Is Value Entirely Subjective?

Is value entirely subjective?Is Value Entirely Subjective?

When we speak of something’s value we speak of its ‘goodness’ (Crisp, 2016). Where does this ‘goodness’ come from though? Is something good only because an individual bestows goodness upon based upon their preference for it? In order to answer these kinds of questions we must explore the different kinds of value that something can hold, explore various value theories, and explore various questions about the value that various things can hold. It should become apparent after exploring these ideas and questions that value is not entirely subjective. There are things which are not valued simply because an individual bestows value upon, but that individuals should value these things independent of our preferences; there are things that even if nobody in existence value them, they should. Let us begin by exploring the kinds of value that something can hold.

Let us begin by exploring the idea of instrumental value. If something has instrumental value then its value comes from its usefulness. For instance, money gets its value not from itself, but from what it allows us to achieve. We can exchange money for goods, for shelter, for transport, or for entertainment. Hoarding the money in particular societies may give an individual certain status, hence money can also be used to gain status. However, its value comes only from how useful it is. Money is simply a means to an end, rather than the end itself. We can use money to achieve a final end, but money itself is not a final end. Things that have instrumental purpose get their value from an individual’s preferences, the value comes from how much an individual prefers it and why they prefer it. This would imply that things of instrumental value get their value because we prefer it, but are there things that we should prefer because of their value to us?

In order to explore that question we must begin with what the extreme of the claim that all value is entirely subjective would mean. It would mean, of course, that the following statement would be true: If nobody valued X then X would have no value. In other words, if something existed, and nobody held any value for that something, then that something would have no value. Considering the sheer amount of things that exist, from physical to concept, should we be comfortable to make such a blanket statement about the value of things? There will be those who will be comfortable to make such a blanket statement, and if that blanket statement holds true then we would have to agree that all value is entirely subjective. However, by substituting X with some everyday concepts and items we will, hopefully, see that there are things whose value does not depend on someone valuing them.

Subjective valueFirst let us substitute X with the concept of rationality. We often find ourselves arguing that people should be more rational; it allows us to think in a clearer way, it allows us to make good decisions, it enables us to be more effective in our judgements, to find truth more effectively, and much more. In other words, we argue that those who do not value rationality should value rationality. Rationality gets its value not from our preference for it, it has value simply for what it is. There will be those that argue that rationality is simply a tool, and therefore only has instrumental value, but there must be something intrinsic in rationality that leads us to the conclusion that we should value it. Imagine a world in which everyone behaved irrationally, could we truly say that rationality would hold no value in that world? Of course not, we would argue that the introduction of rationality would add value to that world, we would argue that people should prefer a world with rationality because of what rationality could add to that world. However, if all value is entirely subjective then in a world where everyone was irrational, and nobody valued rationality, then rationality does not, and could not, hold any value. This suggests that there are certain things because of the goodness that they contain, and that our lack of preference for them does nothing to detract from the goodness that they contain.

Let us also substitute X with something like vaccinations for polio. Imagine now a world in which polio is rampant, a world not unlike our own before the introduction of the polio vaccine. However, consider that everyone in this imagined world was entirely against vaccines, instead preferring to pray to whichever God they believe in to stop the spread of polio. In such a world, would it really be true that prayer to God is valuable, but a successful vaccine has no value? Let us narrow it down even further. Imagine that in this alternative world God is a stone that someone found thousands of years previously, that is kept in a locked box on the top of the highest mountain. This stone has no magical properties, it is simply a stone. However, the population of this alternative world earnestly believe that this rock is a god that answers prayers, much in the same way that those that inhabit our planet believe that God answers prayers. The prayers obviously do not heal polio, and cannot heal polio. However, does their preferring praying to this stone give their prayers more value than a working vaccine? It would be counter-intuitive to argue such a case. The polio vaccination would produce positive effects, and would lessen the amount of suffering and disease that existed in the alternative world. We would argue that even if they preferred to pray to the rock on the top of the mountain, they should prefer to invest their resources in an endeavour to create a working vaccine. That we would argue against the effectiveness of the prayer to the rock as a means of eradicating polio, and argue that the people of this world should prefer to create vaccinations, suggests that the value of something does not come entirely from what we prefer, and is not entirely subjective. Once again we see an example of something that we should value for its goodness, and in this case even seeing that preferring something need not necessarily suggest that it contains goodness. A society that values praying to a rock to cure polio does not mean that praying to the rock has any value when it comes to curing polio.

Are vaccines good?Returning now to the world we exist in, but continuing with the idea of vaccines, we find that we often argue against the anti-vaccination crowd. Not only do we argue that their view of the science is wrong, but we argue for the value of vaccines. We argue that they are ‘good’. If value was entirely subjective we would not argue this, nor we would be able to argue this. Instead we would find ourselves simply saying ‘well if you find no value in vaccinations, then vaccinations are of no value to you’. However, this is not what happens. We argue that vaccinations make positive contributions to the societies that we live in. They reduce suffering, they reduce illness, and they help stem the spread of dangerous and/or painful diseases. We find ourselves arguing the same for various other things, such as education, or art, or literature, or a healthy life style. We argue for things that contribute to our well-being; in other words, things that contribute to our well-being have value in and of themselves, rather than simply having value because we value them.

There is a distinction that needs to be made here, and that distinction is the value that something holds by virtue of what it is, and the value it holds because we make use of it. Something can have value that we do not appreciate, but that does not diminish the value it holds. The value it holds by virtue of what it is gives us cause to value it. There is of course some level of subjectivity to value, there is some value to things that is defined by our preference for it. Consider the following examples taken from H. E. Baber’s paper Adaptive Preferences (Baber, 2007).

