Second order knowing »« At the Palace

Two sheds

Cara Santa Maria gave a talk at the CFI Summit which I enjoyed a lot. She talked about having tattoos and piercings and always making sure to have the arm tattoo visible when she does public stuff, because she wants young people (and people in general) to realize that scientists can look like her and like them.

She also talked about becoming an atheist at 14, having been raised Mormon, and how difficult that was. Her parents were divorced; her father (but not her mother) was very strictly Mormon; her father told her it was his duty to force her to continue going to church until she was 18. So a gulf opened up between them that lasted for years. It’s powerful, moving stuff.

But I disagreed with some of what she said about religion and atheism.

One item was that she calls herself an agnostic atheist, because after all she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know if there’s a god or not. I think she argued that nobody knows, that we should all call ourselves agnostic atheists or theists, that we can’t know. I don’t remember exactly, but that was the point of what she was saying – that it’s unknowable in both directions.

Yes but. It’s true as far as it goes but it’s not all there is to say. Knowing isn’t the only issue. If you say more of what there is to say, the picture becomes less evenly split between the two – knowing there’s a god, knowing there’s not a god, versus not knowing there’s a god, not knowing there’s not a god. There’s less symmetry if you ask about mental states short of knowing.

Atheism has better reasons to decline to believe there is a god than theism has to believe there is a god.

The two are not even close to symmetrical in that way. What good reasons are there to believe there is a god? Any?

I mean epistemically good reasons. I can of course think of emotionally or psychologically or socially good reasons, but reasons of that kind can be very much in tension with epistemically good reasons.

Another item was naturalism and supernaturalism. She made the familiar claim – science can investigate nature, it has the tools to do that, but science can’t investigate the supernatural, it doesn’t have the tools to do that.

But then she didn’t go on to ask the obvious, glaring, you-have-to-ask-it question: what does have the tools to investigate the supernatural? What tools would those be? Who has them? Where are they?

Framing the familiar claim in the familiar way implies that in fact there are such tools, it’s just that science doesn’t have them, in the sense that they don’t belong to science. I want to know what those tools are.

Suppose you have a tool shed labeled Naturalism. It holds a lot of things – empiricism, testing, falsification, replication, peer review, statistics, instruments, logic, mathematics. Then you have a tool shed labeled Supernaturalism. What’s in that shed? Name me one thing.

 

Comments

  1. sigurd jorsalfar says

    A common trap that non-religious persons fall into when saying they don’t know whether a god exists or not is that they are implicitly concluding that the odds of said god’s existence are about 50/50. I think I probably fell into this trap too when I was a young ‘agnostic’. This kind of reasoning explains a lot of the agnostics out there who eschew the label ‘atheist’ and think atheists are too strident, i.e. how can they be so sure and so strident about something that is 50/50? A perfect example of sitting on the fence.

    But when you think it through and really consider the evidence, you realize that the odds of any claimed god actually existing is far less than 50%.

    I agree that this argument that science lacks the tools to investigate the supernatural is horseshit. This is just the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ argument all over again, which is ultimately a political and not a scientific argument.

  2. catof many faces says

    If it can affect the natural world, then it can be tested and falls under the pervue of naturalism. It’s as simple as that. someone would have to define supernatural in a way as to preclude the ability to test it.

    As far as i can tell, the only way to remove testability is to remove any effect a thing can have, and at that point it’s kinda not a very important thing.

  3. says

    I really think this whole “agnostic atheist” things fails because all knowledge eventually bottoms out to a place where we just don’t know any more about it. To say that we can’t have 100% knowledge for anything is unreasonable; gnostic atheism is therefore unreasonable as would gnostic-anything be unreasonable. It’s a good point that we leave open the possibility of obtaining new knowledge about something, but we should do that for everything, not just for gods. And where does atheist knowledge bottom out? We know more than enough about science, history, and tales of gods to conclude there aren’t any and that they have all been made up. It’s not 100% for sure–nothing is–but it’s more than enough to put the question to rest: there are no gods.

    Then you have a tool shed labeled Supernaturalism. What’s in that shed? Name me one thing.

    Supernatural things defy physics and logic, so I suppose everything is in that shed. ;)

  4. says

    I’d use my crystal ball to tell you ……..but i left it in the shed!

    Good thought experiment.

    @catof many faces
    This is precisely the issue with the concept of the immaterial immortal soul. No matter how out of the bounds of detectability you place it, it still has to interface with material brains; still has to raise electrons through energy states to influence the material world. No amount of, or appeal to, wizardry can bypass that.

