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Oct 14 2010

Theism is the default position?

Michael Ochoa posted a link to a video and asked me to debunk it. Normally, I’d skip requests like this, as I have too much on my plate…but sometimes I get in a mood and just go for it. Here’s the first (and only draft) of a response to the video:

P1 – In order to accept that our rational faculties are reliable, initial sensory experiences of the world must be accepted until proven incorrect. In other words, these experiences must be considered default positions.

This might be true for infants, who lack the wealth of knowledge with which to assess and evaluate the brains interpretation of sensory input, but it is not necessarily true for adults who are cognizant of the ability of our brains to misinterpret sensory data and who have a wealth of comparative experience with which to assess initial interpretations.

For example, we understand that what we see (or, more accurately, think we see) is not always accurate and that our initial assessment of other sensory data ultimately proves incorrect. Realizing this, we are only acting rationally if we tentatively proportion our belief to the quality and quantity of evidence.

In his example about a mirage, he has no reason to question the mirage until he’s given evidence that it might be false. That’s true and it’s the infant position. However, the instant one becomes aware that one can be mistaken, both in perception and in inferences based on those perceptions one is no longer rationally justified in accepting all initial perceptions at face value.

Premise 1, in simplest terms, is simply an assertion that we are justified in accepting our first impressions until they are proven wrong. This is demonstrably false and intellectually childish. Anyone who has ever witnessed a conjurer’s trick understands that the mental image their brain has compiled from the sensory data simply does not map to reality. The same is true for any number or other examples where we can understand that the brain simply doesn’t have enough information to accurately perceive events.

Only someone convinced that they could never be mistaken could hold this sort of view and remain intellectually honest. The rest of us should try to think like grown-ups and reserve belief for those things which are sufficiently supported by evidence (unless, of course, we don’t care whether or not our beliefs are true).

Premise 1 is simply a denial of rational skepticism (he even uses the ‘rigid skepticism’ dilemma to underscore this – but ignores the truth about rational skepticism) and is a gross oversimplification for the purposes of propping up the rest of the argument. Rational skepticism holds that acceptance of claims be apportioned to the evidence, whereas this premise ignores the complexities involved in rationally determining if a belief is justified and instead simply attempts to shift the burden of proof by proclaiming that one is justified in accepting one’s first impressions until they are proven wrong.

P2 – The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe is an initially sensed experience.

No, it isn’t. It is an inference that the brain makes by comparing the internal model of the sensed experienced to other things that the brain already holds to be true. It is, the conclusion of an argument by analogy – and it’s one that we understand may be flawed. It’s also one that can be tested by scientific exploration.

We’ve done this and identified many instances where one may perceive intelligent, purposeful design where no such inference is justified.
Attempting to call one’s inference of design “initially sensed experience” is a rather clumsy attempt to fabricate a predicate link to Premise 1.

P3 – Hence, the belief in a designed universe, which automatically infers a designer, is in fact the default position until proven otherwise.

This directly follows from the first two premises and (given the flaws in the first two) it is unsound. (Nullifying the rest of the argument…)

The fact that he thinks this is where he’ll get the most objections is rather silly. It is only when he asserts that the designer is an intentional, intelligent agent that he runs into trouble, but he doesn’t do that until P4. As this stands, it is a direct conclusion from the first two premises… hence, the “hence”.

P4 – The concept of God (a purposeful, intelligent agent outside the universe that cannot be detected by our senses) is the most tenable explanation for the identity of this designer.

There’s no need to continue until the first premises are fixed, but I’d like to point out how really bad this argument is, so we’ll keep going.
Premise 4 defines a particular god-concept and asserts – without demonstration – that this particular god-concept is the best explanation. Without a demonstration, this premise can simply be rejected.

Additionally, the definition given isn’t simply a theistic proposition. It goes further and without justification. A theistic god need not be “outside the universe” or undetectable and, indeed, many would hold that their god is detectable and operating within the universe.

And here, too, we run into another bit of cognitive dissonance in his argument: outside the universe.

