What Christians Disagree About

Synopsis

Some claim that all Christians agree on the ‘important matters’, or something similar. I think this position is only defensible if one is willing to admit that none of the matters outlined below, and a good deal more that are not included here, are deemed to be not ‘important’. Alternatively, one may wish to dub all those who hold contradictory views on some or all of these matters as not being Christians, in which cause it seems that one must be willing to judge a very large fraction of Protestants and Catholics alike, not to mention the various branches of Orthodoxy, to to be non-Christian. I find both of these alternatives to be implausible and very hard to cogently defend. I also think the large degree of disagreement on so many fundamental matters constitutes a serious objection to the notion that Christianity provides a clear and coherent ‘explanation’ for life, the universe, the human condition, etc. For instance, Christians might agree that “mankind is saved from sin through the grace of Christ”, but if there is little agreement what is actually meant by “saved”, “sin”, “grace”, and even what exactly is the nature of “Christ”, then it seems to me that very little explanation of any substance has been provided.

Some things that many intelligent, informed, and apparently faithful Christians disagree about:

The Bible

Which books are the word of God

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_canon#Canons_of_various_Christian_traditions

The degree to which the bible is completely correct or trustworthy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inerrancy

The degree to which the meaning of scripture is clear

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarity_of_scripture

Salvation

The manner by which the atonement of Christ reconciles man to God

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atonement_in_Christianity

Whether the atonement is limited or unlimited in scope

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limited_atonement

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unlimited_atonement

Whether salvation by God is conditional on any act of human will

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_election

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconditional_election

Whether salvation is by faith alone or grace alone, and how these two concepts are related

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_gratia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_fide

Other Doctrinal Issues

The necessity, purpose, and proper mode of baptism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism#Comparative_summary

The nature of Christ

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christology#Post-Apostolic_controversies

The possibility and nature of Christian apostasy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perseverance_of_the_saints

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_preservation_of_the_saints

Whether all events are predestined by God and how this fits with human free will

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predestination

What will happen at the ‘end times’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summary_of_Christian_eschatological_differences

The nature of hell

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_Hell

Whether all souls are immortal or the wicked will cease to exist

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conditional_immortality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annihilationism

Creation and the Fall

The meaning of the Creation account in Genesis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism#Types_of_creationism

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Framework_interpretation_%28Genesis%29

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegorical_interpretations_of_Genesis

The degree to which and manner by which humanity inherits the guilt of Adam’s sin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_sin#Denominational_views

Church and Worshiop

The nature, functions, and proper governance of the Christian church

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesiology

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_church

The appropriate modes of worship

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulative_principle_of_worship

The relationship between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Covenants

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_the_old_covenant

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supersessionism

Ethical Matters

Whether the bible supports or opposes slavery

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_and_Christianity#Christianity.27s_changing_view

God’s position on the morality of homosexuality

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_views_on_homosexuality

God’s position the morality of abortion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_abortion#Protestant_denominations

 

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On Evidence and Truth: Why Reason is our only Hope

Synopsis

In this piece I explain what I consider to be the purpose of evidence, namely that it is the way to distinguish truth from error. I argue that, if our objective is to hold beliefs that are most likely to be true, then evidence and reason are the only methods we should use to form our beliefs. Note: here I am addressing questions of fact, existence, etc. I am not talking about personal preferences or other purely subjective matters, for which reason and evidence are much less useful instruments.

Truth and Reason

What is the purpose of evidence/reason/rationality/etc? What is it for? Why do we bother with it? Why not just believe whatever is convenient, or whatever makes us feel nice, or whatever gives us hope, or whatever is most popular, or whatever those in power tell us to believe? Certainly one can believe on such bases, but there seems to be something very unsatisfactory about such beliefs. Let me outline some premises.