The first example from Baber (2007) to be discussed is that of the wife who is beaten regularly. On first examination of the wife’s circumstances we might hastily conclude that the wife prefers a life where she is beaten regularly to one where she is not beaten regularly. This would be a mistake though, as pointed out by Baber. Baber argues that it is not that the wife prefers being beaten to not being beaten, it is that the wife has had to choose from various bundles of things. One bundle contains the security of housing and food, but also contains being beaten, where the other bundle excludes the security of housing and food, but does not contain being beaten. It is not that the wife prefers being beaten, it is that the wife prefers housing and food and is willing to put up with the beatings to get it. The beatings do not add to her well-being of course, and it would be a mistake to say that the beatings are given value, or goodness, simply because she would prefer to have food and shelter. As Baber argues, she would more likely prefer a bundle that contains housing, food and no beatings, but of the options actually available to her the bundle she prefers contains an item of no value. Taking this into account should add weight towards the idea that our preferences do not wholly determine the value of something, otherwise it would have to be argued that the beatings contain goodness due to the fact that they allow her to have food and shelter. When really what should be argued, as Baber suggests, is that the beatings are not preferred, contain no goodness, and given the chance the wife would quickly choose a bundle that had food, shelter and no beatings.

The next example to look at is that of the young girl from Afghanistan. Here Baber (2007) gives us an example that contains a young girl’s mother choosing a life that does not contain education, preferring instead to teach the young girl about taking care of a household and a husband. This choice is made because in that particular society an educated woman is not looked on in the same way that they would be in somewhere like Britain. The husband of that particular society is looking for the woman who is a good home maker, and who will stay at home and look after the children. Therefore an education may negatively impact the child’s chance at finding a husband, and therefore securing a stable future for herself. However, this does not necessarily mean that the mother would not prefer her child to have an education. If it is the case that the mother would prefer her child to have an education if it were a viable option then it also seems to be the case that education has a particular value that is defined in and of itself. If education has a value in and of itself then it would also be the case that the value of it is not entirely subjective. In a world in which education exists, but everyone within that world preferred something else, education would still have a certain value. In the case of the girl from Afghanistan, the value of education to her personally is determined in part by her preferences as well as her circumstances. However, the value of education itself is a separate issue. Here we must learn to separate the value of something, such as education, from the value of something to us.

Here again we see that there are things that we should value because of the properties they hold in and of themselves, from the things that we prefer. The things that we prefer may be shaped by our environment, causing us to value something that we really should not prefer. Someone may prefer being beaten to being homeless, but that does not mean that being beaten contains any intrinsic ‘goodness’. However, a society that provides education, and better options than being beaten or being homeless, would mean that this someone would prefer something different, even if the option to being beaten was available to them. This means that something like education, or a safe living environment, have value outside of our preferences for them. There are properties contained within those things that means we should prefer them. Once again meaning that value is not entirely subjective, instead there is an objective element to value.

Science vs the Qu'ranNow imagine for a moment the existence of world in which only Islam existed. Consider that all of our information about the natural world came only from the teachings of the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran is chosen here as an example because of the many claims that Muslims make about how the Qu’ran contains true knowledge about the universe. Claims such as it containing detailed information about embryology, the big bang, the weather system, and much more. Would we be accurate in saying that science would have no value in this world? Would we be accurate in saying that the Qu’ran would have more value for finding out about the universe than science would? This is what we would be saying if we were to say that value is entirely subjective. However, it would be an incorrect thing to say. The Qu’ran does not contain more value than science when it comes to discovering truths about the natural world, and one would not argue that it does unless one is a Muslim. However, we would still argue with that Muslim that the Qu’ran is not of value when it comes to discovering truths about the natural world. While the Qu’ran may have subjective value bestowed upon it by the Muslim, the Muslim should instead value science regardless of whether it conflicts with the Qu’ran. In fact, we argue that the Qu’ran should be discarded in favour of the findings of science. Meaning that science has a value in and of itself, and that we should prefer it because of this value; this value being truth. This would also mean that truth holds some value in and of itself, and is not something that gets its value simply because we prefer it. A world with truth has more ‘goodness’, or value, than a world without truth. If everybody preferred to lie all the time, they should instead prefer a world in which truth exists. The value of truth is not something that is entirely subjective.

Is value entirely subjective?Again, here we see the idea of the value of something, and the value of something to us. Showing once again the importance of the distinction between the two things. The value to us is something that takes on a subjective nature. There are also things that are entirely of subjective value. Music itself may have intrinsic properties, however our preference for different types of music is something that is subjective. Some music may move us, some music may move us to switch it off. The one that we prefer to listen, and therefore value, is determined entirely subjectively. Literature is another example. While reading in general may contain intrinsic properties, the genre we prefer, and therefore value, may be entirely different. One may choose to read Hume, while another chooses to read Harry Potter. The same may be said of past-times. While one person may prefer to sketch a drawing of a beautiful countryside, another may prefer to play video games. The contributions that certain things make to our well-being causes us to value certain things that another may not, are still instilled instrumental value by our using them. However, it is our preference for them that gives them value, they are means to another end, such as happiness, or education. Meaning that value can still be entirely subjective. The mistake comes not from declaring that value can be subjective, but from declaring that all value is subjective.

All of this means that we should conclude that value is not something that is entirely subjective. There may be a certain amount of subjectivity involved when it comes to value, and in some cases something may get its value entirely subjectively, but to declare that all things get their value entirely subjectively is too simplistic of a claim. Some things do contain a value in and of themselves, giving us cause not only to value, but to argue for why we should value certain things. This would not be possible if value was entirely subjective. To argue for why we should value something is to argue that the something has value apart from our preferences. It is to argue that our preferences should adapt themselves to this value being argued for, and therefore that there is a certain amount of objectivity to that value being argued for. In conclusion, we should be arguing that value is not entirely subjective, and to argue that cause is to argue for far too simplistic a conclusion. A simplistic conclusion that does not hold up to scrutiny.

