Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Sye delusion

There has been a great deal of debate on Stephen Law’s blog recently. A presuppositional apologist called Sye Tenb has a website that claims to offer a proof for God’s existence. Stephen’s comments on this ‘proof’ opened the floodgates, and the ensuing battle that raged between Sye and his critics ran to 254 comments, and has since spawned numerous additional posts from Stephen. In this post I will briefly explain why I think Sye has failed to make his case.

Sye’s unsound argument

In a nutshell, Sye’s argument is as follows:

P1: The existence of logic presupposes the existence of the Christian God.
P2: Logic exists.
C: Therefore, the Christian God exists.

This is a valid deductive argument, but it will only be sound if both premises are actually true i.e. we agree to accept that they are self-evidently true, or else they are the conclusion of some other sound logical argument. Of course, both of these possibilities can be contentious, for what are we justified in taking as self-evidently true, and where do we finally stop in our chain of justifications if each premise is the conclusion from some other argument? Ultimately, it turns on the concept of properly basic beliefs (beliefs that require no further justification), as this is where the buck finally stops if you do not believe that there is an infinite chain of justifications, or that we can have circular justifications. However, Sye has not provided a sound argument (or series of arguments) to justify his P1. Nor has he asserted, much less attempted to justify (which would be impossible to do anyway, in my view), that his P1 is a properly basic belief. Therefore, I will accept that P2 is true, but as P1 is not self-evidently true, and is not justified as the conclusion of a further deductive argument, I will not accept it. Hence, I conclude that his argument is unsound as it stands.

Sye has not admitted that his argument is unsound, as he doesn't seem to think that his P1 is in need of any further justification, although he never explains why this should be the case. Perhaps he doesn't understand the structure of a deductive argument (a conclusion that is logically entailed by a set of premises), or perhaps he thinks that his P1 is a properly basic belief? Anyway, along the way, he has informally presented a number of subsidiary arguments, so I will look at these next.

Sye’s attempts to rescue his unsound argument

Sye has tried a number of approaches to rescue his unsound argument, but each fails. Here are some of his attempts:

Sye attempts to justify P1 from the above argument with the following argument:

P1: Logic cannot be accounted for on any atheist worldview
P2: Sye’s Christian worldview is not an atheist worldview
C: Therefore, logic can only be accounted for on Sye’s Christian worldview

However, this argument is even worse than his original one. Firstly, his new P1 is also not self-evidently true, and is left unjustified – so the argument is not sound. Secondly, even if we grant his new P1 (which we don’t), his argument is not even valid, as it is a false dichotomy. At best, all that it could ever prove is that logic can only be accounted for on some non-atheistic (i.e. theistic) worldview – not necessarily the one that Sye subscribes to. It could just as easily be one in which God is omni-malevolent, or entirely uninterested in humanity, or one that posits a multitude of gods.

Sye has also tried the following argument:

P1: If nobody has yet proven that logic can be accounted for on any atheist worldview, then logic cannot be accounted for on any atheist worldview.
P2: Nobody has yet proven that logic can be accounted for on any atheist worldview
C: Therefore, logic cannot be accounted for on any atheist worldview.

Whilst formally valid, this is a clear example of a logical fallacy: argument from ignorance. Firstly, the people commenting on Stephen’s blog form a very small subset of humanity, so their inability to ‘prove’ this cannot be taken to entail that ‘nobody’ can produce such a proof. Secondly, it is possible that one of more of the people on Stephen’s blog can actually provide such a proof, but they have so far chosen not to do so. Thirdly, even if nobody in the whole world can produce such a proof, or will ever be able to produce such a proof (an assumption that we are not justified in making), the first premise is still false as it stands, as our inability to prove a proposition does not render it false. The first premise would only be true if we presuppose that at least one of Stephen or his commenters is omniscient, and that they would have provided such a proof if they knew it. This assumption is unjustified.

Another variation on the same theme is this attempt from Sye:

P1: If Sye’s Christian worldview is correct then the laws of logic will exist
P2: The laws of logic exist
C: Therefore, Sye’s Christian worldview is correct

However, this argument is an example of a formal fallacy known as affirming the consequent. Even if God’s existence entails that the laws of logic will exist, the converse is not true unless we can show that the laws of logic can exist only if God exists (in which case P1 would become: If and only if God exists then the laws of logic will exist). However, this is not self-evidently true, and Sye has not justified it, so the argument is unsound as it stands.

Sye tried a different approach with this next argument:

P1: People who do not believe that logic can only be accounted for on Sye’s worldview are not entitled to use logic to construct their own arguments
P2: Stephen and some of his commenters do not believe that logic can only be accounted for on Sye’s worldview
C: Therefore, Stephen and some of his commenters are not entitled to use logic to construct their own arguments

However, P1 is not self-evidently true, and Sye offers no good justification for it, so the argument is unsound as it stands.

