Friday, February 22, 2008

A good reason to be happy

I realised today that I have a very good reason to be happy. No matter what other misfortune I experience, the fact that the Judeo-Christian god almost certainly doesn't exist is a cause for great cheer. This might seem a strange thing to say, but the Bible describes the character of this god in some detail, and it is not one of absolute goodness. Rather, God is portrayed as belligerent, bloodthirsty, vengeful, jealous, and megalomaniacal. Those who doubt this should read the texts for themselves. It is disingenuous to attempt to define God as omnibenevolent, when the contrary evidence in the Holy books is there for all to see. Words can have no use if we can just redefine to suit our own tastes.

If such a god existed, and was present in our daily lives, then there is every reason to think that life in this theocracy would be similar to that in a totalitarian state. If we go by what the Bible tells us, then there would be no democracy, no freedom of speech and movement, no equality of sexes or races, slavery would be acceptable, blatant homophobia would exist, and death would be meted out for a large range of supposed crimes. Moreover, it would be totalitarian to an extent only dreamed of by leaders such as Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il-sung. As God knows your very thoughts, the level of surveillance and control would be absolute. You can’t even escape through death, as eternal punishment awaits you.

Of course, we might say, contrary to all of the evidence, that God is not like that, and would not institute such a system. However, such Christian luminaries as Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther paint a very different picture, with their support for blasphemy and other imaginary crimes being punishable by death. Some Christians might object that the New Testament gives a far kinder message, as preached by Jesus, and describes the new covenant between God and man. However, the New Testament still contains various odious strictures to hate one's family and abandon it (Matt. 10:35-37, Matt. 19:29, Mark 10:29-30, Luke14:26 etc.), and to kill disobedient children (Matt. 15:4-7, Mark 7:9-10). Furthermore, the second coming will see the destruction of any who do not accept Jesus (Matt. 10:14-15, Luke 10:12, Matt. 24:37, 2 Pet. 3:7,10). And God promises further death and destruction (Rev. 6:8, 8:7, 8:10-11, 9:13, 17-18 etc.).

However, the worst aspect of the New Testament is that it introduces the abhorrent concept of eternal punishment in Hell (Matt. 7:13-14, 13:42, 25:41, Luke 3:17 etc.) - which tells us much about God's personality. In some Christian worldviews, the avoidance of hell comes by accepting Jesus as one's saviour - which therefore condemns to hell all those who existed before Jesus lived, who don't hear his message for any other reason, or who have heard his message but have chosen to reject it in favour of some other belief system or of none. Some other Christians subscribe to the idea of predestination, in which entrance to heaven is down to God's personal whim, with those he rejects for his own inscrutable reasons being consigned to eternal damnation. Some Christians at least preach that entry to heaven is based upon the deeds of one's life, but it is still absurdly harsh to commit sinners (including those whose only 'sin' is a very rational lack of belief) to eternal punishment.

Moreover, the whole concept of the New Testament preaching a kinder message implies that God's personality or teachings have changed from those described in the Old Testament. But surely this cannot be so, as this would imply some sort of moral development or improvement on God's part, but he is by definition omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect. As such, how can he improve, and for what reason could he ever change his mind, since he already knows all there is to know?

For further evidence of God's character we need only look around us. What kind of an all powerful being, given an infinite amount of time, would come up with our world with all its attendant suffering? For most of human history, the majority of people have led short, brutal lives, and have died in pain - being killed by other humans, natural disasters, animals, hunger, thirst, or disease. Every day millions of people suffer and die horribly for no apparent greater reason, and no obvious benefit to themselves or others.

The whole of the natural world is so engineered that animals must compete for finite resources, and must kill and eat each other in order to survive. Sure, it might all be for some mysterious greater reason that only God knows about, but that type of ad-hoc reasoning could be used to justify anything. And trying to justify all of this suffering by recourse to the benefits of human free will, as a means of spiritual or moral growth, or as a test fail dismally too. The existence of human free will is a moot topic in the first place, with determinism and compatibilism arguing that it is fully or partially illusory, but is irrelevant anyway when considering suffering caused by natural disasters (earthquakes, floods etc). Furthermore, an all-powerful God could surely have created a system in which we had free will, but made it a law of nature that we could do no harm to others.

