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December 10, 2004 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Noted British atheist Antony Flew has changed his mind, persuaded by scientific evidence that God exists and that "intelligence must have been involved" in the origin of life. As Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at the University of Reading and the author of several influential books on the subject of atheism, Flew was once one of rationalism's leading lights. He now compares his beliefs with the predominantly American concept of Intelligent Design. "My whole life has been guided by the principle of Plato's Socrates: Follow the evidence, wherever it leads," he says.
posted by gd779 (172 comments total)

 
He's 81. He's cramming for finals.
posted by bondcliff at 1:42 PM on December 10, 2004


I love the topic title.
posted by unreason at 1:44 PM on December 10, 2004


Finally, it's been settled!
posted by iamck at 1:44 PM on December 10, 2004


Holy crap, bondcliff, you just made me blow milk out my nose.
posted by wolftrouble at 1:44 PM on December 10, 2004


He's still an atheist. The first link on the page your first link links to says this is rumour.
posted by xammerboy at 1:46 PM on December 10, 2004


That's from 2001. He's been "on the verge" for a while now.
posted by gd779 at 1:47 PM on December 10, 2004


Nice find xammerboy. So it would appear he's not cramming for the finals. I like him already.
posted by fvw at 1:50 PM on December 10, 2004


Again, that article is three years old. Flew states, on a video recently released, that his views have now changed.
posted by gd779 at 1:52 PM on December 10, 2004


I also blew my milk out my nose. Flew is the author of The Presumption of Atheism, one of my favourite arguments for atheist belief.
posted by mek at 1:53 PM on December 10, 2004


I hate when people "find God" when confronted with their own mortality. I agree with Bondcliff. This guy should grow a sack.
posted by shoepal at 1:56 PM on December 10, 2004


The skeptic in me suggests an 81 year-old man is simply hedging his bets.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:56 PM on December 10, 2004


Truly, deeply, the best of the web.
posted by bshort at 1:57 PM on December 10, 2004


We can't prove this! Philosophy has trapped itself in the 'does god exist game' when such an approach will never answer such a question.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:59 PM on December 10, 2004


Let's see....

Boy this science is really complicated for a philosopher. It's so complicated that I can't even begin to understand it. Therefore, if it's so complicated that even I can't begin to understand it, it must be the workings of a divine and superior intellect.

I'm disappointed in the good Dr. Flew.
posted by mygoditsbob at 1:59 PM on December 10, 2004


We can't prove this! Philosophy has trapped itself in the 'does god exist game' when such an approach will never answer such a question.

I'm on the first steps to proving an expontential relationship between philosophical cowardice and old age.
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:01 PM on December 10, 2004


I don't know if this is a case of a person hedging his bets. After all, his adoption of a more Jefferson/Einstein-like deism doesn't make him saved in the eyes of any of the existing religions, nor does it assume an afterlife.

It should be noted that because a philosopher finds an argument convincing, it does not mean that it is right. Quite a few people with the background knowledge to evaluate Intelligent Design finds it to be woefully lacking. Popper was convinced for a period of time that Darwinism was a tautology until he was given evidence that forced him to revise his opinion.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:05 PM on December 10, 2004


...draws from a New York discussion last May organized by author Roy Abraham Varghese's Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland, Texas. Participants were Flew; Varghese; Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder, an Orthodox Jew; and Roman Catholic philosopher John Haldane of Scotland's University of St. Andrews...

Jeepers. Is it me, or was something missing from this meeting of the minds? Um... hmm.. how about someone with a good background in biology... who maybe also happens to be an athiest?

Lame.
posted by drpynchon at 2:05 PM on December 10, 2004


Obviously, this is a symptom of senility. His "proof"?

Yet biologists' investigation of DNA ``has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved,'' Flew says in the new video, ``Has Science Discovered God?''

A classic case of the argument from personal incredulity, a logical fallacy that finds its way into every Creationism vs. Evolution discussion. Frankly, I find his change of heart...well...incredulous.
posted by BoatMeme at 2:07 PM on December 10, 2004


Any decent philosopher is going to "hedge his bets" and keep an open mind to the possibility of the existence of God. He's not one of those guys beginning with the premise that God exists therefore God must exist though and that makes him more refreshing that alot of philosophers.

I'd be hedging my bets too if I expected every knock at the door to be the Grim Reaper.
posted by fenriq at 2:08 PM on December 10, 2004


than alot of... sheesh.
posted by fenriq at 2:09 PM on December 10, 2004


1) We can't explain everything

2) Therefore, God exists
posted by fleetmouse at 2:09 PM on December 10, 2004


I'm disappointed in the good Dr. Flew.

Me too. That's a rather lame argument, even for a scientist like little ol' me. Where's the bright line at which complicated becomes god-like? Anyway, he didn't "believe belief is a mistake", he just thought it unverifyable. How does this even differ from Popper's position?

Perhaps this would be more convincing if I went out and bought some milk...
posted by metaculpa at 2:10 PM on December 10, 2004


elwoodwiles wrote:Philosophy has trapped itself in the 'does god exist game' when such an approach will never answer such a question.

What exactly do you mean by this?
posted by Tullius at 2:12 PM on December 10, 2004


Wow, great find xammerboy. And Flew is still sharp as a tack.

Those of you looking for an introduction to philosophy could do a lot worse than his Introduction to Western Philosophy. His book on critical thinking, How to Think Straight is old school and quite good.

Personally, I fell for Flew when I read his response to the early John Searle's "How to Derive "ought" from "is". For analytic philosophy, it's got all kinds of subtle snarkiness. It's called "On not deriving 'ought' from 'is'". Good times.
posted by ontic at 2:13 PM on December 10, 2004


What exactly do you mean by this?

It means Santa Claus exists, because we can't verify His non-existence, QED.
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:15 PM on December 10, 2004


Yep. It is the classic argument from ignorance. "We don't know the mechanism by which it happened, so some intelligence must have been involved."

But, there are lots of question about which we don't know the mechanism. It's only been in the last decade that we've been able to produce gem-quality diamonds. We still don't know rubies devoloped. But we don't say that because we don't know of a natural mechanism yet, that one cannot exist.

The biggest problem with ID as an answer to abiogenesis is that it is a dead end. We can't make any hypothesis about what early life might have developed. On the other hand, chemical theories of abiogenesis can make hypothesis about the kinds of environments that might lead to the spontaneous synthesis of organic molecules.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:16 PM on December 10, 2004


DNA ``has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved,''

Well, a human chromosome has 200MB of information (or so). We've got 26 (or 13 interesting ones, but we'll let that pass). This gives us 200 megabytes * 26 = 5.078125 gigabytes of information in a human.

Fark.com has perhaps 1000 photoshop contests, each with 100 submissions of 100k. This gives us 1 000 * 100 * (100 kilobytes) = 9.53674316 gigabytes of information in fark.

Was fark created by intelligent design? I think not.
Ipso facto, there is no god.
posted by metaculpa at 2:17 PM on December 10, 2004


But, there are lots of question about which we don't know the mechanism.

Except that evolution is not one of them, which disproves ID.
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:18 PM on December 10, 2004


I've heard stories like this about astronomers - they reach a point in their studies where they recognize that all of the math and physics governing things here on earth also fit really neatly into the big huge universe and it all gets...just...too amazing for them to handle. They say it couldn't have happened by accident. And maybe they're right. But of course they're going to keep finding the same patterns everywhere they look until they discover new patterns, no?

And the theory of evolution involves a lot more than "this turned into that". It's so infuriating when people choose to dismiss the entire theory by just saying "no way I came from mud."

I guess the idea of an earth that is billions of years old is just too difficult to grasp. It is to me, at least.
posted by billysumday at 2:19 PM on December 10, 2004


Of course, Fark can be rather boobies funny at times.
posted by metaculpa at 2:19 PM on December 10, 2004


1) We can't explain everything

2) Therefore, God exists


3) profit
posted by lord_wolf at 2:19 PM on December 10, 2004


Was fark created by intelligent design? I think not.

Except that it was. "Intelligent Design" just means "someone with intelligence [relative term, in the case of fark] designed this, as opposed to random chance".
posted by gd779 at 2:20 PM on December 10, 2004


I'm too busy right now, but philosophy doesn't discuss theology well. Often when philosophers start talking about religion, they end up, accidentally, with a statement about language. Anyway, philosophy can't really prove anything, but only describe things. Gods and other concepts that aren't contained in the world cannot be described and aren't available to philosophy.
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:21 PM on December 10, 2004


Richard Carrier:

The fact of the matter is: Flew hasn't really decided what to believe.... But he is increasingly persuaded that some sort of Deity brought about this universe, though it does not intervene in human affairs, nor does it provide any postmortem salvation.

Perhaps from this statement we can assume he's not an elderly man confronted with his impending mortality grasping at straws...?
posted by Specklet at 2:22 PM on December 10, 2004


[relative term, in the case of fark]
You stole my bad joke!
posted by metaculpa at 2:22 PM on December 10, 2004


Gd779, evolution is not random chance. This is a common misunderstanding. I suggest you do some reading.
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:23 PM on December 10, 2004


I think that one of the things about the history of science is that just about everything that was at one time apparently inexplicable and arbitrary has turned out to be simple and necessary.

gd779: Except that it was. "Intelligent Design" just means "someone with intelligence [relative term, in the case of fark] designed this, as opposed to random chance".

I'm trying to decide if this is a straw man, or a false duality. If the history of the universe was simply about "random chance" then there would be no point in trying to develop theories about it.

AlexReynolds: Except that evolution is not one of them, which disproves ID.

I think that in taking my quote out of context there, that you have mangled my argument in that I was not talking at all about evolution.

In addition, my argument is that we might be ignorant about a mechanism, but that is no reason to assume a supernatural mechanism.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:28 PM on December 10, 2004


Except that it was. "Intelligent Design" just means "someone with intelligence [relative term, in the case of fark] designed this, as opposed to random chance".

Actually, if you're referring to Evolutionary Theory as the opposition, you're not talking about random chance. You're talking about the very non-random selection of random mutations that confer a benefit of added survivability to an organism in a given environment. The environment defines the criteria for the selection in a way that is quite non-random.

Also, I think metaculpa was kidding. :)
posted by BoatMeme at 2:28 PM on December 10, 2004


All those saying he is hedging his bets should read the linked article. He states clearly that he doesn't believe in an afterlife and is more of a Deist. His argument is for an intelligent force in the universe which is greater than ours.

It seems to me that, either through age or senility or just plain exhaustion, he has been touched with a sense of the mystical. It's ok to acknowledge this. A sense of the profound and mystical in the world, a belief in greater forces does not automatically lead to irrational behavior and attendance at Sunday church.

I'm secretly glad to hear this as it supports my own view that the most extreme atheists (Brights included) have more in common with the religions than they think. The prevailing road to sanity is moderation which I think most people are afraid of because they love to cling to absolutes.
posted by vacapinta at 2:28 PM on December 10, 2004


Oops, take back my previous post about Flew's being as sharp as a tack, looks as though xammerboy's find is not on this recent news. Keep the comments about his books.

I'm surprised that mechanistic deism is even a belief in God at all. Despite all of this, it should by no means hurt the arguments for atheism that one of their proponents wavers. That's the strength of philosophy, arguments have a life of their own. They're good if they follow certain rules, not if anyone likes them.
posted by ontic at 2:29 PM on December 10, 2004


You stole my bad joke!

Sorry! Damn, my bad, I was thinking too much. That's quite funny now that I realize you weren't being serious.

Gd779, evolution is not random chance.