  5. says

    Aratina Cage beat me to it. We can’t prove, to absolutely exactly 100.000000…..% certainty that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow, or any number of other things we take for granted. But hardly anyone calls themselves agnostic about that sort of thing, and no one makes accusations of arrogance for asserting them straightforwardly. And I happen to think a negative answer on the God Question is in that set of things I can take for granted.

    Now if you have genuine non-trivial uncertainty on the God Question (as I suppose I did, when I was in mid-deconversion), for reasons that seem good to you, then by all means call yourself an agnostic. But please, spare us this sort of facile agnosticism towards God based on some tiny smidgen of possibility, if you routinely ignore equal or greater smidgens w.r.t. other subjects.

  6. Donnie says

    I was thinking of something similar to the “tools” question last night. Of course science has the tools to test the supernatural. As long as the supernatural interacts with, for a lack of better word, the ‘material plane’, then science has the tools to test the supernatural. Simple. However, as long as you define the supernatual as something that does not interact with the ‘material plane’ then I agree – science does not have the tools to test the supernatural that exists outside, and never interacts with, of our plane of existance.

    Science can clearly test whether ghosts are real. Once a ghost is found that interacts with the material plane then we can measure and test the supernatural entities interaction within our material plane. Until that time, I will focus my thoughts on this plane of existance and stop searching for Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy in candyland.

  7. A Hermit says

    I call myself an agnostic atheist…agnosticism being the approach I take to knowledge and atheism being the reasonable conclusion arrived at by using that approach.

  8. ApostateltsopA says

    @cat of many faces,

    Not quite. Supernatural is magical so it can effect the natural world, but doesn’t need to leave any pesky evidence. If such stuff exists it would be unable to be examined naturally by definition.

    I would ceede that someone who thinks that they feel the presence of some supernatural whatever is operating on the same basic rule all of us are stuck with, we have to mostly trust our senses. Getting from that to a specific deity or ghost or munchkin or what have you though is typically a logical mess.

    Finally, some people just seem to need to be certain. I think that is where a lot of the friction comes from because theism offers certainty. It is BS, but it has that certainty many crave.

  9. Andrew B. says

    “But then she didn’t go on to ask the obvious, glaring, you-have-to-ask-it question: what does have the tools to investigate the supernatural? What tools would those be? Who has them? Where are they?”

    That’s sort of getting at my biggest problem with religion-a belief in supernatural whatevers. Gods, spirits, hell, ghosts, demons, angels, a “spiritual realm,” etc. What reason is there to suppose that there is such a thing as the supernatural in the first place? Until anyone can establish this, there’s no reason to have a discussion about gods in the first place, let alone what animals he doesn’t want you to munch on or how he wants you to groom your hair, facial or otherwise. The whole religious (or should I say theology?) project seems to fail from the very first step.

  10. deepak shetty says

    One item was that she calls herself an agnostic atheist, because after all she doesn’t know.
    As an agnostic , Ill say that I cant define what does and does not constitute as evidence. If God exists how it behaves and interacts with the world are undefined – I cant really say whether such an interaction would look natural to us or supernatural. Or to give an example a 2-D being cant really determine what a 3-D being looks like or even imagine it. When I cant even meet the basic minimum for evaluating a question why should I evaluate it? (This is different from religious claims about a God). or to use an analogy think about how you would answer the question Do Aliens exist? certainly we have no evidence for them either. very few people answer this question as there is no evidence for Aliens hence I do not believe they exist. We would prefer to say there is no evidence but we are still looking and we do not know – which is the agnostic answer :).
    If there is a technologically superior race who follows the Star trek prime directive how would we know?

    What good reasons are there to believe there is a god? Any?
    Which is a good point . However that only says that the behavior of an atheist is most likely indistinguishable from any non religious person – It does not say anything about which label is more accurate or appropriate (for people who wish to argue about such things).
    For me the atheist/agnostic and whether the atheist label is the right one and all agnostics are really atheists blah blah is really irrelevant – the key is should our behavior be governed by a God(even if he existed) – to which both sets usually *should* answer no . And that needs the onus of proving what God wants done on the believer – A far easier position to attack both scientifically and philosophically.

