of the brain, it becomes a part of consciousness. (2) Homunculi invite an infinite regress (if there’s a little man in our head, then there’s a little man in his head, and so forth).
Descartes’ view is that there is a Cartesian Theater, a first-person conscious perspective, an inner-movie in our minds if you will; it’s in our non-physical mind. Dennett of course rejects Descartes’ view that the homunculus is non-physical. Why? In the above talk he dismisses it with a one-liner to the effect that nobody is a dualist anymore. In his book Consciousness Explained he’s more polite to dualists: he spends about a half-dozen pages dismissing dualism (He offers pretty much the standard arguments. I have provided responses in earlier posts.) out of a book of about 400 pages.
I think that we are down to, once again, a case of one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.
Dennett is arguing something like this:
(1) If materialism is true, then there can be no Cartesian Theater.
(2) Materialism is true.
(3) Therefore, there is no Cartesian Theater.
The dualist’s modus tollens:
(1) If materialism is true, then there can be no Cartesian Theater.
(2′) There is a Cartesian Theater.
(3′) Therefore, materialism is false.
Dennett spends most of his time establishing (1). He goes into various details about how the brain processes different sensory and memory events in different parts of the brain, and argues that there is no determinate time in which some info in the brain becomes a part of consciousness (this time is determined by the ability to recall and use the info).
As a dualist I say, “So what?” I agree with (1). As far as I’m concerned, Dennett’s key move isn’t his elaborate case for (1), but is his one-liner against dualism, or better, the 6 or so pages in his book. So what this dispute comes down to is the amount of evidence for materialism against the evidence for the inner-movie.
Dennett has more to say about what to do with the supposed intractables of consciousness; I hope to post in more detail later on his case as a whole. Still, I think Dennett is mistaken here. I, and everyone else, should be more certain that we have a conscious inner-world than that materialism is true, even if we have to modify our views of it a bit. I still think there is a Cartesian Theater, even if it isn’t as detailed or accurate in portraying what’s going on in terms of sensory input, and even if we aren’t as good at describing it as we might think we are. And even if the inner-world is an illusion, the illusion itself is consciousness, and impossible to deny.
What’s the evidence for materialism anyway? Dennett’s main argument in Consciousness Explained is basically that dualism is anti-scientific in that it hinders fruitful inquiry. So what?? That doesn’t make dualism false (as he admits). It just makes it inconvenient for Dennett and other naturalists. As I’ve said many times before, naturalism is merely a hunch, a program, a wish; it is not by any means known to be true. So I think that Dennett is actually, in effect, establishing dualism with his argument for (1).
Or put it this way. What Dennett is doing is saying, “Look, we have this shared metaphysical framework of naturalism /bland computationalism in which to work, and given this, deflating consciousness is the best way to account for what we know about the brain and mind.” Of course, then, he’s only speaking to other naturalists. I suppose it seems natural and appropriate since so many in philosophy and neuroscience are naturalists (though there are prominent naturalism deniers in philosophy as well). Still, neither he nor they haven’t proven their case about naturalism. Non-naturalists need not listen to him.
Atheist mockery. They are doing it, of course. One might be tempted to think it’s a new thing, but it’s not. Voltaire also mocked. So did Bertrand Russell. Atheists certainly mock more than theists. And it ain’t just the street atheists doing it either. As mentioned, Voltaire, Hume, Russell, Dennett, Dawkins, and many other academic heavyweights are or were mocking. Perhaps they are a role model to street atheists.
I was skimming through Atheism for Dummies by Dale McGowen at Barnes and Noble. He devoted an entire chapter to mockery (or, as he put it, satire). What I got from him was that religion has a sort of protective coating of sacredness that has to be removed. Reason won’t do it, as religious believers are unreasonable. So they have to use harsher solvents. Bring out the acetone of caustic satire. Richard Dawkins also advocates mockery. Christopher Hitchens did it. So does Lewis Wolpert. So does P.Z. Meyers.
I guess it would make sense to do this if:
1. You are completely convinced that atheism is true. Going further, I’d add that atheism should be known to be true. That is, atheism is in fact true, and the evidence for atheism is so overwhelming that no reasonable case against it has any real chance of being made.
2. People who disagree with atheism cannot be reached any other way than by mockery.
3. Even if there are fools who still hold on to their little bronze-age myths in the face of mockery, we need to remove any respect society has for these people or their beliefs, for the sake of society and all the evils religion causes. We need to make them unpopular.
4. Mockery is fun.
5. Religious people deserve being made fun of.
Regarding 1, I think that pretty much all of the angry atheist types are thoroughly convinced of atheism. Dawkins thinks that the probability of his being wrong about God’s existence is less than that of a hurricane blowing through a junkyard to produce a Boeing 747. To them, the case is settled. I disagree — hence one of the main points of my blog. 2 might be true of some theists, but it’s a bit of a stereotype to think that religious people are generally irrational people. Maybe atheists sometimes think that the case for atheism has already been made (it was essentially completed some time in the late 19th century, or so the mythology goes), and the only explanation for why some still hold to God is that they are irrational and cannot accept the obvious fact that God doesn’t exist.
Regarding 3, I suppose that if the conditions of 1 are met and 2 is true, combined with the view that religion is dangerous (hence the time Christopher Hitchens spent on showing the evil results of the practice of some religious beliefs by some religious people in God is not Great), it would make sense.
Regarding 4, it’s pretty obvious that atheists enjoy mocking theists. Just watch one in action (e.g., look at all the fun those “pastafarians” on the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster site are having). It’s entertaining for them. Plus you can make a pretty good living publishing caustic books against theism. This would make atheists mere bullies (sadists?) if 5 weren’t true. But they are convinced that it is, as it follows, I think, from 1-3.
Well, what to say about it? Mockery is a clear departure from the rules of rational debate. “Appeal to Ridicule” and “Ad Hominem” are textbook fallacies. When atheists do it, they are, in effect, abandoning rational debate. I think that whatever rationale this departure from reason might have depends the conditions of 1 being met. My own view is that they are not. Atheists clearly overestimate the strength of their case.