I didn't say it was. I said that Intelligent Design claims to be an attempt to distinguish between things that are designed and things that are random. However, I should note that there is some loose, colloquial sense of the word in which evolution is random, and I think you're being over-literal, but whatever.
posted by gd779 at 2:30 PM on December 10, 2004


However, I should note that there is some loose, colloquial sense of the word in which evolution is random, and I think you're being over-literal, but whatever.

You are accidently or deliberately promulgating a common and deep misunderstanding of the definition of evolution. There is nothing random about the mechanism of evolution.

Not coincidentally, that fallacy is used to prop up a lot of defenses for ID/Creationism/name-of-the-week.

Biologists would not take a discussion with you very seriously if you were not willing to be clear about your understanding of the subject.

Just a quick observation from a "non-scientist", like myself.
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:37 PM on December 10, 2004


Never understood atheists...agnostics, sure, 'cos you can't prove the existence of God...but atheists sure do accept a lot on faith, it seems to me.

I mean, everything and everybody came from *somewhere*, so it seems kind of illogical to completely rule out the possibility of a Creator.
posted by 1016 at 2:37 PM on December 10, 2004


Where did the Creator come from?
posted by AlexReynolds at 2:39 PM on December 10, 2004


Well, as an atheist, I don't rule out the possibility of a creator. As an earlier link pointed out, an atheist is someone who finds the claims to god not convincing enough to justify belief, not a person who can prove the non-existence of god.

But why should I believe in a creator rather than any of the other theories about the creation of the universe such as the collision of hyperdimensional membraines, quantum foam, cyclic universes or white holes?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:45 PM on December 10, 2004


Never understood atheists...agnostics, sure, 'cos you can't prove the existence of God...but atheists sure do accept a lot on faith, it seems to me.

I mean, everything and everybody came from *somewhere*, so it seems kind of illogical to completely rule out the possibility of a Creator.


I've never seen a pig fly. I believe pig's can't fly. I suppose it's possible that one day a pig may fly, but in conversation, I don't say, "oh ho hum, I'm not sure, maybe pigs can fly. Maybe they can't. It's impossible to know for sure." I just say, "pigs can't fly." God should be judged by no different standards.

And on preview, also what AlexReynolds said.
posted by drpynchon at 2:49 PM on December 10, 2004


You are accidently or deliberately promulgating a common and deep misunderstanding of the definition of evolution.

First, to clear some things up: I believe in evolution and I'm agnostic. So please stop with the accusations of deliberate deceit. It's just than my views are more nuanced than you are perhaps used to.

Still, I suppose your point is fair enough. When I think of Intelligent Design, I tend to think not of evolution and Behe, but of math and Dembski; in particular, I remember reading Dembski's graduate thesis on randomness vs. design. In his thesis (which was peer-reviewed and published by Cambridge University Press, and also got him his PhD in mathematics at Chicago, IIRC) Dembski does specifically describe evolution as "random", but I don't think he's referring to the same aspects of evolution that you are referring to. It's been a while since I read the book, so I can't be more precise than that.

And so, while my description is one perfectly valid interpretation of ID theory, I can also see how, in the more popular context of evolution, using the word "random" could be pretty misleading. I'll be more precise in the future.
posted by gd779 at 2:51 PM on December 10, 2004


If you take the "a-" in "atheist" to mean "without" instead of "not" or "against", atheism is much more understandable.
posted by starkeffect at 2:51 PM on December 10, 2004


Alex, I think the mistake is in thinking that evolution behaves randomly when it doesn't at all, the results of evolution can be construed as random because they are in many ways. Random mutations and changes result in a more survivable species.

But the process itself isn't random, perhaps chaotic but chaos isn't random, its chaotic. Or maybe not.

And the where did the Creator come from is probably the oldest and easiest anti-diety argument there is.
posted by fenriq at 2:51 PM on December 10, 2004


Where did the Creator come from?

There's one mefite that knows.
posted by euphorb at 2:53 PM on December 10, 2004


Never understood atheists...agnostics, sure, 'cos you can't prove the existence of God...but atheists sure do accept a lot on faith, it seems to me.

I mean, everything and everybody came from *somewhere*, so it seems kind of illogical to completely rule out the possibility of a Creator.



So, then, you believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, as well?
posted by bshort at 2:54 PM on December 10, 2004


Ahh but pigs DO fly.
Just not very far....
posted by Rashomon at 2:57 PM on December 10, 2004


xammerboy, as much as I wish you were right, you're not. Articles now actually dispute that and specifically reference that three year old article - this is a new conversion.

However, he continually says that he's not into Christianity or any other major world religion - he believes in an "Aristotelian prime mover," rather than a deity that gives a damn about us now.

And it's still stupid because you get the "turtles all the way down" problem.
posted by u.n. owen at 2:58 PM on December 10, 2004


Biologists would not take a discussion with you very seriously if you were not willing to be clear about your understanding of the subject.

I'll have that discussion, as long as he doesn't steal my jokes. And I think he's right on, for the most part; the word random can be rather tricky, though. Evolution does seem random in the sense that all chaotic phenomena are random. That is, they can be directed - as the butterflies supposedly direct hurricanes to kill us all, or as coins are 'directed' to land on a face rather than an edge. But evolution is random in that it is unpredictable, and depends heavily on stochastic events.

The importance of randomness in evolution is exemplified in phenomena such as the founder effect, genetic drift, the bottleneck effect, and whatnot. But it's also clearly seen in natural selection - more 'adapted' individuals are likely to survive, and thus the genetic basis of their adaptations will spread. This is different than the more causal possibility, in which all of the more adaptive survive while all others die.

There is nothing random about the mechanism of evolution.

Anyway, I don't know how to read this as a biologist. Care to elaborate? Perhaps you mean the Hardy-Weinberg effect, in which the relative proportions of various alleles are stable (and thus predictable, ie., non-random) over time? As I understand it, all of the interesting bits of biology happen when the Hardy-Weinberg conditions are violated. Anyway, what did you mean?

Ipso facto, I want a soda.
posted by metaculpa at 2:58 PM on December 10, 2004


I'll have that discussion, as long as he doesn't steal my jokes.

Sorry, my bad, meta culpa.
posted by gd779 at 3:07 PM on December 10, 2004


Genetic drift is not the selection mechanism; selection does not act on that pool of alleles. See Kimura's neutral theory for more info.
posted by AlexReynolds at 3:09 PM on December 10, 2004


bshort: "So, then, you believe in the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, as well?"

Uh, no...but I am curious: can you tell me how your logic took you to this observation?

I simply said that it is illogical and irrational to rule out unequivocally the *possibility* of a Supreme Being...what's hard to understand about that? And how does that lead to a belief in the Tooth Fairy, etc.?
posted by 1016 at 3:09 PM on December 10, 2004


Oops! I forgot to acknowledge that the first time. No prob, dude. I'm just raggin.
(And seriously overextending my pun, apparrently.)

posted by metaculpa at 3:10 PM on December 10, 2004


We still don't know rubies devoloped. But we don't say that because we don't know of a natural mechanism yet, that one cannot exist.

In fairness, the explanation gap between living organisms and lifeless matter is a lot bigger than anything in the mineral world.

I remember how Stephen Jay Gould in his lectures used to like to refer to "the chemistry of self-organizing systems" as a supposedly promising front in overcoming our mystification in the face of the existence of life... In my book, many scientists' desperate recourse to this kind of nonrigorous pseudoscience is just as telling a sign of desperation as the intelligent design folks' kneejerk assertion of God.

I wish we could all recognize our helplessness re two extremely important natural questions:
  1. The fact that there is matter as opposed to no matter. (Our growing understanding of what happened to the matter at the "beginning" of our universe has not really addressed this.)
  2. The fact that there is life as opposed to no life. (Our incredible strides in understanding the development of life after its origins, again, has not really begun to address this more basic question.)
There are those who think these two just aren't scientific questions. And there are those who want to build up a scientific framework in which we might begin to understand them... But the ones who piss me off are the ones (scientists or pontificating religiosi) who think they know jack doodle about either one. Delusion. (You might allow an exception for gnosis on the one side, but for scientists there is no excuse.)

I'm concerned that some of the people on MeFi who like to mock every spiritual speculation in the face of scientifically (currently) inscrutable questions suffer from precisely this species of delusion.
posted by Zurishaddai at 3:14 PM on December 10, 2004


I don't mean to say that drift (etc.) are selection mechanisms, only that they (and thus randomnesses) play a large part in evolution. I guess I'm saying what Kimura says himself - ie., to piece together the article and the title:

"The theory attributes a large role to genetic drift." in "molecular evolution".

I guess I do too. I can't tell whether you're saying that you do too. Perhaps where we differ is that my understanding of evolution is not "where does selection act", but instead "what are the causative agents of change in a species over time" - which does seem compatible with neutral evolution to me. ??
posted by metaculpa at 3:15 PM on December 10, 2004


elwood, while this is not absolutely the case, contemporary philosophy generally steers clear of the God issue. The problems with constructing a valid argument for the existence of God has convinced many that it isn't worthwhile.

Of course, some feel the need to embark on a quest to do just this, but they are in the minority. In the English-speaking world, philosophy departments are steeped in the Analytic tradition, and very few analytic philosophers get involved in proofs of the existence of God, except insofar as they critique those offered by others - (Alvin Plantinga might be an exception, but the only one that comes to mind).

The general consensus seems to be that arguments for the existence of God are irrelevant to Christianity, so there is little need to become involved for that reason, that they are particularly problematic, and are less interesting than the other areas of pursuit in contemporary philosophy.
posted by Tullius at 3:15 PM on December 10, 2004


Zurishaddai, you have the best name eva.

The fact that there is life as opposed to no life. (Our incredible strides in understanding the development of life after its origins, again, has not really begun to address this more basic question.)

I think a parallel question (and the major problem) is that of what life is. Life is self-propagating; does that mean that all self-organizing and self-propagating systems are life? Clearly not. But it may be that by studying self-organizing systems, we can start to develop a way of testing whether they are the origin of life. At this level of science (ie., flailing around in the dark, and quite happily at that) you're looking for a theory and a way to test it. I think it's ok that we don't have that yet.

I have no idea about number 1, but I assume the same of physicists as I do of biologists. Flailing happily, hypothesizing like there's no tomorrow, wondering OH WONDERING how on earth to test it.

suffer from precisely this species of delusion.

I'm sure you're right. Also, excellent use of 'species'.
posted by metaculpa at 3:20 PM on December 10, 2004


Threadjack. Sorry. Now back to our regularly scheduled debate about philosophy.
posted by metaculpa at 3:28 PM on December 10, 2004


Now that I think of it, this has been a good year for Intelligent Design theory. They got two new peer-reviewed articles, a favorable review in the Harvard Law Review, and now a prominent rationalist is semi-endorsing their perspective.

[threadjack]
No prob, dude. I'm just raggin.

It's cool, dude. I was just trying to make a joke by stealing your joke during my apology for stealing your other joke.
[/threadjack]

posted by gd779 at 3:38 PM on December 10, 2004


classic case of the argument from personal incredulity

Hey fenriq (to carry over from another topic): I used to have trouble believing how stupid people can be. Now I have a much easier time suspending disbelief; now I have a hard time suspending my dismay.
posted by davy at 3:39 PM on December 10, 2004



1) We can't explain everything

2) Therefore, God exists


fleetmouse, you left out part of this (in our culture at least)

3) ...

4) Profit
posted by rubin at 3:43 PM on December 10, 2004


contemporary philosophy generally steers clear of the God issue.

