Teaching Religious Skepticism


John Shook has a post up over at CFI about scientific skepticism versus rationalist skepticism with regard to religious claims. He notes that calls for scientific skepticism are not universal among skeptics, and he gives a fascinating bit of history on who originated the call for scientific skepticism to be applied to religion. Read the whole thing.

The first comment, however, raises a misconception that I’d like to address:

Whenever I hear someone talk about what other people should/should not accept/believe as if they know the absolute truth, I wonder how they differ from all of the other people who think that they, too, know the absolute truth.

Here’s the thing: That’s not what we do. It’s a common misconception based, I think, in the fact that we tend to get more attention when we’re talking about politics than when we’re talking about belief and epistemology (and the fact that you can now find atheist skeptics talking among themselves), but it isn’t true. There is no knowledge of absolute truth required to talk about what people should or shouldn’t accept as the skeptical position on religion.

To demonstrate, let me go through what I talk about with students when I guest at a local community college’s comparative religion class. First, I note that I am an atheist activist but that I’m there to talk about religious skepticism. I tell them that I’ve never been religious but that I didn’t start identifying as an atheist until it became necessary to counter the influence of religion on public life.

Then we talk about skepticism itself. I start with the Greek skeptics. I note that their thinking on the subject is fundamental to how we understand skepticism here today, it is decidedly not the only tradition of skepticism that exists. I talk about the weaknesses of other sources of knowledge, particularly the problem of relying on authority. After all, if more than one authority speaks to you, and each authority says something different, how do you know which authority to believe?

After this, I point out the practical problems of classic, strong skepticism. It is impossible to truly suspend judgment about much of our interactions with the physical world. For example, we trust in the persistence of gravity. We believe that the food that nurtured us yesterday will continue to do so today and that poison is still poisonous. Additionally, it’s the rare person (if any) who has the luxury to examine the evidence for and against everything they believe. We are all imperfect skeptics at best.

However, as a species, we’ve developed tools (e.g., science, logic) that allow us to get a better grasp on the reality of the world–as long as we’re willing to assume naturalism and a certain amount of consistent causality as a base. Making those assumptions and using those tools has produced real results, to the point that most of us rely on those tools whether we accept that we do or not. Just as we act as though gravity is a fixed truth, we act as though science and logic are reliable ways to discover the world.

We recognize that these tools aren’t perfect. Science is a human endeavor, subject to human biases. Logic can be used on nonsense just as well as it can on a factual basis. Still, both are leaps beyond guessing, relying on arbitrary authority, or failing to act on the basis that we just don’t know.

It’s only at this point that I start talking about religion. I talk about inconsistency, both between and within religions. I talk about apologetics and their failure to answer some basic objections to various bits of theology. I talk about the biases that lead us to impute agency where there is none. I talk about miracles and the work of skeptics who have tested miracles only to find fraud or natural explanations or a poor understanding of statistics. I talk about the failure of prayer when tested, as well as the success and the general differences in the quality of the studies that produce different kinds of results.

At each of these points, I tell the students that the failure of religion in one regard does not mean that they have to disbelieve. The fact that we have biases toward seeing agency doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t ever find real evidence of agency. The repeated failure of miracles or prayer when tested doesn’t mean that the next “miracle” to come down the pike is necessarily real or that prayer won’t produce a result next time.

However, what I do tell them is that if they choose to believe in the face of the many failures of religion, they are treating religion in a way they don’t treat other topics. I point out that they’re carving out an unskeptical niche for this one belief. In other words, I tell them the same thing we tell religious skeptics. No absolute truth required, just the patterns of all our investigations and a dedication to accepting the best answer we have right now.

What’s unskeptical about that?

Comments

  1. says

    Next thing you know people who think they know the absolute truth will start saying everyone who can should be vaccinated or try banning the sale of homeopathic medicines.

  2. says

    @1: You see, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what gives skepticism a bad name. That’s why it’s improper to use skepticism as a synonym for “knowledge”.

    If I am skeptical about a claim that vaccines are a public good, I investigate that claim. When I am satisfied that vaccines are a public good (in fact, the most important public health advance in the 200 years they’ve been available), I am no longer “skeptical”. And therefore support universal vaccination.

    Skepticism is a state of “not knowing”. Not a state of “knowing”.

    We KNOW vaccines are good. We KNOW homeopathy is a load of codswallop. We do NOT have to be “skeptical” about either.

    Seriously, why is this such a difficult concept for people to get? People aren’t doing “skepticism”. They’re doing advocacy.

  3. Stacy says

    What’s unskeptical about that?

    Nothing. But it might upset some of JREF’s donors, so Jamy Ian Smith says, shut up.

  4. says

    Yeah, no. He has no authority to tell me to do so, he can’t make a logical argument why I should that is consistent with the rest of what he has to say about skepticism, and he doesn’t seem to be trying to create the good will that would allow him to ask it as a favor.

  5. says

    @OP: Stephanie, please, please please seek out Sean Carroll or some other physicist to explain why your last quibble — the last little bit of wiggle room you give to the faithful with regard to agency and miracles — no longer applies.

    Again, as I understand it, the $9 billion Large Hadron Collider project found what it was looking for — the Higgs boson. Therefore:

    1. Quantum field theory is complete. This is big news with regard to both the natural and supernatural. HUGE!

    2. In quantum field theory, anything that interacts in the Earthly realm not only is detectable, but it has already been detected. It’s either a particle or a field. Nothing else.

    3. With the confirmation of the Higgs boson, there is no more room in quantum field theory for additional fields — hence, the completeness. If additional fields existed (like gravity and electromagnetism), they could and would already have been both predicted and detected. It’s about Feynman diagrams. Essentially, any proposed field can be detected by high energy physics.

    4. Any miracle relies on an additional field. One that the now-complete quantum field theory states with certainty is not there.

    5. Therefore, there’s no need to offer the faithful wiggle room about the “next” miracle. They can’t happen. Physics positively disclaims them. Because there is no mechanism by which miracles can occur that cannot be detected. There are no other fields. And the fields we have (gravity, et al) don’t do miracles.

    6. Therefore, any god that works through miracles (up to and including the water-walking death-defying god avatar) does not exist. It cannot be an agent working in this world. Because it would either be or use a field that we know does not exist.

    I believe the physicists still allow some small wiggle room for the Spinozaist type of deist god who starts things in motion and then leaves (but not much). But no god that interacts in the human realm (including tweaking DNA to jigger evolution to get to us) can possibly exist. And the “ground of all being” gods are merely redefining “nature” as “god” — so what’s the point? That god doesn’t do anything that nature doesn’t.

    But quantum field theory also declares the idea of an afterlife to also be positively disclaimed. It cannot happen, because it would be an additional field. There is no mechanism for an after-death experience. Therefore, there is no after-life.

    That’s a positive claim for atheism. The best one I’ve seen in quite some time. Which is why I’ve been spamming just about every blog post that raises this issue. For which I’ll apologize and now keep my peace for a while.

    Physics isn’t so scary. We ought to use it.

  6. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    Kevin, nearly none of what you said is true.

    For example, a common explanation of a miracle would be that it violates the laws of nature, at which point physics ceases to be relevant.

    Gravity is not a part of quantum field theory and so is, in fact, an additional field which cannot be detected by high energy physics. What’s more it is known that the Standard Model is flawed(dark dnergy, neutrino oscillations, dark matter), so we have no claim to the level of certainty you suggest.

    I think you overestimate the knowledge we have of fundamental forces and particles(is a neutrino a Majorana particle, does the electron have an intrinsic electric dipole moment?) You also assume a strong naturalism and induction that I think winds up being an assumption of the consequence, in effect: If physics accurately describes the universe in its entirety then there are no miracles. Since physics does describe the universe in its entirety, there are no miracles. You need to justify the second of those statements, which is exactly what Stephanie was discussing above. Skeptically we can’t, but we can recognize that we do make that assumption in all of our other decision making processes.