By what right can anyone invoke a claim that any such thing exists? Do we have any direct experience of ‘outside the universe’? Do we have appearance of this? Do we have any initial sensory experience of this? By what right can people assert ‘outside the universe’ or ‘before time’?

C – Hence, Theism is the default position until proven otherwise.

This entire argument essentially reads as:

1. I’m justified in believing whatever my first perception is, until proven wrong.
2. My first perception is to infer design.
3. I am justified in believing the universe is designed until you prove me wrong.
4. I’m convinced that the best explanation for the design I perceive is God X.
C. Therefore, belief in God X is justified until proved wrong.

This argument is dishonest at virtually every point and it is nothing more than a denial of rational skepticism and a blatant shifting of the burden of proof. This isn’t fundamentally different than the obstinate theist who claims “You can’t prove me wrong!” – and thus it fails to all of the objections we would launch at that simplified argument.

The inability to disprove something doesn’t make it a justified default position. You can’t disprove the claim that there are clones of every one of us living on a planet in the Andromeda galaxy – but that doesn’t mean that we’re justified in accepting it as the default position.

It is trivial to demonstrate that our initial perceptions are often mistaken and we have a pretty good understanding of why some people see the appearance of design – and why their inference of intelligent design in nature is unsupported, at best, and incorrect, at worst.

And even if we didn’t already understand how so much of this was wrong, sticking your fingers in your ears and demanding that someone prove you wrong is a childish argument – no matter how you try to dress it up.

28 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin

    "P2 – The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe""P3 – Hence, the belief in a designed universeNotice the jump between appearance of design to the belief that there is design? In premise three, it should be that the belief of the appearance of design in the universe is the default position. Since this in no way infers that it actually is designed, it doesn't really pose a problem. It just makes the argument invalid.

  2. 2
    JT

    Wouldn't the default position change from person to person then?So, apparently the default position is Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Santa Claus, Cthulu, Karora, Njirana, Nonomain, Ungud, Baal, Bes, Bast, Ceres, Atlas, Artemis, Gaia, Iris, Fenrir, Geb, Frigg, Jesus, Ki, Leto, Neith, Shu, Utu, Odin, Turtles all the way down, Atheism, Zeus, Thor and the tooth fairy… all at the same time.It doesn't seem very practical.

  3. 3
    Kansas Humanist

    That means I can say to the proponent of this drival:I dont know why but when I first saw you I just had the impression that you are a pedphile who secretly wants to diddle children. Since first impressions are true until PROVEN false, I KNOW you secretly want to diddle children until you PROVE, not just deny, otherwise. Good luck presenting any evidence that you dont secretly want to diddle children. And until you do, I am justified in seeing you as a grave danger to children. And further (taking a page from religion) I am justified in taking drastic action based upon this beleif so I am going to put your name on the sexual predators list or lock you up in a sexual predator wing of a locked down mental hospital. Have a nice life!Allen

  4. 4
    James Francesco

    So his explanation of the validity of a being he uses to support objective morality is based on a subjective delusion? Awesome

  5. 5
    ChaosSong

    "…God (a purposeful, intelligent agent outside the universe that cannot be detected by our senses)…"Wow! Look at that beard! Occam, get your razor!A blind, non-intelligent agent inside the universe is equally plausible if not more so.Also note that there is no mention of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, or omnibenevolence – these have always been my favorite poniards upon which to hoist theistic arguments.

  6. 6
    Defaithed

    Hey, that video is fun! Let me play its game, too!1. I'm justified in believing whatever my first perception is, until proven wrong.2. Looking at the existence of disease, my first perception is to infer malevolent intent behind sickness.3. I am justified in believing malevolent intent is behind sickness until you prove me wrong.4. I'm convinced that the best explanation for the malevolent intent I perceive is ethereal plague vampires.C. Therefore, belief in ethereal plague vampires is justified until proved wrong.Awesome! I'm gonna be all believey about everything now!

