Friday Cephalopod: Looking haughty »« [Lounge #379]

In which I join Michael Shermer in disagreeing with Jerry Coyne, and Coyne in disagreeing with Shermer

Although, to be fair, I think we’re mostly in agreement but talking past one another because of our prioritizing of certain premises.

Michael Shermer thinks that “the most any natural science could ever discover in the way of a deity would be a natural intelligence sufficiently advanced to be god-like but still within the realm of the natural world.”; Jerry Coyne claims that there could be, in principle, evidence for a supernatural god — there just isn’t.

My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined. I could claim that a spumboodle exists, for instance, and we could go around and around with you presenting hypothetical examples and listing potential entities or forces that are spumboodles, but we’ll get nowhere if I never tell you what the heck a spumboodle is or what it does or even how I recognize a spumboodle. Without that, the whole concept is untestable and unverifiable. It really doesn’t count if I insist that something undefined exists, and then keep jiggling between vague realities (it exists in our dimension! It has a color!) and contradictory guesswork (it’s transdimensional! And completely invisible!) designed to keep moving the spumboodle away from any possibility of honest evaluation.

Coyne accepts the wobble. On the one hand, he is insisting on general principle in the possibility of existence of a divine being (I think a clear and unambiguous definition of “divine” is a prerequisite for that), but on the other he’s willing to substitute a mundane creature with only unexplainable abilities for “divine”.

Well, yes, we wouldn’t know whether a divine being was absolutely omniscient and omnipotent, or relatively more omniscient or omnipotent than us. But if the degree of, say, omnipotence and omniscience is sufficiently large (i.e, any miracle can be worked, all things can be foretold), then I think we can say provisionally that there is a God. I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees. Alternatively, maybe only the prayers of Catholics get answered, and the prayers of Muslims, Jews, and other Christians, don’t.

Yes, maybe aliens could do that, and maybe it would be an alien trick to imitate Jesus (combined with an advanced technology that could regrow limbs), but so what? I see no problem with provisionally calling such a being “God”—particularly if it comports with traditional religious belief—until proven otherwise. What I can say is “this looks like God, but we should try to find out more. In the meantime, I’ll provisionally accept it.” That, of course, depends on there being a plethora of evidence. As we all know, there isn’t.

And that’s where he loses me. What does it mean to be relatively omniscient or omnipotent? If our criterion is that the being has to be a certain amount more powerful than us to be defined as a god, what is that amount? The sun is much larger than us, and has far more power than we do…is it a god? Or will that suggestion be met by the sudden appearance of additional criteria to constantly exclude all entities from consideration that don’t also meet certain unstated requirements?

What I want is something like the Higgs boson: a description of a set of properties, inferred and observed, that can be used as a reasonable boundary for identifying the phenomenon. If you’re going to dignify it with the term “hypothesis”, there ought to be some little bit of substance there, even if it’s speculative. The god proponents can’t even do that. God beliefs are remarkably specific — belief in Jesus as an admission ticket to paradise, for instance — but somehow, when it gets down to saying who, what, where, when, and why, they all fly to pieces, and when it comes to saying how they know of its existence, all goes silent, or subsides into ritualistic repetitious chanting of words from a holy book.

The only way to win this game is to not play. Don’t concede the possibility that X might exist unless you’ve got clear criteria for defining the bounds of X’s existence, and it’s up to the advocates for X to provide that basic foundation. If they can’t do that, reject the whole mess before you brain gets sucked into a twisty morass of convoluted theological BS.

(By the way, I do agree with Coyne on one thing: I also reject Shermer’s a priori commitment to methodological naturalism. If a source outside the bounds of what modern science considers the limits of natural phenomena is having an observable effect, we should take its existence into account. If Catholic prayers actually affected medical outcomes, we shouldn’t reject it out of hand because of the possibility of a supernatural source. But it’s still not evidence for a god, unless you’re going to commit to defining god as a force that responds to remote invocation via standard Catholic ritual chants by increasing healing…in which case god becomes something we can disprove, and also faces the prospect of consolidation with other phenomena. Maybe god becomes the placebo response, for instance, in which case he’s been reduced to something feeble.)

Comments

  1. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    You over-estimate the importance of definitions. In many cases in the history of science (“planet”, “gene”, “species”, “force”, “magnetism”, “element”…) definitions have been inconsistent, inconstant andor vague without impeding the scientific conclusion that things exist or the investigation of their properties.

  2. says

    I would argue that ‘supernatural’ is another incoherent concept. Anything that exists is part of the universe by definition, and therefore part of nature. If it turned out that something existed that could violate the laws of nature as we understand them, that just means we were wrong about those laws, not that it’s somehow not nature anymore. Of course there’s not any evidence for such a being, but if there were it would be part of nature.

  3. sawells says

    @1: a significant difference between gods and all the things on your list is that we’ve had examples of the things or their effects that we can point at and say “Like that”. Having an examplar is much more powerful than having a definition. You can spend forever trying to define a horse or you can … point at a horse. I think PZ is asking for a definition of a god in the sense of a description sufficient that we would recognise one if we met it, and one of the reasons we need that is that we don’t have any actual examples to point at; or rather, all the examples people keep pointing to are fictional characters.

  4. eric says

    My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined

    As I said on Coyne’s blog, this is not a problem. If you have an entity claiming omnipotence and omniscence, you don’t need to bother defining terms and coming up with tests; you ask them to tell you how to test their claims. An omnipotent, omniscent being should be able to tell you how to test for omnipotence and omniscence. If they can’t, they aren’t omnipotent and omniscent!

    If they cannot design for you a test that meets all your criteria as a scientist – is clear, evidence-based, logically sound, performable by humans, so confirmable/validatable that the test results will be scientifically indisputable, et cetera, then they aren’t omnipotent.

    We may not be able to figure out a way to know God. But God must be able to make himself scientifically knowable to us. Because if he can’t snap his fingers and make himself knowable, then almost by definition he’s not God.

  5. Ogvorbis: broken and cynical says

    else by definition nothing could be artificial.

    Well, artificial is something that is fabricated/created by humans. By that (exceedingly loose and unprofessional) definition, god is artificial and supernatural?

  6. profpedant says

    “What does it mean to be relatively omniscient or omnipotent?”

    “relatively omniscient or omnipotent” is a way of dealing with the impossibility of proving omniscience or omnipotence. Sort of like saying ‘if it looks like a cat…I’ll tentatively treat it as if it is a cat’.

    Reading Shermer, Coyne, and yourself my impression is that Shermer is straight-up asserting that no evidence can point to the supernatural, Coyne is suggesting what evidence for the supernatural would look like if there was such evidence, and you are pointing out the definitional inadequacy that prevents any hypothesized evidence from being proof of the supernatural. The three positions/essays reinforce each others arguments very well, a disagreement that – like the blind men and the elephant – provides more illumination than refutation.

  7. jose says

    If Catholic prayers actually affected medical outcomes, we shouldn’t reject it out of hand because of the possibility of a supernatural source.

    Shouldn’t reject the phenomenom, but you should reject supernatural explanations because those are beyond any kind of scientific scrutiny. If in order to get answers you start praying, you have ditched science as a method and embraced revelation – the religious way.

    I think science does have that a priori commitment you reject. You’d have to expand the term a lot for science to not have it, making it practically equivalent to something like “acquiring knowledge”. When it comes to that, when watching the news or praying for answers count as science, you have a considerable loss of meaning there.

  8. says

    I think the first step is to drop the term supernatural (“above nature”) and instead use metanatural (“the nature of nature itself.”) I don’t think that term is used, but the idea behind it is found in comology, in several theories that describe our universe as a membrane in a higher order space.

    If one were to define “divine” as “something existing within metanature,” I can see that there might be divine beings. But….

    Take a database analogy. My first name — along with billions of other first names — fall in a database column called “First Name.” This data column is narrowly defined: data type, space allocation, how it is indexed and sorted, the columns on either side of it in a standardized representation. But while all of this metadata profoundly influences the data, there is no way that “Gregory” can ever prove that the metadata exists, much less read it or describe it any meaningful way. There is no frame of reference, and inquiry comes down to an exercise in solipsism.

    Inquiring about gods is no different. If gods exist in nature, then they are not gods no matter how godlike they may seem. If they exist in metanature, we are going to be incapable of detecting or describing them no matter how profoundly they may influence nature. The question “Does God exist?” is meaningless, nothing more than Tantric masturbation.

  9. profpedant says

    “If they cannot design for you a test that meets all your criteria as a scientist – is clear, evidence-based, logically sound, performable by humans, so confirmable/validatable that the test results will be scientifically indisputable, et cetera, then they aren’t omnipotent.”

    This point, which I fully agree with, allows for the existence of entities that are implausibly powerful – like D&D or mythological gods – but which have limitation of their own. Treating such a hypothetical entity as if it were ‘a god’ might be a practical approach for a lot of people, but such an entity would still not be ‘God’ in any sense of that inconsistently and nebulously defined concept. It might be prudent to pay attention to the ‘parlor tricks’ of such an entity, but that would be more akin to keeping an eye on the gunman who is robbing you than it would be worship.

  10. says

    Gregory:

    The question “Does God exist?”

    The question, meaningless as it may be, should be “Does a god or gods exist?”, because by using “God”, there’s an assumption there is only one.

  11. gravityisjustatheory says

    I would suggest that to be a god, and entity would have to display some or all of the following:

    1) Intelligence (in the sense of “being aware and able to think”, not necessarily in the sense of “smart”).
    2) Able to affect the natural world and/or human thought or behaviour.
    2a) Preferably, to do that through it’s own inate power, not through tools of some kind.
    2b) And to do so in a manner far beyond the power of humans.
    3) Able to hear and respond to prayer/suplication.

    Omni-anything (let alone omni-everything) are not required, as most gods dreamed up over human history have lacked that. (Plus, to a lowly human, there is little practical difference between “vast” and “infinite”).

  12. Blondin says

    You over-estimate the importance of definitions. In many cases in the history of science (“planet”, “gene”, “species”, “force”, “magnetism”, “element”…) definitions have been inconsistent, inconstant andor vague without impeding the scientific conclusion that things exist or the investigation of their properties.

    You’re talking about things for which there was ample evidence. You could say the same thing about rocks – there was no doubt they existed long before we had any idea where they came from, what they were made out of or what to call them. You can’t say the same about deities.

  13. John Kruger says

    By relatively omnipotent, I think in the context used, we just mean so powerful that it is functionally impossible to tell the difference or see the limits of such power. It is hard to draw a parallel, since we only have humans as an example of a type of animal that can have thoughts about gods that we understand, but the point is that the limits of what we can observe would make a sufficiently powerful and intelligent agent indistinguishable from a truly omnipotent and omniscient one.

    It does not really matter, though. “Supernatural” and “god” are indeed too nebulous to have any real meaning beyond hypnotizing the ignorant. I agree it is best to stay out of the conversation until the basic criteria are met.

  14. mothra says

    I will side with Shermer because any true god(TM) can always, at any point change the rules so as to make themselves undetectable. We could detect a god if and only if they choose to reveal themselves and cooperation was not one of the premises. In speaking of gods, Karl Rove’s statement comes to mind:”We create our own reality. . .”

  15. says

    Down with artificial! Its a stupid and poorly defined word. If I make a log cabin its artificial if a wasp makes a nest over my door its natural. Down with artificial!!!!

  16. jamessweet says

    I fall closest to the Coyne camp, though I do feel that his thresholds for accepting a provisional hypothesis of “oops, that’s God” are bit on the low side. In fact, my threshold is high enough that I’m not sure I can even say what would convince me that the God hypothesis were preferable to other less fantastical explanations — but I do have a good enough idea that I can talk about the types of evidence it would take, and Coyne is on the right track.

    I am not all that far from PZ’s position, either. I definitely think Shermer is way out; while Coyne hypothesizes about an ill-defined God, Shermer hypothesizes about a logically contradictory God. If it exists in the real world them, uh, it exists in the real world. This is a tautology, and Shermer’s definition of God violates this tautology.

    I just can’t quite go so far as PZ in saying that because something is poorly-defined, we can’t even talk about the types of evidence that would convince ourselves of its existence. I agree that “God hypothesis” is perhaps too grandiose given the lack of rigor in definition, but surely there are a set of “God hypotheses” (even if we can’t define them precisely) which most reasonable people would agree constitute something worthy of the term “God”.

    “I think something is happening to the cookies in my cookie jar” is not a rigorous hypothesis in the way the Higgs Boson is, and in fact it’s rather poorly defined… if it just turned out I was eating more cookies than I thought I was, would that count as the hypothesis being true? Hard to say. But we can still say that, e.g., if I counted the cookies, then left for an hour, then counted the cookies again, then probably something is happening to my cookies. Calling it the “cookie hypothesis” is probably too grandiose and implies too much rigor, but it’s still something that can be talked about in terms of evidence.

    Of course, “the God hypothesis” is even more poorly defined than “the cookie hypothesis”. It is perhaps more akin to “Gurble nurble mah cookies oh noez!”, but still…

  17. says

    I will side with Shermer because any true god(TM) can always, at any point change the rules so as to make themselves undetectable. We could detect a god if and only if they choose to reveal themselves and cooperation was not one of the premises. In speaking of gods, Karl Rove’s statement comes to mind:”We create our own reality. . .”

    If the only conception of god that could ever matter is the god of the majority religion of white people, then yes, this is true.

    I’ll worry about the definition of ‘god’ if Indra, Anansi, YHWH or the like shows up in a form more or less similar to its legends. Barring that, not worried about it.

  18. robro says

    i was out in the woods the other night and found a spumboodle. Then I began to wonder if it might be snark. It’s difficult to say. They’re hard to tell apart, particularly when you’re in the dark. But, I feel I know them so well.

  19. consciousness razor says

    So is discussing philosophy worth our time now?

    Bleh… I’ll just drop this link on defining the supernatural here. It came up recently in another thread, oddly enough.

    But if something exists, isn’t it by definition natural?

    Nope.

    Some theologians like to toss around the idea that their god is the “Ground of Being” or “Being itself.”* Same shit. I’m not too impressed if you can prove Existingness** exists with a fucking definition. We obviously already know there are things, so it doesn’t help us at all. The question is what kinds of things there are. And I’m pretty sure that “existing things which exist” isn’t a kind of thing. I definitely don’t have a use for it.

    *The capital G and B are of course extremely significant.
    **The capital E is just for fun.

  20. broboxley OT says

    But what about moss sprites? They are not Omnificent, in fact they are down right annoying

  21. John Morales says

    jamessweet:

    In fact, my threshold is high enough that I’m not sure I can even say what would convince me that the God hypothesis were preferable to other less fantastical explanations [...]

    I’ve never had an issue with that: for me, any entity worth calling a god should have the ability to make me believe in its existence if it wanted me to do so.

    (That is, the only thing that would convince me a god exists would be my being convinced that a god exists)

  22. jamesfrank says

    John Morales @4: You’re engaging in a false equivocation between usages of ‘natural’. In this context natural refers to aspects of our physical universe (i.e the Natural Science).

    As for the Coyne/Shermer dispute, I probably fall closer to Shermer on this. The problem with accepting supernatural explanations is that when examining reality we can never know whether we’re observing something which is supernatural or a natural phenomena we presently cannot understand. The only prudent method of tackling reality is to assume unexplained phenomena are in the latter category and if a supernatural nature does somehow exist it will never be accessible to our understanding, and thus meaningless to humanity.

  23. says

    Look, all I can tell you is that when I was 13 I felt the spumboodle come into my heart and speak to me, and that’s all the evidence I need. I don’t need your arguments or cooked-up “evidence” because I *know* spumboodle in my heart.

    Good thing too, because without spumboodle I’d be out skinning poodles for laughs.

  24. Olav says

    I’m with the school of philosophy that says: all of the above is but sophistry. Perhaps a nice endeavour for retired professors to fill their idle days but quite useless to the rest of us. No such thing as a spumboodle or a “God” or any other “supernatural” thing exists, it should be obvious that they don’t, exactly like there are no Invisible Pink Unicorns, Flying Spaghetti Monsters (no, really) or little china teapots in Solar orbit. We should not need to waste any further words reasoning back and forth about it.

    Bang the gavel! End of debate ;-)

  25. Michael says

    When ‘supernatural’ comes up in conversation, my response is basically that it, for all practical purposes, does not exist. If it interacts with our universe in an observable, measurable way, then it is part of nature by definition. If it doesn’t interact in any observable, measurable way, then it may as well not exist.

    The movie, ‘Forgotten’, had the most interesting take on advanced aliens that I’ve seen so far. Certain characters, if they discovered too much, were sucked up into the sky and out of sight by invisible forces, then reappeared later with no memories of anything unusual happening nor what they had discovered. It was made clear that they were not gods, but aliens, but what they did would certainly be god-like to most people.

    As for ‘relatively omniscient/omnipotent’, I would go by the old ‘any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic’. There doesn’t have to be a clearly defined boundary. At some point of technological advancement an alien race would be god-like to us. I find most sci-fi shows/movies a bit unimaginative on this part, but to many people around the world, just being able to produce a very tall, interactive, 3D image in the sky would be sufficient to convince them they were talking to a god. If it could instantly kill people, destroy buildings/cities, or heal people without the use of any obvious technology (guns, missiles, machines, etc.) then that would probably convince the average person as well.

  26. John Morales says

    [meta]

    jamesfrank:

    John Morales @4: You’re engaging in a false equivocation between usages of ‘natural’. In this context natural refers to aspects of our physical universe (i.e the Natural Science).

    Heh.

    (Just playing with Conway’s argument by definition)

  27. says

    Someone elsewhere just explained to me that while not everyone has religion, everyone, everyone has “faith. Or at least I hope they do.”

    Olav, I agree.
    I HATE theological arguments. Pascal’s wager, all that rot.

    I do not need to discuss the various differing accounts and positions on your imaginary being’s favorite color of magical robe.

    I don’t need to construct or deconstruct complicated arguments about the plausibility of Santa managing to visit all homes in one night. I don’t want to hear about how daylight savings time factors into your belief that he can.

    I do not need to engage in an argument as to whether or not the teapot you believe is circling the sun is Revereware or a Chinese-made Target store brand one. I don’t need to hear an argument about whether mere mortals can hear the whistle go off or only those in the teapot priesthood.

    Obvious bullshit is obvious.

  28. sawells says

    @27: I don’t think it’s quite that logically watertight. We can consider the old chestnut of a simulated universe: that is, we and everything we experience are entities in a simulation running on a computer. Suppose that the programmers of that computer have the capacity to alter aspects of the simulation when they want to – e.g. they can intervene to make something exist in the simulation when it didn’t before, alter the position and momentum of any object in the simulation, etc. The actions of the programmers would be visible to simulated observers (e.g. us) in the form of miracles – stuff happening which violates the normal rules – and would look supernatural, and the programmers would not be entities within the simulation or detectable by us in any way. Ergo the dichotomy you suggest: “If it interacts with our universe in an observable, measurable way, then it is part of nature by definition. If it doesn’t interact in any observable, measurable way, then it may as well not exist.” does not work.

    I don’t think that “the supernatural” exists because I have no reason to think it does and all the supposed examples are clearly fictions, but that doesn’t mean the concept itself is incoherent.

  29. usagichan says

    conway @3 & Jon Morales afterward

    But if something exists, isn’t it by definition natural?

    Isn’t there more than one definition of natural? If something exists that is artificial is it natural? Is my dictionary a figment of my imagination (it exists so it is natural, but it was also created therefore is atrificial therefore is not natural – it both is and isn’t at the same time?)… sounds v. Quantum to me!!!

  30. says

    gravityisjustatheory @13:

    I would suggest that to be a god, and entity would have to display some or all of the following:

    1) Intelligence (in the sense of “being aware and able to think”, not necessarily in the sense of “smart”).
    2) Able to affect the natural world and/or human thought or behaviour.
    2a) Preferably, to do that through it’s own inate power, not through tools of some kind.
    2b) And to do so in a manner far beyond the power of humans.
    3) Able to hear and respond to prayer/suplication.

    A useful test for any definition like that is, can it be accurately applied to something that you do not think should meet that definition?

    Dipping into the realm of popular fiction (because let’s face it, we’re already there on this topic), would you consider Superman a god? He meets all your criteria, but does knowing that he is an alien from the planet Krypton exclude him from consideration? If so, your definition is incomplete.

    How about Jean Grey, in the atrocious X-Men 3? While she showed no inclination, as the most powerful psychic on the Earth she could listen to people’s prayers if she wanted to. Could a sufficiently powerful human-born psychic qualify as a god?

  31. usagichan says

    sawells @ 30

    The actions of the programmers would be visible to simulated observers (e.g. us) in the form of miracles – stuff happening which violates the normal rules

    But of course it wouldn’t be supernatural – it would just mean that the nature of the universe was incomletely understood. Or do we assume that just because something is not undertstood, it is supernatural (lightning was once not understood – did it somehow magically change from being a supernatural prhenomenom to a natural one?)

  32. says

    This discussion is as interesting and important as theology. Better to focus on why it seems to some people that “god” exists.

    For most it results from our evolved tendencies to be credulous when young, and to see patterns and agents in our environment: hence the idea of god arises.