1. Our purpose here (i.e. for this analysis) is to have beliefs that are most likely to be true/accurate/reliable (let’s not quibble on exact words for now)

2. Of the many different possible ways to form beliefs, some are more prone to error than others

3. The least error prone method of forming beliefs is by using reason and evidence (broadly defined)

4. Therefore, we should only form beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence

It should be understood that I advance (3) largely as a matter of definition – that as, I define ‘reason and evidence’ as being those ways of arriving at beliefs which are most consistent with our goal of having true beliefs and avoiding false beliefs. Such ‘reasoning and evidence’ can take many forms, including scientific reasoning, philosophical reasoning, the historical method, legal evidence, naive sensory observation, etc. Needless to say, the specific forms of evidence and modes of reasoning that are applicable can differ considerably from one instance or subject matter to another, nor is it necessarily the case that everything that is claimed to constitute ‘reasons’ or ‘evidence’ is actually worthy of such an appellation, but nonetheless my core thesis stands, namely that it is reason and evidence alone of all the possible modes of belief formation which allow us to form beliefs with a minimum of error. This is not to say that reason and evidence are infallible, or that they can yield certainty. Infallibility and certainty are utterly beside the point. What is crucial, rather, is maximising the chances of finding truth and minimising those of arriving at falsehoods. Reason and evidence are, I argue, precisely those things which best enable us to cleave truth from error in the cleanest, most reliable way possible.

Christian Belief

Truth be told, I take it that everything I have said thus far, subject to some minor disagreements about methods of phrasing and precise usage of terms, should be utterly uncontroversial. Indeed, many readers will (I hope) wonder why I have bothered to make the above claims at all, given how apparently innocuous and self-evident they are. Nevertheless, it seems to me that it is necessary, far more often that one may think, to assert this basic point, that beliefs should only be formed on the basis of reason and evidence, for it is, at least to me, disturbing how often this fundamental notion is apparently forgotten, or even dismissed outright, by intelligent people who should know better.

Let me take particular issue with Christians, something I am rather want to do. Certain Christians have, on many occasions, said something similar to the following to me:
“Belief in God isn’t all about evidence or reason. That’s not the most important thing. Its about having a personal relationship with God, not knowing certain facts”

Let us consider this statement, and many others like it that I have heard (other examples would be things like “God is love” or “through faith in Jesus all can be forgiven”). First notice its form: it is a proposition. It asserts some factual claim about the way the world actually is. Being a proposition, it has a truth value. It could be true, it could be false, or maybe it could be neither (depending upon your disposition toward many-valued logics), but the point it that it has a truth value that we would like to evaluate. So how can we tell if this claim is (probably) true or (probably) false? As per my argument above, the answer is, of course, we should use reason and evidence! What type of reason and evidence? Well, that is a deep and tricky question. I’m certainly not saying that this claim needs to be experimentally tested, but it does need to be tested in some way. Some argument needs to be made, some reasoning analyzed, some evidence examined, in order to discern between the case where this proposition is true, and the case where it is false. One could simply believe this claim because it sounds nice,  because it brings hope, or because it fits with one’s subjective experiences of life in general, but none of those things will be able to tell us whether the claim is actually true or not.

So, when a Christian says to me that something other than reason or evidence is responsible for some belief that they have, what I hear them saying is something to the effect that “I first and foremost care about something else other than whether this belief is actually true or not”. To this I say: No! Never! Get thee hence, Satan, father of lies! Truth first and foremost. Truth above all. Truth may be subtle and delicate, only to be seen partially obscured or in glimpses from the corner of one’s eye, but that does not make her any less worthy in seeking. I will not settle for anything less.

A Case for Christianity – A Critique

Synopsis

In this piece I provide a critique of the Cosmological Argument portion of this video (see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57Vr1Bkmvhk), a talk called ‘A Case for Christianity’ which has recently come to my attention. I argue that the speaker’s defenses of inference to the best explanation, the contingency of the universe, and the principle of sufficient reason, are all inadequate, and fail to properly consider plausible alternatives and counterexamples. I also discuss the comparative abilities of theism and naturalism to offer an ‘explanation’ for the origin of the universe, arguing that the speaker’s case for theism’s superiority is not well supported by the arguments he uses. Finally, I make some brief comments in response to the fine-tuning argument. Note that I do not discuss the historical arguments made in the second part of the talk, as I have addressed these in much more detail here (http://goo.gl/KCrJgL).

Inference to the Best Explanation

The speaker begins by appealing to ‘inference to the best explanation’, claiming that we use this sort of inference in science, history, and everyday life all the time, and that therefore it is valid. I believe that his argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First let me consider the two ‘examples’ that he gives to illustrate inference to the best explanation.

His first example is of electromagnetic theory providing evidence for the existence of electrons. Here, however, he simply presupposes the truth of scientific realism (that is, the notion that theoretical entities like electrons ‘really exist’, and are not merely useful fictions). Not only is scientific realism highly controversial, but it is also precisely the point he is attempting to establish here. That is, in order to accept that electromagnetic theory provides strong evidence for the ‘real’ existence of electrons, one would already have to accept the philosophically controversial premise that abductive arguments (another name for inference to the best explanation) are a valid method of reasoning about what is true. But this is precisely the point that the speaker is attempting to establish by citing this example. Thus the argument is question-begging.

