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9/26/08

Firmly By The Blade

Atheism and Occam's Razor

One of the most misunderstood and misused concepts in philosophy is Occam’s Razor. Note that the previous sentence says “in philosophy”, not “in logic.” This idea is most coherently phrased as, “Plurality ought never be posited without necessity.” The vast majority of misapplications occur when this idea is treated as a regulation, rather than a rule of thumb. Occam’s Razor (O.R.) is a philosophical guideline, and its application is therefore highly subject to interpretation. The “razor” moniker is particularly appropriate to this idea, given the way it is often applied. Razors meant to shave hair away from skin can be misused to slice through skin as well. The fact that a modern razor can be physically used in this way doesn’t automatically make that use appropriate or necessary – and the same idea applies philosophically. Just because someone can slice up an idea using Occam’s Razor doesn’t mean that they’ve done something constructive.
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Humans are fallible, and so the fewer assumptions we make, the more likely we are to arrive at a solution that corresponds with reality. For that reason (and despite the circular logic that’s inevitable when trying to prove such a thing), O.R. is a helpful tool for decision making. However, O.R. cannot be placed on the same shelf as even the most obscure logical rules, since there is nothing binding about it. At the risk of being overly repetitive, let it be emphasized once again that Occam’s Razor is a useful philosophical guideline, not a cosmic absolute. When a person says something like, “Occam’s Razor demands...” or “Occam’s Razor proves…”, or “parsimony requires,” they’re misinterpreting the purpose of the principle. O.R. demands nothing, proves nothing, requires nothing. It only suggests.

No group is as guilty of misusing Occam’s Razor as atheists when applying it to the existence of God. In fact, in the face of the last century of scientific discovery, once would expect atheists to be downplaying the importance of O.R., rather than harping on it. Given all we’ve learned about the history of the universe, the arrangement of the cosmos, and the sophistication of matter, it would seem that whatever grasp atheism has on O.R. certainly isn’t on the handle. Taking God completely out of the picture requires the postulation of everything from fantastic coincidences to multiple universes to unobservable, one-time alterations in the laws of physics, and so forth. That’s all well and good, but that kind of unproven, un-testable conjecture smacks of the “faith” that atheists are so dismissive of. Old habits die hard, though, and O.R. is still a popular line of attack from critics of religion. It’s also worth mentioning that Occam wouldn’t have supported an atheistic interpretation of his own philosophy. He was a theist – actually, a Franciscan friar.

The general application of O.R. by atheism is to say, “we can craft an explanation for such-and-such without mentioning God, therefore disbelief is more appropriate, as per Occam’s Razor.” However, this is not in keeping with the purpose of the principle. Remember, the guideline does not say, “fewer beings is better,” or, “any explanation without a God is better.” It says, “Plurality ought never be posited without necessity”. It’s the “necessity” part where interpretation comes into play. Just because I can explain how something happened without postulating a certain being’s involvement doesn’t make my explanation more likely by default. This is especially true when removing said entity from every explanation requires a mind-boggling number of assumed replacements. It’s inescapably true when the removal of said entity makes the end result impossible.

For example, I’ve seen rain combine with dirt and rocks to make something that looks a lot like concrete. I’ve seen rocks of all different shapes and sizes and colors. I’ve seen wind and mudslides move a lot of matter into some strange shapes. Looking now at a brick house, I can craft an explanation for how that house got there without mentioning humans. Rain and mud and gravel can make mortar, wind and earthquakes can move rocks, and it’s theoretically possible for thousands of perfectly rectangular rocks and naturally-made mortar to be formed into a two-story building with doors and windows by the actions of weather, isn’t it? Well, then, according to the atheistic misinterpretation of Occam’s Razor, that is the more correct belief, since humans are now unnecessary, and the “addition” of humans to the picture raises a lot of questions.

Obviously, that’s not what O.R. is intended for. It’s clear that the above example adds a lot of “plurality” – because the “plurality” that O.R. speaks of is that of causes and conditions, not just sentient entities. Assuming that these disparate parts all combined in a highly specific way without deliberate interaction adds a great number of assumptions about coincidences, outrageous improbabilities, and events of questionable possibility, not to mention the underlying problems of contrary evidence. I don’t even know if there was ever a time in history when the requisite conditions to create this “nature house” even existed – that’s yet another addition to the pluralities of the situation. Clearly, the explanation with the fewest “pluralities” is that it was deliberately built by a human being or beings. Questions about their character, intentions, motivations, and qualities are irrelevant.

That last concept is one of the areas where atheism really trips up on the question of God and Occam’s Razor. God may be a simple idea (depending on who you ask), but belief in God brings some accompanying questions, many of which are highly complex. That has nothing to do with the likelihood of His involvement in the creation or arrangement of the universe. Questions about the contractor’s personality may be interesting, and they may even influence how he built the house. It makes the sum total of details about everything related to the house more complicated, so to speak. Yet, the fact that some people think the contractor is weird or mysterious doesn’t make it more likely that the house was built by a freakish confluence of natural disasters. As it pertains to the formation of the house, a contractor is the most plausible solution. Mysteries of his preferences and opinions are secondary to the question of whether or not his involvement in building the house is more likely that not.

That’s not even an extreme example. If the above situation seems unlikely, consider some of the atheistic explanations for the arrangement of the cosmos, the intricacies of physics, the seeming impossibility of abiogenesis, and so forth. Every one adds a lot of “plurality”, in the form of unsubstantiated assumptions, outlandish probabilities, and ad hoc theories. These are all good examples of how Occam’s Razor, applied correctly, actually suggests the reality of God. Atheists are free to disagree of course, and there are some instances where God’s influence is rightly questioned by that same rule of thumb.

One cannot escape the fact that “simplicity” is not more truthful that complexity in and of itself. Politics thrives on over-simplifying things to the point of dishonesty, and we cannot make the same mistake in philosophy. “Necessity” does not refer to grammar, so an entity or idea is not “unnecessary” simply because we can construct a sentence without it. “It just is; it’s just there; it just happens…” may be the “simplest” answers, removing all possible questions and complications, but that doesn’t make them the most accurate solutions.

It’s critical to realize two things. First, that O.R. can never be appropriately considered “proof” of any theory, atheistic or theistic. Secondly, even the limited suggestions that O.R. makes about recent scientific discoveries are highly inconsistent with atheistic assumptions. The combination of those two ideas makes O.R. a more persuasive tool for theism than for atheism.

The concept of what is or is not “necessary” is first and foremost a product of your own presuppositions. In that regard, O.R. is really a dead-end road when discussing religion with most people. It’s especially not going to have much influence on a person with an established opinion about the existence of God. Using it as it was intended, though, doesn’t do much to support atheism’s preferred interpretations of what we see in nature. The atheist who picks up Occam’s Razor intending to slash at God will find himself holding it by the blade.

[Also posted at Gladio Mentis]

66 comments:

  1. Great post. Most often, I see fundie atheists abusing Occam's Razor.

    At the heart of it all, when an atheist appeals to Occam's Razor to explain away God, he is not making an argument...he's only begging the question. It's axiomatic that unnecessary complexities should be discarded for explaining things.

    Instead of demonstrating God is an unnecessary complexity, they've *assumed* that prejudice into Occam's Razor.

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  2. The reason atheists treat Occum's Razor as a rule is because we DO treat it that way in every other sphere. Saying that we can ignore is simply beinghypocritical.

    All the explanations, no matter how loony, have two advantages over saying God is responsible- they are testable and they involve things known to exist.

    The ones that don't do this aren't science and thus we can ignore them.

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  3. Samuel,

    No rational person ever treats O.R. as a "rule" in any sphere. Choosing the "simplest" explanation for everything in all cases would make you a pretty lousy forensic investigator, for example. "Suicide" is simpler than "murder staged to look like a suicide", and avoids an "unnecessary" entity, but it's still wrong if the person was murdered.

    It's not a rule, and can't be used as one. It's just a good guideline.

    With respect, I don't think you really know much about some of the non-theistic explanations for things like universal fine-tuning, abiogenesis, etc. Words like "testable" and "known to science" don't apply to multiple universes, for instance. Some of the other ideas are even more absurdly ridiculous, and require orders of magnitude more assumptions than theistic ones. If you had even passing knowledge of these hypotheses, you'd see my point.

    The history of science shows that atheists struggle a great deal to reconcile their beliefs with what we know about the structure of the universe. Ideas like Occam's Razor make that struggle all the more difficult.

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  4. medicineman said:

    "Suicide" is simpler than "murder staged to look like a suicide"

    Bad analogy. You don't just a priori choose the simple explanation. Rather, all things being equal, you don't unnecessarily complicate the explanation.

    The universe exists. Either the universe exists un-caused, or is contingent upon something else.

    The theist says God is the first cause. So, either God exists un- caused, or is contingent upon something else.

    You see now? The theist has just pushed the problem one step back.

    The problem is not solved, but just made unnecessarily complicated by adding another entity and calling it God.

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  5. unBeguiled:

    ”Bad analogy.”

    No, bad understanding. My analogy was meant to reinforce the idea that “you don’t just a priori choose the simple explanation.”

    Your comment is an example of everything that I talked about in the article, almost point-by-point.

    Specifically:

    “…you don't unnecessarily complicate the explanation.”

    Yes, and “necessity” is the critical part. You seem to think, as so many do, that being able to grammatically remove God from an idea is equivalent to removing the necessity for God. As my example of the brick house should have shown you, that’s not the case. Just because removing God removes a step in the process doesn’t mean that step is unnecessary.

    Theism doesn’t “push the problem one step back.” That strongly implies that you don’t understand the premises of the cosmological argument. Part of this argument is the sensible premise that infinite regresses are impossible. “Causality” has to start somewhere, else it will never get to ‘here’. Much like a freight train; you have to have an engine that’s responsible for starting the movement. Suggesting otherwise is patently silly.

    There is also no "problem" for theism, only for atheism. There is only a problem if you jump off the cliff towards infinite regress - theism does not. The idea that God exists un-caused is part of the concept.

    The universe, on the other hand, demonstrates many characteristics that strongly suggest it to be temporally finite, contingent, and caused. It’s a good 50 years too late to seriously argue that the universe didn’t have a temporal beginning, and that’s just one property of note. All together, there are simply too many scientifically established properties of the universe that are inconsistent with an eternal, un-caused universe for that to be plausible. That’s even clearer when looking at the evidence suggesting additional theistic events since the origin.

    So, it’s not “unnecessarily” complicated to “add” a first cause, it’s a logical requirement. Asking about “what came before God,” on the other hand, misses the concept of a “first cause” and runs afoul of the suggestions of Occam’s Razor. It’s far more concise to assume a single un-caused being with power to enact effects than either a self-caused universe (with all the accompanying coincidences and improbabilities) or a pre-God cause.

