Thursday, August 7, 2008

Logic traps

Simple question for you: How many possible answers are there to the question "Does God exist?"

Many people would answer that there are two – either God exists, or God does not exist. End of story. And this is a huge problem, which causes a lot of fighting, and it’s completely unnecessary.

The way we think about logic is as a way to determine which of two categories – true or false – a given statement falls into. The implicit assumption is that there is always enough information to come to one of these conclusions. And it's built into our language and our thought patterns that these are the only two valid alternatives. But what happens when you don't have enough information to determine whether a statement is true or false?

When someone put up a discussion thread on an atheist forum looking for either positive physical evidence God exists, or positive physical evidence God does not and cannot exist, neither side could come up with anything. We're talking about a mix of militant atheists, fundamentalist Christians, and everything in between, and nobody had a firm answer. In this situation, all of the traditional logical tools fall short. There's very little built into our way of thinking that lets us say "God may exist" and go from there to determine reasonable conclusions about what God might be like if he exists, or what it might mean if he doesn't. We've trained ourselves to be like computers processing Boolean logic, but even computer scientists are trying to give computers "fuzzy logic" capabilities. We ought to try to rediscover our fuzzy logic abilities ourselves.

People are very uncomfortable with all this. We've been trained to seek certainty, absolute truths. So people invent lines of reasoning which suggest that it is more or less probable that God exists, or decide that they have felt the hand of God in some unverifiable way (been "possessed by the holy spirit and made to speak in tongues" for example) and that's good enough for them to be certain. And once they reach a level of probability that satisfies them, they make a true or false assertion on the existence of God (and once they've made it, boy do they stick to it sometimes!). And so we have two camps – the "God exists" camp, and the "God does not exist" camp. They fight constantly, and neither one can prove themselves right or the other side wrong. And the agnostics go "I don’t know, and thinking in uncertain terms makes my head hurt. I’m just going to be nice and hope people will leave me alone".

What I'm trying to say is that, as reasonable people, we ought all to realize we don't have enough evidence to draw a 100% certain conclusion. That is the truth, although many people on either side have convinced themselves it's not so they can say their belief systems are based on certainty. But if instead we can all agree that God might or might not exist, everyone can move towards respecting each other's views on how probable God's existence is, and we can all start to have a sensible, non-dogmatic discussion. We just have to accept the reality that we don't know what the reality is – there are two possibilities, and since we can’t eliminate either for certain, we must consider the implications of both.

13 comments:

kevin said...

Hi Myron, this is "phlegm" from the WWGHA forum. Thanks for inviting me to your blog.

I agree with you that certainty is a big factor in answering the question of God's existence. IMO, the vital question is how much certainty is available with respect to any knowledge claims about the universe.

Absolute certainty exists within logically constructed systems like math or a computer programming language, but we have no certain way to map those onto the universe. We can do scientific experiments and find ways that "work", but "working" doesn't necessarily mean that we have The Truth about the universe.

I think this is where I diverge from typical atheists. Most atheists that I've encountered believe that scientific models that work are identical with The Truth. I think this is a commonly held assumption in our present culture, even if only implicitly, so convincing people to assume otherwise is a counter cultural move and thus an uphill battle. Said assumption leads to the notion that absolute certainty is available within science, so any "non-scientific" claim could potentially be regarded as mere fantasy.

Now, if one admits that working scientific models don't necessarily yield The Truth, then scientific claims are less than absolutely certain. This is where I am. I view science as one available perspective of the universe. Scientific models are like mathematical stories about the universe, so to speak.

Hence my view is that we never have absolutely certainty in claims about the universe, only partial certainty. So, for me, having partial certainty that God exists is good enough, and I think the fact that ideas about God (or any formulation of a higher power) permeate humanity is enough to say that God might exist. The more important question is, "What do humans mean when we talk about God?"

I hope I haven't been too wordy. BTW, I thought you might be interested in this webcast: Philosophy 6 Man, God, and Society in Western Literature. Don't worry--it's a purely secular study of the idea of God in the Western world.

the last human said...

