Open thread on episode #814

On the schedule today are Matt and Tracie.

As cohost, I need to talk here about what I’ll be talking about. Depending on call volume and what Matt’s in the mood for, I’d like to do another dice demo to examine the statement “X is possible,” and what we mean by that.

Is god possible? I don’t know…and I’d like to talk today about the idea “It is possible a god exists.”

Is it? If I have a small opaque bag and ask you if it’s possible for me to roll a 21 with the dice in the bag–can you answer that question without a peak in the bag? I can’t. I could, I suppose, assert that since that many dice could be in the bag, it’s possible; but if they empty the bag, and it’s just 2 dice…then I’m using “possible” to describe things that are actually *impossible*. What are the implications of  using the word “possible” to describe impossible things? Is it correct to say that if a thing cannot be determined to be “impossible” it must, then, be considered “possible”? Or is it more correct to say “we can’t say if it’s possible or not, because we don’t have sufficient information”?

Hope we can discuss it further on the program. We’ll see.


  1. says

    Oh Boy–I love all the host but a Tracy and Matt pairing just makes me wanna go “squee!” I may try to call today mahself…:-)

  2. unfogged says

    To say that something is impossible requires that you have evidence that the properties of the thing conflict with reality as we understand it. To say something is possible would ideally require that the properties do all fit within known boundaries. Unfortunately, I see ‘possible’ used in the looser sense to just mean that there isn’t the evidence to prove it to be impossible. It is similar to the colloquial use of ‘theory’ to mean a hypothesis as opposed to the stricter scientific usage.
    When asked if I think some extreme suggestion is possible, be it god or bigfoot or alien visitors or ghosts, I generally try to answer whether or not I think they are reasonably likely (none are), not if they are possible. Saying something is possible without any positive evidence is just a waste of time.
    By the way, is the “peak in the bag” made out of dice? 🙂

  3. says

    I try to get my hubby to understand this concept to no avail. He leans toward the Diest Agnostic side of things and claims Atheists are close minded. I often counter that I think he is more of an atheist than he is willnng to admit since, when challanged, he will say he does oto believe in current man made god concepts. He says to me, “But a creator of some sort could be possible–even if it was an alien race who seeded us here and left with little regard for the full outcome.” When I try to tell him to look at what is more likely based on the evidence around us, he says I have been corrupted by militant atheism. LOL

  4. mond says

    In the dice situation the most appropriate thing to say is
    “I can imagine the type of criteria which would have to exist to allow me to roll 21 from the dice in the bag but as I have no access to the content of the bag I cannot say whether these criteria have been met”

    I suppose it is the burden of proof question. Who ever is making the claim that it is possible to roll 21 from the dice in the bag have to show that it is criteria for it to be possible have been met.

  5. Lord Narf says

    When asked if I think some extreme suggestion is possible, be it god or bigfoot or alien visitors or ghosts, I generally try to answer whether or not I think they are reasonably likely (none are), not if they are possible. Saying something is possible without any positive evidence is just a waste of time.

    That’s what I was getting at, up above. I care less about possible than I do about probable.

  6. Laura Lou says

    From a determinist’s perspective, only one outcome is “possible” in the sense that a chain of events will only lead to one outcome, whether or not that outcome is calculable based on known information. Hypothetically, if you knew all the variables that were necessary to determine an outcome, you could say what the outcome would be and that no other outcomes were possible.

    But that’s not really what we mean when we say “possible.” We don’t mean “the one and only outcome that could occur based on all variables.” We mean “an outcome that has not yet been ruled out by known variables.” In the situation of Tracie’s dice, we only know a few variables, mainly that a dice can only land on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. But we don’t know what with what force or in what direction Tracie will shake the bag, we don’t know what starting position the dice are in, and, as Tracie said, we don’t even know how many dice are in the bag. These are all unknown variables that, theoretically, if we knew, we could calculate the one outcome that will necessarily happen.

    If you say we can’t say a god is possible because we don’t know all the variables yet, then we can’t say anything is possible because we can’t know all the variables for any potential outcomes. But again, that isn’t what people mean when they say possible. They mean “as far as we can know from all the information available, this outcome might happen.”

  7. unfogged says

    Yes, but plausible exists between probably and possible and I think that’s the distinction I was searching for. I’m happy to entertain suggestions that are plausible as well as probable. Something that is merely possible needs some supporting evidence.

  8. says

    I’ve yet to hear any theist define what a god is. If we don’t even know what it is, how could we determine the possibility that such a thing exists?

  9. says

    The analogy is off because we know what a bag is. We know what dice are. We know that it would take at least three standard six-sided dice to come up to 21. That much we can know. In dealing with the theistic proposition we don’t know what a deity would be. Can something unknown exist? Of course. But how would we begin to quantify that?

  10. says

    In regards to basing conclusions on evidence still possibly being wrong – that may be true, but you’re much more likely to get it right by following the evidence.

    It would be impossible for me to do my job if that wasn’t the case.

  11. says

    I code for a living, and when programming sophisticated information systems, it almost invariably comes up that some strange bizarre obscure intermittent bug pops up. It’s incredibly rare that I know precisely what the problem is, right off the bat.

    Instead, I follow a very science-like approach to investigating the problem. I undergo a (sometimes lengthy) iterative cycle of evidence gathering and hypothesis testing of a developing model regarding the phenomenon, until I slowly, yet assuredly, converge on the correct answer.

    Without evidence, this wouldn’t be possible, and I’d be stuck spending an exponential amount of time trying random superstitious things until maybe something worked.

    Further, it’s absolutely required that I shed whatever preconceptions, presumptions and biases I may have about what the problem may be, because they’re most likely going to distract and misdirect me. Instead, I focus as much of my cognition on what the evidence says, and where it’s leading me.

    This approach is utterly key to my ability to arrive to the demonstrably correct answers on a reliably regular basis.

  12. unfogged says

    What I think he was saying was that theists have a negative view of atheists so we should go out of our way when first meeting people to give the impression that we are kind, loving, warm people. We like puppies but we like babies more… that way when they find out the horrible truth that we are atheists they will have a good first impression to help them get over the hurdle of our atheism and eventually accept that we might be OK even though we are evil.
    At the heart of it the argument was a demonstration of incredible prejudice.

  13. says

    That’s what bugs me about these discussions about epistemology. The theists invariably seem to discuss the topic in a very ivory-tower-esque abstracted inconsequential fashion.. as though the topic about how we know things is merely a quibble about legitimizing our own opinions to ourselves… instead of an unfathomably cruicial framework for humanity to do anything – solving murders, finding cures to diseases, discovering and understanding electricity, physics, chemistry – everything that leads to 100% of all advanced technologies and innovations ever invented, that have aided humanity in maximizing happiness, productivity, understanding, while alleviating starvation, disease, misery and suffering.

    He’s not merely throwing the baby out with the bathwater, by dismissing our basic capacity to know and understand the world for the sake of preserving his fantasy world… he’s throwing out everything with the bathwater.

  14. L.Long says

    Is X possible?
    Define X 1st, then we can talk. Is gawd possible? Define gawd 1st then we can talk.
    Is some vague thingy beyond space & time possible, sure why not, and I don’t care; its irrelevant. Is Yehway possible, no flippin way!!!

  15. unfogged says

    Actually, in this case I’m on Shilling’s side as well. Not many would call me kind, warm or loving either. The caller just thinks I need to give that impression

  16. says

    As a relative newbie to atheism I will say that I have noted all variations of Atheists and what is great is we can have that variaiton free of restrictive dogma–unfortunately that leaves us ripe for divisions and splintering, which is sad. That said, I don’t think you hve to be anything but you–I can be loving and kind–give you the shirt off my back–but if yah gets on mah bad side I become She Hulk Beyonce . All we have to do is show we are as individuals — let’s not play games.

  17. says

    Okay, listening to Ustream now as I drink mah Frappy and I don’t understand what the humanist atheist dude was saying either. My hubby has said the same thing (“Atheist” is a negative term so just change it bleh, bleh, bleegh) But in my humble O, we get rid of negative perceptions not by catering to societal ideals by twisting and turning to make bigots feel comfortable, but by flying in the face of their ideas and showing them to be wrong.

  18. says

    The question is whether their god is a six or a seven on the individual die. Do we understand enough about it to rule out “impossible”? If not, then we are using “possible” to mean things that are possible as well as things that are impossible. And if possible means both possible and impossible things, then why even use the term? It’s like using “tall” to describe people of any height. At that point, what use is “tall”? What useful meaning can it convey?

  19. says

    Is some vague thingie beyond space and time possible? I don’t know. But you are saying “sure.” You know it’s possible to exist beyond space and beyond time? How did you confirm such existence is not impossible?

  20. says

    Me too–he was done the second he claimed faith in gravity was an unprovable scientific claim that Atheist cling to. I wish they had asked him if he prayed when he got sick or went to a doctor seeing as he was all against Science and stuff…

  21. rocketdave says

    I’m really surprised Matt even took his call. I thought he’d come to the conclusion in a previous show that George is not for real. Were there no other callers on the line?

  22. Paul Wright says

    I think we can say that existence beyond space and time is not possible. Existence is dependant on both space and time and so without them how can anything living exist ? This is why I hate the word ‘transcendent’. It’s one of those conceptual words which has no bearing what so ever on reality except of course when the religious use it to define their god in their ‘reality’. I know we can not technically rule out a transcendent entity, which annoys me greatly, but we can at least say it’s about as likely as Sara Palin joining Mensa !

  23. Indiana Jones says

    “Hypothetically, if you knew all the variables that were necessary to determine an outcome, you could say what the outcome would be ”

    I’m pretty sure it’s not even that good. Chaos theory….

  24. says

    Yeah, the caller really didn’t seem to realize the problem with his scenario.

    If a black person happened to be talking to a racist neo-Nazi, would it help him to tell that he’s actually not black, but just happens to be really well tanned? And if so, would this be something that he should consider doing, in order not to raise the ill-informed hateful racial bigotry of the neo-Nazi? 🙂

    If not, why would an atheist try to conform to the preferences of a bigoted believer in a similar encounter?

  25. says

    I don’t get Paul. Just because some theist has a prejudice about atheists, it doesn’t mean that an atheist must go out of its way to show an atheists is a good person.

    I think Paul thinks that atheism has some higher moral code, while atheism only addresses the god question.

  26. bradman1203 says

    When George calls, I envision brick walls, heads and increasingly longer run ups. I’m sure he thinks he’ll bust through eventually, but he just absolutely fails at basic logic. His implacable beliefs do not allow him to even remotely entertain the thought he might be in error.

    That is, of course, if he isn’t simply trolling.

  27. says

    @heicart “Is god possible? I don’t know…and I’d like to talk today about the idea “It is possible a god exists.””

    So, is it possible?

  28. says

    It doesn’t matter if a six would be rolled or not. It’s about whether one *can* roll a six.

    In other words, if I place some items in front of you and ask “is it possible to bake a pie with these ingredients?” You can answer that even if no pie is ever baked. Do you have what is required to bake a pie there, or don’t you?

    1. You have sugar, flour, salt, eggs, milk, a functional stove…and so on.
    2. You have most of what is normally used, but no sweetener, no sugar/honey or anything of the sort.
    3. You have a bowling ball, a computer monitor, a notebook, a pencil…and other similar items.
    4. You have a box that is locked and you can’t see what is inside.

    1. Yes. It is possible to bake a pie with these ingredients.
    2. Is debatable. Would it be a crappy pie, but still a pie? Or would it not constitute a pie? Etc…
    3. It is impossible to bake a pie with these ingredients.
    4. You can’t assess whether the contents of the box could possibly make a pie or not–we cannot say it’s possible or impossible.

    It does not matter if a pie will be baked. The question is only “do we have what would normally be required to reasonable assert a pie could be created with these ingredients?”

  29. Kevin in MO says

    “I know we can not technically rule out a transcendent entity”

    That statement there lets the theist know that you believe it is possible that their “whatever” exists. When they ask, “Is it possible?” What they are actually asking is, “can you technically rule it out?” And the honest answer has to be a no; I can’t rule it out, so therefore it’s possible. This allows them to feel that they have won the argument. They’ve got you to admit that their god, or whatever, is possible.

    I usually first ask a counter question in response to this line of reasoning. I ask if Zeus, Odin, Ra, and Vishnu and all the gods of those pantheons are possible. If they come back with a “no”, then I can simply say that the god they are asking about is also not possible using the same reasoning that they used to determine these other gods are not possible.

    Should they come back with a “yes, they are possible”. Do they believe in them all, and if not, what criteria allowed them to distinguish between the one they believe in and the ones they do not. How are they different since they all are possible and have the same supporting evidence for their existence, “NONE”.