    So, you’ve helped to demonstrate my point. You’re mangling the concept of “necessity”, in part because you don’t understand the argument you’re trying to refute. You’re not dealing with the tangible “plurality problem” that atheistic explanations have when compared to theistic explanations. Overall, you’re wielding Occam’s Razor without realizing that the blood it’s drawing is actually yours.

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  6. OK, medicineman, let's have a conversation.

    First, we must agree on something. Something very basic.

    This is where I start:

    The universe exists.

    Do you agree?

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  7. So medicineman: Does God have identifiable properties? Where do these properties come from?

    Also, re: creation. There are quite a few theories out there that suggest that while the universe is known to have a temporal beginning (and has been so known ever since the 2nd law of thermodynamics), the idea that it began in a sense that would imply creation is unnecessary. I'm thinking here of closed timelike curves and quantum events specifically. Each of those posits only slight (relatively speaking) modifications on things we can observe at only one remove (through gravitational lensing and the Casmir effect, respectively). On the other hand, supposing God requires us to add a term unlike any we otherwise posses, with greater information, energy, etc, than the rest of the universe combined. So this is actually quite a legitimate Occam's question.

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  8. unBeguiled,

    I’m more than willing to have a conversation, but I need to refer you to the premises I made in the original article. One of those is that discussions of O.R., pertaining to God, aren’t particularly fruitful when both sides are fairly committed to interpreting “necessity” in ways that conform to their preconceptions. Another is that the “necessity” issue is purely philosophical once you get to the level of origins, and so it’s practically impossible for a person to change their mind on it without changing their entire worldview.

    I’ve also spent quite a lot of time and effort considering these questions, their implications, and their relationship to theistic ideas. I’m not really interested in starting a 400-post back-and-forth that starts with some pedantic question like “do you think the universe exists.” Apparently, I do. You’re not going to walk me by the hand through some thought-path that ends with me saying, “gee, I never thought about it!”

    Since I won’t presume to do the same with you, lets do the following instead. If you disagree with my conclusions or premises, say how, why, and give your alternatives. Comment on what I’ve said in the article. I’ll respond in kind. That gives you a chance to state your position, and we might actually wind up with something enlightening for others who read this.

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  9. Louis,

    I’m not sure what your definition of “identifiable” is, but theism (generally speaking) would say that the “properties” of God are accessible (knowable?) through logic and the ways in which that God has revealed Himself in creation. As far as “where they come from”, I don’t know if you’re repeating the same question or asking where God got those attributes from. In the latter case, you’d be misunderstanding the concept of an un-caused entity.

    I’d have to disagree that 2LoT gives some sort of definitive statement about the temporal limitations of the universe. It sure seems to, but atheists were still talking about an eternal universe long, long after 2LoT was a provable fact. I’d say that the 1st LoT does a lot more to suggest the necessity of creation, but that’s back to where we started which is that…

    The issue comes down to “necessity”, and how you interpret that word. Saying “creation is unnecessary” is awfully bold, in my opinion. That implies some awfully non-scientific things about the universe that don’t seem to match our observations. Refer to my analogy about the house. That’s how I see the issue – it strains the concept of “possibility” to talk about some known inter-related properties of the universe “just happening”.

    Beyond that, calling those other ideas “slight modifications” is like “just” replacing a few integers in an equation with zeroes. That may be “slight”, in one sense, but catastrophic in effect. More importantly, those other ideas are not provable, testable, or suggested by evidence. As far as O.R. goes, removing God means replacing a single entity, which explains a multitude of universal properties, with literally thousands of conjectures, coincidences, and un-provable ad-hoc rhetorical gymnastics.

    I would agree that it’s legitimate to apply Occam’s Razor to this question, with caution. I just happen to think that the suggestions of O.R. put a lot more intellectual weight behind theistic explanations, rather than atheistic ones.

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  10. "Taking God completely out of the picture requires the postulation of everything from fantastic coincidences to multiple universes to unobservable, one-time alterations in the laws of physics, and so forth."

    As a scientist, I must start with something known. The universe exists. I never took God out of the picture, rather the theist foists this "concept" as an explanation. But this concept has no explanatory power, because it just pushes my question one step back.

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  11. unBeguiled,

    Saying that the theist "foists" God as an explanation implies that no explanation is needed. If something needs to be explained, it needs to be explained. I'm not "foisting" the idea of a contractor on you when I talk about the brick house - the house had to come from somewhere!

    You keep saying that God "pushes the problem back," which again implies that you don't understand the theistic concept of a first cause. Theism doesn't leave the door open for an infinite chain of causes, it posits what must exist: an uncaused first cause. Asking questions about "well what came before God" in this case is like asking "well, what was the score before the game started?" One who asks such questions doesn't get the concept of a sporting event.

    I'm not sure why God, in your view, would have no explanatory power if (and this is only in your view, not mine) He might have been caused Himself. Are you suggesting that anything which is itself caused has no explanatory power? That would make your role as "a scientist" a bit tricky, wouldn't it?

    If the idea of God "pushes your question back", then perhaps the problem is that you're looking at an inaccurate depiction of God. The entire point of the cosmological argument is that it puts a necessary hard limit on the line of causality. Part of the point of the cosmological argument is that it provides a solution to the chain of causes - so the "problem" is inherently one for atheists.

    I might also add, gently, that if you're actually taking some of the alternative theories about the universe seriously, then you are most definitely NOT "start[ing] with something known." Those alternatives are not based on evidence, experiment, or predictions. They're purely ad hoc ideas intended to justify interpretations more palatable to the preferences of the theorists.

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  12. Do you seriously not understand what I mean when I say you are pushing the problem back?

    To use your own words, if something needs to be explained, then it needs to be explained.

    ReplyDelete
  13. unBeguiled,

    I might be misunderstanding you, but I can only work with the words you are giving me. You're implying that the "problem" of a first cause is "only pushed back a step" by theism.

    Either you mean that theism leaves open the question of possible causes before God (and so just adds a step) or you mean that the universe does not need a cause, and so the "un-caused" problem is only pushed back once.

    I respond to you as I have because neither of those possibilities proceeds from the premises contained in the cosmological argument, particularly as it's seen by theism.

    There is no problem of "well, what caused God" in this idea. The idea is that there has to be something that is un-caused, the universe does not exhibit properties of an un-caused thing, and God is the most reasonable explanation for that logical need and the evidence at hand.

    So, if I'm misunderstanding, then all I can do is ask you to be more specific about what "problem" you're referring to, and how I'm "just pushing it back."

    Fair's fair, though, so I think you also need to give some better insight into how you see alternative explanations (plural and highly contrived) are more in keeping with Occam's Razor than the theistic explanation (singular and concise). I'm not the only one who ought to be defending their ideas.

    ReplyDelete
  14. So now we are back to where we started. I will repeat for you the meat of my first comment.

    The universe exists. Either the universe exists un-caused, or is contingent upon something else.

    The theist says God is the cause of the universe. So, either God exists un-caused, or is contingent upon something else.

    The problem has just been pushed back. All you have done is added a step.

    Now if you want to define God as un-caused, then that is just an ad hoc concept. And as you have said, ad hoc explanations are unsatisfactory.

    I will put it another way. If it is possible for something to exist un-caused, then why would you not just say the universe exists un-caused? Why are you adding a step and calling it God?

    (Now be careful. I am not saying it is possible for something to exist un-caused. You are.)

    ------------

    As to your last request, I am not obligated to defend positions I do not hold

    ReplyDelete
  15. unBeguiled,

    Yes, we're sort of back at the beginning, just as I said we'd probably be. As I stated, the entire issue boils down to how you define and determine "necessity" in terms of causality and Occam's Razor. That determination has a lot to do with your preconceived notions of God.

    The idea of a first cause is not ad hoc. It's logic. If you deny that there is such a thing as a "first cause", then saying that it's possible to have a chain of causality that goes back infinitely far. It isn't. The same is true if you doubt that it’s possible for an un-caused thing to exist. There are only two alternatives: infinite regression or a single, ultimate un-caused “thing” that causes everything else. It's absolutely inescapably necessary to have something start the chain of causation.

    It's not reasonable to assume that the universe is un-caused because it does not have properties consistent with that assessment. Being temporally finite, in and of itself, is a huge indication that the universe is not self-caused. Assumptions about cyclic universes, infinite universes, etc. is even more “plural” than a single God-caused universe, and absolutely unsupported by any evidence.

    You obviously have some opinion about how the universe came to be. Given what you’ve said, you don’t think God had anything to do with it. Either you think the universe caused itself, or is un-caused. If you don’t want to defend whatever it is you actually think, so be it. Perhaps you can just give some response to what I’ve said, and then we can get to the “let’s agree to disagree”.

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  16. "There are only two alternatives: infinite regression or a single, ultimate un-caused “thing” that causes everything else."

    I agree with you completely. That is just another way of saying what I said at the beginning:

    Either the universe exists un-caused, or is contingent upon something else.

    "You obviously have some opinion about how the universe came to be."

    That is false. I currently have no opinion as there is insufficient data for me to render an opinion.

    Probably we just differ on how such questions can best be answered. It seems obvious to me that the most fruitful way to answer these questions is by doing some science. Like building particle colliders and telescopes.

    I suspect you think such questions are best answered by consulting a certain holy book.

    It is on that point that we will have to agree to disagree.

    ----------------

    I found this a very interesting thing that you said:

    "it does not have properties consistent with that assessment."

    What properties would we observe in a universe that was un-caused?

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  17. unBeguiled,

    If you don’t want to discuss what you believe, that’s fine, but I don’t think that this is entirely honest:

    “I currently have no opinion as there is insufficient data for me to render an opinion.”

    Apparently, you have rendered the opinion that, whatever occurred, God was not involved. You may not have an opinion about what specifically occurred, but you cannot say that you have rendered no opinion at all. If you really didn’t think that there was enough information to make a decision, you wouldn’t be dismissing the idea of a Creator, either.

    I also think you’re treading dangerous ground by assuming that I don’t have an appreciation for scientific investigation. Putting that attitude and your statement about not having an opinion together makes it sound like you’re dismissing the concept of a religious worldview a priori, which is about as unscientific as it gets.

    Certainly, we’ll disagree on whether the Bible ought to play a role in our view of the universe. Don’t forget, though, that I haven’t mentioned the Bible in my argument that the universe is “caused”. Logic and empirical evidence can do that quite well. The telescopes and particle accelerators are the instruments producing the data that points towards a created universe.