Yo Myron. Dude thanks for all your comments on my blog... I'm sort of new to this whole blogger thing (more used to LJ but definitely too old for it now, ha) so I didn't even know I had comments until today. So silly. Anyway, I'd love to read your post where you outline religion. In face from what little I've skimmed I think we have a lot in common. Cheers mate.

Myron said...

Hey Kevin!

I get what you're saying about science not offering certainty. And it is a cultural thing. Since it's my culture, and I'm not really familiar with any other, I'm quite hesitant to say "we can base truth claims on the fact that all of humanity agrees on something" though. That sounds a little too 1984 for me. I'd be interested in your perspective, though.

So, what are your thoughts on "what humans mean when we talk about God?".

The problem with multiple (I think you called them contextual in the other forum) means of determining what is truth and what is not, is that you have to agree with any person you're talking to on what a valid basis for truth claims is, before you can even have a conversation. So I tend to use the scientific approach, simply because it's one everyone seems to understand, and my goal is to convince people that my truth claims are about as true as I can figure how to make them (or, alternatively, get someone to show me something truer).

Myron said...

the_last_human:

Go ahead and read it, and let me know what you think. And pass it along to anyone you'd like. The more people I have in on this conversation, the better the result will be.

kevin said...

I hope I'm not being redundant, but I'm not not sure if you understand exactly what I'm trying to say. I don't take issue with science being a large part of our culture. In fact, my eagerness to believe the claims of science (e.g., evolutionary theory) can easily upset a lot of religious people.

What I do have a problem with is that our culture tends to view science as the rule for knowing with certainty. When the role of science is elevated that way, all other forms of inquiry are merely a way to fill in the gaps in science at best and worthless at worst.

This position of mine is not only in defense of religion but also other humanities and arts. I think, if one views the world only through the eyes of science as the rule for knowing, the tendency is to devalue and/or overlook a lot of other human perspectives that may be worth exploring, like the aesthetic and the ethical.

Additionally, some types of scientific methods are incompatible with fields that are more dependent on subjectivity. For example, there is a tendency when thinking scientifically to rule out all possible explanations except one, however this type of thinking is not justified, for example, if one is trying to understand an historical event described from several perspectives or the meaning of a great literary work. In those cases, having a lot of explanations can be better than only one.

I understand your concern with determining what is truth. I don't think you have to fully accept someone else's perspective as true to talk about it, but I do think both parties have to be willing to try to see the other's viewpoint to make it worthwhile.

What counts as true? I think the concept of "peer review" employed in academic fields is a good model. In other words, the people in the know get to decide what they think is true, and of course everyone else gets to choose whether they agree or disagree.

I also understand that you want to start where the culture is, from a scientific point of view, and this is a serious problem for the view I espouse. My view isn't original. It's inspired by some of what philosophers have been saying for more than a century. The problem is that a lot of people haven't read any philosophy, and philosophical thought has taken such a radical turn that it could take our society a long time to catch up, if ever. I don't have a good solution for this. I can't force people to ask philosophical questions.

Regarding what we mean when we talk about God, I don't know that I have a specific answer. It's something that we're all trying to figure out. I think the goal of religion is to find a broader understanding of the universe, perhaps to find meaning and understand ourselves better.

Myron said...

What I do have a problem with is that our culture tends to view science as the rule for knowing with certainty. When the role of science is elevated that way, all other forms of inquiry are merely a way to fill in the gaps in science at best and worthless at worst.

I agree, we ought to accept "non-scientific" claims if we can. However, the difference is I know how to evaluate the validity of a scientific claim: Has it been peer reviewed, and backed up with repeatable experiments? Has it survived in the scientific community without being significantly changed for a long time?

With other truth claims, it can get harder to know when someone is just talking off the top of their heads. Peer review is good, though. You're right that there are a lot of things that science can't (yet) examine in the level of detail that non-scientific methods can get to. As for changing our culture:

I don't have a good solution for this. I can't force people to ask philosophical questions.

