Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Is God An Accident ? - Long Version
November 24, 2005 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe. Recently psychologists doing research on the minds of infants have discovered two related facts that may account for this phenomenon. One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry. Which leads to the question ...
Is God an Accident ?
This is a fascinating essary from the current Atlantic reprinted apparently in full for non-subscribers
posted by y2karl (232 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
In a nutshell, the argument:
Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby's brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one. They evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human.

That these two systems are distinct is especially apparent in autism, a developmental disorder whose dominant feature is a lack of social understanding. Children with autism typically show impairments in communication (about a third do not speak at all), in imagination (they tend not to engage in imaginative play), and most of all in socialization. They do not seem to enjoy the company of others; they don't hug; they are hard to reach out to. In the most extreme cases children with autism see people as nothing more than objects - objects that move in unpredictable ways and make unexpected noises and are therefore frightening. Their understanding of other minds is impaired, though their understanding of material objects is fully intact.

At this point the religion-as-accident theory says nothing about supernatural beliefs. Babies have two systems that work in a cold-bloodedly rational way to help them anticipate and understand - and, when they get older, to manipulate - physical and social entities. In other words, both these systems are biological adaptations that give human beings a badly needed head start in dealing with objects and people. But these systems go awry in two important ways that are the foundations of religion. First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife. Second, as we will see, our system of social understanding overshoots, inferring goals and desires where none exist. This makes us animists and creationists.
Argument aside, the how tos of babie studies cited are fascinating as are the findings:
Six-month-olds understand that physical objects obey gravity. If you put an object on a table and then remove the table, and the object just stays there (held by a hidden wire), babies are surprised; they expect the object to fall. They expect objects to be solid, and contrary to what is still being taught in some psychology classes, they understand that objects persist over time even if hidden. (Show a baby an object and then put it behind a screen. Wait a little while and then remove the screen. If the object is gone, the baby is surprised.) Five-month-olds can even do simple math, appreciating that if first one object and then another is placed behind a screen, when the screen drops there should be two objects, not one or three. Other experiments find the same numerical understanding in nonhuman primates, including macaques and tamarins, and in dogs.
Hmm, five month old babies can count. As can dogs and monkeys. But still...

From Informed Citizen where the motto appears to be Politics, Religion And Respect.
An interesting site the design of which I find not my favorite thing.
posted by y2karl at 9:14 AM on November 24, 2005


Wow, impressive. Thanks y2karl.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:24 AM on November 24, 2005


It's a given that the tendency to believe in (g/G)od[s] is "cognitive functioning gone awry," as it's not logically explicable. However, this has never been seen as any actual weakness by believers, so it is unlikely that scientific evidence to back this up will have much of an effect on anyone but the already-atheist. (just getting that out of the way to prevent the flame war... ha, ha.) Of course, that includes myself, so this is fascinating. Thanks y2karl.

First, we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. This helps explain why we believe in gods and an afterlife.

Nice. The inherently appealing idea of dualism has always inexplicably haunted philosophy, and so I'll buy this.
posted by mek at 9:25 AM on November 24, 2005


No, God is an Astronaut.
posted by Mach3avelli at 9:25 AM on November 24, 2005


not to be snarky ... but everything is an "accident." if you believe that all matter originated from one "point" and one "instant," how could anything from that point arrange the eons of universal time? i certainly can't fathom anything but accidents.

One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry.

Three: this predisposition is evolutionarily successful ... for now.

Darwin changed everything

Yes, I think he did. Why do you think "natural selection" is the only science under attack by religion? The Vatican might not sanction birth control or gay sex, but they don't doubt that the pill works and that some boys like to kiss each other.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:25 AM on November 24, 2005


Hmm, five month old babies can count. As can dogs and monkeys. But still...

Most apes are raising children at 5 years old. We are all children, compared to the other primates. That's to our benefit, of course, as our intelligence (we keep learning longer) has proved to be a considerable asset. No doy.

Most birds can count up to 5 or 6. Which makes them even stranger.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:28 AM on November 24, 2005


Trying to access the article directly from the Atlantic website brings you:

This article is viewable only by Atlantic subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, please consider subscribing online now. In addition to receiving a full year (ten issues) of the print magazine at a rate far below the newsstand price, you will be granted instant access to everything The Atlantic Online has to offer—including this article!

Click here to join us as an Atlantic subscriber.


I have mixed feelings about current copyright law, but posting the lead article from a magazine that is currently for sale on the newsstands feels like stealing.
posted by LarryC at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2005


Yea, but will God bust my ass for 'stealing' a look?
posted by alteredcarbon at 10:00 AM on November 24, 2005


That's a pretty good analysis. The division of cognition into social and physical seems reasonable and the fact that religion falls squarely on the social side suggests that it's a good, clean division. There's certainly no physical evidence for God, after all. I wonder if one might expand this to relate religion to the celebrity cult phenomenon - a need for social function perhaps. The two have always seemed to share a common ground to me.
posted by ny_scotsman at 10:01 AM on November 24, 2005


Great post y2karl.
posted by alteredcarbon at 10:01 AM on November 24, 2005


nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife,

Not so. Many religions-- Judaism and Shintoism among them-- do not claim the existence of an afterlife. (At least, that's my understanding.)
posted by jokeefe at 10:07 AM on November 24, 2005


So Atheism is like wearing glasses then?
posted by srboisvert at 10:10 AM on November 24, 2005


And sorry, but I'm feeling a little cranky today-- but I'm beginning to develop a deep suspicion of any argunent to do with the human brain or cognition which relies on the computer metaphor. I think it restricts thought the way that other technological metaphors for the functioning of human consciousness have-- the Victorians, for example, were fond of illustrating thought by talking about electricity, and, later on, the telegraph. The problem obviously being that once you find such an appealing metaphor, you tend to discount things that don't fit into the paradigm.
posted by jokeefe at 10:10 AM on November 24, 2005


One: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena. And two: this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry.

One more, and then I'll stop: why is this predisposition an "incidental by-product" and nothing more? If we are created by God (and I'm so just being the Devil's advocate here, so to speak) wouldn't God create us with minds that could apprehend the divine? Why is this "cognitive functioning gone awry"? Maybe we're supposed to be that way?

Describing the mechanism doesn't explain the result, anymore than describing the inner workings of my iPod explains the music.
posted by jokeefe at 10:20 AM on November 24, 2005


Very interesting, thanks y2karl.
posted by loquax at 10:22 AM on November 24, 2005


This article demonstrates a tremendous naivete about the issues which it discusses. This is clear in many ways, but perhaps the clearest way to show it is to point out that, if the author really "see[s] supernatural beliefs as a cultural anachronism, soon to be eroded by scientific discoveries and the spread of cosmopolitan values," then he can't believe in supermaterial things like science, ideas, beliefs, thought, or mind. In particular, one should remember that "science" is a supernatural truth, or construct. If we can observe the world and discover workable or true things about it, then there is a supernatural order. The founders of modern science claimed just that; that's why the most intelligent of them, Baruch Spinoza, called "the laws by which the world works" "God."

It's possible to believe that there is no supernatural, that there is only material. It's even quite respectable, in my book. But these modern-day "rationalists" are being wholly irrational in believing they've done that; if they had really followed it out and done away with the supernatural, they would've stopped talking about "science" and "ideas" and "beliefs" and "truth" and "rationality." If there really is no supernatural, then the religious people are just as close to the truth as the atheistic, since there is no truth to get close to. (Atheism really only makes sense if it means that "there is no human person who thinks and talks and loves like humans do who started the world," and it amounts to the statement that the forces which move the world are harder to grasp than a happy guy with a beard who doles out eternal life. Since every religion I know of makes that same statement, it seems to me that sensible atheism and true religion aren't very contradictory.)

Mr. Paul Bloom would benefit from a close reading of Aristotle's "On the Soul." It points out that, while looking for physical causes is one way to understand the way human beings function, it isn't the only way; and to ignore our experiences in life, the things we go through every day, as, for example, so-called "cognitive" science does, is to ignore the largest part of our existence.
posted by koeselitz at 10:30 AM on November 24, 2005


Being religious is infantilistic: an all-powerful superior being that approves, loves, disapproves and punishes. That's just the parents when one's small. The feeling persists when one's grownup although there's no visible or tangible evidence: hence divine reward & punishment are invisible or in the afterlife.
No need for coginition gone awry, infantilistic throwbacks are very common in the mammal world. Cf. the kneading of a purring cat for instance.
posted by jouke at 10:35 AM on November 24, 2005


Interesting post, y2karl. I do, however, have some misgivings about reposting a copyrighted piece, even if you are just linking to it.

I really don't see this as anything terribly radical. Superstitious beliefs and how they arise has been a well studied aspect of both human and animal psychology for a long time. That this would extend to beliefs in souls and animism makes a lot of sense. We have strong intuitions, and it's well established that when we are dealing with subjects far beyond what our evolutionary past forced us to deal with, our intuitions often lead us astray. That this would apply to religious belief should catch no one by surprise.

The idea that religion and science can peacefully coexist strikes me as a platitude that simply doesn't stand up to a rigorous analysis. Faith and skepticism are two completely opposing systems of belief, and are not reconcilable.

Many religions have a problem with science because science tends to disprove established religious beliefs. This is the crux of the problem. Science simply cannot be ignored, it has to be actively attacked; this is because it works. Science exposed Genesis as a completely ludicrous account of the early history of earth and humanity. People still refuse to accept this, but that doesn't make it less so. Science rendered absurd religious notions of the mechanics of the natural world.

Now science is attacking the very core of most religious belief: the soul. Evolution put humans not as living incarnate gods, but as animals like any other, and of common descent with all other life on Earth. This terrified those who insisted we were exceptional, created with a spark of the divine inside us that made us sentient. Now, modern understandings of the brain and psychology have dealt a near fatal blow to the concept of a soul separate from our bodies.

Episodes like the Terri Schaivo case are the panicked screams of a belief system that refuses to accept that it is our brains, not some undetectable and eternal spark, that makes us who we are. The people so eager to save Terri refused to accept the plainly obvious: that everything that made her a person had died, that she was reduced to a breathing corpse. They denied that she was in all practical sense dead. Not because they had evidence to the contrary, but because human bodies existing in this state are potent evidence that the brain is what makes us sentient, not some spark that leaves us with our last breath. That a human body in a vegetative state is not a real person is antithetical to belief in a soul.

To disbelieve that the brain is not the true seat of our intellect and will is to hold that nothing we can perceive can be known for certain, and therefore that anything can be true. From this, it would seem, some people conclude that therefore some particular bizarre and unverifiable belief must be true. It's fucking madness and I'm sick of hearing it. We don't need the invisible sky wizard anymore. We have new beliefs, ones that we test, ones that work. We use them to make our lives better and longer, instead of pleading to some curiously absent magic patriarch to give us new ones.

I'm done ranting and derailing. And I'm going to sleep.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 10:40 AM on November 24, 2005


Accident, as opposed to what? If humans had evolved on four legs and ate trees, they would imagine us as an accident. Everything is an accident, scientifically speaking. Does the author presuppose intelligent design?

Re: The Fraternity Theory:
This theory explains almost everything about religion—except the religious part. It is clear that rituals and sacrifices can bring people together, and it may well be that a group that does such things has an advantage over one that does not. But it is not clear why a religion has to be involved. Why are gods, souls, an afterlife, miracles, divine creation of the universe, and so on brought in? The theory doesn't explain what we are most interested in, which is belief in the supernatural.

>You can't quibble about leadership when the leader is invisible and omnipotent.
>An afterlife instills confidence in war and compliance in peacetime.
>Religious structure and good/evil duality pacify warriors within their own tribe and make them more cold-blooded towards enemies, amplifying the power of the group.

Much of the argument hinges on the notion that if most Americans believe something that isn't logical or doesn't hold water scientifically, there must be some profound reason. I wish.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:47 AM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz : isn't there some ambiguity in the way the word supernatural is being used? If you take it to mean anything that transcends a rational analysis, then obviously you have to admit there's a lot to it. If it's used to refer to a rational construction used in an attempt to explain experiencing the first definition, then it's that construction which would be replaced by "science and ... values". I think the point that gets missed in the religion vs. science debate is that they are similar in intent... the imposition of rationality on reality. The difference is that science rationalizes itself as well as the process, but there's no way to demonstrate the truth of a religion. They're both beliefs of a sort, but it is proof on one hand against faith on the other.
posted by ny_scotsman at 10:58 AM on November 24, 2005


[expletive deleted]: "The idea that religion and science can peacefully coexist strikes me as a platitude that simply doesn't stand up to a rigorous analysis. Faith and skepticism are two completely opposing systems of belief, and are not reconcilable."

The trouble is that science is just as faith-based, in that it rests on the assumption that the world makes sense and can be comprehended by human beings. True skepticism-- which, as I said a moment ago, might be a good thing-- entails the rejection of "science" as a foolish hope. The belief that the world is something that our physical brains can wrap around could very well be mocked as naive and simple; maybe it is.

"Now science is attacking the very core of most religious belief: the soul."

The fact that it is doing show demonstrates the painful lack of simple cognition in scientists today. If the brain can be explained through merely physical causes, then it cannot stand above physical processes and understand something. If it can't do that, there is no science. Cognitive "science" is self-contradictory.
posted by koeselitz at 11:01 AM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz : "If the brain can be explained through merely physical causes, then it cannot stand above physical processes and understand something"

Unless the nature of the universe makes such reflexivity possible.
posted by Gyan at 11:06 AM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz: science doesn't assume the world makes sense. It assumes that it is consistent. It assumes that you can test things to see if something is true or not. That's all.

As the zen physics koan states: "Anyone who claims to understand quantum physics has not understood it."
posted by freedryk at 11:13 AM on November 24, 2005


The fact that it is doing show demonstrates the painful lack of simple cognition in scientists today. If the brain can be explained through merely physical causes, then it cannot stand above physical processes and understand something. If it can't do that, there is no science. Cognitive "science" is self-contradictory.
posted by koeselitz at 11:01 AM PST on November 24


Looks like someone's been misreading Godel, Escher, Bach again.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:14 AM on November 24, 2005 [1 favorite]


Gyan: "Unless the nature of the universe makes such reflexivity possible."

If there is such a thing as "the nature of the universe," something already stands beyond matter. If a brain can understand that, then something beyond matter is already involved.
posted by koeselitz at 11:16 AM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz : "If there is such a thing as 'the nature of the universe,' something already stands beyond matter."

Unless the embodied workings of matters, is the nature.
posted by Gyan at 11:20 AM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz, perhaps I'm completely misunderstanding you, but if I am not, I am baffled as to why you are equating "nonmaterial" with "supernatural".
posted by kyrademon at 11:25 AM on November 24, 2005


<morpheus>you think that's air you're breathing?</morpheus>
posted by ny_scotsman at 11:26 AM on November 24, 2005


I think that some of the criticisms of the article are off the mark--the author doesn't posit (by my reading-- and I must admit that I haven't read the whole thing) that religious belief in and of itself is a mistake, but rather that current studies of the human brain and cognitive development indicate that human beings have two distinct sorts of fundamental intelligence: one that we share with many other creatures (the physical) and one that appears to be largely unique to our species (the social).

The "mistake" he discusses isn't religious belief per se, but that the adaptation of social intelligence had a few side effects that predispose our organism to belief in the supernatural. It's a fascinating observation, IMO.

koeselitz, I must respectfully completely disagree with your view of cognitive science:

If the brain can be explained through merely physical causes, then it cannot stand above physical processes and understand something.

This is simply untrue--obviously the brain is only physical processes, that's the observable reality. What cognitive scientists, among many others, ask, is what is it about the sum of those processes that gives us the sensations, perceptions, and ideas that we all experience? We have developed many ways of discussing and understanding that which we cannot apprehend directly (like metaphor, for instance). To think that a process of physical occurrences can't generate something more than just those processes is to deny the reality of your own consciousness.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:27 AM on November 24, 2005


LooseFilter : "To think that a process of physical occurrences can't generate something more than just those processes is to deny the reality of your own consciousness."

No, just physicalism.
posted by Gyan at 11:29 AM on November 24, 2005


Well nobody's special if we're all supernatural.
posted by romanb at 11:31 AM on November 24, 2005


freedryk: "koeselitz: science doesn't assume the world makes sense. It assumes that it is consistent. It assumes that you can test things to see if something is true or not. That's all."

Maybe you can tell me the difference. Either way, doesn't that seem like a pretty big assumption? To assume that words like "true" or even have meaning seems like a pretty big step to me.

Optimus Chyme: "Looks like someone's been misreading Godel, Escher, Bach again."

Huh? Haven't read it. I'm thinking more of Aristotle and Nietzsche here. But if you want to talk to straw men, g'head.

