Tag Archives: philosophy

Wrapping up on God – Final Notes and Errata on “An Atheist’s Flowchart”

Over the last six philosophy posts (my “Atheist’s Flowchart” series) I’ve wandered through a pretty thorough exploration of the arguments underlying my personal atheism. Now that they’ve had some time to settle, I’ve gone back and re-read them and noticed all sorts of random stuff that was confusing or I just forgot or whatever. This post is going to be a scattershot collection of random notes, clarifications, and errata for that series.

Here we go:

In The Many Faces of God, I wrote “[from] the whole pantheons found in many versions of Hinduism, to the more pantheistic view favoured by Spinoza and Einstein”, which in hindsight is kind of confusing. I blame the English language. A pantheon (apart from the specific temple in Rome) is a collection of many distinct gods. A pantheistic view, confusingly, does not involve a pantheon but is in fact (quoting Wikipedia): “the belief that all reality is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god”. Beliefs that actually involve a pantheon are called polytheistic instead.


The first piece of my argument, in two parts, ended up being long and fairly convoluted and still didn’t do a great job of explaining the core idea. One of the things that I failed to explain was this key phrase from the Less Wrong page on Occam’s Razor: “just because we all know what it means doesn’t mean the concept is simple”. I gestured confusingly in the direction of the claim that “god is a super-complicated concept” but I suspect that, unless you’re already well-versed in formal information theory, I wasn’t very convincing. Allow me to gesture some more.

Science explains nearly everything we can observe in a beautiful system of interlocking formulas that, while scary and complex to a layman, are still simple enough to be run on a computer. God cannot be run on any computer I know of. Many gods are, by definition, ineffable – complex beyond any possible human understanding. Even those that are hypothetical effable [is this a word?] are not currently effed [this one definitely isn’t] in nearly the same way we understand gravity, or chemical reactions, or the human heart.


In the third part of my argument, I mentioned briefly without explanation that none of the common logical arguments for god derive from my core axioms. It would have been helpful if I’d given some examples. I did not, because I am lazy. I am still lazy, and after poking around for a while cannot find a good example of something that I can work through in a reasonable amount of space.

If anybody wants to construct a formal logical argument from my nine axioms to the existence of god, please send it to me and I promise I will give it an entire post all to itself.


At the end of my fourth part, I linked to a t-shirt design which has already been removed from the internet. It was a snippet of this comic from Dresden Codak, specifically the panel in the third row with the text “I will do science to it”. It’s not really related to anything, but Dresden Codak is well worth reading.


In my fifth part I actually made a mistake and made a weak version of the argument I was aiming for. The better version, in brief:

  1. Science explains why people believe in god.
  2. You believe in science, even if you think you don’t.
  3. If god’s existence was the reason that people believed in god, that would contradict #1.

Therefore either god doesn’t exist at all, or the fact that millions of people believe is a coincidence of mind-boggling proportions which defies Occam’s Razor.

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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 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.