    I don’t think that truth can contradict truth, so whatever we learn from science adds to what we learn from scriptures. In fact, the Bible has almost nothing to say about such things, because it’s concerned with a very specific and narrow topic.

    Regarding an un-caused universe, we should expect to see properties consistent with timelessness, for one. I’d expect evidence suggesting that the universe is infinitely old, or that it is actually cycling through multiple iterations. In fact, evidence at hand suggests exactly the opposite of those. Probability also has to be taken into consideration. There are a multitude of properties of physics and astronomy that, so far as we know, are not required to be as they are. That is, certain forces and ratios of forces, fundamental arrangements of matter, etc. aren’t guided into their current configurations by any kind of self-organizing influence of physics. They could be anything. And yet, they all line up to produce a universe capable of sustaining life. And not just life, but life that is capable of understanding, investigating, and manipulating the world around it.

    That could have happened by coincidence, in theory, but like the brick house, a reasonable person would have to admit that it’s far more likely that such an arrangement was deliberate. In fact, almost no one would accept such staggering improbabilities in any other circumstance. While Occam’s Razor doesn’t prove anything, it strongly suggests that we look to deliberate actions when coincidence becomes so absurdly unlikely.

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  18. I am always willing to discuss what I believe. However, there are innumerable things about which I don't have sufficient evidence to believe anything yet. Does my tall thin neighbor weigh more than my short chubby one? I don't know, but I do know how to find out. But I am not willing to leap to an opinion. It would be unreasonable to do so.

    I do not dismiss the notion of any gods a priori. I currently have insufficient evidence to believe in any gods.

    Now, to your brick house analogy. I have seen houses being built. My brother-in-law is a contractor. So I have good reasons to believe that when I see a brick house, it was built by a contractor. I have no experience in the construction of universes.

    So when I see a pile of rocks next to a brick house, I conclude that the house was designed, while the pile of rocks was not.

    These analogies always blow me away because they in fact argue against the theistic position.

    Think carefully. What is it that you compare that man-made thing to, be it a watch or a house? You compare the watch or the house to nature, and conclude that the watch and house were made by an intelligence, while the natural thing was not.

    But then you point at nature, and want me to conclude that it has a designer?

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  19. "Regarding an un-caused universe, we should expect to see properties consistent with timelessness, for one. I’d expect evidence suggesting that the universe is infinitely old."

    What properties would be consistent with timelessness? What evidence would suggest infinite oldness?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Great post M-Man

    Nice discussion too

    peace

    mr. patel

    ReplyDelete
  21. unBeguiled,

    With respect, you’re not phrasing any of your comments in a way that’s neutral to the concept of theism. You’re making it quite clear, apart from your own recent objections, that you don’t think that belief in deity is warranted. That’s a perfectly fine position to hold, but let’s not play the Dawkins game and pretend that we’re less convinced than we really are.

    You can’t carry any analogy too far – if the two things being compared were identical, then it wouldn’t be an analogy. The point of the house analogy is that, when faced with a choice between total randomness and deliberate action producing something complex, seemingly purposeful, and otherwise “designed”, it’s far more sensible to presume it was not the product of randomness. Part of science is applying our experiences to things with which we have not had as much direct contact, so there’s no stretch in applying the same principle to the universe that we do to everything else.

    If you think such examples speak against theism, then you not only carry them too far, but you misunderstand the concept of theism in general. “Nature” bears the marks of design, that does not mean that every action of nature is a product of deliberate decision-making. A machine designed to create random patterns on a computer screen is certainly designed – but what it does is random within the bounds of it's creation. Almost every man-made machine contains some element of randomness, for instance lawn sprinklers. The sprinkler is designed to place water in a general area, but each individual water molecule is not controlled. Nature, designed by God, is much the same. There is no contradiction in a universe that has been engineered by a deity doing things that are affected by chance. In fact, a universe that’s fundamentally very ordered and precise, which is somewhat random macroscopically, is very much in keeping with the "design" concepts of theism.

    So, please spare me the admonishments to “think carefully”. I've had more than enough undeserved condescension from skeptics to last a lifetime, and no pressing need to put up with it when I don't have to.

    Regarding a timeless universe, there are several things we might see. We would see evidence of cyclic action, which we don’t. The universe would appear to be of stable size or arrangement, which it’s not. We would not see any naturally-occuring one-way processes, because they would have run their full course. For example, hydrogen is constantly being changed into other elements. If the universe was infinitely old, there wouldn’t be any hydrogen left – but the cosmos is almost all hydrogen. If the universe was infinitely old, then all of the stars would have burned out. If it was infinitely old it would be in a state of uniformity (Louis mentioned the 2nd law of thermodynamics).

    What we see is a universe that, according to everything we can see, is of finite age, non-repeating, and uniquely suited for a very specific type of life. We can either call that luck, or providence, and Occam’s Razor nudges us towards the more sensible of those two options.

    All that said, I really would like to hear more about your opinion and interpretation of some alternatives to theism. Not having made up your mind doesn’t mean that you can’t have some opinion about which ideas might or might not work. I think that I’ve walked more than my requisite two miles here, and I think it’s time for you to start doing more than asking me for continuing defenses of my position. Please give me some more specific reasons why you reject (or don’t yet accept) theism, at least as it pertains to the perspectives of Occam’s Razor, and preferably as it pertains to your position as a scientist.

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  22. I'm not sure why you want me to defend positions I do not hold.

    I will say it again:

    Either the universe exists un-caused, or it is contingent upon something else.

    I do not know which it is.

    I do not have sufficient evidence to give an opinion either way. As a scientist, it is common practice to withhold an opinion when the evidence is not sufficient. That is how science works.

    What about that do you not understand?

    --------------

    So back to Occam's Razor.

    Either the universe exists un-caused, or is contingent upon something else.

    As a theist, you will argue that the universe is contingent upon God.

    As a scientist, my criticism of your position is that you have merely pushed the question one step back. You have merely complicated the issue.

    I do not think I can make my position more clear, sorry.

    ----------------

    "If it was infinitely old it would be in a state of uniformity."

    So in such a universe, would beings such as you and me be possible? Obviously not.

    So now you argue that the properties we would observe are properties under which no observation would even be possible?!

    Explain to me how we would observe something under conditions where observation is impossible.

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  23. unBeguiled,

    Yes, your position is very clear. Having you repeat it a few dozen times, combined with my basic literacy, gives me the ability to comprehend what you’re saying. It does not give me the magical ability to know why you believe it, how you support it, or why you reject other options.

    For instance, you keep saying that I’m “pushing the problem back”, but you haven’t said how. I gave a response to your criticism, and you didn’t really respond to it. You just began the process of saying the same thing over and over and over.

    The fact that a universe that’s infinitely old might not support life isn’t my problem (in fact, it’s another good reason to believe that it’s not). There’s nothing ad hoc about that. You asked what an infinitely old universe would look like, in my opinion, and I gave you a description. I can’t wonder about my own existence if I don’t exist – that isn’t a “convenient” fact for someone trying to prove that they exist. I don’t have to explain how we’d literally observe what such a universe would look like through physical eyes. That’s just you playing juvenile word games, and still avoiding making even the tiniest defense of your own views.

    I don’t want you to defend positions you don’t hold, I’d like you to take even a tiny stab at defending whatever it is that you think or believe. I don’t need you to repeat your positions – that’s all you’ve done, repeat your assertions. You haven’t given a shred of evidence, logic, or conjecture to say why you even reject my positions.

    If all you do is repeat your position, ask me for more details about mine, and then repeat your position again, then this isn’t a “conversation”. What part of that don’t you understand? And, that’s the third time you’ve given me the condescending, pedantic attitude. It may shock you, but referring to yourself as a scientist isn’t going to make me fall on my knees in worshipful respect of your apparently-above-reproach intellect.

    So, you need to give me some kind of developed, rational reason to reject the theistic positions [note: this does not mean repeating what you’ve said…again], or support the atheistic ones. Anything less is a waste of time and space.

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  24. MedMan:
    The idea of a first cause is not ad hoc. It's logic.

    Actually, its empirical, not logical; a habit of thinking from experience. Its often reliable but there's no written guarantee that it applies to everything everywhere for all times. No more so than that all crows must necessarily be black everywhere forever.

    It’s far more concise to assume a single un-caused being with power to enact effects than either a self-caused universe (with all the accompanying coincidences and improbabilities) or a pre-God cause.

    It isn't more concise. Why a single god? If one thing can pop out of nothing, then why not two or two thousand? The Greeks were even more parsimonious than you with their hypotheses since they chose not to invoke a gratuitous uniqueness constraint when they imagined the origins of their gods.

    That could have happened by coincidence, in theory, but like the brick house, a reasonable person would have to admit that it’s far more likely that such an arrangement was deliberate. In fact, almost no one would accept such staggering improbabilities in any other circumstance.

    I don't see where you're going with that line of reasoning. That life as we know it exists in a universe with physical constants compatible with life as we know it is to be expected, not marveled at. What would really be improbable would be to find life as we know it in a universe with physical constants incompatible with life as we know it. But that isn't the case.

    In any event, I don't see the utility of speculating on the probability of an observed constant in this universe when the probability distributions of the constants over the distribution of all possible universes aren't known with any reliability.

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  25. My question was this:

    "What properties would we observe in a universe that was un-caused?"

    And your answer was a universe with properties where observation would be impossible. Your answer was incoherent. You can try again if you want.

    -----------------

    Is there any question about which you think withholding an opinion is justified?

    ------------------

    I will try one last time.

    It seems to me, there are certain questions which we cannot even in principle answer.

    Whether the universe has a cause or not is one of those questions. That is not to say we should not ponder the question and talk about it.

    But for me, the theistic answer is unsatisfactory, because then I will just ask what caused God. The theist will answer that God does not need a cause, to which I will ask why does God not need a cause?

    Why not just save a step, and declare that the universe does not need a cause. That's Occam's Razor.

    I am done here. I have tried my best. I apologize if at times I seemed condescending. That was not my intent.

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  26. unBeguiled,

    ”My question was this: "What properties would we observe in a universe that was un-caused?" And your answer was a universe with properties where observation would be impossible.

    Oh, my mistake. I didn’t realize that the answer had to conform to your metaphysical preferences in order to be “coherent”. An infinitely old universe wouldn't be capable of supporting life - so that fact makes itself incoherent? If my conception was that hard to grasp…I don’t know what to say.

    Glad to know that you’ll ask so many questions about something that you don’t think can be answered at all (and yet, somehow, you still find certain explanations for unacceptable). I’m sorry that the "conversation" wound up being so one-sided.