Gyan: "Unless the embodied workings of matters, is the nature."

In which case there is absolutely no guarantee that those workings will be ordered. Order can only occur when something acts on things to make them ordered, and that that something is generally termed "nature."

If science were simply aiming at percieving "the embodied workings of matters," then it would never try to extend its findings. It wouldn't even have "findings." It would only observe, and every moment observed would be unique and separate, meaning nothing for the rest of time. There would be no "cause" or "effect," nor any "process" which could be understood and predicted. In short, science would simply be a radical openness. It would not be so hasty as to assume that everything it saw was part of a consistent and constant order.

In fact, science tries to understand and to predict by divining some law or principle behind the things observed. In order to do so, it must assume the ordering influence of nature, and, in order to assume that influence, it must assume that there is an immaterial cause.
posted by koeselitz at 11:35 AM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz : "Order can only occur when something acts on things to make them ordered"

Assumption of agency. Not saying whether that's true or not.

koeselitz : "It would only observe, and every moment observed would be unique and separate, meaning nothing for the rest of time. There would be no 'cause' or 'effect,' nor any 'process' which could be understood and predicted. In short, science would simply be a radical openness. It would not be so hasty as to assume that everything it saw was part of a consistent and constant order."

The order is perceived because of the observed consistency and constancy. Science is unwarranted in claiming that currenct constant models can be extended to all time. We don't know if current models are just contemporary instantiations or not.
posted by Gyan at 11:40 AM on November 24, 2005


My theory has always been religion is a manifestation of mass-insanity. But this idea, religion as a manifestation of mental disability, has merit.
posted by stbalbach at 11:44 AM on November 24, 2005


nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife .. and that people darker than themselves are inferior. We need to be careful of giving in to, or even entertaining, beliefs because of predispositions that might be wired in our DNA -- the "accidental by-products of our mental systems." That there is an intrinsic need for religion or "belief" has been argued before. What he doesn't say is, if that's true, then it is terribly sad, at least for those of us who wish humanity would outgrow this once-useful but now somewhat cumbersome way of viewing the world.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:45 AM on November 24, 2005


I find the author's basic assertion fascinating: that our social intelligence, a very interesting evolutionary adaptation in and of itself, creates an inherent tendency toward inferring goals, motives, or intent where there is no evidence for them. I also find that very tendency at work in this statement:

Order can only occur when something acts on things to make them ordered...
posted by LooseFilter at 11:47 AM on November 24, 2005


Circular and another instance of the overall atheistic position that everything is an accident. There is no intent, meaning, or purpose behind any of it. We exist as a result of a series of accidents occuring in a physical universe.

The article asserts something about some aspect of intelligence and concludes it's an accident. But, of course it's an accident, everything is.

Given the authors belief in accidents, I'd like to know what he considers non-accidents and how he evaluates them, how he determines what is reliably non-accidental in his own mind.
posted by scheptech at 11:57 AM on November 24, 2005


It is a very interesting field of study, but a less interesting article.

It seems to me that the author spends a lot of words on very forced logic that doesn't really prove anything.
we see people as separate from their bodies, we easily understand situations in which people's bodies are radically changed while their personhood stays intact. Kafka envisioned a man transformed into a gigantic insect; Homer described the plight of men transformed into pigs;
But it is just as likely that this idea comes up in stories so often because it is surprising to us - like the baby surprised when an object doesn't fall - rather than a reflection of how we see ourselves.

I really have to take issue with this notion:
But the real problem with natural selection is that it makes no intuitive sense. It is like quantum physics; we may intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us.
I addressed the idea of intuition about scientific principles in a recent AskMe question here (I have linked to that too often, but it fits perfectly here...), the point being that there is nothing particularly counter intuitive about quantum physics, or any other theory. The reason the baby is amazed when gravity doesn't work is that the baby expects gravity to work. If you learn to expect quantum mechanics to work in a certain way and the rules suddenly change, you will be amazed too. Or to put it another way - because so many of you expect quantum mechanics to be amazing - flight amazes us less and less every generation because it is becoming part of learned intuition.

Another really faulty argument earlier:
This is not a value judgment. Many of the good things in life are, from an evolutionary perspective, accidents. People sometimes give money, time, and even blood to help unknown strangers in faraway countries whom they will never see. From the perspective of one's genes this is disastrous�the suicidal squandering of resources for no benefit.
It is my understanding that this is an open question, and that there is ongoing study trying to understand altruism in an evolutionary context. That makes this a statement about the author's personal philosophy, not science.

I found the way Michael Persinger addressed the same neuroscience in a recent lecture to be much more compelling (I mentioned this over in that AskMe question too, here). Sorry I don't have a link or transcript, but I might be able to come up with something if anyone is interested.

Finally, check out The Evolutionist in Conversation with Steven Pinker. A fantastic interview on related subject matter (It may have been a MeFi post, although I can't find it with yahoo, anybody remember it being posted?).
posted by Chuckles at 11:59 AM on November 24, 2005


I agree that it is sometimes terribly sad to consider the bigger picture, but I do think that we are growing out of it--slowly but surely.

What most conversations about religion miss, in my experience, is what needs religious belief continues to fulfill. All human beings are tremendously feeling creatures. Belief fulfills many of our emotional (or: irrational) needs, though it fails to satisfy our increasingly keen rational ones. Conversations about religion (at least in the US) typically focus on the veracity (or lack thereof) of the beliefs themselves, which misses the point.

This is, as Alan Watts would say, mistaking the menu for the food. I don't walk into a restaurant, see steak on the menu, and eat the menu--anyone would easily understand that the menu represents sustenance, but offers no real nourishment itself.

Similarly, religious scripture, thought, and tradition are metaphors to help us understand the ineffable, the non-embodied parts of our experience of the world. This should be fairly easy for most people to grasp, but my sense is that we live in a time of profound anxiety and insecurity, and people want emotional palliative rather than understanding or spiritual questing. Thus the current resurgence of fundamentalism on all fronts (not just religion).

Just because science can't explain everything doesn't mean it can't explain a lot. Also:

another instance of the overall atheistic position that everything is an accident

That's not athiestic, it's Occam's Razor: until there is evidence of intent, one should not posit it a priori. It's not that everything is an accident, it's that there is no evidence yet that any consciousness intended for all this to occur.
posted by LooseFilter at 12:02 PM on November 24, 2005


I agree with gyan, koeselitz - why is it necessary that, in order for something to be ordered, there must be an agency outside of the thing itself causing it to be ordered?

And even if it were so, and even if such a thing must be immaterial, why does that imply it must be supernatural? Unless you are using a very different definition of supernatural than I am.

I will agree that science accepts certain things as true for which there is no absolute proof, and likely no possibility of absolute proof. They may be called assumptions, or axioms - but they may also be called extrapolations. For example, consistency is assumed because 1) consistency has been observed (e.g., when you drop something in the exact same manner, it falls, and in the exact same way every time), 2) assuming consistency has proven to have predictive accuracy (if you *predict*, based on past observation, that if you drop the object in the same way again, it will fall, in the exact same way, again, you find yourself proven right.)

Science is a model of the universes behavior, and most scientists will freely admit that the purpose is to model reality as closely as possible. Could some of the basic assumptions be wrong? Sure. So? They have proven useful.

But merely because it is a model, and therefore an immaterial description, does not mean that it is *separate* from nature somehow. Why would it? Someone living in a boat, making a tiny model of that boat, from materials found around the boat, has not somehow stepped outside of the boat.
posted by kyrademon at 12:04 PM on November 24, 2005 [1 favorite]


Despite the vast number of religions, nearly everyone in the world believes in the same things: the existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe.

This should surprise no one. We are all human, we are all in the same circumstances, and these circumstances lead us all (or perhaps nearly all) to wish for the same things: that we were not simply animals like the dumb beasts we eat, that we somehow didn't really die (even though we see the bodies of everyone else die and rot), that hoping and wishing (and maybe begging and demanding and yelling at the sky if hoping and wishing didn't seem to be working) was not entirely irrational and would in fact somehow make things more likely to happen, that life wasn't as pointless as it often seems, that life somehow guaranteed justice for all despite appearances to the contrary.

Wishing for this magic package of counter-circumstances (supernatural) stuff, like wishing for a perpetual motion device or a penis enlargement pill, probably makes it a lot easier to imagine that the magic package is possible and maybe even inevitable.
posted by pracowity at 12:07 PM on November 24, 2005


Religions evolve as a system of beliefs that attract, keep, and duplicate believers.

Dawkins' meme stuff was quite the eye-opener for me; it's easy to see how the religion that evolves the most cool "story" and transmission vector(s) will succeed over the other religions that compete for mindshare.

It took St. Paul to polish the rough edges off a hebrew End-Times cult to produce the infectious story about God in identity with Love, a personal savior, eternal rewards, etc. The Church continuously embellished this story with such dogmas as limbo, immaculate conception of Mary, etc etc to provide a supermarket-level selection of doctrine to cover any question of belief.

If you've got a question, the Church will have the answer. And people seek answers in this world, so the church makes them happy. That the answers are bullshit is besides the point, until you start getting into conflicts with the hard sciences, including medicine.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:14 PM on November 24, 2005


I see if you mix LooseFilter's and pracowity's above posts together you'd get mine :)
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:17 PM on November 24, 2005


weapons-grade pandemonium, you make a great point. You don't kneed to show that the creation of religion had intention, only that it has effects. The notion itself can come about for any number of reasons, it is the effects that keep the notion around over time. Just like evolution v. intelligent design, but with ideas...

koeselitz: The trouble is that science is just as faith-based, in that it rests on the assumption that the world makes sense and can be comprehended by human beings.

Sorry, but that is just garbage. Science presupposes that some subset of how the world works can be comprehended, and it sets out to capture that subset in a useful way. There is nothing faith-based about doing an experiment and seeing what happens. Now I concede, there is a lot of pseudoscientific conjecture that is faith-based, hence that same old AskMe question I keep linking. Don't confuse those Woo-woo dancing quantum-metaphysics ideas with actual science.

LooseFilter: I find the author's basic assertion fascinating: that our social intelligence, a very interesting evolutionary adaptation in and of itself, creates an inherent tendency toward inferring goals, motives, or intent where there is no evidence for them.

I completely agree, that was the most interesting aspect of the article. Mostly in V: We've Evolved to be Creationists, if anyone wants to skip to that part...
posted by Chuckles at 12:24 PM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz: I don't really understand what your definition of supernatural is. See here; supernatural is defined generally as describing that which can not be described by natural laws. Perhaps I am opening myself up to being drawn into an argument about whether or not biblical law may be considered "natural law," but to me the distinction is pretty concrete.

I'm also trying very hard to wrap my head around this statement:

"...it must assume the ordering influence of nature, and, in order to assume that influence, it must assume that there is an immaterial cause."

This reminds me of a famous essay, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences" by Eugene Wigner, which I think you may enjoy reading. The author essentially notes that the Universe is amazingly ordered and can be accurately described by mathematical constructs, but that there appears to be no reason for this whatsoever.

One day, we may very well run into a situation that cannot possibly be described by a mathematical theory because its components obey no mathematical order... Chances are we will not realize it and will simply continue to attempt to describe the situation using theoretical abstractions, being unsuccessful at every step.

Is this a problem? Not really. We haven't lost anything by trying. If we hadn't tried to form a predictive model in the first place, we would be equally unable to make any useful predictions.

There is never a need to assume an "immaterial cause" for all of this order (although I honestly am a bit confused by what exactly you mean). The Universe is the way it is, and as long as it is ordered, we're lucky. There is seemingly no cause for this order, so we acknowledge that reality may actually turn out to be disordered... There's just no point in worrying about that type of situation when your goal is specifically to describe phenomena in terms of predictive models.
posted by dsword at 12:32 PM on November 24, 2005


Chuckles : "Science presupposes that some subset of how the world works can be comprehended"

Physicalism, the current dogma, says that matter is all there is. What complementary subsets has science avoided?
posted by Gyan at 12:36 PM on November 24, 2005


From the linked article:

The anthropologist Edward Tylor got it right in 1871, when he noted that the "minimum definition of religion" is a belief in spiritual beings, in the supernatural.


I find that definition self-interested. Of course an anthropologist wants religion to involve a pantheon of supernatural beings and lots of neat myths and rituals to report in his journal articles. Without that, no chance of tenure!

A definition of religion that excludes, say, Zen Buddhism, as this one does, strikes me as tendentious--made to order for those who want all of religion to be reducible to, and as easily dismissable as, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.
posted by jfuller at 12:46 PM on November 24, 2005


Science presupposes that some subset of how the world works can be comprehended, and it sets out to capture that subset in a useful way.

actually, isn't science just the body of knowledge that is internally-consistent and consistent with its axioms?

Science can indeed "capture" things, eg. ~32 ft/sec/sec, but sometimes it has to give them up (E = mc2's effect on newtonian mechanics).
"To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge." - Copernicus
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:48 PM on November 24, 2005


Physicalism, the current dogma, says that matter is all there is

actually AFAICT the current science is that matter is all that, uh, matters. Should you have an observation that falsifies this then you should publish a paper so others can investigate what you've found.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:51 PM on November 24, 2005


Who wrote the article? Is it anonymous?
posted by snoktruix at 12:51 PM on November 24, 2005


Oh, Paul Bloom, whoever he is.
posted by snoktruix at 12:52 PM on November 24, 2005


Gyan, science hasn't avoided anything. Science simply carves out little bits, studies them to death, and offers explanations that fit - that is necessarily a subset. Which brings us to the idea of a Theory of Everything of course...
posted by Chuckles at 12:55 PM on November 24, 2005


It's not that everything is an accident, it's that there is no evidence yet that any consciousness intended for all this to occur.

Well, one has either made one's mind up or not. Believers and atheists have made their minds up, agnostics decline to come to a conclusion.

Assuming one is not agnostic there's really only two options possible. Belief in God (not an accident) or not (maybe an accident, maybe something else, but not real).

In any case the article is unlikely to move anyone anywhere. It offers another example of an 'accident' or 'something hard to understand and draw a conclusion about' or further evidence of God's work depending on where you start from.

isn't science just the body of knowledge that is internally-consistent and consistent with its axioms?


The scientific method itself is agnostic, has to be or it wouldn't be the scientific method. The argument, as always, is in the conclusion-drawing, where scientists or anyone else steps beyond agnosticism and makes assertions about reality. Even assertions disingenuously posed as questions such as 'is god an accident'.
posted by scheptech at 12:59 PM on November 24, 2005


A definition of religion that excludes, say, Zen Buddhism, as this one does, strikes me as tendentious--made to order for those who want all of religion to be reducible to, and as easily dismissable as, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

Which religion isn't?
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:02 PM on November 24, 2005


jfuller: Not to dive off into the bottomless beyond of semantics, but the definition to which you object is much more accurate if one considers "religion" as a subset of a bigger set of thought called "spirituality". Thus, Zen Buddhism, while very definitely a spiritual practice and way of thought, would not be a religion.

Thus: Spirituality: ideas and practices relating to, consisting of, or affecting the internal experience of being.

Religion: a specific kind of spirituality including belief in the supernatural.

But then again, I live in my own semantic world sometimes.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:04 PM on November 24, 2005


Heywood Mogroot : "the current science is that matter is all that, uh, matters."

Same thing. Your formulation allows for inert "existence" for some 'other'. Effectively resolves to what I said.

Chuckles : "Science simply carves out little bits, studies them to death, and offers explanations that fit - that is necessarily a subset."

You implied something different. I'm not arguing that we already understand everything.

You said,
Chuckles : "and it sets out to capture that subset in a useful way."

Which subset is that? Science doesn't limit its inquires. It only tackles one thing at a time because we have finite time & resources. That's a practical limit, not a philosophical one.
posted by Gyan at 1:06 PM on November 24, 2005


It seems to me that science does depend on some concept of regularity. What "proves" a scientific theory is the ability to show it repeatable under experimental conditions. If we flip the switch and the light goes on - nearly every time (I'm hedging here) then we can say that the switch turns on the light. To have this concept, to be able to use it, we must presuppose it. And in this sense science has a normative quality. (I wouldn't say it's based on faith in the same way as religion, but that science is not independent of values.) To have science we need to value repeatability, consistency etc. We don't (can't) know if these concepts actually prove anything or if they are part of natures construction, but only that they apparently give us results we can work with.

I'm not looking to invalidate science, or equate it with religion, but only to avoid the scientism that seems rampant in modern western culture. Science works, I'm a big fan myself, but the results of scientific methodologies are not independent of those who practice science and the cultures they occupy. Cognitive science wants to naturalize epistemology, but science itself is not completely naturalized and hopefully, never will be.