  11. Acolyte of Sagan says

    3.
    catof many faces
    November 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm (UTC -7) Link to this comment

    If it can affect the natural world, then it can be tested and falls under the pervue of naturalism. It’s as simple as that. someone would have to define supernatural in a way as to preclude the ability to test it.

    As far as i can tell, the only way to remove testability is to remove any effect a thing can have, and at that point it’s kinda not a very important thing

    Yeah, but it’s GOD, innit. HE controls EVERYTHING from a non-place OUTSIDE of time and space with HIS SPECIAL super-dark energy remote control that scientificallists can’t NEVER EVER detect. TEST THAT WITH SCIENCE. HA!!!!!! WHY DO YOU HATE GOD???????

    But other than that, I agree fully: if it’s detectable by scientific measures then it’s natural; if it isn’t, it’s woo.

    *I know, capitalisation’s authentic-looking but spelling and punctuation’s too good for a real godtroller.

  12. hjhornbeck says

    Oooo, epistemology! [rubs hands with glee]

    First off, I came to the same conclusion as Benson and most everyone else a few years ago; naturalism concerns itself with things that exist, things that exist have a potential to influence you, things that do not can never be worthy of consideration via Ockham’s Razor, and so “not-naturalism” or supernaturalism is a category error. Think of it as pointing to a spot outside the universe; the instant you try, that point falls under the definition of “universe” and stops being outside it.

    But I’m not just here to agree. Aratina Cage @4:

    To say that we can have 100% knowledge for anything is unreasonable.

    There is an exception to that, namely your epistemology. Otherwise, you would have no justification for deploying it! This is a huge headache for Bayesian epistemologies, as built into their premise is the assertion that some uncertainty in guaranteed to exist, which kinda contradicts that. There are ways to get around that, none of which is completely satisfying, but that’s a topic for another time, because I want to talk about the other exception.

    Suppose I spend every moment of perception I possess doing a single, simple experiment, like perceiving the colour reflected off an object. If we are never fully certain, I can never say with complete certainty what colour that object is. Does this mean I can never make the statement “the object has colour X,” even if every single observation I ever make is compatible with it being X and X alone?

    That seems absurd. Instead, we must draw a line and pretend that everything with a certainty greater than that can be treated as if it were 100% certain.

    This line is a key part of Bayesian epistemology as well; without it, no act can be justified. And while we’re happy to acknowledge those things don’t possess absolute certainty, we say we are justified in treating them as if they were 100% absolute.

  13. footface says

    I’m an atheist not because I know for certain that gods don’t exist, but because I don’t believe gods exist. Are these so-called agnostic atheists saying they don’t know even know that much? They don’t even know whether they believe gods exist? I didn’t think criterion for atheism ever was “knows 100% that gods don’t exist.” Even Richard Dawkins doesn’t say he knows for a certainty that gods don’t exist.

  14. heliobates says

    @ ApostateltsopA

    Supernatural is magical so it can effect the natural world, but doesn’t need to leave any pesky evidence. If such stuff exists it would be unable to be examined naturally by definition.

    Oops. You stuck your finger in the same trap as the supernaturalists. The “effect” is the evidence.Saying there’s a mystical force interacting with observable reality in a manner that leaves no trace is saying nothing of any explanatory importance.

    I’m reminded of David Deutsch’s take on explanations:

  15. Kimpatsu says

    She talked about having tattoos and piercings and always making sure to have the arm tattoo visible when she does public stuff, because she wants young people (and people in general) to realize that scientists can look like her and like them.
    Although this bars her from using public facilities like sports centres and swimming pools in Japan.

  16. quixote says

    It may be my lack of philosophy background, but this doesn’t make sense to me. People’s feelings about gods/ghosts/whatever are exactly that. Feelings. You don’t require evidence of feelings. That’s not really relevant. If I say I like strawberries, that’s that. You can’t tell me I don’t because you can’t be inside my mind.

    And, frankly, I’d probably get miffed if someone said, “Oh, you don’t know what you’re saying. You couldn’t possibly like strawberries. Because I don’t see any point to them.”

    That feels to me fairly close to what’s being said here about the god-stuff. “You think you have feelings for this god-stuff, but really you don’t because I don’t see any evidence for it.”

    I mean, what someone else considers evidence is irrelevant to a person’s feelings.

    I do realize their argument is that their God is real. I’m not worrying about how they view it. I’m worrying about me telling them what they should be experiencing. That just doesn’t seem right to me. (Yes, I do consider myself agnostic about other people. :))

    Am I making any sense? And why might that be an invalid way of looking at it?

