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Philosophy

Philosophy

Trying to Explain Epistemic Probability With a Dice Bag

Before we get too far, here is the video that I am responding to. I am going to be referring to parts of it throughout this post, so I suggest watching it to get the necessary context. In it, Tracie Harris is using regular six-sided dice and an opaque dice bag to explain, with the help of Matt Dillahunty, the idea that one cannot just say that something is possible, even if one does not know that such a thing is impossible. While I think that this example is very insightful and good, I think that it can be improved with the help of some more nuance, namely around the idea of possibility.

How to make the idea of possibility more nuanced? We can do this by distinguishing between two kinds of possibility: ontological possibility and epistemic possibility. For instance, in the dice bag example in the video it is either ontologically possible for an 18 to be rolled, or ontologically impossible for an 18 to be rolled. The number of dice in the bag will determine whether it is ontologically possible for an 18 to be rolled.

Epistemic possibility is a little trickier to explain. Think of it this way: if I say that both the ontological possibility of rolling an 18, and the ontological impossibility of rolling an 18 are possible in the dice bag example, I am speaking of epistemic possibility. That is, from where we are sitting, in ignorance of the ontological possibility or impossibility of rolling an 18 with the contents of that dice bag, we can still say that for all we know either case is possible. Or in saying, “it may be ontologically possible to roll an 18″, the ‘it may be‘ part is not redundant with the latter part of the statement, but rather a statement of epistemic possibility in regards to the latter part of the statement.

Now, before this gets dismissed as supporting the idea that someone could rightly say that the supernatural is possible(the kind of claim that the video was arguing against), I want to clarify that if the statement “the supernatural is possible” is using ontological possibility, it is clearly unfounded. But, if the statement “the supernatural is possible” is meant to convey the idea that “for all I know, the ontological possibility or ontological impossibility of the supernatural could be the case” then it is not so wrong-headed, or at least not wrong in the same way as the first meaning.

To concisely sum up the above, I have tried to show that the statement, “it may be possible that X” is not redundant, in that, ‘it may be‘ is speaking of a different kind of possibility than the rest of the sentence. It seems clear that to say “it is possible that X” is different than “it may be possible that X”  Now I want to take this a little further and show why this distinction is important.

The reason why this is important, separate from the fact that more nuance is generally a good thing, is that it allows us to truly proportion our beliefs to the available evidence. Let’s keep going with the dice bag example for this. It seemed that in the base example in that video, Matt is given little to no evidence to move him to justify the claim that the dice in the bag can possibly roll an 18 or the claim that it is impossible to do so. That said, we can imagine taking this dice bag example a little further and provide some information about the bag or its contents that can serve as evidence. This evidence can then move us to think that either the claim that it is possible to roll an 18 is more likely to be true than the claim that it is impossible to roll an 18, or vice-versa.

For instance, if Tracie(who knows exactly how many dice are in the bag) decided to just say that there are three dice in the bag, we could evaluate whether her statement serves as evidence for either claim. Perhaps she sounds serious when she says this, and doesn’t appear to be bluffing, and suppose that we know that she is generally trustworthy, well then we might then think that her statement is strong evidence for the claim that it is possible for the dice to roll an 18. Of course, she could be misremembering, or she could in fact be bluffing, so the statement of her’s might not be the strongest evidence for the claim that it is possible to roll an 18, but one could say that given the tone, and her track record, it seems much more likely that she is telling the truth, and thus it seems much more likely that it is possible to roll an 18. This evidence does not conclusively prove whether it is possible or impossible, but it can sway us closer to one of those sides.

We could imagine more kinds of evidence, like perhaps the bag just looks really full, or really empty, or making lots of clanging sounds as it is moved(indicating many dice) or little to no sounds(indicating 1 die). There are many observations that we can make that can serve as evidence for either claim, and ideally, we would consider all the available evidence and proportion our belief in either the claim that it is possible, or the claim that it is impossible, based on the weight of the total evidence.

Proportioning one’s beliefs based on the available evidence is not merely trying to hold more true beliefs than false ones, but rather trying to believe claims in proportion to the evidence supporting them.

Anyway, thoughts?

I am calling this ongoing series “Bad Atheism” because it is simple, provocative, and because I am too lazy to think of different titles for every post I am going to make on what I see as wrong with modern atheist thinking. “Part X” is just so much simpler. Additionally, in case anyone was wondering, I have no clue about how long this series will be going, or all the different things I will write about. I just wanted a nice catch-all for any potential topic I may get inspired to write about.

I really dislike the common “lack of belief” definition of atheism. You hear it all the time, and it usually goes something like this, “atheism is not a belief, it is a lack of belief in God or gods.” There are a few different things I find annoying about this definition, and here I will attempt to list them.

First though, a preliminary note: the definitions of words are not set in stone. There is no great dictionary-in-the-sky that makes some words only have a certain definition or definitions. So, herein I am not trying to argue for the “correct” definition of atheism, and likewise, I do not take any “but this is THE definition of atheism” argument seriously. Even if someone points out the whole, “atheism is a-theism, the a- means without, therefore, it is simply without theism” breakdown of the word itself, I do not find that convincing, as we go against what a word, when broken down, literally means all the time. For instance, when sportscasters speak of a team “decimating” another team, they are speaking of them really beating the other team, not literally killing 1/10th of the players on the other team. Long story short, arguments about definitions of words should be about what definitions will be more useful and/or meaningful than other ones, not just saying there is A definition that we have to follow.

With that out of the way, I want to briefly sketch out what I find annoying about the “lack of belief” definition of atheism. Among the reasons that I can think of at the top of my head, here are some which I will deal with in order:

• The definition is psychologically untenable for the most part for adult humans
• The definition makes the atheist “position” no different from a cat’s or a rock’s
• We do not normally define ourselves by mere lack of a belief in something
• I suspect that there is a dishonest motive behind the definition, to dodge atheism’s “burden of proof”

The “lack of belief” definition is psychologically untenable because it really doesn’t match how human minds work. After we have heard a claim X, we cannot then just lack a belief about that claim X. Sure, we can lack a belief that claim X is true, but we still possess some belief about X. That belief does not necessarily have to be “I believe that X is not true”, but at the very least it is, “I believe that claim X has insufficient evidence to justify me believing that it is true”. We may not explicitly hold those beliefs, but surely, we do not just have a vacuum in our minds about subjects we have heard before, especially when it is a claim as ubiquitous as God claims.

The “lack of belief” definition makes the atheist “position” no different from a cat’s or rock’s because they too lack positive belief in a God. Now, should we actually label them as atheists? That would seem silly, wouldn’t it? That is because there is more going on then simply lacking belief in God claims. For humans, they can be labeled atheists, as opposed to rocks, because humans have minds to process God claims. But if that is the case, if the fact that we have minds matter, then the way our minds really work in regards to claims we have heard also matters, so lack of belief doesn’t really work any more.

We do not normally define ourselves by our mere lack of belief in a claim. We do not go about calling ourselves “aunicornists” or “a-9/11conspiracytheory-ists” or stuff like that. So obviously, mere not believing in a claim doesn’t make a label we normally use. Rather, if we do use the word atheist to signify not believing in God claims it is because our culture somewhat imposes that belief on us, so we set up the word “atheist” in opposition to that. If there were a culture pushing belief in the tooth fairy all the time, we may need a word to define our not believing in that claim. That is because it is the cultural situation and our opposition to it that matters, not the mere lack of belief in something.

I suspect that there is a dishonest motive behind the definition, to dodge atheism’s “burden of proof.” It seems to me that in defining atheism as simply “lacking belief” in God claims, that people are trying to set up atheism as a non-position, and as such, requiring no justification. To them, it is all on the theist, the only person making a claim to them, to meet a burden of proof. Well that seems convenient, doesn’t it? It seems too good to be true because it is. As I pointed out in the first point, we do not just lack a position about a claim we have heard, especially one like God-claims. Additionally, most atheists or other scientifically minded people will not accept just lacking belief in something as reasonable.

For instance, would we accept a climate change denier’s mere lack of being convinced by the science? Of course not! We would say that they SHOULD be convinced by the scientific evidence, if they were being reasonable about it. They cannot just throw up their hands and say something like their position is just lacking belief that climate change is real, and that is all they have to do, that the burden of proof is all on the scientists, and they have failed to meet it. If that approach were at all reasonable, anyone could deny anything and just say someone has failed to meet their burden. The fact is that the climate scientists have met their burden, and as such, any person who denies that is actually being unreasonable. They cannot just hide behind “lack of belief” climate denial anymore, because that so-called “lack of belief” is unreasonable. If they want their claim that the climate scientists have failed to meet their burden of proof to be taken seriously, they have to give reasons why the climate scientists have failed to meet their burden. That is because that is a positive claim that someone is making, that the other side has failed to meet their burden, and as such, it begs justification.

So at best what we have is a weak claim like, “theists have failed to meet their burden of proof in regards to God” but then notice that it is now on the atheist to give reasons why that claim is true. They cannot just assert it and expect people to take their claim “on faith”. Speaking of faith, maybe that will be my next topic, if I feel up to it.

What do you think? Think I am on to something, or that I am dead wrong?

Also, this is a relevant post by William Lane Craig on the topic: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/definition-of-atheism

William Lane Craig’s Seven Reasons for God’s Existence

William Lane Craig has a surprise for us.  In the newest (Nov/Dec 2013) issue of Philosophy Now, he announces that, not only is philosophical theism not dead, but it is actually the most vibrant part of modern American philosophy, beating archaically positivist atheists back in chaotic retreat whenever it unfurls its revolutionary new arguments for God’s existence.

And what’s more, Craig confidently claims, in the space of four pages he is going to present us seven of the freshest, most undeniable arguments that point towards the existence of God yet produced from this flourishing legion of great minds.  I admit to being rather excited to read something new at long last, something that would really shake the foundations of my weaker assumptions and force me to grapple again with my philosophical principles.  Sitting up with anticipation, I proceeded to the first of these brand new, entirely irrefutable arguments….

And it was the First Cause Argument, stated substantially the same way it was when its inner contradictions were revealed as such a century and a half ago.  Gaze at these two initial steps, if you would:

1.  Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.

2.If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.

Imagine my disappointment that, not only isn’t this version an update or improvement on what has gone before, but it slips into the non-qualitative equivalence trap that the better versions of this argument have at least attempted to address for a while now (namely, that the first step sets up an analogy, but the second introduces (or, “slips in” if you’re feeling uncharitable) a qualitatively different event that breaks the chain of analogical reasoning).

Fine, then, the first argument doesn’t precisely break revolutionary ground.  Perhaps the second will:

2. God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.

Or, he could just restate the structure of the first argument with a little bit different evidence.  Which is what he, in fact, does.  The new evidence is the Vilenkin Theorem that the universe must have a definite beginning.  Again, it’s a modified Aristotilean argument by analogy, and again the same problem of hidden qualitative distinctions rears its head.  We can give him that it’s possible the universe had a definite beginning and that cyclical or chaotic models might ultimately prove untrue.  But that doesn’t give quite the stretch-room he needs here.  He needs creation from nothing to be qualitatively similar to the re-configuration of existing matter that usually brings “new” objects into existence, otherwise the analogy doesn’t work, and unfortunately those two acts are about as dissimilar as can be, and to argue from the prerequisites of the latter backwards to the implied prerequisites of the former is just irresponsible.  And that’s been common knowledge for a while now.

Moving along, the third and fourth arguments, because they both come from the same place and suffer from the same problems:

3. God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

4. God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.

Argument three evinces a distinct disregard for the work in the philosophy of mathematics done over the past century.  It over-emphasizes math as a static body of knowledge and fails to mention anything about mathematics as a method, its assumptions and techniques, and how those might or might not be effective at engaging with the universe.  Only by confronting the research done in that field can you even start making statements about how “coincidental” the correspondence of certain parts of mathematics as they are currently understood with the physical universe as it is currently understood might be, and how much of a miraculous intercession is necessary to cover that supposed coincidence.  To make these statements without mentioning the work of Pickering or Plotnitsky is to hold up an easy and uncomplicated ideal in place of messy reality, which is lazy at best and consciously deceptive at worst.

As to four, it’s the Sweet Spot argument writ universal, and, of course, the problem with it is that it is devastatingly myopic.  He says that the constants of the universe are so arrayed within the thinnest sliver of possible values to make life as we know it possible, and therefore the life-sustaining nature of the universe is a sign that it has been designed for life, by somebody.  God.  Ignoring all the more obvious problems of circularity that the argument has dragged with it for the better part of a century, what I always find a curious oversight is the fact that, just as surely as human life exists in this universe during this slice of time, so will it surely not exist in another slice of time, not too far removed from our own.  The sun will explode, and even if we escape that, there is an expiration date on matter’s cohesion in an expanding universe that is running a race with entropy to wipe us out no matter where we go.  The universe is a short-term life sustainer, but a long-term life destroyer.  To favor the former aspect over the latter is understandable if you think that Jesus is going to show up and whisk everybody away before all of the bad stuff happens, but if you’re starting from a blank slate of belief, the construction of the universe seems so overwhelmingly against the long-term existence of humanity that only a God with the sadistic instincts of a house cat would have so designed it.

5. God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness.

This argument supposes that mere materialism cannot account for the Aboutness of human thought.  It absolutely can, and a fair number of the neurochemical pathways that allow us to access and coordinate memories in conjunction with received stimuli have been mapped in loving detail by an army of quietly diligent heroes whose names we’ll never bother to know.  Yes, thoughts seem like they are very subjective and outside of your mere physical matter.  But they’re not.  They’re a chain of chemical reactions pushed by other chemical reactions, and our experience of believing ourselves to be having a thought is itself, you guessed it, a recursively sustained chemical reaction, a war of inhibitors and neurotransmitters all galloping along with our primate DNA to sift through the world’s offerings for the most important bits of data.  But, hey, at least this argument is merely five decades old.  So, progress.

6. God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.

This was CS Lewis’s big starting argument in Mere Christianity, back in 1943, and of course goes back before then.  It was a somewhat forgivable argument for the forties, but is utterly indefensible in the face of what we have learned since about the origins of empathy from primatology, and of the nature of our decision pathways from neurobiology.  We have discovered more and more instances of supposedly Human Exclusive moral behavior in our research of animals, pushing the uniqueness of our ethical behavior into a narrow scope so obviously linked to what came before that to suggest the need for a divine source is to be astonishingly unwilling to engage with the past half century of research on the subject.

Thence to the big finale…

7. The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.

Yep, the ontological argument, that revolutionary new idea from the eleventh century.  A part of me was hoping that Craig would save his most daring and interesting argument for last, and the groan of disappointment I uttered upon reading that line resonated through the house.    Craig adds nothing we haven’t seen before, and this argument has been dealt with too many times to even bother with a recapitulation of its manifold flaws.

What started off with bold and heady claims for originality, for a new wave of Christian theology which would blow the lid off everything we thought we knew, turned out, then, to be little more than a limping through common ground that, at its freshest, grazed the 1960s, but mostly kept itself safely with centuries-old wisdom firmly restated with all the long-observed warts still manifestly in place.  A decided letdown.