Wait a second, weren't we talking about God?
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:08 PM on November 24, 2005


> Which religion isn't?

Zen Buddhism, to name one (for the second time in five minutes, d'oh), which does not postulate any supernatural beings.


> Thus, Zen Buddhism, while very definitely a spiritual practice and way of thought,
> would not be a religion..

Reminds me forcibly of those interminably boring arguments between lit-crit snobs and sci fi fans.

"All sci fi is genre crap."
"But what about this? It's not crap."
"Then it can't be SF."
posted by jfuller at 1:08 PM on November 24, 2005


'Supernatural' and 'miracle' have always seemed to me to be illformed concepts: if there were gods, and they mucked around with relaity, that would be the natural order of things, no? These would be concrete phenomena, and you could at least attempt to understand the mechanisms which could describe them. 'It takes 250 MegaApollos to keep the sun in motion...". I don't understand in what sense something which could (hypothetically) be percieved and have an effect on reality would somehow not be a part of that same reality.
Same goes for miracles; if they occurred, they'd just be part of life, the laws of the universe would allow for gods impregnating women, moving stuff around, etc.
The way I see it, 'supernatural' and 'miraculous' are descriptors for things which I (personally) believe but don't understand and wish to remove from intelligent scrutiny.
posted by signal at 1:10 PM on November 24, 2005


I don't know much about Zen Buddhism, does it abandon the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, nirvana and karma? If not then it definitely deals with the supernatural.

As for order, that's merely the manifestation of natural laws. The absence of order would mean the absence of laws (pure chaos).
posted by sineater at 1:13 PM on November 24, 2005


and makes assertions about reality.

Any assertion about "reality" is prima facie bogus. We model what we know empirically, and there is no guarantee that this modelling will incorporate the entire reality stack of existence.

But science is free to make assertions about empirical reality. These stand or fall on their own merits.

Even assertions disingenuously posed as questions such as 'is god an accident'.

I'm purposely avoiding the fpp since I dislike articles on wank, but studying the brain's developmental models, when if not how it forms beliefs, is interesting and can provide useful insight to some of the "why"s of how we come to believe what we do.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:13 PM on November 24, 2005


Heywood Mogroot, I think you are talking more about formal logic than science, not that they are entirely dissimilar. I'm not sure where to go with that distinction, except back to what I said in response to Gyan...
posted by Chuckles at 1:21 PM on November 24, 2005


Heywood Mogroot : "Any assertion about 'reality' is prima facie bogus."

‽‽

Self-reference is a bitch.
posted by Gyan at 1:21 PM on November 24, 2005


To the extent that Zen Buddhism disincorporates Mahayana crap, it's a discipline and not a religion.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:22 PM on November 24, 2005


gyan: unqualified reality outside the observer. Empirical reality is the subset that we exist in. How much empirical reality subsumes the Ultimate reality is a question that has no answer.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:23 PM on November 24, 2005


Heywood Mogroot : "How much empirical reality subsumes the Ultimate reality is a question that has no answer."

Heywood Mogroot : "Any assertion about 'reality' is prima facie bogus."
posted by Gyan at 1:24 PM on November 24, 2005


Gyan: Which subset is that?

Any given subset that any given scientist is studying on any given day. I don't think I said what you think I said, but I might have... If I did, it was my mistake.
posted by Chuckles at 1:25 PM on November 24, 2005


The anthropologist Edward Tylor got it right in 1871, when he noted that the "minimum definition of religion" is a belief in spiritual beings, in the supernatural.

I don't agree with this. I'm no atheist, but I don't believe in the supernatural or in spiritual beings.
posted by scarabic at 1:25 PM on November 24, 2005


What Heywood just said. Science is the modeling of a reality. We take it to be accurate because it works. In this way science is not based on the assumption of some thing, but of some value, in this case "works."
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:25 PM on November 24, 2005


Sorry, I didn't read that last bit Gyan:

Science doesn't limit its inquires. It only tackles one thing at a time because we have finite time & resources. That's a practical limit, not a philosophical one.

Absolutely, no limit on the range of topics to be inquired about, but science only presumes to offer answers where it has found answers that work. That is a philosophical limit on what science claims to know now, science makes no claim at all about what might be known in the future.
posted by Chuckles at 1:29 PM on November 24, 2005


The way I see it, 'supernatural' and 'miraculous' are descriptors for things which I (personally) believe but don't understand and wish to remove from intelligent scrutiny.

Science is about the "how", and Occam's Razor. To the extent that science can construct a soild chain of reasoning from first principles and empirical observation to explain how a purported miracle came to occur, it is not avoiding the question.

But, of course, science should remain humbly cognizant that deep deep down there is no there there. Science is built on a foundation of null knowledge (origin and existence of the universe).
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:35 PM on November 24, 2005


This from the article struck me:

Children with autism typically show impairments in communication (about a third do not speak at all), in imagination (they tend not to engage in imaginative play), and most of all in socialization.

So are autistic kids "animal-like" (using the term descriptively and not perjoratively) to some extent?
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:36 PM on November 24, 2005


Reminds me forcibly of those interminably boring arguments between lit-crit snobs and sci fi fans.

...mmm, kind of, but I think you're assuming that I've made a value judgment that I haven't. There is something fundamental that sets Buddhism apart from the religions with which it's usually grouped: Buddha clearly asserted that all we can really know is our embodied lives, and thus his spiritual teachings were geared toward focus on the internal, subjective experience of being. He often admonished his disciples away from the supernatural, no?

Of course, Christianity as it exists today profoundly distorts many of its own teachings, so I imagine much the same has happened in Buddhism. But I don't live in a Buddhist culture, all I get is the westernized version of it here in the US, which is free of all sorts of cultural and historical baggage.
posted by LooseFilter at 1:39 PM on November 24, 2005


Chuckles : "but science only presumes to offer answers where it has found answers that work. That is a philosophical limit on what science claims to know now, science makes no claim at all about what might be known in the future."

I think you've changed the point you were arguing. You originally said, "Science presupposes that some subset of how the world works can be comprehended, and it sets out to capture that subset in a useful way." That use of 'presupposes' casts a different light than the "offers answers where it has found answers that work".
posted by Gyan at 1:41 PM on November 24, 2005


koeselitz: Put your hands up and step away from the Deity. Smuggling gods into threads is proscribed behaviour. I repeat...step away from the deity.
posted by Sparx at 1:42 PM on November 24, 2005


empirical reality

Understood. I'd suggest most believers in God have, at some point in their lives, decided they need to decide and can no longer remain at the 'waiting for evidence' stage. I've offered the notion in other threads that such evidence will never be available as long as free will exists, that the two are incompatible. The Christian thought process goes like this: we have free will and are meant to decide, in the face of ambiguity, whether to believe or not. Any empircal evidence of God's existence would end that ultimately important process (to Christianity) immediately, would remove the burden of deciding, and essentially bring the world as we know it to an end.

That's the thinking anyhow, so when someone says there's no empirical evidence for the existence of God, I agree: we're still talking about it so of course not.
posted by scheptech at 1:47 PM on November 24, 2005


so I imagine much the same has happened in Buddhism.

That's Dawkins' meme angle working its magic. Sterile doctrines within any order that treats with the masses will tend to get replaced with more meaningful & satisfying (to the masses)rococo, ad-hoc teachings over time.

I just saw this with my fundie mother last week. A good idea she had, "worry is pointless", got transformed into a Great Religious Relevation that "Worry is a rejection of God's Power in your life".

Which teaching will gain more currency over time?
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:48 PM on November 24, 2005


I don't think I changed anything. Should I have said "The scientific method presupposes that some phenomena can be explained, and sets out to capture that phenomena in a useful way". Is that really different. Isn't this just about semantics now. Is the entire debate raised by the article just semantics. Am I writing anything right now. If I beg mathowie to bring back the Matowie's Baby sock puppet will he ban me. Does anyone care. Do I care.
posted by Chuckles at 1:49 PM on November 24, 2005


> I just saw this with my fundie mother last week.

Heh. That explains everything, Heywood dear.
posted by jfuller at 2:02 PM on November 24, 2005


we have free will and are meant to decide, in the face of ambiguity, whether to believe or not

This is an important precept that isn't stressed enough these days I think. St Thomas had it easy, too easy one could argue.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 2:13 PM on November 24, 2005


Chuckles : "Should I have said 'The scientific method presupposes that some phenomena can be explained, and sets out to capture that phenomena in a useful way'."

Same thing; commensurate with your original formulation, and indicates a 'faith'/
posted by Gyan at 2:16 PM on November 24, 2005


Same thing; commensurate with your original formulation, and indicates a 'faith'/

Chuckles' original formation:

"Science presupposes that some subset of how the world works can be comprehended, and it sets out to capture that subset in a useful way. There is nothing faith-based about doing an experiment and seeing what happens."

I disagree about the 'presupposition' and 'capturing', but the general import stands without faith. Science is just a body of knowledge. It is what it is. There are scientific axioms -- eg. the proper experiment produces proper results, but even these are consistent with scientific empiricism.

Where's the articles of faith in science?

As for Physicalism asserting that "matter is all there is", I responded that that which exists may or may not matter to us. If it matters to us, it is matter.

To which:

Your formulation allows for inert "existence" for some 'other'. Effectively resolves to what I said.

I allow for the existence of things that do not matter to us, and I consider this consistent with secular materialism, if not Physicalism. I consider s.m. to be the reigning model, not Physicalism, btw.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 2:39 PM on November 24, 2005


Science's articles of faith.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 2:45 PM on November 24, 2005


Same thing; commensurate with your original formulation, and indicates a 'faith'/

No, it doesn't indicate a faith. It just indicates that when using the scientific method to produce models you have to include certain assumptions. The objective truth of those assumptions doesn't have to come into it.

Unlike the belief in god you don't have to "have faith" in the assumptions behind science to use the scientific method, you just have to see the utility of those assumptions in producing decent models for our subjective reality.

Maybe it is conceivable that you could only beleive in God when you are praying, or whenever else the assumption of God's existence is pragmatic or satisfying in some way, but in practice that is rarely the case.
posted by beegull at 2:45 PM on November 24, 2005


Gyan... I am beginning to see how my use of 'presupposes' is a problem, but I still think it is semantics. The scientific method having a preconception doesn't imply that a skeptic applying the scientific method has faith.

I'm not actually sure if the scientific method has a preconception or not. One could certainly formulate a definition that doesn't include the word 'presuppose'... To me it isn't important, the fact that the scientific method works is important - consider what I said about religion here.

(maybe I am saying the same thing as beegull just said... I'm not at all sure what Heywood Mogroot just said, I think I will re-read it...)
posted by Chuckles at 3:05 PM on November 24, 2005


beegull : "The objective truth of those assumptions doesn't have to come into it."

In terms of truth, they do. For pure utility's sake, maybe not.

We should all define 'faith'. I'll go first: a belief or which there is conceivably proof or disproof, but there isn't one currently. For something where there's no proof/disproof, 'faith' is a bad word, substitute with 'worldview' or 'framework'.
posted by Gyan at 3:06 PM on November 24, 2005


Reading this thread, I have to say that a lot of you guys, and to some extent the author of the article, are putting a lot of your thoughts in other people's heads.

First of all, I disagree with the first supposition mentioned in the post: human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena.
Not only does that not ring true with me as a regular person, as well as a student of Psychology, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science, but furthermore, Psychologists (and many other scientists) don't "discover" "facts," they build theories based on evidence, and to posit that statement as a "fact" is incredibly misleading.

For my own two cents, it seems that religion has always been an organization composed of and supported by people's hopes and superstitions. That is not to say there is no god, I wouldn't venture to argue that point. If belief in the supernatural is in fact due to some sort of psychological trait of humanity, it would simply be due to that part which has allowed us over the last 50,000 years to think abstractly and apply practical value to immaterial things. To attempt to put a point any sharper than that upon it is in my humble opinion folly.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:19 PM on November 24, 2005


Science's articles of faith.

religion's articles of infantilism

religion's embrace of infantilism
posted by pyramid termite at 3:33 PM on November 24, 2005


I guess in my own thinking there can never be any "truth", since all thought imposes a model on reality. In that case, faith is a belief in the underlying assumptions used to produce the model of reality.

Although there may be people who truly "believe" in the underlying assumptions involved in the scientific method, it isn't in any way neccessary to have that belief to not only use that scientific methods but to derive benefits from the models those assumptions produce, a big one obviously being technology.

It seems to me that alot of the benefits that people get from having God in their model of the world really do rely on a belief in God.

By the way, what are the underlying assumptions in science that can be disproven? The assumptions that I can think of can't be disproven, assumptions though they are.
posted by beegull at 3:37 PM on November 24, 2005


Science really isn't about truth at all. It's about description. There's no faith involved in description. You just test something and then report the result of the test. Science doesn't care if what the thing you tested was true or not. We could all be a butterfly's dream, but science doesn't care about that one way or another. It'll test the dream world just the same as a 'real' one, whatever that means.
posted by freedryk at 4:07 PM on November 24, 2005


freedryk : "Science really isn't about truth at all."

This is a modern resignation.
posted by Gyan at 4:11 PM on November 24, 2005


With which I agree, I add.
posted by Gyan at 4:11 PM on November 24, 2005


Something that is disproven is ejected from the body of science.

My favorite statement of scientific fact comes from Gould, that scientific fact, and by extension science itself, is a proposition that would be perverse not to provisionally accept.

When talking about religious beliefs, we get into Occam's razor and the null hypothesis that the universe, at our level of understanding at least, is a trilliontrillion dice rolls.

Faith comes into play in categorizing observations from mere chance to a supernatural causal agent; faith is the belief that there is more to life than chance, essentially, and that the connection to the spirituality of religion is something more real than just a mental state/affliction.

Science keeps Occam's razor and the null hypothesis close at hand, so it is very hard to catch it creating things that must be taken on faith.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:15 PM on November 24, 2005


Gyan: Why resignation? Truth is an emotionally loaded word. Are Newton's laws true? They work fine in 99% of the cases. Is special relativity "more true"? It's really the wrong set of terms to be discussing the subject. I'm sure science was originally about knowing the mind of God and all that, but the best science has always been purely descriptive.

I just object when people start treating science as another type of religion. I object to the science believers as well. Science does nothing to explain the world, and doesn't require belief to use. If anything, science requires doubt. There could certainly be a God; science has nothing to say on the subject, unless you can test it. It's profoundly materialistic, because that's all it applies to: materials.

I don't mean it can't be wonderful or tell us amazing things about how things work or reveal subtle patterns in the nature of the world around us. But what it reveals could all just be a statistical coincidence. A very low probablily one, but still... the long tail applies to reality as well.
posted by freedryk at 4:21 PM on November 24, 2005


Damn, should remember to read the preview.
posted by freedryk at 4:22 PM on November 24, 2005


Incidentally, my favorite quote from the article is:

"Dawkins goes on to suggest that anyone before Darwin who did not believe in God was simply not paying attention."

Amen. Reminds me of James Burke.
posted by freedryk at 4:29 PM on November 24, 2005


freedryk: the attitude that science is just description is a recent development (in overall timeframe).

freedryk : "Science does nothing to explain the world, and doesn't require belief to use. If anything, science requires doubt."

Belief and doubt are two sides of the same coin.
posted by Gyan at 4:37 PM on November 24, 2005


Belief and doubt are two sides of the same coin.

How so? One is taking the underlying assumptions of your model for granted, the other is questioning them.
posted by beegull at 4:46 PM on November 24, 2005


MeTa, by the way.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:47 PM on November 24, 2005


beegull : "the other is questioning them."

Within another model (of standards of proof & evidence).
posted by Gyan at 4:58 PM on November 24, 2005


Within another model (of standards of proof & evidence).

Well, within the overall model that makes up your own personal model of the world. Maybe you can only, practically, change some peices while keeping others static, but doubt would be a matter of seeing value in that change, whereas belief is more about seeing the value in the static parts of your model.
posted by beegull at 5:39 PM on November 24, 2005


The Christian thought process goes like this: we have free will and are meant to decide, in the face of ambiguity, whether to believe or not. Any empircal evidence of God's existence would end that ultimately important process (to Christianity) immediately, would remove the burden of deciding, and essentially bring the world as we know it to an end.

What a flawed thought process. Knowing if a god-concept existed would not preclude free-will. You would still have the choice of following that god-concepts rules or not. And I'd imagine that many people would choose not to follow if they knew, given the asshole that the Christian god-concept shows himself to be in the Old Testament.

This is as ludicrous as the whole "don't-test-god' excuse. I'm going to assert a whole bunch of fantastical claims, but the biblical god-concept forbids you to test him. How much more obvious of a con can you get?
posted by jsonic at 5:40 PM on November 24, 2005


beegull : "Maybe you can only, practically, change some peices while keeping others static, but doubt would be a matter of seeing value in that change, whereas belief is more about seeing the value in the static parts of your model."