  17. Andrew G. says

    If you define “supernatural” as “not subject to scientific investigation” then there is no reason to believe it exists.

    If you define “supernatural” in some other way, such as Carrier’s definition (“ontologically basic mental causes or effects” – probably the best available definition), then there is no reason to believe it is not subject to scientific investigation.

  18. Dave Ricks says

    I’ve only seen advocates of agnostic atheism advocate agnosticism about monotheism (or maybe deism), but not agnosticism about polytheism, or super-gods creating gods, etc.

    One shall be the counting of the gods they can’t decide about; not two, nor three; four is straight out.

  19. Doubting Thomas says

    Re: Knowing 100%. I think we can know something 100% without knowing all the possibilities.

    We can know with 100% certainty that the Earth will rotate us toward the sun in the morning, i.e. ‘the sun will come up’.

    But what if we do not know that an asteroid is going to smash us tonight with enough force to throw the Earth out of it’s usual rotation? (Of course we can know that too if we are paying attention).

    We don’t need to know 100%. We function just fine with lesser certainty. We can get through life without concerning ourselves with someone else’ assertion of a god.

  20. Jason Dick says

    Yeah. I definitely feel like Cara Santa Maria’s (extremely popular) way of framing the separation between science and non-science provides an extremely unreasonable veneer of respect for supernatural claims.

  21. says

    quixote – well the trouble with that is that feelings about something are different from “feelings” (I think the right word is something more like intuitions or guesses) that something exists.

  22. hjhornbeck says

    quixote @22:

    It may be my lack of philosophy background, but this doesn’t make sense to me. People’s feelings about gods/ghosts/whatever are exactly that. Feelings. You don’t require evidence of feelings.

    Sure you do. How are you feeling? That’s evidence right there. Feelings are unique in that they are intensely tied to a person, and very non-specific. What triggered that feeling? What are the consequences of having that feeling? It varies greatly depending on context. The state of our technology means I cannot easily verify that feeling is happening any way other than asking.

    Which makes the redefinition of “feeling” to mean “a form of knowledge” pretty disgusting. You’re* not feeling your god is there, you’re feeling contentment and claiming the source of that feeling is coming from your god. But because the former makes it sound like it’s tied to your person and opaque to independent verification, believers use that terminology instead. It’s just a cheap attempt to dodge any need to provide evidence, and reduce theories about the universe to subjective opinions.

    I can test your feelings for god easily enough, though. Are there other ways to produce the same feeling? Are those feelings present in other people, and are they present in the same way? Did apostates have the same feelings before, and can they trigger them now? What pattern of brain activation is going on, and how does it compare to other states of mind? Some of this has already been studied (there’s no part of your brain labeled “god,” so far as science can tell, and your descriptions match the functionality assigned to the parts of your brain that light up), but all of it can easily be handled empirically.

    Feelings don’t escape empiricism, they just make a flimsy shield for those that want to accomplish the same.

    * I’m using a metaphorical “you” all through here, so don’t take it personally.

  23. quixote says

    The distinction of “feelings about” and “intuitions that” is an important one that I haven’t articulated clearly to myself.

    Intuitions that /whatever/ — the universe selects for beauty, — complexity evidently increases even as it surfs on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, — god(s) exist(s), — there are astral being directing human fates from a spaceship hiding behind Mercury — that sort of thing requires a different level of judgment than accepting my word for my feelings about fruit. I can see that.

    And yet, leaving aside any questions of how it affects others, it still strikes me as arrogant on some level to tell someone else how the universe is organized. We don’t actually know that. At least science doesn’t, it’s quite explicitly agnostic as far as I know, although some scientists feel that they do. (In both directions. I once had a colleague, a biologist!, who was a creationist in his spare time. Go figure.) Of course, as soon as beliefs do affect others, the first priority is not respecting them but making sure they do no harm.

    I take hjhornbeck’s point that there’s an empirical component to feelings, but I guess the problem there is my imprecise use of words. I’m not really talking about that, but rather the idea of telling someone else how to structure their reality. Which is, broadly, based on feelings. Similar to what Ophelia was talking about in another post, where emotion-related parts of the brain are necessary for decision-making. You have a feeling about how the world works, which then informs action.

    Anyway, it’s still seems to me that if I think I could tell others how to intuit / organize reality / not sure what the right term is, they could return the “favor,” and I wouldn’t like that at all.

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