    But a few have noticed that consciousness is nonlocal, which allows a universal identification: hence there is an experience which is sometimes described as god, though Gautam Buddha characterized it as emptiness.

  33. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Better to focus on why it seems to some people that “god” exists.

    Self-delusion, like you. What else do you need to be honest about?

  34. consciousness razor says

    But a few have noticed that consciousness is nonlocal,

    Citation needed. Quantum citations, if need be.

    which allows a universal identification: hence there is an experience which is sometimes described as god, though Gautam Buddha characterized it as emptiness.

    Word salad not needed.

  35. says

    I could be wrong, but I think what Coyne is getting at is that omnipotence is self-contradictory–consider the old chestnut about whether the omnipotent deity can make a stone he cannot lift, whether the omniscient deity can change his mind, and how ordinary matter can exist when the omnipresent God is in the way all the time.

    To get around this philosophers have made various attempts to define omni- as “close enough.” None that I’ve seen have been very successful though, in that they don’t draw any clear line between “very powerful” and “(relatively) omnipotent.”

  36. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    To get around this philosophers have made various attempts to define omni- as “close enough.” None that I’ve seen have been very successful though – ChristineRose

    It’s quite simple, at least in the cases of the objections you give. For omnipotence, all that’s needed is to note that an omnipotent being cannot do what is self-contradictory, because no task has actually been defined. For omnipresence, exactly the same objection would apply to such things as the Higgs field – there’s no logical problem in two things occupying the same location. As to whether an omniscient deity can change its mind, the simplest response is just “no” – and that doesn’t need impinge on omnipotence, because it can be maintained that for it to do so would be self-contradictory.

  37. Ichthyic says

    But a few have noticed that consciousness is nonlocal</i.

    well, there's thing called "language" that humans use, see…

  38. Ichthyic says

    damn busted tag.

    But a few have noticed that consciousness is nonlocal

    well, there’s thing called “language” that humans use, see…

  39. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    The definition of “supernatural” consciousness razor links to @21 is not the only possible one, but it is one which could logically be exemplified (but for which we have no evidence that it is). It’s amazing how often people keep insisting that the word is “meaningless”, even when a definition has been given.

  40. consciousness razor says

    The definition of “supernatural” consciousness razor links to @21 is not the only possible one, but it is one which could logically be exemplified (but for which we have no evidence that it is).

    Agreed. I doubt very many will bother to read it at all, so that disclaimer is probably unnecessary. :/

    It’s amazing how often people keep insisting that the word is “meaningless”, even when a definition has been given.

    Agreed again.

    It’s also amazing how often I hear arguments from atheists/skeptics to the effect that thinking about a subject less is a better approach (almost exclusively when it’s not a scientific subject). Homeopathic thinking.

  41. dexitroboper says

    @42 The definition given is meaningless – Carrier defines supernatural as metaphysically different to the natural but how something can be different to the natural is still undefined.

  42. unclefrogy says

    “If you have an entity claiming omnipotence and omniscence,”

    we do not now nor never have had anything even remotely like that we have people claiming “there is a god and this is his name” but nothing more, until such a time we have such a being I will not believe in any. when and if they ever show up they better be more than just a “Q” of some kind! other wise forget it. A bear could kick my ass but he would not be god.

    uncle frogy

  43. consciousness razor says

    @42 The definition given is meaningless – Carrier defines supernatural as metaphysically different to the natural but how something can be different to the natural is still undefined.

    Simply false:

    In short, I argue “naturalism” means, in the simplest terms, that every mental thing is entirely caused by fundamentally nonmental things, and is entirely dependent on nonmental things for its existence. Therefore, “supernaturalism” means that at least some mental things cannot be reduced to nonmental things.

    That is how they could be different. That’s the short version, and there’s much more explanation on various points throughout the article.

    As Nick Gotts said, that’s not the only possible definition (which is rarely if ever the case for anything); but as Carrier argues, it’s close to how people generally make that distinction. So like it or not, deal with it as it is, but please don’t make up shit about it.

  44. grumpyoldfart says

    1968 National Catholic Almanac (1 available at Amazon for $25) says god is:

    almighty, eternal, holy, immortal, immense, immutable, incomprehensible, ineffable, infinite, invisible, just, loving, merciful, most high, most wise, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, patient, perfect, provident, supreme, true.

    God is incomprehensible – and the Catholics comprehend that.

  45. says

    almighty, eternal, holy, immortal, immense, immutable, incomprehensible, ineffable, infinite, invisible, just, loving, merciful, most high, most wise, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, patient, perfect, provident, supreme, true.

    Given incomprehensible and ineffable (and granting invisible as a given), the rest are completely unsupported — and unsupportable — assertions.

  46. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says

    I’ll let myself wank for a bit. Good ol’ philosophical bullshitting.

    Coyne,

    Yes, maybe aliens could do that, and maybe it would be an alien trick to imitate Jesus (combined with an advanced technology that could regrow limbs), but so what? I see no problem with provisionally calling such a being “God”—

    Most people who believe in gods probably would have a problem with calling the trickster alien “God”.

    particularly if it comports with traditional religious belief

    It doesn’t at all comport with traditional religious belief. Unless peoples’ traditional religious belief is about a hyper technologically advanced alien trickster.

    -until proven otherwise. What I can say is “this looks like God, but we should try to find out more.

    You could also say, “this looks like the work of a trickster alien, but we should find out more”. Why would you rather say “this looks like God”? Do you find the notion of a god more likely than an alien with advanced technology*?

    In the meantime, I’ll provisionally accept it.”

    That seems silly since, as you already mentioned, there is another possibility. One that you must think is less parsimonious if you reject it in favor of “Goddidit”. Why would you think that?

    That, of course, depends on there being a plethora of evidence. As we all know, there isn’t.

    Ah, the wankery is over. Back to the real world, where there is no evidence for supernatural shit (or for alien technology that is sufficiently advanced enough to appear as supernatural or magical).

    *All this talk of these completely pretend super-deper-advanced aliens is making me feel like Scotty. I’ll stop now.

  47. SocraticGadfly says

    “Relatively omnipotent” is like “a little bit pregnant,” Mr. Coyne. You either are or you aren’t.

    That said, PZ’s right that the devil is in the definitions. Per the original Star Trek episode where “Apollo” turned out to have been a long-ago alien visitor to earth, if omnipotence, just relatively potency, is all that’s needed for the definition, then we’re at a situation similar to Arthur C. Clarke’s declaration about technology and magic — any sufficiently advanced being will be seen as a divinity by somebody.

  48. consciousness razor says

    Unless peoples’ traditional religious belief is about a hyper technologically advanced alien trickster.

    Where is that ancient aliens dude when we need him? Maybe he can tell us how traditional he is.

    Or how about Mormons? I bet Romney has some time on his hands now, so maybe he’d stop by to explain what his deity is supposed to be. (If that happens, hold on to your virtual wallets.)

    But you know, it’d be more than a little odd to say this hinges on what’s traditional and what isn’t.

    “Relatively omnipotent” is like “a little bit pregnant,” Mr. Coyne. You either are or you aren’t.

    Sure, but I don’t see why that would be relevant. I don’t just disbelieve in perfect deities. There are all those piddling, imperfect deities which also don’t exist; and I think it would be a real shame to not give them the disbelief they deserve.

  49. John Morales says

    [semi-OT]

    To paraphrase Groucho, I wouldn’t care to worship any deity that wanted me to worship it.

  50. Hurin, Midnight DJ on the Backwards Music Station says

    I object to the assertion that “God” is a concept without a definition. That assertion ignores how we know about Gods: from old stories.

    For instance there was a God in a story I happen to like, and his name was Odin. Odin lived in a world (Asgard) which wasn’t Earth (Midgard) but which was connected to a giant tree (Yggdrasil) which Earth was also connected to. Odin went on adventures in which he hung from trees, and rode on a horse with 8 legs which may have been the daughter of Loki, another God who sometimes changed shapes.

    If you generalize from the Gods and Goddesses of mythology (Yaweh and Jesus included), you find that they can be defined as superhuman beings who generally look and act something like humans, but who are generally immortal and have other superhuman capabilities. All named Gods and Goddesses have named homes. Heaven. Asgard. Olympus. All Gods and Goddesses we know of have deeds attributed to them. Yaweh aloped with Mary, Odin won the runes by hanging from a tree. IMO it is safe to generalize this and say that Gods are fellow denizens of this universe with magic powers, who act in this universe and said gods usually have an interest in human affairs.

    Modern theologians will not like this definition, because it makes the Gods and Goddesses who fall under it vulnerable. We have no evidence that the ancients who wrote about these beings were actually in contact with them. We have been able to record or verify these gods, and worse, the old stories also have them doing things and residing in places that aren’t consistent with reality. What is Yggdrasil for instance? The earth moves, it isn’t connected to a tree. In order to obviate those vulnerabilities, theologians have attempted to muddy the waters, and confuse people about the “divinity” they are actually talking about. In this sense the “deist god” is not a God, but a tactical move, and it is one that we don’t need to play along with. We know what Gods are and how their stories came about, we don’t have to pretend that a barrage of ad-hoc defenses fundamentally change what we are talking about.

  51. Hurin, Midnight DJ on the Backwards Music Station says

    We have been able to record or verify these gods

    Sorry, that should read: We have not been able to record or verify these gods.

  52. says

    Even Darwin’s theory of natural selection was not completely clear in his head when he came up with it. It took a century to clarify what it really meant. The problems with the idea of God are much worse than that. It is a superfluous notion that explains absolutely nothing. But it’s also clear that you can’t give the idea any clear meaning that wouldn’t directly conflict with the rest of modern science. You only have to have a very modest understanding of science to see how hopeless God concept is. It just doesn’t fit into the rest of the puzzle.

  53. says

    I object to the assertion that “God” is a concept without a definition. That assertion ignores how we know about Gods: from old stories.

    For instance there was a God in a story I happen to like, and his name was Odin. Odin lived in a world (Asgard) which wasn’t Earth (Midgard) but which was connected to a giant tree (Yggdrasil) which Earth was also connected to. Odin went on adventures in which he hung from trees, and rode on a horse with 8 legs

    That’s a description, not a definition.

    Unless you’re willing to call any old man riding a mutant horse an Asgardian god, you can’t use that information to accurately identify Odin, or distinguish him from a pretender. Without visiting Asgard for ourselves, all the rest is just second-hand storytelling.

    But even if we could assemble a good amount of corroborating evidence (say, inventing an interdimensional vehicle and discovering a realm that sufficiently resembles the description of Asgard, with its inhabitants), we’ve only verified the existence of Asgardians, not “gods” in any generalised sense. And even verified existence doesn’t prove their “godlike” status, beyond establishing a legitimate basis for the mythology…

    IMO it is safe to generalize this and say that Gods are fellow denizens of this universe with magic powers, who act in this universe and said gods usually have an interest in human affairs.

    Aagin, this is too general and will include things most people would consider not-gods; unless you think Harry Potter qualifies.

    A complete god definition must include all entities that are considered gods, and exclude all entities that aren’t.

    I propose that no such definition is possible.

  54. nohellbelowus says

    My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined. I could claim that a spumboodle exists, for instance, and we could go around and around with you presenting hypothetical examples and listing potential entities or forces that are spumboodles, but we’ll get nowhere if I never tell you what the heck a spumboodle is or what it does or even how I recognize a spumboodle.

    I couldn’t agree more. Go for the jugular, and never let a religious debate proceed past this crucial juncture (even if your opponent is Herman Munster and he starts stomping his feet).

    HOWEVER… it’s unfortunate that you chose to use “spumboodle” as your example, because I saw one in a bowl of pho tai nam at dinner the other night…

  55. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    @42 The definition given is meaningless – Carrier defines supernatural as metaphysically different to the natural but how something can be different to the natural is still undefined. – dextriboper

    Thanks for giving a perfect example of the bilge I identified @42. No, that is not how Carrier defines “supernatural”; I conclude that you are unable to read.

  56. gravityisjustatheory says

    Kagato
    8 November 2012 at 6:24 pm

    A useful test for any definition like that is, can it be accurately applied to something that you do not think should meet that definition?

    Good point.

    Dipping into the realm of popular fiction (because let’s face it, we’re already there on this topic), would you consider Superman a god? He meets all your criteria, but does knowing that he is an alien from the planet Krypton exclude him from consideration? If so, your definition is incomplete.

    I’m not sure. It would probably depend on which version of Superman we are talking about. If you mean a gestalt of all the most ridiculously overpowered versions (can fly at many times the speed of light, can reverse time by making the Earth spin backwards, can rebuild the Great Wall of China with his Super Rebuilding Vision), then maybe he he is a god.

    If a character with Superman’s powers occured in Greek myth, I doubt anyone would have a problem describing him as a god. (Well, Darkseid would probably disagree).

    How about Jean Grey, in the atrocious X-Men 3? While she showed no inclination, as the most powerful psychic on the Earth she could listen to people’s prayers if she wanted to. Could a sufficiently powerful human-born psychic qualify as a god?

    Possibly, but if she can die to a stab to the gut, then she’s probably not a god. (Although Baldur died to a mistletoe to the shoulder). The Pheonix Force, on the other hand, would probably count as a god.

    And Q from Star Trek is a god, in my view. (If I lived in the Trek ‘verse, I’m not sure I could be an atheist without resorting to special pleading, given the number of energy-beings with god-like powers. I almost certainly would, however, be a misotheist).

    I do think I need to add another criteria to my list: immortal / idestructable / eternal (or sufficiently tough and long-lived to appear that way to humans). (Although as noted, the Norse gods could be killed).

  57. graham says

    Have you ever thought of becoming an Apatheist?

    If god doesn’t exist it’s a waste of time talking about him/her/it.

    If god does exist he/she/it hasn’t managed,despite being given thousands of years to do so,to clearly communicate its presence to us nor show itself to be interested in us nor be susceptible to being influenced by us. So again its a waste of time talking about him/her/it.

    Speaking personally, getting stuck into a detailed examination of the issues is a bit too close to the infinite convolutions of Sophisticated Theology ™. I’ll put my energies into getting the religious to stop parking their tanks on my lawn but as to whether god exists- well he/she/it’s never bothered me and I’m happy to leave it at that.

    http://378161.forumromanum.com/member/forum/forum.php?USER=user_378161

  58. Tony–Queer Duck Overlord of The Bronze– says

    gravityisjustatheory @61:

    To dip even further into comics, IIRC the treatment of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters as gods was questioned for years by many fans. I most often heard the argument “they aren’t gods *OF* anything”, followed closely by “they aren’t worshipped by anyone”. ISTR John Byrne trying to explain their status as gods resulting from a deeper bond with The Source (so only certain beings possess a strong connection with the universal life force; and of those beings, some have a greater connection than others).
    Now that I think about it, this doesn’t help define what (a) God is. It probably just muddies the waters.

  59. Tony–Queer Duck Overlord of The Bronze– says

    graham @62:

    If god doesn’t exist it’s a waste of time talking about him/her/it.

    It’s almost certain that no god has ever existed. Sadly, it’s still important to talk about him/her/them, because the delusional belief in any kind of deity has had a tremendous and *detrimental* impact on humanity. Until the God Delusion relinquishes significant dominance over humanity’s actions, we need to discuss it…so that we may persuade people away from it.

  60. raymoscow says

    As I think others (including PZ) have said, religion and superstition has had centuries to produce some evidence for the ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’, and they’ve got nothing.

    There is no realistic chance or hope that they ever will. The supernatural hypothesis has been tested countless times and has failed every time. It’s way past time to move on.

  61. John Morales says

    raymoscow, they’ve provided plenty of evidence (such as reality itself, rainbows, love and triple waterfalls).

    (Of course, if you were referring to compelling evidence, then I cannot gainsay you)

  62. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    Hah, I classify myself as a militantly ignostic apathist… Mainly smart-arsery, truth be told.

  63. Paul W., OM says

    I want to third what Nick Gotts and consciousness razor are saying.

    The concepts of the supernatural and of gods are not meaningless, trivial, or incoherent. They’re actually pretty interesting, as cognitive psychology and anthropology, even though there’s no sign that the supernatural actually exists.

    Richard Carrier (in the article consciousness razor linked to in #21) does a pretty good job of explaining what “supernatural” means. Pascal Boyer does a better, deeper, and more thorough job in his book Religion Explained, but Carrier is basically right. (Boyer is a cognitive anthropologist, and his book is quite readable and good.)

    Anybody who’s seriously interested in this subject should read those things. Really. Every time the subject comes up, a few of us say that, and point to Carrier and/or Boyer, and a few months later it comes up again, and we go through all the same bullshit because people are mistaken about what “supernatural” can reasonably mean.

    People all over the world have had supernaturalist concepts for thousands of years, and they all have some basic things in common which any definition of “supernatural” should capture. If you’re not talking about that stuff—ghosts and gods and magic amulets and Karma and Luck and so on—your definition of “supernatural” is just wrong, and you should go read Carrier and Boyer.

    Has PZ or Coyne or Shermer ever mentioned Carrier or Boyer when this comes up? If not, they should probably stop dabbling in this subject every few months for years and years, and dredging up the same goofy shit that’s been shot down over and over before.

    They should go read somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about, instead of making the same beginner mistakes at each other over and over, and encouraging their readers and commenters to do the same.

    If it had only happened once or twice, or even three or four times, that would be one thing, but this is getting to be ridiculous.

    People generally can’t tell you what “supernatural” means, but they know it when they “see it”—it’s stuff like ghosts and Gods—and to “define” the supernatural correctly, you have to figure out what it is that people are recognizing, that they’re not conscious of or articulate about.

    “Supernatural” does not mean not “natural”, in the sense that science studies the “natural” world—stuff that exists, or stuff that has any observable effects, or that very general sort of thing.

    (You can’t say that the supernatural doesn’t exist by definition because it all counts as “natural” in a broad sense. That’s just missing the point, and makes no more sense than saying that the “artificial” doesn’t exist, because artifacts and artificers are part of the natural world in that broad sense. It’s just a fallacy of four terms, because the relevant concept of “natural” is basically just not supernatural. If you’re trying to define “supernatural” in terms of “natural,” you’ve got it ass-backwards.)

    The supernatural is not by definition unobservable, or unpredictable, or beyond the reach of science in principle—or any of that shit that Western theologians have added in precisely to make supernatural concepts unfalsifiable. The supernatural concepts that people actually use and which underlie normal believers’ religions—as oppose to theologians’ obscurantist apologetic perversions—are not like that.

    Supernatural entities are generally observable in principle, with observable regularities in their behavior, and would typically be observable in fact, one way or another, if they were real.

    In other words, they’d be fine things for science to study, in much the same way we study anything else.

    Supernatural entities are not unlike natural ones in a lot of basic ways—they are almost just like natural ones, with a very few crucial, easily-understood differences. They have to be.

    If (supposed) supernatural entities were not both observable and basically comprehensible, people couldn’t easily understand stories about supernatural entities, and retell those stories accurately enough that we’d have ever heard about them.

    The properties of supernatural entities are strongly constrained by human psychology and the demands of repeatable narratives.

    That means that concepts of supernatural identities are almost identical to familiar concepts we use all the time in understanding natural ones—of people, animals, plants, tools, etc.—with a very few very easily-expressed differences.

    Carrier says that supernatural entities are entities with irreducibly mental properties, but that’s a bit misleading. What he means by “mental” includes things that are teleological—i.e., goal-directed, whether they literally have a mind or not, and even if they overtly don’t. (Like Karma.)

    Supernatural concepts involve irreducible essences of high-level, humanly interesting things like Truth, Thought, Knowledge, Wisdom, Skill, Luck, Love, Life, Strength, Growth, Healing, etc.

    For example, a Love goddess isn’t an alien with fancy technology. She doesn’t put a drug in your drink to make you fall in love, and she doesn’t scan your brain and rewire your synapses to create beliefs and attitudes toward somebody that constitute being in love.

    If she has to do that sort of thing, she’s a date-rape enabler or something, not a goddess of Love.

    A Love goddess has a special irreducible essence that has a special relationship to an irreducible essence of Love, which is something like a substance or energy that is itself Love, or can directly engender Love in some fairly direct, irreducible way.

    In other respects, a love Goddess may be basically just a person, which you’d understand in much the same way you’d understand a human—she has beliefs, desires, emotions, perceptions, goals, and all that stuff that humans have. That’s what makes stories about her understandable—they’re just like stories about humans, with a very few very striking differences that add magic and interest, e.g., that she’s immortal and is specifically the goddess of Love.

    Her ability to create or destroy or manipulate love is a mostly unanalyzed superpower—she can just do that sort of thing, because she’s the sort of thing that can do that, and Love is the sort of thing she can do it with. (End of character description.)

    So she can do something like simply creating some Love, and enveloping two people in it, or tarring them with it, such that they simply are in love.

    The special powers of supernatural entities are generally not just unanalyzed, but assumed to be unanalyzable and irreducible.

    Telling detailed reductionist stories about how they could work misses the point of the supernatural—supernaturalist thinking assumes that mental or teleological essences are fundamental aspects of reality. They are part of the “physics” of the universe, not something built out of complicated machinery, or information processing in biological computers or anything like that. They don’t reduce to computation or chemistry and physics as we know it. They just work generally quite directly and reliably.