In the case of the open window example, the speaker is confusing abduction and induction. Induction refers to the process of inferring that because something is often the case, or has often happened in a particular way, that therefore it is probably likely to happen similarly in this particular (new) case. That is a different type of argument to inference to the best explanation, but is precisely the type of reasoning being used in the window example. Thus, this second example also fails to support the speaker’s argument about the validity of inference to the best explanation.

Aside from the flaws of his examples, there is a deeper problem with the speaker’s argument – he fails to provide a proper definition of what they mean by ‘explanation’. It does no good to say ‘explanation tracks truth’ when it is not at all clear what ‘explanation’ actually means, or what one looks like. At various points throughout the talk he speaks of explanations as providing ’causes’ of something, as giving ‘a reason why’ something happens, and also of being able to fit with empirical data. These are all different notions of explanation (and there are many more that are debated in philosophy). Before any sensible argument can be made about what inferences can be drawn on the basis of explanations, it is first necessary to provide at least a reasonably clear explication of what exactly is meant by this term. Otherwise, things that one claims as being ‘explanations’ may not actually be explanatory at all (a potential issue with some of his later arguments). In sum, the speaker simply does not address these issues in sufficient depth (or really even allude to them at all), and thus they fail to make their case for the validity of abductive arguments.

A final problem with inference to the best explanation, which the speaker also does not address, is that at best all that such arguments can tell us is that when some explanation is superior to another, then we can infer that the state of the world ‘corresponding to’ that explanation is more likely. We cannot actually say how much more likely it is without knowing more about the comparative explanatory power of the competing explanations. It could be the case that even the best explanation available is so poor, is such as bad explanation, that the corresponding state of the world is still not very likely.

The Contingency of the Universe

The speaker argues that the universe is probably contingent, because the universe is simply the sum total of everything in the universe, and as far as we know everything in the universe is contingent. There are several flaws with this argument.

First, we simply do not know very much about the large-scale structure, origin, and nature of the universe. We do not know what was possible and what wasn’t – the science (and philosophy) of these matters is a long way from being settled. For the speaker therefore to simply assert that ‘as far as we know everything is contingent’ grossly overstates the extent of our knowledge, and dismisses too readily the high levels of uncertainty that remain.

Second, the speaker actually gives no reason as to why the universe should be contingent even if all of its constituent components are contingent. This is simply the fallacy of composition. He does acknowledge that it isn’t logically necessary that this be the case, but then he simply brushes off this objection and asserts that ‘it is a real stretch’ to argue that the universe could be necessary even though all its constituents are contingent. Why? No argument is given. Indeed, there seem to be many obvious counterexamples where properties of the whole are not manifested in any of the parts. For instance, cells are alive, but cells are made up of nothing but atoms, which are not alive. Words have meaning, but words are made up solely of vibrations of air or dots of ink, which do not have any meaning associated with them individually. To give another example, we would have to ‘go and look’ to see if any particular book was in a library – that fact would be contingent. But it would not be a contingent fact that a library contains books of some sort, or else it would not be a library at all.

For these reasons, the speaker fails to establish their conclusion that the universe is contingent.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason

The speaker argues that all contingent facts must have some reason or explanation as to why they are the case, a notion which is called the ‘principle of sufficient reason’. He argues that this principle underpins essentially all of science, and that rejecting it leads to nonsensical conclusions. However, I think the speaker fails to establish their argument about PSR, for the following reasons.

First, he is not clear about exactly what constitutes a ‘reason’. Is it a physical cause? A non-physical cause? An explanation? A purpose? What exactly? It seems difficult to take the argument very seriously when it is not even clear what claim is actually being made. On a related point, even the notion of causation itself is philosophically problematic, as David Hume and others have noted. To this the speaker makes no reference at all, and seems content merely to take the concept of ‘causation’ as an unproblematic given.