    That’s the problem with the “is it possible” question, you either wind up disregarding all claims that are not supported by evidence (the reasonable thing to do), or you are forced to believe in everything that is merely possible despite the fact that there is no evidence. That would include all the gods ever imagined by man, leprechauns, fairies, unicorns, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, witches, wizards, alien abductions and the fact that we have a stargate system that connects us to other planets across the universe. And the list goes on and on because, well, you have to believe in everything imaginable, which is not practical for anyone to do.

  30. says

    >that may be true, but you’re much more likely to get it right by following the evidence.

    Yes, and the question is–if you’re not allowing the evidence to drive the conclusion, then what is driving it? Intuition? That’s pretty much all that’s left. That was why I used the jury example of some jurors going by the evidence, while others simply intuit his guilty based on how he looks. Even if the second set is right–they’re right by luck, not due to any demonstrated causal relationship between guilt and appearance.

  31. says

    It’s a very interesting topic, because I’ve honestly never thought about it. I’m one of those people who just took the “anything’s possible” default position.

    When you ask “is it possible”, I think you may be missing the point – that we’d actually need to have enough evidence to establish that it’s even possible in the first place. Similar to how the position on whether a god has been demonstrated to exist can take one of three statuses – yes, no and pending – whether something is possible or not also has three statuses – yes, no and pending.

    The idea is, “yes” is not the default position on possibility. “Pending” is.

    We don’t know (depending on the God definition), whether it’s possible or not yet.

  32. says

    >“I know we can not technically rule out a transcendent entity”

    >>That statement there lets the theist know that you believe it is possible

    If they derived that from me saying “I can’t say it’s impossible,” then they’d be wrong in their interpretation of my statement.

    In my example yesterday, I showed a situation where Matt could not assert something was possible, neither could he assert it was impossible. Without sufficient information, there are situations where “possible/impossible” cannot be assessed or determined. The dice in the bag was my example. Without knowing how many dice are in there–he could not say whether it was possible to roll a total of 18 on a single roll. However, he also could not say it was impossible. But that did not make it possible.

    Above, I supplied another example:

    In other words, if I place some items in front of you and ask “is it possible to bake a pie with these ingredients?” You can answer that even if no pie is ever baked. Do you have what is required to bake a pie there, or don’t you?

    1. You have sugar, flour, salt, eggs, milk, a functional stove…and so on.
    2. You have most of what is normally used, but no sweetener, no sugar/honey or anything of the sort.
    3. You have a bowling ball, a computer monitor, a notebook, a pencil…and other similar items.
    4. You have a box that is locked and you can’t see what is inside.

    1. Yes. It is possible to bake a pie with these ingredients.
    2. Is debatable. Would it be a crappy pie, but still a pie? Or would it not constitute a pie? Etc…
    3. It is impossible to bake a pie with these ingredients.
    4. You can’t assess whether the contents of the box could possibly make a pie or not–we cannot say it’s possible or impossible.

  33. John Kruger says

    I diagnose and repair electrical systems, and I see a lot of evidence based parallels also. I can never say with any true certainty that I have fixed a problem until I replace a component and make something run properly. I cannot count the number of times I was very sure what the problem might be only to find I did not change anything at all when I put it to the test. You get a theory based on your knowledge of the system, then you put your theory to the test with evidence. There is no other way to effectively figure out what is going on.

    If someone was going to try and do my job with “revelation based troubleshooting”, they would not last a single day. I think a lot of technical people know what type of approaches work towards real world discoveries, and can only remain theists with rigorous compartmentalization.

  34. says

    Matt didn’t recognize it as “The George.” I looked at the call monitor and said “that’s George.” Matt wasn’t sure, and since we didn’t have a last name, I started to doubt my memory. Even during the call, I wasn’t sure. But afterward, one of the crew who was not there when the show began, indicated it was the same person. I guess not being sure as we sat there, we did not want to cut a theist call. But yeah, when I saw the monitor, that was my first thought. If I’d have been more sure of his town, I’d have been more insistent. As it is, though, if he really has kids who watch the show–I think it might be good for *them* to see other adults deconstruct their instructor’s points. Outside of that, he does hog air time. But we only had him and Paul as theist calls–just fyi. The other calls were all atheists.

  35. says

    I agree. Relabeling is like saying you agree that “atheist” is tied to bad connotations for good reason. We do the show in order to educate people that atheists are different people with different ideas and experiences. Each host brings their own views to the table, in addition to the message put out by ACA. And I always encourage atheists individually and outside of ACA to please, please, please represent themselves as much as is reasonable for them, because we need to educate people that “atheist” is not some homogeneous label that defines some broad set of values. It’s fine to correct the prejudice, but asking me to correct my label, implies the label is bad–rather than the prejudice. You need to address the root of the problem, in order to best address it.

  36. says

    Correct. I’ve posted a “pie” analogy above, that addresses this, as well. To the question “is the existence of god possible?” I’d need to see what the theist can supply by way of making his/her case. Only then could I assess.

    Here is what I offered above in reply to some others:

    In other words, if I place some items in front of you and ask “is it possible to bake a pie with these ingredients?” You can answer that even if no pie is ever baked. Do you have what is required to bake a pie there, or don’t you?

    1. You have sugar, flour, salt, eggs, milk, a functional stove…and so on.
    2. You have most of what is normally used, but no sweetener, no sugar/honey or anything of the sort.
    3. You have a bowling ball, a computer monitor, a notebook, a pencil…and other similar items.
    4. You have a box that is locked and you can’t see what is inside.

    1. Yes. It is possible to bake a pie with these ingredients.
    2. Is debatable. Would it be a crappy pie, but still a pie? Or would it not constitute a pie? Etc…
    3. It is impossible to bake a pie with these ingredients.
    4. You can’t assess whether the contents of the box could possibly make a pie or not–we cannot say it’s possible or impossible.

    To me, nearly always, “god” falls into category 4. I think asserting a god is possible requires the theist to set out parameters that put god AT LEAST into category 2, but ideally in category 1. But if we can’t rule out 3, then we can’t assert we know it’s possible. And so, calling it possible is premature.

    However, a lot depends on their god model.

  37. says

    intuition: an interesting topic. without any evidence, have we to reach to knowledge using intuition (whatever that is). I know in human “intuition” seems mixed up a bit with (hyper?) rationality, but I guess we (could use) still have a genuine intuition to guide our lives.

    dogs with their senses (and intuition?) seem to know stuff that our rational mind doesn’t grasp they know when someone is desperate when the people around haven’t any clue, for exemple.

  38. mike says

    I really like Tracie’s thought experiments from the past, the transcendental dice, and I like this one too however I could envision the glassy-eyed xians that I talk to who like to say “anything is possible” saying that you could roll a ‘7’ with only one die. All that has to occur is that in midroll their deity would stop time and put another pip on the side with ‘6’ on it, turning it into a ‘7’ – so anything is possible ! Would I just counter with if in fact there were no gods then the ‘7’ was impossible all along?

  39. John Kruger says

    “Possible” really is a broad term that gets mixed up with very precise mathematical terms. As Laura Lou points out, our determination of possibility is wholly dependent on or knowledge of a system. Nobody marvels that lotteries actually come up with a particular set of numbers each day, even though they are deliberately hard to predict. To say something has a low probability is more accurately a statement about how we do not know enough to make a decent determination. If we knew enough about the paths of all the balls in the machine, we could make a much better prediction, but as it stands we only get the number of balls that can count as a result, so our knowledge (or the possibility) of any one given result is very low. By the same token, a high probability only reflects our expectation based upon our knowledge of a system. Any possibility is only as good as the known values put into it.

    If we are going to question everything and talk about beings outside space and time (whatever that might mean), they are only possible in the weakest sense of the word. If you pick only one particular result in an essentially infinite set, the probability is as close to zero as it can be. The correct stance is one of honestly admitted ignorance. The old apologist trick of getting you to concede the weakest form of possibility for their god is really just a veiled argument from ignorance. If an idea has no contradictions it is only at a truth value of 0, as opposed to contradictory ideas that are in the negative numbers. Practically all apologetics strive and strain to approach that 0 truth value (often failing even in that), and then rely on blind faith to bridge the gaps.

    So in the end we only have equivocation at its finest. A god is “possible” only in the sense that it is “possible” we are living in the Matrix, not in the sense that it is “possible” to wake up at a particular time in the morning or have eggs for breakfast.

  40. says

    Oh, and just to add, when you hear “anything is possible,” ask “is it possible something is impossible?”

  41. says

    ya, interesting. I have also never thought about questioniing from that angle “if it is possible a god exists?”.
    I will think more about that but your answer and heicart’s that we cannot determine (yet) if it is possible (or not) ,with the infos we have, seems to make good sense.

  42. says

    It’d be like if various religions had spent thousands of years telling their flocks and congregations that bald people were evil. I think it would be a mistake for that slighted group of people to try to convince everyone that most all bald people are good baby-loving heroes… that’d lead to its own problems.

    I think it’d be much better to simply nullify the original misconception.

  43. says

    dogs with their senses (and intuition?) seem to know stuff that our rational mind doesn’t grasp

    That our rational mind doesn’t grasp, or doesn’t notice? Dogs have different hearing ranges, better smell senses. They may be paying attention to things that we aren’t. Even among humans, introverts will notice things that extroverts might not, for instance.

    That’s not a case for saying intuition has a leg up on reason and logic, though. Intuition isn’t magical… it could better be described as a “continual rudimentary superficial automatic reasoning”… something that frequently fails to understand phenomenon that aren’t incredibly common and basic.

  44. says

    so in other words “instinct”? myself I always had problems when people say “follow your intuitions”. always seems to me including magic notion of being able to perceive the future, or something like that. but on the other hand do you think that we are sometimes too rational and in absence of any evidence, it could be a good path to knowledge using more often our “instincts” or “intuition” without over thinking some decisions, for exemple.

  45. says

    so in other words “instinct”?

    I don’t know that I’d say instinct.. that’s more about what’s biologically programmed into us. I wouldn’t say that geese fly south for the winter because they just intuitively know it’d be a good idea. Intuition is still about understanding and evaluation, not biological programming.

    but on the other hand do you think that we are sometimes too rational and in absence of any evidence, it could be a good path to knowledge using more often our “instincts” or “intuition” without over thinking some decisions, for exemple.

    The way you’re positioning this may be assuming that they’re mutually exclusive. Intuition does use information about a situation to come to a decision. It’s just a lot more messy and informal than reason.

    When we talk about dogs intuitively knowing that someone is about to have a seizure, it’s more about their basic cognition evaluating signs that a person is exhibiting that no one else is noticing, and combing to a conclusion that something is wrong with the person. Dogs tend to pay a lot of attention to owners, due to their “pack nature”,and interact with us frequently… so they’d let us know something is wrong.

    Some of the things you’re talking about may be covered in misconceptions some people have about logic and reason, and how they relate to atheism. I found this presentation covers those pretty well:


  46. says

    wow!! thanks!!! she is really interesting. It made my day.

    i guess the false opposition between being rational and being intuitive (or emotional) is coming from our christian societies where it is (or was) considered as good to be spiritual and it goes often with to have to sacrifice ourself, our pleasure for an ultimate spirit, disincarnated from reality and pleasure of this life, and bad looking for terrestrial pleasures (love, sex, good food, money). that artificial antagonist of searching for rational excellency vs searching for pleasure and happiness, smells really old catholic values (Augustin like).

    we should really get the people out of religion, and like you said in a previous post to someone else, occidental countries should educate (in high school) on basic epistemology, logic and we will see people deserting religions at a fast rate.

    I love that video and the videos that are inside that explain her point from star trek episodes. it is funny to see that Roddenberg was an atheit and present a straw man of a rational person in a person of spock and Roddenberg was an atheist and propagate such a false image of what to be logical is. he nourrished me a straw man fallacy for such a long time. I am glad I am on my path to be cured from it.

    again, really interesting and funny. I like that Julia Galef. excellent!!

  47. Brian O says

    I really liked Tracies analogy of a jury where one person just says he looks guilty. The fact that of course both sides COULD be wrong….that that doesn’t make both approaches to judgement equally valid …….. great analogy…..

    Must say Matt’s shrillness with the last caller rather ruined the show for me….. how can someone so angry when people interrupt him, interrupt so freely himself, and actually said “Shut up” to the caller…… and he’s so calm when he debates…… weird…..

    Brian in Stockholm

  48. MrPendent says

    Amen. I came here specifically to see if I am the only one tired of hearing his butt-hurt whiny voice. I have reached the point that I start skipping ahead when he is jabbering on because he never goes anywhere, he never will listen to any argument, and I just have no desire to listen to his nattering any longer.

    For the previous caller, however, I pretended to be nice at first.

  49. Brian O says

    Here’s an argument I would put to the last caller……

    Imagine his grandchild was sick. The Dr performed tests and MRI scans and discovered a tumour which needed operating ASAP. Survival rate 90% if treated quickly.
    But the parents of the child took the child to a crystal healer, who said that it was (insert mumbo jumbo) due to forcefield imbalances and that the child really needed to sit in a pyramid with tinfoil on his head.

