A logic textbook to the rescue: atheism again

The blogger I ripped on a few blog posts ago just wrote something really good. So, I'll have to go back and re-evaluate what I said about Stan at Atheism Analyzed. Maybe he was just angry while writing the antagonistic posts I read previously.

The current post is a beautiful example of the atheistic prove-there's-a-god dogma inverted and thrown back in the atheists' faces, with some philosophical jargon mixed in. I've used the same ideas before, but what makes Stan's post different is that, between the post and the comments, the proof is water-tight to an extent that I haven't yet seen, complete with all of the standard counter-arguments and rebuttals in the comments.

The highlight, however, was a comment under the name of Martin. He, in turn, quotes a standard text on logic [emphasis Martin's, but I like it]:

From Introduction to Logic by Harry Gensler: "When we criticize an opponent's argument, we try to show that it's unsound...But the conclusion still might be true - and our opponent might later discover a better argument for it. To show a view to be false, we must do more than just refute an argument for it; we must invent an argument of our own that shows the view to be false."

This quote says, more clearly and irrefutably than I ever have, what role logic plays in the atheism-theism argument. Informally, it says that atheists (or anyone) are not allowed to claim a coherent logical (or rational, or scientific) victory over theists without proving or at least providing evidence that their gods do not exist. Furthermore, atheists are not allowed to back away from the hypothesis, "there [very likely] is no god," without conceding that this hypothesis is exactly as coherent as the assertion, "there is a god." Thus, the general atheist intolerance of theist belief has absolutely no logical basis.

To conclude, I'll restate my position in all of this: If you'd like to fight the corruption and miseducation apparent in many religious organizations, I'll stand behind you every step of the way. But, if you attack theist belief itself, know that you are on a religious crusade, and that I will be against you, not because our beliefs are different but because you have no right to impose your beliefs on others.


Ben said...

Brian - I haven't read these in a while and saw you replied to one of my comments. You said that we could prove that there isn't a star beyond a certain size - because there isn't that much matter in the universe. What if I say - there is a star of that size, it's just in another dimension that you can't see. How would you reply to that?

The Other BG said...

It's hard to reply to that since it's a vague assertion. I probably should have been less vague in my own assertion about star size, in particular that I meant a star in our observable universe that originated from the "big bang" and complies with our common physical and relativistic ideas of mass, gravity, and dimensions. Also, I assumed that astronomers have estimated the mass-energy content of the big bang to within a few orders of magnitude.

If you mean that this star exists in this universe in one or more of the at least eleven dimensions that have been claimed to exist--and which intersect with our classical four dimensions--then this star must be observable, and I'd ask you for evidence, if you've got it. Assuming this star complies with the coventional notions of mass, I'd have to weigh your evidence against the other evidence which places limits on the mass of the observable universe and its planets.

If you mean that "another dimension" and "can't see" imply that this star is completely unobservable to all current technologies, then I'd tell you that you've got a nice story about your belief in this star, but I wouldn't tell you that you're wrong.

I see what you're getting at, though. I think we need to differentiate between a mathematical/logical proof and a scientific "proof". The former is based on systems developed independently of empirical evidence, and can be absolutely true or false because they are constructed that way. The latter is never 100% true or false (see the uncertainty principles, Schrödinger's cat, whatever) and no scientific "truth" is ever absolutely so.

I understand that in some sense finding such a large star is easier than proving that it can't exist. However, for a large enough star, the empirical probability that it doesn't exist in our universe rivals the probability that the giant telescope or whatever instrument you use to find it is somehow mistaken.

Ben said...

Would you really not tell me that my belief about my star was wrong? You say that I've used an instrument to find the star - what if I told you that I didn't use any scientific apparatus to find my star, but rather a book that has been passed down from thousands of years ago discusses this star - and that's why I believe in it - what would be your reaction to that?

The Other BG said...

How could I tell you that you were wrong? The bit of the logic textbook above says rightly that I am not allowed to say you're wrong just because your methods are wrong. In order to say that you are wrong, I need evidence that you are wrong.