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  27. Masked Marauder,

    I’d agree, to a point: but only because every logical principle is ultimately “empirical”, in that sense. The idea of a first cause isn’t like crows, because it’s actually a logical necessity. The same type of logic that tells us that there might be a white crow is that which tells us that there has to be a first cause.

    I need to clarify something before I say too much else: are you actually suggesting that Greek mythology is more concise, and/or more supported by empirical evidence than Christian theism, particularly as it applies to the origins of the universe? And are you saying that uniqueness is somehow less concise than plurality?

    Again, the problem is a misunderstanding of God. Theism does not say that God “popped” into existence. It says, as it must, that God always existed. It’s more reasonable to assume that one single thing always existed than to suppose that a lot of somethings suddenly “popped” into existence.

    My point about the life-capable nature of the universe is that there’s no reason for any kind of life to be supported at all. Talking about other forms of life is pure conjecture – and it doesn’t take much tweaking of universal forces to make solar systems impossible, let alone life.

    The same goes for “other universes.” I don’t see how a person can seriously talk about parsimony and Occam’s Razor while making any sort of suggestion about unseen, unprovable, evidence-less alternate universes.

    What I’ve seen a lot of in these comments is a proof of my point. Atheists, in general, have their minds made up that Occam’s Razor cuts out God. The fact that they can’t rationally defend alternatives using the principle doesn’t seem to change that. I'm constantly surprised at how this dichotomy plays out.

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  28. That life as we know it exists in a universe with physical constants compatible with life as we know it is to be expected, not marveled at.


    This always reminds me of Douglas Adam's great analogy. Paraphrased:

    A puddle in a pot-hole marvels that the pot-hole fits him just right! It was made just for him. But what other shaped pot-hole could a puddle find itself in?

    Humans are the puddle, and the pot-hole is the universe.

    So I ask:

    What other kind of universe could we expect to observe?

    None, of course. We evolved in this universe, just as the puddle formed in its pothole.

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  29. Adams' analogy is sort of interesting, but it assumes that life can develop in any type of universe at all, as flexibly as the way in which water will always fill any pothole shape.

    In fact, we don't know that that's the case. We don't know that there are other "potholes". In fact, we actually do know that if this particular "pothole" that we're living in was subtly different, then life as we know it wouldn't be possible.

    Musing that life might be able to develop differently or that there are other universes is, again, adding speculation devoid of empirical evidence.

    So long as we acknowledge that such speculation is non-scientific, then Adams' example at least brings up a valid point about perceptions and perspectives.

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  30. "Adams' analogy is sort of interesting, but it assumes that life can develop in any type of universe at all"

    No. You miss the point.

    The point is that in a universe that supports life, the universe will appear fine tuned for life. But that is thinking about it backwards. The life is "fine tuned" for the conditions of that universe.

    Adams' point was to demonstrate the flawed thinking of arguments about a "fine tuned" universe. The puddle fits the pot-hole, not the other way around.

    If there exists a universe where life cannot exist, then it would never be observed.

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  31. I get the point quite well. And my counter-point is that the analogy (as you're using it) assumes that we can be sure that there are other potholes, other puddles, and that life can develop in any (or many) universes.

    If physics suggested that the properties of the universe naturally gravitated to their arrangements by some self-arranging property, then we could say that the universe didn't appear fine-tuned, any more than salt crystals are fine tuned.

    As I said before, you do have an opinion on these questions. In this case, the uncertainty goes both ways, but you can only see one.

    Since a thing does not necessarily have to be observed to exist (white crows, anyone?), it doesn't matter if a life-prohibitive universe is "observable". It's plausible according to what we know about physics, and we see no reason why the universe should be the way it is as opposed to some other way.

    Like I said, Adams' analogy is good for what it's good for, but it assumes a perspective that sort of begs the question.

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  32. "assumes that we can be sure that there are other potholes, other puddles, and that life can develop in any (or many) universes."

    No. It makes no such assumptions.

    The point is simply this: Humans evolved in this universe. This universe has certain properties. That those properties allow life should not be marveled at. Rather, properties conducive to life are what we should expect to find.

    Just like a puddle finds itself in a pot-hole that is conducive to its shape. No other pot-holes need exist.

    The properties of the universe allow us to exist. It is primitive anthropomorphic non-sense to think the whole thing was built for us.

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  33. "If physics suggested that the properties of the universe naturally gravitated to their arrangements by some self-arranging property,"

    There are such theories (e.g. Smolin). But even without such a mechanism, evolution is a platform-independent algorithmic process not specific to or restricted to our current laws of physics. It is not even restricted to "life" (Prevolutionary dynamics and the origin of evolution Nowak & Ohtsuki, 2008). All it requires is "stuff" that can be combined into other stuff with growing complexity, whatever "stuff" might be. Whether something interesting is going to happen of course depends on the specifics; in a universe with not enough stuff in it or too few combinatorial possibilities, probably not much will happen. But these are very relaxed requirements compared to the requirement that the fine-structure constant has to be within 1% of 1/137, or whatever.

    Here's a paper on stars in a universe with different fundamental constants: Stars In Other Universes: Stellar structure with different fundamental constants (Adams, 2008).

    The bottom line is, no one has ever done the calculations to figure out what other universes might be possible, the parameter space is too big, and the calculations too demanding (plus, our imagination might fail us). It is entirely reasonable to assume that ours is not special in any regard (the Copernican principle). How do you know that there is not some other way of arranging forces, dimensions and constants to give a much more amazing universe than ours, which could have been host to much more intelligent and amazing creatures than fuzzy-thinking human beings? For all we know, our universe might be grossly sub-standard with regards to alternative possibilities. Our neighbors in the multiverse might be watching us in their super-dimensional quantum telescope, laughing to themselves: "And they think their universe is 'fine-tuned' ha-ha!"

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  34. medman:

    I’d agree, to a point: but only because every logical principle is ultimately “empirical”, in that sense.

    Thank you for that. Normally getting one of you guys to admit that logic is a product of neurochemistry is like pulling teeth. And as such you surely know that the real world is not bound by it, logic, only our discourse is limited so.

    The same type of logic that tells us that there might be a white crow is that which tells us that there has to be a first cause.

    I think not. A bird may be white and still a crow because being a crow has nothing to do with being seen; a crow is a crow whether anyone looks at it or not and so it's color is immaterial to its being a crow. I don't think the same holds for causes, which are undefined outside of time and space.

    are you actually suggesting that Greek mythology is more concise, and/or more supported by empirical evidence than Christian theism, particularly as it applies to the origins of the universe?

    Neither. I said they were more
    parsimonious with their hypotheses.
    Use any number of assumptions you think you need to convince yourself that there is at least one god and you'll need at least one more assumption to restrict existence to one and only one instance of the general type.

    Monotheism requires more assumptions than polytheism, that's all I'm saying, and that need not entail being more concise and it certainly says nothing about empirical evidence since there is none for either one or several gods.

    Again, the problem is a misunderstanding of God. Theism does not say that God “popped” into existence. It says, as it must, that God always existed.

    Not strictly true. Polytheists are theists too and their religious texts are quite clear that there was chaos before there were gods. Indeed, titans are also antecedent to gods. Clearly, uniqueness and eternal presence are not necessary properties of godhood.

    It’s more reasonable to assume that one single thing always existed than to suppose that a lot of somethings suddenly “popped” into existence.

    How so? It doesn't seem the least bit reasonable to me to assume that one thing exists where there is no evidence for anything existing at all.

    My point about the life-capable nature of the universe is that there’s no reason for any kind of life to be supported at all.

    I still don't see your point. "Reason" in what sense? Please tell me you're not going down some "final cause" path.

    I don’t see how a person can seriously talk about parsimony and Occam’s Razor while making any sort of suggestion about unseen, unprovable, evidence-less alternate universes.

    Actually, you're the one that introduced this issue in the first place with your talk of the relative probability of there being life in this particular universe, not me or unbeguiled.

    Its senseless to talk about probabilities without a notion of the underlying distribution from which you suppose an actual sample is drawn. For example, the probability of throwing a 6-sided die and getting a one is 0 if none of the sides has a one on it, 1 if all of the sides have a one, and some value between 1 and 0 for any other arrangement. That is, throwing a 1 can be certain, impossible or more-or-less probable depending on how you think the die was made.

    That you to talked about "staggering improbabilities" implies that you have some probability distribution in mind on which the measure of our "type" of universe is vanishingly small. If you weren't referring to some distribution of all possible universes when you judged ours to be improbable, what did you have in mind when you said what you did?

    Don't get me wrong. I'm a biologist, not a physicist, and so I have no particular ax to grind when it comes to theories of multiple universes and I'm certainly not trying to sell it. Its just that I don't see how you can talk meaningfully about our universe being probable or improbable without reference to a probability distribution of other types of universes, however its derived

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  35. unBeguiled: Ah... Adams had a way words, didn't he. I hadn't seen the puddle piece before though. Thanks.

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  36. unbeguiled,

    Your initial main objection is the product of third-rate philosophers like Richard Dawkins delving beyond their capability. Specifically, I am referring to this argument:

    As a scientist, my criticism of your position is that you have merely pushed the question one step back. You have merely complicated the issue.

    This is not a scientific insight, but a poor philosophical conclusion resulting from a lack of careful thought.

    Here is the kalam cosmological argument as it's now commonly formulated, for your benefit:
    1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
    2. The universe began to exist
    3. Therefore, the universe has a cause

    Now please pay particular attention to the first premise, where it uses the word 'begins'. Only things that begin to exist require a cause. Since time was also created with the universe, whatever caused the universe is itself timeless. Being timeless, it had no beginning. Therefore there is no need to posit a cause. Simple, powerful, and completely missed by Dawkins and his fans.

    This is not the same as to say there is no explanation for God. God's existence will have an explanation, even if it has no cause. Much like Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason, there must be a sufficient reason for the way things are. There will be a sufficient reason for God's existence, but not necessarily a cause.

    Finally, even *if* this did as you suppose push the problem back a step, why is that a problem? If the universe shows evidence of having been cause, then you should posit a cause - even if it leads you to an even bigger question to answer. My television remote shows evidence of having been caused. I am well within my rational rights to postulate a cause, even if that just pushes the question back one step further of explaining how my remote came to be.

    So in such a universe, would beings such as you and me be possible? Obviously not.

    So now you argue that the properties we would observe are properties under which no observation would even be possible?!

    Explain to me how we would observe something under conditions where observation is impossible.


    The analogy of Douglas Adams is inappropriate to the question of fine tuning. Read this article, searching for the term "firing squad":
    http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/barrow.html

    maskedmarauder,

    The premises in the cosmological argument are indeed empirically supported, but the argument itself is logical - deductive. If you accept the premises, you must accept the conclusion. You ask "why a single god?" Simply because we're not multiplying beyond what the evidence requires. For your final objection, see my point above responding to 'unbeguiled'. I think that's enough to answer your objections.

    adonais,

    How do you know that there is not some other way of arranging forces, dimensions and constants to give a much more amazing universe than ours, which could have been host to much more intelligent and amazing creatures than fuzzy-thinking human beings?


