Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Separate Your Deities

Foreword: this post shouldn't be too enlightening for an educated reader and makes a point that should be obvious but whatever.

Atheism continues to rise, and the arguments are becoming more and more philosophical. Religious people are fighting a rearguard battle, trying to retreat, but they're backed up against a cliff and religion isn't long for this part of the world, though sadly I can't say the same for religious thinking.

But in these modern arguments, the main point often seems to center around Is the idea of a God possible?, with theists taking a "yes" as acknowledgment that their particular God is possible. This is wrong thinking on two fronts: this notion of "possible", and not separating the ideas.

There is a huge amount of difference between some random god-like entity whose powers we would attribute to a god were it to reveal itself who roams around the universe, possibly existing "outside" it (whatever that means), doing various deeds, and on the other hand the wrathful/loving Abrahamic God, the God of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, whom I will refer to as AG. There is a huge amount of difference between some Matrix Lords and AG. These Matrix Lords or this roaming entity I will refer to as IoG, the idea of God. Arguments for AG are necessarily arguments for the IoG, but arguments for IoG aren't arguments for AG. Simple Probability Theory can help us see this one:

[math]P(A|C) \geq P(A \& B|C)[/math]

The probability of a single event given some evidence C must necessarily be greater than or equal to the probability of that event and another event, given the same evidence. The general case must be more probable than the specific case, extra details are burdensome and must distinguish between hypotheses. The classic example of this Conjunction Fallacy is when people choose option 2 over option 1 as being more likely:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

Which is more probable?

1. Linda is a bank teller.
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The description is your evidence C and it does not change between the two options, nor does one option give you any more evidence than the other. Our intuitions like to fill in patterns, but #1 is strictly the more probable choice. They would only be equally probable if all bank tellers are active in the feminist movement, in which case option 2 tells you nothing new.

It is this case with IoG vs. AG vs. No-God, or NG, but I'll leave NG out of this for now. In IoG vs. AG, it is clear that the very idea of a deity is more general than the very specific God of the Bible.

And yet people don't argue this way! St. Aquinas created a strange argument involving several assumptions we really can't fully believe in (especially with uncertainty about the question "Why is quantum reality?"), but in the gist involves reasoning to some entity that either was itself not created or must exist outside of cause and effect. It is then supposed to be obvious that this implies AG, when in fact it only supplies a weak argument for IoG.

AG is so specific, that while it is still possible (I'll get to this usage in a moment) AG exists and one of the main three religions reveals him properly, there are just too many details. Even ignoring all the counter-evidence in the form of Biblical contradictions in itself and in third-party-recorded history, the weak evidence for it does not justify belief in such a complicated hypothesis. Because accepting AG isn't just accepting IoG, it's accepting that all the stories are more or less true as written down in the Bible/Torah/Qur'an, it's believing that God is very man-like, it's disbelieving in Evolution.

In modern times, people don't take their gods as seriously as they used to. Books in the Old Testament used to represent law, not just metaphor and symbolism. They were meant to be taken literally, and indeed some sects still follow this path. But in modern times, the sanity waterline is just high enough that people see the laws are incompatible with modern life as well as repulsive to modern common sense and enlightened morality. And so people don't even argue for AG anymore, they argue for a slightly more general God very much like AG but without so many burdensome details, let's call him AG*. This God wrote the Old Testament for metaphors: the Book of Job is meant to teach how the riddles of God are more interesting than the solutions of Men (or depending on who you talk to, teaches humility and a healthy fear of AG*). The story of Genesis isn't meant to be taken as literal truth, believing in AG* isn't incompatible with evolution. AG* is reduced to little more than an outside human-like guidance figure for our morality, whose various works we pick and choose from anyway, and may occasionally violate the laws of physics we know to perform some miracle or another.

We have three gods now, oh dear. But we still don't get three distinct arguments. In fact, it seems like arguments for IoG are being used to prop up AG*, and arguments for AG are also being used to prop up AG* (plus whatever extra details from AG the person wants to add to AG*, for example AG** might like and even answer some prayers or AG** might like worshipers). I don't hear much for AG* alone: why should another mind design be so, so, so similar to our own? If we create an artificial general intelligence on silicon, the state of the evidence suggests it will look nothing like how our brains work. (And for the better, too: we don't want it to inherit all our biases.)

So when debating theists, or anyone just sympathetic to even IoG, make sure it's clear which god you're debating. That's my main point, and I'll conclude with a little venture into what possible means in relationship to your beliefs.

"Everything" is "possible" in a technical sense that we aren't justified in believing anything has absolutely 0 chance of happening in the entire history of the universe past, present, and future. Faster-than-light travel is impossible according to the standard model of physics, and logical impossibilities are impossible according to standard models of logic, but our belief in these models cannot be equally sound, and thus it must be "possible" for the models to be wrong.

So, should I believe I will spontaneously combust, because it's technically "possible"? Should I believe I will win a mega lottery, even if it's technically "possible" (though much likelier than combusting)? Should I believe I will fall through my chair, because quantum mechanics says there's a tiny, tiny little arrow of amplitude for that to happen? Should I believe in IoG because it's possible some entity like that exists? Should I believe in AG because the Bible contains a few factoids? Should I believe the sun will rise tomorrow, because it's possible? I say no to all of these, except the last.

Why are my responses the way they are? Clearly possibility has nothing to do with it. Rather, it's likelihood. The sun rising tomorrow is much more likely than not rising, that's common sense! The back of the lotto ticket says odds of winning are millions to one, that's clearly bad chance! Quantum mechanics uses real numbers, and the odds of falling through this chair are pretty much incalculable since they're far below 0.000001...

And yet it seems that if I had to pick one event over another, even though both falling through this chair and winning the lotto are incredibly unlikely, I should bet on the lotto coming through first. This is all a very verbose and rhetorical-questioning way of coming to a desideratum of modern Rationality: degrees of belief correspond to probabilities between 0 and 1.

Probability Theory has certain rules regarding how one updates probabilities upon new evidence, too, and these rules are as certain as the rules of logic. And so while it may be possible that IoG exists, or AG* exists, or AG exists, the probability is only progressively smaller from IoG, and arguments for IoG are not strong enough to generate a big enough number, with counter arguments and counter evidence being found all the time further lowering the odds. If I can be convinced that IoG is true, then and only then will I look at AG* or AG seriously. Until then, make sure the deities are separated, and in other forms of argument look out for when you could be arguing for a general case and when you could be arguing for a specific case.

Addendum: It just occurred to me at 4am that I may not have made an additional obvious clarification between AG* and AG! This is in relationship to evolution. Some theists will make the argument that they find it incredibly unlikely for life to have just "started" in the primordial soup or whatever, and claim "God" was responsible for life. But again, this is AG* vs. AG: AG created man and all the other creatures within a seven day period, out of nothing but his own thought. Evolution is long settled science, which disproves Genesis. Now, as for the first replicator (which was probably similar to an RNA strand), maybe AG* made it, but it wasn't AG, and whatever the answer has no bearing on the fact of evolution and the fact that Genesis is incorrect.

Posted on 2010-08-25 by Jach

Tags: atheism, debate, religion


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