  7. 7
    Me

    @ Allen: I've used pretty much that exact counterargument in response to this crap.

  8. 8
    Lukas

    Let's try another argument:P1 – In order to accept that our rational faculties are reliable, initial sensory experiences of the world must be accepted until proven incorrectP2 – God is defined as a purposeful, intelligent agent outside the universe that cannot be detected by our sensesP3 – It follows from P2 that no one has ever had any sensory experience of god.C – The non-existence of god should be taken as the default position until proven otherwise.I think it's very telling that I can use his premise to reach the opposite conclusion. Seems to suggest that there's something very wrong.

  9. 9
    John K.

    I am always amused by descriptions of god as "outside the universe". You may as well say "outside of reality", which is what atheists have been saying about god all along.This argument cannot even move the goalpost, it has already been set outside of the universe and beyond what our senses can detect. Such a being can have no effect on the universe, otherwise it might be detected.I have no idea why so many theists cling to this argument, it is very nearly an admission that their god cannot do anything and is not real at all.

  10. 10
    Thomas

    @KevinP1 states that the initial appearance, however superficial it may be, is reality. So, based on that premise, one could look at P2 and say "it looks designed, therefore it is". Or one could also say "it looks like there is no god, so therefore there isn't". Or "judging by the fact that you have no exposure outside of youtube, it looks like god doesn't want people to listen to your arguments."

  11. 11
    Mark B

    "P1 – In order to accept that our rational faculties are reliable, initial sensory experiences of the world must be accepted until proven incorrect. In other words, these experiences must be considered default positions."I'm actually going to agree with this premise. I think where it goes wrong is failing to acknowledge that mere sensory input is nothing more than that. Then comes pattern recognition. Then comes inference. Then conclusions.In other words, first comes perception. Then interpretation, which is based on our knowledge set. It's at this point that investigation of fact begins, not at perception. You can infer design, but you can't perceive it.

  12. 12
    Mark

    @Mark B: I think the point Matt was making was the same that you made, that a 'position' is derived from our perceptions, but is not the same as a perception. So I'm only commenting on a technicality, but one shouldn't agree with such a premise because it is invalid, even if part of it is on the right track. I completely agree with you about everything else you said. :)A more nuanced premise would be that all sensory experiences must be interpreted as part of any rational analysis, but any perception prior to that analysis can be accepted as phenomenologically valid, but not necessarily representative of reality (e.g., if you see a mirage, whether you know what you see, you still see something and could describe it, but that description might not match reality). But of course that would be a very different premise.

  13. 13
    Mark B

    Mark:What I was saying was P1–standing alone–is correct as read. It's when they try and bypass all that goes into processing sensory input straight to cosmological conclusions that they go wrong. In other words, almost immediately, LOL. Otherwise I totally agree with you that it's a fallacious argument. I guess I'm just trying to pinpoint the exact place where they slip up. After all, apologetics try to sound reasonable on the surface, and I think that's what they're trying to do–"we all trust our senses, don't we?". Sure, but that doesn't mean we should trust our conclusions.

  14. 14
    Mark

    Right. But it's not correct, for the reasons you and Matt pointed out. We don't have to wait for them to get further into the argument to go wrong, it's already wrong right there in P1 where they say an experience must be considered a default position. It claims that an experience is the same thing as a conclusion, which you rightly point out isn't true.Back to the mirage example, if we'd never seen a mirage before we would probably describe it as something which looks like water. But if we describe it like that we've gone beyond the undeniable experience of perceiving something – we've made the tentative conclusion that it looks like water. A default position, not an experience, and a position which we are not required to accept.So you see, they're actually going from processing sensory input straight to conclusions in P1. It's true that they then go further to cosmological conclusions, but they're already off the rails before then.

  15. 15
    magx01

    As much as I disagree with the overall argument presented here, I have to agree with premise 2:"The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe is an initially sensed experience."We do see patterns, infer purpose, and assume design by default. Children do this all th etime when making inferences based on observations of the world around them. That rock was put there as a resting place for that lizard, etc. I disagree with the rest, of course.