And, when it comes to moral development, surely God could have created humans to be virtuous and morally good in the first place, without any need for self-improvement. Even if some amount of suffering is necessary in order to allow for such virtues as compassion and heroism, the vast quantity of suffering present in the world hugely outweighs any supposed benefit. Was all of death and suffering of the concentration camps justified so that a few people would have the opportunity to be saintly? Further, some good people suffer terribly, whilst other bad people do not suffer at all. Why is that? Also, much suffering goes unseen by others. How is this beneficial to the sufferers?

The idea that our actions and our choices to believe in God and Jesus or otherwise are some sort of test is equally absurd. What need does God have of tests since, being omniscient and omnipotent, he must by already know what the outcomes will be? As he does know these outcomes, to choose to create human beings who he knows will fail his tests, and thus be consigned to hell, is the work of an horrific sadist.

Is the creator of all this the type of being whose rule we would want to live under, and who we should praise?

No, I for one am very happy that such a god almost certainly doesn’t exist

Why privilege reason over faith?

I would suggest that reason is a logical and rational way of justifying a belief. As such, it is a sort of methodology, and so is quite distinct from evidence – although evidence does play a key role when we are reasoning about the real world. It works by utilising such logical tools as deductive reasoning (e.g. all cats have 4 legs, Felix is a cat, therefore Felix has 4 legs), inductive reasoning (e.g. water has always been observed to freeze at zero degrees Celsius at sea level , therefore water always freezes at zero degrees Celsius at sea level), and abductive reasoning.

This last method attempts to find the best explanation for some phenomenon or other by considering which of the proposed explanations simultaneously best fits the available evidence, best predicts what we should expect to find if the hypothesis is true, is not falsified when we search for evidence that we would not expect to find if it is true, and is the most parsimonious (i.e. does not introduce unnecessary ad hoc assumptions). Mere consistency with the evidence is not sufficient, since I could invent an infinity of beliefs that are consistent with the evidence, but they would all be wrong.

In addition to this, the method of reason takes care to avoid a number of known fallacies and other errors of thinking or arguing that can lead to mistaken conclusions – begging the question, non sequitur, equivocation, anecdotal evidence, false dichotomy, argument from authority, ad hominen etc. When we don’t take care, we are liable to fall into one of many possible traps in our reasoning.

As to why we should hold reason in high regard, and privilege above other methods of enquiry, I would answer that it is the most consistently reliable way we have found of determining the truth. Whilst there are issues involving subjectivity, biases, cherished theories etc., these are human failings, or limitations in the evidence that we can obtain, and not a critical failing of the methodology itself. Over time, the application of reason does seem to lead to the discarding of false beliefs and a gradual homing in on the truth. There are still unresolved issues with the methodology concerning such things as the problem of induction, and what we can ever really know without reason or justification (brute facts), but nevertheless the method of reason has proved to be incredibly successful in advancing our knowledge of the world.

Some contend that faith, revelation, and spiritual introspection are more reliable ways of seeking the truth and justifying a belief, but I don’t think that this is borne out by the evidence. Beliefs generated and held by revelation and faith cover a multitude of conflicting theories about the creation, evolution, structure, and future of the universe and ourselves, and of morality. However, as they contradict each other in fundamental ways, they must necessarily all be wrong with the possible exception of one of them. But, since they are held to be absolutely true by means of faith, and are off limits to reason, how can we ever investigate and determine which, if any, of these ideas is true? This method of truth seeking therefore seems to lead to a huge variety of conflicting ideas, with no agreed way of confirming or rejecting them, and believers of each rejecting all the others - an impasse. Whilst we might be missing out on some great truth here, the fact that the religious landscape is one of confusion and contradiction means that we have no reliable way of knowing which this true revelation is, if any.