Here's a question I've been pondering for a while. If you did want to examine this question within the academy, where would you go? To the philosophy department, to the divinity school? Or must you try and find some kind of tolerant religious university?
posted by gd779 at 3:44 PM on December 10, 2004


Well I'll be damned. I just this week was writing a satire about how a prominent atheist converted on his deathbed and devastated a generation of scientists who dreamt of a utopia unmarred by religion. My model was not Flew, however, it was this guy, who has always struck me as a candidate for radical bedside conversion if there ever was one.

I guess in retrospect it was naive of me to think this idea was too hyperbolic for real life. Life imitates bad satire.
posted by mowglisambo at 3:49 PM on December 10, 2004


I think my problem with Flew's new position--filtered as it is through the medium of popular science/philosophy journalism, which is more often irritating than good--is that it's based on biological issues which I doubt he's competent to judge. I can understand where he's coming from -- when one learns about (in his case) how DNA works, it's hard not to be impressed by the complexity and the excellent "design" of the system. I was affected similarly, some years back, by reading a recent text on how neurons work. But I think that, in general, philosophers make poor scientists and vice versa. (Stephen Hawking, for example, seems to think that the only need for a God is to explain the Big Bang.)
posted by uosuaq at 3:52 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779, it seems to me that the best place to examine such questions in an academic setting would be Theology programs. Still, there are universities (largely religious ones) whose Philosophy programs are heavily invested in Phil. of religion. These are in the minority, though.
posted by Tullius at 3:55 PM on December 10, 2004


Yes, more importantly, what does the belief in a god, God, gods, supreme being, creator, etc., mean to those who believe.

As the article points out, dude is basically throwing up his hands and saying there must be an intelligent creator to all this mess, but not one like the Christian or Islamic God.

That is very different from most people's belief in God, an anthropocentric, Big Daddy in the Sky view of God. The word God carries too many meanings to be useful for any discussion of how this stuff got here.

Flew strikes me as one who cannot be comfortable with not knowing. Needs to read up on Taoism.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 3:56 PM on December 10, 2004


"I simply said that it is illogical and irrational to rule out unequivocally the *possibility* of a Supreme Being...what's hard to understand about that? And how does that lead to a belief in the Tooth Fairy, etc.?"

Well, if you can't rule out the possibility of the existence Supreme Being, you can't rule out the possibility that the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Great Pumpkin (among others) exist either.

Funny thing, that "logic" stuff.
posted by zoogleplex at 3:57 PM on December 10, 2004


BTW, didn't mean that as snarky, because it's entirely true that we cannot rule out the existence of a Supreme Being. We simply can't prove that one DOES exist by any standard of logic or science. Same goes for those other imaginary beings.

OR ARE THEY???!!??
posted by zoogleplex at 3:58 PM on December 10, 2004


Zoo: What's your point? That Santa's real? I don't understand.

On preview: Nevermind, you sort explained yourself.
posted by hughbot at 4:01 PM on December 10, 2004


hughbot: POSSIBLY!!! But there's no way to really know.

;)
posted by zoogleplex at 4:02 PM on December 10, 2004


We simply can't prove that [God] DOES exist by any standard of logic or science.

But there are, of course, good reasons to believe that God might exist, unlike, say, Santa Claus. The problems of consciousness and qualia, for example. Sartre's "God-shaped hole". The anthropic principle. The order and surprising intelligibility of the universe. Other reasons, which I am too tired to list.
posted by gd779 at 4:08 PM on December 10, 2004


Nov 24 2004: Metafilter thread on Thomas Jefferson's religious beliefs. Response: chorus of approval; Jefferson is praised as a courageous atheist who stood up against theocracy.

Dec 10 2004: Metafilter thread on Antony Flew's religious beliefs. Response: general derision; Flew is attacked as a senile old man frightened of mortality.

Hmm .. and Flew describes himself as a deist like Thomas Jefferson .. Double standards, anyone?
posted by verstegan at 4:10 PM on December 10, 2004


It seems that Flew may have based his decision on work by Roy Varghese, which apparently argues that there is no possible natural mechanism for the genesis of self-replicating molecules. It seems that such an argument would be tricky, at best. You might be able to manage something with thermodynamics, I suppose.

Anyway, two points:
1. This doesn't seem to have much to do with evolution. Flew seems to have no problem accepting the evolution of complex life from simple self-replicating molecular systems. The question of the origin of life and of biological molecules is much further out there, scientifically speaking, than are any questions in evolution.

2. I cannot for the life of me find any of Varghese's arguments (or refutations of them) online. Has anyone heard of this guy? How does he argue for the impossibility of a natural origin of life?
posted by mr_roboto at 4:11 PM on December 10, 2004


If people find out it's been Mom and Dad answering prayers this whole time, they're gonna be pissed.
posted by hughbot at 4:12 PM on December 10, 2004


*glares at gd779*

I believe that bringing me presents every Xmas is a VERY VERY GOOD REASON INDEED for Santa to exist.

/riffin'

I should say that I'm firmly convinced of God's existence, but only for very personal reasons that wouldn't prove anything to anyone else... so I keep it personal.

Santa, jury's still out on. But I know my mom was the Tooth Fairy, because otherwise I think I would have gotten more than a dime per tooth. Inflation was pretty bad in the '70s.
posted by zoogleplex at 4:13 PM on December 10, 2004


I have to admit that, reading this discussion late in the day, I gave some of the entries a cursory reading. With that in mind...

It seems that this discussion of religion vs. atheism is a bit hobbled by the prevailing perspective that by "religion" we mean a worldview presupposing a definite creator-figure who, well, creates everything, and "atheism" as either against that or choosing to live without believing in that.

That seems to me to be a drastic narrowing of religious thought down to what, for me at least, is a very small detail.

That is to say, in terms of religion, what does the nature of the creating force matter? Does it really make any difference if the creative force is a singular being who modeled human beings after his own image or if it was simply an explosion of matter?

In either scenario, the end result is the same. I would call myself a deeply religious person, and I can even imagine myself enjoying a religious service (as much as I used to hate going to church). Does this mean I believe in a creator? No, I see no reason too--it doesn't make any difference.

Anyways, sorry if this was preachy, I didn't intend that at all, but I can't help but reccomend what for me I found a deeply influential book in this regard--don't mind the kitschy title.

In any case, my main point is that if you're going to discuss religion and the merits thereof, you're doing yourself a bit of a disservice to confine your discuss to a strict contemporary Abrahamic interpretation of what religion is.
posted by goodglovin77 at 4:16 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779: Isn't the anthropic principle an argument against human exceptionalism? How can it be used as an argument for the divine?
posted by mr_roboto at 4:18 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779: "But there are, of course, good reasons to believe that God might exist, unlike, say, Santa Claus."

Exactly...it's mind-boggling to me that this point even had to be made.
posted by 1016 at 4:21 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779: Isn't the anthropic principle an argument against human exceptionalism? How can it be used as an argument for the divine?

Here is my understanding of the issue: There are different versions of the anthropic principle. What you're referring to is sometimes also called the Weak Anthropic Principle, and it's just a simple description of observer selection bias. The parameters that we observe in our environment must not be incompatible with our existence, in other words. But the Weak Anthropic Principle was formulated primarily to combat what is sometimes called the "Strong Anthropic Principle", which is a recognition of the fact that the physical laws of the universe seem very finely-tuned to be hospitible to human life. And, on its face, this seems very unlikely, even taking the Weak Anthropic Principle into account. Of course, it's possible to explain this away by positing some kind of multiple-universe theory, but that's fairly speculative so far.
posted by gd779 at 4:37 PM on December 10, 2004


Um, well if you go by evolution, human life is what it is BECAUSE of the physical laws of the universe; the fact that we have evolved in the universe means we've become finely-tuned to it, not vice-versa - through natural selection and other processes inherent to the universe.

So, "egg" first (environment), THEN "chicken" (us).
posted by zoogleplex at 4:43 PM on December 10, 2004


Zurishaddai: I wish we could all recognize our helplessness re two extremely important natural questions:

Well, I am not exactly certain that I can agree that we are "helpless". Stephen Hawking pointed out in one of his essays that one of the consequences of 20th-century science and cosmology is that facts about the universe that previously had been seen as arbitrary have been revealed as necessary. For example, unifying the electric force with the weak force resolved some mysteries that had been seen previously as examples of the anthropic principle at action, leaving quite a bit less room for "God did it."

The fact that there is matter as opposed to no matter. (Our growing understanding of what happened to the matter at the "beginning" of our universe has not really addressed this.)

But this is not an area on which we are "helpless". In a previous century, we did not have the tools to explore questions about the early history of the solar system. Now, as our theory and our experimental technology develops, we have been pushing our window of vision into the past closer and closer to the Big Bang. There are quite a few theories about how the Big Bang happened, and many of these theories have the potential to be tested.

The fact that there is life as opposed to no life. (Our incredible strides in understanding the development of life after its origins, again, has not really begun to address this more basic question.)

And again, this is not an area on which we are "helpless". We can create hypotheses about how the first forms of life may have developed from inorganic molecules, and many of the basic building blocks have been produced using mechanisms that are consistent and plausible with what we know about the early history of the earth.

I'm concerned that some of the people on MeFi who like to mock every spiritual speculation in the face of scientifically (currently) inscrutable questions suffer from precisely this species of delusion.

My basic response is "why God?" Why should we privilege God as the hypothesis for explaining these two events over the dozens of other equally valid hypotheses? Certainly, if at some point evidence does show that there was some divine intelligence involved in either the Big Bang, or biogenesis, then we have to follow that evidence at that time. On the other hand, the absence of evidence in these two cases is not evidence for God. I am under no obligation to accept God as the hypothesis to the exclusion of other hypotheses.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:53 PM on December 10, 2004


Um, well if you go by evolution, human life is what it is BECAUSE of the physical laws of the universe; the fact that we have evolved in the universe means we've become finely-tuned to it, not vice-versa

It's more fundamental than that. For example, consider the famous "flatness problem". The space of our universe, if looked at on large enough scales of distance, is on average astonishingly flat. This is a very good thing, because if the flatness of space not been fantastically small to begin with, the universe would either have collapsed and ended a very short time—a tiny fraction of a second—after it began, or would have undergone such a tremendously rapid expansion that it would have torn matter and even atoms asunder. Evolution can't adapt to a universe which ends just after it begins. And if there aren't multiple universes, then the establishment of the laws of physics are basically a one-shot proposition. We either got incredibly lucky, or the universe was designed to last, or you have to speculate about multiple universes.

The most famous anthropic coincidence involves the creation of Carbon-12, which is pretty important to our universe. It turns out that, except for a certain very precise relationship satisfied by the energy levels of the Carbon–12 nucleus, most of the chemical elements in nature would have occurred in only very minute quantities, greatly dimming the prospects of life.

There are, of course, a lot of other examples. But you get the idea.
posted by gd779 at 4:55 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779: But the Weak Anthropic Principle was formulated primarily to combat what is sometimes called the "Strong Anthropic Principle", which is a recognition of the fact that the physical laws of the universe seem very finely-tuned to be hospitible to human life.

And I think this is what Hawking is suggesting when he says that such "arbitrary fine-tuning" may turn out to be less arbitrary than what had previously been proposed. For example, the universe could be flat because other, currently undiscovered properties constrain it to be flat.

In much the same way, chemistry seemed pretty arbitrary until the development of the periodic table discovered that the relationship between hydrogen and oxygen was constrained by underlying laws.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:59 PM on December 10, 2004


There are different versions of the anthropic principle.

gd779: That's how I understand it as well, except that the Weak Anthropic principle came first (early 70s, I think), and the SAP was a response to it. The SAP goes beyond pointing out that the universe appears fine-tuned for life (which prompted the WAP, originally) to posit that intelligent life is necessary and sufficient for the existence of the universe. Or something like that; I could never quite figure out how the argument follows.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:01 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779: "But there are, of course, good reasons to believe that God might exist, unlike, say, Santa Claus."
1016: Exactly...it's mind-boggling to me that this point even had to be made.


