Author Archives: Evan H

About Evan H

https://eapache.github.io/

An Atheist’s Flowchart, Part 3: Proof of God and Russel’s Teapot

In the first part of this series we covered the difference between axiomatic and derived beliefs and Occam’s razor. In the second part I made an argument that belief in any sort of traditional god cannot be axiomatic. In this post I will make the argument that belief in god cannot be derived either; the conclusion, following from both points, is that one cannot and should not believe in god. This will complete my first angle of atheist approach, the one I called epistemic.

In order for a belief in god to be derived, it must be naturally supported by some other beliefs which may themselves be derived or axiomatic. Either way, if you follow the chain of beliefs-supporting-beliefs back far enough you must end at an axiomatic belief at some point. Let us then consider the ways we might go about proving the existence of god.

Empiricism

The first and most obvious way to prove the existence of god is via empiricism: if there were observable, empirical evidence whose only reasonable explanation was the existence of god, then that would be sufficient. However, there is none. God does not regularly perform otherwise-inexplicable miracles on live television; there is no scientific experiment which suggests that god exists; no claims to see god, or hear his voice, or sense his presence, have ever been substantiated.

As an empiricist I must be consistent: if such evidence were ever to appear then I would happily change my mind on this whole point and consider myself to be mistaken. Until that point, the absence of evidence is, in fact, evidence of absence.

Russel’s Teapot

I’m now going to take a brief sidebar to elaborate on that last point since the burden of proof in this situation seems to be a common source of confusion. Succinctly put, the burden of proof in this case does in fact fall on the person making the argument for the existence of god (i.e. not on me). This can be seen most easily via a common analogy known as Russel’s Teapot. More formally, claiming that something is true because it has not been proven false is a fallacy: the argument from ignorance.

Of course, the opposite is also a fallacy: I cannot claim something is false simply because it has not yet been proven true. However this does not prevent absence of evidence from being evidence of absence in all cases. Per Irving Copi:

In some circumstances it can be safely assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence as positive proof of its non-occurrence.

Logic

The other common approaches to prove the existence of god are via logic, the most popular of which are the many different ontological arguments. It would be counter-productive to try and enumerate and disprove all the various formulations of these arguments; suffice it to say that all of the more popular ones have been specifically debunked by philosophers and logicians at some point already. But more importantly, all of these arguments start with additional axioms beyond the core set. Even the full set of nine in which I believe do not provide for any of them.

As with the empiric approach, I must be consistent: if a logical argument were presented to me for the existence of god, whose only axioms were the nine in which I believe, then I would change my mind. But I do not believe that is likely to happen.

In fact, if you take a broad enough view, these two points are equivalent: since empiricism is effectively built into my axioms, my rejections of both the empirical and logical attempts to prove god are the same: none of the arguments presented are sufficiently supported based on my axioms.

An Atheist’s Flowchart, Part 2: The Unspoken Axioms

In previous posts we have worked our way two layers down into the “flowchart” I have for this argument: we are dealing with my argument via epistemology, and within that argument we are dealing with the idea of god as an axiomatic belief. Today hopefully we will finish that piece, and next week we will take a look at the idea of god as a derived belief. Last week I sketched out the shape of this post, so I’m just going to run down the list of claims and flesh each one out as I go.

The Core Axioms

First, there is a core set of axiomatic beliefs which everybody accepts, and which everybody must accept to participate meaningfully in the world (and therefore in this debate). These are effectively axioms 3, 5, 6, and 7 from my original eight:

  • the existence of reality
  • the existence of causality
  • the reliability of one’s senses
  • the reliability of one’s mind/memory

Without these core beliefs it is functionally impossible to accomplish anything at all. Simply participating in a conversation requires implicit acceptance of all of these things.

The other axioms in my original eight (numbers 1, 2, 4, and 9) are philosophically important for me to able to make this argument (it would be impossible without a belief in formal logic, for example), but I don’t consider them fundamental in the same sense. It is theoretically possible to live your life in a quasi-coherent fashion while rejecting logic in all forms, although you wouldn’t necessarily get very far.