My point is that doubt is itself predicated on beliefs. A Christian doubts atheism and believes theism. Vice-versa for atheists. True agnostics are rare.
posted by Gyan at 5:45 PM on November 24, 2005


My point is that doubt is itself predicated on beliefs

I think there's a 2nd axis you're missing -- interest/apathy.

One can doubt another's beliefs without holding these beliefs themselves.

A Christian doubts atheism and believes theism. Vice-versa for atheists. True agnostics are rare.

You can't "believe" in athiesm. This is the age-old lack-of-belief is NOT belief argument I guess.

As for agnosticism, that's just refusal to make a decision based on the available evidence IMV.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 6:20 PM on November 24, 2005


Who needs turkey tryptophan?
posted by Joeforking at 6:37 PM on November 24, 2005


You can't "believe" in athiesm. This is the age-old lack-of-belief is NOT belief argument I guess.

disbelief is not a neutral statement

As for agnosticism, that's just refusal to make a decision based on the available evidence IMV.

the available evidence doesn't say one way or another ... therefore, those who say one way or another are basing it on belief
posted by pyramid termite at 6:43 PM on November 24, 2005


disbelief is not a neutral statement

Actually, it is. Oxford defines 'disbelief' such that it encompasses both the lack of belief and the active belief in the negative.
posted by solid-one-love at 7:13 PM on November 24, 2005


Maybe I should take more time to communicate my point, which will save more time overall, but yeah, who am I kidding..

Heywood Mogroot : "One can doubt another's beliefs without holding these beliefs themselves."

Doubt is itself an action within a cognitive framework. One believes in a certain standard that defines what constitutes evidence; what constitutes sound reasoning..etc. So, if I doubt 'something', I'm saying that I believe in a certain (maybe unelaborated) framework within which I can't accept 'something'. I believe the contents of this very post, based on my expectation of what is sound reasoning. Everything is embedded in a context i.e. a matrix of cognition and perception. Even agnosticism is based on what counts as evidence. Strong agnosticism is based on reasoning about nature of experience and truth, and why the question can't be resolved.

Normally, I don't argue via drive-by shootings, but I'm just lazy today.

Heywood Mogroot : "This is the age-old lack-of-belief is NOT belief argument I guess."

Assuming law of excluded middle (God exists or doesn't), atheism i.e. lack of belief in God is equivalent to believing in lack of God. BTW, this grammar-based argument ('a' + 'theism' != 'anti' + 'theism') is a recent post-hoc rationalization, not "age-old". Read it recently in an article probably linked off A&L Daily.
posted by Gyan at 7:13 PM on November 24, 2005


the available evidence doesn't say one way or another ... therefore, those who say one way or another are basing it on belief

And the available evidence doesn't prove that leprechauns exist or not. However, this doesn't change the fact that the correct answer to "Do leprechauns exist?" is No. Invisible god-concepts are no different.
posted by jsonic at 7:32 PM on November 24, 2005


"the available evidence doesn't say one way or another ... therefore, those who say one way or another are basing it on belief"

A common formulation of agnosticism is that it's not possible to prove one way or another. I think it's very strange that of these three common beliefs about the nature of the universe with regard to a God (is, is not, can't know), this version of agnosticism is necessarily the most unlikely. Note that this is distinct from a belief that the knowability is practically unknowable in the same way that pretty much the nonexistence of anything is practically unknowable. The assertion of nonexistence is very hard to prove.

In this discussion it's important to be clear about some subtleties: The typical contemporary empiricist-positivist atheist position on God is: RiS-Ku.

That's "implicit" on their personal relationship to this belief—which means that it's assumed as one of an infinite number of things about the universe which are necessarily implicitly assumed. All of us, I'd guess, implicitly assume the nonexistence of a twin of ours living on Jupiter. All of us, I'd also guess, implicitly assume the existence of ourselves. The belief itself is "not exist". And the knowability is "undecided".

The typical American theist position on God is: ReS+K+.

They've explicitly made a decision about their belief. They believe in God's existence. And they believe that God's existence is knowable. Note that a theist like this could also be RiS+K+.

The typical aggressive atheist position on God would be ReS-K+.

They might be ReS-Ku, which would be more reasonable in my opinion.

The typical person who describes himself as "agnostic" takes the position ReSuKu.

The typical person who is an aggressive agnostic takes the position ReSuK-.

A person who is totally indifferent to the question takes the position RiSuKu.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:40 PM on November 24, 2005


An article like this, whether it's well-thought-out or silly, isn't a reasonable weapon for atheists or theists to use in their endless battles against each other. But, of course, naturally they use it anyway.

It's possible that one day we'll understand the biology of religious feeling as-well-as we understand the mechanics of the bladder. At which point we'll be able to answer the question of whether God exists exactly as accurately as we can answer it now.

Presumably modern, intelligent, educated theists believe that religious feelings are "located" in the brain, just like all other feelings. And that this mechanism was implanted in us (directly or indirectly) by God. Atheists believe it's a fluke of evolution. Regardless, it's there and itl functions.

I can even imagine a theist (if I were a theist, I would, most likely, think like this) who believed:

(A) God exists.

(B) Through a lucky accident of evolution, I believe in Him. (I can imagine a universe in which God exists and people might have evolved in such a way that they couldn't conceive of Him or believe in Him.)

(C) There may be no causal link between God's existence and the fact that I believe in Him. (Of course, if I'm the type of theist who believes that every detail of the universe is part of God's plan, then there IS a connection between my belief and His existence, but the type of connection may not be obvious.)

It really sucks that people can only see such articles through the lens of their petty squabbles, because this topic is VITAL to understanding who we are and what makes us tick. The theists/atheists-are-stupid slant is just about the most boring way I can imagine anyone responding to it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:53 PM on November 24, 2005


It really sucks that people can only see such articles through the lens of their petty squabbles

Yes, because the wide-spread belief in invisible magical beings is of no-importance, and has no noticable effect on the world around us. What logical person would involve themself in such a petty affair?

A summary of your arguement:

(A) Regardless of what science discovers, theists can always fall back on the God-of-the-Gaps excuse.

(B) Since their god-concept might still be hiding under a rock somewhere, they will continue to feel justified in absolutely believing in its existence, not to mention continuing to claim that they know what it wants.

(C) Non-believers who point out the fallacious nature of such a worldview are equally an impediment to understanding how we really tick.

Can you spot the false equivalency?
posted by jsonic at 8:33 PM on November 24, 2005


[this (thread) is good]
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:50 PM on November 24, 2005


And the available evidence doesn't prove that leprechauns exist or not.

may the gentry forgive me for saying this, but leprechauns are not metaphysically significant ... neither are pink unicorns

bottom line ... no one gets to claim, by proof, that they hold the default position here

bottom line ... those who express an opinion on this matter are expressing what they believe, not what they know

a little intellectual honesty would be refreshing ... but of course, that would remove most of the motivation for this endless debate, anyway

people are posting fpps like this just so they and their comrades can express their superiority over those "dumb" enough to believe ... there's nothing substantive to most of these posts ... it's the same old high school snarkiness ... it's the same old metaphysical circle jerk

people believe different things than you do and you'll never settle it, so just get over it

how many times have you seen religious people post fpps linking to sites that claim that non-believers have empty live, no morals, or any of the other nasty things that could be linked to?

i guess it's a question of who feels more secure and mature about what they believe

all i've ever asked for is a simple admission from some people ... that they don't KNOW

that's a lot to ask for, i guess ... have fun with it
posted by pyramid termite at 9:47 PM on November 24, 2005


Being spiritual doesn't mean being a-scientific. The two are different paths and while some may assert that there is no path but the scientific one, that is a personal preference more than a rational view.

As an example, the Buddhist view of the world places great emphasis on the condition of the observer. This is important since the object of observation is the conscious mind. This observation has no preconceptions nor goals. The aim is quite at ease with that of western science. That aim being to see what is there.

The difference from western science being what previously was called the "subset" of observation. Buddhism is not so much interested in how the planets and stars move as it in how the mind moves.
posted by stirfry at 10:07 PM on November 24, 2005


"that they don't KNOW"

While I completely sympathize with your complaint at the neverending "believers are teh stupid" posts, I don't think that you're right in demanding this. Re-read my earlier comment and pay particular attention to the parts regarding belief of non-existence.

The problem is that with a very, very tiny number of exceptions relative to those to which the rule applies, you basically can't know the nonexistence of anything. (The only exceptions are those required as a matter of deductive logic.)

This being the case, then this complaint of falsity would apply to not only the atheists, but certainly to you and everyone else with regard to a number of things we don't believe exist. So you basically have to concede the truly rigorous ground in this debate on this point because holding it in untenable.

What we're left with are degrees of doubt shading into degrees of indifference. In one direction, "indifference" applies to all the things that you've never thought to question the nonexistance of. In the other direction you have "doubt" that is functionally equivalent to nonbelief, e.g. Santa Claus.

An atheist who is determined to assert that God doesn't exist is asserting that the nonexistence of God is knowable in the same way as the nonexistence of Santa Claus.

When you object to calling a belief what is more rigorously called "doubt" you're really intending to make the claim that this possible nonexistence is closer to single-cellular life on Mars than it is to Santa Claus at the North Pole. You're objecting to the "hard" presumed nonexistence.

That's a valid objection, but it's not necessarily true as a matter of everyday language. If you insist that it is necessarily true you're open to the same complaint thrown back at with regard to many, many things you and I both know.

One lesson to be drawn from this comment of mine and the one earlier is that almost nobody is truly rigorous and truly consistent in arguing this debate, notwithstanding their claims to the contrary.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:52 PM on November 24, 2005


may the gentry forgive me for saying this, but leprechauns are not metaphysically significant ... neither are pink unicorns

I see now. In order to have my invisible friend be taken seriously, I need to claim he is metaphysically significant. That way we'll know he's better than all the other, less-real, imaginary beings.

people are posting fpps like this just so they and their comrades can express their superiority over those "dumb" enough to believe

(-1, Persecution Complex) Pointing out logical fallacies is really about making the pointer-outer feel superior.

i guess it's a question of who feels more secure and mature about what they believe

Yes, the one thing we've learned from Intelligent Design, Anti-Gay Marriage Laws, and School Prayer is that the atheists are the ones who feel insecure about their beliefs.
posted by jsonic at 10:56 PM on November 24, 2005


Nice summation EB.
posted by jsonic at 10:58 PM on November 24, 2005


Doubt is itself an action within a cognitive framework. One believes in a certain standard that defines what constitutes evidence; what constitutes sound reasoning..etc. So, if I doubt 'something', I'm saying that I believe in a certain (maybe unelaborated) framework within which I can't accept 'something'. I believe the contents of this very post, based on my expectation of what is sound reasoning.
Sure. This cognitive framework we call 'science'. When I doubt a proposition I am finding it insufficiently supported to add my personal scientific body of knowledge.

I believe you're holding these statements equivalent:

1. I don't hold a belief in A.
2. I believe in not A.

to support this:

A Christian doubts atheism and believes theism. Vice-versa for atheists

I think I can offer a profitable clarification of what Doubt actually is. Perhaps Doubt targets the supporting elements of a belief, not the belief itself.

This would remove the reflexive nature of your above assertion.

Athiests doubt the supporting assertions of theism. Since "there is no A" is the default logical position, they can go home.

To say that Christians doubt the supporting assertions of atheism is meaninglessness, in that it is tantamount to saying that Christians doubt logic itself.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:06 PM on November 24, 2005


Knowing if a god-concept existed would not preclude free-will.

Ok, we have another demonstration of the circularity of all these discussions.

If what I think of as God were to manifest unambiguously in your presence, I believe you'd be left with no choice but to believe.

If what you think of as God is just a god-concept, an idea, a mere mental construct then yes, obviously you could take it or leave it retaining free will, as is already occuring.

As happens so often, where we start from determines where we end up.
posted by scheptech at 11:13 PM on November 24, 2005


people are posting fpps like this just so they and their comrades can express their superiority over those "dumb" enough to believe ... there's nothing substantive to most of these posts ... it's the same old high school snarkiness ... it's the same old metaphysical circle jerk
posted by pyramid termite at 9:47 PM PST on November 24


Point to a single fucking comment in this thread that does such a thing, please.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:16 PM on November 24, 2005


"To say that Christians doubt the supporting assertions of atheism is meaninglessness, in that it is tantamount to saying that Christians doubt logic itself."

I don't think you're right, Heywood. You're overstating your case.

There are a number of things of which you and I and everyone else assert the existence of, but nevertheless cannot prove. A theist can merely say that the existence of a God is qualitatively equivalent to any one of these beliefs and that the atheist is doubting the supporting assertions.

And this is what the argument really comes down to. What you and I, both atheists (I assume) are claiming is that the question of the existence of God is qualitatively equivalent to the question of the existence of any random thing of which no one has even thought to question its existence. But the theist is coming from exactly the other direction. In their worldview, the existence of God is qualitatively equivalent to the question of the existence of consciousness. Both then expect the burden of proof to be on the opposing viewpoint's side, not their own.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:22 PM on November 24, 2005


Ok, we have another demonstration of the circularity of all these discussions. If what I think of as God were to manifest unambiguously in your presence, I believe you'd be left with no choice but to believe.

No, you just misread the comment.

Of course you'd believe that such a being existed if it manifested itself. My comment stated that you would still have free-will to decide if you were going to follow the rules of that being or not, even if you knew it existed.

Knowledge of a gods existence doesn't remove your freedom to choose to be 'good' or 'evil'. The idea that a certain god hides from us because revealing himself would remove free-will is false. And if you're of the Christian persuasion, even the bible invalidates such a claim. It's god manifested itself all time, supposedly.
posted by jsonic at 11:28 PM on November 24, 2005


people are posting fpps like this just so they and their comrades can express their superiority over those "dumb" enough to believe ... there's nothing substantive to most of these posts ... it's the same old high school snarkiness ... it's the same old metaphysical circle jerk
posted by pyramid termite at 9:47 PM PST on November 24


You know, the more I read this, the more infuriating it is. I just re-read this thread very, very closely, and there is not one goddamn comment - not one - even close to "expressing superiority" or "high school snarkiness." I will refrain from saying something nasty so Mr. Termite can't point to it and say, "see, there it is, all these threads are just excuses for blah blah blah fuckedy blah." There's cogent analysis, very good corroborating links, and respectful discussion, which the last time I checked were the hallmarks of a good thread. So what the fuck, pyramid?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:30 PM on November 24, 2005


This being the case, then this complaint of falsity would apply to not only the atheists, but certainly to you and everyone else with regard to a number of things we don't believe exist.

i tend to be a little more careful about what i think doesn't exist than most people ... if there's anything i've learned in the past year or so, it's not to be too quick to judge what other people call reality

So you basically have to concede the truly rigorous ground in this debate on this point because holding it in untenable.

how so? ... my worldview doesn't rely on a compulsion to say that pink unicorns and leprechauns are impossible ... i'm perfectly willing to let the things outside of my experience be there and not worry about it

there are times i'm not sure that many of the things i know are real ... or, i sense that they wouldn't be perceived as real if so many people didn't believe in them ... once in awhile, i get a peek behind the curtain and realize that the world may be a much different place than i've been perceiving it as being

but, jsonic, the question of whether there is a god or not, has broad implications about the nature of the universe and our purpose in it ... in a way that the existence of pink unicorns and leprechauns do not ... the question in and of itself is metaphysically significant whatever your answer might be

pity you feel a need to clutter it up with straw men and messy analogies to leprechauns

and optimus i think for example, linking to google search results that have no entries, mention of religion as infantilism and the inevitable references to santa claus, the easter bunny and leprechauns, strike me as snarkisms

not to mention the act of posting an fpp like this on a board that has argued this to death, often quite badly
posted by pyramid termite at 11:40 PM on November 24, 2005


EB, the purpose of debate for me is to identify where the sides part logical/evidentiary company. People asserting Idealism -- that anything we can conceive could/should have actual properties of existence -- is one departure point I'm glad to let people take, and plenty of theists/Christians take this door.

In their worldview, the existence of God is qualitatively equivalent to the question of the existence of consciousness

:) Which is a good thing... not quite apropos but some time ago I think I figured out deja-vu feelings: they could be just hiccups in the consciousness engine that is feeding our internal narrative the thoughts we think we are thinking.

They are welcome to go into cognition if they want. At least the brain has phenomenon we can study in a lab, and plenty of experiments and empirical observations (facts) for us to review.