    (Just to be clear I am a physics graduate student)

  7. machintelligence says

    Gravity is not a part of quantum field theory and so is, in fact, an additional field which cannot be detected by high energy physics

    Only a lowly biologist here, but I kind of thought that gravity was a field that could be detected without the aid of high energy physics. We may not have identified the graviton, but the existence of the field looks pretty robust to me.
    Additionally, the standard model now explains the world of everyday matter completely (and it really doesn’t matter to the processes of chemistry whether the electron has an inherent dipole moment or whether the proton has a finite half life.) The gaps have closed and squeezed out a God that can interact with ordinary matter in miraculous ways. I will take a rational, materialist basis for explaining reality over a supernatural one every time — because it works.

  8. says

    I talk about the weaknesses of other sources of knowledge, particularly the problem of relying on authority. After all, if more than one authority speaks to you, and each authority says something different, how do you know which authority to believe?

    As Sextus Empiricus pointed out, relying on authority doesn’t work because authority’s knowledge rests on other authorities, ad infinitum, and we have an infinite regress. Of course he then goes on to point out that all knowledge rests upon other knowledge, and thus we must withhold judgement about any claim of knowledge at all.

  9. says

    I believe the physicists still allow some small wiggle room for the Spinozaist type of deist god who starts things in motion and then leaves

    Only if you want to worship a quantum fluctuation, which is a pretty loserly god.

    (And, yes, deists, that would be “worshiping” a “god” because you’re granting special status to a process. It’s like saying a particular leaky faucet is special, somehow, only because you’re extra-special because you live in the puddle it makes. Spinozist deism is loserly because its implicit assumption is that mankind is just so fucking special it needs a super special gold plated cosmic leaky faucet to have created us.)

  10. says

    Here’s Sean Carroll explaining it…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vrs-Azp0i3k

    Please tell me where Sean is wrong or where I’ve misinterpreted what he said. I’ll direct you to around 34:00 and forward.

    Some quotes:

    “the laws of everyday physics are completely understood.”

    “quantum field theory implies that any new kinds of matter or forces that would interact with normal matter would already have been discovered.”

    “We’ve ruled out every force that is long-range and strong enough to be noticed.”

    “New forces relevant to everyday life have been excluded”.

    In other words, supernatural forces are positively ruled out.

    What am I missing?

  11. says

    Zhuge:
    For example, a common explanation of a miracle would be that it violates the laws of nature, at which point physics ceases to be relevant.

    No, he’s right. He’s saying that the “laws of nature” are understood fully enough that a miracle which violates them cannot happen in the universe that they govern. I.e.: for miracles to be possible, the laws of nature would not be as they are now known to be. (Though, if they were different, then miracles wouldn’t be miraculous because they’d be possible) You’re then left wjth miracles being the set of impossible things that are actually possible, which is an empty set.

  12. Quantum Dad says

    Only if you want to worship a quantum fluctuation, which is a pretty loserly god.

    How dare you heretic! All hail the all-powerful quantum fluctuation!

    If you don’t respect Its Holy Uncertainty, you will go to Decoherence Heck!

    May your momentum (or position, as you prefer) be completely undetermined…
    ;-)

  13. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    Marcus, that’s trivial and always has been trivially true. If we are literally defining miracles out of existence, so be it. But if your response to a divine voice booming out of the heavens and raising all the dead is to say “Ah, well the laws of the universe were such that this must have been possible, and so it is not a miracle”, you’ve turned the notion of miracles on its head.

    I think for most people a miracle is something that violates the “conventionally understood laws of the natural world” which need not be a violation of any actual natural law, which as you note, can always be different than expected. But such an argument strikes me as sophistry.

    Kevin: What’s missing is that your fundamental premise is that the laws of nature are set in stone and our knowledge of them is perfect. This just isn’t the case. We do have a deep knowledge of many things, but we can’t scientifically rule out miracles by fiat because it is still assuming that the laws as we understand them are immutable. It’s the problem of induction, and a hyperskeptic(a Humean or positivist, say) would note that it’s entirely plausible that tomorrow the laws will change, the fields will change(or the universe will cease to be governed by a field theory). I misinterpreted the argument as saying that because our knowledge is perfect there is no possibility of miracles, and I found that this was deeply unsatisfactory because our knowledge is incomplete, and it suggests a great deal more confidence than I think is justified in our current model, or at least, suggests that there is something special about that model.

    machintelligence: I don’t disagree on the naturalist viewpoint. And just to be clear, I am an atheist and a skeptic, and I am not arguing for the god of the gaps. Rather, I saw what seemed to me to be an argument based on flawed science and flawed philosophy. That is, I think this argument is fairly unchanged if at the end of the day we just argue that the commonly interpreted laws of nature (non quantum field theory, maybe classical electromagnetism and classical mechanics) don’t allow for miracles. This is fundamentally Hume’s argument in On Miracles(if I am not mistaking the title): Our collected empirical knowledge- by the 18th century- suggests heavily that any claim of a miracle ought to be taken as fancy, a dream, a lie, etc. because these are more plausible than the laws, however rudimentarily known, being wrong. But this is an argument about what we should believe. I interpreted the argument as being that because the laws of physics are fairly well understood, miracles are ruled out empirically.

    But as I said above, I think that goes too far. What we can say is that if the laws of our universe are immutable- constant across all time and space- and that there are no “time/space dependent” aspects of those universal laws(a field which comes into existence and changes things at say t=20billion years), then we have reason to believe that miracles are impossible(well, more or less, I see no reason why in principle the boundary conditions of the universe might not be such- even granting the laws of physics- that say there is an electromagnetic pulse speeding through the heavens that will arrange electrons just so on film strip in Rome and show Jesus speaking to the people and saying aha Catholicism is true) It’s just obscenely unlikely and laughable. But this is a minor quibble.)

    But I think that assumption is itself questionable, and in a sense doesn’t stand on its own. Rather it is inherent in how we think and operate in all other things, and as you rightly point out: it works! But I don’t see this as ironclad proof that miracles can’t happen, but a strong amount of evidence that they don’t.

    If that is the argument, I am all for it, but I don’t think it strongly rules out miracles in the way I am interpreting it.

    As an aside:

    “quantum field theory implies that any new kinds of matter or forces that would interact with normal matter would already have been discovered.”

    I mean I think on the large scale this is true, but I figure we really don’t know what the hell neutrinos are up to and we know they interact with normal matter. It’s just fairly clear that effect is negligible. Basically I think the arguments he makes aren’t wrong exactly, but they are imprecise and I think you or he are making arguments that are too strong from them.

  14. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    Ah, a quick point: I say that the laws changing tomorrow is “plausible”. I should say I mean by that not likely, but merely possible and not able to be excluded by any empirical knowledge.

  15. hjhornbeck says

    Kevin @5:

    Therefore, there’s no need to offer the faithful wiggle room about the “next” miracle. They can’t happen. Physics positively disclaims them. Because there is no mechanism by which miracles can occur that cannot be detected. There are no other fields. And the fields we have (gravity, et al) don’t do miracles.

    It’s far worse than you paint it, actually.

    Before the 1930’s, we thought the universe only had two fundamental forces: electromagnetism, and gravity. In ’33, Enrico Fermi proposed a new force to account for beta decay; it wasn’t until ’73 that someone found indirect evidence for it, and ’83 that we found the bosons responsible.

    So is the weak force supernatural? We’d never call it that now, of course, but that’s with the benefit of hindsight. Would someone in the 1920’s call it supernatural? I don’t see how; while we may not know how it interacts with us, we don’t doubt that it does, and therefore it must be as natural as fire or water.

    If it interacts with us, it’s natural.
    If it doesn’t, it isn’t worthy of belief.