Their Power and Sufficiency

Surprisingly for their simplicity, these core axioms are extremely powerful all on their own, and support a broad set of derived beliefs. For example, you need nothing else in order to build the scientific method and a general set of empirical beliefs (logic and mathematics often helps in formulating precise hypotheses, but are not strictly required).

I will go one step further however, and make a stronger claim: these four axioms are almost or completely sufficient, on their own, to form a coherent worldview. They produce science, and science is capable of describing and explaining an enormous number of things about the world around us, from bed bugs to light bulbs to thunderstorms.

The Complexity of God

I’m going to take a very brief sidebar now to talk about the complexity of God as an axiom. If you’re hip with information theory you can read this considerably more formal explanation from Less Wrong using Solomonoff Induction and Turing Machines. It uses the phrase “a witch did it”, but just substitute in “god did it” and the whole thing still works.

For the rest of us, here’s the straight-forward version: the existence of god is massively complex. Just consider how much it adds to any worldview based on the core axioms. It adds:

  • the existence of something real that is not observable via our otherwise reliable senses
  • the ability for this extra thing to breach the normal contract of cause and effect
  • the existence of a non-physical mind
  • something with the power to create, destroy, or change the observable universe

Not only does this add a lot of pieces to any worldview, it provides very little explanatory power. As empirical science has now explained or debunked any claims of literal miracles, it is generally claimed that god explains human morality, the religious impulse, and… I think that’s it. When you compare the cost (the complexity of what you accept) to the benefit (the things it actually provides and explains), god is a terrible deal.

Putting It All Together

We now have all the pieces and we can put together the argument. The first half is simple: if the core axioms are in fact entirely sufficient on their own, then by Occam’s razor we cannot and should not take any further axioms, including the existence of god. However, if one believes that the core axioms are insufficient (for example, one believes in it is necessary to have an axiomatic source of moral truth) then one might still be tempted to use god in this way.

Occam’s razor also slices away this second tack because god is so ridiculously complex as an explanation. For any problem you propose, the answer “god did it” or “god is the reason” is an objectively worse explanation than any number of choices I can come up with on a moment’s notice (to continue the moral truth example, “human life is intrinsically valuable” is a far simpler axiom that a lot of humanists take and is otherwise just as good). Any way you slice it, god is overly complex and unnecessary as an axiomatic belief.

Therefore you cannot take the existence of god as an axiomatic belief.

Other Opinions #37 – Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People

http://idlewords.com/talks/superintelligence.htm

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Although, this one shares a lot with my previous post on Less Wrong.

An Atheist’s Flowchart, Part 1: Occam’s Razor and Axiomatic Beliefs

The first pillar of my atheistic treatise is the one I called “via epistemology”. Of the three, it is probably both the strongest and the most applicable to the real religious beliefs commonly held by real people. It is certainly the most logically rigorous, if that means anything.

Axiom vs Derivation

The starting claim for this argument is that every belief we have must fall into one of two categories: it must be either axiomatic, or derived. Axiomatic beliefs are unsupported by anything else, they are effectively taken on faith. Without axiomatic beliefs in which to root our worldview, we end up in a circular trap of nihilistic doubt. Conversely, derived beliefs are not taken on faith; they are instead supported by some other beliefs we already hold. Those beliefs are in turn supported by other beliefs down the chain until you end up either at an axiomatic belief, or a loop.

Of course, the vast majority of day-to-day beliefs are derived: my belief that I will get wet if I go outside is derived from two other beliefs:

  • my belief that it is raining outside, and that it will keep raining for the near future
  • my belief that things, when rained on, get wet

In fact, there are only a handful of common beliefs which need to be axiomatic. These include belief in the existence of reality, causality, and your own senses, and the reliability of your mind and memory. You may notice that this list looks an awful lot like the core set of axioms with which I started this blog; that is not a coincidence.

We now have two possible branches we can follow: someone’s belief in God may fall into either of these two categories. Let us explore both.