Faith in the existence of a god has no facts in support of it, which is why it is faithful belief and not a supported, scientific belief.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:43 PM on November 24, 2005


the inevitable references to santa claus, the easter bunny and leprechauns, strike me as snarkisms

You may think that comparing your god-concept to a leprechaun is a snark, but you can't deny they are the same thing: assertions that are completely unsupported by reality.

but, jsonic, the question of whether there is a god or not, has broad implications about the nature of the universe and our purpose in it

No, this all part of the unsupported assertion. You could replace my use of leprechaun above with Zeus. The Zeus myth deals with the creation of man and his purpose. Does this automatically make Zeus less imaginary than leprechauns? Are you honestly on the fence about whether Zeus exists or not?

pity you feel a need to clutter it up with straw men and messy analogies to leprechauns

Please point to the strawman I used.
posted by jsonic at 11:53 PM on November 24, 2005


I can't think of any believer I know who was convinced of God's existence only by logic. It's not like they're sitting around like Archimedes in his bathtub mulling over the logic of the problem, and suddenly shouting "Eureka, I have it!". A leap of faith is taken, after which things fall rapidly into place, start to make a lot more sense than previously, and it all feels very right. People talk about being able to see where once they were blind. I've seen this happen to people over and over, seen lives change. My point: forget the logical argument on Gods' existence. Fruitless exercise either way.

Knowledge of a gods existence doesn't remove your freedom to choose to be 'good' or 'evil'.


Exactly correct. As they say, even the devil believes in God. The free will removal would be in the area of whether to believe in him, in his existence or not.
posted by scheptech at 11:56 PM on November 24, 2005


Knowledge of a gods existence doesn't remove your freedom to choose to be 'good' or 'evil'. The idea that a certain god hides from us because revealing himself would remove free-will is false. And if you're of the Christian persuasion, even the bible invalidates such a claim. It's god manifested itself all time, supposedly.

I disagree, though of course even Adam & Eve theoretically had free will. It's also a mistake to argue theology with a theologist, hermeneutics is wankery of a very high order.

What I have is an opinion that if *I* were God I wouldn't be retailing my existence door-to-door. What's the value of faith that's proven? "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!" and all that.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 11:58 PM on November 24, 2005


and optimus i think for example, linking to google search results that have no entries, mention of religion as infantilism and the inevitable references to santa claus, the easter bunny and leprechauns, strike me as snarkisms

Uh, can you feel a pea underneath your mattress as well, princess? Are those examples so horrific and offensive that the whole thread is ruined for you? Or is it instead that you don't have the intellectual firepower to respond substantively and instead pretend to be attacked by a bunch of meanies with their - oh, lord, the horror - blank Google results?

not to mention the act of posting an fpp like this on a board that has argued this to death, often quite badly

Here are some options that are worlds better than whining about it: flag it, MeTa it, don't read it. Or you could engage jsonic et al, but that's much more difficult.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:59 PM on November 24, 2005


Heywood Mogroot : "I believe you're holding these statements equivalent:

"1. I don't hold a belief in A.
"2. I believe in not A."


Yes, but with the following caveats

1)Assuming excluded middle : ~(A & ~A) & (A v ~A)

2)Considered belief by a grown adult. Your pt. 1, strictly speaking, applies to toddlers, dogs and rocks, as well. Such cases are excluded.

Given these, lack of belief in God is equivalent to belief in lack of God.
posted by Gyan at 12:06 AM on November 25, 2005


i'm perfectly willing to let the things outside of my experience be there and not worry about it

Christianity is interesting in that it has real-world implications to me. Viz, there's going to soon be *5* conservative Catholics, assembled like fucking Voltron, on the SCOTUS. Christian-Right whackjobs are busy praying to start wars with Islam and OPEC; this is *really* not going to end well, I can only hope I'm upwind of whatever bad thing happens next.

...the whole Rovian thing of pandering to the anti-gay bigots and evangelicals (but I repeat myself) to secure 51% electoral majorities necessary to continue dismantling the 20th-century mildly-redistributive state. Instituting restrictions on abortion because of their beliefs that humans have souls from conception. Makes me miss Japan, where the default worldview is in fact agnosticism, and religiousity does not inform public debate.

I have no major beef with Buddhists, their beliefs are harmless. I wish I could say the same about Christians (and to be somewhat fair, Muslims, though their own screwed-up beliefs have not affected me so directly).
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:09 AM on November 25, 2005


I disagree, though of course even Adam & Eve theoretically had free will. It's also a mistake to argue theology with a theologist, hermeneutics is wankery of a very high order.

The Adam & Eve myth is so incredibly stupid that I'm amazed that people lend credence to it, even in a symbolic sense. Good 'ole Yahweh tells Adam & Eve not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Right & Wrong, and then punishes them and all subsequent humanity when they do.

Hello!? McFly!? How the fuck are they supposed to know that disobeying God is a bad thing before they have knowledge of right & wrong? And this is the Original Sin that we all need Jesus to save us from?

Good point about the wankery though.
posted by jsonic at 12:14 AM on November 25, 2005


Given these, lack of belief in God is equivalent to belief in lack of God.

I agree in the general case, though this does miss some important shades of nuance of what doubt actually is that I was getting at above.

"I doubt the existence of A" is indeed shorthand for "I doubt/reject the factual/logical supports of A".

"I believe in not A" requires positive supporting assertions.

Thus I do not buy your "sides of the same coin" argument wrt. belief/disbelief in a given proposition.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:19 AM on November 25, 2005


pyramid_termite, you wrote: "...my worldview doesn't rely on a compulsion to say that pink unicorns and leprechauns are impossible ... i'm perfectly willing to let the things outside of my experience be there and not worry about it..."

I think you're being disingenuous. If anyone here was seriously asserting the existance of pink unicorns or leprechauns I feel sure that you'd claim to "know" they don't exist. If someone believed that they do exist, were arguing with you about it, and retorted with "just admit that you can't know they don't exist" you'd find that exasperating because it's obvious that you don't know they don't exist. But in every way other than the strongest and most rigorous use of the word "know", you do, in fact, know they don't exist.

In exactly this way, I know that God doesn't exist. If someone wants to split hairs, then I'll go into rigorous speech and reasoning mode and use language as I do in my first comment. Even so, I won't be using the word "know" in its absolute, non-rigorous sense. I'll declare myself to be "R+S-Ku" which implicitly disallows a rigorous certainty about the question of the nonexistence of a God. That "S-" indicates that as a practical matter I believe that God doesn't not exist; that if you were to ask me I'd say God doesn't exist. But the "Ku" requires that I allow the tiniest bit of doubt on the question because, were I to believe that nonexistence is certain in the most rigorous sense, then I must believe that knowability is possible. So I can't be asserting the rigorous nonexistence of God, assuming I'm consistent.

I'm willing to use the word "know", with regard to nonexistence, in a non-rigorous manner because, in relative terms, I'm never going to claim that I "know" the nonexistence of something in the rigorous manner.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:20 AM on November 25, 2005


jsonic: they own the boundaries of the debate wrt their theology; whether things are metaphor or not is up to them to determine.

I think it's all crap of dubious veracity and usefulness (no shellfish? wtf?) but we can only argue what they bring to the debate table.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:22 AM on November 25, 2005


A leap of faith is taken, after which things fall rapidly into place, start to make a lot more sense than previously, and it all feels very right...forget the logical argument on Gods' existence

Religion in a nutshell. Concrete decisions about reality are made based on feelings, not logic. This is the core conflict between science and religion.
posted by jsonic at 12:27 AM on November 25, 2005


This is the core conflict between science and religion.

ah, but religion has the winning hand. Getting back to the fpp:
existence of a soul, an afterlife, miracles, and the divine creation of the universe
Science: no soul, "you" are a figment of your imagination
Faith: You are you! Created by a loving god, who wants to Love You and You Love Him. And Love each other! Love!

Science: no afterlife. Your brain cells go poof, that's it.
Faith: Eternal life after death! With gold streets and shit.

Science: we are apparently products of billions and billions of transcription mistakes, accidents of chance, that only by the positive feedback of natural selection have we become as complex and capable as we are.
Faith: We are made in God's image!

Science: Miracles are bullshit, apparently.
Faith: Miracles happen! It's God's reward, in God's plan.

Science: We don't know, and probably can't know, how the universe came to be.
Faith: The universe was created by God for Him, and us.


If Dawkins is right, we're screwed.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:39 AM on November 25, 2005


Heywood Mogroot : "'I believe in not A' requires positive supporting assertions."

Rigorously, yes. In practical models of psychology, No. Unless one has "inherited" atheism, or grown up in a culture devoid of metaphysical speculation (?!), one becomes atheist by rejecting theism.

In any case, what do you think, would constitute evidence for God?
posted by Gyan at 12:44 AM on November 25, 2005


one becomes atheist by rejecting theism.

...what an odd logical proposition, though "practically" you are correct I suppose. But perhaps this is mistaking acculturation with actual knowledge.

In any case, what do you think, would constitute evidence for God?

It's a sliding scale of something occurring outside our natural philosophy aka science. Eg. if we only had evidence that the earth was ~6000 years old, that everything here was in fact via an act of creation by some unknown entity. If this were the case the think I'd be walking around with a big WTF? question about the origins of Mankind 24/7. It'd drive me insane until I found an answer that made the most sense.

As it stands now, science has rolled back the WTF? to ~15B years ago. The universe is an awfully large construction to be a special creation just for Mankind, so big in fact that God-the-creator of the creation myths (outside of the one that explicitly has the concept of "billion" in it I guess) itself seems rather remote, and any bringing of God into it is just begging the question since on human scales the known Universe itself is Godlike in its scope.

I am quite comfortable with abiogenesis hypotheses, that the spark of life occurred some billions of years ago in an o-chem primordial soup, that the self-organization powers of RNA and natural selection of random variants over billions of generations has got us to where we are today. No God of the Gaps there.

As for parochial evidence for God, I suppose that would depend on the teaching. Dreams / Voices in the head is suspect, since I believe the human brain can play tricks on our consciousness; our perceived consciousness (which is a pretty weak thread if you're anything like me) is apparently nothing but echoes of deeper phenomologies we are not in direct control or knowledge of. A "vision" would be of higher value, since hallucinations are less similar to common conscious/unconscious experience.


I could go on for pages, but what would be evidence for you?
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 1:39 AM on November 25, 2005


By the way:

This page overclocked my Macs - both a G5 running OS X 10.3 and a G4 running OS X 10.4, both using Safari. I left it on in the background while I was working on my laptop and it pushed my CPU to 100%, which I didn't notice until I put the thing on my damn lap and nearly burned myself. I think it may have fried my computer.

Maybe these "Informed Citizens" ought to think a little less about God, and a little more about Code.
posted by luckywanderboy at 3:32 AM on November 25, 2005


With the exception of jsonic's attempts to drag it back to his accustomed "religion is dumm!" mode of discourse, this is a great thread. Kudos all around.
posted by languagehat at 5:00 AM on November 25, 2005


Can you spot the false equivalency?

No, because I wasn't trying to claim an equivalency, true or false. YOU'RE the one who cares about who is right and who is wrong, not me. Instead of summarizing my argument right after I posted it, why don't you tell us what part of it you disagree with. Or do you agree with it? I can't tell.

YOUR summary of my argument:

(A) Regardless of what science discovers, theists can always fall back on the God-of-the-Gaps excuse.
Do you agree with this? If you do, then you're agreeing (with me and with the Atlantic article) that theists will NEVER stop believing. If this is true, what's the point of arguing with them?

(B) Since their god-concept might still be hiding under a rock somewhere, they will continue to feel justified in absolutely believing in its existence, not to mention continuing to claim that they know what it wants.
Same question.

(C) Non-believers who point out the fallacious nature of such a worldview are equally an impediment to understanding how we really tick.
I'm willing, for the sake of argument, to side with you (though, in reality, I don't) and say that theists are 80% responsible and atheists are 20% responsible. How does this matter, unless your goal in life is assigning blame? If a car doesn't run, who cares how much of the blame lies with the faulty brakes and how much lies with the faulty engine. You still need them BOTH fixed in order to drive the car. And if you agree with A and B, they can't EVER be fixed.

So yes, atheists are responsible to SOME degree for stopping us from exploring a really interesting question. The God exists/doesn't exist fight is boring because it rarely changes and the outcome is always the same. The two sides leave the battle exactly the same way they came in. Whereas discussing the neurobiology of religious feeling is something that COULD move forward if people calmed down and gave it a chance.
posted by grumblebee at 7:10 AM on November 25, 2005


various replies to various people

Uh, can you feel a pea underneath your mattress as well, princess?

nope, no snarkiness here

You may think that comparing your god-concept to a leprechaun is a snark, but you can't deny they are the same thing: assertions that are completely unsupported by reality.

no one here has argued the existence of leprechauns, which is what makes your argument a straw man ... again, the questions of how the universe came about and what is the purpose of life are questions that the status of leprechauns don't address

would it shock you to learn that there are people in the world who do believe there is a zeus? ... although they're more likely to be interested in diana, demeter, pan and others ...

I think you're being disingenuous. If anyone here was seriously asserting the existance of pink unicorns or leprechauns I feel sure that you'd claim to "know" they don't exist.

i'd be more interested in the experiences that led them to believe in them ... there are a lot of things that people have seen or done that don't make mundane or rational sense ... and my reason for not being immediately dismissive of them is that i've had some experiences that don't make sense in the same way ... i've talked about some of those experiences and been rudely dismissed as being drunk at the time or lying

the attitude of compulsive skepticism is an emotional one, not a rational one

Christianity is interesting in that it has real-world implications to me.

and of course, all christians vote republican don't they? ... i dislike the mixing of religion and politics, it's dangerous ... but mixing anti-religious views with politics is dangerous also ... aside from people being persecuted for believing in a religion, there's the subtle danger of judging the religion on what a few believers do and think in the political field

it seems as though a lot of things these days are judged by some according to how they see it relating to that person in the white house ...
posted by pyramid termite at 7:28 AM on November 25, 2005


In any case, what do you think, would constitute evidence for God?
posted by Gyan at 3:44 AM EST on November 25 [!]


Free will would be a big indicator, since it would violate material causality.
posted by Rothko at 9:17 AM on November 25, 2005


nope, no snarkiness here
posted by pyramid termite at 7:28 AM PST on November 25


You are so predictable. Note that you posted that after I said "I will refrain from saying something nasty so Mr. Termite can't point to it and say, "see, there it is, all these threads are just excuses for blah blah blah fuckedy blah.""

If I'm being snarky, it's in response to your bullshit excuses, not in response to someone's theological viewpoint.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:22 AM on November 25, 2005


and of course, all christians vote republican don't they?

fundies, ~23% of the electorate, broke for Bush in 2004 at 78%, his strongest deme.

fundies are against evolution at 70%, real outliers when compared to Catholics (30%), or secular peeps (probably 0%, but ~20% of secular peeps don't believe in evolution either).

I object to any religion mixing its dogma into the public square.

More than anything it is religion that which divides us[1], and the founding fathers had enough empirical evidence on this to mandate a wall of separation between church and state.

[1] The one, major deal-breaker any for marriage would have to be mixed religions.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 10:35 AM on November 25, 2005


Athiests doubt the supporting assertions of theism. Since "there is no A" is the default logical position, they can go home.

To say that Christians doubt the supporting assertions of atheism is meaninglessness, in that it is tantamount to saying that Christians doubt logic itself.


Marry me.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:20 AM on November 25, 2005


Rigorously, yes. In practical models of psychology, No. Unless one has "inherited" atheism, or grown up in a culture devoid of metaphysical speculation (?!), one becomes atheist by rejecting theism.

Where in the world do you get this? Everyone starts as an atheist. Theism is a learned behaviour. Thus, one becomes a theist by rejecting atheism, not the other way around.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:27 AM on November 25, 2005


Heywood Mogroot : "It's a sliding scale of something occurring outside our natural philosophy aka science"

See, I don't think anything* can qualify as evidence for God. Any anomaly in life can be retrofitted into an atheistic model, e.g. if I can start flying tomorrow, how do I know this is evidence of God, as opposed to just the changing manifestation of natural laws? Can I be arrogant enough to claim that a deviation in the grammar of the universe is evidence of something out there, or just a shock & awe registered by my limited cognitive faculty that accepts a kneejerk acceptance of "God" based on the anomaly? The nature of conscious observation is that uncertainty and incomplete knowledge is fundamental. Our predictive world model is always a 'best fit' that's applied to the corpus of memories accumulated so far. Acceptance of God would still be as provisional as the atheist's rejection now. A major problem is what 'God' is defined as. What confuses the matter is that the scriptures of major world religions record anomalous events ("Genesis", "walking on water"). With modern common sense & current state of science, it's easy to reject such claims. But that only matters is if these claims are important and not embellishments for their core audiences. We always extract and pay attention to part of the information encoded in a stimulus. As a trivial example, the font size of the text in this comment is semantically insignificant. So, that's discarded. Barring in some case, every word is not important either: you could remove the opening 'See'. In a more sophisticated vein, after reading a sentence, one extracts a meaning, derived from parsing grammar, filtering through nuances of language and culture-based interpretation. So reading the Bible a certain way and finding it wanting doesn't do much. "Literal" reading is just the most popular meaning derived from the text. It's not an objective standard, and will change with time.