Your god-concept is an unsupported assertion.

So is the existence of zeus, leprechauns, santa, unicorns, the loch ness monster, and thousands of other mythical beings. Yet, amongst these invisible characters, why do you find it mind-boggling that your invisible friend is held to the same standard as the other unsupported assertions?
posted by jsonic at 5:03 PM on December 10, 2004


the universe could be flat because other, currently undiscovered properties constrain it to be flat.

It could turn out that way, sure. There are an aweful lot of anthropic coincidences to explain, and the universe as we currently know it seems pretty convenient, but science has been good at explaining coincidences in the past. Still, taken in addition to the perception of Free Will (which probably can't exist under a purely materialist conception of the universe) and qualia and the very surprising intelligibility of the universe, it seems to me that your belief in the ultimate triumph of science is... well, faith. "The evidence of things not yet seen".
posted by gd779 at 5:04 PM on December 10, 2004


If the influx of new members means we can have discussions of religion that don't instantly devolve into exchanges of "religion is stoopid!" "nuh-uh, you're stoopid," then I'm all for it. Well commented, everyone.
posted by languagehat at 5:07 PM on December 10, 2004


Your god-concept is an unsupported assertion.

No, it's just not a proposition that's been adequately supported in this thread. And I'll gladly provide the support you're asking for, as soon as you specify your epistemology for me. I need to know how to approach the question.
posted by gd779 at 5:09 PM on December 10, 2004


Even if you grant that he's not senile (doubtful), tens of thousands of athiests DON'T have deathbed conversions. So why should I care what this one old guy thinks again?? Shall we post for every one of the many, many thousands of people who were once religious and are now not? Most people move from error to truth, but it doesn't always work in that direction. This is a bad post.
posted by rushmc at 5:10 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779: Still, taken in addition to the perception of Free Will (which probably can't exist under a purely materialist conception of the universe) and qualia and the very surprising intelligibility of the universe, it seems to me that your belief in the ultimate triumph of science is... well, faith. "The evidence of things not yet seen".

Well, here I'm really baffled. I'm not certain how Free Will and qualia pose a problem (although, I'm well aware that philosophers love to create unnecessary and imaginary problems around imaginary constructs). Likewise, if the universe is governed by some laws that make for predictable behavior, why wouldn't it be intelligible? (The essay you posted just seems to be a replay of "I think, therefore I am, therefore God" which also has echos in C. S. Lewis's Trancendental argument.)

Also, I think you misread me. I don't have faith in the eventual triumph of science to uncover those basic laws. On that point, I think you are radically misreading me. What I do argue is the following:

1) Our current inability to explain a phenomenon does not mean we should favor "God did it" over the dozens of potential other hypotheses.

2) "God did it" is inherently a worse hypotheses than others because it provides no framework for exploring possible answers to the question.

There is, I think at work here, a major difference between the atheist and the theist. As an atheist, the fact that I don't know how the first cell developed does not bother me. The fact that I don't know how the big bang happened does not bother me. The fact that we may never know does not bother me. I don't expect there to be an answer to everything.

However, it seems like there is this rather persistent desire from theists to plug every possible hole with "God did it." We don't know how the big bang started, therefore "God did it." We don't know how the first cell formed, "God did it." Well, once we say, "God did it" the only other thing we can say is "God works in mysterious ways."

In contrast, if we propose that the first cell came into existence through a mineral process, then we can explore questions like, "under what conditions do bi-lipid membranes form naturally?" and "what are the minimal requirements for self-replicating molecules?"
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:25 PM on December 10, 2004


I'll gladly provide the support you're asking for, as soon as you specify your epistemology for me

Ok, let's assume that our senses aren't completely lying to us and that a claim must somehow be independently verifiable in order to be seen as supported. I suppose we'd also have to settle on which specific god-concept to analyze, so lets go with a generic Christian one.

Please provide your support that the existence of this being is anything other than an unsupported assertion.
posted by jsonic at 5:26 PM on December 10, 2004


I don't mean to be snarky, gd779, but honestly, it all sounds to me like you're reaching. At it's heart, the anthropic principle is no different than the intelligent design argument, which is no different than it's grandpappy, "but it all must have come from somewhere right?"

The universe is the way it is, and it does happen to have life. One can speak of this phenomenon as though the odds are incredibly slim, but the dice have already been cast, and the probability is now 1. This is it, and it is what it is.

You can't think of events which have already occurred probabilistically without a context. Compare the universe to the ace of spades. What are the chances that we've drawn the ace of spades? Well, what does "drawing" even mean? Was there a deck? Were there a finite number of cards in the deck? Who knows, but it's convenient to see things in this light when you come at the problem already knowing what a deck is, and having placed particular value on the ace. There's bias in the way you see the world, and that bias is that you already have been ingrained with the concept of God, and you're eagerly hoping to answer a question which just can't be answered.

Moreover, approaching the notion of a creator in this light becomes literally valueless. At least if you believe in the Christian God, we have more teleology. We have both a God and a God with a purpose reflected in how intelligent life should conduct itself. Even if one is to accept rational design or the anthropic principle, I have to ask, what's the point? Can we extend such a view of the universe to anything really useful about how we should live our lives? Isn’t that really what the point of “God” is ultimately all about?

Now we can talk about semantics and linguistics until the big question has no meaning at all.
posted by drpynchon at 5:27 PM on December 10, 2004


rushmc, Anthony Flew was a highly influential atheist and a staunch defender of rationalism.

If the Pope suddenly became an atheist, I'd consider that news.
posted by vacapinta at 5:32 PM on December 10, 2004


Ok, let's assume that our senses aren't completely lying to us and that a claim must somehow be independently verifiable in order to be seen as supported.

That's not an epistemology. What do you mean by "supported"? What is "truth", and how do you know when a proposition is "true"? What do you mean by "independently verifiable"? Etc.

Kirkjobsluder: As I understand your argument, you're saying that precluding God as a hypothesis allows us to better explore the mechanics of nature through science. Fair enough, but 1) this is a pragmatic reason for not assessing the evidence that favors the existence of God, and in principle it does not alter the possible truth of that hypothesis and 2) indeed, the cost of encouraging future research to proceed on materialist grounds is that you bias any examination of the current evidence, 3) you also foreclose any exploration of "spiritual" questions, such as "does Free Will exist", and 4) you run the risk of forgetting that science is ultimately a branch of philosophy, which tempts you to believe its conclusions are more certain than they actually are, which may lead to the fetishization of scientific knowledge, even though science isn't the appropriate tool for exploring, say, morality.

That said, I'm still fairly sympathetic to your point of view, and I'm not yet sure what the ultimate answer is.

I don't mean to be snarky, gd779, but honestly, it all sounds to me like you're reaching.

Well, first of all, it's not my argument. Physics isn't my area of expertise, to say the least, and the existence of God isn't a question I'm currently focused on answering. But the assertion was made that there was absolutely no reason to believe that God exists, and since I know a couple of physicists who are persuaded that the strong anthropic principle supports the existence of God, I mentioned it.

Compare the universe to the ace of spades. What are the chances that we've drawn the ace of spades? Well, what does "drawing" even mean? Was there a deck? Were there a finite number of cards in the deck?

The argument, as I understand it, some finely-tuned property (say, the resonance I mentioned in Carbon-12) can vary almost infinitely, but only very precise values result in a universe hospitable to human life (or order).

approaching the notion of a creator in this light becomes literally valueless.

See, this is the root of our disagreement, though I understand the sentiment. You want to see value in religion, KirkJobSluder wants to promote science, but I just want to see as clearly as I can.
posted by gd779 at 6:08 PM on December 10, 2004


If anyone is interested in reading a little bit of classic Flew that's reasonably approachable, check out this conversation about The Invisible Gardener.

Anyone who twitches when they hear "God is Love" will appreciate it. It's about how one can have a conversation about an entity, such as God, if that entity has no properties, or is defined in pure abstract terms having nothing to do with actually *existing*.
posted by Voivod at 6:16 PM on December 10, 2004


See, this is the root of our disagreement, though I understand the sentiment. You want to see value in religion, KirkJobSluder wants to promote science, but I just want to see as clearly as I can.

Truly? Again, I have to wonder why. What is the value of knowledge which at best will be nowhere near definitive and at the same time will have no impact what-so-ever on the way you live your life? I guess I could understand if there truly were an answer the question. Like if you just had to know the 30 billionth digit of pi. But you, yourself realize that at best, the tv's going to have terrible reception on this channel for the entirety of your life.

Unless the rapture is indeed soon coming, that is.
posted by drpynchon at 6:16 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779, impugning motives in this case is pretty wet; KJS is notably critical of scientism, that is, over-reverence for science beyond its natural bounds. He's whacked me for it once or twice. Implying that the other party has an agenda is generally a fallback for those who've exhausted their arguments.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:31 PM on December 10, 2004


What is the value of knowledge which at best will be nowhere near definitive and at the same time will have no impact what-so-ever on the way you live your life?

drpynchon, asking if God exists and trying to describe It is a lot like the other classic questions like trying to define beauty or essentially pointless musing about love and happiness. Just because it doesn't have a definitive answer doesn't mean the question is without value.
posted by Voivod at 6:32 PM on December 10, 2004


I've never seen a pig fly. I believe pig's can't fly.

Yes, but what if suddenly pigs were mysteriously transporting themselves from one city to the other, and we couldn't figure out how they were doing it? would it not be reasonable if SOME people came to the conclusion that maybe pigs can fly?

most folks don't believe in god because they've seen Him/It/She, but becuase their interpretation of their surroundings seems to infer his existence.
posted by glenwood at 6:33 PM on December 10, 2004


Nice dodge, gd. I gave you one general method of specifying what a supported claim would be (ie. how one would 'know' something). This is the comment section of a discussion website, there is no need to ruminate on the definition of every word in order to hold a discussion. Somehow I knew that your request for an epistemology was an effort to avoid supporting your assertion.

Choose whatever epistemology and god-concept that you find reasonable and show that it is anything more than an unsupported assertion.
posted by jsonic at 6:34 PM on December 10, 2004


George_Spiggott: Huh? I didn't attack KirkJobSluder's motives. He said that assuming that God doesn't exist helps scientists to do science; I pointed out that this also closes off certain avenues of inquiry, and that such pragmatic considerations do nothing to indicate what the truth of the question might actually be. I also said I was sympathetic to the argument, and that I didn't know what the right answer was.

That's not attacking his motives, it's pointing out the logical consequences of his choices.

Oh, wait, you're referring to my comment about "fetishization"? That wasn't directed specifically at Kirk, except in the sense that the policy he pursues increases the risk of encouraging scientism (in others) unless that is guarded against.

I have to wonder why. What is the value of knowledge which at best will be nowhere near definitive and at the same time will have no impact what-so-ever on the way you live your life?

Yeah, I do too. But the knowledge will be definitive in the sense that, at some point, I will be able to say "this is what we currently know. this is what we don't. And this is why." It's not an endless inquiry, at least.

Choose whatever epistemology and god-concept that you find reasonable and show that it is anything more than an unsupported assertion.

Excellent. I choose Dutch reformed epistemology, and I direct you to the works of Alvin Plantinga. Since I've chosen an explicitly Christian epistemology, I trust a specific explication of the proofs is unnecessary?

