Counting down from infinity

I had an… interesting visit from what I assume was a creationist about a week ago. I like it when theists show up here. It gives me a chance to practice diplomacy as opposed to my usual unrestrained polemic, which I like to alternate with dismissive mockery when the occasion requires. At first he showed up in the comments of a post that had absolutely nothing to do with anything, so I redirected him to a more appropriate post.

When I was offered the chance to “go first” (a really really bad idea) as to why I thought there were no gods, I expressed my conclusion that, given the available evidence, I could not see anything in the universe that looked like design only explainable through an intelligent agent. Since any theistic belief is predicated on supernatural intervention, I can’t accept any of the downstream conclusions of theism.

I also asked him to agree to abide by some simple rules: don’t skip off when your arguments are refuted, don’t expect me to accept scripture as a reliable source of information, and finally don’t use articles of faith in place of reasoned argument. He agreed to abide by those rules (and I have the folks at The Atheist Experience to thank for that list), which was probably another tactical mistake for him, but he does get kudos from me for being plucky.

After quickly tiring of even pretending to respond to my argument, he quickly pivoted to what I’m sure he thought was a blockbuster question: “do you think you know even 1% of everything?” Now, in the interest of humility, I’m supposed to be self-deprecating about my intelligence, but I will state simply that I’m a pretty smart guy, and I could immediately see the trajectory of this leading question. Kevin (the commenter), was trying to make the following points:

  1. There are an infinite number of things that could possibly be known; therefore,
  2. No human being can know anything; therefore,
  3. Evidence based on observation is invalid, and
  4. There must be a supernatural agent that imparts knowledge, such as it is, to humans

It is an incredibly flimsy ‘god of the gaps’ argument (infinity is a really big number… and therefore God), and while #4 was an innovative spin, it’s still completely invalid.

I tried my best to explain why the argument was flawed, but of course it’s the comments section and it was round 9 of a boxing match between a heavyweight and a Bobo doll, so I was starting to get tired of swinging. I feel like I didn’t give my refutation the words it deserved. Shortly thereafter, Kevin did what theists do: he rattled off a long list of his personal beliefs and then ran away. I was going to let it drop until I read this piece on Pharyngula:

You are a contingent product of many chance events, but so what? So is everything else in the universe. That number doesn’t make you any more special than a grain of sand on a beach, which also arrived at its precise shape, composition, and location by a series of chance events.

And it brought my adventure with Kevin back.

The problem with the kind of reasoning that follows from considering the mathematics of infinity when it comes to human affairs is that it measures things against an entirely lopsided standard. If we measured all distances in Astronomical Units, then human beings would all be of identical height. So would, incidentally, every animal on the planet from bacteria to whales.

In order for this argument to have any kind of clarity, the units of measurement have to be useful in describing differences. It’s why we don’t, for example, commonly express weight in tonnes unless we are talking about shipping containers or elephants, and why we don’t commonly measure atomic weight in kilograms unless we are performing large-scale industrial chemical manufacturing. The standard of measurement should be scaled to the object or concept under consideration.

All the things that could possibly ever be known is not a useful or reasonable metric against which to measure human knowledge. All of the possible permutations of events since the beginning of the universe is not a reasonable metric against which to measure the likelihood of a given event. The comparison drawn is completely meaningless, for the reasons described above, which is what I attempted to convey to my theist visitor.

Even if there was some kind of validity to this line of ‘reasoning’, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. This morning I drank a cup of coffee with breakfast. The likelihood that the particular mix of beans that made up that beverage just happened to be shipped to the Starbucks near my office, that that particular bag just happened to be opened first, that the people coming in before me just happened to order the size and type of drinks that they did – the odds against this are astronomical. Does it therefore follow that Howard Shultz is a dark wizard who directs the course of my life?

Of course not, and just as this argument fails, there is no reason to suppose the existence of a supernatural creator simply because something that seems impossible (when you zoom so far out that looking becomes absurd) happened to occur. Every possible thing that has ever happened or will ever happen is impossible, when viewed through the same lens. Every possible thing that could ever be known is similarly unattainable if we were to foolishly measure human knowledge with the yardstick of the infinite.

I have, over time, lost my zeal for the god debate. One side of the argument shows a dogged insistence on using the most dishonest debate tactics and rampant special pleading – in this case monkeying around with numbers that have nothing to do with the concepts under discussion. If deputized into the service of any other argument in the world, the theist standards for evidence would be found howlingly inadequate, and yet we are admonished at every turn to consider it an important question that we may never have an answer to. My feeling is that it is quite the opposite: the answer is abundantly clear, and we just have to wait until theists finish counting down from infinity.

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  1. Cuttlefish says

    Actually, his premise is wrong. We know from the story of Prak, who was administered too much truth serum and was asked to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. And he did. The bits about the frogs were particularly amusing.

    If Prak could tell “the whole truth”, it could not have been infinite. Your commenter’s assertion that there are an infinite things that could possibly be known is an assertion from faith, and as such violated your third precondition.

  2. Yoritomo says

    I doubt your math. Ever heard of significant digits? I am about 1.2 * 10^(-11) astronomical units long, which is hardly the same as the 10^(-12) astronomical units of a rat (excluding the tail) or the 10^(-17) astronomical units of bacteria. Using units of measurement where the numbers tend to be between 0.1 and 1000 is a matter of convenience, not necessity.

