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Oct 01 2007

The Impact of Explanatory Function on Existence: Show #520

For some time I’ve been considering the idea that Christian apologists argue both sides of any issue and call it proof of god or of their doctrine’s validity. Examples would be “faith” versus “reason,” or “god answers prayers” versus “sometimes god answers prayers ‘no,’” or “the world is perfectly suited to human life” versus “the world is an awful place to live because of the horrors we face due to the infiltration of sin via Adam’s disobedience,” and so on.

These no-lose situations reminded me of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that I have come to refer to as “Brian’s Dilemma.” Here is how it works: Brian is trying to convince the masses he’s not the messiah. He says something like, “I’m not the messiah.” And someone in the crowd replies that, “Only the true messiah would deny his own divinity.” Then Brian says, “OK–I am the messiah.” And someone else in the crowd shouts, “Behold! The messiah!”

If everything is proof of X–no matter what the situation or outcome–then nothing can compromise my belief in X. There is no argument or evidence that can penetrate that. But I have to accept the absurdity of my stance that Y=X and –Y=X.

Brian understood that, logically, if only the true messiah would deny his own divinity, then the crowd must reject him as the messiah if he made then made the claim that he was, in fact, the messiah. But Brian overestimated the logical capacity of the masses. He was in a surreal, absurd no-lose (or, in his case no-win) situation–exactly the same situation apologists set up to prove the existence of their god and the validity of their doctrines.

But beyond this absurd apologetic setup is an interesting segue into explanatory power and what X “accounting for” something actually means to the existence of X.

Around this time, I came across two items that also noted the significance of this idea:

http://atheism.about.com/b/a/194807.htm

Austin Cline wrote (regarding parapsychology–not religion): “Hyman’s Categorical Imperative states: Do not try to explain something until you are sure that there is something to be explained. (Quoted from Ray Hyman) Unfortunately, parapsychology appears to be one massive violation of what Hyman advises. There is no particularly good reason to think that there is anything “paranormal” to explain in the first place, much less that parapsychology has anything substantive to offer in terms of explaining human experiences or the universe.”

George Smith, in his book “Why Atheism?” wrote (quoting Thomas Aquinas): “What can be accomplished by a few principles is not effected by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle, which is nature, and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle, which is human reason or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.” (From Summa Theologica).

Just to clarify, Aquinas is simply restating a counterapologetic in this passage and not putting forward this argument himself–as he was an apologist.

Smith considers this as a rephrasing of Occam’s Razor. However, he finds it an odd thing, to imply “that Occam’s Razor, when used to argue that ‘there is no need to suppose God’s existence,’ is relevant to the claim that ‘God does not exist.’ In other words, if there is no cognitive reason to posit the existence of God, if what needs to be explained can be explained by more economical means, then we may conclude that God does not exist.”

Of course, Smith understands that “failure to justify the need for God as an explanatory principle cannot prove his nonexistence,” and “the real existence of a being…does not depend on whether our concept of that being is necessary for explanatory purposes.”

Smith describes belief in Santa. Santa’s main explanatory function is that he is the cause of the many presents under our Christmas trees on Christmas morning. And there is a huge conspiracy one has to overcome to overcome belief in Santa–not just mom and dad, but commercial outlets, media outlets, TV weather tracking (the sleigh’s flight), the postal service (not returning mail to the “North Pole”), and so on. Everyone at every level of our society seems to be a conspirator. And yet one glimpse of those presents in our parents’ closet from “Santa,” and no authoritative claims can hold us to that belief any longer. We don’t rationalize that Santa must simply be using our parents as a means to deliver the presents. (But we do tend to do that for god. And I’m not sure why.)

Smith addresses logical versus material “possibility”–mainly to explain that “logically possible” has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not a thing actually exists–which cannot be too strongly stressed. Both Santa and god are logically possible. But just as the packages sitting under the tree don’t need Santa in order to exist, neither has anyone shown that nature requires god as an explanation. In fact, “nature exists” provides just as much information as “god causes nature to exist,” since nobody has provided any specifics on what “god” is or how exactly it created the cosmos. The answer amounts to “it all got here by some sort of mysterious magic.”

What does it say about the existence of Santa or god if there is no perceptual difference whether either exists or not–if they serve no explanatory function? Once we know the presents will appear with or without Santa–what does that mean for us, intellectually? What would be our reasoning behind assuming X exists, if we perceive nothing of X?