Instead, forget the Bible.

Ask yourself such: does the world have inherent meaning? If so, is the meaning anchored("God")? Now what would constitute evidence for God? You may or may not bother to speculate on what the inherent meaning is.
posted by Gyan at 11:36 AM on November 25, 2005


solid-one-love : "Everyone starts as an atheist."

No. Everyone starts oblivious. Only a strict & stiff parsing makes a toddler an atheist. I already wrote about this above. Depending on parents and culture, they grow up as atheist or theist. So a theist kid* turned atheist has rejected theism. An atheist kid who remains one, has just accepted his upbringing, and might even have rejected theism, during a crisis of meaning. Only the atheist kid who accepts theism, has rejected atheism.

kid = 7 or above i.e. someone who has started explicit reasoning.
posted by Gyan at 11:43 AM on November 25, 2005


Now what would constitute evidence for God?

Prove we have free will, that we can choose to act outside of established models of causality, i.e. you can make youself levitate at will without the use of technology.
posted by Rothko at 11:47 AM on November 25, 2005


Heywood, I forget to qualify 'anything' in the above post:

1)unless if true nature of consciousness is that such knowledge is possible to obtain.
2)A type of God exists who just makes everyone believe that they know God exists. Not convince, but implant belief of positive knowledge.
posted by Gyan at 11:47 AM on November 25, 2005


Rothko : "you can make youself levitate at will without the use of technology."

What if free will is circumscribed? You can choose between roads but can't clap hands to reach destination directly?
posted by Gyan at 11:49 AM on November 25, 2005


What if free will is circumscribed?

Then, by definition, it is not free will.
posted by Rothko at 11:52 AM on November 25, 2005


“people are posting fpps like this just so they and their comrades can express their superiority over those "dumb" enough to believe ... there's nothing substantive to most of these posts ... it's the same old high school snarkiness ... it's the same old metaphysical circle jerk
posted by pyramid termite at 9:47 PM PST on November 24

Point to a single fucking comment in this thread that does such a thing, please.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:16 PM PST on November 24 [!]”

I agree Optimus Chyme, it’s a good thread. Excellent and for the most part cogent points.

I do have to point out that the arguments are typically dualistic in form. I don’t know why any ontological discussion has to include either God or lack of God. Granted some points have touched on dialectic monism (Buddhism, etc.) and neutral monism (Spinoza) but these are typically given short shrift.
E.G. solid-one-love ‘s statement that “Everyone starts as an atheist.” presumes quite a bit.
I also grant that this is a post on “God,” but metaphysical thought does not dictate there need be a binary yes/no position as to the ultimate nature of reality.

But again, otherwise very enjoyable, thought provoking reading, thanks all.

My 2 cents.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:01 PM on November 25, 2005


Only a strict & stiff parsing makes a toddler an atheist.

Do toddlers believe in a god or gods? No? Then they are atheists. That's hardly a "strict and stiff" parsing.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 12:02 PM on November 25, 2005


First, your criteria may satisfy you, but doesn't work for me. I already talked about impotency of 'deviations' above.

Second, you are constrained even with free will. You can ask for proofs only that you can imagine i.e. flying. Your are beholden to (the building blocks of) cognition to come up with scenarios that resonate with your cognized concept of 'free will' and what "freedom" means. Clearly, I don't think that your caricature of 'free will' is what's meant by the term. Many books have been wasted trying to define 'free will' with no consensus in sight. It's an ineffable innate feeling, somewhat like a peak experience. The closest definition I can come up with is that, in Everett-style, we have multiple potential futures which follow a rigid grammar, and free will is the ability to select between them.
posted by Gyan at 12:03 PM on November 25, 2005


Optimus Chyme : "Then they are atheists. That's hardly a 'strict and stiff' parsing."

It is. So are rocks, then. The strict parsing of atheist is not how we assign its referents in the real world. The word is used when its concept has been introduced. Negative spaces can only be occupied when 'space' has been revealed. Otherwise, everyone is an a-sdsggfhgsdg-ist. Language isn't used that way.
posted by Gyan at 12:09 PM on November 25, 2005


The nature of conscious observation is that uncertainty and incomplete knowledge is fundamental.

I think this is the most true thing said thus far--I'd like to extend this. I'm always actually puzzled over arguments about the existence or not of God, since nearly everyone's conception (if they have one) of what that word represents is different, which makes absolute and total sense--to speak of something like "God", we move into the realm of the *literally* ineffable. We lack the ability to imagine what any sort of God might actually be like, since we have no frame of reference.

It's like trying to explain "blue" to someone who was born blind. If you're born blind, you simply lack the sensory perceptions that allow you to perceive something like color. Therefore, you have no direct concept of color, and can only approach it by metaphor or other referent from something that you do know. How would you explain "blue" to a blind man? Personally, I'd go right for metaphor.

Any conversation about the non-corporeal world is analogous to that. Forgive me if I'm being overly obvious, but human beings are irrevocably embodied, and thus ALL our information about our world must come to us through our five physical senses. This is the information we use to form concepts, to feed our imaginations, etc., so when we think about matters beyond our own embodied experience of the world (i.e., God), it is a physical reality that we must do so tangentially, by metaphor.

Thus it seems to me axiomatic that all religious traditions, when they speak of the metaphysical, cannot be speaking literally. I've not "accepted" athiesm or "rejected" theism by making this observation--I'm just noticing the observable physicality of our beings, and the limits that obviously imposes. So Gyan's questions are, IMO, spot on:

does the world have inherent meaning?

If, in fact, there is a greater consciousness, two things would be necessary: 1. It would speak to us in ways we could understand (either directly or obliquely); 2. We are unable to comprehend it directly, since it is literally beyond our ability to imagine something like God in any real way.

When dealing with the metaphysical, our only choice is metaphor. Jesus knew it, that's why he taught in parables.

Anyway, FWIW. (This doesn't at all preclude religious faith, I think--there are lots of things people sense in the world that don't fit with pure physicality. Those things need to be felt, discussed, shared, etc.)
posted by LooseFilter at 12:14 PM on November 25, 2005


Optimus, I'd say that toddlers are agnostics... they aren't sure about anything except that they want the nipple.
posted by anthill at 12:18 PM on November 25, 2005


Gyan, your terms are structured so that there's no possible way to verify them with evidence. Vague feelings are not evidence.

It doesn't even seem right that you can be allowed to ask, "Now what would constitute evidence for God?" when you don't acknowledge the logical inconsistencies presented by a straighforward, supernatural notion like free will.

If we have true free will, we can violate the material causality of the universe in which we live.

Your counterargument boils down to the point that I can't argue theology with a dolphin because we don't share the same language. I suggest that this is disingenuous.

Replacing the word "epistemology" with "caricature" doesn't change the fact that evidence is only meaningful to people sharing an epistemological framework.

So do you agree the universe is causal, that one event follows as a consequence of another?

If there is more to our understanding of the universe than can be explained in a causal framework, you are making the "model" of the universe more complex and therefore need to prove or explain these supernatural aspects as evidence for God in terms that we can all agree on.

Otherwise, positing the existence of God is meaningless beyond your individual experience, and having a conversation about theism is pointless.
posted by Rothko at 12:21 PM on November 25, 2005


Loosefilter: "When dealing with the metaphysical, our only choice is metaphor. Jesus knew it, that's why he taught in parables."

Actually, it's worse than that. As I've brought up before, all language is metaphor. "The red book is on the table" --> what does 'red' mean? what does 'book' mean? what does it mean for something to be "on" something? Since consciousness is private, on hearing this sentence, our brain associates these sounds with referents stored from earlier experiences. We don't call mundane language metaphors because due to their common usage, we interpret them uniformly with striking regularity. Hence that is a "simple & literal" sentence.
posted by Gyan at 12:25 PM on November 25, 2005


Rothko : "your terms are structured so that there's no possible way to verify them with evidence."

True, and that's not deliberate on my part, but nature of unidirectional time.

"when you don't acknowledge the logical inconsistencies presented by a straighforward, supernatural notion like free will."

I just said that free will is not straightforward. Do you have "free will" to subvert/ignore logic? If so, the logical inconsistency doesn't matter. Your criteria of free will depends on not subverting logic (IF I can fly THEN free will exists).

Rothko : "If we have true free will, we can violate the material causality of the universe in which we live."

If we have free will, we won't be violating anything since we shall have had free will from before. So a world with free will would be like this one, if we have it.
posted by Gyan at 12:31 PM on November 25, 2005


No. Everyone starts oblivious.

No. Everyone starts an atheist, with a lack of belief in gods. You don't get to redefine the words for your own purposes.
posted by solid-one-love at 12:38 PM on November 25, 2005


solid-one-love : "You don't get to redefine the words for your own purposes."

You don't get to redefine the usage for your own purposes.
posted by Gyan at 12:45 PM on November 25, 2005


Ask yourself such: does the world have inherent meaning?

Meaning to whom? Me? Humanity? Life? What do you mean by "the world"? The known universe? If so, the "meaning" of the universe is a mystery to me.

If so, is the meaning anchored("God")?

I don't believe any object has a single, reference-less meaning.

Now what would constitute evidence for God?

That depends on the person professing belief. My father converted to a charismatic Christiantity after hearing "While you father sucked, you have a Heavenly Father" (or words to that effect) and then "opening his heart" to Christ. For a while; ~10 years ago he rejected this stuff.

So IME "evidence" is the flowing emotionalism one feels in contemplating faith, religion, and related concepts.

You may or may not bother to speculate on what the inherent meaning is.

? "Inherent meaning" does not exist IMV.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:54 PM on November 25, 2005


The fact that anybody could actually sit down and write that the ideas that "human beings come into the world with a predisposition to believe in supernatural phenomena... and... this predisposition is an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry" are facts that some pschologists have discovered just blows me away.
posted by nanojath at 1:04 PM on November 25, 2005


Everyone starts an atheist, with a lack of belief in gods. -posted by solid-one-love
I'd again have to take exception to that. You presume a schema that isn't there. Everyone starts without an internal representation of the world. That would include any thoughts on theism. That they lack the organization of any concept does not mean they refute or confirm the existance of any concept in particular. No 'theism' no 'a-theism'. Ignorance of any point of reference as to the existence of god(s) does not equate to a lack of beliefs in them. You need some organizational format to not include that concept in. Even if it's left ambiguous.
You need the format to be there before you can even be described as 'ignorant.' A tabula rasa (fr'instance) is at least a blank slate. It implies letters by their absence. Void does not equate to anything but void.
Of course, I may be assuming your term "starts" - to be meaning at the earliest possible point of consciousness. As opposed to say shortly before a child's religious training might take place. In which case I'd concede that point to the broadest possible meaning in the term atheist.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:21 PM on November 25, 2005


You don't get to redefine the usage for your own purposes.

If you choose to modify the meaning of a word such that its usage is different from the accepted standard, you need to be intellectually honest and say so up front. Telling us that we're wrong because your usage of a word is more relevant than the accepted standard is dishonest rhetoric at its worst.

I'd again have to take exception to that. You presume a schema that isn't there. -- smedleyman

To take exception to it, you must redefine the word 'disbelief', 'atheist', 'lack', or all of the above. Ignorance does not require the possibility of the acquisition of knowledge. Ignorance of the concept of an entity does equate to a lack of belief in that entity, unless you are redefining words.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:38 PM on November 25, 2005


Ignorance of the concept of an entity does equate to a lack of belief in that entity

Not what I'm arguing. I said lack of a conceptual framework to accomodate the possiblity of that knowlege - schema.
Rocks are not atheists. Plants are not atheists. Sheep, cows, dogs, not atheists. There is no need to redefine the words if you understand that lacking a conceptual framework obviates ignorance because no knowlege is possible.
If you want to say that unborn or newborn humans, chimpanzees, apes, etc, are atheists than it's you who is redefining the word.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:22 PM on November 25, 2005


I'll again point out I concede to the broadest possible meaning in the term atheist as to once knowlege is possible. When that level of cognition is fully developed or when it merits calling someone a fully rational thinking being is subject to debate so I'm avoiding that argument.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:25 PM on November 25, 2005


solid-one-love : "If you choose to modify the meaning of a word such that its usage is different from the accepted standard, you need to be intellectually honest and say so up front."

So, why didn't you?
posted by Gyan at 4:07 PM on November 25, 2005


atheist: One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.

And just so this pedantry doesn't continue,

diselieves: To refuse to believe in; reject.

denies: To declare untrue; contradict.

Ergo, atheist: One who [rejects] or [declares untrue] the existence of God or gods.
posted by Gyan at 4:20 PM on November 25, 2005


You know, what, Gyan? You can call me whatever you want. Let's make up a new word for "those who lack belief in a god or gods until such time as sufficent evidence is presented." I am a skiberderguf or restlnee or torhglor or whatever fucking word you want it to be. Does that satisfy you? Can we move on from this? You're pressing the point because you have nothing else to say, nothing to add.

If you want to talk about skiberderguf/restlnee/torhglor epistomology, then let's do so. But this bullshit with you dancing around semantic arguments is tiresome and pointless.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:41 PM on November 25, 2005


With the exception of jsonic's attempts to drag it back to his accustomed "religion is dumm!" mode of discourse, this is a great thread. Kudos all around.

I'm sorry if you think that pointing out logical fallacies is a 'low-brow' method of argument. You could actually try and engage the points instead of mis-characterizing them.

The only thing I called stupid was the Adam & Eve myth. If I'm somehow incorrect in that assesment, please show me how.
posted by jsonic at 5:02 PM on November 25, 2005


Optimus Chyme : "But this bullshit with you dancing around semantic arguments is tiresome and pointless."

Now, that's irony. My whole point is that typically atheist is not used in the sense derived from a strict parsing just like 'awful' is not typically used to mean 'full of awe'. Atheist is referred to people who deny God. Toddlers eat, shit & sleep. They don't care one way or the other.
posted by Gyan at 5:03 PM on November 25, 2005


Atheist is referred to people who deny God.

No. It's called lack-of-belief. As an example: I don't actively deny the existence of the invisible dragon in my garage. I simply lack a belief in it.

This is the stance and definition that the vast majority of atheists I've encountered use. Usually, the only people who insist on the 'Deny' definition are religious apologists who believe they really know what atheists think.
posted by jsonic at 5:30 PM on November 25, 2005


An addendum:

The Deny/refuse-to-believe definition is tied up with the mis-characterization that atheists are really just stubborn, and refuse to see the 'obvious' existence of invisible, magical, beings.

As I mentioned above, this is a common religious apologist tactic used to frame the issue. It's an attempt to shift the burden of proof to the atheist, to explain why their 'refusal' is tenable. When, in actuality, it is the apologist who should be supporting their fantastical god-assertion.
posted by jsonic at 5:46 PM on November 25, 2005


The Deny/refuse-to-believe definition is

webster's says - "one who believes that there is no god"

the oxford compact dictionary defines atheism as "the belief that god does not exist"

it is a belief - period

if your position is different i strongly suggest you find another word to describe it

hint - agnosticism and agnostic would probably work
posted by pyramid termite at 6:48 PM on November 25, 2005


Keep on saying it termite, it might be true one of these times.

Go to any discussion site where atheists congregate and ask them how they define their stance. Lack-of-belief will be the overwhelming answer.

I wonder what compels you, and others, to try and tell atheists what they really think.
posted by jsonic at 7:23 PM on November 25, 2005


Parsed with an awareness of the fact that this is basically a Greek word, I'd be inclined to agree with "atheist" means "not theism".

"If we have true free will, we can violate the material causality of the universe in which we live."

Just give up this stupid line of reasoning. Your repeated self-confident assertions of this illustrates that you know nothing about either philosophy or physics. Just. Shut. Up.

And stop trying to talk about evolutionary ecology, too.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:45 PM on November 25, 2005


hint - agnosticism and agnostic would probably work

Guess I can waste more time and repeat myself...

Regardless of the multidimensional charts, IMV there is overlap between strong agnostics and weak atheists -- they are nearly the same thing. The usual agnostic hasn't come to a decision about the evidence/arguments supporting the existence of the posited entities in question (ie. "might be, dunno, maybe can't know..."), while a weak athiest has, and rejects it ("not buying that evidence/argument").

