Sunday, November 05, 2006


I subscribe to a physicalist view of consciousness. That is, I believe that consciousness is fully reducible to natural processes occurring within the material brain. Whilst we don’t yet have a full working theory of consciousness, I consider that this is most likely attainable in principle. However, even if such a complete naturalistic theory can never be formulated, I do not believe that this implies that consciousness requires anything other than matter/energy operating within space/time, and certainly do not accept that anything supernatural is required. In such a case, I think that our inability to explain consciousness (and such related concepts as qualia) by natural means alone would be due to its complexity and to limits of our imagination, ingenuity, language, or knowledge, and would not be because consciousness is dependent upon some non-material substance or additional properties for its existence.

The theories of consciousness that propose the mind to be dependent upon some non-material substance, or upon some additional mental properties, are known as dualist theories. These can be broadly classified as either Substance Dualism, in which the mind is thought to be a separate non-material substance, and Property Dualism, which proposes that when matter is organized in the appropriate way (i.e. in the way that living human bodies are organized), mental properties emerge. Substance Dualism was notably defended by Descartes, but is today associated primarily with theology – where this non-material substance is identified with the soul.

Substance dualism seems to me to be multiply fallacious, and perhaps impossible to verify or falsify. I would contend that it falls foul of Occam’s razor, since it posits some unknown supernatural substance to explain the mind, which we know to be closely associated with the material brain, and leaves more questions unanswered than it actually answers. To the proponent of substance dualism, I would submit the following questions:

1. On your hypothesis, what exactly is this other ‘stuff’ that mind consists of?
2. Since the material brain is intimately tied up with consciousness, what exactly is it that this substance does that the material brain does not do, and how does it do this?
3. How do the material brain and this other stuff interact to produce consciousness?
4. Why is the material brain required to play a part in consciousness at all? Why not just have ‘mind’ that is completely independent of any physical brain?
5. How do you explain the fact that brain damage can result in a (temporary or permanent) loss of consciousness?
6. How do you explain that stimulating the brain in certain ways repeatedly causes certain feelings, memories, and thoughts?
7. How does this immaterial substance cause a physical effect e.g. the firing of neurons and releasing of chemicals?
8. At what point in human evolution did we acquire this ‘mind’, how did that happen, and where did it come from?
9. Do other animals have any of this substance?
10. At what point during the evolution of the universe did this mind stuff come into existence, and how did that happen?
11. Are we born with this mind substance already present, or does it enter later? If the latter, when does it enter, and how?
12. How might we verify or falsify your theory of consciousness?

Property Dualism does not suffer from many of the problems of substance dualism, but it still needs to explain how these proposed emergent properties of the mind are able to cause physical effects within the material brain.

My own particular view is that some non-naïve variety of Identity Theory is the most compelling explanation of consciousness (although I might be convinced by some other materialist theory of mind, such as Functionalism). This is a materialist theory that offers a strongly reductive option by identifying conscious mental properties, states and processes with physical ones, most typically of a neural or neurophysiological nature. In other words, our conscious experience when we have a thought, or when we experience some phenomenal experience (such as seeing a colour, smelling a flower, feeling pain etc.) is identical with the specific brain state that accompanies this experience.

One might ask why physical processing within the brain should give rise to the rich inner life that we experience. However, on the Identity Theory, the concept that consciousness somehow ‘arises’ from something is a misnomer – and one that has led to much debate about what this extra something is, and how it arises from and interrelates to the physical brain. I would contend that consciousness is in fact identical to physical brain states, so a thought is nothing more than a particular configuration of firing neurons, chemicals, and other physical phenomena within the brain. Likewise, the experience of seeing a colour, or feeling pain is just our first-person experience of some brain state or other. These states are not necessarily the same from person to person, or even each time we experience something (token identity).

Now, this seems at first to be counterintuitive. How can a thought be nothing more than a brain state? Surely, our consciousness is more than this? In fact, the most intuitive idea would seem to be that our consciousness is something entirely separate from the physical brain – some other substance entirely. This is one of the appeals of Substance Dualism.

By contrast, Property Dualism, which is more modest in its claims, holds that there exist mental properties (i.e., characteristics or aspects of things) that are neither identical with nor reducible to physical properties. Conscious properties, such as the colour qualia involved in a conscious experience of a visual perception, cannot be explained in purely physical terms and, thus, are not themselves to be identified with any brain state or process.

However, on the Identity theory, both of these viewpoints are mistaken. There is no other ‘substance’ of which mind is constituted, and there are no mental properties that are not reducible to the physical. Although this may indeed be counterintuitive, perhaps we should instead ask exactly why our first-person experience of brain states would not be what we call thoughts, memories, feelings, qualia etc. How should these brain states manifest themselves, if not in these ways?

The brain states and our conscious experiences are just two sides of the same coin, two ways of seeing the same phenomenon – one from the first-person, and the other from the third-person. I am saying that the correlation between the brain states and our experience is more than just a correlation; it is an identity. Just as the presence of heat when molecules are excited is not just a correlation – they are different ways of looking at the same phenomenon. It is a (masked man) fallacy to say that we recognise heat, but do not recognise moving molecules, therefore heat is not moving molecules. In the same way, it is a fallacy to say that we know what thoughts and sensations are like, but do not know what brain states are like, therefore thoughts and sensations are not brain states.

Interestingly, when the brain is monitored during the process of seeing something, and the subject then being asked to remember this something, the neurons in the brain seem to fire in a similar way. This suggests that memories are just the brain recreating a simplified version of its internal state when the event first happened.

On the Identity theory, it is just a ‘brute fact’ that there are such identities, and the appearance of arbitrariness between brain properties and mental properties is just that – an apparent problem leading many to wonder about the alleged explanatory gap. Qualia would then just be identical to physical properties. There is therefore no real explanatory gap on this theory, and science will, in principle, be able to explain consciousness fully from a third-person point of view. Of course, as science explains things from a third-person point of view, it can never describe ‘what it feels like’ to smell a flower, since this it not the type of problem that it addresses, but I don’t think this implies that ‘what it feel like’ is some sort of knowledge that requires the mind to have additional non-physical properties.

This concept of qualia (properties of sensory experiences) is one that is often cited when arguing for dualism. However, I would suggest that the assumed connection between qualia and consciousness is actually a red herring. For example, how can we be so sure that a dog does not experience qualia? Why would it not experience some feeling of what it is like to scratch itself, or eat a bone, or see its owner return? Why would a simple creature like a butterfly not experience some feeling of ‘attractiveness’ in a flower that it is drawn towards? Colour vision is present in some lower animals, so why wouldn’t they have some experience of ‘redness’? Hence, I would say that lower animals likely have experience of qualia, and science cannot describe how this ‘feels’ to them, but that doesn’t imply that they possess some sort of non-physical mental property.