No. The point here was that I cannot possibly prove to your satisfaction that something is "true" if you don't yet know what you think truth is and how it is determined. You want me to give you "evidence", but you won't tell me what counts as evidence and what doesn't. If you get to define the rules of evidence as you go along, you can make any analysis come out any way you want. I'm not going to let you move the goalposts on me after I've started.

This is the comment section of a discussion website, there is no need to ruminate on the definition of every word in order to hold a discussion.

You are not intellectually disciplined. I'm tired of having this discussion with people who haven't thought through the issue, and who therefore feel they can slip (or are completely unaware of the fact that they are slipping) between conflicting epistemologies whenever it suits them. If you don't know what epistemological camp you fall into, if you haven't already done the hard work of isolating and either rejecting or affirming your presuppositions, then we can't have a fruitful conversation yet.
posted by gd779 at 6:54 PM on December 10, 2004


>If the Pope suddenly became an atheist, I'd consider that news.

I've never heard of this guy and the other atheists I know dimly remember his splash in the media way back when. Maybe he's more well known in England. Not exactly the pope.

A better analogy would be if biologists and zoologists the world over signed a statement claiming evolution must be the work of a higher power. Or if we had to pick one high profile atheist or secular humanist, perhaps Dawkins. Afterall, his "Blind Watchmaker" book is a play on the Deistic phrase "Divine Watchmaker."

I think there's a propaganda element to stuff like this, afterall something pro-xtian makes for a nice fluff piece and the "death bed confessional" and "no atheist in foxholes" myths are very popular, for many reasons, mostly involving mortality.

Boring statistics like 14% of americans dont follow any organized religion (sometimes called the 'none of the above' crowd), the fastest growing religion is Wicca, etc aren't half as exciting as a change or religion (or lack of). There's a vocal atheist who was an ex-preacher and uses his experience in the Church as the hook to sell books, evalengize, etc. In fact when items like these make the news they are usually "balanced" pieces with typical outrage about "our children" and " moral decline" in America BS.

Personally, I find the shift from non-belief to Deism to be trivial. The god of deism does nothing. Literally. It created the universe and stepped out. This was a popular belief system for 18th century intellectuals who didnt have evolution and other biological concepts to explain the complexity of the natural wold. Darwin wrote "Origin" in 1859, for reference.

Back to deism. I believe a deist must also accept other solipistic conclusions from "brains in a vat" to the Matrix being equally valid. The argument is "well, it looks like an intelligence did this" can have many conclusions, not just the currently popular mono-theistic god. Also, the deist must take paganism just as seriously too. At its root Deism is solipsism, as Deists (and theists for that matter) have no proof for the existance of these metaphysical beings.

Well, I hope his newfound Deism helps him face the inevitable. Knowing death is nearby is a harrowing thought indeed. But that doesnt change any facts nor does the fear of death suddenly create god or open eye's eyes to the truth. Arguably, as one approaches death one becomes open to ideas which can stop the psychological anxiety of knowing you are going to die, thus being more likely to believe metaphysics.
posted by skallas at 6:58 PM on December 10, 2004


rushmc, Anthony Flew was a highly influential atheist and a staunch defender of rationalism.

Again, so? His logic may have had some importance to others, but his subsequent lack of it (or his "faith") cannot. If a mathematician who was once important in the field (proved an obscure theorum or some such) suddenly starts denying that 2+2=4, with no argument attached to support such a claim or convice anyone of its validity, who would take him seriously? Rather, people would pat him on the head and say "that's nice, dear."

If the Pope suddenly became an atheist, I'd consider that news.

I agree that becoming rational is more newsworthy than becoming irrational (especially in one's 80s). But it would be "celebrity news" of minor and transient interest nonetheless.
posted by rushmc at 7:01 PM on December 10, 2004


>If a mathematician who was once important in the field (proved an obscure theorum or some such) suddenly starts denying that 2+2=4

Or if that person abused their "celebrity" to attack good ideas. Remember, Einstein denied the validity of quantum physics for quite some time. The famous quote, "God does not play dice with the universe" was a retort to the QM crowd that random events on the atomic level are impossible. Einstein was wrong.
posted by skallas at 7:07 PM on December 10, 2004


most folks don't believe in god because they've seen Him/It/She, but becuase their interpretation of their surroundings seems to infer his existence

Which doesn't preclude them from positing simplistic, uninformed, or demonstrably false interpretations which are not equivalent to other, better models. Otherwise my choice to believe spontaneous generation in mice would be as "good" as yours to accept the biological explication of their reproductive system. Which it isn't.

I'm tired of having this discussion with people who haven't thought through the issue

And many of us are tired of your posturing sophistry, which will never lead you nor anyone else to "see clearly."
posted by rushmc at 7:10 PM on December 10, 2004


rushmc has a point. This is a frustratingly pointless conversation in that we only have the fact of Flew's "conversion" and none of his arguments (apparently, we can expect them in the introduction to a new edition of God & Philosophy, to be published in the Spring).
posted by mr_roboto at 7:11 PM on December 10, 2004


The point here was that I cannot possibly prove to your satisfaction that something is "true" if you don't yet know what you think truth is and how it is determined.

There is no need for me to write you a tretise on my view of reality in order for you to attempt to explain what support you think there is for the existence of a certain god-concept. Instead of even trying to make your argument, you are hiding behind sophistry.

You are not intellectually disciplined. I'm tired of having this discussion with people who haven't thought through the issue

I call you on your assertion that you can provide support for the existence of a god-concept, and instead of even making an attempt, you fall back on an ad-hom. That's some amazing intellectual discipline you have there.
posted by jsonic at 7:17 PM on December 10, 2004


And many of us are tired of your posturing sophistry, which will never lead you nor anyone else to "see clearly."

What is the truth here, then? I'm open to hearing what you have to say. Just start at the beginning, by specifying the rules of evidence and your epistemology, and build your case. If I can accept your epistemic choices and your logic is correct, then I'll be have to agree that you're right.

Until then, what else can I do except continue "thinking out loud" until I find the answer?
posted by gd779 at 7:18 PM on December 10, 2004


err, treatise that is.
posted by jsonic at 7:19 PM on December 10, 2004


Instead of even making an attempt, you fall back on an ad-hom

This is true. I'm sorry.

There is no need for me to write you a tretise on my view of reality in order for you to attempt to explain what support you think there is for the existence of a certain god-concept.

This is not. My current view is that mediation between competing epistemologies is impossible; if we start from different substantive places, then we can both employ logic correctly and still wind up at contradictory conclusions. And no argument, I am currently persuaded, can be used to force either of us from our epistemic perches. As I said before, picking the rules of evidence is the whole ballgame.

I'm willing, for the sake of your request, to adopt your epistemology in arguendo, but for that to work, you need to know what it is first.
posted by gd779 at 7:22 PM on December 10, 2004


gd, we could save a lot of typing if you would just make your argument. Even a brief summary would do. I'm open to the idea that people might have a different metric for determining knowledge than I do.
posted by jsonic at 7:55 PM on December 10, 2004


STOP THE PRESSES
Sorry to Disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist!
by Antony Flew
Richard C. Carrier, current Editor in Chief of the Secular Web, tells me that "the internet has now become awash with rumors" that I "have converted to Christianity, or am at least no longer an atheist.

...

Those rumours speak false. I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist.

...



posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:35 PM on December 10, 2004


I'll gladly provide the support you're asking for, as soon as you specify your epistemology for me.

If you don't know what epistemological camp you fall into, if you haven't already done the hard work of isolating and either rejecting or affirming your presuppositions, then we can't have a fruitful conversation yet.

You've hit it on the head. For this discussion and so many others on MeFi, it all does start with epistemology. If it wouldn't lead to pigeon-holeing (sp?), I'd like to see a thread where contributors start off with a self-claimed worldview label of sorts (including epistemological stances).
posted by iwearredsocks at 8:45 PM on December 10, 2004


monkeysaltednuts - see one of the first few comments in this thread for link to same article. apparently it's from 2001, and

that article is three years old. Flew states, on a video recently released, that his views have now changed. says gd779.

The ol' boy's been coming around for a while now?
posted by iwearredsocks at 8:50 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779 has been called out on issues like this in the past and has always resorted to asking the other person to go first.

Which is kind of a weird reaction from someone who claims to value intellectual rigor so highly. You'd think that gd779 would have the balls to put forward his argument and not just require endless redefinitions of what "truth" is.
posted by bshort at 8:58 PM on December 10, 2004



posted by AlexReynolds at 9:36 PM on December 10, 2004


It's not a weird reaction if you consider his premise: meaningful dialogue is more likely to happen when we understand each other's premises.

Then we can move on to actual discussion of their screwed-up conclusions based on said premises!
posted by iwearredsocks at 9:39 PM on December 10, 2004


Anthropic, Shmanthropic

The whole Anthropic Principle (Strong or Weak) thing seems a little convenient to me. Maybe I'm dense, but isn't it the heighth of Anthropocentrism (sorry for the rendundancy) to assume that just because the universe happens to be an environment that facilitated the organization of "life", that it somehow had a Designer?

"The most famous anthropic coincidence involves the creation of Carbon-12, which is pretty important to our universe. It turns out that, except for a certain very precise relationship satisfied by the energy levels of the Carbon–12 nucleus, most of the chemical elements in nature would have occurred in only very minute quantities, greatly dimming the prospects of life." posted by gd779 at 7:55 PM EST on December 10

not to be snarky, but.... So What? Then we wouldn't be here having this conversation. But it isn't an argument for a designer, by any stretch. It is exactly what you said. A coincidence. Life started, as nearly as we can tell, as soon as the environment on earth favored it. Which is to say, very quickly. But that's still not an argument for why.

To say that because the universe happened to be a favorable situation for life to occur (as far as we can tell) is ultimately a circular argument. It is only through our limited, extremely narrow, self-centered view that we assume that there must be a Reason for this. In other words, if Life, and therefore Us, hadn't sprung up, then the universe might still be a place in which life would be favored, but had not happened.

What I'm trying to say is that these ideas have a presupposition that somehow, we are important. We are viewing the universe through a perceptual filter that is wholly biased to us having some value or weight in the grand scheme of things. The universe would still exist without us.

Please, (sincerely) if my logic is faulty, correct me. I'm honestly confused about why this is even an argument.
posted by exlotuseater at 9:45 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779 has been called out on issues like this in the past and has always resorted to asking the other person to go first.

What? What are you referring to? I think you have me confused with someone else; I don't recall anything like that at all. I make no secret of my thinking on epistemology; if anything, I encourage discussion of it, to help me clarify my own thoughts.

Since you asked specifically: I used to be an empiricist foundationalist, with varying foundations and degrees of intensity over time. But I was turned around when I started reading Quine, and now I suppose I'm trending away from foundationalism towards coherentism. I'm still working it out though, so I haven't "converted" yet, and I still consider myself mostly foundationalist. What you see from me, in this thread and from time to time in others, is my search for properly basic foundations or a criteria on which to make that decision.

But, as I've argued, it's impossible to convert another person while arguing from within your own worldview. So, as iwearredsocks points out, it makes a degree of sense to accomodate the other person by adopting their presuppositions in arguendo.
posted by gd779 at 9:49 PM on December 10, 2004


I find it interesting that the newer MeFites have tended to handle this discussion very well, while the older MeFites (perhaps including myself, though I hope not) have tended towards shrillness and vitriol.
posted by gd779 at 9:59 PM on December 10, 2004


From reading your posts, I think your mistake, gd779, is that you seem to think that "evidence" or "truth" or similar cannot be defined, or not reliably, and can therefore take on any number of (equivalent) definitions.

