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May 27 2011

We are free to “presuppose” that there is a reality here, because there is.

Sorry for the sporadic posting schedule, once again. Been running myself ragged over work. Need to tone that down a bit.

There’s a piece over at Cosmic Variance by Sean M Carroll, the brilliantly titled Physics and the Immortality of the Soul, that dovetails perfectly with the “denouement” to an otherwise ongoing “conversation” (and I use that term loosely) going on over at George’s place. The crux of the discussion is that we, as atheists, do not appeal to some transcendental force to explain why reality has the rules that it does. Beyond that, we apparently have faith (e.g. presuppose the Law of Non-Contradiction) in order to go on making sense of this universe, such that the universe doesn’t up and change the rules on us every time we think we have a handle on things.

Carroll talks about this concept this way, in context of a dispute he’s having with someone on the verifiability of the concept of life after death:

Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.

We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it. Admittedly, “direct” evidence one way or the other is hard to come by — all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking. But surely it’s okay to take account of indirect evidence — namely, compatibility of the idea that some form of our individual soul survives death with other things we know about how the world works.

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there’s no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die. If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter?

I’m applying this same principle — the non-fallacious version (definition IV) of the argumentum ad ignorantium — to explain why this universe has the rules it does.

We do not know it to be otherwise. The pooled, collective knowledge of humankind (also known informally as “science”) contains record after record of things happening in non-contradictory ways. Things cannot both be and not-be in the same way at the same time. Simultaneously, things MAY be different elsewhere simultaneously. If M-Theory holds true, it’s well possible that we live in an 11-dimensional universe where every single way that a universe could have been created, was created, simultaneously, at the Big Bang singularity event. We live in THIS universe, with its rules of non-contradiction, only by virtue of the mechanistic nature of this universe.

In other words, we’re here to experience this universe, only because this universe is capable of sustaining life like us. In all the vastness of this universe, we don’t know how often life (especially sentient life) has emerged, but it would be egocentrism to claim we’re the special ones, we’re the only ones. In ignorance of the evidence of other forms of life, or other ways the universe can be, we have to use the evidence that we have accumulated in order to make the best guesses we can. We know through observation that this universe is a mechanistic one, where fundamental particles behave in predictable manners if you know all the variables. One of those ways that these particles behave, involves the inability for them to be something else at the same time in the same place or in the same way. Thus, the law of non-contradiction holds, though it was no more imposed on this universe by our codifying it than the sky made blue because we gave that hue a name.

This universe operates something very close to a fractal. We know certain derived properties of these particles, and we know the amazing complexity that these particles gain when “zoomed out” to the atom level. We know how the elements interact with one another. We know that some of these elements form molecules. We know some of these molecules form amino acids, which can self-replicate and self-arrange in the presence of their constituent building blocks. We know these amino acids can, given enough time, become microscopic organisms, which can, given enough time, become multicellular organisms, which can, given enough time, become sapient meat computers.

We know all of this provisionally based on the concept that the information we have on-hand is the only information we have to make that judgement, and we know that we may not have all the information and may have to revise our body of knowledge as that new information becomes available.

The fact that we live in a comprehensible universe that can, at least in one tiny pocket of it, sustain us — that fact alone is not sufficient to prove God. The God hypothesis is not even necessary, given how little evidence for “direct intervention” by an all-powerful deity we need invoke to develop a clear picture of how our universe could have developed mechanistically since the Big Bang.

We may not know what happened at that event, and our euphemistic placeholder name of “Big Bang” is a guess that happens to fit with the evidence we have at the moment. It may not hold true in other universes, should they have emerged from the Big Bang in other dimensions. We know that the math we’re doing right now mostly fits with the M-Theory model, but it’s hairy math, and it’s new math. Another, better, model may supplant it. But it is the best model to explain not only the evidence we see, but why we’re in a comprehensible universe that supports us. That should be enough for now, you’d think. That some people see it as the “gap” into which they can stuff their god is a testament to how tenacious old ideas (like the God idea) can be in the face of all the new stuff we’re learning.

Never mind that most theists still don’t have any evidence for their specific conception of God outside of their faith. They shouldn’t get to shove God into a gap that’s already long since closed (like that there’s something instead of nothing), much less one that we’ve only just discovered a potential solution for.

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  1. 1
    Troythulu

    It appears that theists commit an error in thinking that we only presuppose non-contradiction, as they do their notion of god, without realizing that it wasn’t merely presupposed, but a discovery, well-grounded observation, as you point out.

    The success rate for verification of naturalistic explanations: 100%

    The corresponding score for supernatural explanations: 0%

    Yet some theists still insist that science requires just as much faith as their belief system.

    What can I say?

    Peeps who are being forced into a corner by that Damned Dogmatic Science™ are highly prone to projecting upon the source of their discomfort.

    BTW, you’ve just given me an idea for a post on the valid use of a different logical argument, maybe the Reductio ad absurdum, or Ad hominem… something, I’ll decide later.

    Good post, Jason.

  2. 2
    George W.

    Excellent post.
    I was pretty busy this week and didn’t get my follow up post out as quickly as I wanted. It’s up now.

    Dan will tl;dr your post:

    blah blah blah we…have faith in order to go on making sense of this universe, blah blah blah I’m applying this same principle … of the argumentum ad ignorantium blah blah blah things MAY be different elsewhere simultaneously blah be-blah blah in all the vastness of this universe, we don’t know how often life (especially sentient life) has emerged, blah blah We know all of this provisionally based on the concept that the information we have on-hand is the only information we have to make that judgement blah blah-de-blah,“Big Bang” is a guess, blah-bum-blah,another, better, model may supplant it.

    This is how these people read. They search out talking points and you will note that not one of your questions got any semblance of comprehension.

    You need to communicate the way they do to get anywhere, and I think that is what drove you away in frustration the first time. I’m learning how to play by their rules. We will see how that goes……

  3. 3
    Paul Baird

    I’m debating Sye for the third time. I’ve stipulated that Living Waters host it.

    I’ll post updates on my blog.

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    You’re a masochist, Paul, and I thank you for it.

  5. 5
    George W.

    You can count me sure to check it out Paul.

  1. 6
    Presuppositional Apologetics: More Q & A With Someone Who Has Lots Of Q, But Lost All His A…. « Misplaced Grace

    [...] Jason has an excellent post on presuppositionalism up at his site, addressing it from a different, more scientific, angle.  Check it [...]

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