I would suggest that qualia are merely functions of perception, and are thus likely to be present in other animals too. We are conscious of our perception of qualia, because we are conscious, but that does not imply that consciousness is a prerequisite for experiencing qualia, or that qualia in themselves tell us something interesting about consciousness. Our experience of qualia will likely vary from that present in lower animals, as we have an additional layer of self-awareness that they don’t seem to possess. However, in my opinion, the experience of qualia alone cannot be used to justify property dualism.

The so-called Knowledge Argument is sometimes used against such physicalist theories. This is commonly expressed by recourse to two famous thought experiments. In the first, courtesy of Thomas Nagel, we are asked to imagine what it would be like to be a bat. We might know everything about the working of the bat’s brain from a scientific point of view, but we can still not imagine actually being a bat. In other words, whilst we might know all physical facts about a bat’s brain, there is still some knowledge missing – the bat’s first-person experience of being a bat. Therefore, so the argument goes, the materialist theories of consciousness are flawed.

However, this argument does not refute the theory that the bat’s conscious experience is not identical with its brain states. The fact that we can never know this experience from a first-person point of view does not mean that it is not a purely naturalistic process. After all, the only way in which we might experience being a bat would be for us to run some kind of ‘bat simulation’ within our own brain. Even if this were ever scientifically feasible, we would still lack the language to be able to express our experience - not to mention that the memories of this utterly alien event would need to be translated to some other form to be stored with our own brain. This would, by its very nature, distort and anthropomorphise the event.

The other well-known thought experiment (created by Frank Jackson) concerns a person called Mary, who is kept in a black and white room from birth. She becomes a brilliant neuroscientist, and an expert on colour perception. She knows all of the physical facts about human colour perception, but has never seen, for example, the colour red for herself. Upon leaving the room, she experiences red for the first time, and apparently learns some new fact that she didn’t know before. Since we presumed that she knew all physical facts about colour perception, this new fact must be non-physical. Therefore, the materialist viewpoint is shown to be fallacious.

However, on the Identity theory, Mary is not learning a new fact, she is merely learning the same fact, but from a different point of view – first-person rather than third-person. The thought experiment does not refute the identity between the brain state and Mary’s experience of seeing red, so the metaphysics of the physicalist perspective is not challenged.

Actually, I think that the Mary's Room thought experiment is an example of the Masked Man Fallacy.

Here is an example of this fallacy (courtesy of Stephen Law):

1. John Wayne is someone that Michael knows to have appeared in True Grit
2. Marion Morrison is not someone that Michael knows to have appeared in True Grit
3. Therefore, Marion Morrison is not John Wayne

But this conclusion is fallacious, as John Wayne was Marion Morrison's stage name. This illustrates that personal knowledge or belief is not a property of an object that can be used to disprove identity.The Mary argument can be rephrased in a way that follows the example above, and makes the fallacy much more evident:

1. Mary has all the physical information concerning human colour vision before her release.
2. Upon her release, Mary believes that she comes to know new information about human colour vision
3. Therefore, not all information is physical information.

Now we can see the problem. Mary might believe that she comes to know new information upon her release but, in reality, she is just seeing the same information from a different perspective. So, she comes to know no new facts about human colour vision, but just sees the same facts in a different way. Therefore, this is an example of the masked man fallacy.

Paul Churchland (in the essay 'On functionalism and materialism’) makes a similar point when discussing this argument. He suggests that it is making an error of equivocation with the word ‘know’. Knowing in the sense of knowing physical facts is not the same as knowing based upon first-hand experience of the phenomenon. Furthermore, we can allow for a duality or multiplicity of types of knowing, without committing to there being non-physical information. Rather, there are multiple mediums through which we can come to ‘know’ the same facts.

To summarise, I believe that thoughts, memories, sensory experiences etc. are just our first-person experience of brain states. That seems quite alien to us, but the fact that we don't recognise thoughts and sensations as being identical with brain states doesn't mean that they are not. Consciousness is just what you get when you have a material brain consisting of billions of neurons, and a feedback loop that gives it self-awareness (not located in any particular spot – this is a category error). There is no additional non-material substance required, nor are there any emergent mental properties. Science may never be able to describe what it ‘feels’ like to see the colour red, for example, but I think it is an unjustified leap to think that this implies that the brain possesses some non-physical properties. The limitation here is that we are trying to describe first-person experiences in third-person terms – and failing. In my opinion, the more parsimonious explanation is that our first-person experiences just ‘are’ these brain states, and the limitation is just one of description.

For an interesting discussion of qualia, see this. For an interesting paper about the explanatory gap, and why it may be illusory, see this and also the article by Thomas Clark here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Considering a minimal god hypothesis

For this post, I will restrict my argument to a minimal god hypothesis that was proposed to me by somebody on the Butterflies and Wheels website.

This god is defined as follows:

1. Rational
2. Omnipresent in physical space, with the universe being part of God, rather than as a separate creation.
3. Neither omnipotent nor omniscient in that the future is undetermined, and human actions are free.

Now, at this point, I think that we need to answer a very pertinent question. Does this god have any observable effect upon the material universe? That is, does the existence of this god make our universe different in any predictable and observable way from how it would have been if this god didn’t exist?

Of course, the trite answer to this is yes, as without god the universe wouldn’t exist at all. However, that merely begs the question, and so gets us nowhere. So, are there any other predictions that we can test by observing the universe? If yes, then we are at liberty to test these predictions, and compare with reality. Most theists do in fact attribute all sorts of characteristics to their god. We can then make predictions about how such a god would be expected to manifest itself, order the universe, and to act. However, if you wish to declare that your god is transcendental and immaterial, is undetectable by any scientific means, and that we can make no predictions about the type of universe that we would expect to see if it exists, then I think that you have a problem. For, if the existence of your god entails exactly the same observations already entailed by naturalism, then there is no reasonable argument to be made for believing it - as I shall seek to demonstrate.

Although I can never hope to prove that such a transcendent and immaterial god doesn’t exist, the principle of Occam's razor dictates that we should reject such a hypothesis. For, if we have perfectly good explanations for how the universe behaves that are based upon what we can observe, and what we can infer from this, then why would we want to introduce into our theories a supposed entity of a type never encountered before in science, and whose existence we can never verify or falsify – even in principle? To be sure, our explanations are not complete yet, but I see no reason to believe it better to introduce such an ad-hoc entity as an explanation, rather than to just say that we are still working on it. Is it more rational to say that we have just a material universe (which is all that we can observe), and which is ordered in such a way that we can attempt to fathom the way that it operates; and to then attempt this fathoming by adductive, deductive, and inductive reasoning based upon what we know? Or is it more rational to say that, in addition to the material universe that we can observe, there exists some universe-creating transcendental, immaterial entity whose existence or effects we can never observe – and hence which we can never verify or falsify? I would say that the former is more rational.

This logic still applies if you are to contend that this god does, in fact, do all sorts of things that we can observe, but that it makes it appear as if these things happen purely by some non-intelligent mechanistic process.