A strong athiest goes further -- "Here is why *I* think the posited entities don't actually exist".

wikipedia article on strong atheism.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 8:04 PM on November 25, 2005


Just give up this stupid line of reasoning. Your repeated self-confident assertions of this illustrates that you know nothing about either philosophy or physics. Just. Shut. Up.

And stop trying to talk about evolutionary ecology, too.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:45 PM EST on November 25 [!]


Go away, you prat. You add nothing to this discussion or this site.
posted by Rothko at 8:10 PM on November 25, 2005


jsonic : "Go to any discussion site where atheists congregate"

Finally, a randomized sample.
posted by Gyan at 8:47 PM on November 25, 2005


Keep on saying it termite, it might be true one of these times.

in other words, when confronted with factual evidence, you go on believing what you want anyway

have fun
posted by pyramid termite at 8:52 PM on November 25, 2005


"Go away, you prat. You add nothing to this discussion or this site."—Rothko

No, I'm trying to subtract your contribution of ignorance. Really, I'm serious, Rothko. You don't know what you're talking about but you act as if you do.

Your "material causation" thing, though an echo from Aristiotle's Nicomachean Ethics, clearly seems to you as if it's a slam-dunk in this discussion. But it's not. In fact, it obfuscates rather than illuminates.

Before you can assert that "free will" and "material causation" are mutually exclusive, you'll need to provide rigorous definitions of both those terms. Every portion of this is simple on the surface but a mess underneath. What is "causation"? If you rigorously define "causation", which I think is not easy, then in what sense does "material" modify it? And what, then, would be "immaterial" causation? What is "will"? What does it mean to say that a will is "free"?

Over in the western philosophy universe, there is a couple thousand years of contemplation of "causation" and "free will" and within the body of work that spans that vast stretch of time you'll find a large number of definitions of these terms and analysis that allow "material causation" and "free will" to be compatible. And this is not even mentioning the great thinkers in theology, like Aquinas. On the physics side, "material causation" simply does not have the intuitive meaning which you are using in the context of your theological claim.

In that askme thread you blithely assert that "In this sense, as a population, species have evolved to use background radiation to maintain a mutation rate sufficient for further evolution", which is an unambiguous assertion of long discredited group selection that adds insult to injury by being teleological. There is a huge body of literature on this topic and it's possible you may be influenced by Gould. But Gould wasn't, in fact, either an evolutionary biologist nor an ecologist. He was a paleontologist. For the beginnings of the contemporary discreditation of group selection, read the introduction and first chapter of George C. Williams's Adaptation and Natural Selection, a canonical text.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:10 PM on November 25, 2005


Keith M. Ellis, you've gone out of your way to be insulting to me at every opportunity, ever since MonkeyFilter. I have no interest in any of your ignorant comments, or the chip you put on your shoulder. I don't wish to discuss these subjects with you because you don't add anything to my knowledge about them; and even if you could, I can't work my way through your attitude problem to get to anything interesting you might be trying to say. So go troll someone else. Thank you.
posted by Rothko at 9:27 PM on November 25, 2005


Lordy, please zip up your pants and quit pissing on each other--the rest of us don't want to read it!

jsonic: The only thing I called stupid was the Adam & Eve myth. If I'm somehow incorrect in that assesment, please show me how.

I don't know if the thread is well and truly dead, but I'll bite--see my earlier post about this for context, but it's a mistake to dismiss wholesale the wisdom of our spiritual traditions and their scriptures--that they are grossly misread today does not remove the value that abides within them.

"Many elements of the Bible seem lifeless and unbelievable because they have been regarded as historical facts instead of metaphorical representations of spiritual realities....The spiritual needs of people are neglected by religious leaders who insist on reasserting the historical-factual character of religious metaphors, thereby distorting and debasing their meaning." --Eugene Kennedy, from the editor's foreword to Thou Art That--and a word about Adam and Eve, from the text:

"God's idea, in this story, was to get Adam and Eve out of that Garden. What was it about the Garden? It was a place of oneness, of unity, of no divisions in the nature of people or things. When you eat the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, however, you know about pairs of opposites, which include not only good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong, but male and female, and God and Man as well.

Man has eaten the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. Lest he eat the fruit of the second tree, which is that of immortal life, God throws Man out of the Garden and places two cherubim, with a flaming sword between them, to guard the gate.

Adam and Eve are separated from God and they are aware of this break in their sense of oneness. They seek to cover their nakedness. The question becomes, how do they get back into the Garden? To understand this mystery, we must forget all about judging and ethics and forget good and evil as well.

Jesus says, "Judge not, that you may not be judged." That is the way back into the Garden. You must live on two levels: One, out of the recognition of life as it is without judging it, and the other, by living in terms of the ethical values of one's culture, or one's particular personal religion. Those are not easy tasks."

--Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That
posted by LooseFilter at 11:44 PM on November 25, 2005


EB/Rothko: shut up, please.

Gyan/pyramid termite: no matter what word you use, there are those who lack belief in a god or gods who do not positively assert that such beings do not exist. Please confront that instead of your retarded semantic arguments.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:55 PM on November 25, 2005


Optimus Chyme : "there are those who lack belief in a god or gods who do not positively assert that such beings do not exist."

By assert, do you mean an active defense of atheism? If so, I agree.

Like I've said repeatedly in this thread, if the law of excluded middle holds, if you're not oblivious (e.g. toddler) and if you're not adopting the agnostic position, then as an atheist, you're endorsing that God does not exist. You may counter that you do not mean it dogmatically. Fine. But there's a provisional belief in nonexistence. The retarded semantic argument is taking apart 'atheism', as if language rigidly dictated matters, rather than reflecting usage.
posted by Gyan at 12:27 AM on November 26, 2005


if you're not oblivious (e.g. toddler) and if you're not adopting the agnostic position, then as an atheist, you're endorsing that God does not exist.

Don't tell me what I think, thanks.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:00 AM on November 26, 2005


Optimus Chyme : "Don't tell me what I think, thanks."

Optimus Chyme : "Do toddlers believe in a god or gods? No? Then they are atheists."

Heal thyself.
posted by Gyan at 1:03 AM on November 26, 2005


[I]f you're not oblivious (e.g. toddler) and if you're not adopting the agnostic position, then as an atheist, you're endorsing that God does not exist.

I don't assert a Nongod. I don't know what a Nongod is, or how I would establish its existence or non-existence.

Nonetheless, I can be an atheist because I live my life without needing to acknowledge the theist's necessity in the belief of his or her Nongod. That is, I can live my life without a theistic entity called Nongod. Therefore I am an atheist.
posted by Rothko at 1:17 AM on November 26, 2005


Rothko : "I don't know what a Nongod is, or how I would establish its existence or non-existence. "

God does not exist != "Nongod"
posted by Gyan at 1:23 AM on November 26, 2005


Let me try that again.

Rothko: I can be an atheist because I live my life without needing to acknowledge the theist's necessity in the belief of his or her Nongod

But it's considered and rejected that you need to acknowledge it.
posted by Gyan at 1:26 AM on November 26, 2005


God does not exist != "Nongod"

The theist's belief in either phrasing makes them equal, in my mind. Since I don't know what God is to say it doesn't exist, i.e. is a Nongod, I am an atheist — without theistic notions.
posted by Rothko at 1:32 AM on November 26, 2005


Gyan, I already told you that I concede that point because it's the only one you seem to be obsessed with. You can call "lacking belief in a deity without positively asserting its non-existence" whatever you want. But you assert that such a stance is impossible. Congratulations. You are the only person so pointless to talk to that I'm actually going to the trouble of finding the user blocker, installing it, and adding you to the list. Take note: there are several people whom I've battled publicly here, and none of them are on it. I never even considered it before. Why? Because they're not completely fucking insane. You are the most irrational person whose scribblings I have ever had to read, including the guy who believes that you can make flawless bomb detectors with no electronic components. Bra-fucking-vo.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:36 AM on November 26, 2005


Finally, a randomized sample.

It's like you're intentionally dense. How hard is it to realize that if you want to know what atheists think, asking a large group of atheists is a pretty obvious method of doing so.

in other words, when confronted with factual evidence, you go on believing what you want anyway

Ok, I'll explain this slowly. The dictionary use of 'atheist' is a very general term. The first thing you encounter when you spend even a few seconds investigating atheism in detail are these terms: Strong Atheism and Weak Atheism.

The vast majority of atheists fall into the 'Weak' category which is defined as 'lack-of-belief'. The 'Strong' category feels justified in actively denying specific gods based on certain arguments.

You are actively clinging to a definition that does not represent the vast majority of people that you are trying to categorize.
posted by jsonic at 1:38 AM on November 26, 2005


Rothko : "an atheist — without theistic notions"

My last post on this aspect

Do we agree on following two things

1)a basic theistic notion is God exists
2)God exists XOR does not exist

?

If you're saying that you have no opinion either way, the term for that is agnosticism. Atheism is not parsed literally, in colloquial usage. Your presonal preference might be different.
posted by Gyan at 1:39 AM on November 26, 2005


Atheism is not parsed literally, in colloquial usage.

I posit to you that the term for atheism is parsed by theists, and therefore notions of what atheists "believe" come from people who need to "believe" in supernatural concepts. I'll leave you with that thought.
posted by Rothko at 1:41 AM on November 26, 2005


jsonic: "asking a large group of atheists is a pretty obvious method of doing so."

Of all stripes, rather than just those engaged enough in their atheism to patronise message boards dedicated to the topic. It's like asking opinions on gun ownership by just polling NRA's card-carrying members.
posted by Gyan at 1:43 AM on November 26, 2005


Like I said before, Strong Atheism vs Weak Atheism. Your continued clinging to a mis-representation says more about you than those you are trying to categorize.
posted by jsonic at 2:03 AM on November 26, 2005


What?? We're talking about what atheists, as a whole, believe. Polling a message board or an atheist association is not an unbiased method. You brought up the Strong/Weak with termite, not me.

Maybe you do know of a scientific poll that measures what proportion are strong/weak? If we're going by personal observation, most atheists I've encountered, are not of the lack-of-belief-not-belief-in-lack type. But that doesn't prove anything.
posted by Gyan at 2:14 AM on November 26, 2005


Ok, so evidently asking atheists what they believe isn't a useful method for figuring out what atheists believe. I guess you should instead ask the theists about what atheists believe. They'll be more likely to give you the answer that you so obviously want.

Keep on believin' Gyan.
posted by jsonic at 2:22 AM on November 26, 2005


I salute your knowledge of scientific sampling methods.

BTW, I'm agnostic.
posted by Gyan at 2:27 AM on November 26, 2005


there are those who lack belief in a god or gods who do not positively assert that such beings do not exist.

i'm aware of that ... i'm also aware that failure to use words correctly is often a sign of sloppy thinking or an attempt to confuse an argument

jsonic, if you want to use the terms strong and weak to refine the meaning of what you're trying to say, by all means, do so for the sake of clarity ... it's your responsibility to make your statements understandable, not ours

there's been an assertion on this thread that toddlers are atheists because they're too ignorant and inexperienced to have an opinion on the matter ... i might point out that this is exactly the kind of mushy logic that results when people don't stick to the commonly understood meanings of words

it's interesting to me that people who are proclaiming the logic and rationality of what they say are so careless with language that they undermine what they're trying to argue
posted by pyramid termite at 5:54 AM on November 26, 2005


"...you've gone out of your way to be insulting to me at every opportunity, ever since MonkeyFilter."

Dude, I don't even remember you being at MoFi. I started getting annoyed with you when you first showed up here because you keep saying things that aren't true. You ought to listen to me because it'll help you keep from embarassing yourself to more people. But I'll just try to ignore you from now on. BTW, anyone who argues with you isn't a "troll".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:00 AM on November 26, 2005


To sum up: What Gyan and pyramid termite seem to be asserting is that the atheist position is inherently defined by its denial of the theist position. The position of jsonic, EB, and Optimus, which I agree with, is that they allow the term atheism to not be defined as the counter position of theism, i.e. atheists do not have to define themselves by denying or refuting beliefs that others may or may not hold. (It's a long thread, I may have missed something, so if I have forgive me.)

Nonetheless, if the former position is insisted upon, Optimus' resolution is more than adequate. Call the latter atheist position skiberderguf or materialist, whatever. By the former position, I am not an atheist since I do not define myself by denying or refuting the beliefs of others. That's fine.

What's really bugging me is this:

Prove we have free will, that we can choose to act outside of established models of causality, i.e. you can make youself levitate at will without the use of technology. -- Rothko

Can someone please explain to me (or leave a link) how this argument can be taken seriously? Why does free will require acting outside of established models of causality?

Just because we are restrained in what choices we can make and act upon within such a system doesn't preclude free will. The only way this can be asserted is if the definition of free will required absolute unrestrained choice, but this is a ridiculous and impractical definition. This is like saying that since I can't chose to eat a cooked hot dog as a live turkey and digest it with an internal nuclear fusion reaction and crap it out as butterflies I therefore don't have free will. Or it seems that way to me. Please advise.

Just looking at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article that comes up on Google, I get this:

“Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.

Which seems reasonable.

It does have two paragraphs on causation and control where it mentions, "[o]ur survey of several themes in philosophical accounts of free will suggests that a—perhaps the—root issue is that of control. [...] any proposed analysis of free will must also ensure that the process it describes is one that was up to, or controlled by, the agent." Does this position actually hold any weight? If so, why? Even if in some ultimate sense we are merely the product of our random mechanistic environment, what practical "truth" do we get out of it in light of our readily apparent sense of free will?
posted by effwerd at 9:20 AM on November 26, 2005


Can someone please explain to me (or leave a link) how this argument can be taken seriously? Why does free will require acting outside of established models of causality?

One argument goes that modeling human behavior can come down to the interaction of various natural inputs (genetics, nurture, stochastics). These inputs are causal — input directs output, behavior is deterministic (even if we can't predict it reliably).

Free will — as it is generally understood as a supernatural concept given to us by a God-entity — sits outside of this natural model. It violates causality because it suggests we can make decisions outside the range allowed us by the natural world.

Occam suggests that, because we cannot empirically test this concept for its contribution to human behavior, it unnecessarily complicates this model and therefore should be abandoned.

If you can prove supernatural Free Will, I suggested to Gyan that would go a long way to proving the existence of a God.

I don't think you can, because I don't believe it is possible to demonstrate concepts outside the natural world — supernatural concepts — using terminology that we can agree upon, which can solely describe the natural world and nothing else.
posted by Rothko at 10:06 AM on November 26, 2005


Dude, I don't even remember you being at MoFi. I started getting annoyed with you when you first showed up here because you keep saying things that aren't true. You ought to listen to me because it'll help you keep from embarassing yourself to more people. But I'll just try to ignore you from now on. BTW, anyone who argues with you isn't a "troll".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:00 PM EST on November 26 [!]


I flagged EB's comments as derails. Hopefully the admins will do something about it.
posted by Rothko at 10:09 AM on November 26, 2005


"Free will — as it is generally understood as a supernatural concept given to us by a God-entity — sits outside of this natural model."

First, "free will" as it is generally understood is not supernatural and certainly not necessarily supernatural. Second, even if it were, it wouldn't require a God. Thus:

"If you can prove supernatural Free Will, I suggested to Gyan that would go a long way to proving the existence of a God. "

...is completely untrue. Also:

"These inputs are causal — input directs output, behavior is deterministic"

...assumes a deterministic physical universe, which also is not true and not necessarily true. Your argument is crap. You speak confidentally, but it's as if you ate the first chapters of a bunch of survey textbooks and now flatulate nomenclature willy-nilly.

"I flagged EB's comments as derails. Hopefully the admins will do something about it."

You so closely conform to that grade-school whiny, tattletale, know-it-all personality...it's impressive.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:40 AM on November 26, 2005


I bet you guys are tons of fun at a party.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:12 AM on November 26, 2005


One argument goes that modeling human behavior can come down to the interaction of various natural inputs (genetics, nurture, stochastics). These inputs are causal — input directs output, behavior is deterministic (even if we can't predict it reliably).

Okay, so if I'm standing in front of an approaching river of lava, my choice to run away is determined by the presence of the lava and a natural tendency to preserve my self and therefore my choice to run was not free. Is that it? Since the input causally forced the output, the choice was not free? And even if I were depressed and hopelessly suicidal and chose to remain in the path of the lava, that decision is also bound, since my depression and susceptibility to suicidal thinking are created by the (causal) experiences of my life and the (causal) genetic faculties of my brain, right?

I still don't get it. This is saying that free will can't exist because every decision is necessitated by the causal existence of the opportunity to choose, i.e. choice is predicated on existence; existence is beyond choice, therefore there is no choice. It sounds circular.