And, if you want to go further, I personally don't have any evidence of evolution, relativity, or even that China exists. I read about that stuff in books and heard about it from other people. What makes those different from the "god hypothesis" is that they are falsifiable. It is within my power to go check on evolution, relativity, and China, and therefore I trust that these theories are true in a scientific sense. If I can't find evidence of something (positive, negative, whatever) how can I possibly judge someone who takes a position? That's their belief, and the only judgement I can make is, "their position is not based on empirical evidence". And, if you think that you need empirical evidence to have a valid and coherent belief, you have comdemned much of pure mathematics and theoretical physics, namely the theoretical work that pre-existed its confirmation or application.

Ben said...

The "introduction to logic" book isn't saying that you can't be critical of an argument unless you can prove it's false. You can still criticize an argument by saying that one of the premises are untrue (or even unlikely) or that the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises (google the intro to logic book, it's available online for free).

I agree with you that only a priori knowledge can be "proven" to be true or false (e.g. the sum of the angles of a triangle always equals 180 degrees). Nothing that comes from experience (a posteriori knowledge) can be proven true or false in the same sense that a priori knowledge can be "proven" true or false. Given that 99.9% of anything in this world worth discussing is a posteriori (no wars are fought over the sum of angles in a triangle) what are we left with in order to make sense of our world? Regarding the star - you seem to understand that your own beliefs about this star would be based on the preponderance of evidence available to you. My belief in the star seems to be based on no real evidence, but rather a story that has been handed down in my culture. Are you saying that because you can't prove the star doesn't exist (which is impossible anyways since it's a posteriori knowledge) that you can't criticize the lack of evidence in my belief in the star?

The Other BG said...

Of course I can criticize your lack of evidence for your belief in the star! And, unless I have evidence, you can criticize my lack of evidence for my disbelief. But, that doesn't mean both of us are wrong. (in your above comment, I got confused about who has evidence and who doesn't; I am assuming neither of us because that's the case for the "god question")

A discussion about who is right makes sense only if the claims are falsifiable. If there is no evidence and there will never be any evidence, arguing over the two beliefs is pointless. It amounts to me saying "my imaginary dream world is cooler than yours."

Perhaps to make my point clearer, I would support you if you said, "People who actively oppose all abortions because the bible tells them to are irrational," because such people ignore empirical evidence in favor of beliefs based on no evidence. On the other hand, I would oppose you if you said, "People who believe in god are irrational," because there is no evidence or logic that support you (even if they also have no evidence).

Therefore the discussion about gods belongs only in conversations when someone tries to use a god as evidence of something practical. In that conversation, other people should say, "Be quiet. God is not evidence of anything. Someone give us real evidence please." And any politician that tries to use his beliefs as evidence for anything should be immediately voted out of office.

Ben said...

Evidence and "proof" are different things. There is more evidence that god does not exist than god does exist - just as there is more evidence that my huge star doesn't exist than that it does. This proof that you're asking for isn't possible because belief in God is a posteriori. You seem to understand the fact that the evidence is weighted against the existence of god on some level because you understand the danger of people using god as a premise in a "practical" argument - in other words, god is a weak premise for any logical argument. Yes, atheists can't prove that god doesn't exist, but they can say that the proponderance of evidence shows the most likely conclusion is that god does not exist (just as you could say the same about my star). Do you agree with that at least?

Ben said...

let me put this another way - occam's razor says that when competing hypotheses are equal the simplest hypothesis is usually correct. Even if you say that the lack of evidence that god exists is equal to the lack of evidence that god does not exist - the simplest explanation for why there is no evidence for the existence of god is that god doesn't exist.

The Other BG said...

For your second-to-last comment above: I know that a proof isn't possible (and I said something to that effect in my first comment above). But, what evidence are you talking about? For a god or a star that are by definition unobservable (and unfalsifiable), it is impossible to have evidence on either side. That's a reason why unempirical (not anti-empirical) beliefs should be considered separately from facts and evidence, but in no way is that a reason why all unempirical beliefs are false. So, no, I don't agree with that because I don't see any "preponderance of evidence"; in fact I see no evidence at all, on both sides.

That is what you're saying, right, that all beliefs that have no supporting evidence are false? And, you're equating lack of evidence with a preponderance of evidence for the opposing side?