References

Baber, H. E. (2007) ‘Adaptive preference’, Social Theory and Practice, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 105–26

Crisp, R. (2013) ‘Well-being’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Online], 8 May 2013. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/well-being/ (Accessed 24 Jul 2017)




Critical thinking

Wireless Philosophy – An Introduction to Critical Thinking

Critical thinking

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is a topic oft raised by members of the atheist community.  We often like to promote ourselves as ‘the rational ones’, and we often see atheists telling members of the theist community that they need to apply critical thinking to their beliefs.  How many atheists have actually studied critical thinking though?  While I do try my best to introduce my own original work in each Answers in Reason article that I post, I thought a nice change of pace, and an informative and useful change of pace, would be to share various YouTube, Blog, and Podcast series or shows that may help people learn a little more about various topics such as critical thinking, ethics, epistemology, and various other subjects included in philosophy.  As my first such share I introduce a YouTube channel called Wireless Philosophy, and their series on Critical Thinking.  The videos themselves are reasonably short, but packed full of information.  They are worth a watch, whether you are new to the topic of critical thinking or are already well-informed.

 

 

 




Sense

Presup: Sense and Reason, Part 1

ANSWERS IN REASONIntroduction

Most who have been involved in discussion and debate of the existence of God will, at some point, have come across the Presuppositionalist. Presuppositionalism proposes that we must presuppose the existence of God in order to make sense of the world, and other ideas such as God being necessary in order to make sense of and explain various parts of existence as well as existence itself. One of the most well-known proponents of Presup is the infamous Sye Ten Bruggate, who many may know from his debate with Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience.

Two prongs of argument that the presupper attempts are to insert doubt into whether or not we can trust our sense experiences, and our ability to reason. This will of course be a familiar thing to those with experience of Descarte’s work Meditations. The arguments used in presup are similar, and have their roots in, ‘Cartesion Doubt’ or ‘hyperbolic doubt’ as Descarte himself referred to it. In his work Descarte’s uses his famous ‘Evil Demon’ thought experiment to insert absolute doubt, and attempts to find a way to justify why his senses can be trusted. Descarte’s conclusion is that God gives us sufficient reason to justify trusting our senses and our ability to reason. But is God necessary to trust our senses and our reason? Must we presuppose God in order to make sense of it, and to have certainty that our senses and our reason can be trusted?

Doubting the SensesANSWERS IN REASONI

n Descarte’s Meditations he sets forth the challenge for himself to remove all those things that cast doubt upon knowledge, and start from a solid foundation. In amongst those things that he perceives to cast doubt upon knowledge are the senses. Arguing that sometimes the senses deceive us, and this gives us cause to doubt sense experiences. That the idea that we know that we are sometimes fooled is evidence that our senses cannot be trusted, and our senses may also be fooled all of the time. Going further to introduce the idea of the ‘Evil Demon’ thought experiment which asks us to imagine that our senses are completely controlled by a demon that fools us into thinking we are experiencing things we simply are not.

There are many rebuttals from many minds that go into detail with the problems of Descarte’s ‘Evil Demon’, just as there are with the similarly made ‘Brain in a Vat’ argument. Rebuttals that give us good reason to doubt the validity of the arguments. However, the presup rarely opens with an ‘Evil Demon’ or ‘Brain in a Vat’ argument. Instead they simply ask us whether or not we can trust our senses, in the hopes of leading to an argument in which we can use God and the Bible in order to ‘synchronise’ our senses; in this way we can know what we are experiencing is real, true and that we are not being deceived. So do we need to do this in order to know that our senses are not deceiving us all the time?

Trusting the Senses

ANSWERS IN REASON

The argument will usually be put forward in a similar manner to Descarte’s argument. We know that the senses sometimes fool us, so could it be possible that they are always fooling us? Must we mistrust our senses continually because there are times we cannot trust our senses?

The first problem with that argument and reason is that it simply does not follow. The conclusion does not follow on from the premise. For the very premise itself presupposes that sometimes our senses do not deceive us. The conclusion in an indirect manner is asking us to imagine if senses that are known to be right some of the time can be incorrect all of the time. It is similar to making an argument that states ‘the senses are sometimes right, so could it be possible that they are always wrong?’. It simply is not possible to get to the question logically from the premise put forward. This alone gives us good reason to reject the proposition made by the argument asking us to think our senses are always being deceived because they are sometimes being deceived.

Thinking of it in a similar manner to that of a forged bank-note (Blackburn, 1999). Does it make sense to say that as some bank notes are forged, so all bank notes may be forged? Of course it does not, for forged bank notes are copies of original bank notes. We cannot have a forgery without their being an original to copy, therefore the conclusion is nonsensical. Just as it is when we are asked to imagine that our senses are always being deceived because some of the time they are not being deceived. It simply is a nonsensical argument.

The Evil Demon

ANSWERS IN REASONThis of course is where the thought experiments of the ‘Evil Demon’ and the ‘Brain in a Vat’ style of argument may come in, and are often brought in. These experiments invite us to imagine a scenario in which it is plausible that our senses are being fooled all of the time. The ‘Evil Demon’ inviting us to imagine a demon powerful enough to control our senses all of the time, and the ‘Brain in a Vat’ inviting us to imagine a scenario where we are simply brains in jars, attached to a giant computer which sends us all of our sense experiences. A scenario is created wherein it becomes possible that all of our senses and perceptions are deceiving us all of the time. There are many rebuttals made against these arguments, and the problems with these arguments, however in this article the focus is not on rebutting these arguments but examining the claims made by the presuppositionalist.

Here the claim is that God can give us certainty that our senses are not being fooled all of the time. It is similar to the claim that Descartes uses in order to overcome his ‘Evil Demon’. That God is a good god, and a personal god, and an honest god, and would therefore not allow us to be fooled by an ‘Evil Demon’ as described. Does this give us certainty that our senses are not being fooled 100% of the time?