By contrast, when we hold a belief based upon reason, we can explain why we think the premises to be true based upon our evidence, and demonstrate that the argument is a sound one. The appearance of new evidence would perhaps cause us to revise or reject our argument, and hence our belief. Others can examine our evidence, and our reasoning, and either agree with the conclusion, or explain to us why we have gone astray. Hence, this way of seeking the truth is open to revision, and is therefore error correcting.

Some may argue that intuition is a reliable way to seek the truth. However, this is contentious. It does seem that, under certain circumstances, the processing that the brain does behind the scenes when we intuit leads to rapid and correct judgements. Also, our intuition may sometimes give us with a good direction in which to take our more formal reasoning. However, our intuition can also be highly unreliable. For example, studies have shown that the face to face interview is a poor predictor of how well an employee or student will perform. Computer programmes can do far better than this when they choose based upon a set of fine-tuned preferred criteria and a large range of relevant candidate data. Psychologists such as Richard Wiseman and Stuart Sutherland have studied and written about this at length.

Of course, this does leave open the question of why we should seek the truth at all. I think that there is probably no knockdown argument for this, but there a few possible answers. Perhaps having true beliefs helps us to improve the lot of humankind? After all, the advances that have happened in medical science have helped to prevent and relieve a huge amount of suffering. Before this, we really had no reliable way to deal with illness. Furthermore, if one has unjustifiable beliefs (either metaphysically or morally) then perhaps one is more open to committing or supporting the committing of atrocities. I think that Voltaire said: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities".

So, in general, I am inclined to think that cherishing and seeking truth (or, at least, belief justified by reason) about the universe, ourselves, and the human condition tends to lead to an improvement in conditions for humanity. Beyond that, there is the rather more tenuous idea that we find ourselves at large in a mysterious universe, so perhaps we have some sort of an obligation to try to understand it. Having said all of this, I think that one can make a good case that there is some knowledge that might be so dangerous that we would be better of not knowing it.

For example, I think that one could make a persuasive case that the knowledge of how to make nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons is so dangerous that we might have been better to have never acquired it.

One could object to this assertion in the following way:

1) This knowledge has also given us very useful and benign spin-offs that have been beneficial to humanity.
2) It was inevitable that we would acquire this knowledge anyway.

However, if this knowledge causes humanity to wipe itself out (as well as most or all of the other animals on the planet), as it may yet do, then I think that this would qualify as knowledge that is so dangerous that we would have been better off not knowing it.

I think it is clearly the case that humanity's inquisitiveness, ingenuity, and intelligence have enabled our knowledge and technology to increase at an exponential rate. However, any corresponding reduction in our belligerence, territoriality, xenophobia, irrationality, and our desire to control and dominate others has been far less marked, or perhaps negligible. This might yet be a deadly combination for humanity. To paraphrase Sam Harris, I think that humanity is approaching a bottleneck, and it is not at all clear that we will get through it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Is God the simplist explanation?

Occam's razor is a very useful rule of thumb, or working methodology, to employ when we are attempting to adjudicate between competing explanations for something. It states that theoretical entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity when attempting to explain observations. An alternative, broader, formulation is that, other things being equal, we should prefer a simpler explanation. That is, if we have two explanations that explain all the observations, then we should favour the simpler of the two. It is used extensively in science, but needn't be limited to that sphere.

We must be careful not to be misled by the notion of simplicity in Occam’s razor. Simplicity is not usually taken to be a metaphysical implication from the razor. That is, we are not presuming that the universe is inherently simple, and that therefore only simple explanations can be correct. Furthermore, we need to be careful to properly consider any implicit assumptions in our hypotheses.