  16. 16
    Mark

    @magx01: Hmm… The problem with that premise is in the term "sensed experience". It is making the claim that we *perceive* design, not that we *infer* it, as you rightly mentioned.That's demonstrably false – show someone an ambiguous image and often they will tell you they see something. Something which definitely isn't there. If it were true that we *perceive* patterns/design, it would not be possible for us to see patterns which don't exist.And P2 is even worse than that. It's making the claim that we perceive things which are purely conceptual. That's plain nonsense.

  17. 17
    Lukas

    @MarkI agree. The phrase "initial sensory experiences" is used quite ambiguously. If it truly means "initial sensory experiences", then design does not fall in this category since, as you mention, it's really an inference, not a directly sensed experience.If we expand the category to include things like design and intent, then P1 essentially comes to mean: "whatever I happen to believe is the default position".Definitely needs to be clarified if the argument is to be taken seriously.

  18. 18
    magx01

    I was working with the knowledge that perceptions can be erroneous. If to perceive something is to correctly identify it, then I retract my initial agreement.

  19. 19
    Mark

    @Lukas: Agreed.@magx01: Even then the premise is still false, for the 2nd reason I mentioned. 'purpose/design/intention' are conceptual. You don't sense/perceive concepts. As Matt said, you infer them based on perceptions and prior knowledge.If P2 said, "The appearance of purpose, intention and order (Design) in the Universe is an initially infered experience" then it would be correct, at least developmentaly. It's not necessarily true for all adults tho – many of us have developed knowledge which prompts us to infer something other than purpose/design/intention where doing so is inappropriate. So in that case even the modified P2 would only be correct for a subset of the population, the young and the uneducated, or those biased towards believing there is purpose/design/intention where there is none. So it can't be used in support of an argument which claims purpose/design/intention/theism is the default. As Lukas pointed out, it relies on already holding that belief.

  20. 20
    magx01

    Can't argue with that.

  21. 21
    Asadullah Ali

    Matt D.This is actually my argument and is the older version. I have a newer revised version. In the meantime, I might return to give reason as to why your objections aren't exactly on point.-Ali

  22. 22
    Asadullah Ali

    Alright, fun time. First of all, this is just the beta version of my argument. I've already mapped out the issues and unfortunately none of what you stated was part of that, Mr. Dilahunty.I would like to respond, however, given that I feel some of your points are worth objecting to for the sake of clearing up the misconception that many atheists have regarding skepticism and what constitutes as a "default position".Ultimately, the views you hold are anti-scientific and anti-realists in nature. Allow me to explain. You first say the following:This might be true for infants, who lack the wealth of knowledge with which to assess and evaluate the brains interpretation of sensory input, but it is not necessarily true for adults who are cognizant of the ability of our brains to misinterpret sensory data and who have a wealth of comparative experience with which to assess initial interpretations.Actually, it's true of infants and adults. Just because one understand they may be mistaken in their initial impressions does not necessitate by any means that they must accept that they are. The fact that I may believe that I see an illusion is entirely dependent on the idea that there is something really there to begin with. In other words, illusions are simply appearances of a different nature, different reality. We are not born into this world or mature in this world with the idea that everything around us is an illusion. We verify whether something is an illusion based on seeing the reality behind the appearance, which is a result of our rational/sensory faculties interpreting the world around us. So I may think what I see isn't the real thing, but I have no reason to actually believe that to be the case nor do I have any sufficient reason to suspect that I shouldn't believe it's real unless other experiences yield results in favor of that. I can only see one justifying the contrary if they believe in Solipsism, which to my mind isn't a tenable position. You try to justify this position by the following:Realizing this, we are only acting rationally if we tentatively proportion our belief to the quality and quantity of evidence.Once again, this is simply false. While it is certainly the case that we should require evidence for particular claims it should only be prompted if we have good reason to suspect that we need said evidence. We shouldn't apply this universally, nor do we have to.When I walk outside and see a tree I don't get the initial impression that I need evidence to know whether or not said object is a tree. If I know for a fact that I had been administered drugs prior to walking outside, maybe then I am given a reason, but in the meantime it's safe to believe (because I have no other option given what I am basically 'programmed' with from the start) that what I'm experiencing is actually there.