One of the problems with this claim is that if a being truly were attempting to ‘fool your senses’ in a completely immersive way, and trick you into staying in that truly immersed ‘tricking of the senses’, it would be logical for it to create a way to convince you that it is not possible that you are being fooled. To insert an idea that you cannot be fooled would be a way to keep you entirely and unquestioningly immersed in the fooling of your senses. An argument such as Descartes, that there exists a god that would ensure that you were never being fooled. The same holds true for the idea of the ‘Brain in a Vat’. Proposing a god does not give us certainty that we are not ‘Brains in a Vat’ for the very same reason.

Another problem with this argument is the ‘free will defence’ that many use. That God does not violate ‘free will’. It is the reason that God will not stop the rape of a child, or the murder of defenceless old woman, or the genocide of a group of people. It is also a similar reason to why God does not simply put an end to Satan. He has been given free rein in the material world, but will be reeled in come ‘Judgement Day’. If, as the argument concludes, God would inform us of any attempt to deceive our senses in the manner of the ‘Evil Demon’ or of the mad scientist with the ‘Brains in a Vat’, then it argues against the idea that God would not violate ‘free will’ and would argue against the idea that Satan cannot be dispatched by God and has free rein in this world.

To argue that God would inform us of our senses being perpetually deceived is to bring in an inconsistency, and a contradiction in the definition of God. There would then need to be ‘caveats’ introduced into the claim that God does not violate ‘free will’. It would also then need to be explained why God would deem it more necessary to stop us from having our senses deceived than it is to stop a young child from being tortured, abused, raped and/or killed. It would also have to be explained why God deems it necessary to calibrate our senses in this instance, but not in instances where the wrong religion is followed, or even not believed.

So the argument that God can give us certainty that what we are experiencing is absolutely real, and that without God we must doubt our senses 100% of the time, or that it is even possible to doubt our senses 100% of the time if the claim that sometimes our senses are wrong, is without substance. Upon closer examination of the arguments, they do not hold as strong of a case as the presupper may argue, or may indeed believe. However, do we really even need 100% certainty that our senses work 100% of the time in order to trust them?

Why Trust Our Senses Sometimes?

ANSWERS IN REASONIf we consider the idea of how evolution works, we consider the idea of natural selections; or the selection of traits that favour the survival of the species. Imagine for a moment that our senses were always unreliable in navigating the world. If our senses were always unreliable for navigating the world then would we, as a species, have survived long enough to order to escape becoming prey? Would we have been able to know that there was a predator near, and would we have been able to escape that predator?

It would seem incredibly unlikely that it would be the case. If our senses could not navigate us successfully through the world we would not have survived long enough in order to evolve into beings capable of building societies. If our senses could never be trusted we would never have created the societies we have created today, or the technology that we have created today. If our senses were useless to us then none would be able to read this argument. We would not have the capability to write things in a coherent fashion in languages that others can understand, and those who understand that language could read back in a way that shows that it is coherent and that our senses calibrate to the same sense experience.

The fact that we can check that our sense experiences are alike with another human, or a group of humans, gives us cause to trust our senses to some degree also. We can also make note of our experiences, and have them tested by others to see if those experiences line up. The more people who test to see if it lines up, and does line up with, the better of course. Which is the nature of the scientific method. It does not simply ‘trust the senses’, it does its best to ensure rigorous testing of the conclusions made from sense experience. It also uses methods beyond our senses, such as measuring equipment, and recording equipment, that work in different, and more finely tuned, ways to our senses. We are able to hear frequencies we otherwise would not, and view things in a spectrum of light we otherwise would not, and see things in detail we otherwise would not. It is the very reason that sometimes our senses deceive us that we create even more rigorous and stringent testing methods due to it. This enables to further and further test and refine our conclusions. Is a little bit of doubt about our findings, or our behaviour, or our beliefs, not a good thing?

References

Blackburn, S. (1999) Think, Oxford Press, Oxford.




Changing A Mind: Respect Matters


Changing a mind

Ridiculous beliefs deserve ridicule…”

Introduction

For those atheists that discuss and debate religion, we should ask ourselves what the purpose behind it is. Why do we do the things we do? For the Christian evangelist, or the Muslim performing Da’wah, this is a simple question to answer. They do it because they are attempting to spread their religion. They believe their way is the way, and their religion teaches them that they should be spreading the religion. What of the atheist though? We have no such doctrine, we have no doctrine at all. Yet it is common, especially in this modern era, to find atheists discussing and debating religion. So we should ask ourselves why we attempt to discuss religion with the believer. Is the purpose simply to mock those that do not think like us, or is the purpose something more?  Is the purpose to change minds?

Ridiculing the Believer

It is common to find atheists in debate groups, especially amongst those that act like echo chambers for atheist thought, using the phrase ‘ridiculous beliefs deserve ridicule’. There are many who seem to be content to insult and mock the believer, because they hold the idea that the theist has ridiculous beliefs. What of the theist though? There are many who hold the idea that the atheist has ridiculous beliefs. We often see attempts from various theists to mock the non-believer, not just the atheist but those that hold a different religion. So does their belief that others hold ridiculous beliefs entitle them to ridicule those beliefs, as the statement implies? The atheists who hold to this idea justify their actions by claims of atheism being logical, reasonable and rational. Yet the believer holds that their beliefs are these things too. Each group believes that they are the ones with the correct beliefs, the rational beliefs, the logical beliefs. What does ridicule achieve though?

Ridiculing can be used to bully people into conformity of course. Is that all we as atheists want though, for those that do not believe to simply conform to our ideas? How does that make us any different from those believers that simply want us to conform to their ideas? If our goal is to attempt to promote rationality, and reason, and logic, then surely we want more than simple conformity? Surely we should want more than to simply look good, or look clever, amongst our peers and those that are in our in-group?