    How would the caller counter the argument that belief in the medical procedure was just “faith” and that the pyramid method was just as valid….. after all medicine is not an exact science…..researchers are discovering things all the time…. in the past Dr’s thought loads of weird things….. both sides “could” be wrong so aren’t they both just as valid…. I’d be interested to hear what he would say……

    Does he “know” that the medical procedure is best…. does he even know what an MRI is? There’s many things we take as a given in life that we don’t “know” – how do I know a 50 storey tall skyscraper isn’t held up by pixie dust.

    It’s not faith to assume that things work as we have experienced them, that our knowledge of the world and the scientific method would support such belief without needing “faith”.

  50. Raymond says

    I’ve heard all his calls (I think). I don’t think he is trolling. I really think he just can’t understand the whole atheist thing. Maybe it would help to break down the word atheist. “a-” means “not” when attached to a word. So a-theist is “not theist.” Then compare that to antitheism. “anti-” means opposed to. So anti-theist is “opposed to theism.” So the atheist is simply everyone who is not a theist, where the antitheist is someone directly opposed to theism.

  51. says

    I’m pretty sure I have heard “George” call in to the show in earlier episodes as an atheist. The other week, I was listening to a few old shows and I came across the same, phony-sounding voice, and I thought to myself, “Oh, he is a troll after all” (not that it wasn’t already awfully clear from his ridiculous voice and his incredibly fishy story of having a “beef” with the show because his “eighth graders” watch it).

    Speaking of trolls, I also suspect that the first caller this week was a guy who’s called several times before as “Scotch,” the guy who claimed a number of bizarre things, including having met a troll (a real, no foolin’ troll) named “troll.” Same stuttering, stumbling speaking style, same tendency to keep talking as long as he can (“Can I just ask one more question?….Okay, can I say one more thing?….Can I just ask one more question…?”)

    Normally, I don’t mind these fake callers, since they can often lead to good talking points — and to a degree the conversation with “Scotch” or whatever he called in as was good — but the “George” call quickly became annoying as the caller made dumb equivocations specifically designed to push Matt’s buttons (“You have faith, too!” after being told exactly how Matt was using the word “faith”).

  52. rocketdave says

    I might have imagined the weird voice was a dead giveaway, but I’m hardly one to talk, as I’m notoriously bad at recognizing people. I wouldn’t mind George so much if I could feel more certain he’s on the level and isn’t just another Mark from Stone church.

    I enjoyed the dice analogy, btw.

  53. Raymond says

    Only if you are asking for a legitimate answer. If you are just using it as a snappy come-back, bad things await you in the conversation that follows.

  54. Raymond says

    I, personally, find the question irrelevant. A much more specific question is required. It all boils down to “define god.” For instance, if you are presenting a god that is a composed of elements that exist in the universe. That has only attributes that can be accounted for by known scientific laws (the “maximum allowable” god you hear about now and then), then I would have to say yes it is possible. If you are talking about a “transcendent” god, I would say the jury is still out (we do happen to know that something exists beyond our current ability to measure (dark energy/matter, other dimensions (in a physics sense, not the sci-fi sense))). But if we are talking about a self-contradictory god (3 omnis) then I feel comfortable saying no.

  55. Raymond says

    I respectfully disagree. I think he is making an honest attempt to grasp a concept that is simply so foreign to him that he can’t wrap his mind around it.

  56. says

    I really think he just can’t understand the whole atheist thing.

    I think there’s a category of people who don’t want to get it. It’d be too inconvenient.

  57. says

    Oh there were–I was LOL–and as I was on hold I was just laughing and laughing and laughing at George and wondering “OKay when is he going to tell this tool to go…?”

  58. Leeloo Dallas Multipass says

    The fact that he says “sir” every other sentence is kind of a tell that it’s him. Shouldn’t he be winning some kind of worst argument award? (A Banannie?) I mean, anyone can present a bad argument. But it takes a special kind of ineptitude to look an a universal filled with scientific phenomena, many of them complex and obscure, and pick out perhaps the most obvious one, the one everyone deals with all the time, the one that’s casually demonstrable in nearly every circumstance, and accuse the hosts of taking its existence on faith.

    I hope all his eighth graders drop their books at the same time.

  59. says

    Hmm well, theoertically sure, but you may still come up snake eyes. Ex.; people who use a number of mathematial methods to predict lottery numbers. There was a case in recent history of a group of folks tried to do that. They pooled their resources, bought up a ton of tickets (I think a 100 K worth)–and lost.

  60. says

    Aronra spoke of a situation where he told a man that his church believed a certain thing and the man said, “No it doesn’t”. “Sure it does, read the pamphlet” Aronra told him and tried to hadn it to him–the man tossed the pamphlet into the trash unread. Some people will go to any lengths necessary to protect thier faith–even blatant denial in the face of very obvious facts.

  61. says

    Nearly cried laughing at that–but seriously–i *finger quotes* f “George” couldn’t grasp even the most elementary of concepts why beat your head upon the bricks. Scream NEXT!

  62. says

    Okay, I was lost to your argument at first but I think I get it now. If we are to say what is “possible” we have to define the item we are questioning. From that definiton, we can descern if it is also probable–right?

  63. says

    Precisely! My hubby and I go round and round with this one. He believes Atheists are setting themselves up for a fail by using a label that is often seen negatively. My response is that a label is innocuous–it is perceptions that make it bad. We need to alter perceptions, not cater to bigots.

  64. says

    Or an obligation to kowtow to perceptions…thing is–as Matt and Tracey both pointed out to me ( and I thank them from the bottom of my heart as I had been wrestling with this concept for months) That we as individuals are not defined by the Atheist movement, as it were. There are going to be Atheist who are introverted, dogmatic in thinking, and rude. There will also be others who are kind, generous, loving…I can only represent myself and I should care very little about what others say….except perhaps family and even then–with limitations. I mean, I love my hubby, but I suppose I reference him lately because, well, I just wish he would GET this…and stop trying to make my enjoyment of finding like minded souls and ideologies into a bad thing. I am the only Atheist I know around these parts, lol, and he says very little positive about Atheism–thinks it is a movement of empty arrogance. BUT he loves Tracy Harris as do I, cause he feels she is, what were his words–an atheist of conscience? Should I ACTIVELY try to improve HIS opinion? Are there caveats to trying to alter perceptions…

  65. says

    Yet George continued to feign ignorance to what you were trying to say, which makes me think he was a troll…no one can be that dense….

  66. says

    I do think to a degree human intution and “gut” feelings can be scientifically credible. When I was a theist I found myself to be something of an empath and attributed this to a god given gift. People were often surpised at how well I could not only define how they were feeling (when it wasn’t patently obvious), but even guess, in some detail, history and backgrounds. As an atheist, I began to understand that this wasn’t divine at all. There are things called microexpressions, for example, that most of us don’t catch because they happen in split second of a second. I do believe that the extremely discerning notice these on some subliminal animal level and recognize them for what they are immediately. Likewise, all you need is a working knowledge of human behavior and psychology to understand how certain tics, mannnerisms and behaviors evolve. I am sure so called psychics utilze this on a level. Intution is a base animal response to little human and physcial cues. Some people are just very good at picking up these cues…

  67. mond says

    Changing the dice in mid spin is a prime example of “Begging the question”. You have to assume what you are trying to prove is true as part of the proof before it has proven to be true.

  68. says

    Atheist who are introverted, dogmatic in thinking, and rude.

    FYI, within context, you seem to be implying that introversion is equivalent to selfish. I’m just kind of surprised you lumped that one in with the others.

    I’d complain further, but there’s a book that just must be read.

  69. says

    Oh faith comes to a screeching halt for most Xtians when medical science enters the picture–or anything considered commonplace science. If their TV stop working they wouldn’t pray for God to fix it, they call a repairman who uses technological science to fix it. Drop your cellphone in a bucket of water? Don’t take it to AT&T to replace it with evil technological sciencey stuff–PRAY FOR IT TO WORK. I am reminded of a recent Christian parable that made it’s way into viral fame where a supposed Christian solder was being taunted by a group of theist in his platoon *pffft* Anyhoos, the Sergeant decides to mock the soldier and tells him to go park his jeep on the other side of barracks for some reason. The solder tells his seargant that he cannot drive *really doe?*. “Tough titties” exclaims evil manical Atheist Sarge, “Pray to your heavenly assistant to guide you,” Well, said put upon Soldier prays, gets into the car and turns on the engine. Onlookers hit their knees and immediately start priaising the Christian Soldier’s god. When he wonders why, he is told that, as a prank, they had removed the engine from the jeep. Horribly Mocked Christian Solider, now truimphantyl replies that “God is his engine.” Ahahhahahha–Oh wait, what was I saying? Oh, yeah–so if science is all crap and faith is as good as reason and logic, why not follow this guy’s lead and completely walk by faith alone? Don’t change your flat tire, god wil lfix it. Don’t mow your lawn, god will mow it. Almost all modern contriviences were created using some sort of sciences and/or mathematics. Ya know–logic based things. And Logic and Reason be bad. Bad I say!

  70. says

    He could barely grasp Tracie’s easy to understand analogy, and I don’t think he wanted to. Jesus himself could probably come down and explain these concepts and George will still not only fail to grasp the ideas presented but would tell him he was wrong.

  71. says

    No, only that introversion could be seen negatively. I was horribly shy and introverted as a child but MOST considered me to be stuck up and snobby because of this. Many deep thinkers aresilent and withdrawn, so I suppose that many atheist will appear that way to “outsiders”. To that end, I was simply indicating how it could be percieved negatively within the context of what the caller was saying, not that introversion itself is bad.

  72. says

    Some groups of atheists have tried to adopt other labels. What usually happens is that the “baggage” is transferred to the new label. When we’re in a society where the Democrats are labelled the “Godless Party” simply for not catering to fundamentalism, at some point one has to realize that the label is not the problem.

  73. NorskVind says

    I wouldn’t be so sure. I find it just as plausible to say that he is simply ignoring the arguments so he can maintain his faith. My dad does this, and when I point it out to him that is pretty much when our debates end. 😛

  74. Laura Lou says

    My point is that you are using a definition of “possible” that isn’t attainable. You are picking and choosing the variables that you are satisfied with (ingredients and equipment for a pie). I could point out that in the #1 example you gave, there are an infinite number of things about the situation that would hypothetically make it impossible for a pie to be baked. For example, is there someone who knows how to bake the pie? Will that person choose to bake the pie? If there is no one around who will choose to bake a pie, then it is impossible to bake a pie.

    If you say “Oh, well I’m assuming that there is someone who will bake the pie,” then what you’re really doing is using a different definition of “possible” than you are holding other people to. Because what you’re implying there is, “There is no information that tells me no one will bake the pie,” and that is the more useful and common definition of possible.

    You are saying that it’s better to say “We don’t know if it’s possible or not because there is not sufficient information,” but my point is that in any situation there will (almost?) never be enough information to cover all potential variables.

    To be clear, this is not the argument from ignorance as Matt mentioned on the show, because you’re not asserting something is true, merely that it could be true, and all that usually means is that the information available does not rule it out.

  75. Raymond says

    Yes. But more-so. I am just playing off of Tracie’s argument from before. You cannot even determine if something is possible until you have enough information to make that assessment. Probable is a whole other assessment that includes determining how often the item/event occurs vs. how often it doesn’t occur within a given framework.

  76. Raymond says

    This was probably one of the leading reasons for my deconversion. I was playing some video game on my Commodore 64 one Sunday, when my mother came in and asked me if I was going to church. I said, “No, I don’t attend church anymore.” Her reply was “God gave you your whole life and you can’t give him an hour a week?” I replied “God gave you your whole life and you only give him an hour a week?” After that my mother started going to church twice a week. Replay that scene again substituting “2 hours per week.” After a few months of this, she finally got the point. If you think that god is all that (and a bag of chips), why would you do anything but worship him nonstop. Since I don’t see many people worshiping their god nonstop, it must be that people don’t really believe in their god. It’s all lip service and maintaining a “proper” public facade. I know, I know. There are a dozen fallacies of various sorts in there, but I was young and inexperienced when it came to critical thinking. All I knew was things didn’t add up. That’s what kick started my quest for answers.

  77. bradman1203 says

    Once again, Tracie cut through his lack of understanding with a pitch-perfect example of his cognitive error. And what did he do? He went back to, “I still don’t see why your faith in science is any different from my faith in religion”. This despite having it patiently explained to him multiple times, and his failing to answer the basic questions Matt had asked him regarding epistemology.

    I think this difficulty transcends an inability to understand, and encroaches a refusal to accept the obvious (as in the pamphlet example above). In real terms, I think there will always be religious people, in spite of what science proves. It’s more about an emotional need than a rational assessment. Sad and somewhat scary.

  78. Raymond says

    LOL! I hate to play devil’s advocate, but you would have to define pie. I can imagine a pie with a bowling ball, a computer monitor, a notebook, and a pencil protruding from a really big crust. Would it then be not be a pie just because it is inedible? I know. We have to accept some things as defined ahead of time, but you must admit that there is a hole in your argument big enough for a christian to get through.