    This is really beside the point. The question is, what position is the best evidenced? And, given our current knowledge, it would seem that the universe is fine tuned. While it might be a possibilty that universes conducive to life are quite easy to obtain statistically, current evidence doesn't show that. It shows that you change these constants by just a little, and stars don't form, or planets don't form, or we have only helium (iirc), etc. We have good reason to think that our universe is special, unique, and finely tuned.

    The point is that the theist here is resting on evidence, while to remain an atheist you must take a position of faith: you have faith that this universe is really not that special, despite what the current evidence shows.

    Just because something is logically possible does not make it the most rational point to hold.

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  37. Croath:

    The first premise of the Kalam is false.

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  38. unBeguiled,

    Whether you like it or not, every analogy contains assumptions. It’s the assumptions about what the reader knows of the subjects that gives the analogy the ability to frame an idea. The reason Adams’ analogy has weight with a reader is because a reader knows, with certainty, that puddles will always fill the shape of any pothole that they are in. They also know that there are a lot of different puddles and a lot of different potholes. So, the idea of a puddle thinking that the puddle was purpose-built for it seems absurd.

    That analogy makes a good point about perspectives, but it’s only of limited use when you really consider the questions at hand. We don’t "know" that there are other “potholes”, and we certainly don’t “know” that life can develop in any universe at all, or that there can be any kind of life in the first place. Adams’ analogy is useful in bringing up those possibilities, but it’s not persuasive in terms of choosing that belief over mine.

    I thought you were “scientific”, and didn’t make any decisions when you thought that there was insufficient data. But you’re flatly dismissing a purpose-designed universe as “anthropomorphic nonsense”, and later on you very emphatically stated that the first premise of the cosmological argument was definitely wrong. Given your prior statements, you obviously must think you have conclusive proof you have that the universe was not purpose-built. I'd love to hear it, as well as your conclusive proof that things can begin to exist without a cause.

    So, which is it going to be? Are you going to show us the conclusive evidence leading you to those conclusions, or are you going to admit that not every opinion you have is one based purely in empirical data?

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  39. Adonais,

    I agree that there are “theories”. Then again, that’s a large part of my point. There are “theories”, and not “evidence” saying that such things are possible. There’s nothing wrong with that at all – but it does require a person to decide if they’re going to be a “I believe in nothing that cannot be proven” type, or a “there are some unproven or unprovable things that I’ll believe in.” Even Smolin, so far as I understand, doesn’t think that there’s any tangible evidence that his theory is true (and I think he’s skeptical of quantum mechanics as well…but that might be someone else).

    Point being, there’s nothing philosophically wrong with taking these kinds of views. I do have a problem with a person throwing out the “I must have proof” when it comes to God at the human level, but taking conjecture over simplicity when it comes to the cosmic level. Obviously, I’m not trying to speak for anyone here, but I’d encourage theist and atheist alike to consider whether they’re applying their standards of empirical importance conveniently.

    As I said above, it all comes down to the philosophical foundation you bring to the question. These other ideas are theoretically possible, but not proven or even suggested by evidence at hand. Keeping this (or trying to) in line with the original topic, I’m of the opinion that such speculation isn’t in keeping with Occam’s Razor. Lee Harvey Oswald might have been mind-controlled by an alien, allowing him uncanny marksmanship and a personal conviction that he hadn’t shot anyone. We don’t have explicit proof that this is false, and I’m sure we could come up with some intellectual gymnastics to explain evidence to the contrary. Point being, while such a thing is possible from an imaginative standpoint, it’s not a reasonable thing to actually put any belief in.

    That, in a nutshell, is why I recognize alternate universes and such as theoretically possible conjectures, but I don’t give them the weight that theistic ideas do, since they aren’t as concise, and they don’t have as much supporting evidence.

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  40. Masked Maruader:

    I’m glad we can agree, but let’s slow down on just how specific our agreement is on that point. You’re getting into some slippery definitions, so let’s stick a fence post at the point of agreement and go from there.

    I’m not sure where you’re going with color and observation; my point was that logic tells us that there could be a white crow, and it also tells us that a chain of causality cannot stretch infinitely far backwards.

    I have to strongly disagree with your assessment of parsimony and Greek mythology. That’s really, really, grasping at straws. I don’t know that it’s worth debating on, honestly. It’s like arguing with someone about whether 9 is less than 10. That’s especially true when I catch those red-flag comments like “there is [no evidence] for either one or several gods. That’s patently false – there’s a difference between evidence that you reject and evidence that does not exist.

    Regarding theism and polytheism, you’re again getting slippery with definitions. Just a second ago you were arguing that there’s a difference between polytheism and theism, now you’re saying they’re the same. The reason we use the term “polytheism” is because “theism” is always presumed to mean “monotheism”. I’m not really interested in playing darts with the dictionary.

    With a life-capable universe, I meant that there is no evidence suggesting that the arrangement of physics could not have been some other way.

    The probabilities we can actually derive from empirical data aren’t conclusive. I keep saying that this is a philosophical issue at the core, but observations can do a lot to guide us. We know the vast range of force strengths in the universe (like that between gravity and the strong), and we have no reason to think that these ratios couldn’t have been different than they are. If there was no purposeful intent behind their arrangement, then there’s an inordinately huge number of possible arrangements, none of which are conducive to life as we know it. The universe seems improbable from a naturalistic standpoint. Those who talk about multiple universes agree (otherwise, they wouldn’t be talking about multiple universes).

    I happen to think that the evidence we actually have at hand makes belief in purposeful arrangement more in keeping with O.R., and far more likely, than the alternatives.

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  41. med-man:

    I’m not sure where you’re going with color and observation; ...

    Yeah, it looks like I cut and forgot to paste my edit. It was late here, sorry about that. Not worth pursuing now.

    I have to strongly disagree with your assessment of parsimony and Greek mythology. That’s really, really, grasping at straws.

    OR advocates simplifying explanations by minimizing the number of propositions used to explain some thing, not the number of things those propositions explain. If I introduce China to explain some geopolitical situation I am introducing one explanatory element, not 1.3+ billion (population) elements. Whether the Greeks believed in 2 or 2 million gods is not the point.

    If you require N propositions to persuade yourself of the existence of supernatural entities in a general sense then at least one additional proposition is needed to limit the cardinality of the set of supernatural beings to one if you need to arrive at monotheism at the end of your argument. Polytheist cosmologies don't require that last assumption and so are inherently simpler.


    That’s especially true when I catch those red-flag comments like “there is [no evidence] for either one or several gods. That’s patently false – there’s a difference between evidence that you reject and evidence that does not exist.

    There's an intriguing claim. A ferinstance, perhaps?

    The reason we use the term “polytheism” is because “theism” is always presumed to mean “monotheism”. I’m not really interested in playing darts with the dictionary.

    Actually, we define "theism" as belief in a god or gods. We come from different "we"s I guess. Both definitions are acceptable and in my experience the one I used is the most common. Its overstating the case to say that "theism" is always presumed to mean "monotheism."

    I keep saying that this is a philosophical issue at the core, but observations can do a lot to guide us. ... If there was no purposeful intent behind their arrangement, then there’s an inordinately huge number of possible arrangements, none of which are conducive to life as we know it. ...

    Observations can't guide us where you want to go because what we can observe is not germane to the statistical conclusions you need. Equal and dispassionate consideration needs to be given to all of the unresolved latent possibilities, not just the one you find especially inviting. In addition to the possible arrangements that are not compatible with life as we know it, you also need to consider the inordinately huge number of possible arrangements which are conducive to life as we know it. And then there are the inordinately huge number of possible arrangements which are conducive to the many forms of life as we don't know them. etc.

    No sensible conclusion can be drawn from such speculations without knowing something about the relative proportions of the several inordinately huge numbers of possible arrangements conducive to one special outcome or another.

    What we do know from our limited observations of this local region of the one universe we have first hand experience with is that life as we know it is not impossible. And that's about all there is to say observation wise.

    I think the superior OR-compliant solution in this situation is to conclude that our type of universe is more probable than not. As a general rule even improbable natural explanations are simpler than ineffable supernatural ones.

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  42. Woops, noticed something that might be read wrong in my post above. I said "Only things that begin to exist require a cause" - this might be true, but is not a claim that I can justify. The context was the argument. It should have been something like, "The argument only shows that things that begin to exist require a cause" - implying that we say nothing about a causal requirement for things which don't begin to exist. That doesn't mean they have no explanation or reason, just not necessarily needing a cause.

    Unbeguiled,

    The first premise of the Kalam is false.

    On what grounds do you justify this claim?

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  43. MaskedMarauder,

    "Yeah, it looks like I cut and forgot to paste my edit..."

    Ahh. I thought something like that might have happened.

    I still don't see how you're arguing that polytheism is less complex than theism. Each deity in polytheism (Greek in particular) has its own origin, back-story, personality, etc. And each deity is contingent on the universe, leaving the questions of ultimate origins totally unanswered. All of that involves more complexity than a single deity. It's not just about whether "gods" exist, it's about what best explains the universe we're in.

    I could just as easily (and more rationally) say that you're adding the potential for multiple deities as an extra assumption. If "an extra proposition is needed to limit" deity to one unit, where's the logic saying that plurality is always the default assumption? If our guiding principle is that “plurality ought not be posited without necessity”, then why would you suggest that multiple gods are more necessary than One?

    I just don't think that trying to defend Greek polytheism as a simpler, more concise view of origins is defensible. I don't know what point you were trying to prove, but I seriously doubt that that's an opinion you actually held before you brought it up here.

    Ferinstance? If someone framed me for murder, they'd leave evidence linking me to the crime. A prosecutor (I hope) would reject that evidence when it was proven that I was 2,000 miles away when the murder happened. It would be false to say, "there is no evidence that MM committed this crime." That the prosecutor rejected some of the evidence does not mean that it doesn't exist.

    A talented defense attorney in another case might get his guilty client off scot-free because the police mishandled the crime scene, or botched the warrant. The judge will reject the evidence - but the evidence still exists. Or, the evidence might go to trial, and a juror voting to acquit might say, "there is no evidence that he did this." There is, of course, and the juror's rejection doesn't make that evidence disappear.

    What we see in the universe is almost unarguably evidence of purposeful creation. If it wasn’t, then atheists would never bring up unprovable speculations about other universes. They wouldn't talk about how life "only appears" to be designed. There are literally scores of quotes from atheists themselves discussing how the universe appears to be purposefully designed, to their horror.

