Category Archives: Philosophical Problem-Solving

An Atheist’s Flowchart, Part 4: Metaphysics and Paying Rent

The second pillar of my atheistic treatise is the one I called “via metaphysics”. Of the three, it is probably most applicable to the religious beliefs that fall into the pantheistic genre, like those held by Spinoza and Einstein. This framing of religion and god is popular among scientists and other empirically-minded people since it does not suffer from the lack of concrete evidence for more traditional religious beliefs. However, the fact that it does not suffer for a lack of evidence in fact reveals a different flaw, in that it does not pay rent.

Another useful way of approaching this argument is through Carl Sagan’s analogy of The Dragon in My Garage; this hypothetical discussion conveniently parallels the way more traditional religious believers might behave when challenged on the metaphysical implications of their beliefs.

Now these two links on their own give a pretty good in-depth explanation, so I suppose I could just leave it at that. But that would make this a short and boring post, so I’m going to state my own “plain” version of the central claim without any fancy analogies, just to be clear:

If a belief has no practical implications or observable results, in other words if it does not change what we expect to happen in the universe, then that belief is useless.

The second half of the argument is the much simpler claim that useless beliefs, in this sense, are false for all intents and purposes. More practically, their truth-or-falsiness literally by definition doesn’t matter. Since there are an infinity of such possible beliefs (just start with Sagan’s dragon in all shapes and sizes; why couldn’t they overlap?) and we have no way to distinguish between which ones might be true or false, the alternative to discarding the entire category is to go mad trying to accommodate an infinity of contradictory beliefs. The only reasonable solution is to discard the category.

Now obviously not all religious beliefs fall into this “useless” category, but a surprising number of them do, even ones you might not suspect at first. The easy test is to see if your belief can point to something in the real world that it expects to happen as a result. If it can’t, then you’ve just managed to tie some pretty words together and call it god without actually affecting the world.

If you *can* point to a real-world expectation that comes from your belief, congratulations! Go do science to it.

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.

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.

The Many Faces of God

From free will, we now tackle another popular problem: religion. This is a topic I’ve thought a lot about, even before I started writing this blog, and there are a lot of existing arguments on both sides already, so this will probably be a long post several long posts.

The biggest problem with discussing “religion” from a philosophical angle is that there are so many different religions to choose from, and even given a fairly narrow subset (self-identified Protestant Christians, for example) there is a wide range of actual beliefs. None-the-less, there is enough overlap that we can distinguish a few broad categories of claims that religions tend to make:

  • claims about the existence of god (or gods)
  • claims about ethics and meta-ethics
  • claims about the meaning of life

Let’s start with the existence of god. The core claim is trivially easy to state (“god exists”) but of course a lot depends on how you unpack “god” in that sentence. What it means for god to exist can vary a lot from person to person, from the fairly traditional Christian anthropomorphic deity, to the whole pantheons found in many versions of Hinduism, to the more pantheistic view favoured by Spinoza and Einstein.

I reject all of these. There is no god in any form.

(From here on I’m going to continue using “god” singular to simplify the grammar, but everything should still apply to gods which are polytheistic, pantheistic, etc.)

Rather than try and knock down every (or any) specific version of god, I am going to develop a general argument for atheism in three points. This should, when complete, act as a sort of template that can be applied to any common conception of god. Perhaps when I’m done I’ll make it into a flowchart that atheists can print and hand out instead of getting into the same argument over and over. To those atheists who are already complaining that I’m wasting my time given the burden of proof – patience please!

My three arguments approach the problem from three fairly different angles, and as such may be more or less applicable depending on which specific definition of god you choose. The hope is that between the three arguments I’ll have covered effectively the entire spectrum of god-like beliefs, that they will re-enforce each other, and that taken together they will support a position of strong atheism.

This post is long enough already, so in closing I will leave you with a summary of the three arguments:

  • via epistemology: I will argue that there is no room for god in any common epistemology, whether you consider god’s existence to be axiomatic in itself, or derivable from other axioms.
  • via metaphysics: I will argue that there is no room for a meaningfully defined god in any common metaphysics, and that any “god” which you may manage to squeeze in does not deserve the term.
  • via explanation: I will argue that modern science does not just adequately explain humanity’s tendency to falsely belief in god, but actually demands some kind of atheism in light of such an explanation.

Freedom, the Self, and Free Will

After last week’s talk about speculation and metaphysics, this week we’re going to tackle the subject of free will. Free will is a weird problem, with a hundred subtle variations of the initial problem statement and equally many solutions depending on how you define various words. The fact that so much depends on precise word definitions is usually a hint.

First, lets start with some positions we can easily reject: although my posts on systems theory may lead you to believe otherwise, I am not a determinist; I made a point of permitting the definition of a system to include non-determinism. As such I find the whole question of whether or not free will is compatible with determinism to be irrelevant at best.

But let’s go back to that thing about definitions I mentioned in the first paragraph: if we want to talk about free will (and whether it’s possible, or whether we have it) we should pin down what it is exactly we’re talking about. A layman’s definition of free will tends to be something like “the ability of a person to freely make a decision” which does very little to actually clarify the issue. What does it mean to make a decision? What does it mean to do so freely?

There are a number of ways to unpack these questions further, but I find most of those unconvincing. At the root, to seriously ask the question of free will in the first place, I find that you have to include a dualist assumption in your worldview. The concept of free will only makes sense in a universe where the actual self and the physical self are different entities and so the observable self could conceivably behave differently than the actual self ends up willing. In a physicalist view (or in other weird unified-self views), those are in effect a single thing, and it is incoherent to talk of that thing behaving differently than it behaves or willing differently than it wills.

Since I am, in short, a physicalist, I follow this path to its natural conclusion and end up rejecting the question: free will has a hidden dualist premise which I reject.

Speculation and Metaphysics

OK then, back to the roadmap which I posted (oh goodness) 3 years ago now.

Over the last rather… “spread out” batch of “planned” posts we’ve used the handy tools of abstraction and social negotiation to answer some standard philosophical questions. Today we’re going to add another useful concept to our toolkit, and use it to take on metaphysics (no not all of it, but a lot of it).

The concept we’re going to deal with today, as suggested by the title, is speculation. Speculation is a fairly ordinary word, and I’m using it in the ordinary sense, so there’s really not a lot going on here. It’s can be a useful thing to speculate, and it’s a critical component of the second step in the scientific method. However, this means that testable speculation is science, not philosophy. Perhaps poorly-performed science, but still science.

Conversely, untestable speculation wanders dangerously close to meaninglessness (just as I am now wandering dangerously close to logical positivism). It can by definition have no influence on reality whatsoever, and so nothing speculated in this way can matter or exist in any useful sense.

Note: it is of course important to distinguish pragmatically-untestable speculation (e.g. quarks in the mid-twentieth-century) from actually-untestable speculation (more along the lines of Russel’s Teapot).

Classic metaphysics (especially of the Greek variety) tends to fall mostly in the was-actually-bad-science camp, for example Thales of Miletus who believed the underlying principle of nature was that everything was made of water. Other metaphysics (e.g. free will) will have to wait for a later post.