    For example, a Love goddess may be essentially a human being with a few special magic twists, and thus fallible like a human being—not omnisicient, and maybe not especially smart, so she may make mistakes or be fooled by someone or whatever.

    But when she uses her superpower, her superpower doesn’t generally make mistakes—her human aspect may mistakenly envelop the wrong people in the essence of Love, but when she does it, they will reliably be in Love, because the essence of Love simply is Love—it’s not something complicated where lots of things can go wrong, because it’s not like a machine.

    That is a typical property of supernatural entities—their supernatural functions are straightforward and direct, and hence typically very reliable, even if they are otherwise like natural entities and thus fallible.

    For example, we intuitively recognize the Force in Star Wars as a supernatural entity. It may not be intelligent, and may be overtly mindless and have no goals or preferences, but it is somehow profoundly connected to good and evil, and knowledge and skill. It’s the kind of thing you can have a religion about, even if it’s not a god in the sense of being a magical person. It has godlike supernatural abilities without being a person.

    It has mind-like properties, and they’re pretty direct and very reliable in a way no mind actually is. Without being told, we know the Force doesn’t fuck up. People using the Force may fuck up, but the Force itself doesn’t.

    When Obi-Wan tells Luke to use the Force, and Luke fails to hit the practice ball or whatever, we know Luke isn’t going to say “I used the fucking Force, Obi-Wan, and the Force fucked up.” The Force isn’t like a machine or computer program, analyzing information and prone to error due to incomplete information or processing errors. It has no intricately connected parts that break or malfunction. It just “knows” stuff, like where the ball is going to be when Luke needs to hit it, without needing such machinery.

    A general theme with supernatural entities is that their magical properties are usually pretty simple—they’re pretty easy to describe even if they’re impossible to explain in reductionist terms, because they just are like that.

    So Hercules is like a normal person in thousands of ways that doen’t need to be spelled out, but much Stronger. You don’t need to explain why his strong muscles don’t break his bones, and he doesn’t crush his spinal disks when he lifts something ridiculously heavy. Strength is essentialized, and it’s assumed he just has a lot more of the essence of Strength, and it just works because it simply is Strength, as though strength was one simple thing.

    Supernaturalist stories are like superhero stories—they’re pure storytelling, with radically concise high-level descriptions of amazing things that just work, because things just are that way, so you can get on with telling the actual story.

    One reason that supernaturalist stories are like that is the obvious one, which is the same as for superhero stories—it’s all about the storytelling, and unexplained entities work fine for a that if they correspond to evolved and culturally informed intuitions that people already have, about Minds and Matter, and Love or Strength or Luck or whatever. (If they don’t, you’re pretty much screwed—the stories become unfeasibly complicated, incomprehensible, and unrepeatable.)

    Another reason is that essentialized, dualistic thinking comes naturally to people—we’re evolved to be able to think in useful ways about things like living entities and thinking beings, without ever knowing what life and thought actually are. You can intuitively understand living things and other people at a high level, e.g., in terms of plants’ “teleological” (goal-directed) growth and healing, and people’s conscious goals and plans, without any idea how any of that works at lower levels.

    From a prescientific point of view, most interesting things are basically black boxes with superpowers, and it’s not anything like clear that you should expect those superpowers to be reducible to the operations of normal physical machinery, even in principle. For most of human history, most people have assumed just the opposite—that the gulf between nonliving matter and living organisms was basic and unbridgeable, and so on, and that there really were irreducible essences of Life and Mind and Love and so on.

    Given that, you can understand what supernaturalist thinking is—it’s thinking that the intuitive, high-level concepts we use to carve up the world actually reflect the fundamental physics of the world—that there just are such things as Life and Mind and Love and Strength, which are not made out of boring mindless dead things like machinery and chemistry and physics.

    If you want to understand God, you have to understand that first. Gods are person-like entities with irreducibly mental properties.

    That’s true not only of pagan gods, which are clearly very human-like with added magical essences that endow superpowers, but of pretty much anything anybody calls “God” in any culture.

    For example, a lot of New Agers believe that God is something like an energy or force that pervades the universe and somehow matters—a Higher Power that cares about you and wants you to do good, or something, despite not being literally a person that can want. Things like wisdom and moral preferences are essentialized and simply added into a nonmental “force” or “energy” or “vibration,” as though anything like a force or energy or vibration could have anything like wisdom or moral preferences.

    If you have no idea that wisdom and moral preferences are very high-level properties of very complicated information processing systems, and not anything like substances or energies themselves, it’s not at all obvious why you can’t graft them onto something mindless like a force or an energy.

    More generally, if you think that your high-level mental categories correspond to fundamental features of reality, it seems reasonable to guess that actual combinations like that could exist, because the high-level descriptions seem simple—like a superhero as a human plus a superpower—and you don’t realize that the universe is not basically structured like your intuitive concepts, and fundamental reality isn’t like that at all.

  64. says

    A Love goddess has a special irreducible essence that has a special relationship to an irreducible essence of Love, which is something like a substance or energy that is itself Love, or can directly engender Love in some fairly direct, irreducible way.

    You have got to be kidding me.

    Telling detailed reductionist stories about how they could work misses the point of the supernatural—supernaturalist thinking assumes that mental or teleological essences are fundamental aspects of reality.

    In other words, wishful or magical thinking. Which brings us back to religion(Or Star Wars).

    On the other hand, best thing ever written about Coyne:

    Coyne accepts the wobble.

    Now that is awesome on so many levels.

  65. Tony–Queer Duck Overlord of The Bronze– says

    Paul:

    “Supernatural” does not mean not “natural”, in the sense that science studies the “natural” world—stuff that exists, or stuff that has any observable effects, or that very general sort of thing.

    It’s taken me several readings of multiple posters here (as well as the link to Carrier’s article) and I’m still not fully able to wrap my brain around the definition of supernatural many of you are talking about. The above quote is how I’ve thought about supernatural in the past. The above quote is also how many people refer to the supernatural.

  66. kevinalexander says

    but we’ll get nowhere if I never tell you what the heck a spumboodle is or what it does or even how I recognize a spumboodle.

    And ye shall never reveal the sacred knowledge upon pain of terminal constipation. It’s a mystery

    Other effing religions don’t get the ineffable but we Spumbodidlians do. That’s why we stop whatever we’re doing five times a day and dance the macarena.

    Facing Vegas.

  67. John Morales says

    Tony, shorter Paul W.: supernatural entities are (or possess) reified abstractions.

  68. says

    “God” is a social term. Satan fits every definition of god you can come up with, except that only social misfits who believe Ol’ Scratch is misunderstood worship him. Likewise Mary is not a goddess because the Catholics all agree that she isn’t and treat her differently from Jesus. Except there’s probably some group somewhere that does worship her, and then she’s a goddess for a bit. Superman is not god because no one says that he is, but FSM is a god because people say he is. But you’d be hard-pressed to come up with distinctions like “immortal” and “powerful” that don’t apply to at least some non-gods.

  69. Paul W., OM says

    rorschach:

    You have got to be kidding me.

    Um, why?

    I’m not saying that I believe in it myself.

    Of course it’s hogwash, but it’s hogwash with a particular kind of structure.

  70. says

    I was recently writing a blog post on some of these questions in response to a christian blogger’s post. I came up with this working definition for “Supernatural”: Our natural world is composed of a four-dimensional space-time continuum, containing matter, energy, physical forces, and the consistent ways those things behave, which we describe with natural laws. For something to be “supernatural”, it would need to, in whole or in part, consist of something other than that.

    I know that’s still vague, but it would at least rule out powerful aliens.

  71. says

    Of course it’s hogwash

    Ah, that’s a relief. Because I’m not of the opinion that we must try our hardest to entertain as charitable as possible a definition of “supernatural” which may get thrown out there by the wooists.

  72. sawells says

    I think Paul W’s point is that the supernatural is hogwash in the sense that phlogiston is hogwash – empirically, things don’t work like that.

  73. Paul W., OM says

    ChristineRose:

    Superman is not god because no one says that he is

    I don’t think it’s mostly that. It’s not just a matter of arbitrary labels, but of how the concepts do or don’t work.

    Superheroes are generally not gods because their superpowers aren’t seriously essentialized—their inexplicable powers are a literary conceit, and they’re just unanalyzed by convention. We agree not to look too hard at them, and whether they make any real sense at all, for the sake of the fun stories.

    For example, we just pretend that it makes sense that aliens from Krypton would be super-strong and whatnot, for some unspecified reasons. And somehow a bite from a radioactive spider can give Peter Parker a spider sense and so on… as though science could explain that in reductionist terms with DNA or something.

    That is actually very much like essentialism—gee, Peter gets Spideriness from a spider—but we pretend it’s not, and that it could be cashed out saneley.

    Hercules is semi-divine, and one of his divine properties is exactly a magical essence of Strength—you don’t need to look away, or pretend there’s anything like a reductionistic explanation, because he’s half-god, and gods don’t need reductionistic explanations—they’re just like that.

    An interesting example of this sort of thing is UFO cults.

    People who believe in UFO cults and literally worship aliens generally do very seriously believe in essentialism—they think the aliens have souls and spiritual energies of wisdom and crazy-ass nonsense like that. That lets them think of aliens just like gods or angels, and worship them. Their aliens are gods they can worship because they’re magical, even if they avoid that word because it sounds too stupid.

  74. bradleybetts says

    On Friday, in the pub, I think I came up with a(nother) way to dissprove an omnipotent God. We were talking politics, because the US elections were about to happen and my friend wanted the Republicans to win and I wanted Obama to remain. I said (half jokingly) Romney should be dissqualified based purely on the principal that he believes so much crap that he clearly lacks the critical thinking skills and ability to objectively analyse situations and information that should be a requirement for anyone hoping to be put in charge of the big red button, let alone the world’s largest economy and military force. After a bit of too-and-fro, I went on a slightly drunken rant about how stupid the whole concept of God was. I started listing all the reasons it’s a stupid theory, and when I got to omnipotence I was interrupted by a friend of a friend who, while not a Christian, is apparently of the opinion that you shouldn’t be nasty about people’s beliefs no matter how backward and self-defeating they may be.

    Anyway, I asked if she understood the concept of omnipotence. She said “Yeah, it means “all-powerful”. It means God can do anything”. I said “Yeah, that’s right. All monotheistic religions believe that their God is all powerful and can literally do anything. This is impossible”.

    “How?”

    “Well OK, God is all powerful, God can do anything… can God create a rock that is too heavy for Him to lift?”

    “Well yeah, if he’s omnipotent…”

    “But then God can’t lift the rock.”

    At this point she got it, and she looked a bit mind blown. If He can create the rock, then he can’t lift the rock… but if he can always lift the rock, then He can’t create a rock too heavy for him to lift.

    I’m quite proud of myself… especially considering how much I’d had to drink by that point :)

  75. Hurin, Midnight DJ on the Backwards Music Station says

    Kagato

    Aagin, this is too general and will include things most people would consider not-gods; unless you think Harry Potter qualifies.

    I would tend to think that Harry Potter qualifies. I don’t see a fundamental difference between Harry Potter and Loki, for instance.

    I know that some people would disagree with me, but I think they are failing (or possibly refusing) to recognize the similarities in the way that mythology and general fiction is constructed. I also find the vehement denunciations of Harry Potter, by certain groups of fundies, revealing. They definitely intuit the similarity, whether or not they are willing to admit it.

  76. ltft says

    On the idea that ‘God’ has to be well-defined… I think it’s much more like pornography; there isn’t a clear definition, most people accept that, but you generally know it when you see it. You could say the same thing about art, culture, tons of things… there are definitions, but if you’re looking for THE definition that covers everything perfectly you’re probably going to come up empty.

  77. abb3w says

    I think the main problem is not so much the imprecision in the definition of “god” (although that’s an issue), but the imprecision in the philosophical distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” as categories.

    Personally and presently, I’m inclined to an approach tied to the resolution of Hume’s problem of Induction (and non-equivalent options on the key axiomatic prior) with consequent ties to (hyper)computational complexity classes, details of which can of worms seem less likely to be of interest than consequences.

    Claims of “gods” existing then are resolved by:

    1) Noting the claimant provably can never distinguish any hawk from any handsaw without aid of a miracle;
    2) Dismissing the claim as contradicting another accepted premise
    3) Dismissing the claim as linguistincally meaningless (as with PZ’s “spumboodle”);
    4) Dismissing the well-defined claim as contradicted by some particular piece of evidence;
    5) Dismissing the well-defined claim as less likely to be correct than an alternative, given the evidence available for Bayesian prior; or (very rarely)
    6) Being a Humpty-Dumpty-esque confusing name for something scientifically ordinary (as with referring to “the Second Law of Thermodynamics” or “the class Cephalopoda of animals” by the word “god”).

    Negotiating shared terminology seems likely at least RE-hard as a problem.

  78. gravityisjustatheory says

    Hurin, Midnight DJ on the Backwards Music Station
    9 November 2012 at 8:22 am

    I would tend to think that Harry Potter qualifies. I don’t see a fundamental difference between Harry Potter and Loki, for instance.

    But Norse mythology contains many wizards and other people with magical powers, who are not considered gods. Ditto for other god-containing mythologies.
    ***

    However, the fact that finding a clear definition of “gods” that includes everything every worshiped as a god, and excludes everything not worshiped as a god is difficult doesn’t (in itself) mean the concept is meaningless. There are plenty of real things and concepts that can be difficult to define preciesely when you get down to edge cases (including “life”). But that doesn’t mean that generally you can’t say “this is/has it” and “this isn’t/doesn’t”.

    Another way to look at it might be to think of “gods” as being like a paraphylitic group (like shellfish). It’s not a definition so much as a description of a collection of features. And although there isn’t any real, fundamental link between all members of that group, it’s still a useful concept for everyday conversation.
    ***
    That said, the fact that “gods” is such a slippery, ill-defined concept is probably a consequence of (and evidence for) the fact that they are fictional concepts invented and revised multiple times.

    ***

    One other point to make:

    The god of the Sophiticated Theologans is either so vague, so tautological, or so nonsensical as to be meaningless.

    The gods of most pagan religions (and Old Testament literealists) are – while still somewhat vague – well enough defined and with sufficient recognisable characteristics that if they existed they should be recognisable as such, and would mean that the world would operate in a particular way (e.g. thunder being caused by someone hitting giants with a magic hammer). That they aren’t and it doesn’t demonstrates that they don’t exist.

  79. Sastra says

    Paul W. #69 wrote:

    Has PZ or Coyne or Shermer ever mentioned Carrier or Boyer when this comes up?

    I’m not sure, but I do know that, if he reads the comments on his website, Coyne has got to be aware of this particular definition of “supernatural” because I’ve been flogging it tirelessly over there till my fingers bleed every time the subject comes up.

    I call defining “Naturalism” as “all that exists” the Ontological Argument for Naturalism and find it either empty or evasive. I mean really, all you have to do to throw it out is declare that “supernatural” simply refers to a certain aspect or area or element of nature and the Ontological Argument for Naturalism is effectively defeated, as we are now all back where we started, but this time using the proper vocabulary. Pointless.

    I agree with Carrier (and you and consciousness razor and Vic Stenger and Daniel Dennett and many others) that any meaningful definition of a proposed supernaturalism has got to go through the same work scientists do with any hypothesis: take it apart and figure out how and where and WHY a supernatural thing is supposed to be a significantly different sort of thing from a natural thing. Start from basics. This is the approach a new atheist would take.

    It’s not that “science can only study natural things.” As you correctly observe, that’s an accomodationist cop-out. The supernatural is supposed to interact with our world so obviously and regularly and measurably that it gives us indirect evidence of its existence.

    Look at what is shared. Bottom line, the distinction comes down to some element of Pure Mentality — either mind or the products of mind (values, ideals, goals, emotions) existing prior to and/or apart from the physical — meaning not reducible to mindless matter and energy. Skyhooks vs. Cranes:

    “ Let us understand that a skyhook is a ‘mind-first’ force or power or process, an exception to the principle that all design, and apparent design, is ultimately the result of mindless, motiveless mechanicity. A crane, in contrast, is a subprocess or feature of a design process that can be demonstrated to permit the local speeding up of the basic, slow process of natural selection, and that can be demonstrated to be itself the predictable (or retrospectively explicable) product of the basic process.” (Dennet, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea pg. 76)

    Examples of supernatural phenomenon: disembodied souls, ghosts, ESP, psychokenesis, magical correspondences, “luck,” vitalism, karma, prana, God, cosmic consciousness, mind as “energy force,” a universal tendency towards the harmonic balance of Good and Evil, progressive evolution towards Higher States, mind/body substance dualism, holistic nonmaterialistic monism, dual-aspect monism.

    Look at them. These things are all weird in a special way. They don’t just violate the known laws of nature. They do so through infusing something primarily mental into things which have no neurological structure. No brain. Mind does not come from matter; matter comes from mind.

    PZ wrote:

    My position is that we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined.

    I’ll say here the same thing I said at Jerry’s place: the concept of “God” is too big a leap to tackle at once. Like anything else, you have to approach it in baby steps and build up a cumulative case — first for the definition, and then for what evidence would support it.

    Start small. Consider what it would mean for matter to come from mind. Consciousness without brain, or without physical access to brain. Let’s take ESP and PK. Extra-sensory perception and psychokenesis.

    Imagine finding out that psychic powers are supported by systematic, clear, regular, obvious, consistent and powerful evidence in well-designed tests. Imagine that the scientific model of reality now includes a strong form of mind/body dualism. Imagine that the supernatural is now an accepted category (the first person who pipes up to say ‘but now it’s just natural!’ is going to be smacked with a wet noodle for missing the point, the difference, the significant distinction in this new category).

    We’ve got a place to put God. It’s a disembodied mind which moves things in the natural around by PK and communicates with people in the natural world through ESP. That’s no longer a scientifically dubious hypothesis. We accept all of that.

    All we have to work on is figuring out that this particular Mind is really, really powerful. It made the universe.

    That’s difficult, but it’s a smaller step. And then the next step is also a smaller step. Don’t just leap to something complicated like “God” and expect to get anywhere. Baby steps.

  80. says

    I have a deeper problem with supernatural as a term.
    The OED defines it as

    (of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature: a supernatural being.

    But when we look at the term nature OED gives us a few options

    1. the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations

    2. the basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something: (informal) the inherent and unchangeable character of something.

    I think it’s the first definition of nature that trips us up in this discussion when we should be focused on the second. It is an extraordinary idea that all things in the world exist constrained by their particular inherent unchangeable character which we call their nature. When Shermer posits as supernatural things which have natures which we cannot identify he stays within this worldview. It’s merely the veil of ignorance the keeps the nature of these things beyond our current grasp. This is what would cast them as supernatural for Shermer. In that view, the quantity of stellar energy was a supernatural phenomena prior to the understanding of nuclear physics, since it’s production was unconstrained by the nature of things as we understood them. This would be a reasonable definition…supernatural defined as constrained by a nature as yet undetermined.

    A problem occurs when we want supernatural to comprise things which are NOT constrained by any kind of inherent and unchangeable character. Usually, as PZ articulates so well, this is an intellectual bolt hole. The person who invokes this definition usually has some definite claim about the true nature of something, but they want a pass from the requirements of evidence and sound epistemology in defending it. They will assert the impossibility of placing such constraints on the unconstrained. But this is nonsense. To have a nature is to be constrained! To be unconstrained by a nature (i.e. supernatural) is to have no nature whatsoever.

    Why anyone would bother to make claims about such things is a mystery to me.

  81. unclefrogy says

    there has never been any case that I know of or real evidence of anything supper natural by any definition you can choose.
    There has been no demonstration that any mind exists outside the interactions of mater or can exist outside of matter.
    All the gods and supper heroes demigods, angles and spirits only exist in the minds of people in “the dream time” so all the “rules” can be anything you want.
    That there could be so discrete being with great power over the stuff of the universe that can not explain or duplicate is possible. Could they be concerned with earth and wanted to help or would help some of us if asked is possible but that would not make them “the god” in any way we would understand it here but more like a farmer or zookeeper or pet master or a benevolent parent . Still a discreet entity existing in the same physical universe as everything else with an evolutionary history unique but still subject to the same processes as everything else
    just a “big alien” nothing more no better nor worse the us.

    just for fun = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=di1-bB1w4wM

    We have no evidence what ever of such a thing and speculation may be interesting and diverting there are many things just as interesting if not more interesting that we do know to exist.

    uncle frogy

  82. says

    Ogvorbis: broken and cynical@#7

    You have cut to the heart of the matter. Every invention of man is artificial. Whether a mental construct (or delusion) that never takes material form (the divine, the immortal, the impossible deity) or a practical application that we can enjoy and/or use every so often (my chair, my computer, the microscope I examine specimens with), they are still inventions. Of course this brings us into the realm of genetically engineered organics/biologicals which we already have on hand.

    Deux ex machina (literally) anyone? Luckily we don’t have any off the shelf supernatural powers to incorporate in such an invention.