Now, one way around this is to suggest that the god hypothesis is actually a more rational answer in the absence of any other evidence, as it actually explains the existence of the universe in the most parsimonious way. However, I would contest this, as there are already plausible scientific explanations for the existence of our universe. We are able to construct viable working scientific theories to explain how the universe might have come to exist from a prior state of ‘nothing’ (which I would define for this purpose as an absence of space, time, energy, and matter. See this, or this for more information), or might have arisen spontaneously as a quantum fluctuation in the quantum foam as part of an Eternal Inflation model, and then evolved to what we currently see. These theories are based upon our observations, and our scientific knowledge and understanding of the world, and are able to predict exactly the type of universe that we observe. They do this without the necessity of positing some ad-hoc creator, or introducing any other ad-hoc assumptions, and are therefore more plausible, parsimonious, and powerful explanations than the god hypothesis.

For my purposes here, I shall concentrate on the Eternal Inflation theory. Now, you may object that this theory doesn’t explain why there exists a multiverse in the first place, nor why there is some sort of process that allows universes to come into existence from it, so we still don’t have a complete explanation. That is indubitably true. However, your god hypothesis gets you no further, as you need to explain why your god exists at all; never mind why it has the characteristics that it does, and why it would choose to create the particular universe that we see (which is almost entirely lethal to our type of life), rather than one far more suited to us, and far more economical in scale and age. So, if you are proposing that there is no way, even in principle, that we can attempt to verify or falsify your god hypothesis by recourse to observation (as it is immaterial, transcendental, etc…), then I think that the most rational option is to disregard it. Contrary to what one might initially imagine, I would say that such a god hypothesis is not the most parsimonious or plausible one available.

However, you may choose to go another route. You might say that the apparent fine-tuning of the universe is evidence for the existence of your god. Such a statement does indeed constitute an explanation for the observations. However, if we are able to formulate a scientific hypothesis that also explains these observations, but does not require the introduction of this ad-hoc universe-creator, then it will be both more parsimonious and plausible than the god hypothesis. In fact, we do have such a hypothesis. The Eternal Inflation multiverse theory follows naturally from the combination of the Big Bang and Inflation theories – both of which are sound scientific theories. If we are to accept these two as our starting point, then the existence of a multiverse is the de facto conclusion. In fact, to deny the existence of a multiverse, we would need to propose additional ad-hoc laws that force the Big Bang (followed by Inflation) to have happened only once.

I should stress here that the Eternal Inflation theory (and other multiverse concepts) was not just pulled out of a hat in order to explain away the apparent fine-tuning found in the universe. Rather, it followed naturally from previously accepted theories. However, it does nevertheless explain the apparent fine-tuning as, in an infinite set of ‘pocket universes’, there is bound to be one with our particular characteristics. In such a universe, we are able to exist to have these thoughts, and to make the observations.

As a further observation on this, the proponent of the fine-tuning argument is also required to explain why a universe designed to ultimately produce us would be a huge and almost entirely radiation-filled vacuum, and why it would take billions of years before we would evolve. The scientist can explain this, as any apparent teleology is purely the result of natural processes. As a matter of interest, from a scientific point of view, teleology has been almost entirely expunged from our theories. Apparent teleology in the evolution of life (which, incidentally, is a fact. The explanation for this evolution is the theoretical part) has been explained by Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. In addition, from a scientific point of view, any apparent teleology in the ordering of the cosmos is now explained as the result of mindless natural laws.

Of course, there are some interesting loose ends here. An obvious one here is consciousness. I believe that consciousness is ultimately reducible to configurations of matter/energy within space/time. It is possible that we may never have a full explanation of consciousness, but I think that giving up on this venture now would be rather premature. Even if we are never able to explain it fully, we are not justified in inferring that consciousness requires some other ‘something’ that is not part of the material universe. I also tend to think that the problem of qualia is a bit of a red herring, as I suspect that it is not dependent upon consciousness at all – but merely upon perception. Ultimately, I feel that any inability to explain these things by natural means would be as a result of our lack of imagination, ingenuity, language, or knowledge, and is not because they are dependent some non-material stuff for their existence.

Another interesting case is that of mathematics. I tend to think that mathematics is in some sense a fundamental property of the structure of our universe, and is not a purely human construct (although, obviously, some aspects of it are a human construct). So, I do not subscribe to the Conventionalist position, but am inclined rather more towards the Realist stance. However, I think that whilst mathematics is in some sense 'out there', this is a result of the fundamental structure of space/time, and it is not in some way transcendent. Of course, we are still left having to explain why we find that mathematics is a part of our universe, but that is just one part of the overall problem of the existence of the universe - and for which the god hypothesis is not the best answer. Interestingly, Max Tegmark's Ulimate Ensemble does allow for worlds in which mathematics is radically different from ours (for example, in which 2 + 2 = 5).

Perhaps at this point I should attempt a summary of my points.

· We only know that the material universe exists (in as much as we can ever really ‘know’ anything).
· A theory that explains the existence of our universe by recourse to what we already know to exist, using and building upon existing theories that are logically sound and evidentially well supported, and making reasoned inferences from these theories, has to be more plausible than one that does not.
· In addition, a theory that requires the introduction of entirely ad-hoc elements has to be less parsimonious than one that does not.
· A theory that predicts the specific universe that we observe, rather than just some universe, has to be more powerful than one that does not.
· A theory that can be tested (and possibly falsified) has to be preferred over one that has no such options available.
· The god hypothesis as proposed by you requires the positing of some ad-hoc ineffable and immaterial universe-creating entity. The existence and characteristics of this entity cannot be explained in terms of the things we know to exist in the material universe, and by known physical laws. In addition, it cannot be observed as some distinct entity within the material universe. Further, its existence alone makes no predictions about the structure of the universe that we would expect to observe. However, by means of the introduction of a further set of completely ad-hoc assumptions, it can be made to fit with the evidence that we see around us. By such means, the existence of this entity becomes entirely untestable and unfalsifiable.
· By contrast, the Eternal Inflation multiverse theory explains the existence of our universe in terms of things that we know to exist, and of other well-founded and evidentially supported theories. It requires the introduction of no entirely ad-hoc elements. Further, in many specific ways it does predict the type of universe that we see around us. As yet, it cannot be tested or falsified directly. However, physicists are currently working on indirect methods by which it might be tested. Hence, the Eternal Inflation is a more parsimonious, plausible, and powerful hypothesis than the god hypothesis. It might not be true, but is at least a better explanation of what we observe to be the case than is the god hypothesis. Therefore, it is less rational to opt for the god hypothesis as one’s explanation of the existence of the universe, as better explanations exist.

At this point, the ‘sophisticated’ theist might be tempted to reach for one of the standard arguments for the existence of a god. However, this doesn’t really get them anywhere, as all of these arguments have well-known rebuttals.

For example, three perennial favourites are:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument takes the following form – 1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause. 2) The universe began to exist. 3) Therefore, the universe has a cause. 4) This cause is God. However, this argument fails, as the first and second premises are not demonstrably true. Current cosmological theories propose an eternal multiverse; and physicists have already proposed mechanisms whereby uncaused events can happen. Even apart from this, if we were to accept the conclusion of point 3, this does not imply that the cause is any particular god (or even a god at all: it could be a highly advanced alien civilisation), so the argument fails doubly.