    Therefore, there can be no such thing as the supernatural. The very term is a category error, like asking what’s North of the North Pole or what happened before time began. It’s meaningless, and no particle accelerator or other scientific experiment could verify its existence.

  16. Tyle says

    zhuge, thanks for the great comments. As another physics grad student, I was going to say something similar, but you did a better job. :)

    Sean Carroll’s point is that if quantum field theory is right, then if there were fields which interacted strongly (and on everyday scales) with quarks or leptons, then we would have produced excitations in those fields during high-energy particle collisions, and therefore seen them. We haven’t, so there are no such fields. (But obviously at high energy/short wavelengths, who knows.)

    Sean does not intend this – and as you point out it does not work – as an argument against a ‘hyperskepticism’ which doubts the correctness of the laws of nature. Instead, his point is that assuming our understanding is correct, we can rule out things like life after death or telepathy, even without testing them directly. As Sean puts this (paraphrasing), “if it can’t happen from protons and electrons and neutrons interacting via nuclear forces, gravity and electromagnetism – then it can’t happen.” By which he only means, that it would be inconsistent with the laws of nature, for which we have extremely strong (inductive) evidence.

    Even more explicitly, he attempts to guard against Marcus’ and Kevin’s misinterpretations with the following concluding comment (paraphrase): “If you believe in life after death, you are saying the laws of physics are wrong. So you better have a very convincing reason for that…because they’re not wrong, and I have better things to do.”

    We could have said this in 1880 also, right? Sort of – but the point is that we have to be a lot wronger nowadays about things we think we know, for life after death etc. to be possible.

  17. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    Ah, honestly Tyle I think you put it much better than I did. I always get caught up in explanations and counter arguments. Your version is much more comprehensible, and I agree 100%. That’s a good argument and I think one that intuitively shapes my atheism even if not explicitly.

    (So I figure I ought to say in full disclosure, the reason the initial post bothered me was twofold. The first was that I thought it was a bad argument, or at least poorly worded. But I have to admit the “ask Sean Carroll to explain physics to you” struck me as a little rude, and maybe playing on sexist thinking(that Stephanie hasn’t considered these scientific considerations because science is a “guy thing”. ) I guess it seems weird to me to suggest that there is scientific proof against miracles and that somehow Stephanie wouldn’t be privy to it irked me just a touch. I don’t mean any ill will towards you, Kevin, by saying this. I just realize I may have come off a little strong, and thought I would explain.)

  18. hjhornbeck says

    zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait @13:

    Rather, I saw what seemed to me to be an argument based on flawed science and flawed philosophy. That is, I think this argument is fairly unchanged if at the end of the day we just argue that the commonly interpreted laws of nature (non quantum field theory, maybe classical electromagnetism and classical mechanics) don’t allow for miracles. This is fundamentally Hume’s argument in On Miracles(if I am not mistaking the title): Our collected empirical knowledge- by the 18th century- suggests heavily that any claim of a miracle ought to be taken as fancy, a dream, a lie, etc. because these are more plausible than the laws, however rudimentarily known, being wrong. But this is an argument about what we should believe.

    Exactly. So why are you defending something you shouldn’t believe?

    Think about it: the odds of you getting hit by a meteorite are not zero. So why aren’t you hunkered in a bunker, or at least wearing a helmet? Because, at catastrophic as it would be to be nailed in the head by a speeding rock, the odds of it are so low that it’s not worth the effort. When something becomes unlikely, we don’t treat it as unlikely; we treat it as impossible, even though we know it isn’t.

    Apply this to particle physics. For every 400,000,000 collisions of two protons at the LHC, only 15 would create a Higgs boson. It took about 10^21 collisions, of which “only” 1,000,000,000,000,000 were analyzed, to find the small blip that is the Higgs boson. The only reason we bothered hunting was because it was kind of necessary to the Standard Model; otherwise, we never would have spent a few billion to investigate a one-in-25 million chance.

    So if you have no need for a god in your hypotheses, and your hypotheses explains at least 99.99999% of what’s out there, and if we treat things that are highly unlikely as impossible… why even entertain the possibility of a god?

  19. Tyle says

    Aw, zhuge, you are too kind. :)

    hjhornbeck: The point is we still have to rely on a (very strong) inductive argument that the laws, as we understand them, are correct and without exception. zhuge correctly pointed out that, contrary to Kevin’s hopes, we can’t get around this issue by an application of feynman diagrams.

    Of course, we rely on such assumptions in every other domain of discourse, etc… as Stephanie was saying.

  20. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    “Think about it: the odds of you getting hit by a meteorite are not zero. So why aren’t you hunkered in a bunker, or at least wearing a helmet? Because, at catastrophic as it would be to be nailed in the head by a speeding rock, the odds of it are so low that it’s not worth the effort. When something becomes unlikely, we don’t treat it as unlikely; we treat it as impossible, even though we know it isn’t.”

    No we don’t. We treat it as highly improbable. Impossibility, in the Bayesian sense, requires that I never ever believe in the event, regardless of the evidence. If someone near me were struck on the head and killed by a falling rock from space, I’d recognize it as highly improbable but I wouldn’t say “clearly this was a slingshot from Russia because a meteorite could never strike someone.” To me there is a strong difference between a proof of non-existence and evidence of non-existence. Hence my position that physics doesn’t really provide much stronger evidence than the 18th century argument, just requires more things to go wrong.

    “So if you have no need for a god in your hypotheses, and your hypotheses explains at least 99.99999% of what’s out there, and if we treat things that are highly unlikely as impossible… why even entertain the possibility of a god?”

    I don’t, not really. I put it at .0000000000000000000000000000000000000…1 on my Bayesian scale. But I refuse to say that science has definitely put it at zero, because it hasn’t. It can’t. And I see that willingness to change my mind as a fundamental aspect of skepticism(with the exception of transcendental gods that I think are ill defined and so can’t be believed in a priori.)

    I am not saying “We should take claims of miracles seriously”, I am saying that the argument that science has definitively shown that miracles 100% cannot happen is flawed and itself unskeptical. Rather science shows that miracles are nearly certain not to happen and we should take no account of them- unless some evidence shows otherwise, say, that the laws of nature are changing.

    It’s maybe a minor point, but it was taken as a claim that Stephanie’s argument(which I think looks very similar to what I have sketched here) was unnecessary because physics has demonstrated with certainty that miracles cannot happen. I think this is wrong and Stephanie’s argument has merit because of that.

    To reiterate: I am an atheist, a scientist (and I have a philosophy degree to boot), a skeptic, and I take no account in miracles or anything that can be described as supernatural. I am not defending miracles, I am not defending God. Rather I am critiquing the substance of a philosophic argument using empirical evidence to claim that another argument is unnecessary(and also later critiquing the implications of this argument).

    I am making these claims not as a defense of miracles, but as a defense of skepticism and reason. A bad argument for the truth is, as far as I am concerned, no better than a bad argument for the false.

    To put it more plainly: You can start off with an absolute unshakable belief in the existence of miracles. You put you Bayesian belief at 1.0 to begin with. Nothing can shake that, you always have an explanation. If the laws of physics don’t agree, then you throw out physics. I can’t argue that position. I can’t say science shows that is wrong, in principle it can’t. What I can say, and what I think Stephanie says is that you can do that, but we do it for literally no other thing and that ought to make you suspicious and question that belief(assuming now that maybe your belief isn’t really 1.0, but maybe .9999999999999999…9.

    As to this:
    “Apply this to particle physics. For every 400,000,000 collisions of two protons at the LHC, only 15 would create a Higgs boson. It took about 10^21 collisions, of which “only” 1,000,000,000,000,000 were analyzed, to find the small blip that is the Higgs boson. The only reason we bothered hunting was because it was kind of necessary to the Standard Model; otherwise, we never would have spent a few billion to investigate a one-in-25 million chance.”