To your last comment: Occam's Razor is neither evidence nor a valid step in a logical argument. It is merely a guide used when making generalizations from relatively few observations. When we have zero observations, as we do in this case, it does not apply.

Why are you so intent on devaluing belief? I completely understand why you'd want to attack churches and other religious organizations since many of them have had significant ill effects in this world, but belief is something very different, and is in fact necessary in science and other creative processes.

Ben said...

The evidence I'm talking about is that science has shown many beliefs firmly held by religious people to be false - the earth is not the center of the universe and the earth is more than several thousand years old for two examples. The erosion of these beliefs (and others) that were once so central to religions that the first scientists to suggest otherwise were considered heretics, is evidence that church doctrine does not come from god, but from man.

My problem with condoning belief in supernatural explanations about the universe is that it is necessarily a corrupting influence on rational discourse. I'm not saying that religious people can't be rational - but, if we as a society condone supernatural explanations about the world we are necessarily placing less value on finding truth through our experience of the world.

I disagree with you that we can completely separate our ideas about god and politics. Maybe you've been living in a secular country for too long - back in the USA it's impossible to be an atheist and be elected to any office above dog catcher. Over 90% of americans believe in god and those beliefs lead to limitations of rights, increased chance of war with countries that have different beliefs than us, and an overall cultural discourse where we waste time and energy debating scientific theories because they don't fall in line with some peoples' beliefs rather than spending energy solving real problems.

Metaphysics should be treated like any other area of study - people shouldn't be able to just come up with random ideas about how the world works - those concepts and hypotheses should be based on the best evidence available.

Maybe some atheists are too forceful in their arguments - and they should say things like "based on the lack of evidence it is most likely that there is no god" - rather than trading insults. But, you have to admit that it must be pretty frustrating to live in a world where a god, who seems to only exist in the minds of people, has such a huge influence on our world.

Ben said...

I might just be debating myself at this point - but I think we should go back to the beginning - which was your declaration "atheism is a religion!" I think your definitions of "religious" and "atheist" are too narrow. Almost all people who think of themselves as religious have doubts from time to time - and almost all atheists understand that they will never be able to 100% prove that god does not exist. So, technically, pretty much everybody should probably be classified as some kind of agnostic. But, most people think of the labels of "religious" or "atheist" more broadly - so that one can have these doubts or understanding that you can never be 100% certain about anything and still call yourself one or the other.

which gets me to my final question - I know you don't think an atheist can call a religious person "irrational", but can an agnostic call a religious person "irrational" - if that's my hall pass to question the rationality of religion, then by all means, you can call me an agnostic.

fbg said...

About your second to last comment: I agree with you except for two things. One, supernatural ideas (not only religious ideas) are not necessarily a corrupting influence. Yes, that often happens, but many great things came out of ideas and explanations for which there was absolutely no evidence at the time. Most of theoretical physics could be included in that. For instance, there's a guy who recently wrote a paper on how he thinks gravity is merely a consequence of entropy, and thus can be unified in a single law. He had no evidence for this, but instead constructed a framework under which this equivalence was true, and which did not contradict other known laws. Neither evidence nor proof. One day he might be proven right, or maybe otherwise. But, the fact remains that this guy is not irrational simply because he throws an unsupported idea out into the world. It's a suggestion or a claim, but not a fact.

The second thing I disagree with is your statement including, "based on the lack of evidence it is most likely that there is no god". Every time I have suggested that atheists say "there is no god," someone says, "no they don't; they say 'there very likely is no god'." Then, when I say that it doesn't matter because there is still no evidence of there "very likely" being "no god", someone always says, "well, atheists don't actually say that there very likely is no god, but they say that the theists have no evidence." It feels like I'm trying to get a squirrel out of a tree and every time I chop off the branch he's on, he jumps to another branch, and I can never win.

Basically, it boils down to this: with respect to the existence of a [well-defined] god, every person must ask themselves two questions. (1) Have I observed any scientific evidence for or against the existence of a god? (2) Do I personally believe there is a god? I don't think anyone can honestly answer "yes" to (1), though some people obviously delude themselves. Even atheists have to answer "no", unless they want to delude themselves. Fine, neither side has evidence, nobody is right, nobody is wrong, and all insults traded are arrogant vanity. The question (2) is a personal question and can be answered however you like; there is no wrong answer. All hail the flying spaghetti monster.

