Tag Archives: philosophy

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.

I’m Back, I Swear

My previous post started with

Whoops, it’s been over a month since I finished my last post

and ended with

Hopefully the next update comes sooner!

Well that’s depressing. At least I managed to keep the gap down to under a year. Barely.

As it turns out, indulging in outrageous philosophical hand-waving has not proven a particularly motivating way to write. So let’s mostly ignore my “brief detour” on constructing the mind, and go back to the original question, which basically boiled down to answering the Cartesian challenge to Hume. Frankly, I don’t have an answer. Self-awareness is one of those things that I just don’t even know where to start with. So I’m going to ignore it (for now) and sketch out the rest of my solution in broad strokes anyways.

First a refresher: I’m still pretty sure the brain is an open, recursively modelling subsystem of reality. It does this by dealing in patterns and abstractions. If we ignore self-awareness, then a fairly solipsistic view presents itself: the concept of a person (in particular other people) is just a really handy abstraction we use to refer to a particular pattern that shows up in the world around us: biological matter arranged in the shape of a hominid with complex-to-the-point-of-unpredictable energy inputs and outputs.

Of course what exactly constitutes a person is subject to constant social negotiation (see, recently, the abortion debate). And identity is the same way. Social theorists (in particular feminists) have recognized for a while that gender is in effect a social construct. And while some broad strokes of identity may be genetically determined, it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the details are also social constructs. I call you by a certain name because that’s the name everybody calls you, not because it’s some intrinsic property of the abstraction I think of as you.

Taking this back to personhood and identity, the concept of self and self-identity falls neatly out of analogy with what we’ve just discussed. The body in which my brain is located has all the same properties that abstract as person in the 3rd-party. This body must be a person too, and must by analogy also have an identity. That is me.

Throw in proprioception and other sensory input, and somehow that gives you self-awareness. Don’t ask me how.


 

My original post actually started with reference to Parfit and his teleportation cases so for completeness’s sake I’ll spell out those answers here as well: as with previous problems of abstraction, there is never any debate about what happens to the underlying reality in all those weird cases. The only debate is over what we call the resulting abstractions, and that is both arbitrary and subject to social negotiation.

Until next time!

edit: I realized after posting that the bit about Parfit at the end didn’t really spell out as much as I wanted to. To be perfectly blunt: identity is a socially negotiated abstraction. In the case that a teleporter mistakenly duplicates you, which one of the resulting people is really you will end up determined by which one people treat as you. There’s still no debate about the underlying atoms.

Abstract Identity through Social Interaction

Identity is a complicated subject, made more confusing by the numerous different meanings in numerous different fields where we use the term. In mathematics, the term identity already takes on several different uses, but fortunately those uses are already rigorously defined and relatively uncontroversial. In the social sciences (including psychology, etc.) identity is something entirely different, and the subject of ongoing debate and research. In philosophy, identity refers to yet a third concept. While all of these meanings bare some relation to one another, it’s not at all obvious that they’re actually identical, so the whole thing is a bit of a mess. (See what I did there with the word “identical”? Common usage is a whole other barrel of monkeys, as it usually is.) Fortunately, the Stanford Encyclopedia has an excellent and thorough overview of the subject. I strongly suggest you go read at least the introduction before continuing.

Initially I will limit myself specifically to the questions of personally identity, paying specific attention to that concept applied over time, and to the interesting cloning and teleportation cases raised by Derek Parfit. If you’ve read and understood my previous posts, you will likely be able to predict my approach to this problem: it involves applying my theories of abstraction and social negotiation. In this case the end result is very close to that of David Hume, and my primary contribution is to provide a coherent and intuitive way of arriving at what is an apparently absurd conclusion.

The first and most important question is what, exactly, is personal identity? If we can answer this question in a thorough and satisfying way, then the vast majority of the related questions should be answerable relatively trivially. Hume argued that there is basically no such thing — we are just a bundle of sensations from one moment to the next, without any real existing thing to call the self. This view has been relatively widely ignored (as much as anything written by Hume, at any rate) as generally counter-intuitive. There seems to be obviously some thing that I can refer to as myself; the fact that nobody can agree if that thing is my mind, my soul, my body, or some other thing is irrelevant, there’s clearly something.

Fortunately, viewing the world through the lens of abstractions provides a simple way around this confusion. As with basically everything else, the self is an abstraction on top of the lower-level things that make up reality. This is still, unfortunately, relatively counter-intuitive. At the very least it has to be able to answer the challenge of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (roughly “I think therefore I am”). If the self is purely an abstraction, then what is doing the thinking about the abstraction? It does not seem reasonable that an abstraction is itself capable of thought — after all, an abstraction is just a mental construct to help us reason, it doesn’t actually exist in the necessary way to be capable of thought.


 

I wrote the above prelude about three weeks ago, then sat down to work through my solution again and got bogged down in a numerous complexities and details (my initial response to the Cartesian challenge was a bit of a cheat, and it took me a while to recognize that). I think I finally have a coherent solution, but it’s no longer as simple as I’d like and is still frankly a bit half-baked, even for me. I ended up drawing a lot on artificial intelligence as an analogy.

So, uh, *cough*, that leaves us in a bit of an interesting situation with respect to this blog, since it’s the first time I get to depart from my “planned” topics which I’d already more-or-less worked out in advance, and start throwing about wild ideas to see what sticks. This topic is already long, so it’s definitely going to be split across multiple posts. For now, I’ll leave you with an explicit statement of my conclusion, which hasn’t changed much: living beings, like all other macroscopic objects, are abstractions. This includes oneself. The experiential property (that sense of being there “watching” things happen) is an emergent property due to the complex reflexive interactions of various conscious and subconscious components of the brain. Identity (as much as it is distinct from consciousness proper) is something we apply to others first via socially negotiation and then develop for ourselves via analogy with the identities we have for others.

I realize that’s kinda messy, but this exploratory guesswork is the best part of philosophy. Onwards!