  83. unclefrogy says

    man o man I proof read this stuff and I still leave out words I apologize for my distraction and screw-ups.

    uncle frogy

  84. Sastra says

    jackjesberger #87 wrote:

    In that view, the quantity of stellar energy was a supernatural phenomena prior to the understanding of nuclear physics, since it’s production was unconstrained by the nature of things as we understood them. This would be a reasonable definition…supernatural defined as constrained by a nature as yet undetermined.

    No, that’s a poor definition and can be shown to be problematic by using the very example you use: prior to the understanding of nuclear physics, the quantity of stellar energy as such was NOT thought of, considered, or classified as a “supernatural” phenomenon by anyone. We just couldn’t understand it’s nature. We didn’t know how it worked.

    But what about my little modifier in italics? Was there a way that stellar energy was interpreted as supernatural? Yes. You frame stellar energy as supernatural by infusing it with things which normally belong to minds: values, goals, morals essences, magic. As above, so below. The mind-like nature of the stars magically influences and connects our own minds and lives — their character, choices, and destiny — to an underlying occult reality which is also mind-like.

    It was called astrology.

    Astrology is supernatural. Some unknown phenomenon which is constrained by a nature not yet determined is not necessarily supernatural. It might be. But only if we were to determine that it has some inherent mental property in its nature, with no material mechanism to reduce it to.

  85. unity says

    I recall mulling this over the last time PZ and Jerry got into this question and I’m very much with PZ with one important caveat that relates to Jerry’s provision evidence for a provisional god:

    “I’ve previously described the kind of evidence that I’d provisionally accept for a divine being, including messages written in our DNA or in a pattern of stars, the reappearance of Jesus on earth in a way that is well documented and convincing to scientists, along with the ability of this returned Jesus to do things like heal amputees.”

    I could not accept any of those things, nearly omnipotent or omniscient doesn’t make the grade and so any seemingly miraculous phenomenon will not make the grade if it could conceivably be produced within the confines of the fundamental physical laws. In essence, if a sufficiently advanced technology could do the job, it ain’t magic, i.e supernatural, and therefore provides insufficient evidence for the existence of god as a supernatural entity.

    That set me to thinking about the nature of the fundamental laws of physics and the question of which, if any, could not hypothetically be violated by a sufficiently advanced technology and it turns out that most laws could be violated in theory even if, in practical terms, its difficult to see how such a monumental engineering task could be accomplished. In fact this is true of all fundamental physical laws except one – and from that I realized that I could set a very simple test of ‘godhead’ for any religion or entity that wished to take up the challenge.

    Build me a perpetual motion machine – a genuine, bona fide, 100% efficient perpetual motion machine.

    I don’t care in the slightest how big or small it is – in fact smaller is probably better as it would be easier to investigate and establish that it did indeed perform to the required specs – only that it verifiably violates the second law of thermodynamics.

    Do that, and then you call yourself ‘god’.

  86. baruchtzairy says

    My opinion –
    First and foremost, Its entirely irrelevant, the debate over whether there can be sufficient evidence for a deity or whether such evidence is entirely impossible (since the concept of a deity is not defined and cannot be defined) is in its entirety a debate in the purely hypothetical, as all Atheists keep pointing out, not even a hint of such evidence exists and therefore the debate is on purely hypothetical grounds.

    While I think my previous statement stands, if we were to delve into this debate – I believe an argument can be made that Myers, Coyne and Shermer are all correct, they are simply positioned on different rungs of the same ladder. Since the amount of evidence required to convince someone in the existence of a deity is different from person to person, you can set each person on a predefined scale (a “strength of evidence required for belief in a deity” scale) according to the the amount of evidence he requires to change his current belief to another deity (e.g the strength of evidence required for Mr smith to change his belief from Christianity to Hindu, or the the strength of evidence required for PZ to change his belief to Cathlu).
    one may believe in a deity if it materializes in front of him and performs some magic tricks, another may require more evidence to be convinced (claiming that so far the deity only demonstrated the level of its technology or science) and yet another may claim that no matter what the deity performs, no feat is sufficient to convince him that he is a deity since the very idea of a definition contradicts the very idea of a deity.
    If we were to place a scale for “strength of evidence required for belief in a deity” where 1 is convinced by the slimmest of evidence (a tale of someone being cured from a disease) and 10 will never be convinced of a deity’s existence, then Jerry Coyne is probobly a 6 or 7, PZ is probably a 10 (I’m not sure I understand where Shermer stands, possibly also a 10).

  87. demonax says

    Really for all the froth and the hocus pocus of mathematical logic played by Plantinga that so impresses Nagel has anyone made any advance on Hume? I beg to think not.

  88. says

    PZ is, of course, perfectly correct that there can be no evidence for an omnipotent deity. Omnipotence is something totally beyond the scope of science, by which I mean that the probability for such a phenomenon is strictly zero, independent of any empirical evidence: there can never be a rational reason for believing in such a thing. I have explained the mathematics behind this assertion here, but the principle seems to have been known for over 200 years. Briefly, omnipotence represents a fitting model with infinite degrees of freedom, and therefore pays an infinite penalty as soon as Bayes’ theorem gets its hands on it.

    I disagree, however, with PZ’s meditations on the supernatural:

    If a source outside the bounds of what modern science considers the limits of natural phenomena is having an observable effect, we should take its existence into account.

    It seems to me the only rational limit on natural phenomena is the class of things that actually happen.

    If one would really like to use the term ‘supernatural’ merely for those phenomena not adequately explained by science, then in a way that’s fine, but this trivial meaning is not what most people mean by it – people mean something belonging to some separate regime of existence, not constrained by ‘natural law,’ and I feel that all rational people should distance themselves from the term for this reason, and point out the fallacy of such usage (which I discuss in more detail here (sorry for all the self citations)).

    This common meaning was invoked, for example, crassly in PZ’s 2009 debate with Kirk Durston, and I confess I was disappointed that PZ didn’t tear the shoddy argument to pieces (though I understand that a debate is a difficult situation, and an extremely sub-optimal one for arriving at the truth). Durston starts by pointing out the fallacy of circular reasoning: you can not assume a proposition in a logical argument aimed at establishing the same proposition (an argument, by the way, that totally invalidated all his previous arguments about evidence in the bible). Via a slick bait-and-switch maneuver, he then assumes this is the same as saying that a phenomenon can not cause itself, though this is a totally different statement. From there he argues that since nature can not be the cause of nature, then there must be a supernatural cause, but he makes no effort to establish the difference between these two categories. For the purposes of his argument, however, there can be no difference. What would be the cause of the supernatural?

    Yes, if catholic prayers are found to exert a measurable impact on medical outcomes then the phenomenon must be taken seriously, but I believe utterly that to any reasonable mind, such a phenomenon must be considered natural – its part of the universe after all. Or are we really to argue that the photoelectric effect was supernatural prior to 1905, and natural thereafter?

  89. Paul W., OM says

    sawells:

    I think Paul W’s point is that the supernatural is hogwash in the sense that phlogiston is hogwash – empirically, things don’t work like that.

    Yes, that is one of the most important points. Supernaturalism isn’t incoherent or fundamentally nonsensical—it has a particular coherent structure, which is intuitively appealing given the way some of our basic concepts and mental processes actually work, and which happens to be very profoundly wrong.

    One of Pascal Boyer’s main points is that we are constantly told things about religion that are just not true, by “sophisticated” apologists and theologians, and by accommodationists.

    The idea that religious ideas are unfalsifiable and safe from science is just nonsense—most religious ideas are eminently falsifiable, in their natural forms, and the important ones are now pretty clearly false.

    Unfalsifiability is not a property of supernaturalist ideas themselves, just as it’s not generally a property of naturalistic hypotheses themselves.

    What makes a hypothesis unfalsifiable is usually a matter of how far you’re willing to go to evade falsification, by jiggering auxiliary assumptions so that perfectly good hypotheses cease to be predictive and testable.

    And the people doing that jiggering and evading are not normal religious believers believing normal religious beliefs—they’re apologists and theologians and accommodationists, distorting the basic religious beliefs that normal religion depends on, to conceal the fact that religion conflicts with everything else we know, especially from science.

    The versions of those beliefs that rank and file believers believe—the ones that make religion tick—are not sophisticated. They are falsifiable, and more or less evidently false.

    For example, sophisticated theologians may say that God is incomprehensible and so on, and not a person like us but the Ultimate Ground of Being or whatever… but nobody worships an ultimate ground of being. People worship supernatural persons and other entities with very person-like properties, plus magical essences. Some people claim to believe in sophisticated theology, but most don’t when the rubber meets the road—when they’re earnestly praying, they’re usually trying to get useful guidance from or cut a deal with a person, conceptualized just like a normal person, plus magic, just as people in prescientific cultures do. Or if not, they’re trying to tune in to the magical mental essences attached to the Ultimate Ground of Being as though it was a mind.

    Another falsehood we’re told about religion is that it’s about ultimate explanations and the ultimate nature of reality—often also spun as something beyond what science can say.

    But it’s just not true. If you look at religions in most cultures at most times, and even in the heads of modern Westerners at most times, it’s not about that sort of thing at all. It’s all about proximate explanations, and essentially never about ultimate ones.

    For example, one of the biggest religious questions for thousands and thousands of years, in various religions around the world, was where does the Sun go at night? That wasn’t an ultimate question—just an interesting one, given that everyone could see the sun in the daytime, but not at night.

    Not “why is there something rather than nothing at all?” or “what is time?”—those questions are never asked in most religions, and rarely in any—but where does the sun go at night?. In general, really basic or ultimate questions are not “problematized” by religion—things like the existence of the universe and causation are just taken for granted. When they are problematized, it’s usually a sign that the religion is not functioning normally, e.g., it’s been largely made irrelevant by science, and is looking for something science can’t do better, to justify itself.

    The most important religious questions are always much more practical—how do you know what the gods want, and how do you placate them and cut deals with them? Or if not gods, things like Karma, which isn’t a person but can magically do much the same moral account-keeping that humans do, only better, so in effect you can cut a deal with it, too.

    A general theme is that religion is generally not about ultimate questions, or what happens in the next world, as we’re told it is. It’s about what’s happening in this world, now.

    You can see that in how people think and talk about the afterlife, if they believe in one. For example, most Christians don’t know much about Heaven—they couldn’t talk for more than a minute about it without running out of stuff they know, and they rarely think about it.

    And most people in ancestor-worshipping cultures don’t think about ancestors from more than about three generations back—people they knew, or people they heard about from people who knew them—and people generally aren’t clear on what happens to all the older ancestors. Recent ancestors are believed to hang around and watch them, but after a while, they just drift off somehow, maybe to some very vaguely understood final place that nobody knows much about or bothers to think about much, or maybe they just fade away. The important ancestors are the recent ones, who watch and guide you in this life, and may fuck you up if you embarrass them.

    The supernatural world is generally very much about this world—what’s most important about it is how it (supposedly) affects living people, or determines what people should do in this life. What happens further from the human sphere, or long after human death, is generally just hand-waved about a little, and may not be addressed at all.

    Religion is generally not about very deep big-picture stuff and eternity, as we’re so often told—it’s very much about about relatively shallow, small, and practical things in this life, with a thin veneer of being about something much grander.

    That makes religion very vulnerable to obsolescence from secular knowledge and science. We have better ways of understanding this life, and religion was never really much about the other, anyway.

  90. Paul W., OM says

    Sastra:

    I’m not sure, but I do know that, if he reads the comments on his website, Coyne has got to be aware of this particular definition of “supernatural” because I’ve been flogging it tirelessly over there till my fingers bleed every time the subject comes up.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve said this sort of thing over there a few times, too, and a bunch of times over here.

    It’s pretty disappointing that PZ and Jerry don’t seem to listen to it at all, and just keep saying the same kinds of ignorant stuff year after year, when they could read a good book about it and learn something interesting.

    I’d hope PZ would at least listen to you—you’re maybe the most generally respected commenter on Pharyngula, and certainly right up there—enough to think it’s worth checking out.

  91. Paul W., OM says

    Damn, sophisticated theology has been successful.

    One of the most successful innovations ever in theology is the omnipotence derail, which has been sidetracking discussions of God for centuries, and still does, even here.

    The issue of omnipotence and “definitions” of God is like a matador’s cape to a bull.

    We are the bull.

    Omnipotence has nothing at all to do with what actually makes something a god or God, or whether said God exists, or why anyone is actually religious.

    Nobody worships God because he’s literally omnipotent, or ceases to worship him because they conclude that he’s not, and is just really, really powerful instead.

    God-ness isn’t about absolute power, and never has been—it’s about how his powers do and don’t work. God isn’t just a powerful alien, omnipotent or otherwise. He’s a person plus magical essences.

    The real, working concept of God is an intuitive one that must be carefully teased out of what people say about God, and how they act when they’re earnestly religious. It’s a matter of cognitive psychology and narrative constraints, not a matter of dictionary definitions.

    Theologians’ “definitions” of God are not very relevant to actual religion—or even to theologians when they’re being earnestly religious, and certainly not to rank and file religious believers.

    Even if you manage to convince all the theologians that an omnipotent God can’t actually exist, it won’t matter much, even to most theologians—they’ll just ditch that inessential condition for Godness, and keep going like the Energizer bunny.

    And it won’t matter at all to normal religious believers. They never really cared about omnipotence—it was just a dictionary definition they had to learn, and were falsely told was somehow important.

    The issue has always been an OCD wankfest sideshow. It’s a stupid medieval obsession, and is no more relevant to serious discussion of God’s existence than how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    It’s not even essential that God’s the most powerful god, though it helps. (People are perfectly capable of worshipping gods that are not the most powerful god, especially if they’re the most relevant god to their lives around where they live, as JWJH was to the early ancient Hebrews—he was their God and that was plenty.)

    Don’t let OCD theological wankers distract you with a ridiculous medieval obsession about absolutes and perfections, which has never really mattered to Godhood or real religion, where the rubber meets the road.

  92. consciousness razor says

    Paul W. and Sastra, I don’t have much to add; but I just want to say you’ve been stellar in this thread. I guess that seems a little self-congratulatory, but whatever. Fuck it.

    People don’t mention Boyer’s work often enough, including me. Religion Explained is definitely worth reading, for anyone interested. It should at least get as much attention as, say, The God Delusion, God Is Not Great and the like, which don’t do much in the way of explaining anything. Granted, they weren’t intended to, but atheists really have to understand what their arguments are and what they’re arguing against.

    I call defining “Naturalism” as “all that exists” the Ontological Argument for Naturalism and find it either empty or evasive.

    That’s exactly what it is, and it’s really weird. The way I see it, they’re coming to that point by trying to turn it into a purely epistemological question, when it isn’t one. They don’t want to dig into the messy bottom level to figure out how all the parts fit together, or what the parts are, or if there even are parts. It’s too much to think about, so let’s just avoid thinking about it. As if that’s never backfired.

    And then we hear about how this is all just pointless wordplay. Well… sure. When you’re claiming that if a god exists it would be “natural” and wouldn’t be a problem for naturalism, because you seriously only care about whether we use the word “natural” rather than “supernatural,” discussing it with you is rather pointless. God doesn’t exist? Naturalism wins. God does exist? Naturalism wins. Wheee! There’s no point in being a naturalist. Hooray! So when can we start believing in gods again?

    It’s just painful to see the same trainwreck over and over. You don’t have to start from scratch, people. (And then do it over and over and over….) Thousands of years of philosophy happened. Try reading some of it, or don’t put yourself in the discussion.

  93. says

    Paul W. (no. 99),

    If that was a response to my comment, I used the term omnipotence because it is central to many religious dogmas.

    The nice thing about the calculation I alluded to is that even relaxing this grand requirement, we still get a negligibly small probability, and actually one that I prefer, since I dislike anything being beyond the scope of science. Don’t misunderstand this term though, I’m not claiming this makes it OK to let faith take over and believe it anyway. In reality, there is no such thing as faith, we only believe what we have reasons to believe. The question is whether those reasons are good or bad, ie scientific or not.

  94. Paul W., OM says

    Another enormous success of sophisticated theology is the Creation derail.

    It doesn’t fucking matter whether God created the universe.

    Belief that God created the universe has nothing to do with whether God exists, or is a god or God, or why people are actually religious and believe in or worship such things.

    It’s another irrelevant sideshow, and another cape to distract the bull.

    People don’t actually worship God because he created the Universe, and won’t stop worshipping him if they find out he didn’t, as long as he they think he satisfies the real, unconscious criteria for being God.

    As long as they think he’s a supernatural person who’s powerful enough, and wise enough, and good enough, people can worship him in very much the same way they always have. That is all that has ever mattered much to God-worship.

    Creator-hood is another unnecessary and insufficient condition for godhood or Godhood.

    Vast amounts of thought and argument have been put into the issues of infinite power and supposed proof that the universe must have been supernaturally created, and counterapologetics about how none of that makes actual sense.

    And that’s all almost entirely irrelevant to actual religion, and why people believe in, care about, or worship God.

    People would be just about has happy to worship a God who’s always existed as part of the universe, rather than creating it from the outside—so long as he’s powerful enoughb and good enough, and whatever Godly shit he does, he does by magic.

    Creation ex nihilo is just one particular nifty magic trick, and as long as he can do more important magic tricks it’s just a bit of grandstanding that doesn’t really matter.

    The idea that God created the universe has always been mostly irrelevant to why people care about God—it’s just another story they had to memorize and were falsely told was important, that’s mostly beside the point.

    Even if you could win those arguments decisively, to everyone’s satisfaction, it wouldn’t make a big dent in real religious belief, except indirectly, by eroding the authority of theology and theologians such that people question other, actually important things—like whether they should believe in powerful supernatural persons and magical irreducible essences at all, or worship such things.

  95. Paul W., OM says

    aggressivePerfector:

    If that was a response to my comment, I used the term omnipotence because it is central to many religious dogmas.

    It wasn’t particularly a response to you—it was more a response to the way PZ and Jerry and lots of other people on our side talk about the God issue—as though what theologians say about God was actually important.

    Theology has managed to get most of us to mostly miss the crucial points about God and religion. We’ve been led by the nose to arguing about irrelevancies, and generally not about what really matters.

    That’s why Carrier and especially Boyer are important.

    And I agree with consciousness razor, above, that Religion Explained is a better New Atheist book than the famous ones by the four horsemen—it’s not just a rehash of what atheists have been saying all along, and really cuts to the heart of important issues about supernaturalism and God and religion that most of us do not already understand and agree with.

    I think every New Atheist should read it.

    In reality, there is no such thing as faith, we only believe what we have reasons to believe.

    You know, that’s a very, very important point, which is likely to provoke me to another rant. People do not actually believe because of faith. They believe because supernaturalism is intuitively plausible to them, and that makes a lot of other bullshit plausible.

    Reification and fetishization of “faith” mostly obscures why people actually believe in these things, and is another important theological derail from crucial ontological and epistemological issues.

  96. says

    I actually want to take back what I said about an omnipotent deity being beyond the scope of science (in previous writings I have deliberately avoided this conclusion). I meant that no data can change our raitonal degree of belief, but this is too restrictive if used as a limit of science. Its just one of a special class of unfalsefiable theories, for which we do not need data, but the argument is still scientific.

    Paul W.,
    Yes, faith is a term I absolutely hate, used as some get-out-of-jail-free card, with absolutely no basis. I’d like to have it stricken from the dictionaries, it has no legitimate usage.

  97. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Because I’m not of the opinion that we must try our hardest to entertain as charitable as possible a definition of “supernatural” which may get thrown out there by the wooists. – rorschach

    Nor is anyone else here. Do try to keep up.

  98. Sastra says

    Paul W. #97 wrote:

    Unfalsifiability is not a property of supernaturalist ideas themselves, just as it’s not generally a property of naturalistic hypotheses themselves.
    What makes a hypothesis unfalsifiable is usually a matter of how far you’re willing to go to evade falsification, by jiggering auxiliary assumptions so that perfectly good hypotheses cease to be predictive and testable.

    Exactly. I like the term philosopher Stephen Law uses for this evasion of responsibility: Immunizing Strategy. An immunizing strategy is attached to an idea only as a sort of safeguard. It’s not intrinsic to the nature of the claim — though it will try to look like it is.

    Consider that supernatural bit of alt med vitalism called “healing energy,” a mysterious life force which ‘holistic healers’ using Therapeutic Touch or some other kind of energy medicine tap into and manipulate with their hands, in order to smooth out and heal a body. You often hear this mystical vital life force described, in the definition, as something which scientific instruments can’t measure, or something which cannot be detected by Western Science.

    So is “healing energy” no longer predictive and testable? I mean, the fact that it isn’t is IN the definition.

    Not really. The unfalsifiability is only an immunizing strategy set up in advance. Energy healers make all sorts of testable predictions, cite all sorts of empirical evidence … and even submit and publish ‘positive’ studies in their own journals. And — most damning of all — they know and we know that if some sort of machine actually started to measure the healing energy force or managed to pass all the rigorous Western Science criteria — then the Energy Healers would be shouting victory from the rooftops.

    “See? See??? We told you so! We told you we could feel energy fields and you didn’t believe us and now you have to ADMIT YOU WERE WRONG! Science showed we were RIGHT! In your face, reductionist materialists! IN YOUR FACE!”