  79. Lord Narf says

    Yup. Even before you develop the logical tools to examine a set of claims, if you’re not completely indoctrinated and terrified of ending up in hell for even thinking about your faith with anything less than blind gullibility, I can’t see how anyone can’t just look at Christianity and see that something is fucked up. Something is wrong with the basic tenets of the religion and should be rejected out of hand from being pure nonsense.

    Then, once you get an education and a grasp of epistemology and basic reasoning, you can examine the advanced religious arguments, and there’s just nothing there. I can’t understand how so many people stay wrapped up in it. I think that once we get things to the point that it’s socially acceptable to be an atheist, they’re going to start dropping like flies. We just need that 20% – 30% threshold, and then we’ll probably get another 30% – 40% who will be able to admit that they don’t believe that crap, either, within the next few years.

  80. Lord Narf says

    Dude, we can’t get the atoms close enough to close all of the holes that a Christian will try to wriggle his way through. 😀

  81. Raymond says

    I was making an argument on another forum about this very thing. I believe that we are uniquely positioned to attain that threshold. If you want a prime example, just look at George. He claims that his 8th graders are watching this show and starting to question (whether this is true or not is irrelevant as it is true somewhere). With the easy access to knowledge in the form of the internet, people are starting to question things younger: before they are fully indoctrinated. I don’t think it’ll be a landslide by any means. I generally agree with Matt when he said that we will have to wait for a generation or two to die off before “the atheist movement” can break even with the theists, but it may just happen in our lifetime. If not, certainly in our children’s lifetime.

  82. says

    It’s the fallacy that if we called ourselves something else people would like us more. That would only work until they figured out it was the same thing then we’d be back to square one.

  83. Lord Narf says

    Perhaps we can reach 50% in the relevant population demographics much sooner, though. Public perceptions are greatly swayed by the media. When TV shows showed gay people as normal, huge portions of the population were swayed by that treatment.

    Those media formats are not generally influenced by what 60 – 80 year-olds feel about a subject. They’re influenced by the 20 – 50 demographic, because advertisers don’t give a damn about the 60 – 80 demographic. A massive change in the treatment of atheism in popular culture would lead to the sort of cascade effect that I’m talking about. We would still have that top age group, most of whom will never change, but they’ll become increasingly irrelevant to the social paradigm.

  84. says

    I don’t know that I rule out the possibility of existence beyond space and time, because ruling it out would mean that I could understand what that might be or if such a thing is possible. I don’t know how we would know that. There’s also nothing in the Bible that indicated that the Christian god exists outside of space. Nothing. Actually there’s plenty to the contrary. it’s something people made up after we had a better understanding of the universe and it was no longer possible to continue believing that heaven existed somewhere just above the clouds and the “firmament”.

  85. Lord Narf says

    Have you read the Old Testament? The guy is an egotistical, needy control-freak. Dude has issues, is what I’m saying.

  86. says

    I recognized both Paul and George’s voices. Maybe John and Ringo can call in next week to shake things up.

    1. About Paul. I hate hypotheticals. How on earth do I know what I’d do in the burning building with a baby and a puppy? Why can’t I pick up both? Neither babies or puppies are all that heavy? But in reality I’d probably run screaming from a burning building, so both baby and puppy would be SOOL. 🙂 Anyway, the idea behind all of that is that we could somehow make theists like us better. If I”m not mistaken this is the same guy who thinks your show would be better if you were nicer to the theist callers. It’s one thing to act in a way that shows character, but having to alter your behavior in an attempt to make people who are prejudiced against you like you more, is a completely waste of time. Anyone who belongs to a minority group figures that out early on. Be yourself because some people aren’t going to like you anyway and at least that way what people like or don’t like is you and not some silly act you put on. The caller is full of self-loathing and it gets tiresome, but people in every group hear this from someone. Seriously, big fat waste of time.

    2. About George. This might be might biggest pet peeve. I have heard morons mention that people have “Faith in science” before. It’s nonsense. When Matt dropped that pen it was going to fall no matter who believed that it would fall and who did not. Faith and belief have nothing to do with it. A number of scientists explained gravity (Newton, especially) but gravity existed before it could be explained and how it works is not dependent on our understanding or belief or “faith”. it always was. The only thing that changed was our understanding. That’s true of so many things in science. The earth always went around the sun rather than the other way around. It just took us awhile to figure that out. People were wrong about that for millenia, but we can also understand why it wasn’t until the invention of the telescope for a better model of the solar system to emerge. We just didn’t have enough information. I don’t know what about that freaks out theists. Nothing changed. just our understanding. I’m sure there are countless things that we are still wrong about that 200 years from now people will look back and think “wow I can’t believe that people in the 21st century actually believed that [whatever it is]. That’s exactly why we have the scientific method. The ability to correct misconceptions is the point, not a flaw. Believing something will always be true regardless of all evidence to the contrary is not a virtue and certainly nothing to be proud of. And I don’t know why it’s necessary to explain to the SAME people continually that no one is claiming that they can prove with certainty that no supernatural beings exist. They are so invested in shifting the burden of proof that they just don’t want to listen I guess. In any case it’s frustrating. I know some people think Matt shouldn’t hang up on callers so often but honestly I can’t imagine how he lasts with some of them (both George and Paul this week) a lot sooner.

  87. Raymond says

    You may think that, but I have been in just such a situation recently. I was studying simple exponential plotting on a natural graph and could not, for the life of me, figure out the concept. It took me a solid week of having it explained in a dozen different ways for me to understand how a log-log plot could have the same slope as an exponential slope on a natural graph. I’m guessing George is in the same boat. The problem is that he doesn’t have a dozen people showing him a dozen different ways of looking at the problem. He, probably, has been told the same thing over and over. Who was it who once said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” He may get it one day, but, as with most theists, he is not going to go out and seek answers. He will call in for whatever reason he has decided to do so; and even if the show gives him a different way to look at it each time he calls, it may be years before something sticks. I, sadly, deal with this situation a lot in the area in which I live. I argued with someone for 4 hours once, at the end of which he said that A)faith is evidence based and B)Truth is subjective. George is a boy-scout compared to that.

  88. says

    I often say that to guys who think they’d be a happy if a woman waited on them hand and foot and never “sassed back”. I tell them 3 years of that and you will be paying a hooker just to yell at you.

  89. says

    “I recognized both Paul and George’s voices. Maybe John and Ringo can call in next week to shake things up.”


  90. Raymond says

    **In reference to your comment about George**

    What do you think about this? Maybe those people can’t grasp the concept that there is a difference between the fact of gravity and the model we call gravity because they have, for their entire lives, associated such abstract concepts as morality with a very physical book. Even if they attribute the fact of morality to god, it is not abstract (ignoring the fact that god is an abstract concept, because they don’t think it is). This means that they may never have dealt with truly abstract concepts in their lives.

    Just a thought.

  91. Raymond says

    Weeeellllll. I can’t say I agree with you Alicia. I have more than enough to occupy my time for the rest of my life without having a sassy, nagging woman. A woman who supports my endeavors with a smile sounds pretty good. Don’t worry, I don’t want a slave. I would obviously support her in her endeavors as well.

  92. says

    If they even acknowledge any valid argument you posit. Likely to go back to the “yeah but you have faith too” mantra when they are backed into a corner.

  93. says

    Besides, I can see it now, Theist using this as a sort of admission of defeat like “Their position is so weak that they have to re-brand themselves as something else to be taken seriously”, Damned catch 22 is what it is.

  94. says

    Then is it a shared mass delusion coupled with the ability to reshape realities on the spot? I do hope I wasn’t this maddening when I was a theist.

  95. says

    LOL–depneds on how one defines sassy and nagging I suppose. Beisdes, I don’t think supportive and sassy are mutually exclusive. I am typical” black girl sassy” with the hubby but I’d also lift him to the moon if he asked me, and yes, with a smile.

  96. says

    Kind of like how theist have a hard time grasping the concept of scientifc theory. George probably heard the term THEORY OF GRAVITY and said “AH HA!”

  97. Paul Wright says

    You say that there is nothing in the Bible to say that God exists outside of space. Maybe you should re-read Genesis. There was nothing till God made his creation. God was always there, before he created the heavens and the Earth. Like anything in that book, it’s how you interpret it, but this where the implication that God is transcendent can be inferred.

  98. Lord Narf says

    Where does it say that God created space and time? Sure, you can take something vague and twist it to mean damned near anything.

    The Bible isn’t even special that way. Other religions do that with their holy book, too. I don’t care, until I’m shown something explicitly detailed and accurate. The Bible is no better than a Rorschach Test.

  99. chikoppi says

    Re: “George.” I think the Platonic question Matt drove toward the end of the conversation is a useful tactic when confronted with the “all beliefs are equivalent” position. That is, to ask: when one person believes a thing is true and another does not, what METHOD can we use to determine which claim is more likely true?

    To be clear, this isn’t a call for evidence. George claimed to have “reasons” for his belief (subjective and dubious though they may be). By focusing the question on METHODOLOGY the claimant is forced to define an equivalent standard. Since an equivalent standard necessitates evidence that can be observed by both parties the plea to subjective experience (“I’ve witnessed miracles”) can be dismissed out of hand (“how can I know that, you could be mistaken or delusional”).

    Put another way, “would you accept any claim I made as true, even if were highly implausible, if you weren’t able to verify it for yourself?”

    In fairness, I think George was asking an serious question about epistemology. I think he recognized that there were two incompatible positions and he wanted to understand why Matt believed the “non-positive” position had more merit than the “positive” position.

    I don’t know whether George was unwilling or unable to confront the question, but it certainly put him on his heals. I hope he calls back.

  100. says

    Besides, women tend to nag and get sassy when they are emotionally hurting and thier needs are not met. If as you say, you will be there for her (hopefully not only for her endeavors but for all the relationshipy things as well) then she won’t nag.

  101. Paul Wright says

    Like I said Lord Narf, it’s how some people interpret it. I’m not advocating it as fact, far from it. I was just making a point.

  102. Danny W says

    I would like to hear from more callers like George. Even if he is a troll, and I really doubt it, these are the exact arguments I get into a lot. The whole “it takes just as much faith not to believe in God as to believe” argument is a pillar of Christian thinking when it comes to their attitudes towards non-believers. I had a Christian say to me last week that the number one atheist argument that annoys them the most is the “I don’t need faith not to believe in Unicorns so I don’t need faith no to believe in God” type analogy.

    It is difficult to effectively argue against the “you have as much faith as I do” position, because the Christian cunningly uses different definitions of faith at every turn. When arguing with the atheist here “faith” means acting as if something is true even if you don’t know for definite that it is (but you have tonnes of evidence and are almost sure). E.g. They would say I “had faith” that Paracetamol will not cause me to morph into a turtle. Yet when they use faith in their religion, they use it to mean a belief they hold without good evidence.

    Getting round these dual definitions in an argument is hard and it is good to listen to Matt and Tracie attempt it too. Let George call in next week!

  103. Sids says

    “That guy is tiny. He’s only about a foot tall.”

    Ok, so it’s a different usage of ‘tall’ but still…

  104. gshelley says

    Matt seemed a bit tetchy this week, but after ten minutes or whatever with George apparently not even listening to Matt’s answers, I could well understand the frustration. It would have been revealing perhaps to see if George felt he had faith according to Matt’s definition, but I don’t know if it would have been possible to get him to respond to that question.

  105. gshelley says

    It depends on what kind of universe we live in. I have thought of this before, when confronted with Plantagina (sp?)’s version of the ontological argument, which starts off with “it is possible god exists”, then goes on to “that’s the same as saying it is possible there is a world in which god exists, which is the same as saying there is a possible world in which he exists. So he does”
    But if we live in a totally materialistic universe, then no, it is not possible that a non a materialistic being exists. The best I think we can say is that it might be possible (It’s possible that it’s possible?) that god exists, but we don’t have enough information to say for sure.

  106. Thorne says

    I think the name he used is actually “Stosh”, which is a fairly common nickname in the eastern Pennsylvania communities he claimed to be from.

  107. says

    I think there are a few things at play here:

    1. The “just a theory” meme is in play here. If evolution can be “just a theory”, then why not gravity. I tend to use this argument sarcastically.

    Creationist: Evolution is just a theory.
    Me: Yeah, like gravity.

    My sarcasm is supposed to point out that a theory is a model that explains a natural phenomenon and allows us to make predictions about what will happen. Our ability to use the gravity of the earth and other large bodies in the solar system to send probes where we want them to go should prove that our understanding of gravity is pretty good. That’s not to say it’s perfect. Similarly, people who work on flu vaccines are pretty good at predicting the next flu strain based on the last flu viruses active at the end of flu season going forward into the next one. Those predictions are not (and perhaps cannot be) 100% accurate, but they are very good. Our ability to predict the paths of hurricanes has also increased thank to better information and models about how storms work. Theories are useful tools in science. Unfortunately it seems that people are not learning all of this in school, or more likely learning it, taking the test, forgetting and then having nonsense shouted at them every Sunday morning at their local megachurch.