There is a general theme that runs through Sye’s arguments: his worldview accounts for logic (due to God), so his worldview should be taken as being true unless we can produce a better alternative. However, in general, this is a bad way to argue. Even if we were to grant that it really is the case that there is only one known explanation for some observation (and it is not instead that the arguer is just ignorant of the alternative explanations - as with Sye), then we are still unable to say whether this explanation is a good or bad one without doing some more work. That it is the only explanation doesn’t in any way entail that it is not a bad explanation. Julian Baggini wrote an article about this point.

In fact, Sye's assertion is even stronger than just taking his worldview to be true by default. He asserts that it is actually impossible for any other worldview to account for logic. Moreover, he believes that the onus is upon those who disagree this claim to prove him wrong by proving that their worldview can account for logic, rather than upon him to substantiate his impossibility claim. However, it is clear to all other than Sye and his ilk that the burden of proof rests upon those who make the claim - particularly if this claim disagrees with the consensus view, and even more especially if this claim is contrary to a vast amount of evidence about how the universe actually works. In this case, by asserting that it is impossible for logic to exist without the existence of some supernatural agency (when we have no good evidence that the supernatural exists at all), then Sye has his work cut out. For a good discussion on the burden of proof, see this.

In fact, for a variety of reasons, I would suggest that Sye’s ‘God explanation’ is a very bad explanation – and should therefore be rejected, even if we have no alternative explanation to hand (which isn’t actually the case). In order to validate his theory, what Sye is doing is focusing on one apparently confirmed prediction made by his God theory - that logic exists - and ignoring all of the other failed predictions. Moreover, as we already know about the existence of logic, it looks suspiciously as if God has just been defined in such a way that logic is entailed – as opposed to actually predicting it and finding this prediction met. In any case, if we are really seeking the truth, rather than just indulging in self-delusion, then we cannot focus solely on successful predictions from our theory, and ignore the failures. What Sye should instead be doing is looking to see if his theory can survive his and our best attempts to falsify it. Moreover, to be properly falsifiable, his theory should make clear, unambiguous, and bold statements that can be compared empirically against reality. If his theory’s predictions are vague and equivocal, then it will be difficult to falsify, since it is not clear what would constitute a failed prediction. Equally, if his theory merely predicts things that we already know to be true (such as the existence of logic), then we have no good reason to favour his theory over any other that merely predicts the same observations.

In fact, I would argue that the God theory (based upon the core Christian beliefs) is a bad one, as it is implausible, lacks parsimony, and has little explanatory scope or power. In order to explain the existence of the physical universe, it posits some unseen and inscrutable supernatural realm ruled by a universe-creating superbeing. Since we have no independent proof that anything other than the physical universe actually exists, this makes the theory inherently implausible. As such, its extraordinary claims require a correspondingly high standard of supporting evidence. Do we have such evidence? Theists will typically resort to the evidence in the Bible, to what their religious leaders (or other people) tell them, or to their own perception of religious experience.

Firstly, the Bible. In general, I would contend that forming empirical beliefs about the world based upon statements contained in ancient historical documents is liable to be unreliable. Due to the many known examples of misplaced credulity, exaggeration, and fabrication in historical documents, and to the lack of knowledge of the world possessed by people in these ancient times, we must be very careful about granting too much credence to the contents of these documents. Descriptions of events are always questionable unless they can be corroborated by relevantly similar descriptions in other sources – preferably those already known to be reliable. Additionally, in the case of contentious elements (miracles and suchlike), we need to consider whether it is more likely that the events or things described actually happened, or that (as a minimum) the supernatural elements of such descriptions are false. In the particular case of the Bible, we have a number of serious problems:

1) We have accounts that were written many years after the events themselves were supposed to have happened
2) We have inconsistent and contradictory descriptions of the same events
3) We have little or no corroboration in any other sources
4) We have methods that are known to introduce unreliability - word of mouth, geographically dispersed multiple authors, editing and compilation that is arbitrary or that has an agenda, elements that were revealed in dreams etc.
5) On top of all of this, we have a number of extraordinary metaphysical claims about supernatural entities (including God) and events. Some of these claims are in opposition to our current reliably formed knowledge about how the universe actually works.

In light of this, I would argue that the Bible clearly does not constitute the necessary extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary metaphysical claims made about the existence of God and a supernatural realm.

Appeal to religious leaders or other people fares no better than appeal to the Bible as a source of the requisite extraordinary evidence. The first problem when it comes to relying on such testimony is that the set of statements made by such people is partially or wholly contradictory, so choosing to believe any particular statement or set of statements on this basis alone would seem to be purely arbitrary. Generally, we can accord some measure of reliability to testimony if the statements come from someone who has demonstrated that they are an expert on the topic concerned. However, in the case of religious leaders, the statements are usually vague metaphysical ones that offer no means by which their truth or falsity may be determined. We have no independent yardstick against which to judge the reliability or otherwise of their metaphysical statements, so no determination can be made. Hence, we have no good reason to judge this as a reliable truth generating mechanism, and plenty of other reasons to judge it otherwise (some statements contradict reliably formed knowledge, and many statements are in contradiction with each other etc.). So, this also fails to meet the necessary high standard of evidence.