What this suggests is that any interpretation of reality is as good as another, which allows the forced inclusion of demonstrably inconsistent, meaningless philosophies into consistent ones.

If I asked you if you trusted your senses, I would guess you'd say no.

If I asked you if you trusted reality around you (loosely: anything outside your consciousness, or sensory world) to be consistent in itself, I am curious to hear your answer.
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:14 PM on December 10, 2004


If I asked you if you trusted reality around you (loosely: anything outside your consciousness, or sensory world) to be consistent in itself, I am curious to hear your answer.

I'm sorry,what do you mean by "consistent in itself"?
posted by gd779 at 10:22 PM on December 10, 2004


I find it interesting that the newer MeFites have tended to handle this discussion very well

Interesting indeed, I think maybe it's like for a very long time these new people (I am one) have been mute, able to read only and contribute nothing. I wonder if we're valuing the ability to speak more?
posted by scheptech at 10:31 PM on December 10, 2004


Meaning reality's effect on your own consciousness is consistent, which is something that can be verified simply by asking another human being if, for example, the sun rises in the morning, or if gravity still holds us both down. That sort of consistency.
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:32 PM on December 10, 2004


gd779: As I understand your argument, you're saying that precluding God as a hypothesis allows us to better explore the mechanics of nature through science.

What I'm saying is that God can't be a scientific hypothesis until it proposes some method by which we can distinguish a universe in which God exists, from a universe in which God does not exist. Since (as was pointed out by freethinker and satarist, Douglas Adams) an omniscient and omnipotent diety can change the rules of the game if discovered, there is no way this can happen.

1) this is a pragmatic reason for not assessing the evidence that favors the existence of God, and in principle it does not alter the possible truth of that hypothesis and

I'm trying to figure out what evidence that might be. So far, the warrant for evidence of miracles is pretty slim, and the ID argument is an argument from ignorance.

Furthermore, the ID argument runs into its own problems. Why does God act when he acts and why does he not act when he does not act. Through what mechanisms does he act that mimic what we expect from naturalistic evolution?

Certainly, I am proposing pragmatism here primarily because at it's heart, science is a pragmatic enterprise with little use for hypotheses that can't be tested or explored. Even an untrue hypothesis such as the concept of light transmitted by aether provides avenues for experimentation and discovery.

What experiments can we derive from a divine creation theory of abiogenesis?

3) you also foreclose any exploration of "spiritual" questions, such as "does Free Will exist", and

Well, you caught me out. I'm a psychologist who has very little patience for the "Free Will" questions as usually framed. Just on an observational basis, human agency seems to be a processs of taking advantages of affoardances and working around constraints.

4) you run the risk of forgetting that science is ultimately a branch of philosophy, which tempts you to believe its conclusions are more certain than they actually are, which may lead to the fetishization of scientific knowledge, even though science isn't the appropriate tool for exploring, say, morality.

Ohh, now you have really hit a nerve. To start with, I have never proposed that science is about certainty, I would hope that after more than a few years doing research, that I would have learned no avoid that trap by now. Instead, science is about attaching a certain level of confidance to our conclusions. I can say in my last research study for example, that the differences between boys and girls sampled were significant at the .01 level. That means that I'm 99% confidant that there is a real difference rather than a difference due to random error. If you actually read any published research, every scientist attaches some level of probability to their results, or, with case studies, tries to address the factors that may skew the conclusions.

Secondly, of course science is not an appropriate tool for exploring morality. It is also not an appropriate tool for exploring aesthetics, law, or whether your favorite basketball player comitted the personal foul before or after the other guy traveled. Science is the right method for exploring questions like what happened during the big bang, and whether inorganic molecules can form complex self-replicating organic molecules.

So here is my big counter question. How do we deal with mystery? There are things we don't know about the universe. There are probably things we can't know about the universe. On what grounds do you propose making a special warrant for God as the answer to those questions, rather than just leaving those questions a mystery?

He said that assuming that God doesn't exist helps scientists to do science; I pointed out that this also closes off certain avenues of inquiry,

Woah, woah, woah, woah, WOAH! I didn't say that! What I said was:

1) Our current inability to explain a phenomenon does not mean we should favor "God did it" over the dozens of potential other hypotheses.

So for example, there are dozens of possible hypotheses for how the first cell developed. Why should "god did it" be priveleged?

2) "God did it" is inherently a worse hypotheses than others because it provides no framework for exploring possible answers to the question.

If you want me to take "God did it" seriously as a scientific hypothesis, you have to propose a line of inquiry that can support "God did it."

Yeah, I do too. But the knowledge will be definitive in the sense that, at some point, I will be able to say "this is what we currently know. this is what we don't. And this is why." It's not an endless inquiry, at least.

Doesn't the fact that you don't know suggest that the inquiry has not ended. I don't think the inquiry process ever really ends myself.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:33 PM on December 10, 2004


bshort

1/0=?
posted by dancingbaptist at 10:34 PM on December 10, 2004


What is the truth here, then? I'm open to hearing what you have to say.

How did the onus for expressing your views get shifted to me? You were being questioned about them by others. I haven't offered my views (in this thread) on the topic you and they have been discussing, but rather made some observations about tangential (actually, more directly related to the posted topic) matters. Maybe you got me confused with jsonic or someone.

I'll happily grant your point about the difficulty of digging deeply into some topics without establishing how we are all using terms and concepts, but this medium clearly does not lend itself to the kind of depth that would be required to clarify everything to all of our satisfaction. So we do the best we can to communicate ideas, even knowing that we must simplify the complex to do so. I don't see how dodging even the effort to contribute under the auspices of "I'm way too deep for you lot" advances your case.
posted by rushmc at 10:36 PM on December 10, 2004


In regards to the shift from Atheism and Deism. This is what trips up a lot of people when talking about Albert Einstein for example. Einstein was apparently in the same camp. However, he was quite vocal about his lack of belief in the afterlife, and his belief in ethical humanism. A god who is an implicit order in the universe was ethically the same as no god at all.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:37 PM on December 10, 2004


I saw a show once that explained it for me. God was a parasite species that came to ancient egypt and created man to host it. They travel through wormholes via ancient giant rings and are really mean. It's ok, though, cuz we have a secret government team under a mountain in Colorado who fights them
posted by dancingbaptist at 10:37 PM on December 10, 2004


1/0 has no answer because it is a meaningless question.
posted by AlexReynolds at 10:40 PM on December 10, 2004


dancingbaptist: that's about as good an argument as any of the others. "Because we don't know, it's [insert Deity here]" Egyptian Parasite Species From Beyond The Stars works as well as any other.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:44 PM on December 10, 2004


1/0: ahem
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:46 PM on December 10, 2004


I think the word "god" really gets us into trouble - on these threads and in general... I'm an atheist in that I'm not a theist, and by theist, I mean, a believer in a personal god of some sort. Deism I am essentially agnostic about, largely because I'm not sure what it really means. Aristotle speaks of the unmoved mover, but the unmoved mover can be interpreted as an immanent cause - essentially, nature causing itself. This is called 'nous', or intelligence, but it is not called "consciousness". Intelligence could mean 'organization'... in other words, the unmoved mover as nature organizing itself, which is pretty consistent with a non-religious perspective. Basically, deism in a spinozistic sense (and spinoza was a reader of aristotle) doesn't really have anything to do with theism. And if you want to go for a conscious god, then you get stuck in the question of 'where' the consciousness is, and if it's everywhere, what it's conscious of, since consciousness requires removal, subject/object. If it's outside of nature but causes it then what was there before it caused nature (basically, what kind of ontological status does a separate god have), and what caused it?

Anyway, the point is, this doesn't seem like it has to be such a big shift... I don't really know what he means by 'deism', but I think the problem is more in the ways we try to describe things than in necessarily fundamental differences in ontological beliefs.

Nice comments, KirkJobSluder.
posted by mdn at 10:57 PM on December 10, 2004


"And here are the results of tonight's match. God exists by two falls to a submission."

-- those crafty english boys


Just injecting a bit of fun in here, because we all should remember that God or no, the universe can be pretty funny, and not at all such a bad place to live, and we should appreciate it. :)
posted by zoogleplex at 11:06 PM on December 10, 2004


1/0=?

dancingbaptist: As others have pointed out, that's the crappiest argument ever. Is that the best you can do?

Mathematics is entirely a human construct that says very very very little about the real world. Just because something can be proved mathematically doesn't mean that it's possible to apply that to anything in our reality.
posted by bshort at 11:16 PM on December 10, 2004


1) Our current inability to explain a phenomenon does not mean we should favor "God did it" over the dozens of potential other hypotheses.

So sometimes people believe they've found evidence for God (or pick a word) when they've simply found something they have no certain explanation for, even when other possible explanations exist to be investigated?

I think when believing people run into the unknown they are reminded of their own finite limitations and therefore God. I think it's a different kind of wisdom that then says, ok one can always solve any given puzzle intellectually given a great enough life-span, but there will always be another right beside or behind it in essence putting you right back where you started, noticing your own limitations. And it might take you a lifetime to finally comprehend those limits and admit the possibility of something or someone greater than yourself, like Mr. Flew apparently has (my interpretation, at any rate, of his present condition).

2) "God did it" is inherently a worse hypotheses than others because it provides no framework for exploring possible answers to the question.

Is this not just a fancy way of saying the existence of God cannot be proven?

Mathematics is entirely a human construct

I have a working theory that says anyone who thinks math was invented is probably an atheist and anyone who thinks math was discovered is a theist of some sort. Just my personal suspicion, but it seems to me that 2 + 2 = 4 whether humans even exist to be aware of the concept.
posted by scheptech at 11:30 PM on December 10, 2004


Is this not just a fancy way of saying the existence of God cannot be proven?

No, no it's not.


Just my personal suspicion, but it seems to me that 2 + 2 = 4 whether humans even exist to be aware of the concept.

And the symbols 2, 4, +, = exist in nature where exactly?

And they have what meaning that humans don't attribute to them?
posted by bshort at 12:28 AM on December 11, 2004


verstegan said:
> Hmm .. and Flew describes himself as a deist like Thomas
> Jefferson .. Double standards, anyone?

I think the time difference has a lot to do with it. Jefferson was born in 1743. It wasn't easy to be a doubter of any sort in his day (meaning: any sort of non-orthodox believer much less a [gasp] non-believer). More overt Deists like Thomas paine faced some very rough treatment. And, as far as I am aware, Jefferson was consistent in his religious views.

What's shocking about the Flew issue (if it's even real) is that a noted philosopher would come to a reversal (if it is a reversal) so late in the game. It just seems suspicious. It would be just as suspicious if we heard reports that Stalin had a death-bed conversion to Capitalism.

Quote from Flew (from 8/31/2001):
"Those rumours speak false. I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity."
posted by wheat at 6:13 AM on December 11, 2004


http://www.timesonline.co.uk/printfriendly/0,,1-525-1377906-525,00.html

The above link did not work.
posted by davy at 9:20 AM on December 11, 2004


I'm still waiting for somebody to prove that I did not create the Universe, or at least the Earth and everything about it. Of course that's more meaningful if one knows about all the (other) fuckups I'm obviously responsible for.

*Intelligent* Design my pimply ass.
posted by davy at 9:32 AM on December 11, 2004


"I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things; by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose —which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me. " - Richard Feynman

And he also quipped, "Science is a belief in the ignorance of the experts." [emphasis mine]

For more on RPF's thoughts on a "satisfactory philosophy of ignorance", see Thoughts Of A Citizen-Scientist, where he doesn't saying anything new but says it in a brilliantly original fashion!
posted by growli at 9:47 AM on December 11, 2004


And the symbols 2, 4, +, = exist in nature where exactly?