The Cosmological Design Argument states that the precise fine-tuning for life of the fundamental constants appears more epistemically probable given theism than it does given naturalism. However, this fine-tuning for life arises as a natural consequence of cosmological multiverse theories, by means of the weak anthropic principle. That is, a universe in which we have evolved must necessarily have the appearance of fine-tuning for life. Within the infinity of possible ‘pocket universes’, some will allow for life to develop, and some others will not. We necessarily exist in a universe that does. As with the previous argument, this argument does not imply that the universe creator is any particular god, or even a god at all.

The classic Ontological Argument has the following form: 1. God is the most perfect ('the greatest') being conceivable. 2. It is more perfect ('greater') to exist than not to exist. 3. Therefore, God must exist. However, as Kant pointed out, existing is not a property of a thing at all i.e. existence is not a perfection. Therefore, the second premise is false. Even if we were to allow the second premise to stand, we could substitute things other than God in the first premise i.e. X is the most perfect Y conceivable, and thereby prove its existence – which is an absurdity. Even if we were to grant the validity of the argument, we would have to ask whether the entity whose existence we are proving bears any resemblance at all to the god commonly conceived of by the Abrahamic religions? The God depicted in the Bible, for example, is far from perfect by any normal definition of the word. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that such a ‘perfect’ entity is not the god of any known religion.

So, all of these arguments fail, and, even if they didn’t, do not lead to the conclusion that the god in question is one of those commonly conceived of. It might instead be a committee of gods, a supremely evil god, or a highly advanced alien civilisation etc. Actually, this same reasoning applies to almost any argument in favour of the minimal god hypothesis.

Now, back to the previous discussion. There is one fundamental problem with the Eternal Inflation theory. We are left with no fundamental explanation of why there is some universe-creating mechanism at all, and why the proposed mechanism works in the way that it does. We are just forced to accept this as our ‘brute fact’ – our starting point from which to deduce everything else.

It is at this point that one might be tempted to think that the god hypothesis scores its knockdown win by positing god as the ultimate explanation. However, a little more thought shows that this victory is in fact illusory. For, why does god have the characteristics that it does, and why create the particular universe that we see? More to the point, why does this god exist at all? Why not just no god and no universe? In other words, the proponent of the god hypothesis is forced to accept the existence of such a god as their ‘brute fact’. This god does not come from anywhere, or exist for any reason (since this would imply some Meta rule of existence and attributes applicable to gods) - it just exists. So, the proponent of the god hypothesis has the same problem here as the proponent of the Eternal Inflation theory – with the addition that their hypothesis is less parsimonious, plausible, and powerful, so it loses again.

The proponent of the god hypothesis might try to insist that their god is somehow a ‘necessary being’, but no formulation of this argument has ever avoided rebuttal, so this line of reason is not at all persuasive. As Hume pointed out, insofar as this concept coheres at all, we might as well just posit the universe (or multiverse) as that thing which is essential.

So, to conclude, I contend that the minimal god hypothesis that I have been considering is not the argument to the best explanation, and so should be rejected on the grounds of rationality. Whilst the Eternal Inflation theory may not be the correct explanation of reality, or even the best one, it is nevertheless a far more reasonable one than the god hypothesis, and so is to be preferred.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Christian morality

There is a presumption amongst many Christians that morality should be based upon the Bible. In the absence of such Scriptural teachings, they say, we would all be cast adrift morally.

This is a naïve presumption, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is the rather conspicuous incidence of pre-Christian societies (such as the Greeks) who had rather well developed systems of ethics and morals. We may not agree with all of their teachings, but then the Christian ones leave something to be desired too – as we shall see.

Secondly, there is the matter of the Bible itself. If it really were the work of a perfect and loving God, it would be surely be perfect in every regard. It would be accurate, clear, concise, and consistent throughout. However, the Bible is hardly that. Many of its passages describe God-ordained atrocities, which would seem to be at odds with the concept of the omnibenevolent Christian God. Further, some biblical teachings are both unreasonable and unlikely since they are in obvious disagreement with common sense, as well as with God’s supposed characteristics. Other biblical accounts are absurd in that they represent very primitive beliefs, which are in clear disagreement with modern scientific and other knowledge.

Some Christians, of course, say that they don’t really follow the Old Testament anymore – finding it rather too violent and eccentric for their tastes. However, we might note the following passage in the New Testament, where Jesus makes it clear that the laws of the Old Testament are still binding, and are not subject to human interpretation:

Matthew 5:18-19 Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or tittle shall nowise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, liberals still choose to ignore many of parts of the Bible, and to reinterpret other parts, but either it is the inerrant word of God or it isn't. If we are going to pick and choose the bits we like, and place our own interpretation on other parts, then we are potentially placing our judgment above that of God’s. If God very clearly and unambiguously stated that people should be executed for blasphemy (or picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or whatever), then to not do that suggests that we have moral goodness, knowledge, or powers of judgement that God doesn't have. However, in the Christian worldview this surely cannot be so. Either God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, or He isn't. If God says that we should do these things, then who are we to question this?Most liberal Christians prefer to go by Jesus’ (more moderate) teachings, and to largely ignore the Old Testament. However, Jesus did not say that his teachings were to replace the teachings of the Old Testament. In fact, he said the exact opposite - as per the verse quoted earlier.

There is no Bible version 2, in which universal love, compassion, tolerance, reason, and honesty are unambiguously preached. The New Testament may be an improvement upon the Old, but in my opinion, it is far from the great moral textbook that Christians would have us believe. So, even if one allows for God changing his moral message from that espoused in the Bible, there is no later bible in which this supposed new message is recorded. If God thought it important to get this revised message across, then one would expect it to be done in a clear and unambiguous manner, not just left to fallible humans to make this interpretation. Of course, I'm happy that Christianity has been forced in general to become more liberal and tolerant, but I'm just highlighting the apparent hypocrisy of this position.

Further, If one is going to use some of the Bible's moral teaching, and choose to ignore or reinterpret other bits, by what means is one making this choice? In order to decide what to include in one’s 'Christian moral framework', and what to leave out, one is necessarily appealing to some other ethical system - a sort of Meta ethics. One can't decide purely by reading the Bible what to include or not (since you should include everything, unless you make some sort of arbitrary choice), so it must be the case that you are making this choice based upon some other moral yardstick. In other words, there is some other framework - existing outside of the Bible - that is determining your morals. So, that gives the lie to the concept that a moral framework must necessarily derive from the Bible alone (and God's word).

If there is a kind of meta ethics to which people appeal in order to ultimately determine what is acceptable or not, and which is not based upon the Bible at all, why not just use this and ignore the Bible totally? Liberal Christians choose to ignore the biblical exhortations to stone people to death for all sorts of real and imagined crimes, and do not condone slavery, even though Jesus apparently saw no problem with it – which is good news! However, when they choose to follow those biblical teaching that are good, they always refer back to the Bible as their source.