    It has to work both ways. If the evidence COULD be such that science would demonstrate that the thing exists, then if the evidence isn’t there you can’t suddenly claim that no, by definition, your belief is untestable and thus outside of science. You need faith.

    Bull.

    Now look at that triumphant Reiki Master gloat — and substitute “God” for energy fields and “atheists” for reductionist materialists. Same thing. It works the same way. Richard Dawkins nailed it when he noted that no theologian would dismiss conclusive evidence for a miracle and insist that no, this should be ignored because God doesn’t prove itself through tests and so science can say nothing.

    The unfalsifiability of theism then is only an immunizing strategy tacked on to evade skeptics. It became even more important when the expected evidence for dualism and the soul stopped looking promising. It should get no more respect and we should pay it no more mind than we grant to the excuses of dowsers who failed the Randi Challenge.

    I also agree with Paul about the omnis and ‘creating the universe’ being distractions. Red herrings, in effect. Like people who think the stars become more impressive when it turns out their movements are meant to tell us things, God only has to be significant enough to reassure us that we matter, cosmically speaking. It has to be something invoking Pure Mind — either a disembodied Mind itself, or a reified “Goodness” or “Creativity” or “Love.” The other stuff is negotiable.

    Maybe I find it easier to throw off a lot of properties which are supposed to be “crucial” to the God concept because I wasn’t raised with traditional religion. I once believed — or tried to believe — in a Spiritual form of God, one more like an energy force (that is, how I visualized an energy force) than a person. I’m an ex-Transcendentalist, and dabbled in New Age and some of the more ‘sophisticated’-sounding versions of Consciousness. The omnis weren’t even on my radar.

    Of course, not much is on the radar which tracks that form of God. Non-reducible mental properties embodied in bodiless essence.

  99. says

    Sastra #92

    We may be in agreement. What I was trying to say was that Shermer’s example is rooted in an assumption that nature alone would still be the only thing in play, we just wouldn’t be unable to see or understand at that moment how it was the case that it was just nature. The root cause of our inability might be remediable, a lack of other prerequisite knowledge, which once obtained would make all clear. That’s Shermer’s case in point, the alien intelligence still constrained by nature, but in some manner far enough beyond our comprehension for such constraint to be opaque to us. This would be a case of something that is only “apparently supernatural” in the absence of what one would need to perceive it as natural. Shermer’s point seems to be that we can comfortably remain open minded to such “apparently supernatural” things. Such usage of the word while odd, and not true to the common sense of the term supernatural, could be used in a way that makes sense. That’s why I mention stellar energy prior to understanding nuclear fusion and E=mc-squared. Until those windows opened, it would have fit the bill as something “apparently supernatural”, much in the way consciousness fits that meaning now. I personally have no doubt that consciousness is part of the nature of some types of brains in certain states, but I have no idea how that could be natural.

    But I agree with you completely that applying the popular conception of supernatural to such cases we fail miserably. To say that the observation of copious solar radiation in 1899 and consciousness today demonstrate a class of things in the world that are beyond natural is meaningless. We would be saying they were unconstrained by a true nature, which is the same as saying they have no nature at all. This is a dead end. Only Shermer’s usage lets us get anywhere.

    P.S. One reason I used the stellar energy example was because I wanted to pull back from the God subject and show how Shermer’s conception applied just as well to something prosaic rather than theological.

  100. Sastra says

    Paul W #103 wrote:

    People do not actually believe because of faith. They believe because supernaturalism is intuitively plausible to them, and that makes a lot of other bullshit plausible.

    Yes. Faith is an immunizing strategy. It’s a confusion of categories, so that fact claims have become mixed up with meaning claims and now you’re going to take a moral position. The person of faith makes a a commitment to spin all evidence in a positive direction as if defending a friend or ideal. Who do you want to be? What do you want to be like? Rather than — what is actually true?

    Faith is the loyal pledge to, as you put it, go as far as “you’re willing to go to evade falsification, by jiggering auxiliary assumptions so that perfectly good hypotheses cease to be predictive and testable.” Because you want to be the kind of person who recognizes and follows the Good.

    Believe.

    And if you can’t believe, then approximate it very accurately by believing in belief.

  101. John Morales says

    [OT]

    jackjesberger:

    Until those windows [understanding nuclear fusion] opened, it [stellar energy] would have fit the bill as something “apparently supernatural”, much in the way consciousness fits that meaning now.

    That to which you refer already has a label: ‘paranormal’.

  102. Paul W., OM says

    consciousness razor:

    I call defining “Naturalism” as “all that exists” the Ontological Argument for Naturalism and find it either empty or evasive.

    That’s exactly what it is, and it’s really weird. The way I see it, they’re coming to that point by trying to turn it into a purely epistemological question, when it isn’t one.

    Funny, I’d been mentally composing something that characterized naturalism-by-definition as an Ontological Argument just as bad as the theists’ Ontological Argument for God.

    It is very embarrassing to see people on our side making such an incredibly bad arguments and underestimating religious people’s intelligence.

    Religious people are generally not that stupid, although most of them are very inarticulate about what they actually believe.

    Whether they can articulate their own views correctly or not—and they generally can’t—they’re usually going to be profoundly unimpressed if you prove something false that they never really believed anyway or which was never really important to their worldview.

    They won’t be able to put their finger on what they didn’t articulate correctly, or why your refutatation doesn’t really matter, but it typically won’t matter. They will often correctly think your arguments are missing something and don’t really work, even if they led you to that place by saying stuff that wasn’t quite right, or wasn’t really as important at a gut level as they consciously think.

    Many people consciously think they believe in theological definitions, but when push comes to shove, they’re usually quite dispensable. Unless your arguments undermine belief in a powerful magical person, they’re more or less irrelevant.

    People’s real core religious beliefs are wrong, but they’re generally not incoherent or intrinsically utterly stupid–and if you treat religious people as if they are that stupid, such that you can show God not to exist by definition, they will rightly untuit that you’re a clueless wanker who just doesn’t get it.

    And with your typical theist, you only get so many tries. If you’re arguing about the wrong stuff, you’re convincing them that they should not listen to people like you. (Even if it’s their fault for failing to articulate what’s actually important.) Eventually most of them do mostly stop listening to this kind of unimpressive argument, because it never seems to teach them anything or impress them much. And then we’ve lost them.

    If we want to argue with theists effectively, we need to be able to cut to the chase and argue about what’s actually important to God belief, not what they say and is important, which often isn’t important at all.

    Ontological arguments for naturalism are a prime example of horribly misplaced focus that makes people think you and people like you are wankers worth ignoring. It’s attacking a decoy, not a real position anybody actually holds, cares about, and would defend when push comes to shove.

  103. consciousness razor says

    It is very embarrassing to see people on our side making such an incredibly bad arguments and underestimating religious people’s intelligence.

    We’re not just talking about random clueless assholes on the internet either. (Well… at least not random.) We’re talking about teh Poopyhead (PBUH), Shermer and Coyne, who each managed to miss the point in his own unique and completely uninteresting way. Very embarrassing.

  104. John Morales says

    CR reponds to Paul W.:

    It is very embarrassing to see people on our side making such an incredibly bad arguments and underestimating religious people’s intelligence.

    We’re not just talking about random clueless assholes on the internet either. (Well… at least not random.) We’re talking about teh Poopyhead (PBUH), Shermer and Coyne, who each managed to miss the point in his own unique and completely uninteresting way. Very embarrassing.

    You sound very confident of this — so I take it you consider the proposition that “… we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined.” is an incredibly bad argument.

    I happen to think it’s quite correct; can you tell me how it’s bad?

  105. Sastra says

    Joihn Morales #113 wrote:

    I happen to think it’s quite correct; can you tell me how it’s bad?

    Because, in practice, God is defined (and understood) clearly enough to be wrong. It’s supposed to be a Mind or mind-like, energy-like essence which communicates through ESP, moves matter and energy through psychokenesis, and acts on the world. Although you cannot perceive God directly, you can infer it’s existence by what it does and has done.

    While that does not describe every form of God which has been proposed, I think it’s pretty close to the most common one. The idea of God draws on normal human cognitive tendencies to separate the mental from the physical, to reify abstractions, to think magically, and to import teleology into events.

    When you get right down to it, God is not esoteric and mysterious: it is familiar. It’s modeled on things which are familiar to us — but combined in unusual ways.

  106. consciousness razor says

    You sound very confident of this — so I take it you consider the proposition that “… we cannot find evidence for a god, that the God Hypothesis is invalid and unacceptable, because “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined.” is an incredibly bad argument.

    I happen to think it’s quite correct; can you tell me how it’s bad?

    For one thing, that’s not the entirety of their arguments.

    But I’ll start with this anyway: people have different “god” concepts. That is a fact, so right off the bat, it’s no use to talk about them as if they were a single concept or hypothesis.

    Where does that leave us? If you are addressing the existence of “gods” in general, you need to be talking about a family of related concepts. That means need to identify whatever relation you think they have, which means you (or someone else) are already going about defining that conceptual category in some way or another. That obviously contradicts the conclusion that it has not been defined.

    But how did we get to the conclusion anyway? It’s just an assertion. There’s hardly an argument at all. “It’s invalid, because it’s incoherent.” Why? Because he says so? You say it’s correct, but why is it correct? Where’s the argument?

  107. John Morales says

    Sastra,

    It’s supposed to be a Mind or mind-like, energy-like essence which communicates through ESP, moves matter and energy through psychokenesis, and acts on the world. Although you cannot perceive God directly, you can infer it’s existence by what it does and has done.

    That’s pretty much applies to any disembodied supernatural entity (e.g. ghost), so all you’re defining is a category of the supernatural and claiming god is one of its denizens.

    I doubt many goddists think they’re worshipping a powerful ghost.

    Can you be more specific? ;)

    (More to the point, PZ’s position is predicated on a scientific definition, such that the hypothesis is testable)

  108. John Morales says

    CR:

    Where does that leave us? If you are addressing the existence of “gods” in general, you need to be talking about a family of related concepts. That means need to identify whatever relation you think they have, which means you (or someone else) are already going about defining that conceptual category in some way or another. That obviously contradicts the conclusion that it has not been defined.

    Eh?

    No, they are supposed to do the defining, not you.

    As for the conceptual category thing, look at Sastra’s definition, just above. It describes ghosts as well as gods, so now you have the category that encompasses both.

    You really think that every goddist must perforce be a ghostist?

  109. consciousness razor says

    No, they are supposed to do the defining, not you.

    Who, the gods?

    Right, you mean theists. Am I not supposed to think until they do? And if they never start? Why wait?

    It describes ghosts as well as gods, so now you have the category that encompasses both.

    That’s a feature, not a bug. We can kill two birds (many more than that actually) with one stone.

    You really think that every goddist must perforce be a ghostist?

    I don’t think they must perforce use that choice of language. In any case, a “ghost” is usually meant to be an ancestor (or, for example, a deceased animal), not just any old disembodied intelligence without regard to its history or relationship to the natural world.

    You could say monotheists believe in some “special kind of ghost” which doesn’t have the properties of “usual ghosts,” but this is irrelevant to your argument, since we’re talking about a meaningful definition of a group of things having common properties, even though they don’t have all of the exact same properties.

  110. John Morales says

    CR:

    Right, you mean theists. Am I not supposed to think until they do? And if they never start? Why wait?

    Isn’t it their claims you’re supposedly addressing?

    In any case, a “ghost” is usually meant to be an ancestor (or, for example, a deceased animal), not just any old disembodied intelligence without regard to its history or relationship to the natural world.

    Fine. What about genius loci? :)

    You could say monotheists believe in some “special kind of ghost” which doesn’t have the properties of “usual ghosts,” but this is irrelevant to your argument, since we’re talking about a meaningful definition of a group of things having common properties, even though they don’t have all of the exact same properties.

    Exactly; I could, but then I’d be describing my own conception of what they conceive.

    So your preferred, non-incredibly bad tactic is to describe what you think they mean, and then address that description?

  111. consciousness razor says

    Fine. What about genius loci? :)

    They also have a particular kind of relationship to the natural world. Places are part of the natural world. If the question is “are those ‘ghosts’?” it makes no difference to me what the answer is.

    So your preferred, non-incredibly bad tactic is to describe what you think they mean, and then address that description?

    I’m trying to address the best possible versions of their arguments, as I conceive them. I don’t think they’re generally very good at making their own arguments or at being forthcoming or insightful about their own beliefs. Refuting the dumbest or most obviously absurd versions will not be convincing to most people, as Paul W. discussed above. Even though their thinking isn’t entirely clear when it comes to their own god concepts, their behavior and reactions to questions help to determine at least some meaningful aspects of what they really believe. To the extent I can think clearly about it, I will.

  112. John Morales says

    CR:

    I’m trying to address the best possible versions of their arguments, as I conceive them.

    Well, we agree on that much.

    So, what do you say to the person who tells you that they directly feel (or have felt) God’s presence but don’t pretend to know what God is?

    (Because that’s not an argument, that’s a statement of fact as they see it, and there are no versions to it. They feel what they feel.)

    Refuting the dumbest or most obviously absurd versions will not be convincing to most people, as Paul W. discussed above.

    So you think you’re refuting a non-absurd version? :)

  113. Sastra says

    John Morales #116 wrote:

    That’s pretty much applies to any disembodied supernatural entity (e.g. ghost), so all you’re defining is a category of the supernatural and claiming god is one of its denizens.

    Yes, that’s how a definition would start. Begin with generalities, establish the basics. If I say Shirley is a cat, we have to know what a cat is.

    I doubt many goddists think they’re worshipping a powerful ghost. Can you be more specific?

    If you call it a “spirit” and dress it up a bit with lots of poetic and weighty verbiage on “powerful” — then I suspect that’s exactly what they do think they’re worshiping.

    As for the specifics, that would depend on exactly what form of god they’re talking about, what it’s supposed to do or have done, how they know this, and so forth. They provide the details. They explain why they think this thing is real … the arguments, the experiences, the reasoning.

    I think that theists give more details about God to fellow believers (and themselves) than they do to skeptics. When dealing with us, it’s often a hasty or ponderous game of “change the topic” or “obscure the subject.” They’ll claim they were speaking in metaphors or just making analogies. Not as much as they claim, I warrant. They get vague when they think they sound stupid.

    As for prediction and testability, my definition provided three areas: mind/body dualism, esp, and pk. All three are testable hypotheses. Strong and reliable evidence for any of these would support the necessary preconditions for the existence of God (and many proponents are eager to insist this has either happened, or is about to happen.) Lack of good evidence, however, undermines it.

    It’s at least a place to start. A scientific approach would probably have to be in cautious steps. It usually is.

  114. Sastra says

    John Morales #121 wrote:

    So, what do you say to the person who tells you that they directly feel (or have felt) God’s presence but don’t pretend to know what God is?

    They may not know ‘exactly’ what it was, but they must have some general idea or they would have said they felt a headache, or a stomach ache, or something else other than “God.”

    What I’d do is ask them ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, starting with the simplest no-brainers (i.e. “do you think this presence was conscious or aware? Or was it like being very close to a rock?”) Those ‘no-brainers’ provide a lot of info. They’re pretending NOT to know.

  115. consciousness razor says

    So, what do you say to the person who tells you that they directly feel (or have felt) God’s presence but don’t pretend to know what God is?

    Different things, but basically I say that’s not a reliable form of evidence.

    Refuting the dumbest or most obviously absurd versions will not be convincing to most people, as Paul W. discussed above.

    So you think you’re refuting a non-absurd version?

    If something isn’t the “most obviously absurd,” that doesn’t imply it’s not absurd. I know you can read, so why are you playing these games?

    By the way, you haven’t followed up on telling me what your argument is or where your evidence can be found.

  116. John Morales says

    Sastra, insightful as always.

    I think that theists give more details about God to fellow believers (and themselves) than they do to skeptics. When dealing with us, it’s often a hasty or ponderous game of “change the topic” or “obscure the subject.” They’ll claim they were speaking in metaphors or just making analogies. Not as much as they claim, I warrant. They get vague when they think they sound stupid.

    I’ve experienced this myself, so I don’t doubt you.

    (Nor do I miss the clear implication)

    As for prediction and testability, my definition provided three areas: mind/body dualism, esp, and pk. All three are testable hypotheses.

    I suppose there’s nothing with making the gaps narrower. :)

    CR:

    Different things, but basically I say that’s not a reliable form of evidence.

    But the ones who say that don’t hold their beliefs as subject to your standards, do they?

    [1] If something isn’t the “most obviously absurd,” that doesn’t imply it’s not absurd. [2] I know you can read, so why are you playing these games?

    1. So your focus on the least absurd, then?

    2. What game? You’re the one who decried refuting the most absurd, implying it’s more worthwhile (less incredibly bad) to refute something less absurd.

    (Isn’t absurdity a conceptual category?)

    By the way, you haven’t followed up on telling me what your argument is or where your evidence can be found.

    My argument about what?

  117. John Morales says

    CR, I can give you my position: I think almost all professed believers have no reason to honestly and critically examine its basis or its specifics, and of those who do, most don’t dare because they fear the result of such self-examination.

    (Belief is visceral, not logical)

    I personally discarded goddism quite early in my life, long before I was reasoning logically, mainly because it’s so silly (but also because the hypocrisy of its putative adherents irritated me).

  118. John Morales says

    PS I also think many (perhaps a majority) of professed believers are conscious of their hypocrisy and merely find it convenient (for whatever reason) to profess it.

  119. consciousness razor says

    1. So your focus on the least absurd, then?

    Pay attention to the word “obviously.” Many people believe absurd things, but they’re not usually absurd for very obvious reasons. Most aren’t likely to believe things which would be silly to a person of average intelligence who’s ever thought about it for even a moment. They make logical errors or fail to think things through, but they’re not that stupid.

    In any case, we don’t need to refute them. There’s no point, unless you just think it’s amusing. It’s not like they’ll be safe if we tackle the better arguments.

  120. John Morales says

    CR:

    Most aren’t likely to believe things which would be silly to a person of average intelligence who’s ever thought about it for even a moment.

    Such as astrology or homoeopathy or feng shui?

    I put it to you that reality shows that most people really are likely to believe at least some (if not all) of such things.

    (Also, those that do are likely to have less investment in them than religious people do in their religiosity)

    They make logical errors or fail to think things through, but they’re not that stupid.

    Need I quote Forrest Gump’s mother’s dictum? :)

    In any case, we don’t need to refute them.

    When you contend their belief is absurd, the onus is on you to show how so if challenged — in my book, so doing constitutes a needed refutation.

  121. says

    @Sastra #123

    So, what do you say to the person who tells you that they directly feel (or have felt) God’s presence but don’t pretend to know what God is?

    They may not know ‘exactly’ what it was, but they must have some general idea or they would have said they felt a headache, or a stomach ache, or something else other than “God.”

    Your response is patently semantic, and only serves to obscure the distinction I made at #34.

    See, here’s the thing: I find your usual eloquent expression at #106, 108, 114 and 122(mostly) to be wholly admirable, but as soon as the hard question is raised you get all wriggly.

    Whenever you or I (or a bat (or a rock?)) are conscious there is always an object we are conscious of. Even the mind is an object. All of your remarks have concerned these objects, but the subject is far more interesting. What’s most interesting to discover about the subject is that there is only one. Moreover, it’s possible to de-identify from this mind and re-identify with that universal subject.

    Minds are not conscious, any more than bodies are. This is only realizable through sustained practice to become more conscious. Thinking won’t cut it. Logical arguments won’t reveal it. You are not your mind.

  122. John Morales says

    [OT]

    Vijen to Sastra: Whenever you or I (or a bat (or a rock?)) are conscious there is always an object we are conscious of.

    You think rocks may well be conscious?

    (heh)

    You are not your mind.

    Without your mind, you are not you, but you are not just your mind.

    (Deepitudes are easy)

  123. Owlmirror says

    Whenever I argue with religous people, and the discussion turns to basic definitions, I try to work in the minimal definition of God: “invisible person with magical superpowers”. The term ‘invisible’ isn’t actually necessary, but it is often a de facto claim made by the religious. And ‘magical’ is just me offering a snarky synonym for ‘supernatural’, although I suppose I should drop the snark and use the latter term precisely so as to encourage discussion of what ‘supernatural’ means.

    I haven’t gotten much response to the above. I think one believer objected, possibly because of misinterpreting ‘person’ as ‘human’ (and I tried to clarify in my response that I meant ‘person’ in the broadest sense). I also got some pushback from a contemptuous Trinitarian (and what I should respond when that happens is: So, you believe in a tribunal of invisible persons with supernatural superpowers?), and I think I just dropped out of that thread from being distracted/bored.

    But for the most part, people don’t want to discuss definitions of God.

    When discussing the term ‘supernatural’, I usually try to offer two options, Option one is: ‘supernatural’ is meaningless, because everything has a nature. Even if God and/or ghosts and/or non-reducible mental or mindlike stuff existed, it/they would interact with reality, naturally.

    But while I think the above is the correct philosophically consistent position, the Carrier (or Boyer) definition is superior as an anthropological attempt to characterize what religious people, being philosophically inconsistent, think/mean when they are being religious, and I offer that option as well, and ask them if that is what they mean.