  23. 23
    Asadullah Ali

    Also, we have to distinguish between different contexts. For instance, just because I had good reason to suspect that the magician was using some sort of optical illusion in his show earlier in the day, does not necessitate that I now should suspect everything else being an optical illusion and I should ask for evidence for everything I experience. This is silly and undermines the very skepticism that you wish to promote as well, seeing as it calls that very principle into question.You make this very mistake in the next claim regarding my first premise:Premise 1, in simplest terms, is simply an assertion that we are justified in accepting our first impressions until they are proven wrong. This is demonstrably false and intellectually childish. Anyone who has ever witnessed a conjurer's trick understands that the mental image their brain has compiled from the sensory data simply does not map to reality. The same is true for any number or other examples where we can understand that the brain simply doesn't have enough information to accurately perceive events.Only someone convinced that they could never be mistaken could hold this sort of view and remain intellectually honest. The rest of us should try to think like grown-ups and reserve belief for those things which are sufficiently supported by evidence (unless, of course, we don’t care whether or not our beliefs are true).Your justification is simply to ad hom those who hold the position of realism. I'm sure Sir Karl Popper wouldn't agree with this assessment and neither do I. When you have to resort to claiming that the person's position is "childish", then you should expect me to return the accusation given the lack of substance in your objection.Your response to premise 2:No, it isn't. It is an inference that the brain makes by comparing the internal model of the sensed experienced to other things that the brain already holds to be true. It is, the conclusion of an argument by analogy – and it's one that we understand may be flawed. It’s also one that can be tested by scientific exploration.We’ve done this and identified many instances where one may perceive intelligent, purposeful design where no such inference is justified.Attempting to call one's inference of design "initially sensed experience" is a rather clumsy attempt to fabricate a predicate link to Premise 1.This is where I may not have been clear given the fact that I didn't define "experience" well enough. Experience includes the inference, given that the ability to infer as such is innate. We aren't empty heads waiting to be flooded with information. There are indeed experiences where we are mistaken about what we see, but this is only because we verify it based on more data. In other words, we agree here, but yet for some reason you seem to believe that one mistaken interpretation applies universally, which I think I've pointed to earlier as being seriously mistaken. I may go through the rest later, but for right now I want to put forth a little problem regarding your stance on "default positions". If the default position is to not accept a claim until it is proven by sufficient evidence, then how do you solve the fact that your claim regarding the default position has to be justified by evidence as well? And in having to be justified, does this not lead to an infinite regress of justifications? If not, then you've undermined your view on skepticism since it is based on non-skeptical assumptions.Hope I've fleshed that out. Take care.-Ali

  24. 24
    Lukas

    If the default position is to not accept a claim until it is proven by sufficient evidence, then how do you solve the fact that your claim regarding the default position has to be justified by evidence as well?I'll just quickly deal with this one, since I've run into that one before and have a counter lying ready. I'll prove it by reductio ad absurdum:1)The default position can be either belief or disbelief (understood as not accepting the proposition, not as believing the opposite). This is a true dichotomy.2)Two hypothetical statements; A and B, are mutually exclusive and neither has evidence to prove or disprove it.3)The default position is belief4)From 2 & 3:We should believe both A and B5)Since A and B are contradictory, 4 is an absurd notion and we must reject premise 36)Since we have rejected premise 3, we must accept the only alternative: The default position is disbelief.I can see an objection might be that in the specific cases where there are contradictory claims, we do not rely on belief as the default position. However, it is possible to invent contradictory claims in almost all situations, even if we haven't yet.In effect, this is simply granting the point that belief as a default is absurd.This may relate to the rest of your argument. If "initially sensed experience" includes inferences, then wouldn't the idea "maybe I'm hallucinating and none of this is real" also count as an "initially sensed experience"?How do you draw the line, exactly?I'm not sure how you avoid what I wrote earlier: whatever I happen to believe is the default position

  25. 25
    Mark

    The default position is not the most intuitively obvious one.