    Brute facts only exist in mathematics, though, so people are free to accept or reject different points of evidence to match their metaphysical preferences. It’s more accurate to say, “there is no evidence which I accept”, in regards to God. Stating that there is none at all is ignorant, intentionally or not.

    Actually, I don’t have any good reason to give equal weight to the unproven as I do the proven. The only universe we “know” has life-sustaining properties is this one. Conjecture that there might be others, or other arrangements, isn’t in the realm of provable fact. That, in and of itself, makes the possibility of other kinds of life or other kinds of life-sustaining universes less certain than the possibility that there is only one. That’s one of the principles behind DNA forensics. It’s theoretically possible for two people to have near-identical DNA, but it’s so absurdly unlikely that such evidence is considered practically irrefutable. Why? Because, while it may be possible in theory for another person to have that code, all we do know is that the person under suspicion does (or doesn’t). We give far more credence to the known than to the unknown.

    As you said, all that our first-hand experience can tell us without doubt is that our corner of this universe is conducive to a single type of known life, and even tiny changes to what we can observe would make that life impossible. I’d say that makes the idea that our universe is actually improbable the more empirically supported view. Any other assumptions or theories about other life or other universes is not a matter of fact, but speculation. It’s especially ballsy to talk about “the multitude of arrangements” conducive to known life. So far as I know, there’s only one.

    Making natural explanations preferable to supernatural ones is sensible (that’s actually part of the theistic concept, as well). It’s not sensible to prefer them dogmatically, especially when we don’t know that natural explanations are even possible. This means that non-supernatural explanations are always “superior” only in the opinion of one who rejects the supernatural in their preconceptions.

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  44. Croath -

    The first premise is false because there are occurrences that are un-caused. Also, you would need to clarify what you mean by cause and begins to exist.

    But that does not matter anyway. The burden is not on me to demonstrate that the premises are false rather you need to convince me that they are true.

    A syllogism alone cannot demonstrate facts about reality. A syllogism is just a language game.

    Not that I am dismissive of logic, but you are using it inappropriately. If you want to learn something about reality, you should do some science.

    Remember: A logical proof is just a string of words. And you should never take words too seriously.

    As that great philosopher Tweedledee said: "Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."

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  45. I just wanted to comment on the "God isn't a good explanation for the existence of the universe because we can't explain God, so it just pushes the problem back a step."

    It seems to me like the argument goes:

    We need a cause for X

    We have a possible cause in Y

    But if we don't know the cause for Y, we should not posit Y to be the cause of X

    To me, I can use this reasoning all the time. If I move the coffee cup that is beside me 2 inches to the right, I can then ask,

    "What caused the coffee cup to move?"

    Now it seems to me that a perfectly reasonable response would be,

    "You did. You picked the cup up and moved it."

    But if I used the above reasoning, I could say,

    "That doesn't solve anything, because now we have a bigger problem: what caused me to move the coffee cup? Was it my free will, or determinism? Positing me as the cause of the movement of the coffee cup doesn't solve anything, it just pushes the problem back a step."

    If we need to explain X or find a cause for X, I think it's perfectly rational to use Y if Y is deemed to be the most plausible explanation, regardless of whether or not we have an explanation for Y. We could potentially have a new problem on our hands, but we would also have one less.

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  46. UnBeguiled,

    Wait…now you’re emphatically stating that some occurrences are un-caused, but simultaneously saying that you don’t know what Croath’s definition of “caused” is?

    You are definitely being dismissive, not just of logic, but of those who disagree with you. We've put up with enough of your demeaning attitude.

    Frankly, you strike me as an intellectual coward. You claim not to make decisions without evidence, but when pressed to explain the definitive statements that you do make, you avoid giving such evidence. And now, you’re hiding behind the “it’s not my burden of proof” after making a statement about causation totally contrary to human experience.

    No one here is impressed by you calling yourself a “scientist”. If you think that “science” means using condescension instead of critical thinking, then I’m betting you aren’t very good at it. I hate to break it to you, but this is not a forum where you’re going to get ooh and ahhs and pats on the back just for being a snide, ignorant atheist who takes his inability to explain his own thoughts to those who disagree as a point of pride. I have a sneaking suspicion that when you say, "I'm a scientist", you mean, "I'm a high school chemistry teacher who wows the freshman with my mastery of the periodic table."

    I don’t think you’re adding anything worthwhile to the conversation, so grow some stones and defend what you think, or don’t expect to see any more of your words appear in this space. “Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven't said enough.” (Marx, I think)

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  47. "We've put up with enough of your demeaning attitude.

    Frankly, you strike me as an intellectual coward.

    No one here is impressed by you calling yourself a “scientist.

    If you think that “science” means using condescension instead of critical thinking, then I’m betting you aren’t very good at it. I hate to break it to you, but this is not a forum where you’re going to get ooh and ahhs and pats on the back just for being a snide, ignorant atheist who takes his inability to explain his own thoughts to those who disagree as a point of pride. I have a sneaking suspicion that when you say, "I'm a scientist", you mean, "I'm a high school chemistry teacher who wows the freshman with my mastery of the periodic table."

    I don’t think you’re adding anything worthwhile to the conversation, so grow some stones and defend what you think, or don’t expect to see any more of your words appear in this space."


    Croath: you said something about arrogance in the other thread, I'd like to hear your comment on the above.

    unbeguiled: I applaud your heroic attempt, but you might as well give it up. From what I have gleaned, it appears an impossible task to explain to these people that extrapolations of empirical notions into completely unknown conditions can not possibly be used to deduce anything with any certainty. And to watch them use words like "statistics" and "probability" based on a sample of one and no calculations?

    *shrug*

    If anybody still cares about the original topic, here's an account by some real scientists: Physics FAQ: What is Occam's Razor?

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  48. unbeguiled,

    Unfortunately you make some elementary mistakes in your latest post. Let's recap: I outlined the cosmological argument, and your job is to show which premise is false or unfounded. Even if by saying, "there's no reason to believe premise x".

    You then made the quite confident claim that the first premise (everything that begins to exist has a cause) is false. To which I responded, asking you to explain why. Your reason was that there are counter-examples to the premise. Assertion, however, is insufficient - what empirical (or even logically demonstrable) cases are there of things that began to exist without cause? As a scientist, you seem to want to remind us of the value of empirical enquiries - so what empirical evidence do you have to show that the premise is false?

    Your statements following the part where you say "But that does not matter anyway" are bizarre. Comment by comment:
    "The burden is not on me to demonstrate that the premises are false rather you need to convince me that they are true."

    I certainly agree that we need reason to think premises are true. However, you didn't ask me to convince you that the premise is true - you immediately dived in and made the claim that premise 1 is false. If you want to make this claim, you have to back it up. Otherwise, the best you can say is, "I see no reason to assert the premise".

    Why might we think premise one is true? Here are some reasons:
    1. Empirically, we have good reason to think that all we observe that begins to exist has a cause (except the dubious case of Quantum Mechanics, where a cause is not known but not necessarily absent)
    2. Science's success depends on the assumption that phenomena can be explained. If there are some things without causes, then they cannot be scientifically assessed. Science depends on the testable and repeatable. Uncaused events would not be repeatable, because there's no conditions under which they would necessarily reoccur.
    3. Our intuitive understanding of the world with regards to this topic. To use a popular example: we both hear a bang, and you turn to me and ask, "what caused that?" To which I reply, "nothing!", you'd think I was wrong. You expect to find causes, and the notion of something beginning to exist without cause fights against this intuition which we have no reason to reject.

    I think together these make it highly reasonable for us to accept the first premise. However, I don't think you really doubt this premise anyway. I'd be willing to bet that you do think that there's a cause for every contingent event you observe. You may not know the cause, but as a scientist you'll want to find it - and you expect it to be there to be found.

    Now onto something that I hope you will immediately recognise is false, and a misuse of a tool. You first said:
    "A syllogism alone cannot demonstrate facts about reality. A syllogism is just a language game."
    And then you said a bit later:
    "Remember: A logical proof is just a string of words. And you should never take words too seriously. "

    You're using a syllogism to show me that I shouldn't take syllogisms too seriously! The italicised part is your syllogism. This is just a self-defeating argument, and I need spend no further time on it.

    Now onto the crux of your misunderstanding:
    "Not that I am dismissive of logic, but you are using it inappropriately. If you want to learn something about reality, you should do some science."

    I think you're confused about the difference between validity and soundness, mixed in with an inflated view of science's ability to answer everything.

    An argument is valid iff it is the case that if the premises are true the conclusion cannot be false.
    An argument is sound iff the premises are true.

    Now the cosmological argument is both valid, and sound. Scientific discoveries lead us to believe the premises are true, and therefore the argument is sound. The laws of logic show that the cosmological argument is valid. If you believe the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.

    Note here how the cosmological argument relies on science - so your supposition that science is being ignored, and we're playing only word games, is false. Let me give you an example to show you why you don't want to consider logic as only word games, again using an example I saw elsewhere:
    A priest is at a party, talking to some women, and he says, "Did you know, ladies, that the first person who had a confession with me was a murderer?" A minute later walks in the host of the party, and in a mood to boast, he says, "Ladies, I was the priest's first confessor, and I can tell you that it was a confession that sure shocked him!"
    You will now employ logic and immediately conclude that the host is a murderer. This depended on two things:
    1. The empirical evidence supporting the premises, making the argument sound
    2. The validity of the argument, making it deductively true
    There's no word games here. As long as you think they're both telling the truth, the conclusion is inescapable. In other words, the truth of the conclusion is as strong as your reasons for thinking the premises are true.

    But just to be charitable, and to help illustrate the point, I think this example might be the kind of misuse of logic you're afraid of:
    1. All gold is heavy
    2. Sally's heart is made of gold
    3. Therefore, Sally's heart is heavy

    This argument would seem valid, but we know the conclusion is false. Why? Simple - it commits the fallacy of equivocation. Even though the word "gold" is spelled the same way in the two premises, it has two separate meanings. This is a word game, but it's not a logically valid argument. The solution isn't to say, "logical proofs shouldn't be taken seriously". The solution is to recognise carefully invalid arguments - which are, in fact, not logical proofs.

    So to summarise:
    1. To avoid word-games, we should look for logical fallacies that render an argument invalid
    2. For a valid argument, our trust in the conclusion gains its strength from our reasons for thinking the premises are true

    Scientists depend on logic to do science, and use it frequently. In fact, we all use it for every day living. "If I do such and such, then x will occur", etc.

    Imagine I form the following argument:
    1. If I drop an egg, it will break
    2. I drop this egg
    3. Therefore, the egg will break.