Second, the fact that something like the PSR (arguably) ‘underpins all of science’ does not imply that it is everywhere and always true. The author falls into the same trap that he accuses the naturalist speaker of falling into, namely of assuming that because a given concept sometimes works or is successful in a particular sphere (in this case science), it therefore follows that it is universally applicable. That simply does not follow. It could be the case that science works well for questions where PSR (or something like it) is applicable, and does not work well for questions where it does not. One can also raise the deeper question of whether science actually provides ‘reasons’ or ’causes’ at all, rather than merely describing empirical regularities (again, as argued by Hume). These are complex and much-debated questions in philosophy, but the speaker ignores them, and simply adopts as ‘obvious’ particular simplistic answers which, conveniently enough, also support his argument.

Third, to reject the PSR does not imply ‘nonsense’. It merely is to say that we do not properly understand abstract and difficult concepts like ‘causation’ well enough to make confident claims about them.

The Failure of Naturalism

The speaker then proceeds to argue that naturalism is unable even in principle to provide an explanation for the origin of the universe, as naturalistic explanations can only refer to physical laws, which themselves did not exist before the universe and hence cannot be appealed to in an explanation of it. A few responses are in order here.

First, the line of argument being made here is very dubious. It seems that the speaker is saying that we could tell that naturalistic explanations could never explain the origin of the universe, even before we had even tried to construct any, or test them to see if they work. He is saying that even in principle they simply cannot yield such an explanation. Looking back over history, it seems this line of argument that science ‘cannot possibly even in theory’ explain any given phenomenon has fared very poorly, the most obvious example being vitalism and explaining the unique nature of living beings. In general, I think it is wise not to place great confidence in armchair philosophizing arguments about what science can and cannot explain ‘in theory’. Their track record seems to be very poor indeed.

Second, it is not at all clear the a naturalistic explanation would require physical laws. When we begin talking about things that existed “before” the universe began, and how the universe could have come into being, we are so far outside of the realm of what we can understand, of what we can know about with any confidence, and so far beyond the bounds where our intuitions are useful, that it is just not at all clear what a naturalistic explanation of the origin of the universe would look like, or what it would need to appeal to. The fact that the speaker cannot now imagine how such a thing could be developed is simply an example of the fallacious argument from lack of imagination.

Third, the argument here relies on the notion that the universe is contingent, and that contingent things require explanations, both premises which, as I argued above, are questionable at best.

God as an Explanation

In this section, the speaker argues that theism provides a satisfactory explanation for the origin of the universe, on that basis that it was created by an uncaused non-physical mind. There are many problems with this proposed explanation.

First, no non-physical substance, entity, or process, is known uncontroversially to exist. The only non-physical things that we think ‘exist’ are abstractions, like nations or languages or mathematical theorems. But God is not supposed to be an abstraction; he is supposed to be a ‘real’ non-physical entity. It is certainly possible that such entities exist, but outside of the question of God, we do not have any other good reasons to believe that such things are exist at all (indeed, the very notion may be incoherent – this is debated). In contrast, we know that physical processes and entities are real (or, at least, we know this with a fairly high level of confidence, philosophical skepticism notwithstanding). For this reason alone, I think it is reasonable that naturalistic causes be granted higher plausibility when considering questions such as how the universe came to be.

Second, even if we are to accept non-physical causes, there seems to be no reason to accept this particular one that the speaker presents. Instead of a non-physical uncaused mind, could we not instead posit a non-physical uncaused substance called ‘vitalic phlogiston’, which gives rise to the universe as a product of the fluctuations of its internal harmonic vibrations. It seems there is an almost limitless number of potential non-physical ‘explanations’ (again, a problematic term the speaker does not properly define) for the origin of the universe. Why should we prefer Christian theism over any of these others? One may argue that additional criteria or evidences are available with provide such reasons, but in that case it seems that the cosmological argument by itself is not actually doing very much ‘work’, so to speak, of providing support for theism.

Third, the speaker’s claim that the rebuttal that ‘minds are complex’ necessarily assumes materialism, seems to be rather a stretch. In fact, it seems perfectly reasonable to say that, even if materialism is false, minds are still very complicated things. Minds are capable of a wide range of thoughts and behaviours, which are often very unpredictable and interact in complex and unexpected ways. One can go on and on listing various ways in which minds are complicated, none of which depend in any way on the notion that minds must be material. The argument is not that minds are complex because brains are complex. The argument is that minds are complex precisely because, by their nature, by the definition of what we mean by ‘mind’, a mind is an intricate, multifaceted, and hence complicated thing. Merely stating that ‘God is non-material and therefore simple’ does not address this point, and is little more than argument by assertion.

