Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What does God explain?

When guys like Will Wilkinson are writing brilliant stuff like this it really kills my desire to blog much at all, at least when it comes to the heavy philosophical topics. Given the law of comparative advantage, I should leave the philosophizing to Will (and others) and I'll stick to, uh..., something else I haven't quite figured out, yet.

Anyway, I particularly like Will's approach to the definition of an atheist, here:

...[I]f something plays a role in our best explanation of some phenomenon, you should believe it exists. Otherwise, not. God, for instance, is the best explanation for nothing. That’s why you shouldn’t believe in God, or the posits of string theory. (People...who hesitate to call themselves atheists because they cannot “prove” nonexistence are simply confused about ontological commitment. If [one's estimate of the probability] p for “God exists” is so low (”vanishingly unlikely”), then God must play no role in [one's] economy of explanation, which is all there is to being an atheist. You don’t just get to decide whether or not you are one.)
I see little to disagree with in any of the rest of the post, either (or the whole blog, for that matter).

I rarely find myself feeling envious of another man's genius, but Will Wilkinson is definitely one of the few exceptions. Perhaps in part it's because he's got a really hot girlfriend who seemed (at last check, anyway) to be totally nuts about him. Some guys have all the luck!


Dikkii said...

That's a very enlightening article by Will.

I can't help thinking, though, that the idea that we have no free will (as espoused by Will's link to the article in the New York Times) gives me the heeby jeebies.

I really like to think that I have a little more responsibility than that.

Einzige said...

I know exactly what you mean.

steve said...

I'll be the first to admit, I'm confused. I don't buy into any particular dogma, but I simply can't rule out the possibility of something we may have know knowledge about whatsoever. I don't know, perhaps I fall into a category which can be dubbed "Confusiests". It doesn't seem to have a nice ring though. Have you read the new book, I think it's called 'God Delusion" or "God Complex"? Looks like a good read.

Einzige said...


When you define God as "something about which we have no knowledge" then you win the argument by default.

However, that's not how the vast majority of people define God. Ask your average Christian, Jew, Muslim, Vedic, Hindu, etc., what God is and they'll refer you to big books that tell all about Him/Her/It/They. Tell them that they have "no knowledge" about their God and they'll probably get insulted!

Also, I'm not entirely sure that your own definition of "God" would match the one you're trying to claim. There are certain default values to the idea of "God" that I'll presumptively assume you'd agree to - creator of the universe... interested in and/or actively involved in human affairs (which presupposes a being that is conscious in some sense)... moral arbiter... keeper of our eternal souls... you get the idea. That seems a fair bit of "knowledge" - wouldn't you say? A lot of that is even testable in regards to the natural world. For example, is there any convincing evidence that we have a soul that survives bodily death? Is there evidence of miracles? What about the answering of prayer? Perhaps we can actually build a fair bit of knowledge about "God" after all.

Here's the bottom line, as far as I am concerned (and this goes for Will Wilkinson, too): Is God a requirement in your conception of the world? If your answer is "No" then you're an atheist. I don't see how "something about which we have no knowledge" can be of any consequence at all in our lives, so why even give it a second thought?

Why the atheist label is so troubling to you I continue to find a mystery. It's as if we were arguing about whether or not we should be dogmatic in our disbelief of unicorns and leprauchans.

steve said...

I guess I find the atheist label so final, much like the terms Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. They all subscribe to a particular system of belief. What I'm saying is that I admit that I don't know the answers. I don't believe that God is a big man with a beard and flowing robes creating and controlling things,but I refuse to define God based on the terms of religious organizations. I wish I could recall a great Carl Sagan quote where he says something about if God is a force in the universe in which all living and dying beings manifest itself, then yes, I believe in God. I've mentioned this before that my point is, we've (human beings) have only been kicking around on this planet for a realitively small amount of time and while I believe we have the scientific evidence to thoroughly disprove most organized religious groups, we couldn't possily have the necessary knowledge to make a final assumption pertaining to our existence. I do like to keep the door open to possibilities and discoveries that we may very well encounter in the future (if we make it as a species). I think we as humans have a real issue with that and we need tags and faces and labels to support our beliefs. I think most people can't handle the very real possibility that when they die--when we die, that's it--we die. Again, the notion of floating in the clouds with our ffriends to me is a huge fairy tell, much like the notion of hell. I do find it all intriguing since these things are so embedded in our very existence. Anyhow, while I embrace the mystery that is the vast universe, that shouldn't be confused with embraceing a shrugging indifference when it comes to furthering our knowledge about our existence. With each century unfolds new truths and unforseen discoveries. I think what we're experiencing now is a lot of desperation--people clinging onto oudmoded belief systems because that's all they can handle--they'd rather not think but instead retreat and hide in a land of make-believe.religion has become a huge coping mechanism--a drug idf you will, to pacify the masses. It's kind of scary. No really scary.

Solan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Solan said...

"Free Will" is one of those concepts that have been extended too far beyond their original contexts; in this case, the discourse on whether Deity had pre-ordained everything.

OWN WILL is what matters, not this confused talk of mental causality called "free will". People like to think of a decision as "free" if it is not causally determined. But what are the grounds for that causal determination, if not the contents of your own mind? "Free will", then, means a change (in your mind) which is not 100% determined by the contents of your own mind. Randomness. Some people feel quantum randomness has provided the theory of why we have such wondrous "free will", by giving us random switches inside our heads.

Thought experiment: You make a box operating by quantum mechanical principles which gives a "yes" or a "no" with equal probability each time you ask it - purely quantum random. You connect this box to your brain so that it works like an external random switch, the kind "free will" enthusiasts say are inside our brains.

You are about to decide whether to marry a woman. You now have two alternatives:
1) Turn on the box, so as to receive some genuine quantum mechanical "free will" for your decision.
2) Leave the box off, and let the contents of your mind - your feelings towards her and so on - determine whether to marry her or not.

What matters to you? Feeling "free" from your own brain, or making a decision based on your own state? Does it matter to you that the random switch is outside your head as opposed to inside? If yes: Is there a different randomness inside, as opposed to outside?

Anyway, I doubt many of you would choose to let the external random switch determine that choice for you. So operate it into your head, and ask the same question. Same randomness, same existential implications. Next, let it be part of your biological makeup. Same randomness, same existential implications.

I wager that at this point, you realize that having your choices randomized gives you no more control of your life whatsoever, regardless of where the randomness switch is placed. What you realize, is that what matters is WHO makes the choice - WHOSE history and present state determines the choice. Not causality and "free will". In other words, you opt for Own Will.

Einzige said...

That's a nice little thought experiment!

Dikkii said...

"Here's the bottom line, as far as I am concerned (and this goes for Will Wilkinson, too): Is God a requirement in your conception of the world? If your answer is "No" then you're an atheist."

I would have said that if that was the case, you're an apatheist.

I don't think that belief or disbelief enters the equation in the above circumstances, making the term atheist redundant.

My 2c