They're just symbols, conveniences used by us to express a reality. It's the reality itself I'm thinking about.

Surely math is discovered, existing independently of people.

Pythagoras' Theorem (or more accurately the reality it describes) was true before he was born, and remained so after he died. It would be true if the earth had blown up a moment before it occured to him, and it will remain true if the world is destroyed a minute from now.
posted by scheptech at 1:37 PM on December 11, 2004


So here is my big counter question. How do we deal with mystery?

Great comment. I *heart* KirkJobSluder.
posted by fatllama at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2004


Whenever anyone asks me if I believe in God, I ask them to define their terms.

Personally, I'm more interested in their answer to the question, "Does God have a personality?"
posted by bigbigdog at 7:51 PM on December 11, 2004


So here is my big counter question. How do we deal with mystery? There are things we don't know about the universe. There are probably things we can't know about the universe. On what grounds do you propose making a special warrant for God as the answer to those questions, rather than just leaving those questions a mystery?

Scientific mysteries should remain mysteries until they can be addressed, in due course, by science. Non-scientific mysteries should be addressed with non-scientific tools.

I suspect you would agree, but in case I am wrong (and for the sake of clarity) I will state my position anyway: The scientist who holds scientific truths, but no others, to be true, is like the man on the train who holds that places which cannot be reached by train do not exist. It is true that non-scientific knowledge is less linear and more confusing than scientific knowledge, just as wandering in the woods without a path is less linear and more confusing than taking the train into Boston, but non-scientific knowledge is still valid knowledge. Meditation, spiritual intuition, imagination, morality and the arts are valid forms of knowledge despite being unscientific. Love, laughter, and the Will may have their basis in physiology, may be expressed through physiology, but to understand only the physiology of, say, love, is obtain knowledge of only a tiny portion of what love actually is. The rest of this knowledge must be obtained experientially, and this experience cannot be challenged by nor verified by science.

Why should spiritual intuitions be any different?

Now, where gaps in scientific knowledge have left metaphysical mysteries, either temporarily or permanently, is it not rational or at least permissible for an individual to probe those gaps using information gained while wandering in the woods? True, one must always bear in mind that non-scientific knowledge is, while richer, also less certain than scientific knowledge, and may therefore have to yield at some point. Nevertheless, science is but one way of perceiving the world, if you abandon those other ways of knowing, doesn't that leave you poorer in understanding and less likely to approach the truth?

"What is real can be encountered in wholly different ways and consequently can also bear a wholly different character. The reality of the atomic physicist is different from that of the Platonist, the reality of ordinary life is different from that of religions experience. Considered in its content, reality is fissured: it is differentiated on each occasion according to the aspect that comes into view. Obviously there is not simply 'reality,' but very different planes of reality. But this means that we cannot and may not make a particular aspect into absolute reality, for then the other aspects will revolt." That is how Wilhelm Weischedel expressed it.

Science, in other words, is preeminent in its domain, but it may not overrun the bounds that have been set for it. At the end of the day, when an individual is asked to make a judgment about reality, it is reason as a whole, taking into full account both scientific and, where scientific knowledge is unavailable or inappropriate, non-scientific ways of knowing, that must make the judgment. This judgment, if it is to be as accurate as possible at the moment it the question is asked, must be uninfluenced by pragmatic considerations related to the continued scientific investigation of the material world. So while the argument that "God cannot be tested" means that belief in God is not scientific, such belief may nevertheless be perfectly rational.

Would you agree with the above?

He said that assuming that God doesn't exist helps scientists to do science...

Woah, woah, woah, woah, WOAH! I didn't say that! What I said was... 2) "God did it" is inherently a worse hypotheses than others because it provides no framework for exploring possible answers to the question.


Can you see a distinction between these two statements? Because I can't. But perhaps I am missing something.
posted by gd779 at 8:32 PM on December 11, 2004


>They're just symbols, conveniences used by us to express a reality. It's the reality itself I'm thinking about.

Surely math is discovered, existing independently of people.

Pythagoras' Theorem (or more accurately the reality it describes) was true before he was born, and remained so after he died. It would be true if the earth had blown up a moment before it occured to him, and it will remain true if the world is destroyed a minute from now.


The two most accurate descriptions of the observable world ("reality" loosely speaking) today -- general relativity and quantum physics -- actually contradict a lot of what you said. The curved spacetime around massive objects change geometry beyond the dreams of Pythagoras, such that triangles end up having more than 180 degrees total angles; as such, the theorem is false in that little corner of reality near a black hole. So what Pythagoras must have believed (that his mathematics somehow embodied or "resonated" with the universe) turns out to be so much hubristic ignorance.

"Thinking about reality itself" is also a Newtonian concept of particles with defined masses, momenta, and trajectories. I'm sure you already know that reality in quantum physics is tied to the act of measurement. We have no knowledge (even in principle) of any hidden realities behind the probabilities we can calculate.

So I guess my point is, it's wrong to equate models with reality, but it's equally wrong to assume there's a reality out there independent of our models. We're lucky, as a species, that the world is so forgiving of our myopic intellectual vision!
posted by growli at 11:43 PM on December 11, 2004


Remember, Einstein denied the validity of quantum physics for quite some time. The famous quote, "God does not play dice with the universe" was a retort to the QM crowd that random events on the atomic level are impossible. Einstein was wrong.

Minor off topic point: Even though quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory, the existence of random events at any level, atomic or otherwise, is far from a settled issue. While the Copenhagen Interpretation introduces randomness in the form of the collapse of the wave function, there are other (better, IMHO) explanations of quantum theory that do not rely upon randomness. My favorite is the Transactional Interpretation.

"Thinking about reality itself" is also a Newtonian concept of particles with defined masses, momenta, and trajectories. I'm sure you already know that reality in quantum physics is tied to the act of measurement. We have no knowledge (even in principle) of any hidden realities behind the probabilities we can calculate.

The act of measurement causes the collapse of the probability function for a particle(s) - according to the Copenhagen Interpretation. The main problem here is that what constitutes a measurement is not defined.

As with the randomness issue, the existence of "hidden realities behind the probabilities" is an unsettled issue.

it's wrong to equate models with reality

Agreed.

but it's equally wrong to assume there's a reality out there independent of our models.

But you lost me there. Unless you're postulating a Descartes' evil genius type scenario, then I can't see how there's not something out there independent on us - seems obvious to me there is, which means I can't provide a good argument to back it up. :)
posted by Bort at 12:34 AM on December 12, 2004


growli, I appreciate what you're saying but my point is that whatever you believe to be true (if it really is true) would be so whether you were alive to believe it or not, in other words is not dependent on your knowing.

I have this as-yet unverfied idea that those who believe in God probably figure math was discovered and those who don't, figure math was invented. I'm supposing it's a sort of indicator for how a person thinks.

Anyhow, my argument for discovery is that things don't wink in and out of reality as people think of, then forget them. That's too magical for me, it's kind of like kids of a certain age think, they wonder if the things they see in the world exist only when they're there to see them.
posted by scheptech at 1:00 AM on December 12, 2004


non-scientific ways of knowing

To me, this is the core of why theists and atheists cannot have a meaningful debate over god - they start with very different assumptions. Theists believe in "non-scientific ways of knowing", while atheists do not.

I find it interesting that the newer MeFites have tended to handle this discussion very well, while the older MeFites (perhaps including myself, though I hope not) have tended towards shrillness and vitriol.

Newbies probably haven't had this discussion often before. Let them try it 5 or 6 times and their patients will wear away too. :)

I'm a new mefi poster to ( hi, I'm Barry, long time reader, first time poster ), but I've had this debate many, many times in the past and I try to only stick my head in when it comes up to give brief observations like the one above.
posted by Bort at 1:07 AM on December 12, 2004


KirkJobSluder: I think you missed my point, which was precisely that hypotheses to explain the Big Bang do not offer an explanation of the existence of matter. As I said, to some scientists this is not a scientific question: explain the natural world, not its existence, they'd say. I'm actually not so sure about that.
posted by Zurishaddai at 7:08 AM on December 12, 2004


They're just symbols, conveniences used by us to express a reality. It's the reality itself I'm thinking about.

Surely math is discovered, existing independently of people.

Pythagoras' Theorem (or more accurately the reality it describes) was true before he was born, and remained so after he died. It would be true if the earth had blown up a moment before it occurred to him, and it will remain true if the world is destroyed a minute from now.


Surely you're wrong. Math as we know it only exists within our culture(s). Pythagoras' Theorem is dependant on local space curvatures, and only exists as a theoretical, culturally based assertion. For instance, let's talk about the most basic forms of math, the essential idea behind arithmetic is the idea that things can be classified into "same" and "different".

It makes no sense to claim that two oranges constitute a group of things that can be recognized as being the same (and therefore, counted) if you can't think abstractly about what an orange is. Every orange is a unique thing, with different blemishes / shape / weight / etc., and a mind has to recognize the similarities and realize that the differences are minor enough that it can group the oranges as a "group of things" that are different from other things (rocks / apples / etc.).

So I'd say that even to do basic arithmetic, you have to have a mind there that can reason abstractly, and more importantly, reason in the same way that we, as humans, do. So, I'd say you're wrong, and that all of math, from the most basic, fundamental principles, requires a culture to exist in first.
posted by bshort at 11:06 AM on December 12, 2004


"Monsieur, (a + b^n)/n = x. Donc, Dieu existe. Répondez!" - Euler to Diderot
posted by growli at 11:32 AM on December 12, 2004


Bort: I appreciate that the existence of an external reality seems pretty self-evident to our senses, as well as being a minimum assumption to "do science". I just wanted to point out that the march of progress that started from Galileo's empiricism has now led to rigorously logical but (currently) experimentally undecideable superstring and spin-foam theories. It's almost a cruel trick by Nature to reward us so well for being empiricists, and then to deny us the final prize by culminating in an abstract, unverifiable theory. And the lack of experimental proof for the latest fundamental theories is a big deal, philosophically. It really suggests that we might have to accept that our state of knowledge may forever be stymied between two equally logical and plausible models of the world that are nevertheless completely mutually incompatible as far as the fundamental elements that compose it. (it's true that we may prove these mathematical models are actually aspects of a single meta-model... but it's still not science until the model can be tested experimentally)

To restate my point about "it's equally wrong to assume there's a reality out there independent of our models" -- I mean that if we cannot conclusively draw connections between our models and some observable results, in what sense does reality-as-we-know-it actually exist? It's Wittgenstein's "of that which one cannot speak, thereof one must [by necessity] be silent". If we cannot speak of reality in terms of the predictions of our most plausible models, we cannot really take for granted that reality exists at all!

Finally... I'm not sure why you think there's a hidden determinism to the quantum world. In the early days, Einstein tried really hard to attack the probabilistic underpinnings of quantum physics, as well as its non-locality, but all these attempts failed (while strenghtening the opposing view). These days, I guess I would respond that if a non-probabilistic stratum is ever "discovered" to be behind the probabilistic behaviour of quantum systems, I bet that we would not have access to this underlying stratum. It's not that you can't beat the house/Casino by knowing the exact state of every atom that constitutes the roulette wheel... it's that we're the ball that's being thrown, and we have no say in the matter!

Scheptech: have you ever played multiplayer shooters like Halo or Counterstrike? These games are like shared hallucinations. Objects are created and destroyed in the memory of the computer all the time, depending on if it's visible to one or more players. It's not logically impossible for our universe to be structured the same way...
posted by growli at 12:16 PM on December 12, 2004


gd779: By all means, I fully agree that science is not the only method by which we can get knowledge. Which still gets to the next problem that you have not fully addressed, by what warrant should we make the leap from "we don't know" to "god did it."