The Fine-Tuning Argument

The speaker ends with an argument that further evidence for divine creation can be gained from the fact that the universe is, despite apparently enormous odds against it, capable of sustaining intelligent life, a fact which is a natural corollary of the theistic explanation, but not of any naturalistic explanation. One can question this argument on a number of grounds.

First, it is by no means established that the universe is in fact actually ‘fine-tuned’ for life. Certainly some scientists and philosophers think that this is the case, but there are also many who do not (e.g. Victor Stenger). As I argued before, we simply do not know enough about the laws of nature, how they interact, why they are as they are, and what else could have been possible, to make any confident claims about ‘fine-tuning’.

Second, even if the universe is fine-tuned, the speaker does not adequately consider potential naturalistic explanations for this. He too readily dismisses multiverses, which, although doubtless sound absurd to a layman, are nonetheless taken very seriously by a large number of physicists and philosophers, and are widely considered to be a powerful, plausible explanation for a wide variety of phenomena (including many apparent paradoxes of quantum mechanics). This of course is not proof that multiverses really exist, but I think the notion cannot be dismissed nearly so readily as the speaker does. A second, totally independent possible naturalistic explanation is the various forms of the anthropic principle. Although this sort of anthropic reasoning is highly controversial, so too is the existence of God, so it seems unreasonable and unfair to dismiss such potentially powerful alternative explanations arguments so readily.

Overall, contrary to the speaker’s argument, it is not clear that theism has the unique advantage of being able to explain the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe far better than can naturalism.

Conclusion

In my view, the speaker fails to establish his argument. He makes too many quick leaps of logic on the basis of questionable premises, without adequately considering possible objections, alternate explanations, or rebuttals. The speaker is also far too ready to make confident conclusions about difficult questions, such as the nature of causation and the origin of the universe, despite the fact that we simply do not know very much at all about these matters, or even how to think about them properly. Overall, the claims made about the likely existence of a creator God are not justified by the equivocal and incomplete nature of the reasons provided.

The Myth of Christian Humility

Synopsis

Some Christians say that atheists arrogantly place their own reason and intellect above God, thereby undermining their ability to understand the limits of human reason compared to the wisdom of God. I argue that this notion is completely the inverse of the truth. It is Christians, not atheists, who, for various reasons, arrogantly place their own experiences and intellect as being primarily and unassailable, and it is the Atheist who properly acknowledges the constraints and limits of human reason. (NOTE: this article is polemical, so for the purpose of rhetorical force and clarity, it omits certain caveats, qualifications, and exceptions that I would normally include. Readers should bear this in mind when interpreting the piece.)

There is a myth which many Christians believe, and is frequently raised as an objection or snide refutation of atheist thought. This myth – nay, this lie, for many who reiterate it should know better – asserts that atheists arrogantly place their own reason, their “science”, above all else, displacing God from his rightful place as primary and foremost of all. Christians, so says this lie, humble themselves by accepting the limits of human reason and science falsely so called; the Christian defers his own judgement to that of God, whose wisdom far exceeds our own. For it is a fool who says in his heart “there is no God”, and the beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord. The Christian thus humbles themselves in the face of their limitations, while the Atheist arrogates to themselves the position of arbiter of ultimate truth.

This is a lie. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the truth. It is the Christian, not the Atheist, who arrogantly asserts their own intellect as supreme above all else, and it is the Atheist, nor the Christian, who properly acknowledges their own limitations. Amongst Christians, there are two main types of attitude with respect to reason; the one can be said to be deficient, and the other, excessive. In actual fact, the sin is as great in either case, for to err either side of the mean is equally deplorable.

The Christians who exhibit deficiency are those who reject the need for reason and evidence altogether. For them, their own personal experience of God, be it through prayer, reading the bible, attending church, or various life experiences, is sufficient to convince them totally, utterly, and with utmost finality, of the truthfulness of all of the many claims of Christianity. Arguments, evidence, logic: these might be useful in making Christianity appear more acceptable to the world, to attract those who would otherwise reject the good news out of hand. But ultimately, such things do not matter, for even if an argument is refuted or a piece of evidence found to be inadequate, it does not matter; after all, even the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. These Christians know the bible is the word of god. They know Jesus died for their sins. They know god answers prayers. In exercising such resolute belief, however, these Christians exhibit perhaps the worst form of intellectual arrogance known to mankind. their own subjective experience, their own interpretation of biblical passages, their own life history, their own thought processes – these things trump every possible argument, objection, and disconfirming piece of evidence imaginable. Such Christians have not made God their sovereign, they have made themselves – their experiences, their emotions, their interpretations – primary, foremost, dominant over all else. They do not care about what is true; they care only for the God that their own subjectivity has built for them, out of a haphazard, idiosyncratic mixture of their personality and life experiences. In worshiping a God that is a construct known only through their subjective experiences, they are in essence worshiping nothing but their own ego.