Why can’t Christians just admit that the moral code espoused in the Bible is often a very primitive one, and is deficient and unenlightened in many ways? Subsequent, more enlightened thinkers have improved upon its moral teachings dramatically, which is to be expected, as the Bible is nothing more than a book written hundreds of years ago by fallible humans.


The ‘respect’ word seems to be ubiquitous these days concerning religious sensibilities. I suggest that there is a strong whiff of equivocation present in these exhortations, for there are two types of respect that are being conflated.

Firstly, there is respect in a minimal sense. I respect the rights of all people to think and say what they want to, unless such utterances constitute a direct incitement to violence (but not to do whatever they wish, as I do not condone murder). Then there is the second type of respect, which impels me to not say and think whatever I wish, in case it upsets the sensibilities of the religious. There is a further implied connotation that I should esteem the worldview of these people who claim respect from me.

Well, I, for one, have no more ‘respect’ for the Christian worldview than I would have for any other worldview that I consider to be fundamentally flawed and misguided (N.B. I could easily substitute the other major monotheistic religions here). However, in my opinion the Christian worldview is far more insidious than this. I am happy to accord people the right to hold the Christian or any other worldview, so long as they accord me the minimal respect required to allow me to disagree with them, and do not try to impose their beliefs upon me. However, by nature the Christian religion (and many others too) is fundamentally intolerant of any opposing worldview. This is not just a case of human nature perverting an intrinsically tolerant worldview either (although human nature has inevitably made things much worse). Rather, it is the case that intolerance is fundamentally enshrined at the very core of the religion. I could quote chapter and verse all day long to back up this assertion, but I need look no further than the Ten Commandments –

3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;
7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

These commandments alone have been responsible for untold death and misery. Of course, human intolerance wasn’t invented by the Abrahamic religions. Human beings are naturally intolerant of different opinions and beliefs. However, as a human invention, these religions have intolerance at their very core.

Of course, one can use the Bible in order to justify both good and bad acts, and no doubt the Bible has also been responsible for many acts of moral goodness. However, one would imagine that the product of a supposedly morally perfect, omnipotent, and omniscient god should have been written in such a way that it could not be interpreted in any way that would justify death, misery and suffering.

So, to summarise, I grant the religious the minimal level of respect that I grant all humans, but I refuse to grant them the type of exaggerated respect that they crave from me. In this latter sense, I am no different from the religious themselves, as all too often they fail to grant such respect to me as an unbeliever, or to those of other religions – as, to them, we are all blasphemers by definition.

Science and the supernatural

One often hears the argument that it is not reasonable to analyse the likelihood or otherwise of a supernatural and transcendent deity using scientific means, as such a deity is, by definition, outside of the material universe – and is thus beyond science’s sphere of applicability. In answer to that, I would firstly point out that we have no evidence that there exists anything outside of the physical world (i.e. supernatural). However, even if we are to suppose that some supernatural entity does exist, we nevertheless seem to be limited in our enquiries to the material world alone – as that is the world that we inhabit. Hence, we can only attempt to infer the existence of such a supernatural entity by searching for traces of its effects upon the material world. So, in order to make any progress with this question, we need to frame our supernatural entity hypothesis in such a way that it makes predictions about the material world that we are able to investigate.

I would further point out that if we were to persist in the requirement that any supernatural event or entity is forever beyond scientific investigation, even in principle, then we are actually saying that no such thing (or effect of this thing) can ever be observed. For, if it can be observed, then it can also be investigated scientifically. If we hold this view, then we believe in the existence of something that we have no way of ever verifying or falsifying. It exists as a metaphysical construct only. Whilst it might be interesting to construct such a metaphysical hypothesis, I would contend that it is not rational to believe that it exists in reality unless one has some good reason for doing so (beyond mere wishful thinking).

If we are to really make any progress on this question, then how would we define a supernatural event? As a starter, I would suggest Keith Augustine’s definition for a candidate supernatural event: “(1) the cause of the event cannot be identified as any known physical force or entity nor is it supervenient upon any known physical force or entity; (2) the cause of the event cannot be located in space and time; (3) the event defies all attempted scientific explanations thus far; (4) the event appears to violate well-established scientific laws (as distinguished from genuine laws of nature); (5) the event is highly improbable if it solely has known natural causes; and (6) the event exhibits apparently purposive or intelligent behaviour.”

As far as the concept of the supernatural that is disallowed by metaphysical naturalism, the following definition explains it well: “What all metaphysical naturalists agree on, however, is that the fundamental constituents of reality, from which everything derives and upon which everything depends, is fundamentally mindless. So if any variety of metaphysical naturalism is true, then any mental properties that exist (hence any mental powers or beings) are causally derived from, and ontologically dependent on, systems of nonmental properties, powers, or things. This means metaphysical naturalism would be false if any distinctly mental property, power, or entity exists that is not ontologically dependent on some arrangement of nonmental things, or that is not causally derived from some arrangement of nonmental things, or that has causal effects without the involvement of any arrangement of nonmental things that is already causally sufficient to produce that effect.

In lay terms, if metaphysical naturalism is true, then all minds, and all the contents and powers and effects of minds, are entirely constructed from or caused by natural phenomena, while if metaphysical naturalism is false, then some minds, or some of the contents or powers or effects of minds, are causally independent of nature, either partly or wholly caused by themselves, or existing or operating fundamentally on their own. Belief in the latter entails some form of supernaturalism (the opposite of naturalism), which is not limited to supernatural beings, but can encompass mindless things with distinctly mental properties, like magical objects, or causally efficacious Platonic Forms or the existence of Love as a cosmic force.”

Now, when we investigate the material world, we should do so scientifically, as this is by far the most successful methodology that we have at our disposal for such an enterprise. It combines logic with observation (not to mention peer review) in the most rigorous way that we have so far been able to invent. Now, you may try to argue that we cannot investigate the non-material world scientifically, but that is not what we are attempting to do here. I repeat, as this is the crux of the argument, that since we appear to be limited to the material world (and have no direct evidence that any supernatural realm exists at all), we have no choice but to attempt to infer the existence of the supernatural by looking for its effects within the material universe. Therefore, that objection is just a red herring. For, if we are not able to observe any supernatural event or entity, then it is not rational to presume that such things exist at all.

On a mundane level, this involves testing psychics and the like by carrying out empirical tests of their supposed powers. They have framed their assertions in such a way that the purported phenomena should be detectable to us in the material world. Therefore, if they are not detected, then the psychics’ hypotheses are falsified. By contrast, if we were able to consistently reproduce some event that fits the definition of supernatural given earlier, then we would have some explaining to do. Is it actually supernatural – therefore falsifying metaphysical naturalism – or is it some as yet unexplained natural event? It would need careful analysis. However, do date no such event has been consistently observed.

Similarly, in order to investigate the supernatural god hypothesis, we need to frame it in such a way that it makes predictions about what we would expect to observe in the material universe. If we are not able frame our god hypothesis in such a way, then it cannot be investigated at all, as we have no other means at our disposal. Logic alone will not do here, as we can formulate any number of hypotheses that would pass the logical consistency criterion. Furthermore, there are logical issues with the god hypothesis anyway, as I pointed out in another post.

Now, some may argue that their favoured god hypothesis makes no predictions about what we would expect to see in the material universe, or predicts exactly what we observe already. In such a case, there is no reasonable argument to be made for believing it. By contrast, the types of hypotheses advanced by many theists (for example, an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God who is specifically interested in humans) do make many predictions about what one would expect to observe in the universe. Almost without exception, these predictions are not met in reality, so the hypothesis is almost certainly false (and is clearly not the best explanation available).

So, to summarise, we are justified in investigating our god hypothesis scientifically, as this is all that we can do. That is not to say that the supernatural cannot possibly exist, but rather that as we seem to be confined to the material world and, when investigating the material world, the scientific method is our best bet. So, we have no choice but to frame our hypotheses of supernatural entities in such a way that they make predictions about what we would expect to observe, and test these.

If you disagree, then how would you propose that we test our supernatural god hypothesis in any other way than by observing the material universe?

See here for a very interesting discussion of this topic.

The God Hypothesis

Amongst philosophers, the theory of knowledge is a contentious one. Also, as pointed out by Hume, there are circularity issues with the type of inductive reasoning used within science. Consequently, no explanation of the world around us can ever be claimed with absolute certainty. One can only reach provisional conclusions. In a real-world scenario in which we have many possible hypotheses that explain a phenomenon (possibly including supernatural ones), rationality dictates that we should provisionally accept the most reasonable hypothesis on offer.

When it comes to fathoming the universe, what counts is finding the most plausible hypotheses by means of comparing them with observation. In order to move beyond the realm of pure metaphysics, one must endeavour to compare one’s chosen hypothesis with reality, to assess its fit with the evidence. With no requirement to compare with reality, one can concoct ever-increasingly complex worldviews, without any way to know if they are true or not. Logical consistency alone as a criterion will only get you so far, as an infinity of logically consistent hypotheses can be put forward to explain some phenomenon or other. We have to compare our favoured hypothesis with reality. As Hume said - even a rational man with no experience “could not have inferred from the fluidity and transparency of water that it would suffocate him, or from the light and warmth of fire that it would consume him.”

In such a scenario, I assert that we should resort to an argument to the best explanation. In general, the more one explanation exceeds all others on each of the following criteria, the more confident we can be that it is true -

• Explanatory scope
• Explanatory power
• Plausibility
• Parsimony
• Evidential fit

Based upon this, what conclusions can we draw if we compare the God hypothesis with a generic scientific multiverse theory?

Firstly, we should note that the most parsimonious hypothesis is the one that explains the observations whilst introducing the fewest ad-hoc assumptions. So, the multiverse concept is plausible as it is entirely consistent with known physical laws; is parsimonious, as it actually introduces none or very few ad-hoc assumptions (depending upon which version you favour); and has a great deal of explanatory power and scope, as it explains why we see the particular universe that we inhabit, rather than some other possibility (and so, in one fell swoop, rebutting the cosmological fine-tuning argument). In fact, it is less parsimonious to conjecture a single universe rather than an infinity, as this would require the positing of some ad-hoc rule explaining why only one of an infinity of possibilities actually exists.By contrast, the god hypothesis suffers from a number of problems –

• It is not plausible, as it requires the positing of a supernatural universe-creating entity – when we have no reliable evidence that anything supernatural exists at all. The only methods that have so far been shown to work consistently are empirical ones, and they have thus far only discovered natural things and causes.
• It has no power or scope, as it does not explain why we see the specific universe that we do. Why would God choose to create a universe that is so vast and is almost entirely a radiation-filled vacuum? Why would God choose to create a universe that takes billions of years to evolve? Why would God choose to create a dizzying array of fundamental particles? Why would God choose to create a universe at all? These can only be answered by introducing more ad-hoc assumptions.
• It is not parsimonious, as numerous ad-hoc assumptions are required in order to explain the existence and properties of God, and of the universe created by it. At first sight, it may seem to be a seductively simple explanation. However, this simplicity is shown to be illusory once one analyses the implications entailed by this explanation.
• Further, it must be less parsimonious to invoke an eternal and uncreated supernatural creator of the universe, than to suppose an eternal, uncreated and infinite universe that is consistent with known physical laws. Purely by logic alone, if we can suppose that God can be eternal and uncreated, we can also suppose the same of the universe, and dispense with God altogether. Further, the concept of an eternal and uncreated universe is explained by a variety of scientific hypotheses that are consistent with known physical laws, whereas the concept of a supernatural entity is not consistent with naturalism.
• If we were to presume the existence of a supernatural creator, then what explains why this creator exists at all? Why not just no God and no universe? If we are allowed to posit an eternal creator that has no explanation, then why can we not posit an eternal universe that has no explanation? This is more parsimonious as it does not require the introduction of any supernatural entity.
• If we further suppose characteristics of God that are part of conventional Christian doctrine, then we run up against other notorious problems - such as the problem of evil, and the problem of divine hiddenness – that theology has no convincing answers to.

So, in summary, I would contend that the scientific multiverse hypothesis offers a better explanation of the existence of our universe than does the God hypothesis. In general, I would contend that the worldview that is the argument to the best explanation of the world we see around us is metaphysical naturalism. That does not mean that metaphysical naturalism is necessarily true, but rather that it is currently the best explanation on offer. Thus, I contend that it should be provisionally accepted. It is certainly a far better explanation than any competing theistic worldview.

If you would like to read more about this, I can highly recommend Richard Carrier’s book ‘Sense and Goodness Without God – a Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism’

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Some theists contend that contemplation of this age-old philosophical question can be credited to religion. However, unless one is to conflate metaphysical thought and specifically religious thought, then this is an error of reasoning. For example, Parmenides was contemplating this question in the fifth century B.C - somewhat before the Abrahamic religions got in on the act.

Anyway, what exactly has religion contributed to answering this particular question? Of course, it has posited that there is something rather than nothing because God chose to create the material universe. Nevertheless, under this assumption, why is there a God rather than no God? By that, I don't mean what reason is there for thinking that the existence of the universe necessitates a supernatural creator (that we call God). Rather, if we take it as a given that this supernatural creator exists, then why would such an entity exist at all, rather than just not existing? Why not just no God and no universe? Surely, that would be simpler?

In contrast to the religious answers, which succeed only in replacing one question with another (with the addition of positing an ill-defined supernatural creator), science does have something of use to say on this matter. See, for example -

Friday, September 22, 2006

Religious experiences

According to the argument from religious experience, we are supposed to accept religious experiences as evidence for the supernatural, in the absence of positive reasons for thinking that experiencers are deluded. However, this argument is unconvincing, for the following reasons:

Firstly, in the cases of people who claim to have communicated with God, further scrutiny never uncovers any convincing evidence. None of these experiences has ever been independently proved beyond any reasonable doubt to be true – they can always be explained by more mundane, non-supernatural means.

Secondly, religious experience is present in many different religions, and produces largely contradictory and inconsistent claims. As an extreme example, the Yorkshire Ripper claimed that God told him to murder prostitutes. If we are to allow claims of personal religious experience, how are we to determine the false from the supposedly true?

Thirdly, religious experiences typically generate claims that cannot be corroborated by independent evidence (e.g., metaphysical claims, clichés, banalities etc.).

Finally, no new and important scientific, mathematical, or medical knowledge is ever revealed. If an experiencer was ever told something of this nature that is clearly beyond our current knowledge, then this might suggest a phenomenon that needs explaining. Alas, this does not happen.

And, how would we investigate any such supposed claims? Well, for a start, we need to look for reliable, independent evidence that there is indeed some unexplained phenomenon going on here. That’s even before we address the question of whether this phenomenon is in any way supernatural in origin. So far, none of the supposed experiences has even passed the first test.

Theists often cry foul at this point. This type of experience is not amenable to scientific investigation, they say. In their minds, the world in split into those things that can be investigated scientifically, and those that cannot. Religious experiences definitely fit into the latter category, they think. However, under these rules, anybody would be entitled to claim anything that they want, so long as they then rule it off limits to scientific enquiry. I might say that I can communicate telepathically with rocks, or that I can make myself invisible (of course, only when nobody is present, and there are no cameras recording me), or that I can travel through higher dimensions. Obviously, none of these supernatural phenomena is amenable to scientific enquiry, so you’ll just have to take my word for it! This way of trying to fathom the universe is a non-starter.

But even theists don’t apply their logic universally. In general (in the western world), when they are ill they don’t call for an exorcist to expel their demons (even though demons could theoretically be the cause of illness, if we were ignore all of the scientific explanations and evidence); when their car breaks down, they don’t call for a witch doctor to utter some incantation over it (even though, again, this could be the best choice of action if we ignore all of the evidence and rational explanations). Why is this? One could say that it is hypocrisy. But, I think that it goes deeper than this. I think that they know, deep-down, that the world doesn’t work that way, and that the scientific and evidentially-based approach is best choice. They just ask for special pleading in the case of the god of their chosen superstition.

Hume's dictum is apposite here:

"When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion."

In other words, when someone claims the miraculous, is it more likely that they are right or, rather, that they are mistaken or lying?

And, on the subject of evidence, some may hold that this is just question-begging and ultimately illusory. However, how many of them would have the courage of their convictions and call for a complete overhaul of the legal system, to create one in which no evidence is ever examined? How would crimes be tried? That’s a good question. Maybe guilt would be determined by the roll of a die, or by the judge communing privately with god. Then again, maybe not!

The mistake here is to demand absolute certainty in our beliefs. In the real world, this can never be achieved, even in principle. However, predictions made by our beliefs can be more or less in agreement with the evidence; beliefs can be more or less powerful in their explanatory power; and they can be more or less parsimonious. Our understanding of the universe as expressed by our scientific theories is always going to be provisional in nature, and is always subject to further revision. However, to just throw our hands up in the air in resignation at this realisation is futile. Application of reason and the scientific method is still our best hope of making progress in this endeavour. Our attempts to fathom the universe are definitely still a ‘work in progress’, but there is no value in allowing supernatural explanations to fill the gaps in our knowledge, as this has always proved to be premature so far.

Anthropic coincidences

Something that is sometimes mentioned as support for the belief in a god is the so-called anthropic coincidences. Otherwise known as the cosmological fine-tuning argument, this states that even if the origin of all life on Earth can be explained in terms of impersonal natural processes, the mere fact that the universe allows life to exist in the first place is evidence of intelligent design. For instance, for life as we know it to evolve, there must be an unlikely combination of just the right initial conditions and just the right values of a wide variety of physical constants. If any one of the values of several dozen physical constants weren’t "set" to a value extremely close to the actual value we find, then life would not be possible in our universe. The unlikelihood of the universe forming with just the right conditions to allow life by chance is presented as evidence that those conditions were actually set by an intelligent being in order to produce life.

There are a number of issues with this argument. Firstly, it is not at all evident that these constants are so fine-tuned at all. Stephen Hawking says, "The present state of the universe could have arisen from quite a large number of different initial configurations ... so the initial state of the part of the universe that we inhabit did not have to be chosen with great care". We don’t know at present whether all of these fundamental constants are independent of each other. Perhaps it will transpire that there is actually really only one fundamental constant which, once set, determines the values of all of the others. Further, we don’t know what possible ranges of values these constants can take. It may be that the set of possible values is actually very small – making our type of universe not at all unlikely.

Secondly, various multiverse theories that have been proposed by cosmologists that get around the fine-tuning issue completely. According to the 'chaotic inflation' theories of André Linde and others, the expanding cloud of billions of galaxies that we call the big bang may be just one fragment of a much larger universe in which big bangs go off all the time, each one with different values for the fundamental constants. In such a picture, in which the universe contains many parts with different values for what we call the constants of nature, there would be no difficulty in understanding why these constants in our universe take values favourable to intelligent life. There would be a vast number of big bangs in which the constants of nature take values unfavourable for life, and many fewer where life is possible. You don't have to invoke a benevolent designer to explain why we are in one of the parts of the universe where life is possible: in all the other parts of the universe there is no one to raise the question.

An interesting point here is that, as mentioned by Victor Stenger, one needs to introduce additional assumptions in order to prefer a single universe over a multiverse

But, apart from this, perhaps proponents of the fine-tuning argument are guilty of committing the lottery fallacy. If one plays the lottery in the UK, then there is an approximately 1 in 14,000,000 chance of any particular set of six numbers being drawn. So, each time the lottery is run, an event with a one in 14,000,000 probability is going to occur. However, when someone wins the lottery can we therefore infer that the unlikelihood of the event suggests that the lottery is rigged? The answer, of course, is no. Although each particular set of numbers has a 1 in 14,000,000 chance of coming up, there is a 100% chance that one set or other of 6 numbers will be drawn.

Likewise with the anthropic coincidences. Although the chance of the particular set of fundamental constants found in our universe may be infinitesimally small (or, then again, maybe not), some set of fundamental constants may have been inevitable. So, perhaps the fact that there is a particular set of fundamental constants in our universe needs no explaining at all. If the constants were different, then an entirely different type of life might have been pondering the same question.

Of course, the fine-tuning proponent might argue that the true situation is more analogous to buying one lottery ticket, and winning first time – an extremely unlikely event. However, this implies that a universe with us in it is the ‘winning ticket’. Are we really so anthropocentric as to think that our universe is somehow ‘special’, just because it led to us? Actually, I think it would even be difficult to justify the belief that a universe with any type of life is somehow more special than one without. That line of reasoning seems to beg the question. If you specify life as being special – and particularly human life as such – then our universe will necessarily appear to be special. If I roll a die and get a 6, am I then entitled to say, post fact, that a 6 is ‘special’. This type of backwards reasoning is not allowed.