Unless those are our goals then of course we should want more. In order to achieve more though we must understand what it takes to change a person’s mind. We also must understand why it is people believe in religion, beyond memes such as ‘too stupid to understand science’. We need to understand why people believe their God exists, and their religion, beyond the simple answer of indoctrination. One of my colleages here at Answers In Reason presented an article in to the science of belief which you can read here at your own leisure. We already face an uphill battle when it comes to the believer changing their mind, especially in cases of religions like Islam, in which it is taught that it is perfect and beyond reproach, and that it cannot be wrong. If our goal is to change their minds then we must understand at least the bare minimum of what it takes to change a mind, and the approaches necessary in order to change a mind. In this article we will attempt to discuss some of the various approaches and ideas put forward about ‘changing someone’s mind’. So, what does it take to change a person’s mind?

An Interest in What is Being Said

The first step towards the acquisition of knowledge of course is an interest in the topic at hand. If we are not interested in the topic then we will rarely seek out the knowledge. Sometimes it is curiosity, other times it is necessity, but it is usually some kind of interest that begins our journey. The reason behind our interest is often a factor in what information we seek out, or what information we accept, as well. If we are simply interested in debunking an idea, often we will seek out that particular information. The same is true of the opposite as well, we will seek the information that supports the idea that we are interested in. However, interest is only the beginning of the journey. It is what leads us to begin our acquisition of information and knowledge, and not the deciding factor on where and who we get our information from.

Changing a mind

A Little Bit of Respect

It is often respect that is a major contributing factor in who we listen to. For if we do not respect the person, or at the very least their grasp of the topic they are speaking on, then we will reject the information that they present us. We can often not respect the person giving us the information, but if we respect their authority on the subject then we will still listen to what that person has to say on the subject; even if we dismiss their opinions on other subjects. Showing us that respect has much to do with our ability to change another’s mind. Here is where the atheist faces something of a problem though. The knowledge we have is not something that most believers have a genuine interest in, most are not seeking to acquire knowledge of atheism but instead to convince the atheist that the position they hold is incorrect. They are seeking to convert, rather than be converted. They also do not have a respect for the average atheists authority on certain subjects. The authority that they respect as far as knowledge goes is their God, and their scriptures. Made even more difficult in cases such as Islam, in which it convinces the believer that the scripture cannot be wrong, and that the Muslim cannot be wrong if they are indeed following what is taught in the Qu’ran. It creates an almighty (pun intended!) bias in their thinking, one that is incredibly difficult to challenge.

It is not an impossible challenge though. What it means that what we must rely on is their respect for us as people, and as human beings. We could argue that it will never happen, this is true. After all, it is included in some scriptures that we are not to be respected. That we are only worthy of hell fire, that we are fools, and that the wise are the one’s that follow ‘the true religion’, which usually tends to be the one that the particular believer is a member of. However, this is not always the case. There are many that are willing to engage in dialogue and discussion, and there are many that treat those who believe differently with respect. So long as they are worthy of respect of course. They generally tend not to engage in discussion with those whose behaviour is bullying and insulting. They are indeed looking for reasonable discourse, just as many atheists are simply looking for reasonable discourse.

This is something that we should be using to our advantage. By creating and reinforcing slogans such as ‘ridiculous beliefs deserve ridicule’ we immediately alienate those we should be having reasonable discourse with. We earn no respect from those we should be seeking to gain the respect of when we lead with the idea that we will ridicule what they believe. Especially when we factor in some of the stereotypes and ideas that many believers already hold of the atheist.

internet atheistStereotyping of the Atheist

When we enter into a conversation with many believers, the non-believer is already confronted by certain prejudices and stereotypes. Ideas such as the angry atheist, or that atheists are arrogant, or are atheists simply because we do not want to behave, and much more. Many atheists will have come across this in some form at some point in their lives, especially if they are active in discussion and debate. We are also seen as irrational by many believers, as they believe that the rational conclusion is that God exists and to believe otherwise is irrational. The Bible claims that those who do not believe in God are fools, and the Qu’ran promotes the idea that we are less than cattle (cite sources).

This means that even before entering into a conversation with many believers they have a particular image of us. An image designed to impact the amount of respect that the believer has on first contact. In order to overcome this we must show that these stereotypes do not hold weight, and that what they believe, what they have been taught to believe, is a falsehood. That we are not angry, and arrogant, and foolish, and immoral, and less than animals. That we are indeed reasonable and rational people, and we are good people.

“I will never respect religion”

There will be those who will reply that they will never respect religion, or religious beliefs, or believers. However, this is not the point being made here. The point is not that we must respect these things, but instead that one of the key conditions to getting someone to listen to you is that they must respect you enough to actually listen to what is being said. If they do not respect a person enough to listen to them, then there is little chance that person will have the opportunity to get them to question their beliefs, or listen to their criticisms of their belief, or to listen to reasons why they do not hold the same belief. Therefore if the goal is these things, then the approach used must be considered.

Conclusion

This is not to say that all believers are approachable, or will listen, or will ever respect anyone that does not believe the same thing as they do. For these people clearly exist, and the atheist active in discussion and debate will have come across these people on a regular basis. These people may or may not be unreachable, however it should be considered that even the most ardent of believers in particular ideologies have changed their mind when they have come across people who had certain extant qualities that made them consider their beliefs.

However, to approach all believers as if they hold this mindset would be an error in judgement. For there are those that are willing to have polite discussions. There are also those that criticise others for similar reasons the atheist does, such as the exclusion and harassment of the LGBT+ community and the like. Just as the atheist community is diverse, and is made up of many different ideas and beliefs, so to is the theist community. Some are not of the Abrahamic faiths. These things should all be considered in our approach to discussion and debate and criticism. Just as we atheists are unfairly lumped together, or faulty conclusions are made based on faulty premises, we must also not make the same the mistake of theists.

If our goal is to get people to consider their beliefs carefully, or to understand our criticisms of their beliefs, or to listen to our questions, then our approach needs to be considered by each and every one of us. Our goals too need to be considered; and if our goal is the things that are mentioned here then one of the main factors in even getting close to them is that we must have a minimum amount of respect from those we are in discussion with, enough respect to actually get them to listen to us.




Just

Is God’s Punishment Just?