Christians who exhibit excess, by contrast, are those who claim to believe on the basis of reason and evidence. It is they who appeal to such stratagems as the Ontological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and the appeal to the Resurrection of Jesus. In so doing, however, they venture far beyond the bounds where reason and evidence can safely take them. Not content to remain silent on that about which we cannot speak, such Christians confidently pontificate on matters far beyond human ken, discussing the ‘ultimate meaning’ and ‘true nature’ of such abstruse notions as time, being, essence, goodness, and causation. Indeed, they go further than more speculation; they claim to establish confident, firm knowledge on the basis of these sophistries. They care not that many men and women more learned than they have considered the same matters all throughout the ages, arriving at utterly contradictory conclusions. Nor do they care that such questions are unable to be tested by science, history, or indeed by any known reliable method for separating falsehood from truth. Disagreements, uncertainties, ambiguous evidence, and other difficulties are of no concern to these Christians, for they know that they are right. In making such a determination, however, they place themselves – their own minds, their own intellects, their own wisdom – as supreme above all else. Not only is their wisdom superior to that of all those lesser heathens who disagree with them, but it is also of sufficient penetrating depth and expansive breadth as to be capable of accurately illuminating, with unprecedented surety and clarify, the most arcane mysteries of the universe. Such hubris is the exact opposite of the intellectual humility to which these Christians pretend. Thus, in establishing their own opinion, their own intellect, their own assessment of the evidence as primary and foremost above all else, they have made a God in their own image. They worship not God, but their own minds.

Unlike the both deficient and the excessive Christian, the Atheist attempts, to the best of their ability, to adhere to the Golden Mean of human reason. They seek out reliable evidence wherever it can be found, and as evidence mounts, doubt diminishes and certainly grows – but never to a full ripeness, as the Atheist knows that human reason is limited, always leaving room for doubt. The Atheist seeks to understand the mysteries of life, space, and time as best as they can, but are ever vigilant and watchful of false pretensions to knowledge, when claims are not supported by sufficient evidence, or when our ability to question outstrip our ability to understand. When, as is often the case, evidence is equivocal, good arguments are to be found on both sides, experts are in disagreement, and sources of reliable facts are scarce; in cases like this the Atheist properly withholds judgement. Thus, to the question “do you believe that God exists”, they answer cautiously: “I do not, for the evidence is inconclusive, however I am open to changing my opinion in the future if new evidence or arguments become available”. Atheists are wary of subjective, anecdotal experiences and abstract, unfalsifiable philosophising – not because such things are always wrong, but simply because they have turned out to be wrong so often in the past, and the Atheist does not assume himself to be in such an epistemically privileged position that merely because it is their experience or their reasoning process, that therefore all these difficulties of reliability and uncertainly magically vanish into the ether. In short, rather than arrogantly asserting the supremacy of their own intellect, it is the Atheist, and the Atheist alone, who properly humbles themselves, recognizing both the power, but also the limits, of human reason and certainty.

There is one thing, however, about which the Christians are totally correct. They are right in saying that Atheists do, in fact, worship a God. For, in striving always to abide by the Golden Mean of human reason, the Atheist worships Veritas, god of truth. Although she is elusive and often subtle, she is a far superior God to those worshiped by most Christians.

My Model of Science

Synopsis

This is based on a short piece I wrote a couple of years ago about what I think is the nature of science, what makes something ‘scientific’, when scientific reasoning is reliable, and how it can be justified. I have updated some element to reflect my most recent thinking on the matter.