When we examine the first formulation of Occam’s razor, we are really saying that we cannot assert what we don't know - we only assert what we actually have some proof for. Hence, if you do not need a particular entity to explain all that we observe, then you cannot claim observations support that entity's existence. For example, if I consider the theory of powered flight, I might say that it is explained by our current theories of aerodynamics. Alternatively, I might hypothesise that it requires one additional element: the assistance of invisible, intangible angels to help support the wings. However, this latter explanation falls foul of Occam’s razor, as I am asserting the existence of some entity for which I have no proof, and which is not required to explain the observations, as they are explained fully by our current theories. So, the razor cuts away these superfluous entities.

If I look at the second formulation, then another example might be hearing a knock at my door and, upon opening it, finding the postman standing there with a package for me. Given this, I might reasonably deduce that it was the postman who knocked at my door. However, it is possible that somebody else knocked at my door, but then ran away before I opened it. In the meantime, the postman arrived, but didn’t have chance to knock. However, this latter explanation, whilst possible, is far less parsimonious, and requires the introduction of additional ad-hoc elements for which I have no independent proof. Hence, Occam's razor would favour the first explanation.

These examples illustrate the reasons for the application of Occam’s razor: pragmatic ones. Firstly, if I am to introduce additional ad hoc elements to some explanation, then I could invent an infinity of competing explanations for some observation or other. I could concoct a huge number of explanations for the knock at my door by introducing ad hoc elements. However, only one is the simplest and requires no unprovable additional elements. If I do not give preference to this explanation, then I am in a hopeless position: a countless number of competing explanations that all account for the observations, with no way to discriminate between them.

In addition, we should prefer simpler explanations as these are the easiest for us, as humans, to deal with. They are more amenable to testing, and easier to model. Again, this does not mean that the simplest explanation is necessarily the correct one. In reality, this is often not the case, but we should only proceed along the route to complexity when it is called for by the observations.

Now, I believe that we can apply Occam’s razor to the question of the existence of God. If I can show that belief in God requires the introduction of more entities and assumptions than does a purely naturalistic explanation, then Occam’s razor will favour the naturalistic explanation.

Interestingly, Occam was able to reconcile his razor with belief in God. However, I think it is likely that he took belief in God to be an exception to his razor, as he considered it to be self-evident, and therefore above consideration.

Following the Christian convention, I am defining God to be:

· Omnipotent
· Omniscient
· Omnibenevolent
· The uncreated creator of the universe
· Specifically concerned with human beings
· Essentially immaterial or non-physical
· A person (hence the 3 persons of the Trinity)

When we consider the origin of the universe, there is superficial sense in which attributing this to God appears to be a parsimonious hypothesis. It certainly seems simpler: God did it much less messy and complicated than all sorts of cosmological and evolutionary theories. However, when we unpack the God hypothesis, it becomes obvious that this initial impression of simplicity is quite mistaken, as it contains many implications and implicit assumptions.

  • Rather than being parsimonious, the God hypothesis is actually a hugely extravagant and bloated hypothesis. In order to explain the existence of the material universe, which is all we actually know to exist, it posits the existence of some other unseen supernatural realm that includes such entities as souls, heaven, hell, angels, as well as God itself – none of which have any independent proof of existence. This quite definitely falls foul of Ockham’s razor.

  • In order to reconcile the God hypothesis with the type of universe and world that we actually see, we are forced to introduce a huge number of ad hoc assumptions to our God hypothesis. Why would God make a universe for us that is so big, almost entirely lethal to life, and that took billions of years to evolve? Why not make it all in one go, far smaller, and just right for us? In fact, why create a universe at all – why does God have any need for a universe. We could just be in heaven instead. Again, this falls foul of Occam’s razor, and we need to introduce all sorts of ad hoc elements in order answer questions such as these.

  • Furthermore, why does an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God allow so much evil in the world (both natural and man-made)? Surely this is not what we would expect from the God explanation? Again, we can attempt to explain this away (theodicy), but it requires the introduction of yet more totally ad hoc elements (necessity of free will, encourages virtuousness and spiritual improvement, all part of God’s mysterious plan etc).