Answers in Reason

Introduction

A common claim heard from followers of both Christianity and Islam is that God, or Allah, is just. God is the ultimate judge of our affairs, punishing the wicked and rewarding the good; depending of course on how one chooses to use their free will. This leads to a contradiction between the concepts, and there are many Christian and Islamic apologetics written in an attempt to overcome this paradox. However, they tend to attempt to reconcile the two from the point of free will while ignoring a much greater flaw.  They overlook the claim that God is also all-powerful and if it did indeed create the universe than God must have “intelligently designed” the universe. So, baring these facts in mind as well, can God truly be just?

In order to determine whether God’s punishment is just, first we must look at a few of the characteristics attributed to God by both Christian and Islamic theology.  The first characteristic we must look at is that of God being “all-knowing”.  Exactly what does God being all-knowing mean?

All-Knowing and All-Powerful

According to Christian and Islamic theology, there is nothing that is unknown to God.  He has known all things at all times, and there has never been a time that God did not know all things.  Which means that there has never been a time that God did not know the future of our universe. Which means that he knew every evil deed committed by every single evil doer from the beginning of time.  In effect, from the moment of creation God knew every single genocide that would happen, he knew every war and killing that would happen in his name, every child that would be raped by a priest.  Every single evil thing you could think of, God knew these things would happen before he created the universe.

The more interesting thing to remember is that upon creating the universe, God knew every single moment that he would intervene and what the outcome of that intervention would be.  In other words, God already knew that he would have to flood the Earth, God knew that he would have to rain fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah, and he knew the reaction from every parent whose child he would have to take away as a test.

Which leads us on to an interesting question.  Could God have created the universe in such a way that these things did not have to happen?  Well according to Christian and Islamic theology, yes he could have.  According to Christian and Islamic theology God is all-powerful.  This means that there is nothing that is beyond God’s power.  So God could have created the universe in a different configuration; not only could he have created the universe in a different configuration but he would have known the future of each configuration.

In effect, God chose every single evil deed that has happened and that will happen.  He chose a particular configuration where particular people commit particular deeds.  To put it a different way, God chose which people he would punish and why he would punish them.

An Oft Overlooked Point

This is the point that Christian and Islamic apologetics tend to overlook.  They tend mostly to focus on correlating free will with an all-knowing god.  So does putting the two attributes together negate free will?

The answer to that is both yes and no.  Free will can still be possible, however, it means that God chose the universe in which the person made that particular choice at that particular time.  He could have created a universe where those events did not happen, or he could have chosen a universe where the person made a different choice.   In other words, God chose the universe where you picked that particular choice.

A Universal Computer Simulationpc-sim

Think of it similar to a simulation on a computer.  Think of running a simulator that calculates every single possible combinations of universes and events in those universes. This would allow us to both know the future, and allow for free will.  However, these universes don’t actually exist.  Now imagine that the user of the simulation then goes on to choose their favourite configuration, the one that they would most like to see happen.  The creator of the universe would still be all-knowing as far as the future goes, the being inside the universe would still have made a choice out of free will, however ultimately the choice was down to the creator of the universe.  This is exactly how it would be if God had created the universe.  This point can be further enforced by the claims by Christian and Islamic theology that God intelligently designed the universe.

god justGod’s Choice…

What both of these points mean is that while a person may have made a choice to commit a particular deed, the choice was ultimately God’s.  The only way that the choice could not have been God’s is if he could not have known the future of the universe.  However, according to Christian and Islamic theology God cannot know something now that he did not know at the beginning of universe.  Further proving the point that any deed committed in this universe, if it was indeed created by God, was ultimately God’s choice.

…Is It Just?

So the question that must be asked is whether or not it is just for God to punish someone for doing something that he had no real choice about doing?  Is it just for God to punish someone for doing something that, ultimately, God chose for them to do?

According to the dictionary the definition of just is “Based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair”.  Is it right and fair to punish someone for something that you forced them to do?
To put it another way, if a scientist created an android whose sole purpose was to attempt to kill that scientist, would it be right and fair to punish him for attempting to kill the scientist?

Conclusion

Any reasonable person would of course come to the conclusion that it would not be fair to punish that android for performing that deed, after all it was the scientist who ultimately made the choice.  The same logic then should be applied to God, meaning that the only logical and rational response to the question of “Is God’s punishment just?” is no, God’s punishment is not just.

Which means that either God does not exist, as a being with the attributes assigned to it by Christian and Islamic theology can not be all-knowing, all-powerful and just, or that the Bible nor the Qur’an are the word of god.




brain vat presuppositionalist

A Brain… In A Vat!

 

brain vatIntroduction

Most of us who are active in discussions about religion will have come across a presuppositionalist at some point. These of course are people who argue that we must ‘presuppose the existence of God’ in order for things to make sense, and that presupposing the existence of God answers many questions. Those who have experience will have heard many questions from them, one such being the age-old question ‘how do we know you’re not just a brain in a vat?’. This is a question that they argue only belief in God can answer, and only belief in God can assure us that we are not. Before getting into the topic, we should first begin with a simple run down of what the ‘brain in a vat’ argument is for those who are not versed in the argument. So what is the ‘brain in a vat’ argument?

A Brain… In A Vat!

The ‘brain in a vat’ argument is a relatively simple one, and is designed to question our grasp of reality and what we can know about it. It asks us to imagine that all the we see, hear, smell, feel and know isn’t actually the result of sensory information coming in from ‘reality’. Instead of our senses getting information from ‘reality’, our sensory information is being fed to us by a super-computer. One that an evil genius, mad scientist, or overlords have attached our brains to. In fact, that is all we are, we are not these bodies that we inhabit, but simply brains, in a vat, attached by electrodes to a computer that feeds us information through our senses and fools us into believing that this is reality (Dupre, 2007). This, in essence, is the relatively simple concept behind the ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment. It is an exercise in scepticism, but scepticism taken to the extreme. A thought experiment designed to introduce doubt to all that we know; and it is this problem that presuppositionalists say that only belief in God can give us any kind of answer to.