    2. We have a culture of “I believe it therefore it is true” and a media that panders to such nonsense. We actually treat creationists, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths and other people spewing unproven notions as if their understanding of our world is equal to what can be explained using the scientific method. Sunday wasn’t the first time I’ve heard the expression “faith in science”. I’ve heard it many times and it’s gibberish but it’s peddled to Americans from pulpits on a consistent basis. Some even go so far as to treat science as a conspiracy theory to lead people away from the Christian god. This is especially true when it comes to “Darwinism.”

  108. Lord Narf says

    I think where I was going and never quite got to …
    I just have issues with the word “interpret” being used in that sort of situation. At what point do you cross over from interpretation into making-shit-up? In my opinion, most Biblical interpretations like that fall more into the latter category.

  109. says

    Especially when interpreattions cross into the land of the bizaare and ludicrous–example. A pastor once told me that the story of Lot sleeping with his Daughters to create whole new nations of folks was an example of “God’s Permissive Will” Boy it was fun listening to that BS for 15 minutes….

  110. changerofbits says

    And let’s not forget “Miles”, the atheist tone concern troll with the four continent amalgam English accent.

  111. changerofbits says

    Thanks Tracie and Matt for the nice demonstration about what’s possible. I’ve always just conceded that “anything is possible” and used the “invisible dragon in my garage” or equally ridiculous thing to show that it really doesn’t matter, instead of challenging somebody to explain why the thing they’re proposing is possible.

  112. Lord Narf says

    I had a Christian say to me last week that the number one atheist argument that annoys them the most is the “I don’t need faith not to believe in Unicorns so I don’t need faith no to believe in God” type analogy.

    Yeah, it annoys them, because they don’t have an answer for it, besides “That’s not the same thing at all!”

    And yeah, man, you have to call religionists out, every time they use an equivocation fallacy. It’ll happen about once every 30 seconds, in my experience, since it’s their favorite fallacy.

    It breaks the flow of the conversation a bit, but that’s hardly a bad thing. One of the biggest things you need to do when having a discussion with a religious person is breaking their preaching stream long enough to make them start answering questions. You have to be a bit of an asshole and be willing to interrupt them the moment they say something wrong.

  113. Green Jelly says

    There are 3 ways Tracie’s experiment could result in throwing a 7.
    1. Illusion – After throwing and viewing the die a million times, the experimenter might see spots everywhere, and record that a 7 was thrown (while the actual die may or may not show 7 spots)
    2. Trickery – It is a magicians die that can turn a 5 face into a 7 face
    3. Miracle – The 6 face might miraculously sprout a 7th dot.

    So it is not “impossible”. However, most theistic “miracles” recorded in history likely fall under categories 1 and 2.

  114. Raymond says

    Hang on. I’ll buy 1 and 2, but you would have a whole lot of explaining to do if you want me to buy that 3 is possible.

  115. davidbrunton says

    Has anyone else noticed a considerable correlation between people who are overly formal/polite and really painfully stupid calls?

    It seems like without fail, anyone who calls in and keeps calling the male host,sir…or who opens with some variant of “good evening gentlemen.” ends up in some tired, pedantic painfully boring call where they just argue in circles and don’t even listen to what they are being told.

  116. says

    I very much liked Tracie’s thought experiment with the dice. It was a great illustration of a thought I have been trying to find a way to express. That thought being that theists often try to get atheists to concede that the existence of God is at least possible (and there are even proofs that try to claim that for certain definitions of God, if he’s possible then he must necessarily be actual). But these arguments rely on conflating the ideas of conceivable versus possible. Most people are kinda hazy on the distinction between the two ideas, and since it is conceivable that a given definition of a god might exist, they end up giving away the farm in these arguments by conceding that it’s therefore possible.

    In Tracie’s thought experiment, it’s conceivable that the bag held a combination of dice capable of rolling a 21, so someone who isn’t thinking very precisely about the ideas might believe that means it’s possible to roll a 21. But because the bag only held two 6-sided dice, the conceivable outcome was not actually a possible one. And for all we know, the same might be true of the existence if any given conception of god – while it may be conceivable that they exist, the conditions of the universe are such that it is not actually possible.

  117. scorinth says

    Well, that mental image was _far_ more adorable than it had any right to be… *shiver*

  118. Raymond says

    You see, I would have to disagree to some extent. While it’s true that the universe in question is relevant, we are clearly talking about this universe. So the question of what universe is already answered. We can hypothesize about other universes and their different rules, but it does no good because we don’t live there. And there is no indication that something present in a universe with different rules can impact our universe at all. I actually have a colleague studying the various dimensions not explicit in our universe and how they might be presented in a different universe. It’s all really interesting, but useless for us.

  119. Raymond says

    Actually, upon further reflection, I would not accept 1 either. The die didn’t land on 7. A third party could confirm that the number was just 6.

  120. MatthewLaboratory says

    Even if your bag contained no dice, it is still possible for an exceedingly unlikely confluence of quantum fluctuations to cause virtual particles to assemble three dice from the quantum foam and then role a 21.

  121. Qyandri says

    So, if he is the real Monsignor George R. Demuth he is the 94 year old Pastor Emeritus of the Diocese of Scranton. (Sources linked below; I readily acknowledge that I am a nosy person.)

    I suppose it is possible that he is who he says he is, and is still a troll, but probably not a poe. I think he is a deeply troubled elderly man who finds himself out of control of the situation and perhaps doesn’t realize exactly how rude he has been when he calls in.

    Since the Roman Catholic church puts so much emphasis on the hierarchical nature of the church and the clergy, he is not used to having to justify himself, especially to lowly atheists and children. It must be embarrassing for him. I think he is desperately trying to regain control and authority over the situation. I think he may also suffer from the all to common someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet malady. I have pity for him. I think this must hurt him.

    As far as taking his calls, just as a personal feeling, it hurts to know that a very old man is suffering, even if it is of his own making. If his calls are answered, he looks foolish, but if not, he must feel marginalized like many elderly do. It is a sad state with no way to win.


    Someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet syndrome:

    In 2010, he was 91 and presented Bishop Bambera for ordination.

    In 2010, he lived in Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence retirement home according to their blog for April 26th (last entry on the page).

    Mentioned in the Obituary of Kettel, Andrew:

    Mentioned in the book Framing Faith: A Pictorial History of Communities of Faith by Sarah Piccini, page 27 (I skimmed it on Google Books).

    I suppose he would teach at St. Mary of Mt. Carmel School in Dunmore, but their website is quite unhelpful concerning staff, and not up to date (dates stop in 2012):

  122. Lord Narf says


    Outside of that, he does hog air time. But we only had him and Paul as theist calls–just fyi. The other calls were all atheists.

    Absolutely, if a theistic caller continues to have anything even vaguely interesting to say that’s worth talking about, keep him on as long as he continues to be anything approaching interesting. It’s better than the atheist callers and gets back to the actual point of the show.

    If a theist is being completely nonsensical and unproductive, then dump him, but if someone is arguing in earnest, it’s worth doing, even if you have to go back to the basics of Logic 101. The occasional review is good for the theists who may be watching.

  123. says

    I concede to that point as I am more than sure quite a few of these boneheads hasve aided in converting raitonal theists left and right.

  124. Teribos says

    Don’t use Chaos Theroy here.
    Chaos Theroy means that very small differences in the start variables will cuase massive differences in the end variables. Chaos Theroy itself talks only about absolut deterministic systems. It has nothing to do with randomness.

  125. Andrew Ryan says

    “I hate hypotheticals. How on earth do I know what I’d do in the burning building with a baby and a puppy? ”

    It’s just a thought experiment. A common abortion rights argument is to ask an anti-abortionist what they’d save in a burning laboratory – a baby/young child or two test tubes with a blastocyst in each. It’s just a way of establishing how the other person values. I got the point of the Christian’s question on the show, even if I didn’t agree with where he was coming from. I find it annoying when people try to find loopholes in a hypothetical along the ‘I’d save both’ lines, or when people say the situation in the hypothetical is unrealistic. It’s just a thought experiment!

  126. Lord Narf says

    I find it helps to increase size and quantity. You have an unconscious, 6 year-old girl (using a girl is better for the example, because it triggers the protection-of-women social-instinct) and a freezer full of hundreds of frozen embryos. They’re too big for you to carry both, and the ceiling will probably come down before you can come all the way back for the other. Which do you save?

    I’ve never encountered anyone who wouldn’t save the girl over the hundreds of embryos. Of course I haven’t presented Shilling with the dilemma.

  127. Lord Narf says

    Yeah. If we could possibly know all of the variables, Chaos Theory wouldn’t apply.

  128. Andrew Ryan says

    I don’t make it hundreds, I keep it at two-six. If it was hundreds it makes it easier for people to choose them. Hell, make it a high enough number and I might even have to consider it myself (I don’t see an individual one as having no worth at all).

    Anyway, I HAVE had people say they’ll save the embryos. They get marks for consistency at least. Not much you can say to them when they say they’re going with the test-tubes, just like with the caller’s example of people saving the cat.

  129. Lord Narf says

    Hmm, I’ve never gotten any who said they would go with the embryos, even when I use the example of hundreds to 1. Of course I only have a sample size of something like a dozen. I guess I’ve just gotten the less lunatic ones.

    Well, make it a dozen, then. You just want it to be a sufficient distance away from an even break, for them. I don’t consider a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio to be a sufficient demonstration that they recognize the greater value of a birthed human. Make it 12:1 and you’re good.

    I recognize the value of a single frozen embryo, myself, but I’m not sure you could ever add up enough of them for me to take the freezer. Birth is a rather firm boundary. If we’re talking about someone as developed as a 6 year-old … particularly a girl … forget it.

    And yes, I freely admit to being prejudiced against men, in most ways.

  130. says

    Right. Sell people an opaque bag with a bean bag in it, for $5, and tell them it’s possible the bag contains ingredients to make pancakes, and it’s “buyer beware.” But promise them it’s possible to make pancakes from what is contained in the bag, and you’ve outright lied.

  131. says

    Yes, I think it’s a pretense of formality and confusing that with sounding intelligent. I believe it’s sometimes called “putting on airs.”

  132. says

    To claim something is possible, you have to cough up that you know what is required to achieve it, and that you have the most basic criteria for achieving it met. If I tell someone I’m selling them a bag that contains ingredients from which it’s possible to make a cake, and the bag contains a cat toy–I’ve lied. The bag must, at that point, contain basic cake making ingredients. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t possible to bake a cake from the ingredients of the bag.

    In conversations about god, the question is: What are the basic criteria that need to be met for gods to be possible? How do we know this? And can we say they’re met?

    This is what people assume you mean when you call a thing possible–that whatever it takes to achieve X is available in reality.

  133. says

    Actually, they’re trying to accuse the atheist of equivocating in that example. The response the theist gives is an error of “special pleading.”

    “My god is not like a unicorn…because it’s in a special class of god…just because.”

    I even had one person say the difference was that god had explanatory function–god is said to have “created” things–while unicorns have no such functions in the minds of people. This distinction has ZERO bearing on the concerns being addressed–but red herrings are their specialty. Anything to derail–as you note. So, I immediately swapped from unicorns to gremlins–which are said to be responsible for malfunctioning machinery. At that point, I was like “OK, fixed. Let’s proceed.”

    It’s frustrating to have to address problems that are pure irrelevancies. But they will look at any “difference”–even ones that don’t matter at all to the argument–and press it, hoping to force you off track. It’s intolerable.

  134. says

    You raise a good point. It reminds me that early on in the call George pointed out that Matt defines “faith” sometimes as “gullibility.” But when push came to shove, George basically was left asserting that there is no way to tell reality from fantasy, fact from fiction, valid/justified beliefs from invalid/unjustified ones. And wouldn’t that leave a person “gullible”? If I am inclined to accept anything anyone tells me as just as believable as anything anyone else tells me–to believe things I’m confronted with as similarly valid, irrespective of validity of the evidence or interpretation of the evidence…isn’t that a gullible position? I’m describing a situation where I have NO filter that helps me differentiate between truth and falsehood. What is that, if not gullibility?

  135. says

    The only issue I have with court analogies, and where they fail badly, is that they present a situation where people are forced to make a decision. You either have to say you’re convinced, or that you aren’t. You don’t get to walk out without voting one way or the other. In nearly all other areas of life, it doesn’t work this way when someone is asking you to believe a thing. So, for example, if someone asks “do you believe in Big Foot?” You can just say “No. The evidence doesn’t compel me, and so I will wait for better evidence.” And the consequences of that are nothing. But if you are forced to review evidence at trial, there are “degrees” of doubt you’re told you can work within, and if you “aren’t sure,” and you’ve made an error or overlooked something key–you could be releasing a rapist back onto the streets.