    Then I drop the egg, and it doesn't break. Given that the conclusion is false, should I question the argument form of modus ponens? Or will I instead question the certainty of premise 1? I will do the latter. I won't question modus ponens.

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  49. adonais,

    If you think unBeguiled was heroic for doing everything in his power to avoid actually defending his views, then I'd hate to see a man you think is cowardly.

    There's nothing brave about posturing and posing while adamantly refusing to give an answer for your opinion. I can handle a person being evasive, and I'll tolerate a person who's demeaning. I have no pressing reason to put up with both of them from the same person at the same time.

    Case in point: MaskedMarauder. I don't think that he really believes that Greek mythology is a better answer for origins than Christian theism. Shot in the dark or no, he took a stab at defending it using the same kind of criteria he seems to expect from others. And he did it without making snide insinuations about anyone else.

    Throwing ideas out to see if they stick is how rational people develop ideas. I'll take a thousand MaskedMarauders (so far) over unBeguiled's sneering any day.

    Interesting link, btw. It makes pretty much the same points (sans atheism) that I did. OR isn't a rule, and philosophy has huge influence on how one uses it.

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  50. unBeguiled,

    (who posted a complaint that I was treating him unfairly)

    I rejected your recent comments for exactly the reasons I said I would. You didn't give reasons - you repeated the same assertions. You had ample opportunities to give actual reasons for your beliefs. You didn't take them then, and you didn't take them in your rejected comments.

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  51. Oh, and you have not been "banned", your profile's assertion notwithstanding. You've had some comments rejected, nothing more.

    Comment on something else if you wish, either a current post or a future one. No one has banned you, I'm just think that this thread has gotten more than enough of you being obstinately evasive and treating me like an idiot.

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  52. "Interesting link, btw. It makes pretty much the same points (sans atheism) that I did. OR isn't a rule, and philosophy has huge influence on how one uses it."

    Well here's the thing. What OR says, just as unbeguiled told you initially (go back and check), is that all other things being equal, the simpler theory is favored. This is a rule of the scientific method. What you meant to say is that it is not a law of nature. This is why, in the other thread, I insisted with Croath that he tell me what some predictions from the "God caused the universe" hypothesis are, because it is by those predictions that we can compare its salience to other theories. If it makes no predictions, why favor it over any other theory that makes no predictions, and in particular, a simpler one that does away with God? Add to this that some scientific theories do make predictions (e.g. loop quantum gravity calculations of cyclical universes, or homology sphere models predicting details of the CMB, or even Smolin's hypothesis), which at the moment might be beyond our technology to test, but which may become testable in the near future.

    So along this rationale, when unbeguiled asked you this:

    "What properties would we observe in a universe that was un-caused?"

    You replied:

    "Regarding an un-caused universe, we should expect to see properties consistent with timelessness, for one. I’d expect evidence suggesting that the universe is infinitely old, or that it is actually cycling through multiple iterations."

    There is no reality connection here, you're just making stuff up. You throw in a word like "timelessness" without explanation or justification. Why not spacelessness, or matterlessness? This is just word games. You have said nothing about how your concept of "timelessness" follows from the universe being uncaused. Then you say that it's either infinitely old or cyclical - but why, in either of these cases, must it be "timeless"? If space-time is warped and embedded in a higher-dimensional manifold, it may be finite and closed but without boundary (it has even been suggested, with some observational support, that it might be a Poincare dodecahedral space). And how could it "cycle" without time? Then you imply that you know of evidence against this: what, exactly? And then you waffle on about "probabilities" without saying about what and on what basis you think a probability can be calculated, and then you fall back on your anthropomorphic house analogy. None of this makes any sense at all, and falls far short of approaching a level of scientific rigor that we would require if this was a scientific hypothesis. These "predictions" fail before they are off the ground. And Croath offered no predictions from the Divine Genesis hypothesis either, and instead rebuked me for even asking for the information. I mean, "arrogance" doesn't quite cover it.

    And in your reply to me you said:

    "I recognize alternate universes and such as theoretically possible conjectures, but I don’t give them the weight that theistic ideas do, since they aren’t as concise, and they don’t have as much supporting evidence."

    This is just nonsense, wishful thinking. If the theistic hypothesis of the creation of the universe really was supported by *evidence* then scientists would be all over it, examining the hypothesis and the implications of this evidence. And your notion that scientific hypotheses "aren't as concise" is just your own subjective opinion, this carries no logical or scientific weight at all. QED isn't very "concise," but it's one of the most accurate theories ever developed.

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  53. Adonais,

    I’m short on time here, but…

    I wouldn’t get to worked up over my comments on “timelessness”. It was my mistake for using a term that could be misunderstood, but my usage of it suggests the meaning that I had in mind, which was “eternality”. I was obviously not implying a universe devoid of time. That’s like a strawman on steroids. You got all frothy over me using a term in a way that I apparently did not. My bad for not defining the term, but I don’t think that there’s good reason to interpret what I said as you did.

    You can accept or reject evidence such as fine-tuning, the uniqueness of earth (which might be getting harder to ignore…http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,430943,00.html ), and so forth. That does not mean that there is no such evidence. Put another way: if there is "no" evidence, what is it that non-believing scientists are attempting to debunk? Taking up the legal example, if there was "no evidence", then what was the prosecutor presenting in his arguments?

    I think that those are at least tangible, albeit subject to interpretation. I don’t think we have anything tangible or empirical at all that suggests alternate universes.

    And we can completely agree on the idea of the compatibility of those ideas with O.R. being, ultimately, a philosophical issue up for interpretation. So long, that is, that we agree that that subjectivity goes both ways. I’m not making the mistake of acting as though there are certain, brute realities apparent on these questions. I acknowledge that interpretation (meaning preference) comes into play. Be sure to do the same.

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  54. 1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause

    Hawking and others have argued that time began with the Big Bang.

    Time cannot be caused. If A causes B, then A occurs prior to B. But with no time, nothing can be prior.

    So claiming that time is caused is begging the question.

    Causality is meaningless without time.

    That is why I asked for a clarification of 'cause'.

    So, it is false to claim that everything that begins to exist has a cause because time began to exist and was not caused.

    Kalam is unsound.

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  55. I wrote:

    Remember: A logical proof is just a string of words. And you should never take words too seriously.

    As that great philosopher Tweedledee said: "Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."


    It seems that my intended levity was missed by some.

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  56. Hawking and others have argued that time began with the Big Bang.

    Time cannot be caused. If A causes B, then A occurs prior to B. But with no time, nothing can be prior.

    So claiming that time is caused is begging the question.

    Causality is meaningless without time.

    That is why I asked for a clarification of 'cause'.

    So, it is false to claim that everything that begins to exist has a cause because time began to exist and was not caused.

    Kalam is unsound.


    There can be logical progression without time, but before you go pronouncing defeat of the argument I'd suggest you look at the literature surrounding your claim.

    http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/eternity.html

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  57. med-man:

    Each deity in polytheism (Greek in particular) has its own origin, back-story, personality, etc. And each deity is contingent on the universe, leaving the questions of ultimate origins totally unanswered. All of that involves more complexity than a single deity. It's not just about whether "gods" exist, it's about what best explains the universe we're in.

    Actually, we're supposed to be talking the number of hypotheses to explain something, not complexity. THe two are related but not in a simple or uncontroversial way.

    I'm sort of sympathetic toward moving the discussion to complexity, I expect that's where Occam was headed anyway, but the discussion gets more difficult; counting hypotheses is easy, subjectively evaluating the aggregate complexities of two or more piles of disparate stuff is hard.

    My thinking here generally follows approaches to complexity such as Logical Depth (Bennett) or Thermodynamic Depth (Lloyd & Pagels) where the effort to reach some defined state is a measure of its complexity, not just the number of steps to get there or the bigness of the conclusion itself. A beach has zillions of grains of sand, and each grain has its own unique history and its own unique character, but who cares! Each grain is different but not in any way that anyone cares about. Once you grok rocks, erosion and wave action they're all covered. But even though there's only one Mona Lisa with a single simple history, it is much harder to account for than a beach with a zillion grains of sand. Its not just about numbers.

    Sure, there are more Greek gods than I can shake a stick at, and yes, they all have their own unique character and history, just like the grains of sand on the beach. But in the final analysis they are easy to understand, both alone and together. Your imponderable and ineffable god, on the other other hand, is essentially impenetrable.

    One example: consider the Mars/Aphrodite/Hephaestus relationship. Its the aptly named "eternal triangle", if you aren't up on non-christian mythology. If you don't know the triangle from events in your own life you can get it from Shakespear, soap operas or any one of thousands of other sources. Its as common as dirt and easy as pie to understand. Now compare that with the Christian trinity. Oceans of ink and rivers of blood have been spilled wrangling over that one minor aspect of your "simple" unitary god. And despite that there is still no agreement about what it really means. So, two three body problems. Which is simpler, which is more complex? I say the polytheist version is simpler because their whole cosmology is rooted in terms of common human motivations. The trinity is hugely convoluted, complex, esoteric and borderline hermetic.

    And, by the way, the question of origins is not unanswered by the Greeks. First there was Chaos and it was always there.

    I could just as easily (and more rationally) say that you're adding the potential for multiple deities as an extra assumption. If "an extra proposition is needed to limit" deity to one unit, where's the logic saying that plurality is always the default assumption? If our guiding principle is that “plurality ought not be posited without necessity”, then why would you suggest that multiple gods are more necessary than One?

    Because that's how the world we know works. What conforms to our expectation requires little or no explanation and what contradicts expectation requires more explanation.

    If the prevailing conditions are amenable to the appearance of at least one instance of a thing then the same conditions can't simultaneously be hostile to the appearance of another instance without there being a limiting rule of some sort. Simple causality depends on this principle, that similar conditions engender similar events, and so we come to expect that and want an explanation when this expectation is confounded.

    Arbitrary existential limits are exceptional in nature and cry out for explanations. The Pauli exclusion principle was devised in physics for the sole purpose of dealing with the then unaccountable observation that no more than two identical fermions can occupy the same quantum state at the same time. It was a big surprise at the time. Nobody would have raised an eyebrow if occupation were unrestricted. Is there a Saint Pauli exclusion principle for supernaturals?