Unplugging The Brain

However, the problem itself has one glaring problem upon immediate examination. That is, what happens when the brain is unplugged from the machine? A brain on its own is just that, a brain on its own. With nothing powering it, it is simply an organ that sits there and does nothing. Without the brain, there is no mind, and therefore not ‘you’. Without a ‘you’ there is no reality for ‘you’ to experience. Think of the cow’s brain that we often see in something like a science class, or an exhibit. It sits there in a jar for us to observe, but it does not observe us. When we observe it we do not think ‘I wonder what that cow is experiencing?’ or ‘I wonder what reality is like for that cow?’. No, we usually observe it and think ‘cool, a cow’s brain in a jar!’. So would the question of what a lone human brain preserved in jar is experiencing even be a coherent one?

Of course it would not! The question of what ‘you’ would be doing if you were a brain in a jar is an even more incoherent question. This would mean that without being plugged into the machine that was serving you your experiences, there would be no reality for ‘you’. Which would mean that this would be reality. Knowing we were brains in a jar would not change what reality is like for us, it would only change our knowledge about reality. It would change our perceptions, our experiencing of reality, possibly even our behaviour, but nothing about the reality we are perceiving. The reality we are experiencing would still abide by the same laws of physics, we would have no more control over our reality than we do know. We would simply have an answer to a question, and some other questions like ‘how was the universe formed?’, and ‘do we have a creator?’.

If we were brain in a jar we would be brains in a jar having an experience, and we would hold knowledge about that. For some of us it may change our perceptions of reality, affect some of the philosophical questions we ask, or the way we interact with said reality, and only in that manner would our individual experience of reality change. Reality itself would stay the same. But what if we could change reality itself, such as bend the laws of physics, control gravity with our minds, or something else of that manner?

Physics brokenChanging The Laws Of Physics!

This, of course, would change reality. What we change would be an alteration of reality, and therefore a change of reality. Other’s would experience reality in an objectively different way. It wouldn’t be the individual’s reality that was affected, it would be a universal effect. Let us think about that for a moment though. If we were brains in a jar, hooked up to a supercomputer, controlling our reality, think of the technology that would take. The amount of knowledge that would take. The technical experience it would take to write that kind of software. Now think about the kind of ego it would take to ask that question.

Imagine the ego it would take to say that us, people who were created to be fooled by a computer program, could alter that program. For if a group of beings had the ability to create the illusion, they would have the ability, and ingenuity, to come up with a way to reinforce the illusion. Ways in which the illusion was enforced would be hard-coded into the software. It would be also be effortless to hard code into the software that we cannot change the parameters of the universe. It would be exactly as it is now. But what if the software, or the hardware, wasn’t up to scratch for the job?

broken-computerFaulty Hardware

Daniel Dennet makes an excellent point about this question in his book Consciousness Explained (1993). Here he makes the case that it would be more likely that reality actually exists (Dennet, 1993). The hardware necessary to run billions of brains in unison would be incredible. It also leads to other questions. Questions such as “what are new lives?”, “are they new brains hooked up to the system?”, or “are they new subroutines running?” If they are simply new subroutines, then what happened after the first generation died, and why did the simulation continue running? What is it running on and why did it need human brains to start? Why do I have thousands of generations before me, and yet I am the first brain?

Think of the technological and biological knowledge it would take to set something like that up. The wiring of the network to all the nerves that control our sensory input, converting whatever the machine is running into nerve commands and vice versa, to run the operating system it would take to run this kind of simulation, and the simulation itself. It seems more probable that a civilisation with that kind of technology could have perfected the technology. Even if they hadn’t, how problems with hardware affect the software. It would cause some kind of glitch, which would cause some kind of fault in the software, or complete shutdown of the technology. Complete shutdown would of course end the simulation, and the reality that exists inside of it would simply cease to function, and we would no longer be asking these kinds of questions. We would never know we were, and we would never know we ceased to be. What about a glitch in the software though?

bugA Bug In The Software

Could we ever truly know there had been a glitch in the software? For a civilisation with the knowledge to create this kind of simulation would have the ability to create a simulation that they could simply ‘rewind’. If the simulation was ‘rewound’ we would never know, and we would never know about the glitch in the system. This of course would take someone monitoring the code, or self monitoring code. The system would have to be under constant watch, everywhere at the same time in one form or another, in order for this to happen immediately. Even if the glitch wasn’t noticed immediately by the engineers or software, and the code to rewind it existed, we still would never know. For this moment that we are aware of could have been the moment it was ‘rewound’ to. This moment could be the reset. So we would still never know. It could still be before the rewind though, or perhaps the technology to rewind doesn’t exist.

Software Protection

This brings us back to the question of how well the illusion was coded. Surely the illusion could be created in such a way that we either do not accept the glitch in the illusion, or that we accept it and attribute it to something else. For those of us who hold the idea that the universe is entirely natural, we would challenge that glitch unless it was observed and measured in a way acceptable to the scientific method, and acceptable in an objectively studied or able to be studied objectively. There are many reasons we would not accept evidence of a glitch in the software.

For many believers, this glitch becomes attributed to their god, or their supernatural belief. Think of the existence of Jesus. Consider that Jesus was simply a glitch in the system. It was a localised event that took generations to get out to wider area. By the time it got out to the wider area it was a second-hand tale. As it has gotten older it has become less and less believed, and there were always those that simply rejected it. We even see around us that there are those who are, and always have been, active in questioning, casting doubt upon. It has also become so old that we can never really investigate it. If it was a glitch, then the illusion is so great, and written so well that it would always have been in doubt, and could never truly be shown to be true to a satisfactory standard of all that know of the glitch. The further away the harder, the harder to prove. This goes for proximity, which gets harder to believe the further the account gets from the observer.