  • One advantage of positing God as the creator of the universe may seem at first sight to be that it avoids the regress problem, as God is defined as the uncaused creator of the universe (and therefore answers the First Cause argument). However, if God can be defined as existing with no cause, then we can simply say the same of the universe, and dispense with God. The universe becomes our ‘brute fact’, rather than God. This is more parsimonious.

  • All that we really can say for sure is that there is some ultimate entity that exists without cause, and that led to the creation of our universe. The theistic explanation involves positing some immaterial, ultimately complex intelligence that has always existed, without cause, and has a huge number of very particular human characteristics and desires. By contrast, naturalistic explanations currently on the table (e.g. Chaotic Inflation, Smolin’s Multiverse), propose that a multiverse has always existed. These hypotheses are entirely compatible with everything that we know now about physics, are inferred directly from what we know now, predict the type of universe that we see, and do not involve the introduction of ad hoc entities or elements. They are therefore more parsimonious.

  • You might think that the multiverse is itself an entirely ad hoc entity, and that it is not at all simple, but this would be a mistake. We are not just pulling the idea of a multiverse out of a hat, as our current scientific theories directly imply its existence, with some other new law of nature being required to limit existence to just the universe that we see. Moreover, the term multiverse is a little bit of a misnomer here, as we are still proposing the existence of just one universe. The difference is that this one universe is split into multiple ‘island’ universes, which are being continually created in ‘big bangs’, and of which ours is but one. Furthermore, the multiverse is entirely natural (matter, energy, space, and time), so it is just more of the same things that we already know to exist. By contrast, we have no experience of supernatural universe-creating entities.

  • The reason that it makes good sense to use Occam’s razor when considering the origin of the universe is that, with the introduction of suitable ad hoc entities and elements, we could concoct an infinite number of competing hypotheses. All could be made to fit the evidence that we see, and any subsequent evidence that turns up. Hence, we would be in a hopeless position, with no rational way to choose between these rival hypotheses, as they would not be testable. This is the case with the usual formulations of the God hypothesis. However, if we can strip away these ad hoc elements, we would hope to be able to test our theories, and home in on the truth.

So, with regard to God being the creator of the universe, I think that Occam’s razor definitely favours proposed naturalistic explanations instead.

There are perhaps other things that we should consider at this juncture. How about alleged divine revelations or miracles? Does this give credence to the God hypothesis, and perhaps make God’s existence a more parsimonious explanation for the evidence? I think not.

Firstly, we have other, natural, explanations for supposed divine revelation. We know from experience that people lie, hallucinate, delude themselves, and can be deceived. In the cases of people who say that they have communicated with God, no good evidence is ever produced. None of these experiences has ever been independently proved beyond reasonable doubt, and they can always be explained by more mundane, non-supernatural means.

Furthermore, religious experience is present in many different religions, and produces largely contradictory and inconsistent claims. How are we to adjudicate between these competing claims? Most or all of them must be false, as they are contradictory (unless God is deliberately sending out such contradictory messages). It would be special pleading to accept any particular claims in the absence of any other good evidence. And, what would good evidence be? Perhaps currently unknown but testable scientific knowledge, for example. Of course, even if such good evidence was ever produced, there is still no way to confirm that such apparent divine revelation is actually coming from God, as opposed to any other entity – supernatural or not.

So, as all we have is what the experiencers tell us is going on in their heads, and this produces inconsistent and contradictory information, the parsimonious conclusion is that there is no divine revelation going on here.

The situation with regard to miracles is similar. We have no good, verifiable evidence that even one miracle has ever taken place in the whole history of humankind. All contemporary miracles have far more mundane explanations – tricks, lies, self-delusion, hallucinations etc. Many have been exposed as such. When we deal with historically recorded miracles, such as those in the Bible (including the Resurrection), the evidence is far worse. The people alive in Biblical times were ignorant of the workings of the universe, and were far more credulous generally, with alleged miracles being commonly witnessed. Furthermore, miracles were not confined to the Jews or the Christians, but were present in many other cultures too.