How about people’s religious experience – does this provide the necessary evidence? I would argue that the simple answer is no. Firstly, any divine messages and revelations that people claim to have received by such means are culture-specific, inconsistent and contradictory. Secondly, any such messages seem to consist of nothing more than banalities or vague and unverifiable metaphysical notions. No new and verifiable scientific or mathematical knowledge is ever produced, for example. Thirdly, we are aware of many more plausible and more mundane alternative explanations for such feelings of the transcendental – dreams, hallucinations, power of suggestion, psychotic episodes, delusions etc. Are we justified in taking such experiences at face value (as basic beliefs), in the same way that I would do when I perceive an object in front of my eyes? No, as the difference between the two cases is that we have no evidence that religious experiences reliably generate true belief, whereas we have lots of mutually-reinforcing evidence of the reliability (most of the time) of our senses. Furthermore, as the beliefs acquired through religious experiences are often contradictory, we know that some or all of them must be wrong. Hence, it is clearly an unreliable mechanism for generating true belief, and can be discounted as a way of acquiring the necessary extraordinary evidence for God’s existence.

What’s more, even if we were to grant some supernatural communication (which we have no good reason to do), neither we nor those communicated with have any way to establish that the message comes from God – as opposed to it being a deception from some evil demon, for example. Even God, if it exists, would have no way to determine if it was actually being deceived by some evil demon into thinking that it is the creator and ruler of the universe (since, if it is being deceived in this way, then it is not actually omniscient and omnipotent at all – this is merely part of the deception).

Attempts have been made to prove the existence of God by analytic means alone – for example, the Ontological Argument. However, this argument is open to a number of objections, and few philosophers are convinced of its soundness. Theists might also resort to one or other of the cosmological or teleological arguments for God’s existence. However, all of these arguments have been convincingly rebutted, and most can anyway only argue for some inscrutable universe-creating entity as opposed to the specific Judeo-Christian God.

So, in conclusion, there is no good evidence, much less extraordinary evidence, that God and his supernatural realm exist at all.

Furthermore, when we examine the predictions that the God theory makes, we find that it predicts a very different universe from the one that we find ourselves in. We would expect it to be far smaller, more congenial to our type of life, contain far less suffering, and contain clear and unambiguous evidence of God’s existence. What we actually find is that the universe is very old, very big, almost entirely lethal to our type of life, and that life evolved by some meandering and haphazard process. Why? Moreover, why does God need a universe at all? Surely we should all be in Heaven (or Hell) already, as an omniscient God must know how we will choose to act (even if we were to grant the existence of free will).

What's more, our world contains far more suffering (both natural and man-made, ours and that of other animals) than is reconcilable with the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. Why would God create a world containing so much suffering, when he surely had an infinite number of other possible ways that he could do it? And, if he did knowingly create the universe this way, is he not morally responsible for all of this suffering?

In addition, 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? If we need to believe in God’s existence in order to enter Heaven, as many Christians believe, then God has knowingly consigned billions of people to eternal suffering (or, at best, they will not enter Heaven). Why?

Yes, the theory can be patched up by the introduction of a plethora of entirely ad-hoc elements (e.g. necessity of human free will, benefits of suffering, God’s mysterious plan etc.). However, by such means we could justify any theory. To proceed this way is intellectually dishonest, as it renders the theory unfalsifiable. Whatever criticism is levelled at the theory, the theist will just introduce some additional ad-hoc element to explain it away. Therefore, Ockham’s razor would rule against such a theory in favour of some more plausible and parsimonious natural explanation for the world. For much more on this, I would recommend the following essay (which Sye, in particular, would do well to read and ponder).


Anyway, back to Sye’s original ‘laws of logic’ argument. At several points in the discussions, he gives the game away by saying that he knows that God exists, as he has had an ‘objective revelation’. So, it seems that even he isn’t really convinced by his own argument (as well he shouldn’t be), or else he would not need to justify his belief in God by reference to this ‘objective revelation’. What this ‘objective revelation’ is he never explains. Until he is prepared to spell it out in detail, I cannot evaluate it one way or the other, so I will ignore it.

Sye has repeatedly asked for an explanation of how the laws of logic can exist on an atheist worldview. As I have explained, the absence of such an explanation in no way helps Sye’s case. Nevertheless, I will point him in the right direction with the links below. In the meantime, he needs to answer the following question – which he has repeatedly and conspicuously failed to do. Until he does, then his arguments amount to nothing.

Sye: Please demonstrate, by means of a sound logical argument, that logic can only be accounted for in your worldview.


Phaedrus said...

Nick you have perhaps thee best philosophy blog I've seen. Great arguments and interesting presentation. Hope you don't mind, but I added a link to your blog on mine.

Look forward to reading more of your posts.

moscow-brat said...

Like a breath of fresh air.. to me who lives in a religion-crazy country. Happy to meet you on the Web, especially after my best friend had talked to me the Syelike way.