A Model of Science

  1. Science is the process of carefully collecting objectively verifiable empirical data about the world, categorizing this data to help better understand and access it, and using such data to construct rigorous, testable models about the way various phenomena behave.
  2. There is no philosophically interesting ‘fundamental’ methodological difference between the natural sciences and the social sciences. All are equally scientific to the degree to which they adhere to point 1.
  3. Confidence in a given scientific model is increased to the degree that it is based upon objectively verifiable and carefully collected empirical observations, to the degree that it makes specific verifiable predictions, and to the degree that it appeals to fewer entities or processes that are not otherwise known to exist (i.e. to the degree that it makes fewer new assumptions).
  4. A scientific model is said to explain some system to the extent that the model is able to make specific predictions about the behaviour of the system under a given set of circumstances. These ‘predictions’ need not necessarily be of future events or experimental results, but they must be empirical in some form.
  5. Scientific models are relevant or applicable in a particular situation to the degree to which they are based on observations from similar circumstances/phenomena, and to the degree that they have made successful predictions under similar circumstances.
  6. This methodology is self-consistent as it presents a descriptive and normative model for science which is based on objective facts about the history, practice and past successes of science, and makes predictions about what sorts of scientific methodologies will generate useful results.

Preempting Some Rebuttals

  1. Whatever the nature of the ‘ultimate reality’ we inhabit, so long as it exhibits at least some degree of predictability or regularity, then this methodology would be expected to arrive at reliable beliefs about that reality. Thus the ‘Problem of Induction’, while not directly answered, does not seem to hold a great deal of force against Science.
  2. Science has been very successful in the past at making accurate predictions and generating technological advances, therefore it is reasonable to suppose that the method has some degree of validity.
  3. Science does not require perfect objectivity or rationality of its practitioners, nor does it require or assume complete separation of observers from their observations.
  4. Science does not presuppose naturalism or materialism, or require the existence of universal natural laws. It requires only the sorts of regularities described in 1.

A Controversial Claim

  1. Science, as described here, is the only method of arriving at reliable, justifiable knowledge about any aspect of the world outside of our own direct, everyday experience (a concept I will define more rigorously elsewhere).
  2. Intuition, commonsense, philosophical reasoning, subjective experience, emotion, tradition, religious dogma, and political ideology are not reliable methods of arriving at knowledge of the external world outside of our own direct, everyday experience.

 

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs

I have written a piece about when it is rational not to update one’s beliefs in response to new evidence, in particular with respect to anecdotal evidence. The piece contains some equations, so I have uploaded it as a pdf here:

When NOT to Update Your Beliefs (in pdf form)

Synopsis
I argue that in cases with low prior probabilities and unreliable evidence (e.g. personal anecdotes), it is rational not to update one’s posterior probabilities at all in response to additional low quality evidence (e.g. an additional anecdote). I present my basic case with reference to Bayes’ Theorem, and then consider some rebuttals. I reject that rebuttal that updates should be small but non-zero on the grounds that such small updates are within the bounds of error of one’s probabilities. I reject the rebuttal that many anecdotes provide stronger cumulative evidence on the basis that anecdotes are not independent events. I conclude with a discussion about the differences between updating in abstract theory, and updating in the real world.

Peer Disagreement

Synopsis

Many intelligent people disagree about many important questions. This means that many intelligent people are wrong about many important questions, and it is not possible to tell if you are one of these people simply based on how confident you are. Looking at the arguments on both sides doesn’t address the problem, because everyone claims to do that, and reaches different conclusions. Nor does attempting to explain how disagreement is consistent with your worldview address the problem, as it begs the question of how you know that your worldview is correct. I therefore conclude that in the absence of expert consensus on a given question, we should suspend any firm judgement on the matter.

Introduction

Is abortion morally wrong? Is fiscal stimulus effective at reviving an economy? Is there a God? What is the best type of diet to lose weight? Is the brain a computer? Are men and women hardwired to be different? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is intelligent life common in the universe? Is gun control effective at reducing violence? Will mankind will face extinction in the near future?

These questions span many different topics. Some are scientific, some are political, and others are philosophical. Nonetheless, they do have one important property in common: many (perhaps most) of those who have a strong opinions about these questions are wrong. Regardless of what the actual answer is, there is so much disagreement about these sorts of questions and so many mutually-incompatible views that, whichever position is actually the correct one, most people’s views are false. This means that right now, many ethicists are wrong about abortion. Many economists are wrong about fiscal stimuluses. Many philosophers are wrong about whether there is a God.

Main Argument

Everything I have said thus far is really quite obvious and (aside from minor quibbles about specific choice of examples, etc), fairly uncontroversial. What, then, is the big deal? The big deal, in my view, comes the from conclusion that, I think, we should draw from these facts. Allow me present my main argument in the form of a syllogism.