God as Axiom, and Occam’s Razor

The first path we will explore is when belief in god is taken on faith, as an axiom in itself. This is probably the path applicable to the most real peoples’ real beliefs, and it is certainly one of the most articulable: it feels deceptively simple and makes an easy fallback whenever a theist is challenged to prove their beliefs.

Unfortunately that simplicity is very deceptive, and simplicity is important.

The number of axioms we accept must be limited or else we can believe in anything, from flying spaghetti monsters to inter-galactic teapots to invisible dragons. Don’t feel like arguing for something? Just claim it as an axiom and you’re done! To avoid this, we put a limiting law on our axioms known as “Occam’s razor”, which goes roughly as “when all other considerations are equal, choose the simplest solution”.

It is important to note here that the simplest solution is not necessarily the one with the fewest axioms. In information-theoretical terms the simplest solution is actually the one encoding the fewest bits of information. Otherwise you could still take as many axioms as you want and glue them together into a single sentence via a lot of “and”s.

Sneak Peek

We’ve covered a lot of ground already in this post and haven’t even really gotten to the core of the argument yet, so I’ll sketch it out now and flesh it out properly next week. In broad strokes:

  • There is a core set of axioms which everybody accepts (regardless of religion) and everybody must accept in order to meaningfully participate in the world.
  • This core set is almost or completely sufficient on its own.
  • The existence of god is massively complex, as axioms go.
  • Even if the core set is insufficient on its own, there are better and simpler alternative axioms which complete it.

Therefore, by Occam’s razor, the existence of god cannot be an axiomatic belief.

Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid?

It’s been quite interesting to see two competing narratives emerge in the liberal media in the past few weeks. The seeds of this split have been present since the Republican primary last year, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have thrown it into sharp relief. His first acts and executive orders might have been expected to “pick a winner” and prove out one of the two theories, but instead we are left with still more questions.

What is the million dollar question then? It’s simple: is Trump (or Steve Bannon, or whoever is whispering in his ear most of the time) evil, or just stupid?

Jake Fuentes makes a reasonable argument for “evil”, and the same sentiment can be found less clearly expressed in a number of places advocating for violent resistance and protest. Others, such as author John Scalzi, view the last week of chaos as the product of stupidity, not “11-dimensional super-chess political moves”. Scott Alexander spends a lot of time dumping on Trump and then concludes that despite his other short-comings, “he does not… take marching orders from the KKK”.

I find a lot of the arguments on both sides unconvincing. Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, probably since there is a lot more stupidity than malice in the world) suggests that stupid should be our default assumption. From that perspective it is hard to see the Trump administration’s actions as anything more than bumbling incompetence. However the argument baked into this position is that because Trump is incompetent, he can’t also be evil. He’s greedy and lazy, sure, and a garden-variety racist, but not actually a true-believer Nazi.

This isn’t really convincing to me because it doesn’t appear to adequately explain the sequence of events surrounding e.g. the DHS’s organized defiance of a federal injunction. When layed out one after the next, it seems like an awfully extreme coincidence for bumbling incompetency to have sent the United States so cleanly down the path to a fascist coup d’état. On the other hand, pretty much everything else Trump and his administration have tried has seemed like one gross mis-step after the next, and it would be weird for them to be so methodical with their fascism and so sloppy with everything else.

So which is it? It could, I suppose be both. Trump (or more likely Bannon) is a legitimate fascist planning a coup and kind of a moron, one who just happens to have gotten lucky on all the things that really matter. But this still seems unlikely; a better explanation would be that luck is running the other way: Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

In the end, it may not matter. Contrary to popular aphorism, this is a case where the destination matters a lot more than the journey we took to get there. Even on the still-decent odds that the US remains a liberal and democratic republic, the rule of law will continue to be sorely tried, and from those stress fractures will bleed human rights.

Take heart from the most likely explanation: if Trump is just a lucky moron, then at least nobody in power is actively trying to dismantle the United States. Who knows, there’s a tiny chance somebody in the inner circle might actually realize the effect their policies are having and put a stop to the madness.

And even if they don’t, nobody’s luck lasts forever.