Can you see a distinction between these two statements? Because I can't. But perhaps I am missing something.

You certainly are, but I'm not certain how to belabor the obvious. One can assume that god exists, and admit that many traditional forms of theism offer no framework for scientific evaluation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:28 PM on December 12, 2004


Bort: To me, this is the core of why theists and atheists cannot have a meaningful debate over god - they start with very different assumptions. Theists believe in "non-scientific ways of knowing", while atheists do not.

Woah, woah, WOAH! Here. Be careful with your overgeneralization. Most atheists fully accept that there are other ways of knowing other than science.

For example:

Mathematics uses makes fundamentally different claims using fundiamentally different methods. Science makes generalities using induction from a large number of observations. Math makes generalities using deduction from a small number of axiomatic statements. Science is insufficient for discovering mathematical truth. No matter how many solutions you add to the Riemann hypothesis, you can't prove it true. Likewise, mathematics can't verify or disprove proposed modifications to gravity on large scales. Scientific knowledge is probabilistic, claims must be accompanied by a statement of the possibility for error. Math is concrete, a right triangle on a plane is not 99.9% likely to obey the pythagorean theorem, it must obey the pythagorean theorem.

Likewise, law is another domain of knowledege with minimal dependence on science. Law is a deductive enterprise that applies a a set of generalities (in the form of case and statutory law) to a specific case.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:40 PM on December 12, 2004 [1 favorite]


By all means, I fully agree that science is not the only method by which we can get knowledge. Which still gets to the next problem that you have not fully addressed, by what warrant should we make the leap from "we don't know" to "god did it."

Well, that requires us to define "warrant", which brings us back into epistemology. If one wanted to affirm Christian belief, one could certainly turn to, say, Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame. Again, I'm not sure how I come out on that issue, so I'm afraid I can't answer your question specifically, except to say generally that an assessment of the weight of the various evidences in favor of and opposed to God's actions in whatever circumstances you're considering. E.g., if one wanted to evaluate the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead, this could not be a scientific claim (we can't repeat it in a laboratory), but one could examine the historical record, assess the weight of various hypothesis used to explain the extant writings and the actions of the Apostles, and somehow make a rational judgment regarding which hypothesis was most likely to be true.

Perhaps I should turn it around on you: if you agree that non-scientific knowledge is valid knowledge, under what circumstances would you say that non-scientific beliefs are warranted?

One can assume that god exists, and admit that many traditional forms of theism offer no framework for scientific evaluation.

Ah. You're saying that one can assume the existence of God, provided that it is the sort of God that has never interacted with the universe in any way?
posted by gd779 at 1:56 PM on December 12, 2004


gd779: ...this could not be a scientific claim (we can't repeat it in a laboratory)...

Why is it in these discussions that science = lab?

Ah. You're saying that one can assume the existence of God, provided that it is the sort of God that has never interacted with the universe in any way?

No, that's not what I'm saying at all. It seems that you are insisting on conflating two different questions together:

1) Does God exist?
2) Is the action of God a good hypothesis (in the scientific sense of the term) for explaining a particular phenomenon?

A good hypothesis is testable. If I want to know whether ampicillin kills a specific strain, I can set up some testing criteria. If I want to know whether an instructional product works, I can set up some testing criteria.

However, because "god works in mysterious ways" it becomes rather difficult to set up testing criteria for that hypothesis, making "god did it" a bad hypothesis.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:33 PM on December 12, 2004


It seems that you are insisting on conflating two different questions together:

1) Does God exist?
2) Is the action of God a good hypothesis (in the scientific sense of the term) for explaining a particular phenomenon?

A good hypothesis is testable.


I've already agreed that a scientific hypothesis must be testable. But you've already agreed that scientific knowledge is not the only form of valid knowledge. Therefore, we are not considering God as a hypothesis in the scientific sense of the term, but rather within the larger sphere of rationality which includes both scientific and non-scientific knowledge. The question then becomes "is the hypothesis warranted* by the evidence?" rather than "is the hypothesis testable?". Many perfectly rational beliefs are not at all testable in the scientific sense, unfortunately.

* Whatever we determine "warrant" to mean.

In principle, therefore, science qua science may assume the existence of God if and only if A) the existence of God is somehow made testable or B) it is the sort of God that has never interacted with the universe in any way, and therefore God's existence falls outside the appropriate realm of science altogether. That seems to me to be what you're saying, anyway. Are we understanding each other now?

Why is it in these discussions that science = lab?

Because a lab is where you often test things, and testability (verifiability, falsification, whatever we mean by that) is one of the essential features of science? I was just using "lab" as a stand-in for "place where we would test the hypothesis".
posted by gd779 at 3:30 PM on December 12, 2004


science qua science may assume the existence of God if and only if A) the existence of God is somehow made testable

"Assume" is the wrong word there, naturally. Posit would be better.
posted by gd779 at 3:34 PM on December 12, 2004


If one wanted to affirm Christian belief, one could certainly turn to, say, Warranted Christian Belief by Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame.

if i were to be arguing against a skeptic, plantiga is the last person i would turn to. if you will allow, i will roughly summarize the argument made in warranted christian belief:

1. in order for a belief to be a true belief, it must be warranted.
2. warrant should be understood in terms of proper cognitive function.
3. all humans have a cognitive mechanism, sensus divinitatus, which produces a basic belief about god. unbelief is a result of a sensus divinitatus damaged by sin.
4. therefore, christian belief is warranted.

you can see how this is problematic to one who is skeptical of the existence of a diety. of course, plantiga knows this: his argument essentially is that if christianity is true, then it is warranted.

"It is a consequence of this that Plantinga seems not to have much to say to those Christian believers whose beliefs are not of Plantinga's kind, and nothing to say to the adherents of other religions and of none" -Richard Swinburne
posted by joedan at 3:46 PM on December 12, 2004


gd779: Therefore, we are not considering God as a hypothesis in the scientific sense of the term, but rather within the larger sphere of rationality which includes both scientific and non-scientific knowledge.

Actually, if we are talking about the proposal that a God must have been responsible for the Big Bang or abiogenesis, then yes we are talking in terms of science.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:49 PM on December 12, 2004


Actually, if we are talking about the proposal that a God must have been responsible for the Big Bang or abiogenesis, then yes we are talking in terms of science.

Why would that be the case? Your justification for excluding supernatural explanations for historical-scientific events is that, by doing so, a scientist is more likely to push for and find purely material causes for what he sees. And as I think we've already agreed, there is no reason in principle to believe that a proposition which cannot be tested is a priori false; the exclusion of the untestable supernatural is just a pragmatic consideration for practicing scientists. But Dr. Flew is not a practicing scientist, and he is not involved in scientific research: so why should he bind himself by the rules of a game he's not playing? If extra-scientific knowledge is valid knowledge, as we both agree that it is, then why can't Dr. Flew use such knowledge to rationally assess the probability that a materialistic cause exists for abiogenesis, judge it to be small, and form his beliefs accordingly? You may not agree with his judgment on the facts, but can you object to it in principle?

These sorts of judgments must naturally yield to scientific explanation, should it eventually become available; but in the meantime Dr. Flew has to decide what it is rational to believe now, and the inability to test a proposition doesn't mean it isn't true.

Science is, at the end of the day, just a game. We say "let's see how far and to what extent we can explain the world in terms of physical and material causes only". Invoking the supernatural is, within the context of the game, a form of cheating. But, at some point, the game will end. At that point, maybe everything will be explained in terms of purely material causes, but then again maybe some things will remain unexplainable in those terms. That's why it's important to remember that science takes no position, in principle, about the existence and intervention of the supernatural in the natural world. Dr. Flew, who was not immortal, had to leave the game early, and he had to make a decision based on incomplete information. He looked at the scoreboard, saw that God was beating Materialism 10 to 0 on abiogenesis, and said "this could still go either way, but God will probably win". That's not an irrational decision when we have to leave a football game early, and it's not an irrational decision when we have to leave the game of science early.

Finally, it's naturally important to emphasize that science can determine mechanisms, but it cannot determine who or what was "responsible" (in the larger sense) for starting those mechanisms on their way. So it's not clear why we can't say "God did it" without violating the rules of the game, so long as we don't specify how God did it. But, of course, I believe you agree with me on this point.
posted by gd779 at 5:23 PM on December 12, 2004


you can see how this is problematic to one who is skeptical of the existence of a diety. of course, plantiga knows this: his argument essentially is that if christianity is true, then it is warranted.

Good to know, thanks. However, I'm not sure that I don't agree with Stanley Fish at Duke, who argues that this is inevitable in both religious and secular systems of thought. it may be inescapable that an arational "first premise" determines the substance of our beliefs. Still, at least now I don't have to read Plantinga's book. Heh.
posted by gd779 at 6:14 PM on December 12, 2004


gwoli: Finally... I'm not sure why you think there's a hidden determinism to the quantum world.

I'm not sure why you think there isn't. :)

I think there probably is, but that wasn't what I was saying. I was saying that whether there is or not is an open question.

In the early days, Einstein tried really hard to attack the probabilistic underpinnings of quantum physics, as well as its non-locality, but all these attempts failed (while strenghtening the opposing view).

Most of the debate from Einstein that I've read about centered around complementarity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and non-locality. It did not revolve around the probability component of QM and whether or not there was an underlying determinism. (Of course, I'm sure there's lots out there I haven't read - I'd be interested in taking a look if you had a reference.)

gwoli: These days, I guess I would respond that if a non-probabilistic stratum is ever "discovered" to be behind the probabilistic behaviour of quantum systems, I bet that we would not have access to this underlying stratum.

That's certainly a possibility, but there's no reason it has to be that way. I lean towards there being an underlying determinism that is accessible - likely because all other probabilistic theories I've come across were like that.
posted by Bort at 9:41 PM on December 12, 2004


KirkJobSluder: Woah, woah, WOAH! Here. Be careful with your overgeneralization. Most atheists fully accept that there are other ways of knowing other than science.

For example:

Mathematics ... law ....


Sorry. I was using the term "knowing" to mean knowing about the real, physical world - I should have stated that. I agree that other domains have there own ways of knowing. You gave 2 great examples of that.

Would you agree that most atheists believe the only way to know (objectively) about the real, physical world is through the scientific method? That still may be an over-generalization - being an atheism doesn't necessarily mean you're rational. :)

For full disclosure: I'm an atheist, of the strong variety.
posted by Bort at 10:14 PM on December 12, 2004


Sorry to Disappoint, but I'm Still an Atheist! Those rumours speak false. I remain still what I have been now for over fifty years, a negative atheist. By this I mean that I construe the initial letter in the word 'atheist' in the way in which everyone construes the same initial letter in such words as 'atypical' and 'amoral'. For I still believe that it is impossible either to verify or to falsify - to show to be false - what David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion happily described as "the religious hypothesis." The more I contemplate the eschatological teachings of Christianity and Islam the more I wish I could demonstrate their falsity.
posted by amberglow at 7:33 PM on December 13, 2004


*sigh*. Read the fine print, amberglow. That was written in a year and a half ago. The only "new" information in your link is that Flew still doesn't accept the Judeo/Christian/Islamic vision of a personal God, but we already knew that.

It frankly appears to me that this is a desperate and deceptive attempt by rationalists international to create doubt in the validity of Flew's "conversion". It looks to me like they're trying to make that old article look current, when it's not; and they're trying to drum up doubt about Flew's beliefs, when we have him on tape talking about what he now believes. *sigh*.
posted by gd779 at 6:56 AM on December 14, 2004


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