    I don’t think anyone has been willing to even discuss the term, except for heddle, and he stuck with a different definition of ‘supernatural’ that didn’t make any sense to me at all (something like: ‘that which cannot be known, not even in principle’).

    I even brought up things that he offered as being examples of miracles (such as Jesus walking on water), and suggesting that they were consistent with the Carrier definition (something like: ‘Don’t you think of Jesus, or God, as using his mind to affect the water? God’s mind is just this fundamentally powerful thing that can reach out and do stuff to reality, right?’).

    But after some (polite and careful, I think) back-and-forth, he never expressed any specific problem with the Carrier definition, but didn’t accept it, either. Then he left the thread, and never returned.

    I wonder, now, if he just doesn’t like Carrier.

    Of course, another possibility is that when rigorous attempts to discuss definitions occur, religious people realize that they don’t really have rigour, and don’t like applying rigorous analysis to religious terms and concepts.

  124. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    If I say Shirley is a cat, we have to know what a cat is. – Sastra

    Define “cat”. It’s up to people who believe in cats to define “cat”, so that the hypothesis that cats exist is falsifiable.

    /John Morales/rorschach/PZ/etc.

    It really doesn’t take much knowledge either of the way everyday language works, or of the history of science, to realize that this obsession with definitions is stupid. Ordinary language works not by being absolutely precise, but by allowing precision to be increased as and when necessary. Science emphatically does not work by first coming up with precise definitions, then looking to see if they are exemplified. It couldn’t possibly do so, if only because as soon as a definition is given, a definition of each of the terms used can be demanded, and so ad infinitum, so you would never get to the empirical investigation stage.

    And as Paul says, it’s not hard for theists to see that the demand for an exact definition before an atheist will get into substantive discussion is either stupid or a disingenuous cop-out, even if they can’t articulate why. Atheists who “argue” in this way are really not much better than the presuppositionalists.

  125. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I wonder, now, if he just doesn’t like Carrier. – Owlmirror

    I don’t like Carrier (his first post on FtB was a ludicrous and offensive anti-vegetarian rant). But he happens on this point to be right. And saying “supernatural” is meaningless is just fucking stupid, because it isn’t.

  126. John Morales says

    Nick:

    It really doesn’t take much knowledge either of the way everyday language works, or of the history of science, to realize that this obsession with definitions is stupid. Ordinary language works not by being absolutely precise, but by allowing precision to be increased as and when necessary.

    Yeah, but I don’t need to define to what I refer by ‘dog’ — I can just point to one and say that’s what it is.

    Can’t do that with ‘god’, though, can I?

    (So, far easier to defend belief in dog than in god)

    Science emphatically does not work by first coming up with precise definitions, then looking to see if they are exemplified.

    Why, no — it works by observing phenomena and then explaining them via the most parsimonious explanation which is coherent with all other previous parsimonious explanations for phenomena in a recursive fashion.

    (What phenomena require the postulation of ‘god’ to be explanatory?)

    And as Paul says, it’s not hard for theists to see that the demand for an exact definition before an atheist will get into substantive discussion is either stupid or a disingenuous cop-out, even if they can’t articulate why.

    But unlike dogs, you can’t just point to gods, and therefore a definition is required if one wishes to know what a particular goddist means by that term. Same as with any other phenomenon.

    (Not-so-strangely, different goddists give different definitions, and (is this odd?) when you synthesise them into a category, that category consists entirely of unevidenced entities such as ghosts)

    Atheists who “argue” in this way are really not much better than the presuppositionalists.

    It ain’t an argument, it’s a request demand to know what exactly is supposed to be meant by the term ‘god’.

    (Only then can an argument for or against the proposition that the term refers to a veridical entity be adduced)

    Again: you can either argue against the definition they provide of that which they profess to believe, or you can argue against your own definition of that in which you think think they believe.

    (Which is the more honest approach?)

  127. John Morales says

    Nick:

    And saying “supernatural” is meaningless is just fucking stupid, because it isn’t.

    Well, one can sure give the term meaning, much like any other term; but can you come up with one which is not absurd in the face of what science knows already?

  128. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    John Morales,

    Yeah, but I don’t need to define to what I refer by ‘dog’ — I can just point to one and say that’s what it is.

    No, you can’t. Because that doesn’t make clear what makes it a dog. Is it just that it’s a physical object, that it moves about (or did – a dead dog is still a dog), that it has fur, that it’s exactly the size it is… If we learn the meaning of a word ostentively (by pointing) then lots of examples, both positive and negative, are required, and there is always a penumbra of vagueness. Is a wolf a dog? If not, is a crossbred wolf/dog a dog? A cross between such a crossbreed and a dog?

    Can’t do that with ‘god’, though, can I?

    You can point to descriptions of gods, and of things that are like gods but not gods (demons, ghosts…); and of course you could learn the meaning of “dog” in the same way. Or the meaning of the name of an extinct animal of which no physical trace survives.

    What phenomena require the postulation of ‘god’ to be explanatory?

    So far as we know, none. But that’s an empirical matter, and we couldn’t meaningingfully say that if we didn’t know what “god” means; really, this is a very elementary point.

    But unlike dogs, you can’t just point to gods, and therefore a definition is required if one wishes to know what a particular goddist means by that term.

    No, it isn’t, and it’s either stupid or dishonest to claim that it is, for all the reasons that have already been explained numerous times. Through shared cultural background, most of the time we do know what a theist means by “god” well enough to discuss the matter, which is all that is required if you are discussing/arguing in good faith. If we are talking with someone from a very different culture, we may indeed need to enquire what they mean – to get them to describe their god(s), but requiring a definition is still unnecessary and pointless – because most people are not practiced at producing definitions of any sort (which in itself ought to tell you something about how language actually works); and because no such thing as a watertight definition is possible, since the terms used in the definition will themselves have that penumbra of vagueness natural language terms always do. Only if you are discussing matters with a philosopher or theologian, or discussion takes a philosophical turn, is it reasonable to ask for a definition – and even then, you will have to stop requiring definitions of the terms used in definitions at some point.

    It ain’t an argument, it’s a demand to know what exactly is supposed to be meant by the term ‘god’.

    Which shows just the sort of bad faith demonstrated by presuppositionalists, since the demand cannot be met (and couldn’t if you were discussing dogs rather than gods), just as the presuppositionalists’ demand that everything be justified cannot be met.

    Which is the more honest approach?

    Well certainly not yours.

    And saying “supernatural” is meaningless is just fucking stupid, because it isn’t.

    Well, one can sure give the term meaning, much like any other term

    The term already has meaning, and pretending it doesn’t, doesn’t change that fact, and isn’t going to convince any believer in the supernatural. Of course, if all you want is a way of feeling superior without putting in any cognitive effort, go for it.

    but can you come up with one which is not absurd in the face of what science knows already?

    Again, that’s an empirical matter.

  129. Rodney Nelson says

    Nick Gotts #141

    Through shared cultural background, most of the time we do know what a theist means by “god” well enough to discuss the matter, which is all that is required if you are discussing/arguing in good faith.

    Many theists change their definitions to suit their purposes. I’ve seen the same theist argue for a philosophical, deist god and in the next breath argue for the old guy with the flowing white beard who answers prayers and worries about masturbation. Xe claimed not to see any contradiction between these two gods. They were just different aspects of the same incomprehensible, ineffable god.

  130. Sastra says

    vijen #131 wrote:

    Your response is patently semantic, and only serves to obscure the distinction I made at #34.

    I’m assuming you mean that “consciousness is non-local.”

    All of your remarks have concerned these objects, but the subject is far more interesting. What’s most interesting to discover about the subject is that there is only one. Moreover, it’s possible to de-identify from this mind and re-identify with that universal subject.

    I’m going to take a stab at translating this into something we both understand.

    The original question involved how to figure out what a person means by “God” when they tell you that they directly feel (or have felt) God’s presence but don’t pretend to know what God is. You’re trying to say (I think) that if “God” is a sort of primary field of consciousness without rational or physical content then any attempt to describe what happens when we let go of ego/mind and rejoin the Source is bound to be impossible. One cannot describe the indescribable, particularly when the self does not actually ‘exist.’

    Before I go any further, I’ll check to see if my translation is at all close, or close enough.

    I’ll also point out that, if so, we’re getting closer to figuring out what is meant by “God.”

    We’re also getting closer even if you say I missed. The game cannot be played forever. We are both eventually enlightened — or somebody quits.

    My money is on the latter, and it will be you.

  131. Paul W., OM says

    Rodney:

    Many theists change their definitions to suit their purposes. I’ve seen the same theist argue for a philosophical, deist god and in the next breath argue for the old guy with the flowing white beard who answers prayers and worries about masturbation.

    Sure, but certain necessary conditions for Godness generally don’t change.

    You don’t want to argue against a particular definition—you want to argue against a necessary condition common to all of the definitions anybody is likely to care about.

    Omnipotence is irrelevant. Creator-ness is irrelevant. Flowing beards are irrelevant. Lots of stuff we frequently get sidetracked by is more or less irrelevant, so we never get to the heart of the matter.

    Essentialism is relevant. Dualism is relevant.

    Almost nobody calls anything God or a god that isn’t based on essentialist and dualist intuitions, and actually manages to worship it.

    For example, when Christians back off to a sort Deistic view of God, and defend that, they may seem to be talking about some abstract “Creator” entity with no other properties we can attack.

    But they’re not talking about some abstract creator entity—they’re talking about God, and not just some superpowerful hyperdimensional alien that just might have created our universe.

    Nobody worships aliens. Lots of people worship gods and Gods.

    The crucial difference is precisely dualism.

    That’s what’s wrong with all common God concepts, so that’s what we need to make clear and argue against, so people realize that what’s left is not something they’d be comfortable calling God, and would not worship.

    Dualism is not just a common feature, but the most fundamental one—the big mistake underlying all God concepts and all religion that’s clearly religion is dualism.

    (And specifically substance dualism. I think “property dualism” is wrong and bad, but not nearly as bad—it doesn’t offer much support to theology or superstition or most forms of woo.)

    Substance dualism the one big common mistake in all sorts of religion, and all sorts of superstition and woo that most people wouldn’t recognize as “religious,” but basically is.

    Belief in dualism is what makes people stupid in all those ways, and what is most at odds with science.

    The success of science is largely the story of overcoming essentialist, dualist intuitions about the “Life Force” or disembodied Minds or whatever, so that we can realize that interesting stuff is not interesting all the way down—interesting stuff is made out of boring stuff.

    That is the one big thing that most people don’t really get about the scientific worldview, such that religion and superstition and woo seem plausible and interesting.

    If we’re not attacking dualism, we are missing the point of calling something “God”, and letting ourselves get derailed because of it.

  132. Sastra says

    Paul W #145 wrote:

    If we’re not attacking dualism, we are missing the point of calling something “God”, and letting ourselves get derailed because of it.

    I agree. But I want to interject one note of caution: be careful of idealist monists and dual-aspect monists who will argue that no, God is NOT based on dualism it’s based on the opposite of dualism. Scientific thinking is dualistic. Egoism lead to dualism and enlightenment/spirituality is letting go of that. WE don’t separate Mind and Body: that’s what YOU do.

    It’s another way to derail. Needs to be dealt with in advance.

  133. gravityisjustatheory says

    John Morales
    10 November 2012 at 5:06 am

    Nick:

    And saying “supernatural” is meaningless is just fucking stupid, because it isn’t.

    Well, one can sure give the term meaning, much like any other term; but can you come up with one which is not absurd in the face of what science knows already?

    I cannot come up with a definition of “supernatural” that empirically does not apply to any real phenomenon in the face of what science knows already.

    Whether that means it is “absurd” depends on what you mean by “absurd”. (These sorts of discussions often get derailed when people end up using the same word to mean different things without realising it. In this case, does “absurd” mean “manifestly false”, or “manifestly illogical/ meaningless”. Arguments about “rights” and “free will” tend to break down for the same reason).

  134. Owlmirror says

    I don’t like Carrier (his first post on FtB was a ludicrous and offensive anti-vegetarian rant).

    Carrier’s ludicrous and offensive anti-vegetarian rant was his third post, and it’s just fucking stupid to say that it was his first.

    And saying “supernatural” is meaningless is just fucking stupid, because it isn’t.

    The concept of “supernatural” that my first option is meant to argue against is not Carrier’s but rather, that of NOMA-advocates; those who claim that “supernatural” refers to that which cannot be investigated by science, or (something like what heddle phrased) that which cannot be known, even in principle.

    Do you think that that is meaningful, as a definition of supernatural?

  135. Owlmirror says

    But I want to interject one note of caution: be careful of idealist monists and dual-aspect monists who will argue that no, God is NOT based on dualism it’s based on the opposite of dualism. Scientific thinking is dualistic. Egoism lead to dualism and enlightenment/spirituality is letting go of that. WE don’t separate Mind and Body: that’s what YOU do.

    Whatever did happen to Matthew “Jonathan Livingston” Segall?

  136. Sastra says

    Segall merged into the Over-Soul. Maybe.

    In meatspace, I encounter the so-called “non-dualistic” version of God more than not. That’s one reason I try to include such versions under the mantle “supernatural” (which proponents don’t like one bit no they do not but I do not care.) It’s usually advanced as a stumper from outside-the-box, one which no atheist sees coming. And they will use it on the same atheist, as the same stumper from outside-the-box which no atheist sees coming, even when it is worn and ragged and tattered. Here is a new idea! Again!

    Until I have evidence otherwise, that’s my working assumption with vijen’s God. It might even be my starting assumption for most proposed gods. Doesn’t hurt.

  137. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    The concept of “supernatural” that my first option is meant to argue against is not Carrier’s but rather, that of NOMA-advocates; those who claim that “supernatural” refers to that which cannot be investigated by science, or (something like what heddle phrased) that which cannot be known, even in principle. Do you think that that is meaningful, as a definition of supernatural? – Owlmirror

    Yes. “Squbirempog gwam bubb-bugg-bubb” is meaningless; “round square” is not, although it refers to a necessarily empty category. Heddle’s category is not even empty, although not in the way he thinks: there are known to be mathematical facts that are, none the less, unknowable even in principle, for example the values of Chaitin omega numbers.

  138. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Carrier’s ludicrous and offensive anti-vegetarian rant was his third post, and it’s just fucking stupid to say that it was his first. – Owlmirror

    Touché!

  139. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    In this case, does “absurd” mean “manifestly false”, or “manifestly illogical/ meaningless”. – gravityisjustatheory

    I don’t know how it was intended – but in any case “manifestly illogical” does not equal “meaningless”.

  140. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Further to my #152: I see I didn’t answer exactly the question you asked: whether heddle’s definition is meaningful as a definition of the supernatural. Yes, it’s certainly meaningful; completely wrong, because that’s simply not what the word means, but meaningful.

  141. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    All of your remarks have concerned these objects, but the subject is far more interesting. What’s most interesting to discover about the subject is that there is only one.- vijen

    If that were so, of course, we’d all agree with you. We don’t: so it’s false. Moreover, the fact that you fool yourself in this way is not particularly interesting.

  142. John Morales says

    Nick:

    No, you can’t [just point to a dog]. Because that doesn’t make clear what makes it a dog.

    It makes it clear that something which does exist (because I can point to it) is what I call a dog. If I point to a tree and call it a dog, then they may laugh at my labelling, but they can’t deny that the tree still exists.

    Through shared cultural background, most of the time we do know what a theist means by “god” well enough to discuss the matter, which is all that is required if you are discussing/arguing in good faith.

    Yeah, far as I can tell, what they mean by it is something incoherent. You yourself have claimed the concept of the hypostatic union is incoherent, I have claimed the concept of the Trinity is incoherent. And what does it mean to exist outside of time? Or what does it mean for a singular entity to be gendered?

    Which shows just the sort of bad faith demonstrated by presuppositionalists, since the demand cannot be met (and couldn’t if you were discussing dogs rather than gods), just as the presuppositionalists’ demand that everything be justified cannot be met.

    We’re not going to agree on this, are we?

    The term already has meaning, and pretending it doesn’t, doesn’t change that fact, and isn’t going to convince any believer in the supernatural.

    Yeah, it means “above nature” and/or “not subject to natural law”. :)

    (The term ‘magic’ already has a meaning, too)

    gravityisjustatheory,

    I cannot come up with a definition of “supernatural” that empirically does not apply to any real phenomenon in the face of what science knows already.

    Whether that means it is “absurd” depends on what you mean by “absurd”.

    Generally, I mean ridiculously unparsimonious. To postulate another entire realm of existence outside of nature (but which interacts with nature) is a pretty big step to take when we know we don’t entirely understand nature.

  143. nathanaelnerode says

    gravityisjustatheory @13:

    I would suggest that to be a god, and entity would have to display some or all of the following:

    1) Intelligence (in the sense of “being aware and able to think”, not necessarily in the sense of “smart”).
    2) Able to affect the natural world and/or human thought or behaviour.
    2a) Preferably, to do that through it’s own inate power, not through tools of some kind.
    2b) And to do so in a manner far beyond the power of humans.
    3) Able to hear and respond to prayer/suplication.

    Kagato @32:

    A useful test for any definition like that is, can it be accurately applied to something that you do not think should meet that definition?

    Dipping into the realm of popular fiction (because let’s face it, we’re already there on this topic), would you consider Superman a god? He meets all your criteria, but does knowing that he is an alien from the planet Krypton exclude him from consideration? If so, your definition is incomplete.

    How about Jean Grey, in the atrocious X-Men 3? While she showed no inclination, as the most powerful psychic on the Earth she could listen to people’s prayers if she wanted to. Could a sufficiently powerful human-born psychic qualify as a god?

    I don’t know about the original writer’s opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, yeah. Superman is definitely written as a god, to the point where people pray to Superman for help — and Jean Grey when she become the Phoenix is also written as a god.

    Anyway, different religious followers have different conceptions of “god” or “gods”, but as far as I can determine, the key element is that they think there is a *person* or *people* who are in charge of, or at least have power over, *nature* and *natural law*.

    Now, this simply isn’t true; the evidence is overwhelming that nature is not run by anything behaving in what we would think of as an intelligent, person-like way. Instead, nature behaves according to patterns which we can often model mathematically, but which look nothing like the patterns we see from artificial structures created by humans, or indeed other animals.

    However, this is a perfectly *understandable* belief because we have a strong cognitive bias to *personify* or *anthropomorphize*, perhaps due to being social animals. It’s a belief which any child could easily come up with, assuming the child had done insufficient research.

    (Religions, however, attempt to co-opt this understandable mistaken belief for their own purposes, and surround it with great clouds of psychological manipulation.)

    Paul W.’s description of the supernatural as being defined by “irreducible essences” of abstract concepts shows stories with the same cognitive bias towards personification, plus artifacts of a different cognitive bias: the bias towards tangibility.

    We visualize abstract things in our heads using exactly the same machinery we use to observe real, tangible things, and the understanding that a differentiable manifold *isn’t a tangible thing* is actually contrary to the way our brains are processing it. This is the cognitive error which generates the entire field of supernatural belief which Paul W. describes: the attachment of characteristics of the physical & tangible to abstract concepts, existing primarily in our brains, which don’t have those characteriscs.

    Basically, I think most ‘religious’ belief is an artifact of substantial, already-documented cognitive biases in our brains. (The abuse of those by religious organizations is another matter, which would take too long to discuss here.)

  144. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    John Morales

    Yeah, far as I can tell, what they mean by it is something incoherent.

    In many, perhaps most cases, it is indeed; and teasing out the incoherencies is one strategy for getting them to question their beliefs. But you can’t do this by insisting that “god” is meaningless, or insisting they give you a definition before you will discuss the issue.

    We’re not going to agree on this, are we?

    No, because you’re both wrong, and completely resistant to rational argument.

    Yeah, it means “above nature” and/or “not subject to natural law”. :)

    Quite; so people should stop saying it’s meaningless – and “nature” in this context does not mean “everything that exists”.

  145. nathanaelnerode says

    Paul W. @103:

    “People do not actually believe because of faith. They believe because supernaturalism is intuitively plausible to them, and that makes a lot of other bullshit plausible.

    Reification and fetishization of “faith” mostly obscures why people actually believe in these things, and is another important theological derail from crucial ontological and epistemological issues.”

    This leads me into a really important point.

    If the problem is simply people believe the intuitively plausible ideas that there are people in charge of nature and ideas in their heads behave like real things, we can correct that with simple, plain hands-on education about the natural world. Show ‘em how it actually works, they change their minds, we have more scientists. :-)

    However, when they have built this giant armor of denial around themselves, then we have trouble. There are entire catalogues of brainwashing techniques used by religions, and entire catalogues of sophistry and linguistic trickery used to give the appearance of rational support for religions, and entire catalogues of flimflam used to give the appearance of empirical support for religions, and entire catalogues of emotional trickery (beyond the brainwashing) used to keep people in religions.

    But I think the worst of these is the concept of “faith”, which is designed as an unarguable response to *anything* — someone who has “faith” has declared their immunity to reason, evidence, and any honest form of argument whatsoever. They will often proceed to destroy their lives, and those of other people, following their delusions, even though they could have paid attention to reality and done a lot better.