Either that or it's a manipulative position attempting to force the argument into the framework of the supernatural: Given that free will cannot exist in a causal system, our free will must be born of supernatural stuff. As in:

[Free will] violates causality because it suggests we can make decisions outside the range allowed us by the natural world.

This seems to presume that there are any decisions outside the range of the causal realm. What would such a decision be? Even if we accept this position and say that the choice to murder or not to murder someone is born of supernatural stuff and channeled into the causal realm, what does this position accomplish? The resulting applications of this position would be almost exactly the same as the Compatibilist position. The only differences would arise from either ascribing a speculated purpose of the supernatural influences or not.

I guess I'm being overly utilitarian but it seems like the Incompatibilist position is a subject, not a tool. Discussing free will in this framework leads to nothing (except, as noted, the assertion that free will must come from some supernatural force). It might claim to lead to some absolute truth, but the truth would have no application in the realms of human behavior and social responsibility for anyone but a religious moralist.
posted by effwerd at 12:16 PM on November 26, 2005


"I still don't get it."

It's a tautology, that's what's wrong with it. Rothko is defining free will as supernatural and then claiming that the proof of free will proves the supernatural. Well, duh. If I define the color red as supernatural, then proving the existence of the color red is proving the existence of the supernatural. His argument is tautological and not helpful.

That aside, there's still no reason to take his argument seriously. Philosophy has long found a variety of ways in which to examine free will without invoking the supernatural. Furthermore, Rothko claims that in the absence of the supernatural, there is no free will because the natural universe is deterministic. But for more than a century the scientific consensus on the universe is that it's not deterministic.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:32 PM on November 26, 2005


It's a tautology

That would explain why I keep going in circles thinking about it.
posted by effwerd at 2:00 PM on November 26, 2005


But for more than a century the scientific consensus on the universe is that it's not deterministic.

EB, the consensus is actually that the universe is deterministic, and in fact our body of knowledge is built upon causality. We wouldn't know what we know otherwise.

But you need to derail this thread like a child, so do what you want. Clearly the administrators let you behave like this, so go for broke.
posted by Rothko at 4:51 PM on November 26, 2005


Rothko is defining free will as supernatural

Doing no such thing. Historically, free will has always been a theistic concept, one handed down to humans by God Himself. Animals don't have free will, because they are not "given" that by God. Are you just being contrary for the hell of it or are you really this fucking dense?
posted by Rothko at 5:02 PM on November 26, 2005


EB writes: But for more than a century the scientific consensus on the universe is that it's not deterministic.

Rothko replies: EB, the consensus is actually that the universe is deterministic, and in fact our body of knowledge is built upon causality. We wouldn't know what we know otherwise.

In fact, you are both wrong. There is no strong consensus on whether the universe is deterministic or not. As a threshold matter, it's not really possible to determine directly whether the universe itself is deterministic or not; instead, we test our theoretical descriptions of the universe to determine whether they produce deterministic models. Even at that level of abstraction, philosophers of science disagree on whether certain models are deterministic or not.

EB writes: Rothko is defining free will as supernatural

Rothko replies: Doing no such thing. Historically, free will has always been a theistic concept, one handed down to humans by God Himself. Animals don't have free will, because they are not "given" that by God. Are you just being contrary for the hell of it or are you really this fucking dense?

To be fair, I also understood Rothko to be defining free will itself as supernatural, rather than simply of supernatural origin. In any case, it's certainly true that historically free will was a theistic concept, and in many modern discussions it still is. However, the concept's historical origin does not constrain modern thought on the subject, and there are plenty of models of free will devised without regard to any supernatural origin. Moreover, plenty of philosophers subscribe to the view that free will and determinism are compatible. If you really want to learn more about this philosophical debate, I suggest reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on free will, as well as the five entries to which it links: compatibilism; causal determinism; fatalism; arguments for incompatibilism; and divine foreknowedge and free will. If you're just interested in the pissing match, well, I'll let you get back to it.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:36 PM on November 26, 2005


"In fact, you are both wrong."

No we're not. He's wrong. I'm right.

The universe is not deterministic. The dominant interpretation of QM is an indeterminist interpretation. End of discussion.

You can, and should, recommend that Rothko reads some philosophy books. I've read them. It's my damn education.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:59 PM on November 26, 2005


"Are you just being contrary for the hell of it or are you really this fucking dense?"

Free will is theological because that's its context? Bullshit. It's not its context. First, you're wrong to claim that historically the concept of free will has always had its genesis in theology. It's just not true. But, second, as monju_bosatsu points out, it's the case that both philosophers and scientists have a number of arguments supporting "free will" without appealing to the supernatural. Also you're implicitly equating metaphysics is not theism.

You don't know what you're talking about. When you've slogged through both Aristotle's Metaphysics and Nichomachean Ethics, have translated portions of them for crying out loud, have read Anselm and Aquinas, and Niels Bohr—all things that I've done and are just a small portion of the list of relevant expertise—then get back to me.

This is why you're so maddening: you and I both know that your authoritative sounding assertions on this topic, and others, is not built on any sort of rigorous study, it's just stitching together bits and pieces of things you've casually read and your own thoughts.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:23 PM on November 26, 2005


EB wrote: No we're not. He's wrong. I'm right. The universe is not deterministic. The dominant interpretation of QM is an indeterminist interpretation. End of discussion. You can, and should, recommend that Rothko reads some philosophy books. I've read them. It's my damn education.

I could cut the hubris in here with a knife. If this is your education, you should point to the relevant literature to support your argument.

I don't have any empirical numbers to suggest whether quantum mechanics is more often viewed by philosophers as deterministic or indeterministic, but I do know that there is serious argument on the subject. Enough, in fact, to cast serious doubt on your claim that the indeterminate view is the "dominant" one, and certainly enough to contradict your ipse dixit that it is the "end of [the] discussion." That's one of the main reasons I linked to the article on causal determinism. From the article:
As indicated above, QM is widely thought to be a strongly non-deterministic theory. Popular belief (even among most physicists) holds that phenomena such as radioactive decay, photon emission and absorption, and many others are such that only a probabilistic description of them can be given. The theory does not say what happens in a given case, but only says what the probabilities of various results are. So, for example, according to QM the fullest description possible of a radium atom (or a chunk of radium, for that matter), does not suffice to determine when a given atom will decay, nor how many atoms in the chunk will have decayed at any given time. The theory gives only the probabilities for a decay (or a number of decays) to happen within a given span of time. Einstein and others perhaps thought that this was a defect of the theory that should eventually be removed, by a supplemental hidden variable theory[6] that restores determinism; but subsequent work showed that no such hidden variables account could exist. At the microscopic level the world is ultimately mysterious and chancy.

So goes the story; but like much popular wisdom, it is partly mistaken and/or misleading. Ironically, quantum mechanics is one of the best prospects for a genuinely deterministic theory in modern times! Even more than in the case of GTR and the hole argument, everything hinges on what interpretational and philosophical decisions one adopts. The fundamental law at the heart of non-relativistic QM is the Schrödinger equation. The evolution of a wavefunction describing a physical system under this equation is normally taken to be perfectly deterministic.[7] If one adopts an interpretation of QM according to which that's it -- i.e., nothing ever interrupts Schrödinger evolution, and the wavefunctions governed by the equation tell the complete physical story -- then quantum mechanics is a perfectly deterministic theory. There are several interpretations that physicists and philosophers have given of QM which go this way. (See the entry on quantum mechanics.)
Read more from the article.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:24 PM on November 26, 2005


Regarding QM, its interpretation, and your excerpt:

The Copenhagen Interpretation is the dominant one, and there's really not much work being done on this anymore.1 Most physicists have stopped worrying about what QM means. They either assume that the wave function collapses (most of them), or they see the evolution of the waveform to continue and they assume something that is essentially metaphysical, such the many worlds interpretation (a relative small minority), or others (almost no one).

My citation: most contemporary texts dealing with the philosophical implications of QM. You found one that prefers to avoid the bizarre and problematic waveform collapse, which no one is that comfortable with but most physicists assume.

Note also that your excerpt itself proves my claim:

"QM is widely thought to be a strongly non-deterministic theory. Popular belief (even among most physicists)"

and

"...like much popular wisdom, it is partly mistaken and/or misleading. Ironically, quantum mechanics is one of the best prospects for a genuinely deterministic theory in modern times"

Note also the word "prospect".

I don't doubt that there's a number of philosophers continuing to play with determinism; but with regard to the physics that has dominated this intellectual territory for a few centuries and which was deterministic for a good portion of that time, the determinist model was thrown out 80 years ago.

I'm not a physicist—and, unlike the history and philosophy of science, I've only a small bit of formal training in the subject. But the physics we're discussing was profoundly important to the place where science and philosophy intersect and it's of great interest to anyone involved in either the history or philosophy of science.

With regard to the other point in contention:

...it's certainly true that historically free will was a theistic concept...

Often as part of a metaphysics that was a theology? Sure. Always? No. And Rothko's argument was explicitly that if "you could prove free will, you've proven theism", which is just a load of bunk and I'm sure you, monju, are aware of it. As you say, there are contemporary philosophies that do not depend on the supernatural to explain free will. But, also, historically there are numerous examples.

My citation? Practically the entire history of western philosophy, of which I've formally studied a large portion. Choice has always been very important because of moral philosophy. And assuming free will, as most do, there are non-theistic examinations of it, and non-metaphysical, too.

Finally, you say, "I could cut the hubris in here with a knife." If Rothko were making assertions about Law that you knew were not only wrong, but that indicate some fundamental misunderstandings, and doing so with great confidence, repeatedly, would your strong reaction be "hubristic"? Or would it be legitimate annoyance? As for citing the literature...if he were making big assertions about both the history and the nature of the concept and practice of "common law", if challenged to cite literature, what would you choose? Me, I don't even know where to start. But I've mentioned a few places if Rothko is interested.

1. A few years ago, I asked a theoretical physicist who works on the philosophical implications of QM what his colleagues thought of his work. He said that they tolerate his eccentricity as long as he does real work.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:37 PM on November 26, 2005


I don't doubt that there's a number of philosophers continuing to play with determinism; but with regard to the physics that has dominated this intellectual territory for a few centuries and which was deterministic for a good portion of that time, the determinist model was thrown out 80 years ago.

Right, primarily on the basis of Von Neumann's proofs. However, with the rediscovery of Bohmian mechanics in the 1950s, debate was rekindled on the deterministic nature of QM, and there's a pretty significant body of literature published in the 1990s and 2000s on this issue not only by philosophers, but also by physicists and mathematicians. That's not to say that Bohmian mechanics is without significant criticism; there are a number of objections based on post-von Neumann proofs. However, I think it's a huge overstatement to categorically state that the determinist model was "thrown out." As far as I can tell from my non-expert perspective, it has not been.

Nonetheless, this is certainly a side point, at most, in this debate. It was this that my comment regarding hubris was directed, particularly your "end of discussion" comment, not your greater point regarding the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of free will. I agree that Rothko's limitation of the idea of free will to theistic concepts and his concommitant argument that proof of free will would be a step towards proof of god is simply wrong.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 9:54 PM on November 26, 2005


So reading up on Bohmian mechanics here I have to wonder if it even addresses the fundamental question: Is the universe deterministic?

From part 4:
For any quantum experiment we merely take as the relevant Bohmian system the combined system that includes the system upon which the experiment is performed as well as all the measuring instruments and other devices used in performing the experiment (together with all other systems with which these have significant interaction over the course of the experiment). The "hidden variables" model is then obtained by regarding the initial configuration of this big system as random in the usual quantum mechanical way, with distribution given by |ψ|2. The initial configuration is then transformed, via the guiding equation for the big system, into the final configuration at the conclusion of the experiment. It then follows that this final configuration of the big system, including in particular the orientation of instrument pointers, will also be distributed in the quantum mechanical way, so that this deterministic Bohmian model yields the usual quantum predictions for the results of the experiment.
So the theory says that you can take a random initial condition, evolve it through a deterministic system, and end up with a random result.

For the record, like monju_bosatsu, I don't think there is a clear consensus on determinism. However, I also think it doesn't really matter much to metaphysical questions either way, see this discussion about the reducibility of the universe. If the universe is irreducibly complex then it doesn't do us any good, metaphysically, to know that it is deterministic.

I'm not so sure that the question of determinism is only a side point - it is at the core of many theistic arguments, I think.
posted by Chuckles at 7:46 AM on November 27, 2005


Got a nifty discussion out there at the end. Nice to read.
posted by Smedleyman at 10:24 AM on November 27, 2005


Gyan, no. Your definitions are incomplete. I cited Oxford. That is the only authority.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:28 AM on November 27, 2005


And Rothko's argument was explicitly that if "you could prove free will, you've proven theism"

Not really, no. Explicitly, my argument to Gyan was that proof of free will, as a supernatural notion, would go a long way to providing evidence for God. No one yet has been able to provide that, and it seems less likely, as we learn and confirm that the universe is increasingly deterministic. With the exception of Calvinism, free will is central to much of Judeo-Christian theism.

Keith M. Ellis, all you've shown is that you really don't know much about QM, among other subjects. In the quantum world, you're calculating probability distribution functions, which do give results about how nature behaves in a general way. You can't know what exact particle decays in a radioactive element, for example, but you can estimate and experimentally verify decay rates as a whole. You could transport to the other side of the room, but the probability is infinitesimally small. QM in fact reinforces a deterministic, if intractable view of the natural universe at an atomic scale.
posted by Rothko at 12:03 PM on November 27, 2005


"We had many conversations about science and history, just like in the old days. But now he had something new to talk about, his children. He said: "I always thought I would be a specially good father because I wouldn't try to push my kids into any particular direction. I wouldn't try to turn them into scientists or intellectuals if they didn't want it. I would be just as happy with them if they decided to be truck-drivers or guitar-players. In fact I would even like it better if they went out in the world and did something real instead of being professors like me. But they always find a way to hit back at you. My boy Carl for instance. There he is in his second year at MIT, and all he wants to do with his life is to be a god-damned philosopher!"
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 12:41 PM on November 27, 2005


So the theory says that you can take a random initial condition, evolve it through a deterministic system, and end up with a random result.

Which means nothing in most theological discussions, since God's inspired creations — humans — are de facto neither random nor products of randomness.

The biggest argument for determinism is entropy. No experiment at any scale has shown that we can add order to a system without increasing entropy everywhere else. The universe is apparently humming along in one temporal direction, based on all empirical evidence.
posted by Rothko at 12:44 PM on November 27, 2005


Rothko, the fucking historical context with regard to how the term "deterministic" is used in physics and with regard to the philosphical questions related to physics, is clockwork deterministic down to the elementary partcles. This was the eighteenth and nineteenth century views. QM is not deterministic in this sense because pre-QM thought was fully reductionist, particles behaved like billiard balls. Have you not heard of "God the Clockmaker"? That's the context. So QM is not deterministic in that sense. But it's also not exclusively deterministic in the macrocosm, either. There are a great number of both thought experiments and actual experiments which bring micro uncertainty in the macro realm.

Are you claiming these things because you want to "win" an argument or because you legitimately believed them?

You write: "No one yet has been able to provide that, and it seems less likely, as we learn and confirm that the universe is increasingly deterministic."

Where do you get this stuff?? "The universe is increasingly deterministic"?? Over the past eighty years, physics and philosophy have been doing nothing if not asserting that the universe is increasingly non-deterministic.

How old are you? This amazing way in which you so confidentally say things that are false—and not just in small details that would be obvious only to experts but in big, huge things that are obvious to anyone with any serious aquaintance with the subject —is startling and the only explanation I have for it is that a) you're young and think you've learned far more than you really have; b) your intelligence is in that somewhat above average range that is so dangerous. In every sense you're sophomoric. And I'm not saying this to insult you, I'm saying it because I stand almost in awe at your ignorance posing as knowledge.

I can't possibly be the first person who's told you this, given your heavy participation here and probably elsewhere. So I can't imagine you're going to listen.

What are you trying to accomplish by starting every comment directed at me with my full name? I can't come up with any explanations other than it being malicious in the hopes of achieving some goal. I mean, it can't possibly be because I, like many here, have mentioned you're Alex Reynolds because it's obvious to everyone and their dog that when I or anyone else mentions this it's quite obviously not to to make your full name known but because that's who we knew you as here and, also, you were banned and you just ponied up another $5 and became Rothko.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:31 AM on November 28, 2005


Thank you for confirming that you're trying to troll every time you use my real name, since this is not how people address each other on this site.

When you and Dios and others keep doing this, I'll just quote your confession so people know how much of a troll you are.

As I said before, you choose not to add anything to this site. Thank you for finally admitting it.
posted by Rothko at 8:43 AM on November 28, 2005


« Older A Thanksgiving Prayer....  |  The Web's First Shaggy Dog Sto... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments