A Quibble Over Godlessness


Atheism and agnosticism. If you ask some people, atheism is just a sexed up version of agnosticism. After all, atheism is about what you believe (or don’t believe), and agnosticism is about what you know (or don’t) — so when we say that we’re atheists, we’re just putting accent on the fact that God is really really really super unlikely.  But others will say that atheism and agnosticism are perfect companions. They’ll tell you that agnosticism is just a closeted form of atheism. After all (they’ll say), since agnostics dislike being called ‘theists’, they must be atheists — the one position collapses into the other.

To see an example of this contrast in action, consider the views of Bertrand Russell and Anthony Grayling. Russell argued for atheism in public, and only called himself an agnostic among philosophers. That’s because he thinks there’s a significant gulf between atheism and agnosticism. By contrast, in a difficult-to-parse exchange with Jerry CoyneAnthony Grayling begged to differ — an agnostic is either an atheist, or just plain irrational.

Grayling does himself a disservice by repeatedly claiming that “an assimilation of proof concerning matters of fact to proof of the demonstrative kind”, when that doesn’t really seem to be exactly what’s going on. This post is going to be my attempt to make sense of what Grayling is up to, and an argument about why he hasn’t got it right.



The vicar of link.

This fight comes down to a complaint in the theory of knowledge. Grayling’s claim is that Russell tacitly bases the distinction between atheism and agnosticism on “a quibble about proof”.

Russell thought that you can’t disprove the existence of a corporeal object — like, say, a mountain made of gold — in the same way that you can disprove 2+2=6. You can prove that 2+2=4, alright; but you can’t prove, strictly speaking, that God (or the golden mountain) doesn’t exist. You can only say, “A golden mountain is pretty unlikely”. Moreover, it would seem that the two kinds of proof can be measured on a common scale — that of certitude. For Russell, following Hume, deduction and induction involve different degrees of warranted certainty. The idea here is that we ought not have as much confidence in inductive proof as we do with deductive proof. Logic and mathematics occupy a kind of heaven, an epistemic ideal; inductive proof, like most of our commonsense knowledge, will always be in perdition. As a result, while it’s tempting to believe that “Rain is wet”, I am really only warranted in believing that “rain is probably wet”. Likewise, you’re only warranted to believe that God is really really really not likely, though you might brand yourself as an atheist.

This is where Grayling and Russell part ways. Grayling believes that Russell is wrong to think that you are warranted in being any less certain about induction than deduction. In other words, Grayling thinks that it is just as provable that rain is wet as it is to say that 2+2 = 4. Instead of putting deduction in heaven, and induction in hell, the two modes of reasoning stand side-by-side. They just seem to be adhering to different standards.

What deduction and induction have in common is that both are capable of their own kind of proof. Grayling seems to think that proof is defined negatively for all kinds of discourse, in terms of what is irrational to reject. As he puts it, a thing is proven so long as we can adduce “evidence of the kind and in the quantity that makes it irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even a mark of insanity to reject the conclusion thus being supported.” So, any belief that is scientifically invalid (e.g., “next time I go out in the rain I won’t get wet”) is just as irrational as a belief that is, for all intents and purposes, impossible to demonstrate (e.g., “rain does not wet anything”, or “2+2=6”). The parenthetical quotes are cases of propositions that are disprovable, and hence (I think it is fair to say) certainly wrong.

This relates to agnosticism and atheism in the following way. Grayling thinks that the concept of “God” is as absurd, irrational, irresponsible, and possibly insane as the concept of “2+2=6” or “rain does not wet anything”. For Grayling, if a person says that they are agnostics about God, they might as well be saying that the jury is still out on whether or not two and two make six. Russell, and a great many following him, would prefer to say that while ‘2+2=6’ is demonstrably false, other howlers (like “there is a golden mountain”, or “rain does not wet anything”) are only probably false.



Optimus prime mover.

Or, at least, that’s how I’ve interpreted Grayling. He hasn’t made it easy. The problem is that when he accuses Russell of “an assimilation of proof concerning matters of fact to proof of the demonstrative kind”, the accusation can be made just as effectively against his own view. For while it may be true that Russell is measuring the two kinds of proof along a single spectrum of certainty, there is a sense in which Grayling is doing the very same thing, but in another way! After all, he’s assimilating them negatively: by saying that proof of any kind is the sort of conclusion that is “irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even a mark of insanity to reject”, once supported by sufficient evidence.


A more serious problem is that Grayling hasn’t got the commitments of atheism squared away. Grayling argues that “if you seriously mean that you think it might be conceivable or possible that there could be evidence for a deity, [then you are] agnostic, not atheist” (“possible” meaning, I presume, “rationally possible”). In this, he provides an implausible formulation of what it means to be “agnostic” and “atheist”. For an atheist might think that there is no God, or even that it can be proven that there’s no God, while still admitting that God is a rational possibility.

Recall, the only thing that an agnostic needs to say is that they don’t know whether or not God is real. Atheists, in the strongest sense of the term, claim to know that there is no God; in a weaker sense, atheists claim to believe that there is no God, and live their lives accordingly. Grayling is effectively saying, “there are no weak atheists. Go strong or go home.”

Unfortunately, contrary to Grayling’s claims, atheists can possess warranted doubts against their atheism, even if they think it is proven that there is no God. For one does not need to be convinced that God is rationally impossible in order to be an atheist, any more than one needs to think that Yeti are rationally impossible in order to think that they belong in fairy tales. That’s because, while it is indeed quite irrational, absurd, and irresponsible to believe that God exists, that doesn’t mean that it is rationally impossible to believe in God’s existence.

For you to believe that God’s existence is rationally impossible, or “inconceivable”, you must mean “inconceivable by everyone, everywhere, even at their best”. After all, “impossible” is a tough-guy word, a heavy-duty blunt instrument — when you say something’s impossible, you mean business. To say something is “impossible” is to say that it is “necessarily not”; and “necessary” implies universality; and ‘rationally necessary’ implies universality across the class of rational people. So when you say that belief in God is rationally impossible, you’re saying that no rational person can believe in God.

So what’s the difference? Well, since we’re talking about a crowd of rational people, that presumably means that we must assume that even the ideally rational, bold, imaginative, and informed person is in the crowd; and we have to have faith that the most rational person would agree that God has been proven to not exist. By contrast: to prove a thing — even in Grayling’s sense of “proof” — is not to suppose that you believe it as an ideally rational and informed agent, or even that you would retain the same beliefs if you were closer to the ideal. It just means that, according to some standards of discourse, denying a proposition is daft. Never mind whether or not the standards themselves require revision.

Here’s the punchline. If you are rationally compromised (to any substantial degree), then you might have proven something, alright; it’s just that the thing you’ve proven, could be working with suboptimal standards. For, as a matter of fact, while you might think that belief in God is irrational, etc., you might also think that you might be (to some substantial degree) irrational, irresponsible, or insane — that is, to think that you’re an ordinary Joe believer, slumming it with the rest of us. Long story short: “rational impossibility”, if it means anything like what it says on the tin, is an idealized standard that belongs to the epistemic angels, while Grayling’s sense of “proof” belongs to mortals.

So why does Grayling think that God is rationally impossible, or inconceivable? Evidently, he has a narrow view of the impossible. Grayling says that God and Yeti are not the same sort of thing, because at least people can think of the conditions under which the existence of a Yeti might be confirmed (e.g., as being a furry Wookie-like creature). By contrast (he says), it’s not even clear what research programme could be contrived to figure out where there is a God, because the concept of God is a catch-all wish-fulfiller.

I agree that belief in God is madcap all the way, because the idea of “God” in the mainstream Abrahamic faiths is a nebulous blob, a Rorsharch for the credulous. (To me, this is like determining what feats of strength and vigor are possible by visiting a leper farm. But anyway.) Suppose that Grayling’s programme is plausible. If it is, then the fact that it is both irrational to believe in God and irrational to believe in 2+2=6, ought to tell us that it is rationally impossible to think that there is even any evidence that they might be true claims.

And yet, and yet, and yet… ! — people still reject Grayling’s account. Because (Grayling says) people hold some lingering fidelity to Rome, one final chain around our ankles, and that we have yet to emancipate ourselves from it. But that implication seems pretty unlikely when thinking about avowedly Godless heathens and Grayling-dissenters like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins. So there might be a better explanation of why people may be resistant to Grayling’s programme.


Darth Vatican.

First, “conceptual clarity” doesn’t matter in the way Grayling thinks it does. For my part, I agree that “God” is a bullshit concept. But that isn’t really very interesting or important when we’re trying to figure out whether or not the existence of God is rationally possible. Meanings can be clarified — and sometimes, even the relevant, supposedly deep ontological features of the concept can be reconceived — without improving the epistemic standing of the doctrine or the worldly practices of the conceivers. For instance, five years from now, the Roman Catholic Church might declare that God lives in a slum on one of the planets in the Hades Gamma Cluster, thereby turning God into a more exotic sort of Yeti. But this really wouldn’t make any difference to how skeptics think about the Catholic worldview. We’ll never see Hades Gamma, or develop any means of seeing whether he’s out there. The Hades Gamma version of the Catholic Church is just as irrational, madcap, and irresponsible as the Orthodox version.

Second, because doubt matters to scientific integrity. Both Coyne and Dawkins make a virtue out of retaining it, and they seem to do so for the sake of the institution of science. A measure of doubt is always sublime.

(Images courtesy of holytaco . com.)

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  1. I think the difference here is the fact is that Grayling is a philosopher while Dawkins is a scientist. I think your last comment is correct, and I think Dawkins is right about keeping an “open mind”.

    To be fair to Grayling however, as a philosopher he thinks that the concept of god is incoherent that is why he thinks it is impossible.

    Indeed see the book edited by Michael Martin: The impossability of God

  2. I have little knowledge of Grayling, but I can see one possibly overlooked necessity of conceptual clarity flowing from an initial observation I made about your post. You seem to ground the difference between Garyling and Russell on a distinction between deductive and inductive reasoning flowing from Hume. I don’t necessarily object to that characterization but I fear that focus might be myopic because it leads you to ignore a category of deductive arguments about the existence of (particular – to be elaborated) gods. It seems that arguments like the Problem of Evil and insistence that first order omnipotence is a conceptual confusion due to necessary contradiction are satisfactorily deductive, so that there is not actually a difference in kind between Grayling and Russell. These arguments are analogous to the refutation of 2+2=6. 2, +,= all mean something, which forces a conclusion, in exactly the same way it is irrational to assert there is an ‘unmovable objection’ in an ‘irresistible force’ under pain of definition. Looking at it this way, we sidestep many of the concerns you had about the allegations of irrationality, because if we are definitionally disproving conclusions from specific claims offered to us by a subject, then it is appropriate to consider the subhect conceptually confused/irrational (in the strong sense).

    I fear you might be doing too much work for the side making the positive claims. You can retort that there are limits to the type of deductive arguments one may make about religions so we may conclude that the Pope is not infallible, or that an all powerful, all aware, entirely good God cannot exist, or that God cannot be omnipotent in our traditional ascription of the concept, but that we are only dealing blows to particular claims or particular gods, and not the possibility of God. Here is where I see the link to Grayling’s concerns (and suggest their legitimacy) about vagueness. One can only deductively hit practical gods – gods defined by actual religious practices – but I would suggest this is the only interesting conclusion when it comes to the standard of knowledge. The amorphously vague God is, in effect, cheating. I think there is salience to Grayling’s claim (trusting your reporting of his position) that the concept requires content to be asserted – content one could then presumably demonstrate to be confused. Not only is it uninteresting, and of no practical effect to defer to the vague concept (not that these actually matter to epistemological considerations), but it really seems like cheating to say: “God…. entirely vague…., well it’s a thing, maybe, or something, things exist, or maybe something exists – God exists. Q.E.D.” I’m not sure if I am ready to make a strongly commit to this, but the objection is roughly along the lines of a claim that an entirely opaque concept is not actually a concept at all. So that one might disprove the Christian God (as all power, knowing and entirely good) and then properly report to have proof (of a kind Russell should be able to accept, thus undermining his distinction) that God does not exist.

    At any rate, I don’t know Grayling, so I am more interested in getting your comments on why you ignored the deductive class of arguments, whether you believe disproving the claims of particular Gods is sufficient for the conclusion that one knows that God does not exist (since this seems to be the way we actually talk), and if not (which I suspect), why?

  3. michael reidy

    Your illustrations look like Walt Disney’s chapel of ease.

    I have always felt that Dawkins was on the ‘probable’ bus because it was heading towards the terminus of science and the safe haven of the empirical. By affecting to hold this position he could insist that the likelihood of evidence emerging for the existence of G-d was vanishingly small. Agnosis still falls with the precinct of gnosis, the conceptual dyad still stands if the question remains open.

    Grayling impugns this stance by saying that such ‘evidence’ could never come to pass, nothing would ever serve to prove the existence of G-d. In effect evidence that could never become manifest is not evidence at all. The agnostic then is a confused atheist that wants a firm talking to.

    This position of Grayling’s is paradoxically that of many religious thinkers.
    G-d in whom we live, move and have our being is not an object of empirical observation, we will not stumble on it while looking for the tv remote.

  4. The jury is still out as to whether Spinoza was an atheist, agnostic or religious maniac. But his Ethics is a very clear and extensively argued concept of God, as god-or-nature. It is metaphysical, so probably generically abhorrent to A.C.Grayling, but it has a place in arguments about atheism and agnosticism,and it is definitely not a “bullshit” concept.

  5. Peter, your point about the problem of evil was pretty far from my mind in the present post because it didn’t seem pertinent at the time. PoE demonstrates that some conceptions of God are perfectly clear, and shall always stand disproven. For the sake of argument, I would agree that this conception of God is rationally impossible.

    Be that as it may, it doesn’t speak against my point against Grayling, which is that you can’t just jump from “disproven” to “rationally impossible”. Proof isn’t always like that. Sometimes it is, but not always.

    All this is important to note, since I would also argue that the PoE gives us one excellent example of how atheism can be proven right (or wrong). So — I do think that disconfirming various conceptions of God gives us traction for the inference of His non-existence. You ask, ‘why?’ Well — because of inference to the best explanation. (But this leaves both Russell and Grayling aside, and moves into the country of Peirce.)

  6. I’m suggesting something more radical, specifically, that the disproof of practical Gods is the whole hog. (so the inference to best explanation against the vague concept simply isn’t necessary) This is how we talk. No one takes aim at the amorphous vague; just as all those making positive claims must give content to the concept.

    We’ve all been in that debate with the hapless, annoying theist that starts with an anthropocentric God who when pressed becomes a pantheist, and then, under more pressure, goes on to deny the transcendent element or a division between matter and God so that “God” simply equals the universe. That type of “God” can’t be disproved, but the proper response is merely to point out that it is entirely useless. We already have “universe” as the term that describes the sum of matter/energy, we don’t need another and are especially leery because of the connotations the “God” term brings. I want to tap into the intuitions about the connotations because it suggests we have particular definitional requirements for God, so that we consider a person who deviates too far from these to be conceptually confused. We must be careful, because the range of (for lack of a better term) legitimate conceptions of God is extremely wide, note the incredible positional difference between the anthropocentric and pantheist conceptions. But when we encounter someone engaged purely in a semantic argument (because all they want to hear is that God exists without regard to form) that claims that “God” is (and only is) a chair, I think we might properly conclude that they are not using the term correctly. Since it is a wide term, we defer to description offered by whatever particular proponent we are engaged with at the time, and as Grayling suggests, they have to give content to the concept for their position to be meaningful.

    The relation of the PoE works like this. More and more, it appears to me as if the debate is about whether or not disproving the practical Gods is sufficient for the claim that God does not exist. Graylings claims about conceptual vagueness take the candyland mountain concept off the table, so that Russell does not need to maintain the distinction as the only relevant factor of knowledge claims is the possibility of deductive proof against practical Gods. In exactly the same way, I feel you are still doing too much work for the otherside. I understand your desire to have a reality preserving principle – the actual existence of an object is entirely independent of our silly conceptions about it, but I think some degree of definitional imperialism is acceptable and that you are cheating by holding the amorphous concept open (by insisting we must then move to inference to best explanation to disavow it). Consider a practical difficulty in recognizing God. Suppose we find a spaceman. Is that God? I think we would ask a particular set of questions. Suppose that spaceman has tremendous powers. Is he then God? Personally, it would matter how those powers are achieved. If he has a super techno box, than he is only an extraterrestrial. Etc…

    I’m somewhat more sympathetic to your suggestion that we can give practical descriptions of God that are beyond our ability (and will also remain so) to know. I agree with your point that it is wrong to claim these are concepts are incoherent, and simply ignoring them on practical considerations runs amok of acceptance of independent reality. I think I will simply note, these sorts of descriptions are never what are at stake in serious arguments. No one cares if some weirdo wants to maintain that God is a “tree in that part of the universe that is forever inaccessible to us”, they are over the constructed conceptions of practical Gods, whose celebrants now wish to impose practical effects.

  7. Michael, I wish I could take credit for them. I certainly do love them though and wouldn’t mind living in that church.

    Margaret, oh, no doubt. Spinoza was a brilliant philosopher and a brilliant man. And I don’t believe that his views are bullshit by any means.

    I would say, though, that if we don’t really have a clear idea whether or not he is an atheist, agnostic, or maniac, then we don’t really understand his ontology. Since bullshit has no ontology, it reflects poorly on him (and us) that we haven’t got a secure idea of what he’s up to.

  8. Peter, I think the amorphous vague concept is of a piece with the practical conceptions of God. That’s because even the vague God-concept involves some loose commitments to human practice, even though it is ontologically bullshit.

    I don’t agree that we get to be imperialists about meaning. If you want to stamp your foot about the meaning of a thing, you have to appeal to the inferences you think ought to be preserved — that is, ideas that are grounded in stable common interests, or things to which you have acquaintance, or whatever. I am fairly well acquainted with things that come in twos, so it should incense me when someone says that two sets of two is the same as a set of six. In that situation, I can just point to the two sets of two, and say, “Count them, fool”.

    So if someone says that God is just a chair, and I feel incensed, then I need some grounds for that resentment. I can’t just say “God means something more than that”. After all, I’m a quietist about God, and I think God is a bullshit concept. If I’m supposed to be convinced that God is a chair, then I’ll need to rebuke the Chairist’s inferential commitments by proposing some others.

    The ontological status of God is unclear, and will always be unclear, since theologians will just prevaricate continually until the end of time. Still, that doesn’t mean the slate is blank — as you say, there are practical conceptions of God that have identifiable commitments. That is, there are some stable conditions under which religious people seem to reliably produce some practical conception of God. First, obviously, there’s the sense of religious communion through ritual. Second, the communion involves recognition of the sacred. Third, the sacred is related to the attempt to cope with suffering.

    So if the Chairist can’t give me a story about how the chair ought to be worshipped in order to cope with suffering, then I’m warranted in saying that the Chairist is just confused.

    I hope that helps. I’m not sure I’ve got to the nub of your objection, since I still see a place for inference to the best explanation.

  9. Russell accepted Spinoza’s ontology as the monism Spinoza intended. The one substance god-or-nature made god co-existent with everything there is, including all ideas. For some decades this ontology has been interpreted by many – physicists included – as akin to modern string theory. (Google “Spinoza string theory”).

    Spinoza is not a theist (“God sought no matter outside himself”). He denies a personal God, but also denies being an atheist. (This was possibly 17th-century skin-saving as atheism was heresy.) He is not an agnostic: his total certainty that his concept of God is true is as arrogant as the certainty of today’s new atheist. He is not a religious maniac despite his overtly mystical Ethics Part 5, where he yearns for intuitive knowledge of god-or-nature = absolute scientific truth.

    I am not and never have been a Spinozist, except in admiring his social, political and ethical views, as extrapolated from universal and uncontroversial laws of nature. I am an agnostic atheist – agnostic for the reasons Russell and ‘Curious’ give (why won’t people use their name?) i.e. connected with doubt that it is possible to know at the present time, and doubt that any god can be conceived as other than ineffable/unverifiable.

    Please do not give the agnostic in ‘agnostic atheist’ extension to doubting other things. We are quibbling about godlessness, not about putting other apples in our basket of belief. I am an agnostic atheist not only for the reasons above but by reason of being unable to connect with any aspect of theism that is not better and less divisively expressed in humanism. That is for me the simplest and most beautiful theory.

    I wonder why so many atheists spend so much time flogging the concept of God when it is in any case statistically a dying horse in popular belief?

  10. michael reidy

    The agnostic stance may be a valid position emotionally but faulty from a purely intellectual point of view. People like to keep their options open. This is why paint shops sell testers. However thinking it through looking for definitive evidence is to have failed to appreciate what the entity in question is. Something that can be settled empirically even though there is a remote possibility of that eventuality ever coming to pass is not adequate to any serious concept of God. That we do not know is true but that we cannot know is also true. We cannot know because the intellectual equipment is not adequate to that purported object. If God is not an object he/she/it cannot be known. Therefore without some sort of realisation of God however limited that might be, the atheistic position is to this believer the intellectually respectable one. Is Grayling that sort of atheist? He has taken a stance about supernatural agencies and their incredibility on the basis that there is no evidence that could not reasonably be forthcoming. Colour me atheist.

  11. Jim, thanks for that, and the clarification. Sorry for taking a few days to reply, I’m behind in all my work.

    Of course you’re right about the burden of proof. All the worshippers of Norse Gods, fairies, and horoscopes, the Roman Catholics, the seers of lei lines, and so on have a seemingly incontestable foe in naturalism. I’d agree with that. I would agree with Grayling’s point, that both 2+2=6 and “There is a God” are disproven claims, and in that sense they’re both on all fours.

    But I don’t think that it is therefore rationally impossible to believe in God in anything like the same way that it’s rationally impossible to believe that 2+2=6.

    So maybe there’s a way of putting a label to these distinctions. There are two kinds of agnosticism. One kind asserts that God is neither proven nor disproven. Call them the strong agnostics. Another kind says that God is disproven, but still rationally possible. Call them the weak agnostics.

    I think, with you and Grayling, that strong agnosticism is untenable. In that sense, I’m against Russell. But it seems to me that weak agnosticism is not just defensible, it is actually the most sensible position to take. That’s different from Grayling, because on the face of it he conflates the two forms together.

  12. michael reidy

    Who then is an atheist in the heroic sense that I have been urging? A contender might be the philosopher Simon Critchley whose influences are continental and therefore large positions are second nature to him. Interviewed on http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2002-12/simoncritchley.htm re his book on humour he has this to say:

    Are you suggesting that in a secular age, humour is the new God?

    SC: This is an important question and it strikes me that there are about twenty things to say. First, there is no God. I begin from the assumption that modernity is defined by the impossibility of any metaphysical belief in a deity. That’s where I begin from and that is axiomatic for me. It means that if I had a religious experience I would stop doing philosophy: philosophy for me is essentially atheistic.

    Now that’s an anxious atheism. It’s an atheism that is anxious because it inhabits questions that were resolved religiously in the pre-modern period. So the difficulty of modern life, of modernity in the full sense is this: the way in which we make sense of ourselves, those things we value and attribute meaning to, is still within a religious framework. Yet we cannot believe that religious framework. So from my perspective, modernity as a fully secular worldview has never really been achieved. We still inhabit the traces, the memory of, that religious perspective. And that’s an ambiguous thing.

    Critchley being English has an acute sense of the folly of portentousness so I suppose it is a mark of his commitment that he ventures so far into an irony free zone. I respect that. His position on deity is a metaphysical transcendental one. Empirical confirmation or disconformation is senseless.There is no ‘waiting for Godot’.

  13. michael reidy

    I’m reposting to avoid confusion between Critchley quote and my observation:

    Who then is an atheist in the heroic sense that I have been urging? A contender might be the philosopher Simon Critchley whose influences are continental and therefore large positions are second nature to him. Interviewed on http://www.culturewars.org.uk/2002-12/simoncritchley.htm re his book on humour he has this to say:

    Are you suggesting that in a secular age, humour is the new God?

    SC: This is an important question and it strikes me that there are about twenty things to say. First, there is no God. I begin from the assumption that modernity is defined by the impossibility of any metaphysical belief in a deity. That’s where I begin from and that is axiomatic for me. It means that if I had a religious experience I would stop doing philosophy: philosophy for me is essentially atheistic.

    Now that’s an anxious atheism. It’s an atheism that is anxious because it inhabits questions that were resolved religiously in the pre-modern period. So the difficulty of modern life, of modernity in the full sense is this: the way in which we make sense of ourselves, those things we value and attribute meaning to, is still within a religious framework. Yet we cannot believe that religious framework. So from my perspective, modernity as a fully secular worldview has never really been achieved. We still inhabit the traces, the memory of, that religious perspective. And that’s an ambiguous thing.

    Critchley being English has an acute sense of the folly of portentousness so I suppose it is a mark of his commitment that he ventures so far into an irony free zone. I respect that. His position on deity is a metaphysical transcendental one. Empirical confirmation or disconformation is senseless.There is no ‘waiting for Godot’.

  14. As someone who would call himself a strongly agnostic naturalist, it might be of some interest to this discussion if I explain my position. Being a strongly agnostic naturalist to me is about a certain degree of humility and openness and yet a profound commitment to the knowable and known. Let me illustrate.

    Let’s say I’m a person living some time before John Michell and a some guy comes up to me and out of the blue claims that there are tiny evil entities in the celestial sky. If you get too close to them they will suck you in, stretch you into a strand of spaghetti and then tear you apart so completely that even the parts you’re made of will be torn apart. He even has a word for it: spaghettification. Once you come to close to these evil things that he calls Black Holes, you’re doomed. Even light can’t escape if it gets too close. But fortunately, the guy says, since we can’t travel into the celestial sky yet, we’re in no danger. How should I react?

    When I ask him to prove it to me, he says it’s theoretically possible but very difficult since you can’t really see them. But there should be some effect on things very close to them. So if we can observe those effects, then their existence could be proven. Unfortunately, he says, we don’t have good enough telescopes yet. Should I laugh at him and claim it’s the craziest idea in the world? Should I categorically exclaim “Black holes do NOT exist, fool!” Or should I take his word for it and start spreading the word? Perhaps there is a better reaction. Could I not tell him that it’s quite an incredible claim since he can’t prove it? And that, for the time being, I will choose to believe that its probably not the case. But thanks for an interesting idea! I’m all ears when you come back with some better options for a possible proof.

    Let’s take another example. Let’s say we’re standing outside a locked bedroom. And your friend says, “There’s a bear under your bed!” What do you do? Now, if you’re in the city, this will seem like quite an incredible claim. But close to a wilderness area it might not seem so crazy. But unlike our evil Black Hole, we have some concrete options. We can unlock the door and carefully step into the room. If the windows are closed and everything is still neatly arranged the way I left them, well, then I’m going to start doubting my friend’s claim quite a bit. But not until we peek under the bed can I state with any certainty “There’s no bear under my bed, you fool!” But maybe I have a blind spot for bears. Nonetheless, this will quickly be resolved if I subsequently get mauled by the bear.

    Another option is that my friend says “No! Look, there’s a bear under your bed!” On closer inspection, I discover a teddy bear. By now I will probably be laughing quite heartedly. Yes, there’s a bear under my bed. A teddy bear! “You don’t understand!” says my friend. “There’s an evil ghost in the bear! It’s going to bring you bad luck! You have to burn it.” By now I might be a little concerned for my friend. An evil ghost, you say? Okidoki. What should I do now? Do I burn the bear? Or do I tell my friend that it’s been a long day and I’m getting a little tired myself. Maybe my friend needs some rest too? Is he feeling all right?

    The next day I wake up late for work and, rushing out the house, I get hit by a bicyclist. I end up in the hospital with a broken shoulder. Was my friend right after all? Is there an evil ghost in my teddy bear? Maybe I should burn it. Nah… being a naturalist, I wave it aside and give it up to pure coincidence. Now, how many times will I let something bad happen to me in the next few weeks and chuck it up to coincidence? When will I, just to be on the safe side, finally burn that darned teddy bear?

    In conjunction to the above two thought experiments, I invite you to consider a third: Faith and the Iron Box.

    I’m all for strong convictions. But with a little pinch of humility…

  15. michael reidy

    Has anyone ever performed a thought experiment and been surprised by the outcome? They tend to be stories that mirror ones own fundamental preconceptions in a way that is often unclear to oneself. A better thought experiment is thinking aimed at uncovering those basic preconceptions. Even if you reject Kant and all his works and pomps it has to be admitted that he had a go at that real philosophy project. So did Peter Strawson in Individuals.

  16. We are all imperialists about language; it is a normative practice and that is a requirement for meaning. It is flexible, so novel uses can emerge, but significant deviation from the norm is a valid criterion for alleging a failure to appropriately apply a term. I was concerned about the term “legitimate” because I accept the need to remain inclusive. I respect your point that we must allow the widest range of serious (another danger word) conceptions of God to be admitted for consideration, but past a certain point I will simply say that the term is being misapplied and I consider it appropriate to do so because past a certain point of conceptual twisting the argument loses importance. Your objection to the Chairist isn’t motivated by your belief or disbelief in God, it comes from a belief in language. If one were to claim that “God” meant my pal “Fred” (with no supernatural connotations) simply because they preferred the sound of the first word and you cannot stop them from using sounds anyway they want, you shouldn’t be incensed, but you should just walk away, because their purported proof of “God’s” existence has nothing to do with what we were originally discussing.

    I think we are roughly on the same page when it comes to the appropriate use of language as you appear to have conceded that identifiable practical commitments must be attached to a (new) concept in order for it to be of any importance. This is all that is required to exclude the amorphous or entirely opaque concept if one were to believe that those practical commitments would always lead to falsification. I’ve already offered several examples which might be suitable to this task, such as the belief that first order omnipotence is a conceptually confused concept. If that is part of the normative requirements of the term God, then any attempt to use the term correctly allows one to assert Grayling’s position. Now, I accept your point, I do not singularly impose the normative requirements of linguistic usage, so I cannot (and I am not) actually insisting that this is the characteristic by which all practical Gods are falsified. I am merely suggesting that Grayling’s suggestion that all attempts to give practical content to the concept will meet this fate is not entirely preposterous because the term does denote something making practical and thus deductively falsifiable claims necessary. Even more importantly is that people are not allowed to hold the amorphous open. We shouldn’t tolerate assertions like, “I believe in God, but blankedy, blank, blank, blanking.” In holding open the amorphous or allowing for an entirely opaque concept you are doing too much work for the other side by allowing them to make a nonsensical declaration, specifically that they have a belief in something with no properties. (and here I want to emphasize the distinction between vague concepts, as I have no problem accepting only a vague notion of the concept or difficulties caused by their running up against the limits of descriptive power, but we can’t tolerate the entirely opaque) The more I read about Grayling, the more this appears to be his objection of incoherence. While we can admit the concept of Sugar Mountain as, well, a mountain of sugar, or a pile of deserts, or the city of sows, we can’t admit the concept as a nondescript paradise. So that, if one were to disprove the concepts of all the practical God’s and any further attempts to derive new concepts, that is in effect all that matters.

    My emphasis on the practical is motivated by the observation that this is how we actually talk. When you make the statement that you know that God does not exist you are making an epistemological report about the ontological status of an object denoted by a concept (expressed by a term with specific meaning). You are not making the claim that Joe’s (who named his cat “God”) cat does not exist. We’re not actually going to take the childish opposites game seriously, are we? Since there is a normative meaning to the term, I’m suggesting that disproof of the practical conceptions is sufficient to assert that knowledge claim, and that to do so does not required us to maintain Russell’s distinction.

    There is room for inference to the best explanation but not in the way you are suggesting. My point is roughly that the inferences are actually about something else, and the conclusion that God does not exist is the corollary. This is even true about inferences made about religious subjects, such as when we tell Lennox that biblical claims about Jesus are not the only or even the best explanation to explain the historical rise of Christianity. The target of the inference are certain historical claims, the non-existence is merely a corollary. In effect, God gets squeezed out. Your assertion is that this hits both the practical Gods and the amorphous conception of God equally, is correct, but my disagreement is with your claim that this is required to disprove the amorphous after all the practical conceptions have failed. It is not. The value of inference to best explanation comes from the damage it does to the practical conceptions. That is how we actually talk. It is what they mean when they make meaningful claims about God (i.e., not, I named my cat God), and what you mean when you make the epistemological claims about what one might know about the ontic status of God.

  17. Has anyone ever performed a thought experiment and been surprised by the outcome? They tend to be stories that mirror ones own fundamental preconceptions in a way that is often unclear to oneself. A better thought experiment is thinking aimed at uncovering those basic preconceptions. Even if you reject Kant and all his works and pomps it has to be admitted that he had a go at that real philosophy project. So did Peter Strawson in Individuals.

    Thanks for a well thought through reply to my comment, Michael. I’m honored that you should critique my efforts by using the names of such luminaries as Immanuel Kant. But I have a feeling it was not meant as a compliment. If you want every musing to measure up to the Critique of Pure Reason, then I suppose we should all immediately fold up shop and permanently log off. Now write “act according to that maxim whereby you will that it should become universal law” five hundred times on the black board, everyone. And then study the following phrase:

    Der Satz: Gott ist allmächtig, enthält zwei Begriffe, die ihre Objekte habe: Gott und Allmacht; das Wörtchen: ist, ist nicht noch ein Prädikat oben ein, sondern nur das, was das Prädikat beziehungsweise aufs Subjekt setzt. Nehme ich nun das Subjekt (Gott) mit allen seinen Prädikaten, (worunter auch die Allmacht gehört,) zusammen und sage: Gott ist, oder: es ist ein Gott, so setze ich kein neues Prädikat zum Begriffe von Gott, sondern nur das Subjekt an sich selbst mit allen seinen Prädikaten, und zwar den Gegenstand in Beziehung auf meinen Begriff.

    Of course, Michael, you can have only the most marginal idea of what my preconceptions were. You assume according to some universally applicable law that these preconceptions have remained the same and that my thought experiments have not informed my own opinion. It seems you also assume by some other universally applicable law that I am not sufficiently self-aware and self-critical to realize how my own bias may causes me to be inappropriately selective in what I think about. I say ‘seems’ only because perhaps you did in fact note something in my writings that indicate such a flaw. Or else, why would you have felt compelled to write what you did? But you did not feel inclined to share it with us. If you felt there were specific flaws, in the end, you only uttered your final conclusion and left me wondering why you deemed my examples to be uninformative.

    Perhaps you did not feel compelled to mention any specifics because your critique is somewhat generally directed to the whole process of exploring ideas through though experiments. Since you didn’t really tell us why you think this, I will conjecture and leave it up to you to correct my conjectures. First, what is a thought experiment? As far as I understand them they set up a situation that is analogous to and often simpler than the more complex issue at hand. Sometimes the issues at hand my be so contentious that discussing it directly makes us fall into old traps. We neutralize the discussion through something less intellectually and emotionally thorny. Sometimes a thought experiment relies on more concrete worldly situations. They ground the discussion in reality.

    Any simplifications or translation from one particular to another can loose crucial information, which does present a potential problem. So care has to be taken that we are only loosing the extraneous. Another problem may occur when we select more neutral analogies for the elements of the issue. They may introduced misleading characteristics of their own. For example, you could claim that a belief in a ghost living in a teddy bear is nothing like the belief in a God suffusing all of existence. I don’t see why you can’t. To me the latter is just an extreme case of the former. They are analogous. But I can imagine that someone might find a potential problem there.

    Thinking in analogies is what makes humans capable of forming abstract categories of things that seem quite different on the surface. We don’t magically move from particulars to universals, which then allows us to move from universals back to particulars. When we do the type of comparisons that allow analogies (and generalizations), we do make mistakes. But we also make mistakes when we do long division. Or build bridges. Or when we say something we thought was not emotionally laden. To me purging human though of the “fallible” process of thinking in particulars to particulars and drawing inferences from it would cripple human thought. I assume this is what you want to do. That is, not cripple human thought but for some reason avoid analogies all together. Which will consequently, according to me, cripple human thought.

    Or maybe you just don’t like calling them experiments because, as you say, who has ever come up with “a thought experiment and been surprised by the outcome”. Ah, well. How do you know this, Michael? Are you a ghost that sits on the shoulder of those of us who explore the world through thought experiments? Do you follow our “unwavering” thoughts as we seek to squeeze our ill conceived world views into “inappropriate” analogies? That’s quite some hubris there, Michael. Perhaps thought experiments are invented by those of us willing to change our mind? Could we have a classical case of projection here?

  18. Peter,

    On where we agree —
    I’m not sure you’ve convinced me out of anything because I’m not sure I ever denied that practical concerns matter to conceptual contents. I’d say that basically nobody besides Jerry Fodor would say otherwise. Also, I’m not sure you’re using currently the word “imperialism” in a way that means anything other than “normativity of meaning”. Of course meaning is normative — no question.

    On where we conflict —
    I agree that the refutation of all practical gods is sufficient to rationally disprove (the existence of any object legitimately denoted by) the concept. I do not think that the refutation of all practical gods is sufficient to disprove the rational possibility of (the existence of any object legitimately denoted by) the concept.

    On where I’m confused —
    You suggest that the nebulous concept of God might be excluded from consideration, once we assume that all precisifications of that concept will create falsifiable inferences. But what do you mean by “exclude”? From what I can tell, you mean disregard (as irrelevant).

    But that seems like neglect to me. For it seems to me that each time we knock down one precisification, we’re undermining the credibility of the nebulous concept, not eliminating or disregarding it as a significant object of study. The fact is, the number of precisifications that are legitimate for non-mathematical and logical concepts (even for relatively clear, non-bullshit concepts) are potentially infinite and unpredictable. We need to keep the Amorphous Open in our crosshairs, because it is always going to be generating more and more precisifications, even in unexpected ways.

    So, on a going-forward basis it is just plain useful to be able to look back on the track record of practical gods that have been slain and then say, with the help of inference to the best explanation: “this ought to tell you that we’ve disproven the usefulness of the general concept, and gone some distance to showing how it’s not rationally likely”. We use IBE twice: first, in inferring the ontological status of each practical god; second, in inferring the worthiness of the concept. But what we can’t propose without hubris is that this result was rationally necessary. IBE is great for dealing with the problem of induction, but it just isn’t strong enough to tell us about what is rationally necessity. Do you think otherwise? And if so, why?

  19. “As [Grayling] puts it, a thing is proven so long as we can adduce ‘evidence of the kind and in the quantity that makes it irrational, absurd, irresponsible or even a mark of insanity to reject the conclusion thus being supported.'”

    This definition would simply exclude Induction from providing evidence for its conclusions. Either one would eliminate induction entirely or one would have to split it by implementing (arbitrary) determinants for what quality and/or quantity of evidence is required in order to ‘prove’ the conclusion.

    Regarding other issues – the main form of logic used in science is abduction, not induction and certainly not deduction. Of course it is called by the rather old term ‘Method of Hypothesis’, but it is nothing other than abduction by another name.

    If induction is all that is required for knowledge then we know a lot more than we know.

  20. Hi Jim, thanks for those points. I’m sure that both Grayling and Russell would call me an atheist of some sort. I have to confess that atheism seems like the only realistic way of looking at what we know about the world. (Though there have been some commenters here who think that I’m doing a disservice to modern philosophy of physics in saying so).

    My response to your challenge would be to say that the distinction between belief in a rational impossibility and belief against proof has nothing to do with the distinction between demonstrative/analytical truths and scientific/synthetic ones. A sufficiently complex mathematical proof may not be rationally necessary, even if it stands proven. Just because a thing is watertight does not mean that it could not be otherwise.

    There might be many differences between our sophisticated proof (P) and a simple one (2+2=4). One difference is that some mathematical proofs like P are epistemically subjective, in that they are true only as constructed formalisms, and ontologically disconnected from our natural conceptual schemes. Two other differences involve the matters you pointed to: first, the idea that we all know that 2+2=4, and second, that proof has a certain heuristic value for each of us.

    (In all honesty, I’m not even sure that 2+2=5 is rationally impossible, because I am a moderate skeptic about rule-following. For instance, we might say that 2.5 counts as a class of 2, and hence that 5 is a sum of 2s. It is not a mandate of objectivity, and written nowhere in the book of the universe, that we must choose at any given time whether we are dealing in natural or real numbers — for that would be like saying that we are rationally required to say that a certain ideal shade of orange is the True Orange, and that other shades are, strictly speaking, different colors. That having been said, I’ll say that 2+2=4 is rationally necessary for the sake of argument, and in order to anchor the thread in the present discussion.)

  21. With regard to normatively and imperialism, my use of the term has limited connotation beyond normative, so you can interpret it as such. It also doesn’t surprise me that we agree on the normative function of language and many other things, but I must elaborate on these simple things anyways because you keep making crazy claims, “I don’t agree that we get to be imperialists about meaning.”

    No. I am not attributing abnormal properties to induction. I clearly disagree with you on whether and where IBE is being applied. Your criticism of Grayling starts with Russell holding up a distinction between deductive and inductive as the basis of being tentative about what we can allege to know about God. I pointed out that you missed a class of deductive arguments like the problem of evil. You accept deductive (2+2=4) proof that would meet Russell’s criteria and remove his ability to claim a tentative position with regard to knowledge of God could be offered for some descriptions of God. Where we differ is on the importance of targeting the concept. I’ve suggested an interpretation of Grayling, whereby he alleges the linguistic requirements of the term “God” necessarily results in descriptions that can be deductively disproven, is not as implausible as you originally stated. There is remarkable symmetry between the rejection of God as an irrational concept and insistence on the normative requirements of the term. I don’t think we are going to agree on this, because on the third time around we are pretty deep into the opinion tank, but I’ll spell out the rest to conclude the answers to your questions. I think Grayling is alleging, contrary to your concern for the concept due to near infinite recapitulations, that there are surprisingly limited practical expressions given his normative conditions on the term and all of them violate deductive reasoning. With regard to your objection that an individual does not solely impose linguistic norms, it is, quite simply, the way we all talk. If an alien has supernatural powers, he might be God, but if he has a sonic screwdriver, I simply am not going to call him God. With regard to your further objection that others might, I tried to reiterate the point that this is how we actually talk, but it would have been much better expressed to say that Grayling is making the declaration about the ontological status of his normative conception of the term, so that there is very little at stake (for him, or any atheist) if the term is drastically altered, consequently it is silly to entertain the opposites game of “God” means “Red”.

    With IBE, we don’t use it to disprove practical Gods. We use it to infer conclusions which then eliminate the necessity of God. This is still inductive, but this isn’t the sole, or even the primary mode of attack. It’s defence to claims of proof of God’s existence. Beyond that, I’m not foolish enough to claim we don’t advance inductive arguments, but I am focusing on deductive in this case because that is what I feel charity requires, because that is what makes Grayling’s position make sense. His claims that the concept is irrational and incoherent make the most sense if the normative requirements of the linguistic term included something deductively objectionable like first order omnipotence. It also neatly ties into the insistence that the concept must be given practical expression. This brings us to the second alleged use of IBE. Clearly, I’m not using it, because I think the notion of an amorphous concept is incoherent. I understand your point. Simply offering (even deductive) proof against practical descriptions can’t be deductive, on pain of future descriptions, so you think we jump to an IBE momentum argument. No, I’m suggesting the systematic refutation of the descriptions comes from Grayling examining the normative requirements of his understanding of the term God and delimiting the future possible concepts available.

  22. Edit: Simply offering (even deductive) proof against practical descriptions can’t be deductive with regard to the concept,

  23. Excellent post and discussion. I have only one quibble. Depending on how one defines rain (say, as ‘liquid precipitation’) could it not be argued that ‘Rain is Wet’ is true by definition? In other words, rain is understood by definition to be the liquid form of precipitation and liquidity and wetness are synonymous, so all rain must be wet by definition.

  24. 9 June 2011 early am « blueollie - pingback on June 9, 2011 at 8:50 am
  25. Shaheed, it could be said that the lotus flower does not get wet in the rain (see lotus effect). Wetness is not a characteristic of the rain, but a descriptive state of that which has been exposed to water. It’s things that don’t repel water well that are wet, and not the water itself.

  26. Peter, indeed, when you use rhetoric I may ask you for clarification. Woe and havoc, havoc and woe.

    You clearly disagree with me about whether or not IBE is being applied… but to what? I’m telling you that it’s operative in my own view, in two ways. And if anyone knows the contents of my own view, then I would hope that that person would be me. But, to be clear, I haven’t meant to suggest that IBE is at work anywhere else. It doesn’t seem to be quite what’s going on in Grayling’s view, for instance (although it clearly is at work in Russell’s conception of atheism-for-the-masses).

    I’m not sure if we’re quite on the same page about IBE. So when you say that “With IBE, we don’t use it to disprove practical Gods”, I think you’re only correct when it comes to the PoE conception. But PoE is not good enough, which is why I slide right over it. Then when you say, “We use [IBE] to infer conclusions which then eliminate the necessity of God”, I want to nod along. But I’m not just using IBE to say something about how God is unnecessary to explanations of our natural universe. I’m using it to say that God really doesn’t exist, because He is unnecessary for those explanations. In other words, the existence of God is not a sufficient condition when it comes to the explanation of our natural universe. And unless you’re using the limited PoE conception of God, you can’t arrive at a conclusion concerning sufficiency without using IBE.

    I don’t think the Irish-Grayling thesis, that “there are surprisingly limited practical expressions given his normative conditions on the term [“God”] and all of them violate deductive reasoning”, is one that I would disagree with. But of course the question is what those normative conditions are, and how usefully the formulation is in capturing a stable subject that we care to talk about. At the outermost periphery of conceptual space, the God concept has to be practical, in the sense that it involves ritualism/sacredness/suffering. At the inner sanctum of conceptual space, the God concept involves the attribution of omniscience/omnipotence/beneficence to some infinite agent. If you want to say that the PoE sense of God is incoherent, then I’m all on board. But if you (and Grayling) want to say that this exhausts the God-concept, then I don’t think you (or Grayling) have captured anything about how “we” actually talk. Rather, it would seem that you’re just talking about how you’d like to talk. After all: Karen Armstrong, the apophatic tradition, etc., are wedded to the Amorphous Open concept of God. You may say it’s incoherent, and indeed it might be incoherent, but you can’t show that deductively.

    (Incidentally, I’m inclined to agree that the man with the sonic screwdriver isn’t God, and I appreciate the nerdy reference to Doctor Who. But I think there’s a stronger case to be made that Doctor Who is God than just by invoking his sonic screwdriver. After all, He can time travel, is a near-immortal, benevolent, etc.)

  27. Of course you know what mode you are using, but the mode is forced by the requirement of charity to Grayling’s position as this is an article of interpretation. I started very little knowledge of Grayling, limited mostly to interviews on TVO, but after going through some of his articles, and the various dregs of Youtube, the deductive interpretation is the way his position makes the most sense to me. So I’m not engaged in mind control, whereby I try to tell you what you are doing, but I’m telling you how I interpret Grayling and how I think his claims make sense (either there is contradiction inherent to his normative understanding of the term, or individual beliefs necessarily fall into contradiction about God qua naturalism). Which is why I can agree with you that one (and you are) using BoE against the existence of God, but focus on deductive arguments against, because I am trying to have a discussion on what I think Grayling is saying to Russell.

    With regards to Dr. Who, it was just to give you a kick. I was afraid I might get it wrong, so I looked it up and the wiki said human… but the fineries are obscuring the point. I bow to your superior knowledge of science fiction. I don’t know what other powers he has, or how they operate, however the sonic screwdriver was deliberately selected as a representation of technology (which I feel is still apt), because part of my normative understanding of the term “God” (which I accept is not necessarily shared) places certain limitations on how X’s great power is achieved. I can only repeat my point, that when it comes to this level it ceases to have anything at stake, as it has been reduced to a semantic game. Ex. We meet Martians. They have tremendous powers due to their superior technology. People want to call them Gods. I say those people are using the term incorrectly. The Godsayers protest and insist on that usage. I don’t care, because that isn’t what any* (most) atheists mean when they currently declare that God does not exist.

  28. I only went through the first paragraphs and I already have a big problem with what you say. Grayling is right, induction has to be considered on the same footing as deduction. In fact, most of our knowledge about the world is acquired through the scientific method, which places equal emphasis on deduction and induction. Philosophy and pure mathematics, while interesting, have never produced any scientific knowledge. They only produce scientific knowledge insofar as their premises/axioms are rooted in empirical evidence, which by nature is inductive. I’m sorry but you’re wrong, and so were Russell and Hume in considering induction inferior to deduction. I’d advise to read David Stove (a philosopher!) who makes the point more emphatically and precisely than I can.


  29. Peter, that’s fair. And I don’t know for certain what Russell would say. But I do think that Russell could say something, and I think he could say something much like what I’ve said (minus a few eccentric digressions about rule-following skepticism that belong entirely to me).

    For instance, since Russell is a student of history, and equipped with the wider imagination that comes with it, he sometimes entertains the possibility of a non-PoE God. “There is, it is true, a Modernist form of theism, according to which God is not omnipotent, but is doing His best, in spite of great difficulties. This view, although it is new among Christians, is not new in the history of thought. It is, in fact, to be found in Plato. I do not think this view can be proved to be false. I think all that can be said is that there is no positive reason in its favour.”

    So I dare say that you’re clarifying Grayling’s position, but not defending it.

  30. A measure of doubt is always sublime? Hardly!

    Do you doubt that the flying spaghetti monster is a work of complete confabulation? Do you linger on your convictions about its human origins?

    Do you doubt that gods and goddesses are human conceptions? There is a measure of certainty to be respected in dismissing those ideas which cannot be put to empirical testing.

    I personally roll my eyes when I hear atheists making reluctant allowances for rational possibilities; including Dawkins. How many absurd conceptions are dismissed without a second thought? There is great number of ideas, ideologies, beliefs, and so forth to which we grant no measure of doubt no matter how slight. Why then is god given some sort of immunity from absolute certainty? Why out of our mass of failed hypotheses is god given some exception to continue haunting the heels of nonbelievers? If ever there was a belief clearly shown to be empty it is god.

  31. Chris, I’d put as much stock in the existence of the FSM as I would in galactic teapots, Yeti, and fairies at the bottom of the well.

    I don’t doubt that the FSM is a confabulation, but the fact that it’s a confabulation is not really relevant. The confabulators might have gotten a lucky guess. There really might be a FSM, hiding behind the sun, making ironic hipsters mock-believe in His Grace.

    My comment about sublime doubt is between what we know about the actual and what we know is rationally possible. And just because I think that these two things come apart, that doesn’t mean I give the existence of the FSM any second thoughts. I think the FSM is disproven. But I’d still say that the FSM is a rational possibility.

  32. Hey Jim, I’ll answer those questions in random order, just to mix it up.

    I think that inference to the best explanation disproves FSM. The fact that the FSM is a confabulation, plus the fact that we have no evidence for it, leads us to legitimately infer that there is no FSM.

    To say something is “impossible” is to say that it is “necessarily not”. “Necessity” implies universality — if something is necessarily true, then it is always true. Rationality, in the sense that is useful to the notion of “conceivability”, is roughly a property of people. So ‘rationally necessary’ implies universal assent across the class of rational people. Among the community of rational people, we must include people who are more rational than ourselves. To say that ‘belief in God is rationally impossible’ is to say that no-one who is more rational than I am could ever assent to the existence of God. So that involves a kind of counterfactual deference, not just “a belief or suspension of judgment regarding a matter that is logically possible”.

    I don’t really have any settled views on when the weight of proof allows us to infer that a thing is rationally impossible. Some people would say that rational necessity implies truths that are apriori (in the Kantian sense). While rational necessity certainly includes the Kantian apriori, that still sounds too strong, since I would like to think that the ideally rational person could judge some aposteriori opinions to be rationally impossible. For instance, it seems not just crazy, but necessarily crazy, to deny that the problem of evil is a genuine problem for a certain relevant class of Gods. Others would say that rational necessity implies deductive proof. But deductive proofs need not be rationally necessary, if you are (like me) a modest kind of rule-following skeptic.

    I respond to extreme skeptics with explanations, not arguments. In order to argue with someone, you have to presume that there is enough common ground such that rational persuasion is possible. If you don’t share enough common ground with someone, you will not have any traction in affecting their beliefs rationally, because a lack of common ground is just the same thing as the rejection of trust. So I explain to them various biographical seemings, in as honest a way as I can, and how through a mixture of rational and affective events, I’ve gotten over my own sense of robust skepticism. But I can’t possibly hope to change their minds, since from the outset you’ve essentially asked me to assume that they don’t trust me at all.

  33. No worries, my pleasure as always!

  34. michael reidy

    There are things that are not true and you shouldn’t believe them. One of these things would be the FSM. It’s not any sort of explanation for the phenomena that you could rationally infer to, it makes no sense, it does not connect in any way to the sorts of explanations that make up your rational apparatus. To assimilate the FSM to a deity is merely rationalist bluster, sanctified by usage. Are there other things that you, Benjamin, shouldn’t believe but are perhaps true? I would say yes, namely the things that do not cohere with the corpus rationalis that you have, from a boy, created. These might be tales related in The Varieties of Religious Experience that do not enter into what makes sense to you. They are not live options, they are dead options or they perhaps reside in that dim Sheol of the indeterminate couldn’t care less. Obviously on your best day you recognise that you are not the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, of things that are not that they are not.

  35. To me its very simple. A theist is someone who affirms the existence of rationality and purpose in the universe, with no evidence that these are anything other than anthropic qualities, and a theist is someone who denies their existence outside of the anthropic context, with as little evidence to support it..

    An agnostic is someone who notes the problem, and turns over and goes back to sleep…

    God is a metaphysical proposition. It’s not subject to proof and its ‘not useful’ in the task of constructing rational scientific theories about the universe.

    However it may be something that has survival potential. As does, say, the ability to lie.

    PS I have read many books on religious experiences. Even if I take them at face value I find there are many hypotheses that ‘save the data’ that need not include God.

    I think the greater tragedy is that we are bogged down in a pointless metaphysical debate, rather than actually accepting the *experience* of religion, and trying to assimilate it into an overall philosophical framework.

  36. Leo, I don’t understand your first paragraph. Presumably, you meant that the people (after the second comma) are ‘atheists’. If so, I’m not sure that the evidence is as unbalanced as you suggest. Both “fit” the evidence, because any absurd claims can be made to fit the evidence, so long as you’re imaginative enough. But the naturalist point of view is a better fit, a better explanation.

    Also, I’m not at all sure that your characterization fits the theist. The post-Protestant evangelical (like the post-modern sophisticate) will not endorse the idea of purpose or reason in the anthropic world, let alone anywhere else. For a certain kind of New Age brain, reason and good-sense are secular privileges, not requirements for a good life. If religious congregations actually tried to articulate themselves in a reasonable way — e.g., by condemning the mentality that replaces a reasoned debate over global warming with squeals of delight over ManBearPig — they might make for a better fit with your characterization. But I’m not so sure it fits the times we live in.

    Anyway, you’ve arrived at a sensible conclusion, and fairly similar (I think) to Philip Kitcher’s recent remarks in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. And I am all on board with trying to make sense of religious experiences.

    But then there’s nothing new about that. The new atheists, including Grayling, absolutely do want to make sense of religious experience. Indeed, the new atheists kind of have to try to make sense of those experiences. For the very attempt to provide an error theory — about how the majority of the planet is delusional — involves trying to make sense of religious experience. Grayling is a decent scholar of the early modern period, and has written about that old genius, George Berkeley. Sam Harris, to use another example, has written quite sympathetically about Eastern spirituality.

  37. See http://www.shaman.co.uk/downloads/The%20Philosophy%20of%20Experience..pdf for a fuller explanation of my ad hoc position.

    You will see that I regard Theism/atheism is a priori propositions used in the construction of a world-view, not as things that may be deduced or induced from those world views.

    I.e. the atheist has defined the nature of the universe without reference to a God, so he can never find evidence for it. The theist has defined the universe in terms of a god, so he finds evidence everywhere.

    At the logical level both are guilty of circular argument.

    God or otherwise is not a logical conclusion from anything, rather its the starting point of something.

    the real issue is whether what results from either starting point is better than the other option

    Another option is to examine the concept of god, which certainly exists, and see whether or not the concept has utility, whether or not based on a reality. FSM is a concept of utility. 🙂

  38. Hi Leo, thanks for your thoughts. I can’t read the whole thing, but it seems to me that your postmodern views can only be effective as an epistemology of illusion or error, and not as an epistemology as such. No doubt, different a priori assumptions help to explain why and how people make mistakes, indeed radical mistakes. But when treated as an epistemology proper, your view seemingly leaves open a great many questions (like, “how do we communicate at all if we’re so radically different?” and “do we really live in different worlds?”). As a result, it seems to me that it cannot be a satisfying explanatory programme.

  39. The first three sentences of Leo Smith’s comment are interesting. Most people do argue from an immutable first principle,and stay with it come what may. (Why is that called good argument?) To quote you – “In order to argue with someone, you have to presume that there is enough common ground such that rational persuasion is possible.” Indeed there is no communication between atheists and theists. That is why I very rarely join in any dispute between an atheist and a believer, or even between atheist philosophers with incompatible first principles. One learns that by the end of a course on philosophy of religion.

    That said,I have mutely but appreciatively followed this thread since my initial comment. I cannot see that any kind of epistemological conclusion has been established. I remain an atheist who wants a much clearer definition of god than has appeared so far in this thread before I consider any concept of god rationally possible. Spinoza’s divine natural force has conceptual clarity for me only to the point where he gets up close and friendly with it i.e. finding it a personal God. I suppose it’s never too late to encounter conceptual clarity but I dread that it might only come at the expense of reason.

  40. BEN:

    “how do we communicate at all if we’re so radically different?”

    Because some innate desire in us drives us to seek commonality of experience?

    Our innate propositions – articles of faith – are adapted to those around us precisely because we desire that communication.

    “do we really live in different worlds?”

    Yes, we do, insofar as no one person’s mapping of what they regard as the world is exactly the same as another’s.

    In a trivial way, no two people can stand on exactly the same spot, so their views are subtly different.

    The confusion arises (from my particular view), in that people confuse ‘The World’ with ‘their model of the world’

    Or ‘the model of the world that is currently culturally accepted’ etc etc.

    An example may serve to make the point: Reading up on Mayan mythology, you discover that the word for a demon or evil spirit is more or less the same as that for illness, principally diarrhoea.

    That is, in that language, the two are essentially identical.

    WE may talk about bacteria and viruses, but lacking the microscope to see them, the Mayan definition is simple adequate and sufficient, especially if magical plants with ‘anti-demon’ properties are known and serve to ‘banish’ the evil spirits.

    IN short, as a working definition, the two explanations, although they imply radically different entities, serve the same purpose and lead to similar treatments.

    My way of understanding that is to say that the same experience is mapped into two different world views, both of which are functional, but where there is considerable disagreement as to the entities they contain.

    This neatly sums up both your points. If I go to the doctor’s complaining of ‘evil spirits in my stomach’ I wont get as far or as fast as if I complain I have gastric flu, or an amoebic or bacterial infestation. Worse, I may be sectioned under the mental health act. It behoves me to adapt to the world-view and entities of the person I wish to communicate with…

    Now it is probably your conviction that microbes are in fact real, and evil spirits are not; I respond that you take that on trust alone, and even if if you spot one under an electron microscope, is that not merely physical evidence of the aforesaid evil spirit?

    This is a trivial example, but I maintain that much greater differences are possible.

    To the point where people are actually experiencing almost completely different worlds from each other. And you are correct, in that they are ipso facto almost impossible to communicate.

  41. Margaret, I have replied independently, but I think it probably needs restating that in your words an epistemological resolution is simply not possible to the question of God.

    Not the least because there seem to be two distinct and separate ideas about what the Christian God, is.

    At one level He (why He, why not It) is infinite ineffable and supernatural.

    At another He displays alarmingly human qualities of creativity, intelligence, purpose and somehow limited power, or else the world would be perfect.

    My resolution of that has been to say that the Ineffable biznai is merely another restatement of ‘whatever is the case;’ i.e. its simply a label slapped on our conviction that existence exists, and that we will never know the half of it.

    The rest as a card carrying atheist, I adduce to externalised features of the human mind, buried in what we today would call the subconscious.

    Arguing whether it has an independent existence is as futile as saying ‘if I cut a toenail off, is it part of me, and when does it cease to be so’?

  42. BEN:

    “But I think there’s a stronger case to be made that Doctor Who is God than just by invoking his sonic screwdriver. After all, He can time travel, is a near-immortal, benevolent, etc.”

    I think you may have come up with the best definition of a God that there is,

    In an uncertain mysterious world, it is infinitely comforting to meet someone who not only seems to know what the **** is going on, but also have the power to do something about it and seems to be on your side…..

  43. Even if Leo’s last-sentence definition of a personal God is actually experienced by some people,where does that get us in terms of epistemology?

    On the basis of belief grounded in experience, astrology may have more going for it than belief in God grounded in subjective experience.

    Astrology is a human interpretation of actually existing astronomical positions and changes. It claims a causal connection between these natural phenomena and human behaviour.

    Various claims by astrologers regarding this causal connection have been tested empirically. See ‘The truth About Astrology’ by Michel Gauquelin (Hutchinson 1983).

    ‘Ghosts’ have also been subjected to empirical testing. I have experienced what people call ghosts and readily accept that they are some kind of physical imprint on the environment, measured as cold air, although often differently experienced.

    Where would one start to test the claims of believers in God? We have no clear or agreed definition of God, and no existing, measurable, testable natural phenomenon claimed to ‘be’ God. Therefore we have no ontology of God, and no starting point for an epistemology of any kind of god.

    Should we therefore stop speaking of it, and be silent until such time as a unified definition and a measurable phenomenon come up? Or – driven in another direction by sublime doubt – continue tossing around logically possible concepts of god on which there semms to be no rational agreement?

  44. Having made a bit of a study of religion, from very much and outside perspective, I may be able to narrow the concept a little for what its worth.

    The core principle of the Semitic religions seems to be that the concept of God is associated with purpose, orderliness and intelligence in the Universe. That is there is held to be an objective Principle from which these flow, and it is more or less intertwined with human and natural behaviour.

    Sin being defined as going against the Pricinciple.

    This maps to the aesthetic Rationalist worldview in the the orderliness is still there, but purpose and intelligence become human attributes.

    The Eastern religions remap the principles again, in that there is an amoral principle, but even the orderliness is now a human attribute… and yet the purpose and intelligence gets mapped into spiritual principles – a sort of polytheism, in Hindu whereas Buddhism considers these entities illusory as well.

    I consider them all valid attempts to put some kind of detail on the physical and emotional forces that shape our lives. All of which offer some guide as to how to behave.

    Ergo for me the argument is less about whether or not there is a God, for clearly in a causal world, three is a prime Cause, in a world where human intelligence and intentionality do exists, there may be a question as to where it arises…also.

    No the question is that of all the choices on offer, which one suits the individual. Or the culture, and why..

    I think we all agree that we cannot deduce God, unless God is part of the world-view definition, ergo the God postulate has to be inductive.

    Again, for me that places it firmly in the metaphysical realm alongside many other metaphysical propositions that cannot be decided by relationship with factual data, since they shape the nature of the factual data in themselves..in the limit they can only be decided on the basis of looser philosophical concepts – Occam’s Razor, and utility, and personal choice.

    In short, given the McUniverse, do you want McGod with that or not Sir?

    The meal different, the experience is different. Is it to your taste, or not?

    Astrology is somewhat weirder, by the way, that does conceivably fit within the framework of a purely material Universe… there is at least a gravitational resonance within the solar system, and we are gravity detectors. For one possible mechanism.

    Parapsychology? well I can only say that during one alcholo fuelled after dinner conversation I put the question to a friend of mine ‘If you were on the road to Royston, and suddenly a blinding light shone in your eyes and a voice spoke to you, and you were overcome by feelings of ineffable awe and joy, what would you do?’

    “I would take a couple of aspirin and see the quack the next day”.

    I rest my case..

  45. Leo, your Maian and modern physician do have different world-pictures even though they involve beliefs that are extensionally equivalent. But it seems like you’re conflating a world-picture with The World. I don’t dipute the idea that we all have different world-pictures. What is a problem is the idea that we live in different worlds. e.g., a constructionist like Nelson Goodman would say that we live in different worlds because we have different world-pictures.

  46. BEN.

    A very subtle point.

    I would throw it back at you this way..

    If all we know of the world is a world-picture, how can we tell the difference between that and a world in itself?

    If it quacks like a duck…

    Now my ad-hoc take on this is to assert that if a world-picture changes enough, it is functionally indistinguishable from what a Realist calls the World, changing.

    My solution to this impasse is to define a World, but say that it has nothing intrinsically related to the classical world(views?) we are familiar with.

    That allows RADICALLY different world views without actually having to posit a many WORLDS universe..which is a silly statement anyway.

    Since I define the WORLD as all there is. Always more and never the same was what we perceive of as ‘the world’.

    “My house has many rooms…” But its still a house …

  47. I think we do have a conception of truth that goes beyond our particular world-picture. Here are some inter-related reasons for thinking this.

    First, we make mistakes that go beyond the picture at a particular time, and which are not predicted by the contents of the picture. Furthermore, it seems that some pictures are degenerate. For instance, if another Maian (unlike yours) were to insist that spirits were necessarily unobservable, then their picture would be degenerate. Your Maian, on the other hand, does not have a degenerate world-picture. But for all intents and purposes we might say that your Maian and the doctor are having a merely verbal dispute (even if that isn’t quite right, as far as their mental-pictures are concerned).

    Second, our conception of truth necessarily involves making ontological commitments. So when you say that “if a world-picture changes enough, it is functionally indistinguishable from what a Realist calls the World, changing”, you may very well be right in an intuitive sense. But that won’t make any rational sense of the commitments that are made with respect to the things we say and what we mean. And if your constructionism doesn’t let us make those kinds of commitments, it’s not going to be very constructive. Even an engineer must dare to study physics if he wants to avoid building a crooked house.

    Third, our pictures aren’t worth taking seriously unless they can persist across time.

    Fourth, our pictures do, in fact, cohere to some extent — or, to switch metaphors, our languages are inter-translatable. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to trust that we are effectively communicating. We can desire communication as much as we like, but that’s besides the point. We have to presume common ground, or else we could not succeed at talking to each other. Coherence is, in a sense, how things persist.

  48. Ben: I have a real problem with your post.
    Mostly because I didn’t understand a lot of it.

    The first paragraph is clear enough.

    You have introduced a term degenerate in the second. Is the concept of gravity, which is necessarily unobservable what you call degenerate?

    I don’t understand your distinction. We draw maps of things that are unobservable to explain that which is. Further I maintain that our actual observations themselves are in fact pictures of what is intrinsically unobservable.

    As for ontological commitments..no the point is that we shouldn’t make ontological commitments. As far as Truth goes, we should merely affirm that it exists in a trivial sense as a way of expressing ‘whatever is the case’. So if what you are driving at its that I am not getting you closer to the truth, the answer is probably yes, Philosophy as rational discourse gives up its usefulness in constructing an ontology, that’s what I am trying to say.

    I suppose that’s one of the main reasons I am writing what I am writing: to show by rational discourse the limits of rational discourse. Like Kant, one critiques pure reason..

    I.e. the process by which we arrive at an ontology, is the same process as we used to develop say – a scientific theory. WE propose a noumenal entity, and phenomena are then represented as elements of that noumenal entity. In the case of a realist that is the space-time-matter universe. By definition everything that happens happens there.

    Te success or failure of that enterprise is only measured by how perfect and consistent that world view so derived is.

    Perhaps I haven’t made one idea clear. That is the formation of a world-view is what you would call a subconscious a-rational or pre-rational process. Most people are not aware that they have in fact done it: they find themselves in it, and that’s where they start. And at that point what quacks like a duck…etc.

    In other words when I say that we have a choice of ontologies, that is in the limit true, but for the average person it is not. They do not have the power to make that choice.

    ‘Our pictures aren’t worth taking seriously unless they can persist across time’

    Time, my friend, is part of the picture. You have to raise your game here. Don’t confuse my analogies with what I am trying to say. I can only give you trivial analogies whilst communicating in the language of this particular ontology.

    Ontology, is all in the conciousness. And that is not fixed by law, its fixed by convention alone.

    The reasons our pictures cohere is because we have an unbending desire to make them so: That implies no truth content. That is the Bandar Log argument ‘we all say it, so it must be true’.

    To be sure coherence is how things persist. But I don’t see why that statement was worth making?

    Look Ben, before I get myself so tangled up in words I completely lose the thread..All I can do is sketch out a hierearchy of process, with the very loosest meanings attached to those terms.

    In the beginning, something moves us to create an ontology. I use the term beginning, but don’t assume that’s temporal. Or that we exist prior to that intentionality. Perhaps one could say that intentionality splits the unity of existence into a philosopher and his ontology. 🙂

    Rationality tidies up that ontology and makes it self consistent, as far as it can…BUT It is not responsible for creating it. The intentionality expresses itself as a desire to be a certain sort of being in a certain sort of world. And here we are.

    We can muck around arguing who has the best ontology, but the real issue is why we have one at all. We cant always escape the primary indisputable fact that somehow we have arisen out of whatever is the case, and dualised the world.

    That inconvenient truth is mapped into various ontological concepts, or denied altogether. In our particular ontology-set we map that intentionality into a God concept, or Natural law. Or the original broken symmetry of the big bang. It doesn’t matter what we do somewhere that particular activity must inevitably appear.

    Existence exists. That is the ultimate mystery. Since we cannot conceive of anything but existence, we cannot conceive and ontology of it. Religious practice of the Eastern sort concententrates on conceiving an existence of non-existence, and thereby gains a glimpse..but that’s all it is.

    And because they can do that, their claim is that existence itself is anthropogenic.

    To a point agree, but the point where I run into trouble is why anthropogeneration itself exists..we always end up in some infinite regression of trying to express this in a causal way..

    And that’s why they have the Tao. That which exists through itself. The ultimate bootstrapping mechanism.

    I don’t think I have expressed this all clearly, but in the end its all about showing why its fruitless to either try and rationalise a mystery away, or attempt to solve it rationally. In the end what really matters lies beyond reason itself.

    And the mystics would say, you have to put reason aside to get to the more raw levels of experience. To experience your own ontology directly. And once you can see yourself constructing it, the it all gets much easier to understand..but that ability, to see yourself..is a weird mystery in itself…and leads to even more maddening questions.

  49. By ‘degenerate’ I mean in the sense proposed by the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos to describe scientific research programs that are constantly making up ad hoc explanations without generating new ways of being supported. The sophisticated Maian that you introduced is not party to a degenerate research programme because (s)he could make all the same predictions and hypotheses that contemporary biology does.

    Compare that to a Salem witch-hunter. The Salemite has a mystical theories of witches. If we showed them the evidence about the merely mortal powers of their victims, they would not say, “Oh, by ‘witch’ we mean women who work with herbs”. They would say, “That’s not a witch.” That would circumscribe their theory to ideas that have no (currently) observable basis in fact. That’s a degenerate research programme — or a degenerate world-picture. So the concept of gravity is not degenerate, no.

    The fact that our maps don’t correspond to reality in a rich 1:1 sense does not speak against the proposition that maps are true as opposed to useful. That’s because a map can be both precise in a sense and accurate in a sense without being accurate in its precision. And *that’s* because our ‘maps’ aren’t comprehensive. And our maps aren’t comprehensive because we’re not omniscient.

    Your anti-ontological stance rests on some kind of deflationism about truth. I think that is just not how we make sense of our own language, or how our language works temporally. Part of this is obscured by the vacuity of the old-fashioned shopworn phrase, “is the case”. When I say “‘Dolphins swim’ is true”, I am committing myself to the idea that ‘Dolphins swim’ is a matter of fact. When I say, “‘Murdering dolphins for sport is wrong’ is true”, I am committing myself to the idea that ‘Murdering dolphins for sport is wrong’ is an appropriate sensibility. If I ever utter a statement that does not imply its own truth, I am not committing myself to anything. “Ow!” is not true or false, and it expresses no commitments. And, finally: it is a characteristic of commitments that they should persist across time.

    If you’re right, then there’s no difference between an ontology and a nosology. Our commitments are just technical devices that we use in talk. I think that the four postulates above are taken as a whole, and considered in light of one another, are suggestive. (That’s why I tried to connect some of those postulates together explicitly — e.g., by saying that persistence is coherence.) Anyway, the overall weight of explanation favors some kind of serious distinction between ontology and nosology — they don’t both quack like ducks.

    I completely agree that the process that goes into the development of an ontology is like that that’s involved in developing a scientific theory. No quarrel there. Also, the idea that ‘time is part of the picture’ is not a fine-grained use of analogy. If you don’t want to mislead people through analogies — well, use better ones! Or at least make clear principled distinctions from the outset.

  50. I really don’t understand your use of the term nosology, as it seems to have no bearing on anything we may or may not seem to be discussing.

    You remind me of someone who said to me ‘what you are saying is it’s all just psychology’ .

    To which, on reflection, my answer was ‘yes’, I suppose it all is pyschology: The whole world you think you inhabit is all “just pyschology”‘.

    You have a commonly held view that whilst you accept that the map is not the territory, you feel that is ‘pretty close’.

    My response is that if you examine a map in detail, all you will find is paper fibres. Quite different from what the world so represented actually consists of.

    If you like what I am trying to point towards, is that time space and matter and all the other metaphysical propositions are the sheet of paper on which the map is drawn. And the rules by which it is drawn.

    But the rules may be changed, if you wish. For different purposes.

    The question arises as to who is the map maker. Some say God, I say us. Its that simple. We map the transcendental into the mundane.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be to say the way I visualise it is as a computer, equipped with a screen. All the reality you experience consciously, is the screen. That, howver, reflects some _utterly_ different state of affairs (signals in a physical substrate in this case) – via an algorithmic process, into something that has coherence and persistence and space and time coordinates…

    The important thing is two elements are needed to produce the result. The data itself and the algorithm applied to display it in a coherent form.

    When I talk about different world-views, that is simply changing the algorithm. I don’t use the same program to display a video file as I do to debug the operating system.

    That doesn’t eliminate the God problem: But it does split it into two independent parts. One is in your subconscious algorithmic processing, and the other is in the fact of the existence of data, and in the algorithmic processor, at all.

    The mystery ‘why anything?’ remains a mystery..but the mystery ‘why this particular thing?’ now becomes explicable.

    As such I propose it gives scope for more fruitful advancement in ways of thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything.

    I think I mentioned it before but for a fuller exploration of a rather better and more detailed analogy, see Vlakto Vidrals ‘Decoding reality:The Universe as Quantum Information’…that gievs a miore detaield exploration of how raw information (I don’t see it as quantum, in the limit, but he does) gets rendered into a world of space time and matter.


    Look Ben, maybe there is something else to say here that may resolve some lack of communication. I am not interested in reviewing older and dustier metaphysical schemas and their ontologies, so much as trying to indicate that an ontology determines the reality and the ontology is a free choice. That is, to go beyond metaphysics and glimpse a relationship that shows how all these metaphysical ontologies are – in a sense – special solutions of a more general expression.

    That more general relationship is formulated as the absolute necessity for a being who is to experience a coherent world, that parts of the experience are dualised into what is the being itself, and what is the perceived world. And implicitly, the process by which that duality is achieved. And the rules used to distinguish between the elements of the world.

    Esoteric traditions and mysticism deal with that aspect of human experience.

    Having thrown them out in the process of developing a Rational materialistic worldview, we find they have reappeared again, albeit in a different guise.

    Every ontology has to have it’s Omega point. For the RM that is the broken symmetry of the Big Bang, for the devout, it is God’s act of creation.

    For me, its merely a statement that at some point consciousness bootstraps itself into a coherent view of a universe. The Big Bang is just another creation myth, formed by projecting the nature of a particular worldview backwards in time. Its sole virtue is that it accords with our conception of what the world is, better than a god based myth.

    That does not make it truer in an absolute sense.

    In Vidral’s terms, the nature of the Universe is that a zero entropy point evaluates through time to a maximum entropy state in due course. So if you want to call God, the zero entropy point..hell it’s only a three letter word. No need to get excited about it.
    So that ontology maps ‘god’ to a definite mathematically precise statement in terms of information theory..but it doesn’t eliminate the issue.

    And that’s what I am trying to say..no mater which way you renormalise or transform the elements of a phenomenal world, at some point the issue of why anything is there, and why this particular things is there, won’t go away.

    I cant answer either of them completely, but I am trying to suggest was in which they may be regarded – more generaic, more transcendental ways – that offer some potential insight into not the maps, but a glimpse at least of the map making process itself. Because that is something we can study IF and ONLY if we look at a lot of different maps.

    Ergo I am sympathetic to religious experience, and god-concepts. They are different maps. The argument for me is not about the veracity or accuracy or even ultimately the utility of such maps, but solely that they show how maps are made, so we can construct new ones to reveal information we didn’t have an ontology for, before.

  51. I’m focusing in particular on your claim that philosophy gives up its usefulness when constructing an ontology. But clearly we’re doing *something* when we do philosophy, and categorizing various things into categories like “is” or “is not”. Since you seem to advocate a constructionist viewpoint, it follows that the fruits of philosophy and discussions of ontology are a practical taxonomies, at best (not unlike a nosology in medicine).

    Hence, you are open to changing the rules of the game, away from platitudes like space-time, and into other territory for different purposes. I think that’s just changing the subject. No doubt there are issues that won’t go away. The question is: why?

    There are two possible answers. On the one hand, ambitious ontologists will say that there is some flexibility and undecidability to the field of ontology, and that we don’t have a fully satisfactory metaphysics, even if (they might say) we do know that the field of metaphysics is constrained by a finite number of permissible or stable accounts. And perhaps quantum information accounts as one of those permissible options. On the other hand, when we open up the field of the “a priori” as widely as you seem to want to do, then we’re effectively just letting the mind wander and calling it metaphysics. Hence, when your friend tells you that you’re just doing psychology, they really might be on to something.

    You’re not alone in your views, though. There’s a rich and varied tradition behind what you’re saying, and it goes pretty deep. Very interesting stuff. I just don’t think it gets to the heart of the matter.

  52. I thought the last of half of this essay might be of interest:


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