    In religion, esp the Abrahamic religions, this is where hell comes in — Pascal’s Wager, and “what if you’re wrong?” They work hard to manufacture consequences and a scenario where so much is at stake. They actually–the believers–view it more like a courtroom scenario, and not like the rest of the decisions they make in real life. To a skeptic, they have to accept the claim before “hell” can become threatening. So, they don’t view the threats as relevant–without having justification to think what is threatening exists as real. But to the believer, who views it as real, they can’t grasp how you don’t feel pressured, how you don’t see you HAVE to make a decision.

    There is even a hymn that expresses this really well, called “Have you counted the cost?”

    There’s a line that is drawn by rejecting the Lord,
    Where the call of His Spirit is lost,
    And you hurry along with the pleasure-mad throng,
    Have you counted, have you counted the cost?
    Have you counted the cost, if your soul should be lost,
    Though you gain the whole world for your own?
    Even now it may be that the line you have crossed,
    Have you counted, have you counted the cost?
    (“Have You Counted the Cost?” by A. J. Hodge, 1923).

    This is how children are raised in fundamentalist religions. They’re taught that they HAVE to confront this question. That is is the MOST important question you will ever have to answer. And they are taught if they don’t answer it with belief–they will suffer…so why not just believe, and then you don’t have to worry about possibly making a HUGE mistake–the BIGGEST most HORRIBLE, permanent, irrevocable mistake of your life?!

  136. says

    > (we do happen to know that something exists beyond our current ability to measure (dark energy/matter, other dimensions (in a physics sense, not the sci-fi sense))).

    Just to be clear, Dark Matter is a label for a hypothesis applied to a *measurable* effect. The model may be imperfect, but it is used to explain an effect that actually manifests:

    > … its existence and properties are inferred from its gravitational effects on visible matter, radiation, and the large-scale structure of the universe.

    How this would translate in a religious context would be if someone said “I think ‘god’ is whatever created the universe–whatever that turns out to be.” No matter what turned out to be the “cause” of that effect, the person would tailor the model to fit the manifesting facts and evidence and accept the outcome as evidence driven–and call it god. The Dark Matter model is similar in that it is put forward as an idea to help explain something that is observed. To call anything “existent” that cannot be measured or identified in some way as being different than nothing is incorrect and premature.

  137. says

    As far as other dimensions, I am not aware that has been demonstrated as true that they “exist”. But if it has been, then a demonstration of it would be required. Put forward without a capacity to falsify, I’m at a loss as to how it would stand as demonstrated or true?

    Even Einstein–using paperwork to show relativity, realized that a demonstration/test was required. And he went to great lengths to test and demonstrate it. Having a sheet full of forumlas was not sufficient, because the only way to know those formulas were truly an accurate reflection of reality, was to test them against reality.

  138. says


    1.a baked food having a filling of fruit, meat, pudding, etc., prepared in a pastry-lined pan or dish and often topped with a pastry crust: apple pie; meat pie.
    2.a layer cake with a filling of custard, cream jelly, or the like: chocolate cream pie.

  139. says

    >I don’t know that I rule out the possibility of existence beyond space and time

    If someone says it’s possible, and someone does not accept that–they are not “ruling it out.” I don’t have to say I know it’s impossible to say I don’t accept a claim it’s possible. The dice in the bag demonstrated that.

    Matt could not say how many dice were in the bag, and therefore was not able to assess if they could be used to roll a 21 OR NOT. In other words, he would reject the claim that “It’s impossible to roll a 21 with the dice in the bag,” AND the claim “It’s possible to roll a 21 with the dice in the bag.” Neither claim is justified. Neither is “ruled” out, either. Both possibilities exist–but neither is justified because we have insufficient data to be able to assess which applies.

  140. says

    In the end, the person saying that things can exist outside of time and space–that such existence IS possible–needs to show his/her work. How do they know it’s possible?

  141. EnlightenmentLiberal - formerly codemonkey says

    Correction: And have an insane amount of computing power. Like, for some examples, a computer bigger than the observable universe.

  142. changerofbits says

    To theists, the “possible” questions also seem to assume we accept a definition of god that pulls in some supernatural realm or something that is extra-real (beyond just plain ol’ reality), which seems to give them the license to just “magic in” any possibility they can imagine. In the bag/ingredients/cake analogy, it’s like theists assume the bag is “Asgard Matter Conversion Technology”*, which can just create anything the owner of the bag wants it to create. In any case, we don’t accept that any such thing really exists.

    * From: Stargate SG-1

  143. Qyandri says

    Ooh, I think I hear it in Miles (although, not so much for Stotch). How cowardly of him then, to take the name of 94 year old man and make a fool of him. Even if Msgr. George R. DeMuth is a Catholic priest, and I have no love for that institution, it is a horrible thing to impersonate someone in that way.

  144. says

    Just a comment on the opening of the call with Paul from Pottsville, PA. It is not the case that as he said, and Matt I think conceded (I think), that “everything has been evolving the same amount of time.” This is not the case. It is possible (and I’d say most probable) that most life that has graced this rock we now call Earth, did evolve from a single evolutionary ancestor if you go back far enough. Whatever that ancestor may be (it could have simply been a chemical reaction that self replicated).

    But it doesn’t mean that all that life has been evolving “the same amount of time.” Evolution occurs when a trait arises in a population. At some point, something occurs to that population that causes that trait to be emphasized within a population. Over time, it becomes so pronounced (along with other traits) that they are no longer the same species (traditionally this was held at the point when they could no longer reproduce, but that’s not really so cut and dry).

    Its more correct to say, a species has been evolving since the first point at which said characteristics arose within a population. Or to be really specific, when said genotype arose in a population. Because to tie in to the whole, “is it possible” theme of this episode, that species was not possible until that allele formed. From then, it required an external event to “select” for that allele, for it to propagate and ultimately derive a new species.

  145. says

    I also think it a form fgressiveness, like, “If I kill them with kindness they won’t attempt to refute my arguments”…like calling a woman “darlin” rigth before you insult her.

  146. Raymond says

    Now that is stretching probability beyond the limit. As a budding physicist, I think that we can safely say that is not possible. I have been in an ongoing debate with my quantum mechanics professor about something very similar, and have been convinced about certain things. That just happens to be one of them. Of course if you could provide some supporting evidence of any macroscopic object ever being spontaneously created, I would love to read it and continue the argument with my professor.

  147. Paul Wright says

    I did say that, but then lumped in a disclaimer by alluding to the point that technically we can not rule it out. I know this may look like hypocrisy but this is just my rational way of trying attach probability to such things. I think it’s a lot like the orbiting teapot analogy. We can not disprove it, but we can safely assume it’s not there. Having said all that, my mind is not closed to either the orbiting teapot or a transcendent god, I would still change my view based on any new evidence.

  148. Lord Narf says

    Yeah. Essentially, we’re talking about a probability that is so low that it’s unlikely to have ever occurred in the last 13 billion years, anywhere in the universe. Nor is it likely to occur in the next few spans of 13 billion years.

    Is it possible? Sure. Is it probable that it will ever happen anywhere in this universe? No.

    We can get rocks and topography (or burned toast) to form into a shape that’s vaguely close enough to something for our pattern-seeking brains to identify it as that thing, but an actual perfect form of a manufactured item, made up of the correct chemical composition … yeah, not happening.

  149. EnlightenmentLiberal - formerly codemonkey says

    Tracie. Others have touched on this, but let me try my own way.

    As Dennett says, we are future manufacturers. We manufacture predictions of “possible” futures. We take in information, construct models, and produce predictions of futures which can cannot discount, and we assign relative probabilities to the best of our abilities to those futures.

    This is true even if hard LaPlace determinism is true. We have limited information, limited time, limited measuring capabilities, and limited computing power. So, even if hard LaPlace determinism is true, we still need to manufacture futures and assign relative probabilities, probabilities that exist only in our ignorance.

    Let’s use your example of a d6 (a conventional six sided die). You ask “if and when I next roll this d6, is it possible to get a 6 [have the die end with the 6 “face” facing upwards]?”. You answer “it is possible”. However, it may not be possible by your definitions of terms. We may be able to calculate that it will be a 5. Practically, if we defined a specific d6 rolling machine, and did exact measurements and calculations, this is even plausible to do in practice. Only in our ignorance of the terrain, of how you are going to roll it (a possibly answerable question, hard LaPlace determinism or not), only in ignorance can you say that it’s possible. You haven’t demonstrated that you will. Only in your ignorance can you say that it’s “possible”, a future which cannot be discounted with known information.

    If “possible” is to mean anything, it is to mean futures which we cannot discount, which remain plausible futures in our ignorance.

    Thus, if you ask me if it’s “possible” get a sum of 7 on the next roll of all d6 from a bag, and I do not know how many dice are contained in the bag, then my off-the-cuff answer is that it is “possible” because that is a future which I cannot yet discount. It remains in the set of “possible” futures because of my ignorance.

    I understand what you’re trying to get at, and I really appreciate it, but I think you’re off the mark in your formalization.

    I think you’re trying to say that we know that physical things exist, and we have precedent for such things. However, we have no precedent that non-physical things like gods can interfere in our material world, that they can have material causal power. Furthermore, we even have decent evidence against such things existing, in the usual sense of Sagan’s garage dragon essay. Thus, we want the theist to demonstrate that such things are even “possible”. Specifically, we want a demonstrate that anything in this category – non-material things with material causal power – exists. Dunno. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Sorry.

  150. unfogged says

    In the first example of it being possible to roll a 6 when careful measurements prove that it will be a 5 you’ve added the restriction that it is the next roll and you’ve added the requirement that she does roll a 6. That’s similar to Laura Lou asking about the existence of somebody who wants to bake the pie. It is totally pertinent to whether or not a 6 is actually rolled or a pie is actually baked but I don’t see it changing the answer to whether or not it is possible.

    To put it another way, you are completely right that saying something is possible is always with regard to an unknown. If you have complete information about something, regardless of when it existed or will exist, then you can answer with certainty that it either is or is not. That is a very different question than whether or not something is possible and Tracie’s example is good because for all practical purposes we can not predict the roll of a die except under very extremely controlled circumstances. Could we rig up a machine that always rolls a 5? Sure. Does that change the fact that it is possible to roll a 6 with the same die? No. (Thanks for the clear description by the way; thinking about possibility requiring ignorance that way was a new angle that I’ll need to think more about.)

    When asked if it is possible to roll a 7 from an unknown number of standard dice you can only say that it is possible with the caveat that at least 2 and more more than 7 are used. The possibility must be coupled with the stipulation for it to have any meaning.

    To say a god is possible really doesn’t make sense because we do not know what stipulations would allow it to be possible or would require the possibility to be ruled out. We simply don’t have any criteria by which to judge the situation.

  151. EnlightenmentLiberal - formerly codemonkey says

    Consider this argument:

    1- It is possible that the bag contains 2d6. — I think this is a non-controversial position.

    2- If the bag contains 2d6, then it is possible to roll a 7. — This is a non-controversial position.

    3- If ((X is possible), and ([X is true] implies [Y is possible])), then (Y is possible). — This follows from my definition of “possible”. If we’re merely talking about futures which can cannot discount from known evidence, in other words futures which we assign a non-zero expectation to experience, then premise 3 directly follows from the definition. If a situation X cannot be ruled out, and if a situation Y cannot be ruled out under known information if X has been demonstrated to be true, then it follows that under our current knowledge we cannot rule out Y.

    4- Thus, it is possible to roll a 7 with the dice in the bag.

    To me, it seems that Tracie is left in an absurd position. She rejects the conclusion, but it seems to me absurd to reject any premise, and it seems absurd to reject the validity of the argument.

    She could say that it’s incorrect to say it’s possible that the bag contains 2d6. I would frown heavily at that. From my perspective of ignorance, of course the bag may contain 2d6, e.g. it’s possible the bag contains 2d6.

    She could say that my premise 3 is wrong, and I would be curious what definition of “possible” she is using which wouldn’t include premise 3. I expect the controversy would be over this premise. I think the problem is that Tracie and you unfogged are using a mere colloquial understanding of “possible”, whatever happens to be your gut impression of how to apply it. So, I have to ask you and Tracie, what definition of “possible” are you using? I suggest word taboo on the word “possible”.
    I’ve give my very explicit definition: A future is possible in the perspective of a future predictor if the predictor cannot discount it. Equivalently, a future is possible in the perspective of a future predictor if the predictor assigns a non-zero (or non-trivial) expectation or a relative probability that it will experience that future.

  152. says

    As for the whole dice demonstration… I’d put it this way (before the revelation of what was actually in the bag)…
    “Given what we know, it is possible that it is possible to roll an 18.”

  153. says

    >If ((X is possible), and ([X is true] implies [Y is possible])), then (Y is possible).

