More faux-intellectualism: the appeal to other ways of knowing

In this comments thread, we’ve been visited once again by Rhology, who says:

I don’t agree that God is unprovable or unproven. Not provable by naturalistic means, of course, but there’s no reason to restrict ourselves to solely naturalistic means.

What, exactly, are the “non-naturalistic” means that Rho proposes? How do they work? What are their methodologies? Can one use them to test a falsifiable hypothesis and formulate a theory which has predictive power? Rho seems to imply this, since his statement suggests God’s existence can thereby be (and actually has been) proven. But if you’re looking for a real explanation of how to go about seeking knowledge using “non-naturalistic means,” then Rho will disappoint you.

This is the appeal to other ways of knowing, a common bit of hand-waving employed not just by religionists, but practitioners of all manner of woo. Skeptico has also written about this. And I hate to say it, but it seems to be a view that not only has traction amongst the anti-science clods you’d expect, but among people in the scientific community who should know better, usually in a misguided attempt at offering a sop to the ignorant in the belief that those people would simply be too scared of the threat science poses to their precious belief of choice unless the olive branch of appeasement is offered.

Case in point: the National Academy of Sciences has just released a booklet for the lay reader (you can download the whole thing as a free PDF) spelling out the case for evolution and against ID in a very clear, accessible, and commendable way. But the book makes the concessions to religion that has caused guys like PZ Myers and Larry Moran to roll their eyes. “Science and Religion Offer Different Ways of Understanding the World,” trumpets one chapter heading. But they don’t. Not even remotely. Science offers ways of understanding the world, religion offers supernatural beliefs in place of understanding, which actively impede many people’s ability to achieve understanding. It really is a big blemish in an otherwise scientifically sound book. Then again, if the way in which this “different way of understanding” actually works, and how its conclusions can be determined to be just as epistemologically valid as those of science, were actually explained in detail, then I’d happily sing a different tune. But no, we just get the assertion that a “different,” “non-naturalistic” means of examining truth claims exists, and that it’s better, and that anyone who tries to rebut this is simply “making excuses” for science’s own presumed failings. That’s religion for you. No evidence is ever needed, only that whose existence conveniently resides in some “non-naturalistic” realm only discernible to those who have thrown off materialism’s presumptions.

First cause argument and machine guns

Sometimes in apologetics, you get an argument that something (i.e., morality, the universe) cannot exist without a creator. But when you try to pin down the fallacies in these arguments, the person presenting them will often back off to a safer position, such as: “All I’m saying is that there COULD be a God who started everything, and that is at least as plausible as the foolish idea that the universe (or whatever) came into existence without intelligence behind it. Surely you must grant me that much.”

Case in point: a theist wrote to me:

Current observations indicate that order and consistency (e.g., “design”) can arise from intelligence or from undirected events (e.g., Mandelbrot patterns, chance).

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that the design of the universe more likely arose from intelligence (theism/deism) or from undirected events (atheism)?

First of all, just because you have two possible events doesn’t mean that the two must be equally likely. Some people actually play the lottery this way. They reason: “I either win or I don’t. So my odds of winning are 50%.” Wrong. The odds of winning the Texas jackpot are about 3*10^-8, which is way WAY less than 50%. Likewise, even if we grant that the existence of God is “a possibility” that doesn’t necessarily mean that the probability is any more that 10^-googleplex. Just about anything that you make up off the top of your head COULD turn out to be true, but probably isn’t.

But explaining logical fallacies can be difficult when dealing with somebody who is convinced that he’s got an airtight case. So I responded with:

Current observations indicate that people can be killed by machine guns, or by things that are not machine guns.

Given those observations, is there any reason to assume that Julius Caesar was more likely killed by a machine gun, or by a non-machine gun event?

He wasn’t buying it:

We know with reasonable certainty that there were no machine guns during Caesar’s time, so the latter is best assumed.

So what is it that you know about the origin of the big bang that makes your analogy relevant?

But I said:

We certainly do not know that. All we know is that we don’t KNOW of any machine guns in Julius Caesar’s time. Yet we know that it is possible for machine guns to exist. So what is your proof that machine guns did not exist then?

Another thing we know is that it is much easier to kill someone with a machine gun than without one. Given the reasonable belief that Julius Caesar was killed (rather than dying of natural causes), isn’t it fair to say that if there is even a small chance that machine guns existed, then it is at least equally likely that they were used as that they were not?

Why is assuming the existence of something complex, like a machine gun, not plausible to you, when it can be used as a handy explanation for Julius Caesar’s death?

What’s wrong with this logic? As far as I can tell, nothing. Oh sure, it sounds stupid, but I think it’s just as solid as the first cause argument.

The problem with postulating “an intelligence” as the answer to “where did the universe come from?” is that as far as we know, there wasn’t any intelligence available at the time. Intelligence in the world we’re aware of universally requires some kind of brains, and the brains that we know didn’t just happen to exist; they are the end result of billions of years worth of painstaking evolutionary processes.

Could there have been a cosmic super-brain, long before the brains that we know of came into existence? Sure, anything’s possible. And Julius Caesar could have been killed by a machine gun.

But you know, I think he probably wasn’t anyway.