    I have no idea what you’re talking about, to be honest. The reason why we needed so many collisions is because the theoretical properties of the higgs led us to believe that p p collisions would have a tiny cross section for reactions leading to higgs production at that energy scale. This has nothing to do with our probabilities, except insofar as the Standard Model made such predictions. But its rarity at that energy scale, so far as I can tell, has zero to do with the way belief works or ought to work, and has no bearing on the metaphysical possibility of, nor the epistemic considerations of, miracles.

  21. hjhornbeck says

    Tyle @19:

    The point is we still have to rely on a (very strong) inductive argument that the laws, as we understand them, are correct and without exception.

    No we don’t, actually. Induction only applies when all rules of the universe in question are known. That’s why it works well in mathematical spheres, where the rules are completely laid out, but fails miserably when dealing with the real world. I’m not alone here either, Karl Popper has argued similarly.

  22. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    I think you are either conflating two differentbmeanings of induction(inductive arguments in math are not the same as induction in other areas) or are confusing induction and deduction.

    Induction is the creation of generalizations or laws from observed patterns while deduction is its opposite, deriving facts from known laws. Hence the fancy philosophic term nomological deduction to describe the pattern of creating laws(nomos) and deducing facts from them.

    The point is to say that our knowledge of laws is correct we must make generalizations from isolated observations, but it is clear our generalizations may be flawed in some way. This is the problem of induction.

  23. Tyle says

    hjhornbeck: As long as you agree that we are able to learn about the world by some process, the point stands. Substitute for induction whatever notion you like – ‘conjecture and criticism’, for example. I was referring to a particular (fairly mainstream) notion of science only for concreteness. The merits of various such notions are interesting to discuss, but not directly relevant to this conversation.

  24. says

    If we are literally defining miracles out of existence, so be it. But if your response to a divine voice booming out of the heavens and raising all the dead is to say “Ah, well the laws of the universe were such that this must have been possible, and so it is not a miracle”, you’ve turned the notion of miracles on its head.

    I don’t think I’ve turned the notion on its head; it’s not my fault that miracles are a contradiction in terms.

    Let’s take your example of the divine voice, and raising the dead – that’s a good one. Never mind that you’ve begged the question by embedding “divine” in the voice. That’s what a lot of belivers in miracles, in fact, do – they’re miraculous because they’re not simply impossibly unlikely, they’re obviously divinely inspired. Well, yeah, if your criterion for something being a miracle is that it be obviously divinely inspired, good luck pursuing that bit of circular argument. Because, nothing that happens in the universe of reality is going to meet that criterion unless it’s completely imaginary. What does “raising the dead” mean? Are they going to be restored to a pre-death metabolic state with memories intact? Short of time-travel, that’s not going to happen because that’s impossible – what, are the bacteria in their gut that started eating them going to spit it back out and somehow reform them? Are their neurons that died going to zing back to life again, so their memories are intact? These are all physical processes – yes, it’d be “miraculous” if that happened, but you’re the one eliminating miracles as a possibility if you’re insisting that miracles are when the impossible happens. Because, it’s impossible.

    That’s not the same as arguing that “duh, the definition of ‘dead’ is ‘does not spring back to life'” – it’s that the post-conditions for ‘miracles’ also are impossible. The voice of god booming across the land means that a great deal of energy was expended, somewhere, to create that vibration and energy doesn’t just come out of thin air. Not “barring a miracle” – it simply doesn’t.

    Or you may be taking David Hume’s tack on miracles, which is that they’re of such a vanishingly small likelihood that for all intents and purposes they’re impossible and therefore miraculous. No, wait, that doesn’t work either because everything that happens is already of vanishingly small likelihood. Whoops.

    Hume says it better than I ever could:

    “Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.”

    The problem is that “miracles” have to occur in the real world and not in some unknowable supernatural plane. Because, if they occurred solely there, we’d never know about them at all. But if they occur here they are going to have to violate physical law, which is exactly why they don’t happen. Not “they don’t happen all the time” but rather “they don’t happen at all.”

    That would leave miracles as being those events which are impossible, yet happen. And happen in a way such that they can be observed. That’s a short way to say “there are no miracles.”

    such an argument strikes me as sophistry

    My, how dismissive. And my arguments are “trivial” to boot. Much appreciated.

  25. says

    What’s missing is that your fundamental premise is that the laws of nature are set in stone and our knowledge of them is perfect.

    That’s not correct. They are set in stone (so to speak) – that’s what makes them laws of nature.

    Our knowledge of natural law may be imperfect but for something so “imperfect” it’s complete enough to reject miracles. Just matter/energy/momentum conservation laws are probably enough to render miracles (in the sense of “miracles that violate physical law as we know it”) impossible. The identification of the Higgs being right where it was expected to be pushes the completeness of our understanding of physical law even further. It’s not going to happen that someone is going to come along and shitcan general relativity or QED; those theories have proved out time and time again and our technological civilization is built on their accuracy.

    Your appeal to ignorance is noted; but just bear in mind that the dark corner in which “miracles” might hide has become a wafer-thin sliver and there’s no room for large-scale “miracles” in there. Of course scientists don’t know everything, but what they do know, at the level of physics, is going to be added-on-to not overthrown (Einstein didn’t “overthrow” Newton; he demonstrated that Newtonian mechanics were correct only in the kind of circumstances that Newton was equipped to understand at that time)

    It’s also pretty obvious to argue that the “miracles” of the past were certainly liars, delusionals, or mountebanks because as we come to understand the world around us better and better there is no sign that the laws of conservation suddenly didn’t hold for a while, in Palestine, on a certain day – nor is there any way that that could happen. Therefore, the dead were not raised – someone lied about it. And the fact that our standard of evidence has gotten so much better and “miracles” have gotten mighty sketchy and tawdry – ought to tell you that it’s harder to get away with the lies and that’s why the “miracles” aren’t happening.

    Unless you consider jesus’ face appearing on a piece of toast a “miracle” rather than random toast-spots?

  26. says

    am saying that the argument that science has definitively shown that miracles 100% cannot happen is flawed and itself unskeptical.

    OK, let’s have your definition of a “miracle” then. If you invoke the supernatural, please explain where and how the supernatural effects violations of physical law and how you would be able to know anything about it, if it did.

  27. says

    But its rarity at that energy scale, so far as I can tell, has zero to do with the way belief works or ought to work, and has no bearing on the metaphysical possibility of, nor the epistemic considerations of, miracles

    I thought you were talking about physics, not metaphysics. Excuse me, I thought you were speaking as a skeptic and a rationalist – what does that have to do with metaphysics, again? Upon what rational and skeptical basis do you anchor your metaphysical arguments?

  28. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    I base my metaphysics on skepticism, patterned on Hume. I believe in that which has evidence and reject that which is outside of sense experience, generally. From this I find it useful to doubt a number of things, like god or objective ethics.

    That said, I am going to restate my arguments. Stephanies post was saying that, while it is true that tomorrow charge may no longer be conserved, or people might rise from the dead, it is a special favor to say that this happens in religious cases but not in any other.

    This is the problem of induction. Citing Hume, I assume you know it. But assuming not, it is the statement that we can only know the future will be like the past because the universe follows natural laws, but we can only know the universe follows natural laws because the universe has every moment resembled the past.

    It was claimed that science actively disproves miracles. In a sense this is true, for while fundamentally(ignoring quantum decoherence and CP violation) the laws of the universe arepretty much invariant sending time to negative time, thermodynamic facts make those possibilities nearly zero. A worm could exactly recreate what it had eaten, but the odds of that are beyond vanishingly small.

    But in the sense Stephanie meant this is not so. For it could be the case that the natural laws are such that they will be constant until tomorrow and then entropy, energy, etc. Can be willingly changed by priests or something.