    ONLY if criteria-X is met. This is what you are missing. If X is not met, Y is quite IMPOSSIBLE. If X is there, Y is possible. The only way to know if Y is possible or impossible, then, is to know the status of X. Do you know the status of X? If not, then you don’t know Y is possible. It could just as well be impossible.

    If X is not met, and Y depends on X, then Y is impossible. Do we know X is met? No. Then we are not able to assess Y as possible or impossible.

    I can sell you a bag saying “It is possible this bag contains items that can be used to make pancakes.”

    That is true regardless of what is in the bag. Even if it contains cat toys and a pencil.

    But if I sell you a bag promising, “It is possible to make pancakes with what is in this bag,” and it contains a few cat toys and a pencil, that’s not correct, and I have lied, because the items in the bag must match specific criteria in order to make my claim here true, and they do not.

    When we open the bag and find cat toys and a pencil, you must now demonstrate and explain how it’s possible to make pancakes with those items, because that is what you said was possible. You stated that it is possible to make pancakes with what is in the bag. So, you’re declaring that with the specific items in the bag–whatever is in the bag–it’s possible to make pancakes.

    Let me know how your cat toy and pencil pancakes come out.

  154. says

    >If “possible” is to mean anything, it is to mean futures which we cannot discount, which remain plausible futures in our ignorance.

    Yes, and if X is not met, we can discount future Y. Can you demonstrate X is met?

    We can, I agree, have a situation where we believe a thing is possible, and it’s actually impossible, due to not knowing what we don’t know. In other words, what if a criteria X exists that would make Y impossible, but we are not aware of it and we assess our criteria and believe we have everything we need to make Y a possible outcome. And we call it “possible.” In that case, we are wrong, due to ignorance. And the fact is, Y was never possible, and our assessment it was possible was never correct. It was always impossible.

    In situations, then where we are aware we don’t know all the necessary criteria–we can’t say “it’s possible.” And likewise, in situations where we know we have contingencies, we must add those contingencies:

    “Y is possible, IF AND ONLY IF X is true.”

    So, to say “It’s possible to make pancakes with what is in the bag–if and only if it contains pancake making items,” would be correct. But simply declaring it’s possible to make pancakes with what is in the bag (without that caveat), is not justified. You’re trying to say “Y is possible” is justified, without declaring the contingency–or in cases where we admit to unknowns, and that’s not right. You would have to declare those caveats in order to make the statement true.

    And if you don’t know what you don’t know, and erroneously assess it as possible, the belief it’s possible may be justified, but still wrong–which I would find acceptable.

    With the claim “god is possible”–we need an understanding of what unknowns or contingencies that relies upon in order to assess it. Simply claiming we know nothing of the unknowns or contingencies, does not justify “it’s possible”–because far too much information is missing to make an assessment.

  155. says

    I am generally accepting of any theistic argument that justifies belief in fairies. My general response would be to note “by that argument, belief in god is justified as much as belief in fairies, can we agree on that?” At the point they have to agree to that, they’ve lost all credibility.

  156. unfogged says

    3….. If a situation X cannot be ruled out, and if a situation Y cannot be ruled out under known information if X has been demonstrated to be true, then it follows that under our current knowledge we cannot rule out Y.
    4- Thus, it is possible to roll a 7 with the dice in the bag.

    Your point 4 does not follow because you have dropped the “if X has been demonstrated to be true” caveat. It should read:
    4- Thus, it is possible to roll a 7 with the dice in the bag IF THE BAG CONTAINS 2 D6

    Not being able to rule out X as a possibility is the reason you can’t show that Y is impossible. It is not sufficient to be able to make an unqualified claim that Y is possible.

    And on further reading I see that Tracie already made the point…

  157. says

    Not only that, but I also want to add this:

    The other problem is almost a sort of equivocation happening:

    Example 1: A six can be rolled with a standard die. Although some types of rolls will make the outcome six impossible. So, we need the right roll to get a six to come up—but it will come up with the right roll, using this die.

    Example 2: It is possible to bake pancakes with this box full of pancake mix. Although if you don’t have a heat source, the outcome of pancakes would be impossible. But if you have a heat source, you can create pancakes with this mix.

    But look how it works with this next example, which is what EL is describing:

    Example 3: Pancakes can be baked with what is in the box. What is in the box is cat toys and a pencil.

    Under what circumstances would pancakes be an outcome of ingredients “cat toys and a pencil”? It’s not that some criteria make that impossible in some instances, and other criteria make it possible. It’s not possible. And not knowing what is in the box doesn’t suddenly make the impossible, possible. It makes it not assessable until you can confirm what’s in the box..

  158. mike says

    @ Leeloo

    The “Sir” stuff gets annoying, but he also refers to everyone by their full names, ie Mathew, Donald, Jeffrey. Now I’m pretty sure Matt’s full name is Mathew but Don and Jeff have always been referred to as such so calling them in their full names is actually quite condescending IMO. Its not unlike being introduced to a “Robert” `then saying “Hi Bob, or Hi Robbie” ! Its not their names!

  159. says

    Yep–even my Atheist bashing hubby loves her. I think she needs to go on FOX news as a pundit, she is so unflappable and all about facts. Hannity or O’Rielly would start to blow gaskets and she would remain on point.

  160. EnlightenmentLiberal - formerly codemonkey says

    I’m sorry. I didn’t see a clear answer in there. Is your position that it is possible that the bag contains 2d6, and it is incorrect to say it’s possible that you can roll a 7 with the dice in the bag?

  161. EnlightenmentLiberal - formerly codemonkey says


    The argument is:
    1- premise: A is possible
    2- premise: A is true -> B is possible
    3- premise: (A is possible and (A is true -> B is possible)) -> (B is possible)
    4- by conjunction introduction on 1 and 2: (A is possible and (A is true -> B is possible))
    5- by modus ponens on 3 and 4: B is possible

    In other words:
    1- premise: D
    2- premise: E -> F
    3- premise: (D and (E -> F)) -> F
    4- by conjunction introduction on 1 and 2: D and (E -> F)
    5- by modus ponens on 3 and 4: F

    This is symbolic logic 101. This shouldn’t be up for dispute.

    Now, if you want, you can dispute premise 3. I already said that is probably the controversial premise.

    However, I am quickly losing interest in this, because it seems that both you and Tracie are unwilling to define terms, which makes this a rather uninteresting and frustrating argument over definitions.

    I am sure that you are right under a suitable definition of possible. I would like to explore that definition, because it seems to be to be completely arbitrary, e.g. you treat one piece of ignorance as an allowed piece of ignorance to conclude that something is possible, but another piece of ignorance is not allowable. e.g.: in your ignorance of what may be a deterministic question of the next die roll, you are willing to say that it’s possible that the next roll will be a 6, but in your ignorance of the bag contents, you are not willing to say it’s possible that a sum of 7 can be rolled from the dice in the bag.

  162. unfogged says

    The argument is:
    1- premise: A is possible
    2- premise: A is true -> B is possible
    3- premise: (A is possible and (A is true -> B is possible)) -> (B is possible)
    4- by conjunction introduction on 1 and 2: (A is possible and (A is true -> B is possible))
    5- by modus ponens on 3 and 4: B is possible

    The conclusion is only true if all the premises are true so “B is possible” is contingent on “A is possible” and “A is true”. As KWilk215 said, it is possible that it is possible. When faced within a bag containing an unknown number of d6 you can not know that it is possible to roll a 7 with the contents, only that if some conditions turn out to be true it would be possible.
    I understand what you are saying and I agree that in general discussion it is fair to say that it would be possible since there are conceivable cases where it is possible. The point is that you can’t actually know that if is possible without knowing the conditions that allow it to be possible and you can’t claim that it really is possible without knowing that those conditions are met.

  163. unfogged says

    Let me try to clarify my position this way: somebody comes to me with 4 claims:
    a. I can roll a 7 using a single standard d6
    b. I can roll a 7 using the two standard d6 that I have
    c. I can roll a 7 with the standard d6 that I have in this bag
    d. There is a god
    Faced with claim A my response is that it is impossible. I flatly deny that this can be done.
    Face with claim B my response is that it is possible. I can’t say how long it will take or if it will, in fact, ever actually occur but there is no reason to deny the possibility. That gets back to your earlier comments about claims of possibility involving some degree of ignorance which is true but with the information available to me I must conclude that it is possible.
    Faced with claim C my response is that I can’t rule it out so I can’t say it is impossible but I do not have enough information so I also can’t say that it is possible. I remain neutral on the question. They respond that if it isn’t impossible then that means it must be possible. I’ll grant that only if they agree to the stipulation that they have at least 2 and no more than 7 standard d6. I can’t make a blanket statement that it is possible in this specific case without the additional information. Not being able to make the positive claim that it is impossible does not automatically mean I must grant that it is possible.
    Faced with claim D my response is the same as C. I do not have any evidence that would allow me to conclude that it is impossible but that does not mean I have to agree that it is possible. The common notion that anything that isn’t known to be impossible must therefore be possible is not valid.

  164. says


    I would go further.

    The claim “X is possible” is the same as saying “X is not impossible”–since nothing can be both possible and impossible. In any situation where I declare a thing “possible” I am asserting that, as far as the known factors that can impact this outcome, I can say with as much certainty as that provides, that this outcome is NOT impossible. And in the case of the unknown contents, the person asserting they can rule out “impossible” has not actually done so–not even to the pragmatically reasonable degree of “as far as the factors we’re aware of.”

    >Faced with claim C my response is that I can’t rule it out so I can’t say it is impossible but I do not have enough information so I also can’t say that it is possible. I remain neutral on the question. They respond that if it isn’t impossible then that means it must be possible. I’ll grant that only if they agree to the stipulation that they have at least 2 and no more than 7 standard d6. I can’t make a blanket statement that it is possible in this specific case without the additional information. Not being able to make the positive claim that it is impossible does not automatically mean I must grant that it is possible.

    Well, when you say it does not mean you *must grant* that it is possible, this is where I go further, specifically. The person who declares “It is possible (and therefore cannot be impossible), to roll a 7 with whatever combo of die/dice are in the bag”—has a burden of proof in this case. What they are saying is that they have ruled out “impossible.”

    When I say “X is possible,” I have just declared that “X is not impossible.” If I then open that bag, and find one die—with 6 standard sides, I’m proven wrong. I simply assumed, for some reason, that there could not be just one die in the bag. But I don’t know how I could have assumed that, as I *knew* before making my assessment, that outcome had not been ruled out, and as long as it was in play, it made my claim incorrect. In other words, if there is a single-sided die in this bag—I am wrong, because it is *impossible* to roll a 7 with what is in the bag. It’s not just the outcome I didn’t get *this time*…there is NO outcome that would allow me to possibly roll a 7 with the single die. So, I assessed an impossible situation as “possible” because I simply assumed that the impossible scenario could be discounted, without actually having any reason to do so.

    What I saw being overlooked in the earlier posts, is that this is NOT the same as asserting that sometimes you won’t roll a 6 with a six-sided die. Yes, there are parameters where a six-sided die won’t come up 6. But it *can* come up six. That outcome is not *impossible*, if you have a six-sided die. There are circumstances which allow for a roll outcome of six. Even if you don’t roll a six, that is not a demonstration that rolling a six is an impossibility—just that it was not this outcome.

    However, when I say “It is possible to roll a 7 with what is in the bag,” and we reveal a single 6-sided die in the bag—I have declared I can roll a 7 with that. under the right circumstances. The standard 6-sided die is “what is in the bag”–and I said it was not impossible to roll a 7 with “what is in the bag.” And I’m wondering what those circumstances would be that would allow for a 7 in this case, because to me, that seems quite impossible.

    If I call a thing “possible,” I am not declaring it will occur, but I very much am declaring that I have, as far as I know, ruled out the potential that it is impossible. And in the case of not knowing what is in the bag—I have not met this burden when I say it’s not impossible to roll a 7 with the contents of this bag. I know there is a circumstance where it will be quite impossible to achieve what I am saying is “possible”: “It is possible to roll a 7 with what *IS* in the bag,” is a false statement *if* the contents are the single die–which I am aware it could be. And if I know the contents could be a single die, and I have not ruled that out—then the claim that it is not impossible to roll a 7 with what is in the bag, is not justified. The contents of the bag could be such that “impossible” is still very much on the table. And ruling that out as a potential reality is premature.

    With a bag of unknown contents, with parameters that can create both “possible” and “impossible” outcomes, I need justification for either claim: the claim it’s possible OR the claim it’s impossible. The claim it’s “possible” means it cannot be impossible. The claim it’s impossible means it cannot be possible. And I don’t see how either can be justified without being able to asses what is in the bag.

    It isn’t that I *sometimes* can / can’t roll a 7 with a six-sided standard die. It’s that I never can. When I say whatever is in that bag can roll a 7 (not that it will, but that it *can*–that it’s possible, and I know it’s NOT impossible, with *whatever* is in the bag), and I know that “what is in the bag” could be one die, then the burden is on me, if it is one die, to show how it’s not impossible to roll a 7 with that.