    [thanks for the ferinstance. I was just curious what you meant, not opening another line]

    However, and this is not gratuitous quibbling, I do disagree with how you characterize evidence. When I say "there is no evidence for X" I'm not saying that some observation or artifact doesn't exist (although that may be the case), I'm saying that the supposed evidence is not germane to deciding if X is or is not the case. The murderer in your example may have had lint in his pocket. Whether that is or is not evidence is determined by whether or not it helps me, a member of the jury, decide whether or not the defendant is or is not guilty. If knowing about the lint changes my estimate of the probability of his guilt it is evidence. Otherwise, it is not. Even though the process is in some ways subjective, it is not arbitrary. I've looked at and considered many things over the years. So when I say there is no evidence for one or many gods I am not saying that I have my head in the sand and amn't looking at it, I probably have looked at it or something like it. I'm saying that it hasn't the persuasive or explanatory power to alter my judgment of the matter. Its not a question of whether i like or dislike a datum, its a question of whether or not the datum has persuasive power.

    It’s especially ballsy to talk about “the multitude of arrangements” conducive to known life. So far as I know, there’s only one.

    Even if physical constants are variable, in some weird multiverse sense, there are still infinitely many arrangements conducive to life as we know it. And there are infinitely many hostile configurations also. Who has the biggest infinity?

    They are both mighty big, but which is more probable? The probability depends on the density distribution, not variable extent or magnitude ranges. Arguing on probabilities that can't be measured even in principle if not in fact is just a pseudoscientific disguise for your prejudice, not an exercise in logic. Its anti-logic, like predicting a one-sided coin will land on its other side most of the time.

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  58. MaskedMarauder,

    I get the gist of where you're coming from on Greek mythos, but remember that the question is not about the existence of deity or deities being concise or simplistic in and of themselves. That's part of the point I made in the house analogy, that the contractor's possible ineffable personality doesn't have a lick to do with whether or not he's responsible for building the house.

    When I talk about backstories, origins, etc. I'm referring to the problem at hand - origins. Each Greek God is finite and contingent, so nothing in Greek mythology helps to solve the problem of "where it all came from." It adds a lot of different assumptions about how a being can begin to exist, but nothing about how the universe itself came to exist. It also adds a lot of varied assumptions about whether the universe is orderly or not, and if there are "rules" or not. There's a reason the modern scientific method came from a theistic culture, and not polytheistic ones.

    "Chaos" is still a form of existence, and Greek philosophers argued (so far as I recall) for an eternal universe, not a finite one. Since that's overtly false, the assumptions that flow from it are questionable at the very best.

    A single, un-caused and time-free entity may be a big assumption, but at least it's an assumption that answers the relevant question. Greek mythology can't do that, and doesn't really try to.

    Regarding prevailing conditions, don't forget that there is no "creation" of God in theism. There is no condition conducive to God forming from somewhere else. The idea of the cosmological argument is to put an absolute limit on the line of causality, which there must be. Geometrically speaking, theism sees causality as a ray, not a line. In that sense, a single thing (the end point of the ray) is more sensible to assume than several, or infinite ends.

    Strictly speaking, there aren't a literal infinity of possible configurations of universal constants and cosmic arrangements. There may be a googleplex to the trillionth power of them, but not a truly infinite number. We know for certain that there is one that supports life. We are sure that the life we know would not be possible with subtle changes to the current system.

    That's why the fine-tuning arguments attract so much attention. There really is an acknowledgment in the scientific community that the balance of forces in the universe is pretty unstable, mathematically speaking. A tiny change in the ratios makes a huge change in the results. Some interpret that as luck, some as providence.

    To the point, science doesn't favor the idea that life as we know it could exist in as many configurations as not. Any thoughts on other types of life are purely imaginative. Any such ideas are speculative, so we have to give greater to weight to what we know than what we don't.

    There's plenty of logic behind that, but plenty of philosophy as well. I'm comfortable with idea that my interpretations are subject to worldview considerations - but yours are, as well. There is no criticism that can be made about my interpretation of these issues that cannot be made equally about yours.

    Bringing it full-circle, again, the application of O.R. to origins is almost totally a question of preconceptions.

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  59. so we have to give greater weight to what we know than what we don't.

    Bingo.

    A single, un-caused and time-free entity may be a big assumption, but at least it's an assumption that answers the relevant question.

    But it raises even more questions. So shouldn't we give greater weight to what we know, that is, that the universe exists, rather than assuming unknown untestable unfalsifiable entities?

    WWOD?

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  60. unBeguiled,

    The “additional questions” raised by positing God aren’t pertinent to the concept of origins; consider the contractor and the house. Establishing that a contractor is the most likely cause of the house is not considered less likely because of questions about his eye color, personality, or preference for steak vs seafood. Those have nothing to do with the action of the contractor in creating the house. Whether God has attributes we like or not, understand or not, a Creator is a single answer for many relevant questions; the questions that the idea of God raises are, by and large, secondary.

    This is where the simplicity factor comes in. The Greek mythos is not less appropriate just because it has more deities, but mostly because it doesn’t answer the important question of origins and adds other uncertainties that are relevant, like how beings come to exist and so forth. The same is true for parallel universes or “gee, it must be luck.” We can give all the weight in the world to the statement, “the universe exists”, but that in and of itself tells us nothing about where it came from or how it came to be.

    Let’s also not forget that if we’re going to consider God untestable, unfalsifiable, and unknown, we must say exactly the same for parallel universes, prior universes, physics at the precise instant of the Big Bang, and so forth. The God-denier isn’t somehow working more in empirical fact than the theist when it comes to the question of origins.

    WWOD? Great point, in fact. He was a friar, so Occam himself would posit God.

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  61. Med-Man,

    Can you point me to source that indicates Ockham used his principle of parsimony to posit God?

    Realizing this makes me look like a hack, this is from Wikipedia:

    His scepticism to which his ontological parsimony request leads appears in his doctrine that human reason can prove neither the immortality of the soul nor the existence, unity, and infinity of God. These truths, he teaches, are known to us by Revelation alone.

    So from that it seems Ockham rejects the notion that reason can lead us to the existence of God. Rather we need revelation.

    Regardless, my "WWOD" was meant to mean this: if you use Occam's razor, assuming the existence of untestable beings is not a parsimonious assumption. I did not mean to ask what the guy himself would do.

    Regardless, I think it is folly to predict what conclusions a 14th century friar would believe with 21st century knowledge.

    The principle of Occam's Razor is a good one, despite the superstitious beliefs of its author.

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  62. Let’s also not forget that if we’re going to consider God untestable, unfalsifiable, and unknown, we must say exactly the same for parallel universes, prior universes, physics at the precise instant of the Big Bang, and so forth. The God-denier isn’t somehow working more in empirical fact than the theist when it comes to the question of origins.

    I'm not sure what that is all about. Non-believers in gods are hardly unified in the things they do believe.

    This particular post-theist does not believe in any of those things you mentioned, just as I do not believe in Bigfoot, leprechauns, homeopathy, or the healing power of magnets. I'm just sayin'.

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  63. Sorry I'm being an uber-doofus, I can't get this right. My above post should have the first paragraph in blocks.

    Let’s also not forget that if we’re going to consider God untestable, unfalsifiable, and unknown, we must say exactly the same for parallel universes, prior universes, physics at the precise instant of the Big Bang, and so forth. The God-denier isn’t somehow working more in empirical fact than the theist when it comes to the question of origins.

    Med-man,

    have some mercy, take the last word, then close the comments.
    This horse died long ago.

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  64. med-man:

    get the gist of where you're coming from on Greek mythos, but remember that the question is not about the existence of deity or deities being concise or simplistic in and of themselves.

    It is about that, at least I think so. The overall complexity of the two explanations needs to be compared, and that includes the complexity of their component parts. If the complexity of The One is strictly greater than the sum of the complexities of The Many, then the Greeks win the Occam Simplicity Prize.


    Strictly speaking, there aren't a literal infinity of possible configurations of universal constants and cosmic arrangements. There may be a googleplex to the trillionth power of them, but not a truly infinite number.

    Strictly speaking, there is. Infinities are very capacious places. The number of points in any finite-dimensional space has the same number of points as any single line segment within that space.

    The current best estimate of the fine-structure constant is 7.2973525376x10^-3 ± 0.0000000050x10^-3, a pretty small number. Its possible that life as we know it may be tenable if the constant were somewhat larger or smaller than this value, but I think we can agree that life is compatible with values within that interval, as far as we know at this time. Not only are there more than a googleplex to the trillionth power values within that teeny tiny interval, there is also a one-to-one correspondence between every value outside that segment (the ultra mega-huge putative life-hostile set of values) and a point inside that itsy bitsy life-friendly interval. The same can be said about any other physical constant. It seems to me that even a naive consideration of same size of the inside and outside sets would suggest a 50/50 odds for any random fine-structure constant falling inside the life-friendly interval instead of the nearly ∞/0 odds against life-friendly values you'd have us believe. But both conjectures are equally absurd since nobody knows, or even knows how to learn, what values randomly selected fine-structure constants are allowed to take or with what frequencies they may be taken.

    "Chaos" is still a form of existence...

    And so is your concept of god. Inside time, outside time... its still existing. The two are pretty much equivalent in this regard. The greek myth is that order emerged from Chaos for no particular reason. How is that different from your 'fiat lux!' out of nowhere, also for no particular reason? The putative greek gods with their magic powers emerged after uncaused differentiation began, but how is that materially different from supposing your arch magician preexisted our universe? What discernible difference does it make if there were magical characters before or after the ball got rolling? Both models conveniently place their respective dramas far beyond our ken and are both equally useless for understanding the world we live in. Personally I think its a tie between them in pragmatic terms since neither one can carry water, but the greeks do have a simpler presentation.

    Regarding prevailing conditions, don't forget that there is no "creation" of God in theism.

    This is the very epitome of an ad hoc assumption. If you think there must be causes for everything then you can't dispose of that constraint by fiat just to save your desired conclusion.


    There is no criticism that can be made about my interpretation of these issues that cannot be made equally about yours.

    You introduce spurious statistical arguments and I don't.

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  65. MaskedMarauder,

    Well, whether you think it’s about that or not, it isn’t. No more than the complexities of the contractor’s personality.

    Chaos is mindless, God is a thinking entity. Complexity of the order we’re seeing makes more sense with a purposeful Creator. The same goes for the regularity of physical laws, another thing which Greek mythos can’t provide or even postulate. As I said, polytheism was great for philosophy, but not so good for the scientific method.

    An uncreated thing isn’t ad hoc, it’s logic, for the fortieth time. You can’t have an infinite chain of backwards causality – something uncaused had to start the whole thing. God just makes more sense than “it jus’ happened.”

    With respect, you introduce laughable arguments about Greek mythology, and I stick to the arguments worth hitting. Props for the determination, though.

    As unBeguiled said, the horse is dead and the ship has sailed. Now that I’ve explained a basic idea of the cosmological for the ninetieth time, I have to agree.

    Sorry, but the man with the mic is pulling the plug.

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