    There is no reason to believe this will happen, and we don’t consider it for anything else, but we cannot say that it absolutely cannot happen.

    Hence if tomorrow energy conservation and the arrow of time were locally changed to bring back to life Mohammed, I would call it a miracle. I would say it was an extremely unlikely event, indicative of the laws of nature as we understand them having been grossly violated and indicative of some intention on someone’s part.

    If the universe follows laws and they look anything like what we believe them to be and act on in any situation this could not happen. But we could be wrong(look up true for a simple thought experiment).

    Now rightly you could say fine, then it was part of the laws of the universe that Mohammed would be alive again. But it still assumes the universe does follow laws and still seems sophist to me because sure, but the fact that the laws were that way would count as miraculous so far as I can tell.

  29. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    Grue not true for the thought experiment

  30. hjhornbeck says

    zhuge @20:

    If someone near me were struck on the head and killed by a falling rock from space, I’d recognize it as highly improbable but I wouldn’t say “clearly this was a slingshot from Russia because a meteorite could never strike someone.” To me there is a strong difference between a proof of non-existence and evidence of non-existence. Hence my position that physics doesn’t really provide much stronger evidence than the 18th century argument, just requires more things to go wrong.

    We have no proof of gravity or electromagnetism, though. Science never deals with proof, only disproof, and yet past a certain amount of evidence we declare something to be pseudo-proven. You are correct in that proof and pseudo-proof are two distinct things, however we are not justified it treating them separately. For the purposes of understanding the world, the two are identical until the evidence says otherwise. To do otherwise is to ditch the scientific method in favour of another epistemology, and then critique science for not being that other epistemology.

    Your example is a poor one, because you substitute one effectively impossible situation for another. A more accurate substitute would be “a rock fired by the neighbor’s kid with a slingshot.” That is far more plausible than being clonked by a meteorite, and if no other evidence was forthcoming is what you should believe.

    I am not saying “We should take claims of miracles seriously”, I am saying that the argument that science has definitively shown that miracles 100% cannot happen is flawed and itself unskeptical.

    Only if you think Ockham’s Razor is not part of the skeptical toolkit, or that “supernatural” is not a logical impossibility.

    I am making these claims not as a defense of miracles, but as a defense of skepticism and reason. A bad argument for the truth is, as far as I am concerned, no better than a bad argument for the false.

    But you are doing it by denying parts of your skeptical toolkit. You are stepping outside your epistemology, you are denying Ockham’s Razor, and so you’re defending a straw version of skepticism and reason.

    I have no idea what you’re talking about, to be honest. The reason why we needed so many collisions is because the theoretical properties of the higgs led us to believe that p p collisions would have a tiny cross section for reactions leading to higgs production at that energy scale. This has nothing to do with our probabilities, except insofar as the Standard Model made such predictions. But its rarity at that energy scale, so far as I can tell, has zero to do with the way belief works or ought to work, and has no bearing on the metaphysical possibility of, nor the epistemic considerations of, miracles.

    … Yeah, I kinda flubbed that bit. The point was that the Higgs particle has a ridiculously faint interaction with us, in non-virtual form, and yet we were able to find it. Most miracle claims involve far greater levels of interaction; curing cancer or producing a statue from your hand are not subtle interactions, and yet not one of them has withstood skeptical scrutiny. Given that the supernatural is logically impossible, and that we have never found evidence for a miracle, can’t we transition from “unlikely” to “effectively impossible?” And once there, aren’t we justified in dismissing all miracle claims out-of-hand?

  31. martinc says

    I have only slightly better than a layman’s knowledge of physics, but I do have a lot of experience arguing atheist positions with theists, including miracle claims, and Feynmann diagrams are not what they are bringing up. Their argument is invariably ‘magisterium-based’ – they see physical laws of the universe as ‘that which operates until and unless God parts the curtain and does a miracle’. This is of course undisprovable, and Ms. Zvan’s point applies: while each disproved miracle claim adds to the pile of evidence that miracles don’t happen, the growing pile – no matter how large – can’t preclude a miracle happening tomorrow, because the Feynmann diagrams and force arguments et al are all viewed by theists as part of the mundane magisterium which can be switched off by God whenever he is of a mind to. No matter how universal a truth seems to be, theists are always able to invent a safe hiding spot for their God. That’s a natural advantage of fictional beings. It’s a fairly lame one when opposed to the huge natural disadvantage of a complete absence of evidence for their existence, but it has to be conceded.

    Given that theists think that way – and in my experience at lot do – then claiming that we have used physics to disprove the entire possibility of miracles would only make them laugh. Their beliefs are of course dependent on largely ignoring the massive pile of evidence against miracles, but if we leap from that pile of evidence to the claim that “miracles can’t happen” we’d be wrong, because we can’t disprove the undisprovable magisterium argument (that God acts in an environment above and beyond the universe we perceive, but has simply chosen not to interfere in our mundane magisterium yet), and it should be obvious that merely disproving individual miracle claims can never provide a full proof: there is nothing inductive in disproving each miracle ‘coming down the pike’ because the next miracle is not dependent on the previous one.

  32. martinc says

    hjhornbeck’s mention (@ 30) of Occam’s Razor is apposite: Occam’s Razor is a tool suggesting that where two theories fit the facts, the simpler should be accepted. The trouble with Occam’s Razor is that it relies so heavily on knowledge: many of the theists I argue with are applying Occam’s Razor as they see it because their ignorance of the implications of postulating a God makes “there’s an all-knowing all-powerful creator who did it all” seem a simpler argument than the complex process of actually learning how the universe works.

  33. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    @30

    I explicitly said in my example from space, by which I meant leaving a visible trail through the atmosphere and hitting with devestating force. My point was that there, while my baysean prior would be nearly zero, after the evidence it would be nearly one. I see the keeping of all Bayesian priors at greater than zero and less than one as fundamental to skepticism. My point is that a priori impossible and empirically neigh impossible are different.

    I am not denying occqms razor. I am saying that if, today, a man came down from the heavens, announced himself to be Jesus Christ and accurately solved all the millenium problems, I’d be inclined to call it a miracle. (Perhaps I leave too much unsaid. Solving the millenium problems would show strong knowledge of the universe that I don’t have, ruling out insanity. Maybe ressurection and development of telescopes of incredible power to prove that he isn’t merely an advanced alien or something as well.)

    Look I get that supernatural is a contradiction in terms. But if it turns out that there is some conscious being whose will determines the way things go, and that is the way of the natural universe, then I am content to call that supernatural in so far as it contradicts the prevailing views of natural laws, causality, etc.

    Yes, insofar as everything is concerned there is no reason to believe in miracles, except maybe direct experience. But even this would be deeply unlikely. But if you set your Baysean prior that miracles happen to one, you can always find an out, be it an absurd setup for the boundary conditions of the universe or the displacement of natural laws. The argument against this is that we don’t do this for anything else and such special exemptions seem clearly forced and unbelievable. This is what I interpret Stephanie to have said, and what I am saying.

    I also want to be clear: I am making this argument because an earlier commentor rather rudely, in my opinion, told Stephanie her argument was unnecessary because physics, and that she needed Sean Carroll to explain it to her. Yet this was done with a flawed understanding of the argument and physics and to my mind needs fleshing out.

  34. says

    zhuge, from a former physics tutor, thank you.

    Yes, there is nothing about a world in which the supernatural is not required to explain anything that rules out occasional supernatural influence.

  35. says

    I base my metaphysics on skepticism, patterned on Hume. I believe in that which has evidence and reject that which is outside of sense experience, generally. From this I find it useful to doubt a number of things, like god or objective ethics.

    If you “reject that which is outside of sense experience, generally” why do you merely “doubt” god and objective ethics instead of rejecting them?

    Do you reject Russell’s teapot,* for example?