For that last sentence that I "have to admit", I do so indeed, but with one clarification: my frustration doesn't come from the god itself, but the "huge influence" which overreaches its appropriate applications.

Lastly, in response to your last comment and bringing everything together (I hope): I don't like playing the definition game, and I don't care if you call yourself an "atheist", an "agnostic", or a "scruffy-looking nerf herder"---in my book you are not allowed to call someone irrational unless you have actual, physical, reproducible evidence against their point of view.

Godlesspaladin said...

Hey, godlesspaladin from AshelyFMiller's blog. I figured I was starting to get off topic from the original post we were discussing and so I thought I'd bring my response over here. (I looked all over for an e-mail to send it to, but lacking that I figured I might as well just post it here)

Like I mentioned over on AFM's blog, I've spent all day thinking about what you said and this is what I've come up with:

I concede that Occam's razor is merely a guide.
I concede that through the null-hypothesis I assume non-existence over existence. (Though I do so based on my experience that in everyday matters it is better to err on the side of the negative, just as courts and scientists do, but this does not escape the fact that my assumption is essentially arbitrary)
I concede that there is nothing inherently wrong with belief.
I concede that it is illogical for me to claim that belief in a deist god is illogical.

I specifically say “deist god” because, like I've mentioned before, an active god would interact with physical existence and thus there would be measurable evidence for his interactions. (ie. The claims are falsifiable) For example, if a believer made the claim “6,000 years ago god created the world in six 24hr days, along with all living things in their present form, and at one point covered the entire globe in water” all those claims would have evidence for/against. It just so happens to be that the physical evidence is drastically stacked against those claims. Could an interventionist god done all these things and carefully hidden his tracts? Sure, thus I can't say with 100% certainty that he did not do these things, but it is very unlikely given that we have a natural explanation that works independent of a heavenly puppet master. (Plus, it conjures of the image of a trickster god burying fossils with a shovel.)

From science's past and steady performance of providing natural explanations for things previously ascribed to divine intervention, I infer that someday we will have a natural explanation for how everything came to be; at which point then even the deist god will be entirely superfluous. I guess you could rightly say that I have faith this will happen.

While I have no evidence that the deist god does not exist, I do have evidence that the Iron age desert god of Abraham did not do everything his followers claim he has done. (If you take away all of those things he is said to have done, then he essentially turns into the attributeless deist god and is no longer the god his followers claim he is)

My main objection (and I think you might agree) is when people take falsifiable beliefs that are demonstrably wrong, like the ones contained in the bible, and try to impose them through law on everyone else. I believe this is the source of most atheist's passion on the subject of religion.

Like I mentioned before, I concede that there is nothing inherently wrong with belief. I do, however, feel it is wrong to take a demonstrably false (or unhealthy) belief and impose it on others. I feel this is a rather overgrown limb on the religion branch of the belief tree. I don't recall saying I think the entire tree needs to be chopped down (I concede that would be ridiculous), but I do feel this limb needs to be trimmed.

The more I think about it, the more I think we have in common. I would not support someone who dogmatically asserted “there is no god” and then tried to impose atheism on others. I am simply concerned with combating ideas that are demonstrably false and harmful to people's well being. Politically active religious faith in the iron age interventionist god of the desert just happens to be one of my main targets.

fbg said...


I really like your views, and from this post, it seems like you and I agree on everything except our course of action. By that, I mean it seems (from your original posts) that you prefer to oppose religious irrationality, while I am at the moment actively opposing secular/atheist irrationality.

The way I see it now, there are a ton of religious people, some of which are irrational, and a growing group of atheists or skeptics have begun to strongly oppose them. A portion of those atheists or skeptics have crossed the line and directed their attacks at all religion instead of just the irrational part, and have become hypocritical. You, it seems, are part of the atheist/skeptical movement which attacks only the irrational part of religion, whereas I have chosen to point out the irrationality of your fellow atheists/skeptics who attack religion and belief as a whole.

If we were in the army, you could be a soldier and I could be the military police, or something like that. But, we're definitely on the same side, and I don't think you're going to be court-martialed, like many of the others. :-)