  1. If two or more people hold incompatible views on any matter that is not purely subjective (e.g. favourite dessert), then at least some of those people must be wrong
  2. Many intelligent people hold incompatible views on many important questions, despite being well informed and strongly convinced they are right
  3. Therefore, many intelligent people hold incorrect beliefs despite being well informed on the subject, and being convinced that they are right
  4. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for intelligent, thoughtful, intellectually honest, well-informed people, to be strongly convinced about the correctness of their position, whilst nonetheless being completely wrong
  5. Therefore, it is possible (and given the enormous extent of disagreement, I would say likely) that you, as an intelligent and informed person, are mistaken about at least some of the core beliefs that you consider to be very important and (likely) hold with a high degree of confidence

Looking at the Evidence won’t Help

Perhaps you might imagine that you could not possibly be one such person, because the answer seems to clear and logical in your head. After all, you have looked at the arguments and evidence on both sides, and come to a reasoned, rational conclusion. What, then, is the problem with feeling confident in your opinion, when clearly the facts and evidence support it? The problem lies in the fact that we can never, as finite, fallible human beings, have access to the actual facts, evidence, and arguments in their pure, objective, unadulterated form. All we ever can access are our perceptions and interpretations of the evidence and arguments – how persuasive they seem to us. And we know, from the fact of widespread disagreement, that our sense of the persuasiveness or reasonableness of such evidence and arguments is, in general, quite unreliable.

Whatever argument you have heard about abortion, whatever evidence you have seen about fiscal stimuluses, whatever religious experiences you may have had, you can be essentially assured that there exist many other equally intelligent people as yourself who have heard the same arguments, seen the same evidence, and had similar experiences, but who do not find them to be a persuasive reason to believe in your position. This is a fact that we all need to be able to deal with.

Interchanging Perspectives with Another

Of course, our own beliefs will always feel more ‘real’ to us than those of others, because as finite human beings were are limited by our own nature as embodied, subjective beings. We have direct access to our own beliefs and reasons for those beliefs in a way we can never have for those of others. But how does that justify us in thinking that our beliefs are actually, objectively, more likely to be true? It might sound like I am arguing for some form of relativism, but I am not. In fact, I think it is by ignoring the problem of disagreement that we head towards relativism, as doing so leads to the situation in which whether a particular proposition should be believed or not is relative to which person’s methods of reasoning one chooses to use in analysing the arguments. Everyone thinks they are right and those who disagree with them are wrong, but if it were possible to switch perspectives and use one’s opponents methods of thinking and analysing arguments,  then you would conclude the exact opposite. A model of knowledge that makes justificatory claims so variable and mind-dependent is, in my view, far more deserving of the name ‘relativism’ than the position I am advocating.

Explaining Disagreement from your Worldview

It might be tempting to introspect about one’s worldview, and attempt to find reasons as to why, given your worldview, many other intelligent people could be wrong about such important questions. For example, the atheist dismisses intelligent Christians, Jews, and Muslims on the grounds that humans have evolved a sense of spirituality, and tend to attribute anthropomorphic characteristics to inanimate objects in an attempt to derive a sense of comfort and meaning in an otherwise uncaring universe. The Christian, on the other hand, dismisses intelligent atheists on the grounds that, whatever evidence is presented for God’s existence, many will still choose not to believe because of the stubbornness of their hearts and their refusal to submit their will to God.

The problem with arguments like this is that they do not allow us to distinguish which state of the world actually prevails. Both the Atheist and the Christian expect, given their worldviews, to see religious disagreement among intelligent people, so whoever is right we expect to see the same thing (at least in this respect). We then arrive back at the same question we started with: given such disagreement, who is more likely to be correct? Arguments that attempt merely to explain disagreement within the framework of a particular belief system thus do not actually address the problem of disagreement at all. Unless a particular viewpoint is actually inconsistent with the existence of peer disagreement (I know of none that are), then all worldviews are capable of constructing such justifications. None of them, however, can address the real question: given the extent of peer disagreement, how do you know that you are not one of the many who are mistaken?

Conclusion

To be clear, I am not arguing that there is no such thing as truth, or that we can never know what it is. There are plenty of issues on which there does exist a considerable degree of expert agreement. Many questions in science are of this sort, as are at least some questions in ethics, politics, and economics. What I am trying to argue is that, if there exists widespread disagreement among equally informed and rational people, then, in general, this means that there exists insufficient evidence to answer the question, and thus we should withhold judgement, or at the very least, substantially lower our confidence that we are correct. Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.