    This is the problem of induction. Citing Hume, I assume you know it

    I’m familiar with it, though I prefer Sextus Empiricus’ formulations; Hume was clearly strongly influenced by the pyrhhonian skeptics. But, I digress…

    The problem with arguing against induction is avoiding circular reasoning. We call things “natural laws” because they are observed to be true (for all known observations) and because they predict why those observations will continue not to contradict them. Otherwise, they would simply be catalogs of facts, and not natural laws at all. The problem of induction applies to the question of how we derive these natural laws from collections of facts – it’s not a refutation of our ability to claim knowledge. (That comes elsewhere) So the response to induction is to explain, using small words, that we call something a natural law when it establishes both observations that never contradict it, and an explanation of why it will not be so contradicted, further, that it allows us to continue to predict future results. So, to pick a natural law for example, conservation of momentum holds not because we have always observed momentum to be conserved, but rather that our understanding of how momentum works indicates that it’s going to be conserved; in that sense it’s so clearly known that it’s part of the definition.

    Obviously, you’re not taking the full-on pyrrhonian position, because then I’d have to ask you why, for someone who believes it is impossible to know anything, you appear to be so concerned with demonstrating you are right? ;)

    Here’s the money shot:
    thermodynamic facts make those possibilities nearly zero

    No, they make those possibilities zero. Unless you care to refute thermodynamics, what you’re doing is claiming that there’s a possibility of something impossible. That is neither a skeptical nor a rational position.

    There is no reason to believe this will happen, and we don’t consider it for anything else, but we cannot say that it absolutely cannot happen

    Wait, I thought you said you were a skeptic and a rationalist. Yet, you appear to be saying that things that we have every reason to think are impossible and none to think are possible are, in fact, possible?

    Hence if tomorrow energy conservation and the arrow of time were locally changed to bring back to life Mohammed, I would call it a miracle.

    Yet you know absolutely, with certainty, that they won’t. That that is impossible. So, you are saying that a “miracle” is when the impossible happens? Not the infinitely hugely unlikely, but the outright impossible.

    Furthermore, you load your example, because if the arrow of time were to bring back Mohammed, then he would not have “died” at all. I’m assuming you’re talking about a massive (impossible) causality violation that would bring forward a version of Mohammed before he’d died, rather than bringing the dead Mohammed back to life. Since there is no indication of even a possibility in physics of time suddenly doing that, why would a self-professed skeptic and rationalist like yourself even offer such a farcical impossibility?

    And you try to dismiss me as a sophist?

    Still waiting for your definition of a “miracle.” You gave an example of what you might consider a miracle, but you surely know enough philosophy to know the difference between a definition and an example.

    (* defining a teapot, in this case as a pot, made by humans, for the purpose of making tea, rather than some random cosmic event-produced teapot-like object)

  36. says

    Yet, you appear to be saying that things that we have every reason to think are impossible and none to think are possible are, in fact, possible?

    Unless we have perfect knowledge, yes, they may be possible. What we know doesn’t affect what is. Nonetheless, the better our knowledge, the less like we can gauge these things to be, and it is special pleading to treat the tiny possibilities of interventionist gods or miracles differently on a day-to-day basis than the tiny probabilities of other things.

    Or are you guys having fun arguing?

  37. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    zhuge, from a former physics tutor, thank you.

    Yes, there is nothing about a world in which the supernatural is not required to explain anything that rules out occasional supernatural influence.

    Thanks :)

    If you “reject that which is outside of sense experience, generally” why do you merely “doubt” god and objective ethics instead of rejecting them?

    Do you reject Russell’s teapot,* for example?

    I doubt Russell’s teapot. I reject Russell’s teapot. Are these actually different except in the context of what we mean by doubt/reject? I guess philosophically I’d say my Baysean prior for Russell’s teapot is non-zero so I don’t “reject” it. But in anything like everyday life, my Baysean prior is so close to zero that I would say I reject it. Like how in a philosophy classroom I might say I am a theological non-cognitivist and extremely skeptical about the existance of any interventionist gods, but I just say I am an atheist to my family. The level of nuance and exploration of what is meant varies. In this conversation we are being philosophic, so I choose to say I doubt God, rather than that I put my Baysean prior at 0, which I think would be irresponsible.

    I’m familiar with it, though I prefer Sextus Empiricus’ formulations; Hume was clearly strongly influenced by the pyrhhonian skeptics. But, I digress…

    The problem with arguing against induction is avoiding circular reasoning. We call things “natural laws” because they are observed to be true (for all known observations) and because they predict why those observations will continue not to contradict them. Otherwise, they would simply be catalogs of facts, and not natural laws at all. The problem of induction applies to the question of how we derive these natural laws from collections of facts – it’s not a refutation of our ability to claim knowledge. (That comes elsewhere) So the response to induction is to explain, using small words, that we call something a natural law when it establishes both observations that never contradict it, and an explanation of why it will not be so contradicted, further, that it allows us to continue to predict future results. So, to pick a natural law for example, conservation of momentum holds not because we have always observed momentum to be conserved, but rather that our understanding of how momentum works indicates that it’s going to be conserved; in that sense it’s so clearly known that it’s part of the definition.

    So you are saying that conservation of momentum is part of the derived laws we have for the universe? (Namely that they are symmetric under translation and through Noether’s theorem?) Because it seems to me to be begging the question: How do we know the laws of nature are in fact symmetric under translation, except via repeated observation?

    Obviously, you’re not taking the full-on pyrrhonian position, because then I’d have to ask you why, for someone who believes it is impossible to know anything, you appear to be so concerned with demonstrating you are right? ;)

    For the same reason that, not believing in objective ethics, I seek to do what is right.

    Here’s the money shot:
    thermodynamic facts make those possibilities nearly zero

    No, they make those possibilities zero. Unless you care to refute thermodynamics, what you’re doing is claiming that there’s a possibility of something impossible. That is neither a skeptical nor a rational position.

    No it does not! No, no, no! Look, thermodynamics is derived from statistical(and quantum statistical when dealing with low temperatures) mechanics. The way it works, in principle, is that we say that every possible “micro-configuration” of particles(it’s velocity, position, etc. for each particle in a system) is equally probable.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodic_hypothesis) However, the macrostates(temperature, pressure, etc.) are obtained for some number of microstates. So, in effect, it doesn’t matter “which” oxygen atoms are where, just that some are in those positions. So, for example, in a box it is possible that all the particles of air could be only in the right half, it’s just that the number of microstates where that obtains is many many many orders of magnitude less than the number of microstates where the air is roughly evenly distributed, and so is practically impossible. But the odds are not non-zero.

    Now if you mean that in the same way I would say “it is impossible to put air in a box and, without a barrier or force or anything, have the air go on one side” which is what I would say in everyday life, then obviously we agree. If, however, you mean the odds are identically 0, then you are wrong and we do not agree.

    Wait, I thought you said you were a skeptic and a rationalist. Yet, you appear to be saying that things that we have every reason to think are impossible and none to think are possible are, in fact, possible?

    Possibility and probability are not the same. It is possible that tomorrow it will turn out all of my life was a dream. This does not mean I have reason to believe it, nor that I should. I gave the grue example above, let me spell out my meaning:

    Imagine that in the universe there are two types of emeralds. Half are green, and half are “grue” which means that for the first 100 billion years of their existance they are green and after that they turn blue. Now, how could I ever know if emeralds are green or grue? The way out would be via natural laws, but it is clear that no one in a universe where emeralds are green could ever make any distinguishable observation between their universe and one where emeralds are grue. We merely note that in general we don’t consider such wildly volatile and unjustified changes of laws, which is what would be needed for miracles.

    Yet you know absolutely, with certainty, that they won’t. That that is impossible. So, you are saying that a “miracle” is when the impossible happens? Not the infinitely hugely unlikely, but the outright impossible.