    I think religions actually have very little to do with religious belief, and are all about rituals and community, and I don’t have a problem with that — more belief-free religions, please! Religious belief is a problem, but one which could be dealt with by mere education.

    But *faith* — I think *faith* is actually *evil*. It’s at the center of the most pernicious social conformity and brainwashing techniques. Demanding faith is actually a demand for people to surrender their brains.

  146. Sastra says

    nathanaelnerode #160 wrote:

    Religious belief is a problem, but one which could be dealt with by mere education.
    But *faith* — I think *faith* is actually *evil*.

    I’d certainly agree that religious faith is pernicious — and lies at the very heart of the problem with religion. The act of “faith” encourages a category confusion which mixes fact claims up with meaning claims, and conclusions with identity. Now they can’t consider the issue with any kind of clarity or consistency. Nor can they consider the possibility of being wrong — a refusal they label “remaining open-minded.” If you watch it in action, it’s chilling.

    I shock my spiritual friends when I tell them I think religion is only a superficial problem: the real problem is faith. It’s wicked. They thought I would do as they do: praise faith and condemn those authoritarian ‘religions’ which distort it. Getting them to understand why I do not is heavy going, because they really don’t want to understand what I mean. They want to think I don’t understand them — even when I obviously do. Instead, they change the subject. Agree to disagree and move away from exploring controversy. I “choose” to be what I am: there is no factual issue to discuss.

    They value diversity for its ornamental effect, apparently.

  147. consciousness razor says

    No, you can’t [just point to a dog]. Because that doesn’t make clear what makes it a dog. –Nick Gotts

    It makes it clear that something which does exist (because I can point to it) is what I call a dog. If I point to a tree and call it a dog, then they may laugh at my labelling, but they can’t deny that the tree still exists. –John Morales

    This is an example of what I consider turning it into a purely epistemological question, like I mentioned before. You’re not engaging the problem at all. It’s a retreat from ontology (then usually comes an ontological argument, ironic as that may be).

    It exists because you can’t deny that it exists? That’s not how it works. There are people who deny climate change exists. They’re wrong, and not everything is something you can simply point at like it’s a fucking dog or a tree. You can’t point at what (if anything) is beyond an event horizon, and that doesn’t imply there is nothing.

    Nor would pointing at it describe it anyway. Obviously. I hate to state the obvious. This whole argument revolves around whether or not there’s an adequate description of what something is. When you’re denying there are descriptions, you’re wrong; but at least you’re following the conversation… I think. We’re not having the conversation why no one should believe in it, so we don’t need to hear a bunch of irrelevant counter-apologetics about that. Instead, the conversation is more like what the hell are we even talking about?

    And like Nick said, pointing at it — even disregarding how awful that would be as an epistemology — doesn’t explain what it is. Instead, it would just be how you know about it (if at all). But I’m not asking about you or your relationship to it; I’m just asking about it.

    So, if the question is about what a god is (if there is one), the answer can’t be in the form of “something I can/can’t point at” (or whatever your epistemological standard actually is, because I doubt it’s really that idiotic). It just has to describe the thing in terms other people are able to interpret. It doesn’t need to be about something real or something consistent with our current scientific understanding of the world. It doesn’t need to make much sense at all. It’s just a description.

  148. John Morales says

    CR:

    This whole argument revolves around whether or not there’s an adequate description of what something is.

    Nope. It’s about whether something that can be called a deity exists outside people’s imagination.

    So, if the question is about what a god is (if there is one), the answer can’t be in the form of “something I can/can’t point at” (or whatever your epistemological standard actually is, because I doubt it’s really that idiotic).

    I’m perfectly happy to accept Paul W.’s definition above; that means that gods are just ideas, and I don’t deny that ideas exist.

    (Also, you seem confused about what I mean by saying that something to which I can point necessarily exists, though it may not be what I think it is)

  149. says

    @Sastra #144

    “God” is a sort of primary field of consciousness without rational or physical content

    and is instantiated as objects, much as physical fields can be interpreted as particles. It’s rather a clumsy metaphor, but it will serve.

    We are both eventually enlightened

    Events don’t come into it.

  150. says

    @Nick Gotts (formerly KG) #156
    Indeed: why doesn’t everybody know that the subject is universal? Why is it necessary to discover it? We aren’t born knowing objective science, we have to study. Likewise for subjective science.

  151. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    and is instantiated as objects, much as physical fields can be interpreted as particles. It’s rather a clumsy metaphor, but it will serve.

    Then describe the particles for your imaginary deity and how to prove they exist, or shut the fuck up. Welcome to reality.

  152. John Morales says

    Vijen, your abstract god is amusing to me.

    (Since I am an instantiation of it, it is your god that is amused by you)

    But hey, better than a personal deity, right?

  153. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Indeed: why doesn’t everybody know that the subject is universal?

    What subject? Your delusions? Yep, universal….

  154. John Morales says

    But since Vijen is also an instantiation of it, it is amused by itself.

    (Panentheism is for losers)

  155. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Panentheism is for losers

    GASP. SHOCK. *check for extra heavy duty fainting couch being available* *Swoon*

  156. consciousness razor says

    Nope. It’s about whether something that can be called a deity exists outside people’s imagination.

    So you agree we’re having different discussions. Okay. That’s a start.

    I don’t think anything which can be called a deity exists outside peoples’ imaginations. If that’s what this is about to you, then we agree. So that’s settled, as far both of us are concerned.

    Now… Do you understand what I was saying the conversation is about? What do you have to say about that? Do we agree or disagree?

  157. John Morales says

    CR,

    Now… Do you understand what I was saying the conversation is about? What do you have to say about that? Do we agree or disagree?

    It’s a wide-ranging discussion based on the OP.

    We certainly disagree in our estimation that PZ is one of the “people on our side making such an incredibly bad arguments”.

    And, apparently, we also disagree as to whether requiring a description is the equivalent of a presuppositionalist rhetorical tactic.

    Again: “I’m perfectly happy to accept Paul W.’s definition above; that means that gods are just ideas, and I don’t deny that ideas exist.”

    When I put it to a believer that their god is just an idea — an imaginary friend — they become indignant and reply that god is real. Now, asking them how it’s in a different category of being to an idea seems to me to be the obvious next question, rather than a rhetorical tactic.

    (Tantamount to asking for a description)

  158. John Morales says

    [addendum]

    To be fair, not all goddists become indignant, some concede that there’s no justification for their belief, but they have faith nonetheless.

    (Nick above thinks I’m like that :| )

  159. consciousness razor says

    We certainly disagree in our estimation that PZ is one of the “people on our side making such an incredibly bad arguments”.

    Do we? Here’s a false premise:

    “god” is an incoherent concept that has not been defined.

    You said this, about the argument containing that premise:

    I happen to think it’s quite correct;

    But you also say this:

    I’m perfectly happy to accept Paul W.’s definition above;

    It looks to me like now you think it’s not “quite correct,” because it has been defined, meaning that we do agree that it’s a bad argument, at the very least because it has a false premise. So what the hell are we disagreeing about?

  160. John Morales says

    CR:

    So what the hell are we disagreeing about?

    Whose definition is the one should be addressing when disputing a believer about the existence of their deity.

    As I initially wrote: “No, they are supposed to do the defining, not you.”

    But yes, I don’t deny that when disputing the generic idea of God as a polemic it’s proper to synthesise the variants into a set of necessary common elements.

     

     

    Vijen, do you deny you subscribe to a variant of process theology?

  161. chigau (棒や石) says

    As a reader-only on this thread, whatever your disagreement(s) with one another, I think you will all agree on the subject of Vijen.

  162. John Morales says

    [OT + meta]

    chigau, indeed.

    Take this:

    Ideas are limited to description.

    Vijen has just denied the existence of inchoate or ineffable ideas.

  163. chigau (棒や石) says

    I wonder what it would be like to live in a place where all ideas are concrete and realistic.

  164. consciousness razor says

    So what the hell are we disagreeing about?

    Whose definition is the one should be addressing when disputing a believer about the existence of their deity.

    I doubt it. I ask the goddist in question, and to the extent he or she can give me any information, I use that. After that, when I’m talking with some new goddist, I’ll save some time by assuming a few things based on my past experiences with goddists. Nothing is stopping me from revising any part of the general concept to fit the beliefs of that particular goddist. (Though in my experience, the differences usually aren’t very relevant anyway.)

    And when you get down to it, you can’t do anything except rely on your interpretations of their beliefs either. So I still don’t get what the problem is supposed to be. Just being argumentative?

  165. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    More is possible.

    Where the fuck is your evidence? Put up, or shut the fuck up.

  166. says

    @Nerd #181
    Is there any evidence which will convince a 5-year-old boy that Bérénice Marlohe is sexy? Will it help to explain the mechanics of sex, or the human hormonal system? All that can be done is to establish a place-holder for him to organise his curiosity around.

  167. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    All that can be done is to establish a place-holder for him to organise his curiosity around.

    In other words, you have nothing but your OPINION, which, without evidence, can and is dismissed as fuckwittery. Why are you even in the discussion without evidence? It just makes you look stupid to even try at this point.

  168. Sastra says

    Re Vijen:

    Going with his tentative affirmation in his #164 of my description of what he means by “God” in my #144, I’d say that this helps confirm what Paul W., consciousness razor, I, and others have been saying regarding the virtue of Carrier’s definition of “supernatural:” it adequately tracks with how the term is actually used and applied. (More people than Carrier use this definition, by the way, it wasn’t his invention.)

    All proposed supernatural entities, forces, or essences reduce down to irreducible mental components. It might be a mind, a consciousness, an intention, a value, an emotion, a goal or anything else normally experienced only when there are minds to create and experience them. They are drawing from dualism, reifying abstractions, and making what we now know is a category error, but one which is usually assumed instead to be a basic insight into The Way Things Really Are.

    With Vijen, “God” is not unknowable or beyond our ability to express or conceptualize it. Protests aside, God can be understood as (or experienced as) “a sort of primary field of consciousness without rational or physical content (which is) instantiated as objects, much as physical fields can be interpreted as particles.” This is standard supernatural thinking. Muddled, perhaps — but it’s comprehensible enough to be wrong.

    We’re not arguing with PZ over whether God exists. We’re arguing over whether “God” is “an incoherent concept that has not been defined” and thus should be rejected without much thought … or whether “God” is a concept which is just coherent enough to be measured against scientific discoveries and thus rejected with much consideration, assurance, and unholy glee and celebration. Is it more like “spumboodle” … or is it more like “vitalism?”

    God is much more like vitalism. Hell, it’s not only in the same category as vitalism, some forms of God are lightly disguised versions of vitalism — dressed up with values like Love or dressed down with vacuities like Unknowable Mystery.

  169. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    This is standard supernatural thinking. Muddled, perhaps — but it’s comprehensible enough to be wrong.

    Yep.

  170. says

    Protests aside, God can be understood as (or experienced as) “a sort of primary field of consciousness without rational or physical content (which is) instantiated as objects, much as physical fields can be interpreted as particles.”

    I greatly protest this definition when it’s brought up because it’s IMO an ad hock re-imagining of the God of the Bible to fit reality. The source of the God idea is the bible, that doesn’t fit with reality so we change the definition to make it less clearly contrary, ignoring that our only evidence is something that is debunked. It seems to me you can cut the crap and go back to square one and address that concept

  171. Sastra says

    Ing #187 wrote:

    I greatly protest this definition when it’s brought up because it’s IMO an ad hock re-imagining of the God of the Bible to fit reality.

    Actually, I think it’s a variation of Eastern versions of God, some of which predate the Bible.

    It’s also more stripped down than the God of the Bible, meaning that version just builds on this one. That doesn’t “protect” the familiar monotheistic version. It actually knocks it out before it can even open its mouth.

    If there is nobody at the door, then there isn’t a man in a pin-striped suit with a bow-tie at the door. If you allow people to get you into an argument over whether pin-stripes and bow-ties work as an ensemble, you’re granting them too much.

  172. consciousness razor says

    I greatly protest this definition when it’s brought up because it’s IMO an ad hock re-imagining of the God of the Bible to fit reality.

    It’s trying to make it seem like it fits reality, by making an analogy with modern, sciencey ideas. Which are totally made up.

    But it doesn’t fit reality. That’s the problem. Why doesn’t it fit reality? Because consciousness doesn’t actually work that way. It needs a brain. And it’s not true that subjectivity is in any sense a unified, single entity.

    The source of the God idea is the bible,

    Some people think it is (probably not Vijen), but god ideas have been around much longer than that, so I don’t get what you’re saying here.

  173. says

    @Sastra

    I think you misunderstood my point. the monotheistic religions are the source of the meme of “god belief”. The thing is for all but the fundamentalist (and let’s be honest even them) this view of god has changed significantly from that of the bible into this more eastern one…but the source of the idea, faith in faith, if you will is from the monotheistic religions. Basically most western monotheistic people can only believe in god because they’ve had their religion taught to them incorrectly. Don’t know if that makes any sense. ‘

    Modern ideas of God came from older ideas of God which came from older religions. Since the older religions are basically the reason the idea was passed down and even introduced from one generation to the next we should be able to look at the earliest form of said religion we can find and empirically test that. IF it comes up negative all other versions can probably be thrown out until further notice because they’re built upon that foundation. It’s fruit from the poisoned tree.

    For example liberal xianity argues that conservative fundamentalist xianity is false…yet liberal xianity ‘evolved’ from a very similar religion, far more literalistic and fundamentalist and authoritarian. The fact that genesis is bullshit is as much a problem for liberal xianity as fundamentalist because liberal xianity only exists because it grew out of more fundamentalism.

    Now you can say that more cerebral supernatural god may still be true, even if the tribal small g god that was the source of the religion and belief if false, but the point remains there’s no good reason to even come up with the idea.

  174. Sastra says

    The source of the God idea is the bible…

    No, the source of the God idea is the human brain and the sloppy way it works and puts things together. That’s why there are supernatural beliefs found in every culture we have records on.

    I suspect that the God idea itself probably draws a lot on the way our sense of self developed within an original environment where we were closely connected to a watchful caretaker.

  175. says

    Some people think it is (probably not Vijen), but god ideas have been around much longer than that, so I don’t get what you’re saying here.

    Ok going just by xianity for a moment imagine a tree. You have many roots going into a trunk and then branching out. The many roots are all the older paganism, animism, polytheism and other religious influences. The trunk is the bible (in some form) and the branching is all the sects of xianity. The point is that if the bible is bullshit than western theology can be dismissed as a field it is descended from that trunk. The god of say Kant or Sprong only came into being because the meme that believing in the god was passed down from generation to generation. If we walk back the development of theology to the basic scripture or earliest religion we should be able to judge THOSE claims and those beliefs empirically. If they’re not empirically than the later ones cannot be said to be reasonable beliefs because they’re permutations of a demonstrably erroneous world view. Someone might be right by accident but they would only be believing in the right thing for the wrong reason

  176. says

    No, the source of the God idea is the human brain and the sloppy way it works and puts things together. That’s why there are supernatural beliefs found in every culture we have records on.

    I suspect that the God idea itself probably draws a lot on the way our sense of self developed within an original environment where we were closely connected to a watchful caretaker.

    Big G Yahweh god

    as a side note Xians are assholes for just naming their god God. It makes talking about it very confusing.

  177. says

    Too tired to make my thoughts comprehensible on such an phantasmagorical topic, sorry.

    Imagine the concept of a Body Thetan from Scientology. On one hand it’s basically just another one of the typical supernatural bugbears like demons and spirits. Imagine that generations from now the religion of Scientology changes so the definition of thetan changes and the idea means something much less concrete and more metaphorical or unfalsifiable. My argument is that we can go back as far as we can to the root of the belief and test that because it’s the source via memetic mutation of the modern view. In this case regardless of how sophisticated modern thetanology is the concept of a thetan can be dismissed because what L Ron wrote doesn’t match reality. Western theology is similar, I think because a lot of the sophisticated god concept of the Carrier “supernatural” came about because people were trying to pass down the idea of the more literal sky daddy.

  178. consciousness razor says

    Modern ideas of God came from older ideas of God which came from older religions. Since the older religions are basically the reason the idea was passed down and even introduced from one generation to the next we should be able to look at the earliest form of said religion we can find and empirically test that.

    I don’t think that tells the whole story. The fact is, people just tend to fall into thinking that way. Getting it passed down in some kind of tradition is important, but you don’t really need that for people to have those ideas. Look at societies which aren’t dominated by Christian/Jewish/Muslim-style monotheism, and you still find the same sort of thing. Sometimes gods are substituted with witches or ghostly ancestors or magic places or magic trinkets or whatever, but the basic ideas and the reasons they’re important to people are pretty much the same.

    (So that’s describing people’s cognitive dispositions, which is a different kind of “source” for god ideas, not one that could really be traced out as a historical narrative, except in evolutionary terms about how those dispositions came about…. but I’d say that’s more or less it, if I had to pin it on any one thing. Pimping Boyer’s Religion Explained again is probably a good idea.)

  179. says

    I don’t think that tells the whole story. The fact is, people just tend to fall into thinking that way. Getting it passed down in some kind of tradition is important, but you don’t really need that for people to have those ideas. Look at societies which aren’t dominated by Christian/Jewish/Muslim-style monotheism, and you still find the same sort of thing. Sometimes gods are substituted with witches or ghostly ancestors or magic places or magic trinkets or whatever, but the basic ideas and the reasons they’re important to people are pretty much the same.

    Yes I’m saying that the sophisticated theology COMES from those superstitions that can be empirically tested, and the more sophisticated versions are attempts to keep the idea once it’s disproved.

  180. consciousness razor says

    Western theology is similar, I think because a lot of the sophisticated god concept of the Carrier “supernatural” came about because people were trying to pass down the idea of the more literal sky daddy.

    It’s not just a response to “sophisticated theology” though. Take any tribal religion, which is completely disconnected from Christianity or any kind of systematic theological framework. It works just as well and works exactly the same way.

  181. consciousness razor says

    Yes I’m saying that the sophisticated theology COMES from those superstitions that can be empirically tested, and the more sophisticated versions are attempts to keep the idea once it’s disproved.

    I agree with that. It’s just a way of being evasive, and a way to avoid becoming irrelevant.

  182. says

    @Sastra #185
    I assume you don’t object if I talk to myself? Ain’t nobody here but me…

    But really, measuring human history by means of philosophers is almost as silly as using tyrants.

    Gautama, Mahavir, Socrates, Pythagoras, Bodhidharma, Rumi, Kabir, Ramana, Osho: this is our true history.

    I have not the least interest in “the source of the god idea”, nor in “the god idea” as such. You guys are fixated on ideas, which is fine as far as it goes; that’s just not very far.

  183. consciousness razor says

    The bible was a example since it’s a written account of what the superstitious idea SHOULD be so you can point to it to show that the current idea doesn’t match it even though it was inspired by it.

    Okay, it’s not like you have to change the “sophisticated” versions into the “unsophisticated” one. If people want to obscure the point, okay, but that’s all they’re really doing. It’s just noise.

    It’ll still fail for the same reasons if they’re both supernatural entities, because of what any supernatural entity is. It’s not a matter of talking about what the idea “should be” because the Bible’s “right” about it. The Bible is irrelevant. No matter what it says, supernatural entities don’t exist for some reason — we have to talk about that reason, not just refer to the Bible.

  184. Paul W., OM says

    John:

    It doesn’t work to go back to some “original” version of God and refute that idea, and assume that all later versions are wrong, too, because they stem from that basic mistake.

    The theists always have the dodge that early people “encountered” God and projected their primitive beliefs onto “Him,” and that their more sophisticated versions are closer to the “real” God, because they’ve ditched the primitive projections, like God having a beard, being specifically male, or being literally a person.

    That is not a bad defense, and scientists use that sort of defense all the time—early concepts of some phenomenon (like life, or species, or photons) may be profoundly in error, but that doesn’t mean the later one are, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the phenomenon isn’t real.

    A lot of people on our side engage in special pleading in that way—they don’t allow theists the same slack they allow scientists in using unclearly-defined concepts and families of related concepts that are inconsistent.

    Theists are no more obliged to have one consistent concept of God and stick to it than scientists are.

    It would make perfect sense for them to think on ancient religious concepts as being poor approximations of reality, and modern sophisticated theology as having made progress, just as we think of Aristotelian and Galilean physics as inferior to relativity and quantum field theory.

    We can’t just dismiss Aristotle and Galileo’s ideas as mutually inconsistent and/or internally incoherent, even if they are, and then say that physics is too stupid to bother refuting or defending.

    Concepts being vague, somewhat inconsistent, and incoherent in places, and changing over time simply does not imply that they’re basically wrong, as PZ and many others often seem to imply. If it did, science would be a pile of bullshit, too.

    The difference is that science actually makes progress, and religion keeps making the same dumb basic mistake that science keeps correcting—acceptance of essentialism and dualism.

    It’s not sufficient to refute the God of the Bible, or even the more general monotheistic God. People will still generally believe in dualism, in various forms, and it will keep them stupid.

    In some cultures, you have a monotheistic God who’s a person. In others you have a comparable non-God who’s not a person but is an Eastern essence or New Age Energy with mind-like properties that pervades the universe, and somehow matters. In other cultures you have neither of those things, but do have a pantheon of pagan gods, and/or a slew of Ancestors, and/or ghosts and witches.