Moreover, with historical miracles, we have the additional problem of the veracity and authenticity of the historical documents in which they are recorded. The Bible, for example, is full of inconsistencies and contradictions - as would be expected of a book that is a collection of material written often years after the events described, by many different people who were geographically dispersed, and contained much previously oral material.

I would agree with Hume’s dictum on the subject of miracles:

"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."

So, to summarise, based upon the evidence of the existence of the universe and us, upon supposed divine revelation and miracles, and the evidence of the Bible, I think that Occam’s razor strongly favours purely naturalistic explanations and dispenses with God.

Is any type of god compatible with Occam's razor? As soon as we start to start to drop some of the characteristics typically applied to God, it becomes easier to reconcile the existence of God with what we see when we look at the world.

For example, the problem of evil is a powerful argument against the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. However, if we imagine that God is not all good, then the argument loses its power, since God then has no obligation or desire to remove all evil from the world. Likewise, if we imagine that God is not all-powerful then, whilst he might want to get rid of evil, he is might not be capable of doing this.

The argument from divine hiddenness is another powerful argument against the existence of the standard Christian God. Why would God’s existence be unknown to billions of people who have lived, or are alive today? Why wait until the last few thousand years, and then only reveal it to a handful of people in Palestine? None of the people who have never heard of God, or who choose to accept some other religion or none at all can enter heaven. Why would an all good God punish people for eternity for failing to believe in him? Why would God allow some much confusion over his true message to persist in the world? Is this the behaviour of a benevolent ruler who want us to be saved? But, again, if we imagine that God has no interest in human beings, then the argument loses most of its power, as God has no desire to give us such clear and unambiguous information.

So, once we start dropping the characteristics of omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, and interest in human beings, then God becomes much more inscrutable. It is difficult to predict what type of universe such a god would create. For example, our type of universe (very old, very big, and almost entirely lethal for us) might be compatible with such a god.

Furthermore, the concepts of the Holy Trinity and Incarnation would seem to be logically incoherent. How can God be at once immaterial, and a person? How can God be three distinct entities and, at the same time, just one entity? How can Jesus have been both God and man at the same time? Christian theologists have wrestled with these types of questions for hundreds of years, and are still in disagreement. However, if we dispense with the idea of the Trinity, of God being a person, and of Jesus being both man and God, then these problems evaporate.
What about divine revelation and miracles? As I wrote in a previous post, I think that reason and evidence leads us to reject these claims anyway. Moreover, a god who has no interest in human beings would probably have little use for such parlour tricks anyway.

How about the idea of god having some disembodied conscious mind? Well, we have a huge amount of evidence that consciousness requires a functioning material brain, and no evidence that a mind can exist without such a brain. Of course, we might speculate that disembodied minds can exist, but this itself falls foul of Occam's razor, as we are introducing an additional entity that is not entailed by the observations.

So, what are we left with after all of this? Certainly not the type of personal interventionist God that most Christians believe in. Rather, what we have after stripping away the typical divine and anthropomorphic attributes is some sort of minimal pantheistic type of a god.

This minimal god hypothesis is certainly far less extravagant and bloated than the Christian God hypothesis, and so is more parsimonious. However, even then I think that Occam's razor would still favour a naturalistic explanation. Just by introducing any god at all, we are postulating some sort of unfathomable supernatural entity in order to explain the existence of the material universe. Moreover, introducing this additional entity really gets us nowhere, since we still don't know what that god exists at all, why it has those properties, why it created the universe, and it still doesn't terminate the regress problem any better than does taking the multiverse to be our brute fact.

Personally, I would reject even this minimal type of a god in favour of our universe being created in a 'test tube' by some highly advanced alien civilisation, or of us living in a computer simulation, although I don't regard these as very likely either. However, they would still seem to be more parsimonious then god, since they postulate only natural entities. So, all things considered, I believe that Occam’s razor still favours the naturalistic explanation.