  26. 26
    Asadullah Ali

    Lucas,You stated the following:1)The default position can be either belief or disbelief (understood as not accepting the proposition, not as believing the opposite). This is a true dichotomy.2)Two hypothetical statements; A and B, are mutually exclusive and neither has evidence to prove or disprove it.3)The default position is belief4)From 2 & 3:We should believe both A and B5)Since A and B are contradictory, 4 is an absurd notion and we must reject premise 36)Since we have rejected premise 3, we must accept the only alternative: The default position is disbelief.The entirety of this argument is based on premise (1). I reject premise (1) because it cannot be disbelief and I've already provided an argument for that conclusion. You also seem to arbitrarily assert premise (3). You then say:I can see an objection might be that in the specific cases where there are contradictory claims, we do not rely on belief as the default position.However, it is possible to invent contradictory claims in almost all situations, even if we haven't yet.In effect, this is simply granting the point that belief as a default is absurd.What we "invent" has nothing to do with what is a default position. Inventing something runs counter to a naturally disposed belief.You then say:This may relate to the rest of your argument. If "initially sensed experience" includes inferences, then wouldn't the idea "maybe I'm hallucinating and none of this is real" also count as an "initially sensed experience"?Are you trying to say that the first impression of this world includes the idea of hallucinations before experiencing hallucinations? For instance, I may in fact have hallucinations, but if I have no way of confirming that, why would I call it as such? And if I do happen to have hallucinations and my mental states are affected by that on a frequent basis, then yes, in fact I would have to question my experiences. How do you draw the line, exactly?In what sense? I am arguing for an objective default position based on naturally disposed beliefs which are normative to the human species. I don't see what real lines need to be drawn. It's sort of like asking where you draw the line between a mentally healthy person and a mentally unstable one, while assuming no line can be drawn. Obviously we can draw lines, and we do. I'm not sure how you avoid what I wrote earlier:whatever I happen to believe is the default positionEasy, it's a strawman.

  27. 27
    Lukas

    Ok, I've been trying to write a response and failing. I suspect we have a communications bump, so let me try to sort this out. Basically, we're talking about two separate subjects:1) your complete argument2) your claim that belief should (universally) be the default positionI'll deal exclusively with 2 here, since that's where I started and since it's more basic than 1.I took this statementIf the default position is to not accept a claim until it is proven by sufficient evidence, then how do you solve the fact that your claim regarding the default position has to be justified by evidence as well?to mean that you, generally speaking, oppose the idea that disbelief should be the default position. If that's not what you meant, then please clarify.If that is what you meant, then I think my argument holds, showing quite clearly that belief as default leads to absurdities. It simply isn't workable and that's why we should accept the only alternative: disbelief.A few points:The entirety of this argument is based on premise (1). I reject premise (1) because it cannot be disbelief and I've already provided an argument for that conclusion.It's not legitimate for you to reject this premise, since all it really says is that there are two options that we are discussing. Rejection of premise one is tantamount to saying "your position doesn't even warrant being discussed." Presumably you can see the problem with that.You also seem to arbitrarily assert premise (3)It's not arbitrary. Rather, it's the whole point of a reductio ad absurdum argument. I assume your position in order to show that doing so leads to an absurd conclusion. To ensure complete clarity, here's a few more points:I define 'belief' as 'accepting a claim as true'.I define 'disbelief' as 'not accepting a claim as true'I define 'default position' as 'the position held with regard to any given claim in the absence of evidence. In other words, I'm discussing the universal default position.It is my position that the default position should be disbelief, since belief would lead to believing contradictory claims.

  28. 28
    MrKay

    Thanks, Matt! Your first point just absolutely nailed the essence of what I was trying to communicate in a debate about objectivism vs. subjectivism.

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