    Cross culturally, almost every culture everywhere at all times has had ghosts and/or witches, and astrology and/or The Evil Eye, and essentially always a Life Force and Luck and Fate.

    And if you look at modern Western societies, even the most secular ones, you see millions and millions of people who’ve stopped believing in the monotheistic God, and gone back to believing in astrology and/or ghosts and/or some kind of sympathetic magic and/or the Life Force assumed by pseudosciences like chiropractic and homeopathy, as well as by Eastern medicine and Eastern religions. And they often still believe in ESP, clairvoyance, and especially Luck and/or Fate.

    Many educated westerners think that primitive “superstitious” people are silly to believe in witches and hexes, but not because they reject the underlying metaphysics. They don’t.

    Even in very scientifically developed and secular cultures, as in Western Europe, and even in the ones where most people no longer believe in a monotheistic God, most people do still believe in either some vague Higher Power and Luck or Fate, and/or in dualistic pseudoscientific shit like chiropractic, homeopathy, and various Chopraesque woo.

    And most people don’t recognize that all that stuff is not just unscientific, but antiscientific, because science doesn’t just undermine God belief, but all those manifestations of essentialism and dualism.

    Even worse, to the extent that we focus specifically on the monotheistic God, and not on essentialism and dualism per se, we don’t even do a very good job of arguing against God.

    As long as people are dualists, they will be suckers for all sorts of stuff you can supposedly know or experience spiritually, including the presence and thus the existence of God.

    Most people believe in souls, and as long as they do, they will naturally believe in some kind of soul-mediated ESP.

    After all, what’s a soul for if not to sense or experience things that you can’t sense or experience without one?

    They may think that traditional and organized religion tends to amplify bullshit, but they still think there’s a signal in that noise: that people have souls, and that souls tell them things they can’t know by other means, and which are beyond what science can explain.

    Even “scientifically literate” people mostly believe in dualistic souls, because of apologetic liberal theology and rampant accommodationism.

    Science literacy tests generally don’t ask questions about whether you believe in souls, or even vital essences, and count off if you do.

    The overwhelming majority of people, even in the modern West, believe in souls—and I’d bet that the majority still believes in vitalism in some form.

    I can’t say for sure, because nobody even asks that on scientific literacy surveys.

    They don’t ask the one question that would tell you the most about whether people really “get” modern science—do you think there’s a life force?

    It’s clear that many if not most scientifically literate people do believe in a Life Force. They may understand that biology is largely a matter of machinery, and vaguely understand some of that machinery, but still don’t get that there isn’t also a life force in there doing something important that can only be done by the direct action of an essence of Life.

    (That’s analogous to how they think about minds. They understand that the brain is a lot like a computer, but do not realize that it’s only a computer—they think the brain assists the soul by doing various computational tasks, but the soul is the ghost in the machine.)

    That is why so few people understand that pseudoscientific pseudomedicine like Chiropractic, homeopathy and “traditional Eastern medicine” are not just wrong, and not just unscientific, but are profoundly, utterly stupid in light of modern science.

    They actually think that alternative medicine is complementary to Western medicine, because it’s based on different concepts that aren’t fundamentally incompatible, and they don’t realize how well modern science shows the former to be complete bullshit.

    They don’t understand that vitalist biology has been pretty well dead for about a century, and that that’s one of the two or three biggest scientific success stories ever—we now know that living organisms are just exquisite machines, and that life is nothing but the the mechanical operation of those machines.

    It’s frustrating to me to me that even biologists don’t seem to understand how profoundly we fail to teach the single greatest idea in biology ever—that organisms are nothing but machines, doing what machines do, purely mechanically.

    And it’s frustrating that even New Atheists biologists don’t see the ultimate cause of this failure, and tie it in to our other failures to get the scientific worldview across to the masses, even the educated masses.

    Educated people are less likely to believe in the monotheistic God, but more likely to believe in various pseudoscientific crap. As long as we don’t convince them that all forms of dualism are stupid, including vitalism as well as soul-ism, we can beat down the God idea all we want, but dualism will rear its ugly head elsewhere, and in lots of places, in an endless game of Whack-A-Mole.

    And God will keep coming back, because dualism makes God seem plausible.

    Believing in a life force makes it easier to keep believing in souls—machinery is all well and good, and it’s good that science can tell us about the machinery, but of course there’s Something More going on that science can’t ever explain, and we need our souls to tell us about that stuff.

    So we put Deepak Chopra on PBS, talking about health and healing, because even the educated people running PBS do not know the one big idea anyone should know about modern biology and medicine—that it’s about machinery, and only machinery, and has nothing whatsoever to do with vital essences or souls, which are complete bullshit.

  185. Sastra says

    Ing #195 wrote:

    Western theology is similar, I think because a lot of the sophisticated god concept of the Carrier “supernatural” came about because people were trying to pass down the idea of the more literal sky daddy.

    I think we’re “disagreeing” here without really disagreeing.

    You’re misunderstanding the basis and import of what we’re calling the Carrier definition of ‘supernatural.’ It is not a more sophisticated, rarified, academic concept of the supernatural. It’s the opposite. It’s an attempt to follow the tree of God belief back to its unsophisticated, childlike, anthropomorphic roots.

    Strip away all the bells and whistles — the historic traditions and cultural details, the moral mandates and immunizing strategies, the hand-waving and mystification and $20 words — and what are we actually supposed to be dealing with here? What is “supernatural” supposed to mean — and is this REALLY then some super special area which can’t possibly be approached using some good clear thinking which eliminates emotional baggage, minimizes cognitive error, and digs out from bullshit in general?

    No. It isn’t off limits to skeptical scrutiny. If we define “the supernatural” the way a scientist would — by carefully examining it and taking it apart to see what it’s made of — then we see it’s not so special. Neither is God. It’s not completely incoherent. It’s juuuust clear enough to be wrong.

    Carrier’s definition then does exactly what you say you want to do — but better. It avoids the bottomless pit of the whole “now who interprets the Bible the right way?” theology controversy and cuts right to the chase. It not only makes naturalism a theory, it reduces ALL the gods at once into hypotheses which are unnecessary, failed — or a deadly combination of both (my pick.)

  186. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Gautama, Mahavir, Socrates, Pythagoras, Bodhidharma, Rumi, Kabir, Ramana, Osho: this is our true history. – Vijen [emphasis added]

    Hilarious! At least now we know what particular scam vijen has been bamboozled by!

    Osho.

  187. Sastra says

    Here, via Douglas Adams, is a sweet, short version of what Paul just said (and what I’ve been trying to say):

    A man didn’t understand how televisions work, and was convinced that there must be lots of little men inside the box, manipulating images at high speed. An engineer explained about high-frequency modulations of the electromagnetic spectrum, transmitters and receivers, amplifiers and cathode ray tubes, scan lines moving across and down a phosphorescent screen. The man listened to the engineer with careful attention, nodding his head at every step of the argument. At the end he pronounced himself satisfied. He really did now understand how televisions work.

    “But I expect there are just a few little men in there, aren’t there?”

    Skyhooks vs. cranes, people. That’s the distinction. PZ Myers once said “Science changes the way you think.” I think he needs to think that way about his definitions of God and supernatural. Announcing the scientific failure of mind/body dualism and vitalism is only possible because these concepts are NOT incoherent gibberish. And these hypotheses are absolutely critical to understanding what people are really thinking about when they think about God.

  188. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Paul and Sastra have done a splendid job here. I’d just like to add a point I’ve raised before on this blog, and often bring up in argument with believers who claim that the supernatural cannot be investigated scientifically (for different reasons from the ‘”god” is meaningless’ crowd, but I think the latter actually end up helping the believers to hold on to their errors): it has been so investigated, with uniformly negative results*. Early 19th century geologists were AFAIK all Christians, and most of them believed in the Biblical account of Noah’s flood; but being honest scientists, unlike today’s creationists, they studied the evidence and (collectively and in some prominent cases individually) changed their minds, and stopped treating the Bible as a source of scientific hypotheses. Later 19th century scientists studied “spirit mediums”, and while some were fooled (e.g. Alfred Russel Wallace), the overall result was a dismissal of their claims. More recently, we have had various “parapsychology” investigations; and while these are usually done by psi-believers and often generate claims of positive results, we now have a century or so in which the latter are often later revealed to be fraudulent, and nothing repeatable has ever emerged. Similarly with investigations of the “power of prayer”. Scientific materialism / metaphysical naturalism is not a prerequisite for doing science, or a presupposition placed beyond the possibility of revision: it is a high-level hypothesis that has been repeatedly tested both positively – the research programmes based on it have made and continue to make progress, and negatively – attempts to refute it have repeatedly failed.

    * An apparent exception: various meditative techniques really do have short-term and possibly long-term physiological effects – but nothing that requires any explanation drawing on dualism or idealistic monism.

  189. Sastra says

    Nick Gotts #210 wrote:

    More recently, we have had various “parapsychology” investigations; and while these are usually done by psi-believers and often generate claims of positive results, we now have a century or so in which the latter are often later revealed to be fraudulent, and nothing repeatable has ever emerged.

    That’s a very good point, and helps explain the strong connection between a ‘new atheism’ which turns science on God and a ‘skeptical movement’ which has been examining and debunking supernatural claims for years.

    That’s why I’m frankly puzzled by Shermer’s stance on this — that there couldn’t BE evidence for God because, in theory, one could constantly just postulate an advanced alien or mechanistic technology no matter how much evidence piles up. Is he really suggesting that no amount of evidence could convince him then that, in ESP, the mind could have its own immaterial power and be disconnected from the actions of the brain? Nothing? That seems strange coming from someone in an organization grounded in a commitment to the idea that being able to change one’s mind in a controversy is a good thing.

  190. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    The wisdom and compassion of Osho:

    as a homosexual, you are not even a human being

  191. Sastra says

    Osho sounds like a piece of work.

    It never fails to amaze me how someone can just push a bunch of buttons on the “spirituality” machine and end up getting credit for deep compassion and insight.

  192. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Sastra,

    Yes, Shermer’s stance validates the initial claim of the presuppositionalists – that atheists have immovable, unquestionable presuppositions just as much as they do. I see plenty of the same on this blog, too, whenever the question of “What evidence would convince you God exists?” comes up. Yes, you could always hypothesize that powerful but natural aliens are screwing around with the evidence – but relying on such systematic strategies to avoid having to change your mind in the face of evidence is the epitome of anti-science.

  193. Paul W., OM says

    Sastra:

    I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised by Shermer taking that kind of line, given that he’s a public “skeptic,” not a public “atheist,” and given how profoundly the “skeptic” movement has been influenced by accommodationism.

    Under the influence of people like Paul Kurtz, the skeptic movement has for decades tried to separate religion from superstition, pseudoscience, and paranormal crapola.

    That’s largely a conscious strategic decision, which makes a certain political sense—you don’t want to alienate the religious people who are reachable about other things like astrology, Bigfoot, and UFO’s. Maybe once those people get sckeptical enough about other forms of crackpottery and woo, they’ll start to get skeptical about religion, and drift into agnosticism/atheism, but that’s beyond the brief of the skeptic movement per se.

    Kurtz definitely consciously divided CFI’s missions up in that sort of way, for that sort of reason, mostly separating things like CSICOP from things like Secular Humanism, organizationally and mission-wise.

    But it has a huge cost, too, since the things being fought are grounded in the same basic conceptual errors, and it’s misleading to pretend that the problem of religion is basically distinct from the problem of superstition, paranormal crackpottery, and woo.

    It’s clear that a lot of people in the skeptic movement are atheist to the core, and know that religion and superstition and woo are basically the same thing, making the same basic mistakes, even if they don’t quite get how simply the underlying problem is just dualist metaphysics.

    Some of them are intentionally moderating their rhetoric and simply publicly pretending that religion is substantially different. They pretend to believe in something conveniently more or less like NOMA.

    (One of the ways they try to make that distinction work is to say that religion is generally based on basically unfalsifiable claims, but the other stuff makes falsifiable claims all the time.)

    And other “skeptics” internalize and believe that propagandistic distinction to some extent, at least for a while. It’s a convenient party line that only troublemakers like New Atheists would undermine, driving merely religious people away from the skeptic movement.

    The cost of that artificial line is large—it means that the skeptic movement is largely a big game of Whack-A-Mole. It can never decisively or directly address the underlying problem of dualistic metaphysics, because that would alienate the reachable religious “skeptics” that they’re determined not to alienate.

    It therefore shouldn’t be surprising if a public “skeptic” acts as though being an atheist is a very different, mostly separate thing from being a skeptic, and generally talks around the central problem of dualism, instead of addressing it head-on.

    In an important sense, the modern “skeptic movement” is all about failing to see the dualistic forest for the superstitious trees, or pretending not to, and endlessly playing dualism Whack-A-Mole while pretending not to be an enemy of dualism generally, and thus not an enemy of religion generally.

    Never trust a “skeptic” when the subject is religion. It’s largely an accommodationist movement.

    I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing—I see the point of sucking religious people into “skepticism”—just that such “skepticism” is a self-limiting proposition.

  194. Sastra says

    I understand your point — I’ve been to all 10 TAMS, have belonged to CSICOP since it was … CSICOP … and have watched the “should we touch religion?” debate play out for years. Perhaps I’m not surprised so much as frustrated then by Shermer, a skeptic who has, after all, debated theists on the existence of God (yes, I know, so has Kurtz, it doesn’t mean much.)

    Years ago I attended one of Shermer’s talks and asked him “what is the difference between the supernatural and the paranormal?” His first answer was “None.” And then he seemed to think out loud and hedge on that, trying to separate them in some way through ‘testability’ — but that didn’t seem to work with all the examples. I was surprised that the question hadn’t already occurred to him.

    I’m not sure this is relevant, but Shermer has taken Templeton money. I have one of the resultant brochures lying around somewhere, views on God or something like that. He insisted it was only to get the forthright skeptic/atheist view into the discussion, but … well. I don’t know.

  195. Paul W., OM says

    Nick, Sastra:

    One of things that always frustrates me about these periodic debates about “God” among prominent atheists is the frequent misunderstanding of the idea that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and the related question about whether we could ever know there was real magic, even if we had compelling evidence for it.

    Technology is only indistinguishable from magic if you don’t know how it actually works. You may not be able to tell the difference between a Love Goddess and an alien date-rape enabler from the outside—maybe she’s just using technology, or she’s just a hologram and somebody else is using technology, or whatever—but there is a huge difference, in principle, whether we can actually know which we’re encountering or not.

    The same thing applies to whether we can ever know if the whole universe is actually naturalistic, or supernaturalism is true, or whether a “naturalistic” universe was created by God, or is a dream in the mind of God, or it’s all really just a computer simulation where hackers have programmed in supernaturalism.

    We can never know for certain whether we live in a supernaturalistic universe, or a naturalistic one, in the sense that a naturalistic universe could be ultimately supernatural in a way can never detect, or vice versa.

    So it’s stupid to say that we shouldn’t believe in the supernatural, or God, no matter what evidence we have, because it could always be trick by a naturalistic alien.

    By the same token, we shouldn’t be sure about naturalism and atheism, either, no matter what the evidence, because it could all be an illusion created by Descartes’s Evil Demon or some God dreaming us up.

    At the very least, we’d need some serious argument as to why the consistent appearance of naturalism in our universe is better evidence that it’s actually naturalistic all the way down than the appearance of supernaturalism would be that it’s actually supernaturalistic all the way down.

    (Maybe it’s alternating levels of naturalistic and supernaturalistic down about five levels, and then it’s just turtles from there on… who could know?)

    If we treat the subject of God the way we do anything else, scientifically, good evidence for supernaturalism or God as far down as we can discern should be taken as just that—good evidence, with the usual caveat that something very different could be going on at a more fundamental level we don’t know about.

    I’ve got to admit that if I found really good evidence for God, now, I’d be very suspicious that the universe was weirdly rigged, like a computer game simulation of physics plus magic.

    It would seem very odd that we have such good evidence for naturalism—interesting high-level stuff made out of vaster and vaster amounts of increasingly simple and boring and mindless stuff for many levels down—only to find out that supernaturalism is true after all. That would be a shocker.

    But when I see an atheist, especially a scientist, saying that nothing would count as evidence for God because they’d just guess it was a trick, and naturalism is probably true anyway, that bugs me.

    That’s a profoundly unscientific attitude. If you get to that point, you should realize you’ve gone off the rails somewhere, and you need to stop and think very, very carefully about how you could possibly set prior odds on whether naturalism is true anyhow, in the face of good scientific evidence that isn’t.

    There may be a very good argument to that effect, but I’ve never seen it come up in this kind of discussion.

    Without such an argument, the best we can say is that naturalism appears to be true, scientifically, i.e., as far down as we can tell, and that we have no evidence that there’s supernaturalism below that, though we can never rule it out.

    If we really did have evidence for the supernatural and God, and it held up to similar thorough scrutiny, we’d have to conclude that supernaturalism did appear to be true, scientifically, even if we couldn’t rule out naturalism below that, such that it was a naturalistic trick by an alien game programmer or something.

    (And even in the latter case, I’d be tempted to say that supernaturalism is scientifically true, in our universe, even if it’s built out of naturalism in another universe hosting the simulation that is our universe—whether supernaturalism “is true” would then be dependent on the level of analysis, in an interesting sense, even if the big picture was naturalistic.)

    If you do say that you shouldn’t believe supernaturalism even in the face of clear and consistent scientific evidence for it, you should at least admit that you’re not thinking scientifically anymore—you’ve crossed over into a weird philosophical area, and should tread very, very carefully.

    Just saying “I’d never believe it, no matter what” makes you look like anything but a real scientist—it makes you look like the caricature of a blinkered “scientist” with no common sense at all, who refuses to acknowledge clear evidence that doesn’t fit her “scientific” preconceptions—like Dana Scully on The X-Files, rationalizing away stuff she sees with her own eyes, week after week. (In the early years, anyway.)

    In the bizarro world of the X-Files, UFOlogy is true, Mulder is the real scientist who’s basically open to evidence, and Scully is the ideologically blinded, rationalizing lunatic.

    When we get into these bizarro-would “what if” discussions assuming there was good evidence for supernaturalism, we need to not play Scully and look stupid.

  196. Sastra says

    @Paul W.

    I agree.

    I’ve sometimes compared the case for naturalism to the case for evolution. With the latter, we can talk about two different “kinds” of evidence which would falsify the theory; evidence we might have had — and evidence we might have today.

    Thinking of things that fall into that first category is easy. IF there hadn’t been all the converging evidence from fields like biology, geology, anthropology, and so forth and instead everything had been different — THEN the theory of evolution would be wrong. It wouldn’t fit the evidence. There.

    But the second category is harder to fill because we already DO have that huge background of converging evidence. Something like “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian” wouldn’t fit in, sure – but now it’s all jumbled. It would take more than that, to be honest. No one thing. It would have to be some theory which explained everything else as well as those little bunny fossils. It’s a tall order.

    But not impossible. We’d need a cumulative case. Maybe it would have to involve massive fraud or alien tricksters at this point, but it could, in theory, be done. Because it’s a theory.

    Naturalism is the same sort of thing. But people seem to have deep-seated knee-jerk reactions and talking points which prevent them from seeing that Naturalism is NOT definitively defined as “all that exists” any more than the theory of evolution is definitely defined as “how things happened.” Those are conclusions. Not a priori commitments.

    Nor do the methods of science spell out, in advance, distinctions between natural and supernatural and then limit themselves to studying the natural. But if you study the distinctions between natural and what’s supposed to be supernatural, you can find them. And they all involve the primacy of some type of pure mentality.

    Again, I’ve told PZ (here and in person) that he needs to approach the existence of God as a cumulative argument. A leap towards “God exists!” with one confirmed miracle is like invoking a single bunny fossil to tumble the Theory of Evolution down, down, down from its pedestal. Yes, it would be silly. But could he imagine what happens to the current scientific model of the world if ESP is demonstrated? And it apparently doesn’t obey the inverse square law or anything else? If thoughts are intentional forces, then we have God’s proposed mechanism established through science.

    It changes things, so that we’re going in the opposite direction.

    Maybe we should just ask the question “would anything — anything at all — ever convince you that ESP exists?” People may not salivate so readily at the bell.

  197. khms says

    Well, could we say that supernaturalism is true in WoW?

    In any case, as to “what would you convince of the existence of”

    “the supernatural”: Depends on the definition, of course, but given something like Carrier’s, for example, reliably working prayer might do it.

    “a god”: Now, that is harder. My current thinking is that “god” is really just a religious title – different religions have rather different rules for which phenomena qualify – so, I might be convinced of the existence of the phenomena in question (how depends on what they are claimed to be), but not being involved in any religion, I wouldn’t call them “gods”. That is, I wouldn’t accept the social (moral, ethical, what-have-you) significance (whatever it is in the religion in question). (Unless talking to or about worshipers, that is.)

    I’m one of those saying “just look at the OT: that “god” is not good, or worthy of worship, or whatever!”.

    Oh yes, and I’d be deeply suspicious of any omni-xxx claims, unless there was a halfway believable mechanism. Infinities are rather unlikely outside math.