I refer anyone to Carl Sagan’s “The Dragon in My Garage,” if you aren’t already familiar with it, as it beautifully illustrates this point:

http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/Dragon.htm

What Does it say about the existence of X if the world would operate in exactly the same way with or without X? What would be the reasoning behind a claim that X exists? Are we actually using god as an explanation for things that require no explanation? I reviewed the concept of “god answers prayers” that I found at this site, which breaks “how god answers prayer” into categories:

http://www.god-answers.org/Online_Tools/Sermons/PRAYER.htm

I addressed how these “answers” are identical to the results one would get without prayer. In the first category, “god answers prayer through his inspired word,” Christians would find comfort in reading their Bibles whether or not there was any divine intervention, because they believe in god and find comfort in that belief–whether it’s true or not. In the second category, “god answers prayer through natural law,” if natural law is an answer to prayers, it’s fairly obvious that a natural result would occur whether or not one prayed. In the third category, “god answers prayer though people and situations,” it’s very similar to the second; people help one another out all the time–whether or not prayers are incorporated. The fourth category was interesting, as it presumes both a dilemma and a solution, neither of which are not observable or verifiable: God answers prayers “in his own mind” by forgiving sins. Finally, in the event that the prayer is not answered, the Christian should presume god answered “no.” And the Christian is further advised in all prayer situations to “pray like everything depends on god and work like everything depends on you.”

But, if I work to achieve my goals as though I’m completely on my own–how does that differ fro
m how I’d work if I actually was completely on my own? Isn’t the underlying theme in both scenarios simply that “the harder I work to achieve my goals, the more likely I am to actually achieve them”? Does that require a supernatural explanation?

But even with all my hard work, in both scenarios, I still can fail. Remember: Sometimes god answers “no.” Sometimes I get what I want or need, and sometimes I don’t. Interestingly, this is exactly the case for those who do not pray. Why employ a divine explanation for an event that works the same way without divine intervention? Are we simply using god as an explanation for something that requires no explanation?

Creationism/ID also lacks explanatory function while additionally presenting Brian’s Dilemma; however, Brian’s Dilemma, in this case, isn’t even necessary–as Creationism presumes a dilemma that does not appear to even exist (much like the “forgiveness of sins” prayer scenario described earlier).

Creationism/ID posits that the universe, in all its precision, is proof of an intelligent/divine creator who built it for the sole purpose of creating a haven for perfect human existence. But if we point out what would count as flaws in that supposition–such as birth defects, plagues, or tsunamis, we’re told that flaws do indeed exist, because of sin. Ironically, the Creationist and the atheist agree the universe is not a utopia–that it is not perfectly suited to solely and completely benefit humans. Creationists, however, put forward that it was utopian at an earlier stage. Is it necessary to posit that the universe used to be utopian–but later fell into sin and fault–when we could, more easily, acknowledge that universe has probably never been ideally suited to sustain utopian human existence? Aren’t we, in the Creationist scenario, simply using god as an explanation for things that don’t require an explanation?

By making the first unfounded assertion, that the universe should be utopian, we then create the need for the additional explanation for why it’s not utopian. But why claim it was ever utopian in the first place?

If no god had a hand in the formation of this universe, it would make sense that some parts would suit some life–but other parts would not. It makes sense from a naturalistic perspective that when any sort of life arises in this huge, broiling, mostly inhospitable cosmos, that the environment would have to be at least somewhat hospitable–but necessarily utopian? I see no basis for that assertion. And, coincidentally, we all seem to agree that “suitable,” but not “utopian,” is exactly what we’re dealing with in observable reality. But, to support the explanatory need for god, Christians must assert it necessarily used to be utopian.

I also briefly addressed the ID claim of “specified complexity.” One site called it an “unambiguously objective standard” put forward by William Dembski:

http://www.origins.org/articles/indesignfaq.html

“Instead of looking for such vague properties as ‘purpose’ or ‘perfection’–which may be construed in a subjective sense–it looks for the presence of what it calls specified complexity, an unambiguously objective standard.”

I looked up “specified complexity” to see whether or not I agreed it was an “unambiguously objective standard”:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specified_complexity

“Dembski argues that it is impossible for specified complexity to exist in patterns displayed by configurations formed by unguided processes. Therefore, Dembski argues, the fact that specified complex patterns can be found in living things indicates some kind of guidance in their formation, which is indicative of intelligence.”

So, we first assume pattern X cannot naturally occur. We then find pattern X in nature. And rather than acknowledge that, “Well, I’ll be dogged–it does occur in nature,” we simply say that what we’re observing is not possible–even as it sits right before our eyes–and that it actually has to be the handiwork of a god–since our original assumption that this can’t occur in nature can’t possibly be incorrect.

Not only is that not objective, it’s poor, poor science. If a scientist hypothesizes X cannot do Y, then observes X doing Y, he must acknowledge his hypothesis is in error. For example, if I hypothesize that no animal can exist without a brain in nature, and I then discover jellyfish, is it more reasonable for me to assume that my original hypothesis was incorrect, or that jellyfish are unnatural divine manifestations?