Get 'em while they're young. I was listening to the BBC's "The Forum" a few weeks ago, and they had a child development specialist on there who said that around ages 9-12, children begin to have a natural curiosity about philosophical questions. We really should have something in our school systems that cultivates this curiosity. People think philosophy is this big complicated thing that only people who have read a lot of it can do. It doesn't help that once people have read a few things they can get really uppity towards people who haven't. I had one guy go off on a rant at me defining utilitarianism and telling me who first proposed it, as if I didn't know what I was talking about, because I said "the greatest good for the greatest number" in a post rather than "utilitarianism" so it would be clearer to everyone. But really philosophy is something everyone can do. It appears I at least hold my own, without having read much philosophy at all. Apparently this particular piece reminds some people of Nietzsche. Who knew? Not me, anyway. :)

Darwin said...

Something to toss out in regards to your point about non-binary answers (for lack of evidence) to question such as whether there is a God:

One of the ideas that we're used to from a scientific worldview is that we can assign probabilities to different explanations, and also that only one explanation will fit the facts -- with a few weird exceptions such as light behaving like both a particle and a wave.

However, with religious and philosophical questions there can often be a number of different explanations which fit all of the independantly verifiable fact, and which we therefore have to choose to believe or reject based on non-provable conclusions of our own.

For instance, solipsism does not in any way violate what we can see of the universe. There is no way to disprove it. And yet any sane person rejects it because it seems unhelpful and untrue to insist that nothing exists except your own mind.

My own response to the question of God's existence would be that it is entirely in keeping with the facts that we are personally in a position to verify here and how to hold either atheist materialism or deism or Catholicism or perhaps a couple of other belief systems such as a neo-neo-Platonism or Bhuddism or some others I'm not thinking of. (Within the realm of Christianity I think there are some inherent problems with other strains of theological thought -- but then that's why I'm Catholic.) However, I choose to believe in Catholicism atheist materialism and deism and Bhuddism all suggest to me various conclusions which I do not think are correct -- although I cannot objectively prove them to be false.

--DarwinCatholic

Darwin said...

typo:

Should be, "...in a position to verify here and now to hold..."

Myron said...

atheist materialism and deism and Bhuddism all suggest to me various conclusions which I do not think are correct -- although I cannot objectively prove them to be false.

What's wrong with deism? I like it :) (For the information of those unfamiliar, deism means God created the universe, but doesn't intervene in its development. In other words, what I think God would probably be like, assuming God exists, is deistic).

Darwin said...

What's wrong with deism? I like it :) (For the information of those unfamiliar, deism means God created the universe, but doesn't intervene in its development. In other words, what I think God would probably be like, assuming God exists, is deistic).

Well, like I said, I think deism is logically consistent with itself and with observable reality, which already puts it in a moderately small club. :-)

I would say that the point where deism is unbelievable for me is that I don't follow the idea that God could exist and be so creative as to have created the universe in all its beauty and order, and provided us with, within ourselves, a natural sense of the good and of our purpose, and yet never "contact" us at all.

We as fairly selfish creatures with a lot of other things on our minds are fascinated by the idea that we are "not alone" in the universe and spend a fair amount of time searching for and imagining other life in the universe. And when we are ourselves creative and imagine worlds that do not exist, I think we (or at least I know I) often wish that we could interact with those creations.

So it seems to me that if God does exist and did create the world that he would not remain fully out of site as the deistic view would hold.

Myron said...

I would say that the point where deism is unbelievable for me is that I don't follow the idea that God could exist and be so creative as to have created the universe in all its beauty and order, and provided us with, within ourselves, a natural sense of the good and of our purpose, and yet never "contact" us at all.

Counterpoint: I think of it like how in some of our science-fiction shows, more advanced races aren't even interested in bothering with us because we're so far below their level of progress. If God exists and has the power to create the universe, we are on an entirely different level of existence. To God, we at our current level of development would be something very much like simple forms of life are to us. Are we really interested in the thought patterns of individual bacteria? They do what they do because they want food and to live and reproduce. We're only slightly different from that, in that we've just begun to understand and be able to question and analyze our own motivations, but 99% of it is unconscious drives or unquestioning copying of strategies we see others do that are effective.