  165. unfogged says

    Had to read that through a few times to be sure I followed it all… I don’t think you’re really going further, just being much more eloquent and thorough in your description. This is a point that I’d never given a great deal of thought to before but one that I find very interesting. I’ll definitely be thinking about it more and looking out for it in future discussions. Thanks for the kick in the mental butt.

  166. johnnyNoGod says


    I loved this on the show, and had to stay up until I read every single comment and response. Thanks for a brilliant counter to the flip “anything’s possible” that usually signals the bottom of someone’s bag of arguments — a bag whose contents are readily revealed.

  167. xxxxxx says

    Evolution occurs when a trait arises in a population. At some point, something occurs to that population that causes that trait to be emphasized within a population.

    You seem to imply that evolution somehow stops when a species reaches homeostasis — which is not true. The rate of change, to be sure, stalls out — but minute changes still always occur through genetic drift, which is always occuring in some form, even if the species doesn’t effectively change much for millions of years. Evolution is simply defined by changes in gene frequencies within a given population over time. Whether those changes leads to new traits arising (i.e. pheontypical change) or not (as in the case of a molecular mutation that permanently changes, say, a codon in a particular gene for all future generations, but the new codon still codes for the same amino acid as the old codon did, thus no proteins are changed) is inconsequential; evolution is still occuring in both cases. As long as organisms reproduce, gene frequencies will forever change, if not through natural selection then through genetic drift, at the very least. So, even though the rate of change varies substantially, the time frame over which those changes span, as was said and to which Matt agreed, is “the same amount of time” for every lineage alive today.

  168. xxxxxx says

    I love the episodes best that give me something to chew on for a while — and this one was one of those episodes. However, I hope my time mulling doesn’t make me too late to the picnic. Anyway…

    I think the “sophisticated theologian (ST)” that we hear so much about but never really see materialize, would see your presentation of the dice in a bag analogy argument as a straw man argument for a number of reasons. First, I think they would easily conceed that only a fool thinks “anything is possible” given the preponderance of examples anyone might describe of things that are clearly impossible (i.e. seven sided cubes, a sphere with vertices, etc.). As such, to extend the analogy then, the sums the dice in the bag can potentially generate thus represent only those things that are possible, and those sums that cannot be generated are thus things like spheres-with-vertices impossibilities. So I think the SP would discount the secondary point about “anything is possible” idea often ascribed to religious people as not including the patently impossible but merely that “with God anything is possible” means one may change any possible roll of the dice to any other possible roll of the dice.

    Secondly (and more germane to the main argument) I think the SP would object to their discriptions of God possibilities being equivalent to picking a definitie number — such as 18 ro 21 or 142. Instead, I believe they would insist, while the common leity may often fall prey to this mistake, their ideas of God are never presented in such a definite way as to justify the anology of a definite value, like 21, with their God claims. A specific sum in this anology, in the eyes of the ST, would likely be more apropos to representing a definite possible thing, like a material thing like trees (i.e. a sum that ends up being possible and actually rolled by the dice in the bag) or a space alien from Mars (i.e. a sum that ends up being still possible but perhaps never rolled) rather than their God. And those sums that are wholly impossible because we end up having too many or too few dice to generate such sums, would strictly represent those things that violate the laws of logic — and in ST circles (as we all know) the definitions of God generally, while vague and indiscrete, usually have the sophistication to stay within the bounds of reasonable possibilities (i.e God is not so powerful as to be able to make a hamburger so big he, in his omnipotence, cannot consume). In short, SPs would agree with you, God cannot be represented by a specific sum, like 21, since we don’t know how many dice are in the bag.

    That said, however, I imagine the STs would point out that there are a number of things we can still infer about the possible values of these unknown dice without knowing how many dice you may have in that bag. That is to say, we can still hypothesize about what is possible — and that their definitions of God fit more in line with this kind of category than with a definite value like 21. For example, for any set of dice (excluding the null set of no dice, and the solipsistic case of a single die == just for simplicity) there will always be a highest sum possible, would there not? Moreover, that highest value will always be made of all sixes on the dice. Additionally, this sum (along with the lowest possible sum of all ones), is one of only two sums that will have a wholly unique set of individual dice rolls underlying them — that is to say there is only one specific roll of the dice, no matter how many dice we have, where we get the highest sum (and another specific roll where we have the lowest). All other sums have two or more patterns of dice that compose them. Moreover all the possible sums will always produce a miraculously perfect bell curve no matter how many dice we have in the bag. Lastly, as a unique roll of the dice, the highest sum (a roll of all 6’s) is also going to be the least probable of all the possible rolls (tied to a roll of all 1’s) distinguishing these two values as the most unique sums out of all that are possible.

    So, in the world of the ST, I would think they would far more likely insist their God claims are more in line with these list of claims about the highest possible sum; especially since, superficially, it has a direct parallel to St. Anselm’s definition of God as a being “which nothing greater can be conceived.” Hence your equating of a deifite value, like 21, to their God claims would likely be seen as a straw man to them. They would likely agree with your point that simply not being able to show impossibility doesn’t imply automatic possibility, but they would also insist that that is not the actual argument they are making. They are not insisting upon a definite value as possible, but rather, their idea of possibility is based upon what we can strictly deduce about the world (or the bag of six-sided dice) even though we don’t know everything about it.

    Anyway, that’s my “God’s advocate” position for you and the rest of the peanut gallery on this subject.

  169. Marcelo says

    I think that you cannot say that God is possible and deny its existence, because for a being defined as necessary, if he is possible, then he must exist (Leibniz).

    So, the only way to be an atheist is to deny the very essence of God. God is impossible, because (among many other arguments that I have no time nor enough skills to translate into English) his very definition is contradictory.

  170. says

    really interesting comment. but I wonder why you switch from ST to SP to ST to SP, etc. You mean a SP (you mean a sophisticated philosopher?) is a ST and a SP is a ST? hmmm

  171. Lord Narf says

    Your definitions are all kinds of messed up.

    For one thing, defining a being as necessary does not make him so. That’s a bullshit tactic similar to the ontological argument or presuppositional apologetics. You have to justify your assertion that a god is necessary. I’ve never seen a theist do that.

    So, the only way to be an atheist is to deny the very essence of God.

    Wrong. An atheist is someone who rejects the claim that a god exists. That can … but does not necessarily … include the additional claim that gods to not exist. The base atheist position is that theists have not sufficiently supported their claims about their god, and it’s foolish to accept wild claims without a hell of a lot of evidence.

  172. xxxxxx says

    Oops, sorry — any/all occurances of SP are merely bizarre typos of my silly shorthand/abbreviation, ST….

    …you see, I was taught to type by the one monkey fired from the group of ten-thousand put to task for all eternity in an effort to see if they might randomly recreate the complete works of William Shakespeare….

  173. Corwyn says

    There is a bit of ambiguity that I think renders this argument too unclear to be useful for its intended purpose:

    It is easy to see if you replace ‘possible’ with ‘the probability of’. A thing is possible if its probability is non-zero. We can thus compute the probability of rolling a 7 with what is in the bag:

    P(sum of dice =7) = P(1 die) * 0 + P(2 dice) * 1/6 + P(3 dice) * 15/216 + P(4 dice) * 20/1296 + P(5 dice) * 15/7776 + P(6 dice) * 6/46656 + P(7 dice) * 1/279936 + p(8 dice) * 0.

    This is non-zero, if P(2 dice) + p(3 dice) + p(4dice) + p(5 dice) + P(6 dice) + P(7 dice) =/= 0.

    So your question of “is it possible to roll a 7 with the dice currently in this bag?” is another way of saying “Is it possible that this bag currently holds between 2 and 7 dice?” Those two statements are equivalent. I maintain that that is possible. Opening that bag and saying ‘Ha, only 1 die’ misses the point. It doesn’t make 2-7 not possible (before disclosure), it just makes them not realized.

    Regardless of whether you agree with this analysis, it is a reasonable interpretation of your demonstration, and thus the demonstration is not as clear cut as it needs to be to communicate what your are trying to get across.

    Thank You Kindly.

  174. Corwyn says

    “Or is it more correct to say “we can’t say if it’s possible or not, because we don’t have sufficient information”?”

    No. Probability is all about making statements given insufficient information. That is why we invented it to begin with. We can assign what we think are reasonable probabilities for various unknowns and calculate probabilities from that.

  175. says

    I don’t Corwyn. When we say a normal die has a 1/6 chance of coming up 3, we know a fair bit of information. The situation described above is not really similar to that.

  176. says

    I don’t know, Corwyn. When we say a normal die has a 1/6 chance of coming up 3, we know a fair bit of information. The situation described above is not really similar to that.

  177. thogosha says

    A way to get random uncertainty and better than an D&D back to dice.

    Gaussian Random Number Generator

    This form allows you to generate random numbers from a Gaussian distribution (also known as a normal distribution). The randomness comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs. The form uses a Box-Muller Transform to generate the Gaussian distribution from uniformly distributed numbers.

  178. Corwyn says

    I can find the probability of someone getting cancer, of the likelihood of my hard disk crashing today, of who will win the presidential election, which links Google should give you in response to your query… If you are only using probability for dice, you are missing most of it.

  179. says

    Yes, all those examples are similar to the die example. They’re not similar to example given on the show when we have none of the information needed to calculate probability or even possibility.

  180. says

    No, all of your examples include various knowns, not unknowns, and use that data in models/algorithms/heuristics based on the nature of the problem at hand to establish the probability of something. Take the Drake equation, there are some of those values that are unknown, for instance we have only one datapoint on life arising at this point. While I think it helps us understand the problem, and we can pontificate and argue about the unknowns, that doesn’t give us a realistic number for the probability of an earth sized planet in the Goldilocks zone around some other star will have life.

  181. Corwyn says

    If you look back to 31.1 you can find where I DID compute the probability. And show that the statement is equivalent to the probability that there are between 2 and 7 dice in the bag. I maintain that it is possible that the bag contained between 2 and 7 dice. If you wish, prove that it is NOT possible that the bag contained between 2 and 7 dice, that is what is required for your thesis.

    Please don’t think that because _you_ don’t know how to compute the probability, that no one can possibly know. That is an argument from ignorance.

  182. Corwyn says

    “No, all of your examples include various knowns, not unknowns, and use that data in models/algorithms/heuristics based on the nature of the problem at hand to establish the probability of something.”

    This is just wrong. Probability is ONLY about unknowns. If there are only knowns, it is statistics. If you think that who will win an election is known before the election you should go work for fox news. Alternatively, lookup how Google works.

  183. says

    I think we’re just mixing up the actual outcome and the factors needed to establish probability. My apologies, I don’t think I stated this clearly and I agree that the actual outcome of any one event is unknown. But, I’m asserting that the factors that go into determining the probability are knowns (and that they don’t contain unknowns). The factors used and the method used can be flawed for any probability calculation (i.e. a candidates probability of winning an election), but they are based on facts, numbers, statistics, models of the problem, etc that are known. The point is that if we don’t know one of the factors, we can even say if it’s possible or not.

    probability of someone getting cancer

    Calculated based on known data sets of other people who have gotten and not gotten cancer, and the facts about a particular person (genetics, radiation exposure, smoker, diet, etc).

    of the likelihood of my hard disk crashing today

    Based on the physics of how the disk works and the materials and tolerances of it’s pieces, based on past failure rates and atomic theory.

    of who will win the presidential election

    Polling data and models based on expected voter turnout per party. One of the reasons some pollsters thought it would be tight in 2012 at the end is that more Dems came out than they previous elections, a flawed model that didn’t reflect reality. There were pollsters who got much closer to the actual result, but their models and factors might not work in 2016.

    which links Google should give you in response to your query

    Based on your search history, others search history, data on webpages, metadata associated with webpages and many other heuristics about what people are looking for based on a small string of text (one of them, I’m at least convinced of, is to put any hit from wikipedia in the top 10 :o)

    … If you are only using probability for dice, you are missing most of it.

    Yes, but the demonstration wasn’t about the probability of a getting a 1-6 with one roll of one die. It was comparing the probability of god existing to the probability of rolling a 21 given a bag of dice where the number of dice are not known. If the number of dice are known, we can calculate the probability; with 1-3 dice and 22 or more in the bag the probability is 0 (impossible), with 4-21 dice in the bag it’s >0 (possible). The point is we don’t know how many dice there are in the bag so we just can’t say anything about the probability of rolling a 21. It’s like trying to predict cancer without the historical cancer rates, or the disk crashing without knowing what’s inside the disk (maybe God is in there ;o), or not knowing who is on the ballot when predicting an election, or not knowing the text and metadata of half the web when doing a Google search. Sure, we can pontificate and guess and even convince ourselves that we have a good idea about the probability of something, but that doesn’t mean we have a justified reason for it even being possible. I feel like I’m just rewriting Tracie’s OP now.