Holding to what we believe in the face of independently verifiable, observable facts to the contrary is not an admirable character trait in anyone, but it is most especially egregious for someone commenting in the field of science.

All roads will necessarily lead to god when we start out with the presupposition that the proposition “there is no god” is an absolute impossibility. To such a Christian, there is simply no way the universe can exist without a god; and so, to this Christian, the universe requires a god–no matter what happens in the universe or in what state the universe exists. But even if the Christian could be presented with a universe scenario that would exclude the possibility of an existent god, it’s highly probable that this scenario would simply be set aside as a “mystery,” to be explained later, after we’re all dead—like so many other Christian “mysteries.”

When god becomes the default plug-in explanation for “whatever it is–however it is,” then god can no longer be differentiated from “whatever is.” And god is rendered, in such a case, as serving no explanatory purpose of any kind, exactly like Santa and Sagan’s Dragon, except that god has managed, somehow, to avoid their fate as recognized nonexistent items. Perhaps that’s a mystery that will be explained later, after we’re all dead?

5 comments

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  1. 1
    AmberKatt

    I like Douglas Adams’ analogy for this same situation — the puddle that observes that it dwells in a space that is perfectly suited for it — why, it fits inside this space as if this space was made just for it! Therefore someone or something created this space just for it! Rather than, the puddle adapted itself to fit into the space now enclosing it. Like lifeforms adapt (evolve) to fit into the environments that contain them. Q.E.D.

  2. 2
    Lucas

    Thanks for the analogy with Santa. I was looking for a response to people that, when asked “why do you believe in god?”, simply answered “why not?”. I can now tell them, then why don’t you believe in Santa? Why not? There’s plenty of proof for his existence today, etc, etc.-Lucas , The Atheisthttp://theatheist.blog.com/

  3. 3
    tracieh

    Amberkatt: I agree, the analogy is an excellent one. Matt actually used it on the live program.Lucas: No problem.

  4. 4
    tracieh

    I forgot to mention that an even better example to use in conversations with live apologists is “Alien Abduction.” While Santa has the benefit of being a known nonexistent item, AA is most often viewed by anyone you might encounter as the realm of nutters. But it has all of the evidence of Christianity and more:1. Witnesses who seem otherwise credible. These aren’t people locked in nut houses. They’re working people, wives, mothers, husbands, etc. As the apologists say, “Why would they lie?” And, better than the Bible, all these people are living NOW. We don’t have copies of translations of copies of translations to go by–we have firsthand eye witness testimony (the Bible says 2 witnesses is all it takes to prove your case).2. Martyrs. They suffer for their claims. They are considered nut cases and ridiculed. Why would someone _want_ to be considered a crackpot when they could easily just hide their belief and avoid persecution. Sure this means it has to be a true claim?3. Expert support & personal credibility. Harvard professor/psychiatrist John Mack (who even won a Pulitzer) began speaking to Alien Abductees, and subsequently went from studying a psychological phenomena to affirming there was no psychological explanation for the tales. Some of his biggest “mysteries” were (1) that so many people could present such similar stories independently, (2) that these people were so strongly “changed” by their encounters, and (3) that most of them had no other psychological problems Mack could find–they seemed quite sane by our standards. ALL of these are arguments Xians use to back their view that Xianity must be real. It’s the “Lord, liar, lunatic” apologetic: They are persecuted if they lie–so no identifiable reason to lie. They were shown to not be insane. So their claims must be true.4. Why would so many people believe it if it wasn’t true? No, it’s not a majority–but it’s certainly enough that we’ve all seen the interviews. We are all familiar with the tales. And Mack certainly had a supply of subjects to choose from. Christians say, using LLL apologetic, that the people reporting miracles can’t be lunatics–because how could so many people be lunatics? If that’s valid–then Xians have no basis to reject the AA phenomenon.5. People claiming AA also have physical evidence–pieces of metal removed from their bodies in what they claim are well documented surgical procedures. Photographs certainly abound–is there anyone who HASN’T seen at at least one photo of an alien space craft? Etc. This is MORE than Xianity can present.In fact, the reality that the witnesses are LIVE (not old, revised testimonies from unverified/unknown authors), and that there is physical evidence to back their claims, shows that not only does the AA phenomena meet all the criteria Xians use to present that their belief is “true”–it goes _further_.

  5. 5
    tracieh

    Just to clarify #4: It establishes that there is a phenomona of mass delusion among otherwise sane people. Something Xians claim is impossible to believe. (Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot and Ghosts would be further examples).

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