If we accept that we weren't created as we are today, that we've advanced to that level from something different, and that we continue to advance as time goes on, then perhaps we will eventually advance to the point where we're really interesting to a God, but I don't think we're there yet.

The point where theism fails for me is that we have a tendency to think we're important, but really we probably aren't, and we ought not to let our arrogance and lonliness get in the way of understanding the truth of where we probably fit in the universe right now. But, given several billion more years of evolution, who knows? After all, getting to where we are from monkeys only took a few million years.

Darwin said...

If we accept that we weren't created as we are today, that we've advanced to that level from something different, and that we continue to advance as time goes on, then perhaps we will eventually advance to the point where we're really interesting to a God, but I don't think we're there yet.

I get the approach, but in a sense it strikes me as imputing too much of our own characteristics (and maybe not our better ones) to God.

Sure, if we imagine a creature basically like us, but much, much more advanced (kind of like B5's Vorlons, only more so) our doings might just not seem very interesting to that creature.

However, if we posit that God is the creator of the universe, and that its physical laws represent the physical acting out of his creative and rational mind, it seems to me that God _would_ be interested in us simply because we are his creations. (It's an imperfect analogy, but you don't see an artist or writer not interested in his creations just because they're not "at his level".)

So even if we "have a long way to go" (and honestly, while I see us having a lot of technological development ahead of us if we don't wipe ourselves out -- I don't see us "developing" that much farther, because I don't see that much of what makes us human as admitting to a whole lot of difference in degree) it seems to me that God would be interested in us even as is. And if he's is outside of time and thus experiences things in an all-knowing "eternal now", it's not like he doesn't have enough attention to go around.

Myron said...

Sure, if we imagine a creature basically like us, but much, much more advanced (kind of like B5's Vorlons, only more so) our doings might just not seem very interesting to that creature.

That was just an analogy. My personal opinion is that something that can create the universe is probably so far beyond us that trying to imagine a God as like us is a mistake. How could something be like us that doesn't experience time in the same way we do, for example? I hope that what we consider good is what God would consider good, that's about it.


However, if we posit that God is the creator of the universe, and that its physical laws represent the physical acting out of his creative and rational mind, it seems to me that God _would_ be interested in us simply because we are his creations. (It's an imperfect analogy, but you don't see an artist or writer not interested in his creations just because they're not "at his level".)

True, God could be interested in us, and would have the time to explore that interest, but I just can't be certain of it enough to adopt a theistic belief. Humility requires me to acknowledge that maybe I'm just not important enough that God cares about me personally, or even about the human race as a whole.

I don't see us "developing" that much farther, because I don't see that much of what makes us human as admitting to a whole lot of difference in degree)

I see us developing a lot more. Towards what, I don't know exactly. Things with greater intelligence, greater discernment, and greater self-understanding, would be nice. Towards people who could work together better, understand where each of us fits, and be happy with the contribution each can make, without envy, coercion, power-lust. Understanding isn't just about better technology, it's about having each know how we need to act, being able to set aside our own interests and prejudces and look at the world and agree how it should be. And that understanding is complicated - it's not something you can quickly get by reading some commandments or a book full of doctrine.

I hope we can become something with an understanding that would make today's humans look like earthworms, with whom these sorts of conversations wouldn't even need to take place because all of the things that take us years of discussion and debate to understand would all happen in an intuitive flash within the first few days of life, and then the conversation would move on to something else.

We have the seeds of something truly great within us, but I think we have a long way to go before we get there. So I really hope that humanity as we see it today (which at times I'm thoroughly unimpressed with) is not the best it will ever be. I hope our journey towards being what a God would intend has just begun. I think maybe this past several thousand years of thought and collecting knowledge and history might represent just the first few tentative steps towards what we could be.