However, even if we assume that a life-producing universe is somehow more special, then we still don’t know how in how many ways a life-producing universe could have emerged from the Big Bang. Perhaps it is not unlikely at all. And, if we look at the subset of all life-producing universes, are we justified in thinking that this particular one is a best case? Our universe is almost entirely lethal to life. By far, most of existence is a radiation-filled vacuum. Life is clearly an extremely rare and unusual product of the universe. We also know it took the universe billions of years to produce any life at all, and then only an extremely simple single-celled life form. Then it took billions more years of a long, meandering and often catastrophically failing process of evolutionary trial-and-error to produce human beings.

So, to conclude, I think that the fine-tuning argument is not at all as persuasive as some believe.

Transcendental god, falsifiability, and Ockham’s razor

I would like to address several points raised recently on the Butterflies and Wheels Notes and Comments section ( with regard to the existence of a transcendental god. I won’t cover each point individually, but will make some general comments.

Here is an example of the type of comment that I am replying to -

"And that's why demands for empirical evidence of its existence are question-begging: by definition, transcendent categories such as God cannot be part of the scientific model of the world."

As far as I can see, one of the issues here is parsimony of explanation or, if you like, Ockham’s razor. Another is falsifiability. It is certainly possible define logically a god who created the universe and who has the following characteristics:

- Transcendental
- Eternal
- Immaterial
- Intangible
- Undetectable by any scientific means, ever (even in principle)
- Not verifiable or falsifiable (even in principle) as the hypothesis makes no predictions about what one would expect to see if it were true, and no predictions about what one would not expect to see if it were true (other than predictions that would equally made by an infinity of other competing hypotheses).
- Etc.

However, I think that one really has to ask at this juncture whether constructing such a hypothesis is anything other than just a meaningless logical exercise? Is it in any way useful in trying to fathom the world around us if one’s working hypothesis is unfalsifiable? (Of course, the god definition given above is not the one generally used by Christians. Their god has other characteristics, and these do make predictions about the world, which are testable) If your one brute fact is that God exists, then it is always possible to interpret everything we see around us in a way that fits with this fact. For such people, it is likely that nothing will ever convince them that they are wrong. However, if one is starting from an impartial position, is it helpful to take the above definition of a universe-creating god as our working hypothesis of the world?

A few analogies might illustrate the point that I am trying to draw out here. For example, it is theoretically possible that I exist only as a brain in a vat, and that all of my physical experiences are illusory - being artificially generated. It would be possible to define this hypothesis in such a way that it is logically watertight, and that it could never, even in principle, be tested, verified, or falsified in any way. Nevertheless, would it be reasonable or fruitful to make this one’s working hypothesis? Or, would it instead be just perverse and futile?

Or, consider the following. Perhaps the whole universe, with me in it, came into existence 5 seconds ago, with my and everyone else’s memories already present. It would be possible to make this hypothesis logically unassailable, and define it in such a way that it could never be verified or falsified, even in principle. Again, would it be reasonable or fruitful to make this one’s working hypothesis? Or, would it instead be just perverse and futile?

In fact, how would we in practice discriminate between the likelihood of either of these two hypotheses? If they are both equally logically consistent, and neither can ever be tested in any way in order to verify or falsify them, then how would we decide which hypothesis to favour? Further, an infinite number of such competing hypotheses could theoretically be concocted. Each would be logically incontrovertible, and none could ever be verified or falsified in any way. So, which one, if any, is correct? The effective odds of any one of them being correct (without any means of testing them) are infinity to one against! If one’s hypotheses are unfalsifiable, then these are the types of problems that need to be solved.

Now, on the subject of parsimony, how about this one (courtesy of Julian Baggini)? Imagine that you are a police officer called to investigate the sound of shooting. You arrive at the house in question, and find a bullet-shaped hole in one of the windows. You enter the house, and look at the wall opposite the window in question. There you find a single bullet embedded in the wall. Now, without any further information, which of the following hypotheses is more reasonable?

1. A single bullet was fired, and this bullet is the one embedded in the wall.
2. A hundred bullets were fired through the same hole. The gunman then broke into the house, leaving no trace whatsoever, and removed all of the bullets save one.

I think most people would elect for hypothesis 1. But, why is that so? The second hypothesis is theoretically possible, so why not judge either hypothesis equally likely? How about if I introduce a third hypothesis that is a variation on the second hypothesis - such that 99 bullets were fired instead of 100? Why stop there? How about hypotheses where 101, 102, 103,… bullets were fired. I could go on indefinitely. Do you see the problem? I have framed the hypotheses in such a way that there is no way to discriminate between them. In such a case, it seems reasonable to go with the most parsimonious theory – the one that introduces the fewest ad-hoc assumptions.

Another example (this one courtesy of Stephen Law). If I look out of my window and see the compost heap at the bottom of the garden, is it more reasonable to think –

1) There is just a compost heap there.
2) In addition to the compost heap, there is also a family of invisible, intangible, immaterial fairies?

The second hypothesis is a logical possibility, so why not make it my working hypothesis, or at least keep an open mind on the subject? Again, Ockham’s razor dictates that in such cases, and with no other information to hand, one should provisionally accept the more parsimonious hypothesis i.e. that there is just the compost heap. Similarly, when we examine the world around us and find that it seems to operate by purely naturalistic processes, do we propose that there exists:

1) Only a naturalistic universe. Or,
2) A naturalistic universe, together with the addition of some unseen, immaterial, transcendent supernatural entity?

In the absence of any other information, I would say that the first option is the more reasonable one.

These analogies illustrate the type of problems that believers in a god face. Either they define their hypothesis in such a way that it can be falsified – and take their chances – or they define it in such a way that it is unfalsifiable. In the former case – such as with the Christian god’s characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence, amongst others – predictions are implied about the way that the world would be expected to operate if such a god exists. These predictions can be compared to reality, and are found to be severely wanting – e.g. the notorious problems of suffering and divine hiddenness.

This latter option allows theists to hold onto their beliefs, satisfied in the knowledge that scientists and secular philosophers will never be able to prove them wrong. However, it is really just a bogus victory, as their definition of god is so tenuous and vacuous that it serves no purpose whatsoever. An infinite number of competing hypotheses could be similarly defined, with no way to ever discriminate between them. So, every sentient adult on Earth could theoretically define their own similarly unfalsifiable god hypothesis, and subscribe to that. This way forward seems to me to be futile in the extreme. If our goal is to fathom the universe, rather than engage in logical exercises or to delude oneself in order to preserve one's 'faith', then in my opinion the naturalistic approach is the best bet currently on offer. Saying that an immaterial, transcendent god did it is in no way preferable to just admitting that we don't know the answer yet, but that we are working on it.