    Furthermore, you load your example, because if the arrow of time were to bring back Mohammed, then he would not have “died” at all. I’m assuming you’re talking about a massive (impossible) causality violation that would bring forward a version of Mohammed before he’d died, rather than bringing the dead Mohammed back to life. Since there is no indication of even a possibility in physics of time suddenly doing that, why would a self-professed skeptic and rationalist like yourself even offer such a farcical impossibility?

    And you try to dismiss me as a sophist?

    No I don’t have certainty. I believe with a probability on the order of .99999…9 that it won’t happen. But it could be that everything I think is true might be wrong, I could be a brain in a vat. I am never willing to believe that something cannot happen unless that thing is literally a contradiction in terms. None of what we have discussed here is.

    Still waiting for your definition of a “miracle.” You gave an example of what you might consider a miracle, but you surely know enough philosophy to know the difference between a definition and an example.

    Look, I don’t have a hard and fast definition, I listed some traits that made sense to me:

    Something that seems impossible given the laws of nature as we believe them to be.
    Something that appears to have some intention behind it, likely with human significance. (CPT violation would be a violation of the laws as we believe them, but it wouldn’t be a miracle, unless by doing so it brought the dead back to life, or something).

    I don’t want to play “hyperphilosopher” where we sit around picking at the definition until we get something thirty pages long that covers every possible quibble. We are talking about the common definition of miracle. I think such an event as the above covers it.

    Look, if you mean would I say in everyday life that a plane made of francium is impossible, I would absolutely agree. Francium decays in a fraction of a fraction of a second so you couldn’t build it.

    But if I am arguing with a religious believer who says god himself has made such a plane, and broke the laws of physics to do it, I can’t argue based on physics. The argument then relies on Stephanie’s above discussion.

    Ultimately, I think you are playing fast and loose with the definition of impossible. I would ask you, if you want to continue this conversation, to denote if you mean:

    Physically possible: Possible given the laws of physics as we understand them
    A priori possible: Possible given that we have no knowledge of any laws, facts, etc. (If a universe were being made on a blank slate)

    Because I agree miracles are physically impossible, but I disagree that they are a priori impossible. We could have lived in a universe exactly as written in the Bible(minus contradictions, obviously). We just happen not to. Similarly, we could live in a universe that will turn out that on May 15th 2013 will turn into just such a universe. It’s just that we have no reason whatsoever to believe it is the case. But it isn’t a priori impossible, though it is of course physically impossible(trivially).

    (Also i did mean that Mohammad was brought back to life, not that he was time traveled. Nonetheless if you think this constitutes a meaningful difference with respect to its status as a miracle, I find it hard not to call your arguments sophistic.)

  38. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    Yeah, sorry about that, I just feel like I want to clarify because we should be able to come to agreement, but if this is a bother I can stop!

  39. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    Ack, I mean the odds are not zero, not non zero above. I should do a better job proofreading before I post… Also sorry for the awful italics. I don’t know what happened there :0

  40. hjhornbeck says

    martinc @32:

    many of the theists I argue with are applying Occam’s Razor as they see it because their ignorance of the implications of postulating a God makes “there’s an all-knowing all-powerful creator who did it all” seem a simpler argument than the complex process of actually learning how the universe works.

    That’s an incorrect usage of the Razor, as it must be applied equally to all hypothesis and they’re excluding two important ones: I have no explanation or knowledge, and/or I am mistaken. They are saying that it is far more likely for an infinitely powerful being to exist, than for them to be ignorant of how the universe works, to some degree, or that they are wrong about how it works.

    When you apply Ockham correctly, the gods will always lose.

  41. hjhornbeck says

    zhuge @33:

    I am not denying occqms razor. I am saying that if, today, a man came down from the heavens, announced himself to be Jesus Christ and accurately solved all the millenium problems, I’d be inclined to call it a miracle. (Perhaps I leave too much unsaid. […])

    The unsaid bits do not matter, because you are still not justified in calling that a miracle. Which hypothesis is more likely:

    1. God and Jesus exist.
    2. The Jesus you’re seeing is a hyper-intelligent space alien.
    3. The Jesus you’re seeing is a time traveler attempting to insert a myth into the timestream.
    4. A stroke knocked something lose in your brain, resulting in hyper-intelligence and a lucky break when it came to that problem, but it manifests in the form of a delusion of Jesus Christ.

    I may not know your answer, but I know with certainty which is the least likely. And as all the hypothesis have equal evidence in their favor, that one is cleaved off as unworthy of belief.

  42. hjhornbeck says

    (I should also be clear: our views are nearly identical. I’m just pointing out a minor contradiction in yours, one that few people seem willing to acknowledge in practice, but makes a huge difference when arguing god and miracle claims.)

  43. hjhornbeck says

    zhuge @37:

    Imagine that in the universe there are two types of emeralds. Half are green, and half are “grue” which means that for the first 100 billion years of their existance they are green and after that they turn blue. Now, how could I ever know if emeralds are green or grue?

    I always found the “green”/”grue” argument to be silly:

    1. Both hypotheses have equal evidence.
    2. “Grue” rests on more assumptions than “green.”
    3. Ergo, Ockham’s Razor says “green” should be favored over “grue.”

    The obvious reply is to metaphorically fast-forward to the 100 billion year mark, and note some things turn blue. Ha ha, you say, I came to a false belief!

    And yeah, I did. But so what? Do we chastise the Ancient Greeks for failing to come up with Quantum Mechanics or Germ Theory? No, we are not accountable for our ignorance. If I had no idea stepping out my door today would trigger WWIII, I’m blameless if I step out my front door. If I knew it was an unreasonably small possibility, a one-in-a-billion shot, then I’m still blameless. If I knew it was a reasonable possibility, however, then blame can be assigned.

    So even if future generations find out that I’m wrong about the existence of a god, I’m still fully justified in saying today that there are no gods, based on the evidence I have at hand, and acting that way.

  44. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says


    I always found the “green”/”grue” argument to be silly:

    1. Both hypotheses have equal evidence.
    2. “Grue” rests on more assumptions than “green.”
    3. Ergo, Ockham’s Razor says “green” should be favored over “grue.”

    The obvious reply is to metaphorically fast-forward to the 100 billion year mark, and note some things turn blue. Ha ha, you say, I came to a false belief!

    It’s not about pointing and laughing, obviously. It’s about pointing out the limits to our knowledge, and in particular inductive knowledge. Yes, applying Occam’s razor does in fact defuse this situation. But that’s not the context in which we are discussing. Rather, some religious folk will use the fact that we can’t know for certain that these laws will continue to hold(that the emerald is green and not grue) in order to argue that miracles can happen. What I believe Stephanie argued, and what I am arguing, is that we can’t appeal to science to remove this belief, but rather point out the special favor we would be granting religious claims that we grant to literally no other claims and the tenuousness of such a rationale.

    And yeah, I did. But so what? Do we chastise the Ancient Greeks for failing to come up with Quantum Mechanics or Germ Theory? No, we are not accountable for our ignorance. If I had no idea stepping out my door today would trigger WWIII, I’m blameless if I step out my front door. If I knew it was an unreasonably small possibility, a one-in-a-billion shot, then I’m still blameless. If I knew it was a reasonable possibility, however, then blame can be assigned.

    So even if future generations find out that I’m wrong about the existence of a god, I’m still fully justified in saying today that there are no gods, based on the evidence I have at hand, and acting that way.

    Sure! Has anyone here argued otherwise? I know I certainly haven’t. I have not once suggested that we ought to believe or lend even the remotest credence to claims of miracles. My only claim has been that physics does not render miracles “capital I” impossible.

    I am saying that we should set our Baysean priors for miracles not at .999, nor at .5, but at some tiny number hovering ever so close to- but not- zero. Because there are things that would lead me to believe a miracle had occurred.