    Even worse, there is a significant difference between events which can happen and still have a probability of zero, and events which have a small non-zero probability. For example, the chance that those specific beans ended up in your morning coffee, while very small, should be non-zero (because the total number of all coffee beans is finite).

    Of course, Kevin’s math is flawed too; one cannot simply divide by infinity. Or more to the point, just because I don’t know a significant portion of all there is to know, there’s no need for the knowledge I do possess to be of supernatural origin. It sure wasn’t God who taught me statistics.

  3. Rob says

    I would add to that argument that if the common presumption that we use a small portion of our brain, then by enlarging our use of it would necessarily cut down that comparative number. My perspective though is that brain does not equal mind. Mind in my view has no boundaries and is omniscient, non-created, and attainable. If there is a God, the monotheistic versions are not it. I would, by my own definition, say namaste….

  4. Randomfactor says

    Besides, it’s equally likely that among the infinity of things still to be learned are books written by an infinite number of chimpanzees definitively both proving and disproving the existence of gods.

    With footnotes.

    The difference between you and your commenter is that faced with the “proof” book you’d convert, and faced with the “disproof” book he’d claim “what do chimps know?” and keep believing.

  5. Vx says

    Man, his argument is broken in much more fundamental ways than that… I mean, just off the top of my head

    1) “1% of everything” is nonsensical mouth flaps!

    I can construct an infinite list of things I know. For example, I can say that I know that I am not two people, or three people or etc… or that 2 = 1 + 1, 4 = 2 + 2, etc… Fundamentally, the facts we know are generated according to rules of inference from any number of premises. So we’re actually comparing multiple sizes of infinity, and, a priori, the set of facts we know is not necessarily ‘smaller’ than the set of all facts. (Infinity is funny that way)

    2) We can try and repair the argument by replacing the premise by “there is an infinite number of things we don’t know”. This still doesn’t work.

    Let’s say I ask you to find a number x such that 1 + x = 5. I claim that the only such number is 4. But there’s an infinite number of other numbers! How can I be completely certain that none of them satisfy the conditions given? Well, if there were any other such number, by the first equation, they would be equal to 5 – 1 = 4.
    Similarly with god, how can we be certain that god is so unlikely given that there are an infinite number of things which might satisfy our conditions? Well, the idea of god has properties, and those properties make it extremely unlikely given what we observe of the universe.
    Yes, there are many things that are true, but that does not mean we have to go through all of them one by one before we can declare something to definitely not be among them. We know things about the set of all things that are true, and from those things we can conclude within reasonable bounds of certainty that the concept of god isn’t among them.

  6. Nomen Nescio says

    there’s an easy, intuitive simile that can be used to shoot down this same line of argument. take a deck of playing cards; shuffle it thoroughly; lay the cards out face up to see what sequence they got shuffled into.

    what were the odds you’d get that exact sequence? one in 52 factorial, which latter is a number 69 decimal digits long starting with an 8 and ending with 12 straight zeroes — i just now used my computer-geekly skills to find that out. i’m pretty sure that number is greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe, but i can’t be bothered to verify that.

    getting unlikely things to happen is trivial. getting specific, predicted unlikely things to happen is another matter, but we can’t know that that’s a necessity for any generic unspecified event to be possible. human existence may not seem like it’s generic or unspecified, but good luck proving that one way or the other — we’d be just as foolish to prematurely assume that it isn’t.

  7. says

    Well, interestingly, as with many of those “final” arguments from believers, the very very best, most damning thing they can ever come up with is “your argument is AS VALID as mine.” This is, of course, untrue. Calling atheism a religion or claiming you are too puny to know the answer doesn’t make their conclusion that they know there is a god as valid as your claim that there is currently no evidence to support a god. But in essence, what they are saying is that they find your argument every bit as valid as their own.

    It is absolutely fine to discuss the limits of human understanding and this is why when atheists and agnostics get together, they sometimes talk about what would constitute “proof” of a god or the limits of what humans can even describe as “knowing” anything. These are interesting philosophical discussions.

    But if your argument is that we are too puny and insignificant to really know the origins and workings of the universe, then you have already refuted the justification for a belief in a god or gods. It’s an argument for the opposing view, not a grande finale to prove one’s point.

  8. Crommunist says

    Any set of “things that can be known” is going to increase with time. At a fixed point there is a finite set, but as conditions change and new random events occur, the possibilities open up. Of course this assumes the possibility of random events that could not be predicted.

  9. Crommunist says

    Yes, decimal places. My point was that this scale is cumbersome and wildly impractical. Not only that, but if you include a number of things that are reasonably measured in AU, the difference in size between a rat and a whale becomes, for all useful purposes, zero.

  10. Crommunist says

    That presumption is false and has been thoroughly debunked.

    The brain/mind thing is word salad.

  11. says

    Did “kevin” ever get around to showing his evidence for the supernatural?? He seemed so keen to present it – he kept dangling that carrot and sounded like he was always one comment away from presenting it.
    But he didn’t did he? He ended up dropping his pants and leaving a big pile of hilter_was_an_atheist with a little pascal’s wager in for good measure. Theists are so cute! 😉

  12. Dunc says

    Calling atheism a religion or claiming you are too puny to know the answer doesn’t make their conclusion that they know there is a god as valid as your claim that there is currently no evidence to support a god.

    And then they always make the second completely unsupportable leap of “reasoning” to assume that, out of the infinite number of possible gods, the one that actually exists just happens to be precisely the one they already believe in.

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