    I note again: The entire point I am arguing is that physics does not 100% rule out the possibility of miracles, and in principle cannot. It was argued in point 2 that it could, in a way that I though was founded on poor science and poor philosophy. I am not arguing that you should believe in miracles, that miracles are physically possible, or that miracles are even remotely likely to happen in the universe. I am merely arguing that we cannot know with 100% certainty that they cannot happen, but to make such an argument in their favor is what amounts to special pleading.


    The unsaid bits do not matter, because you are still not justified in calling that a miracle. Which hypothesis is more likely:

    1. God and Jesus exist.
    2. The Jesus you’re seeing is a hyper-intelligent space alien.
    3. The Jesus you’re seeing is a time traveler attempting to insert a myth into the timestream.
    4. A stroke knocked something lose in your brain, resulting in hyper-intelligence and a lucky break when it came to that problem, but it manifests in the form of a delusion of Jesus Christ.

    I may not know your answer, but I know with certainty which is the least likely. And as all the hypothesis have equal evidence in their favor, that one is cleaved off as unworthy of belief.

    Look, if there is some creature out there that created the known universe, is exceptionally powerful, and has a strong love for all life, I am willing to call that God. If you want to call that a hyper intelligent, hyper powerful, hyper benevolent space alien then sure, whatever, but I am willing to call what it does miraculous in the colloquial sense.

    I recognize that experiencing such would certainly make me question my sanity, but it would seem to me that if I could find no evidence of insanity, and there was no way I could be hurting people outside of myself, it would probably be best to believe what my eyes were showing me.

    But ultimately, this is an epistemic claim: You are arguing we should never believe in miracles. I was the one who brought Hume into this discussion, and am well aware of these arguments. I have said I would be willing to believe that these things were miracles if they happened. Admittedly I started conflating epistemology and metaphysics myself above by bringing in the mathematics, and this was an error.

    My claim was that metaphysically miracles are possible, and while it may be the case that if I experience a miracle I am better off assuming I am dreaming, it in no way denies the possibility of miracles in the absolute.

    (I note that I also conflate epistemology and metaphysics when I bring Baysean priors into the discussion. It is my belief that if I do not have 100% definitive proof something cannot happen- which I would take to be something that by definition cannot be- then I should never set that prior to zero. Because it could be the case that there is some possible evidence about which I cannot even conceive, which would serve to convince me that the claim is true, and I feel I ought to always leave that remote possibility open. I would not want, in the face of such evidence, to simply close my eyes and ears.)

  45. hjhornbeck says

    zhuge @44:
    [quick tip: if you want to quote someone, copy-paste the text <blockquote>and surround it with blockquote tags.</blockquote> That makes it easier to read, and thus follow along.]

    Rather, some religious folk will use the fact that we can’t know for certain that these laws will continue to hold(that the emerald is green and not grue) in order to argue that miracles can happen. What I believe Stephanie argued, and what I am arguing, is that we can’t appeal to science to remove this belief

    Certainly we can! Science is Bayesian inference applied to truth claims, Ockham’s Razor is a special case of Bayesian inference, and therefore science can invoke Ockham’s Razor and remove this belief. You yourself implicitly do this in the surrounding text:

    Yes, applying Occam’s razor does in fact defuse this situation. […] but rather point out the special favor we would be granting religious claims that we grant to literally no other claims and the tenuousness of such a rationale.

    Ockham’s Razor is in your epistemology, and selectively applying epistemologies is a no-no. What is an epistemology? It’s a way to acquire knowledge, or (wait for it) something designed to evaluate truth claims. Ergo, either your epistemology contains Bayesian inference, or it is Bayesian inference.

    I am merely arguing that we cannot know with 100% certainty that they cannot happen, but to make such an argument in their favor is what amounts to special pleading.

    We’re starting to repeat ourselves here. I argue that logical impossibilities are treated identically to practical impossibilities; you argue they are not. Maybe it’s time I pulled out my favorite apologetic on the matter, and gave it a whirl:

    We’ll say the median person lives to around age 80; thus, you have a 50-50 chance of lasting to that age. There are roughly 365.25-ish days in a year, so by solving p^(80*365.25) = 0.5, we find that the odds of you dying on any given day are 0.00237%. Now, I think we can both agree that death is very traumatic, probably the worst experience of most conscious creatures. And yet, are you worried about dying today? Has the thought entered into your head at all? I seriously doubt it. This leaves us with a paradox:

    A very traumatic event with odds of 0.00237%: not worth thinking about.
    A comparatively trivial occurrence with odds of 0.00000000…. 1-ish%: worthy of consideration.

    Now, you might be arguing this is all very spherical cow, since we know the odds of dying are not constant throughout life. You’ve got a point, but I’ve looked up the actual numbers and my simplified calculations are only an order of magnitude too high for the best-case scenario.

    Look, if there is some creature out there that created the known universe, is exceptionally powerful, and has a strong love for all life, I am willing to call that God. If you want to call that a hyper intelligent, hyper powerful, hyper benevolent space alien then sure, whatever, but I am willing to call what it does miraculous in the colloquial sense.

    Ah, so you’re using a different definition of “god.” I doubt you’ll get many religious people to agree with your definition, but at least yours is infinitely more plausible than theirs. You’re doing the same with “miracle” too, I see, but again you’re using in contrary to the commonly-known definition. Both are valid moves, but you should have declared you were using non-standard definitions in the first place. It would have saved both of us some trouble.

    My claim was that metaphysically miracles are possible

    [raises eyebrow]

    Uh, doesn’t the term “metaphysical” have the same problems as “supernatural?” How can you acquire any knowledge about the metaphysical, if by definition everything you interact with is physical? We proportion belief according to evidence, and so a claim with no evidence is not worthy of belief.

    So why do you believe anything about “metaphysics,” even the very existence of the subject?

  46. zhuge, le homme blanc qui ne sait rien mais voudrait says

    I think we are using lots of words differently, including metaphysics.

    But my question would be, you encounter someone who claims to have two postulates in their epistemology:

    1. They use Bayesian probability

    2. They start with a belief in god that has a Bayesian prior set at 1(absolute faith)

    How do you convince this person, using only physic or Bayesian probability, that god does not exist? Or must you appeal to some other principle or observation?

  47. hjhornbeck says

    zhuge @46:

    But my question would be, you encounter someone who claims to have two postulates in their epistemology:

    1. They use Bayesian probability
    2. They start with a belief in god that has a Bayesian prior set at 1(absolute faith)

    How do you convince this person, using only physic or Bayesian probability, that god does not exist?

    In Bayesian Inference, all claims should never have priors of 0 or 1. The entire algorithm is intended to be iteratively applied until the consequent probability either falls below the cut-off (it is pragmatically certain) or does not (certainty cannot be justified); setting the prior to 0 or 1 prevents this iterative process from working, and is contrary to how the algorithm is supposed to work.

    If we translate this to epistemology, all claims that are not equivalent to at least one of the core premises of Bayesian inference cannot have priors of 0 or 1. Either this person has redefined “god” to mean “the law of non-contradiction,” or something similar; they are incorrectly applying their epistemology; or they are a presuppositionalist. My arguments against the latter are long, but basically the concept of existence is contingent on evidence, which is simply a type of claim, and since all claims cannot be certain it follows that any declaration of existence cannot be a core premise of an empiric epistemology.

    There’s also the problem of reasoning someone out of a position they did not reach via reason. I actually had someone give me this argument, straight up:

    1. I possess free will.
    2. This means I am free to believe whatever I want, no matter what evidence or reality suggest.
    3. I believe in God.
    4. From 2 and 3, it follows that nothing you say can prevent me from believing in God, and I can ignore any and all evidence you bring my way.

    No-one can argue against that, except the believer themselves.

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