It also seems less likely that in a natural universe that an event like the Biblical Jesus would occur, than it does that a glitch in a virtual world would occur. So, if the event of the Biblical Jesus did indeed occur, then it adds weight to the argument that we are brains in a jar living in a virtual world, than it does us living in a ‘real’ universe. Of course, it could also lend weight to the idea of God. That Jesus proves God exists, and that God existing proves this is real. Or does it simply lend more weight to the idea that we are brains in a jar living in a virtual world?

God Is Software Protection

In order to answer that question we need to return to some of our previous questions. The first one being the question of how would our perception of the universe change? In the case of some, their perception would change of course. Their behaviour may change as well, depending on their various other beliefs. However, what of the believer? How many believers are there that declare ‘nothing could change my mind about God’, or ‘nothing could change my mind about my religion’?

For these people, neither their knowledge of reality, nor their perception of it would change. For them, the only answer is that of God. This is not to say that all believers are like this, for there are those that would change their knowledge, and change their perception of reality. There are a huge amount, especially amongst Christians and Muslims, that would not. They would remain the same. They would even still be arguing against it, attempting to convince people who God is the answer, and that God proves we are not brains in jars living in a simulation.

Now back to the question of reinforcing the illusion, and keeping those in it in Here we have a belief, the belief in God, that not only would be useful in keeping people trapped in the illusion, we have a belief that causes people to refuse to accept that it could be anything else. Holding on to the belief in the face of inconsistencies, logically incoherent definitions, and the inability to actually test the idea. It is also a belief that encourages the holder to spread the belief, propagating itself. If all of this was indeed a virtual reality, and there was a need into fooling us that this is an illusion, God would indeed be a useful tool for those running the simulation.

Which leads us back to the idea of ‘software protection’. The effectiveness of the belief in God, especially by many Christians and Muslims, in convincing them they cannot be wrong about reality would make it ideal for protecting, and enforcing, the illusion. It is the type of idea we should expect to see in a system designed to protect the nature of the illusion from those perceiving it. The idea of God, and nature of some people’s belief, gives weight to the idea that it could be a virtual reality. One could argue here of course that God speaks to the believer, or that the believer feels God, but this too could be explained by a ‘software protection’ designed to enforce the illusion. However it is attempted to put God as the definitive answer to this question, it can be used to argue that it could also be an illusion.

extreme skepticExtreme Scepticism

The same extreme kind of scepticism could be held against any idea of reality. Questions continually asked, criticisms continually made, and ideas of illusion continually reinforced. God may offer an answer to the question, but it is an answer no more satisfactory than any other. There are of course other similar arguments of extreme scepticism, such as the ‘mischievous demon’ outlined in Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (cite source). The same and similar objections can be raised about them, and many rebuttals already exist for these arguments. Rebuttals that do not involve the invoking of God. So the claim that only God can give us an answer to solving the problem is not one of truth. So how do we offer a rebuttal to the brain in the jar?

A Rebuttal To The Brain In The Jar?

How do we tell the difference between a virtual reality designed to fool us into thinking it’s real, and an actual reality? We only have experience of this place we exist in, and no other. We have no other frame of reference that we can compare it to so we could say ‘no, this is what a reality is supposed to be like’. Any civilisation advanced enough to create an illusion such as this also has the ability to enforce the illusion inside the system. The only way we would ever know we were simply brains in a vat living in a virtual world is if the technology was faulty or if the ability to know was part of the virtual reality. The chances of the hardware or software being faulty is slim, for a civilisation capable of this kind of technology would surely be capable of creating the hardware or software necessary to keep it running smoothly; and when faults did develop the simulation could easily be rewound, the faults or glitches erased from the memory of all those that inhabit it.

However, for all intents and purposes, this is reality. Even if we were brains in a jar living in a virtual reality, this is our reality. We can measure it, we can test it, we can interact with it; we live and die in it. To doubt that all the information we can gain from it is useless because we cannot know for certain that it is not x or not y, when clearly we have consistent results from our findings, and make advancements in technology and medicine, would be a pointless exercise. Assuming reality as a brute fact gets us places, rejecting all of that would mean a return to a state of nature. It would be a regression, rather than a progression. It also would mean very little to most people if they found out they were brains in a vat living in a virtual reality, as most would reject the premise and findings. Especially amongst the more religiously inclined. Spending a moment to reflect on how we would respond to someone who showed us proof we were brains in a vat should give us some idea of how little it would affect us.

There are good reasons to reject the idea of course. Why would a civilisation be inclined to create such a thing? What would the purpose behind it be? How are new brains attached, and what happens to the old brains? If there are 6 billion people on the planet, then where are these brains stored? And if not all the people living in this virtual world are the result of brains hooked up to a virtual reality, and these ‘virtual people’ fools us into thinking they are real, then this civilisation has the capability to just create a completely virtual reality, without the need for brains. So why does it use brains? Where does it get the power from to run the brains? There are simply far too many questions to ask, and answers necessary to support the premise, for it to be a reason to stop considering everything we experience to be ‘real’. Even for reasons of epistemology it is better for the premise to be rejected. For we cannot learn anything about this reality unless we accept that it is real, and we know what it exists because we exist in it, and we share experiences of it with others. There is no way to test for an existence outside of this reality, only infer it.

Conclusion

So in conclusion, while we may not be able to say with absolutely certainty that this is not a virtual reality, it seems far more probable that it is reality. It is also more productive to accept that it is reality, knowing it is not changes very little about our existence. It would only alter our knowledge and perception of it, rather than alter our reality as such. And though we cannot know with any certainty, neither can the believer who posits their God as the answer. It may give them assurances, and it may give them the false belief of being absolutely certain, but their argument does not hold any weight under deeper examination. If anything, it can be used to add weight to the idea that it is a virtual reality, and God is one of the methods through which the illusion is enforced.

References

Dennet, D. (1993) Consciousness Explained, London, Penguin Books Ltd.

Dupre, B. (2007) 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know, London, Quercus Editions Ltd.




What if

‘What If You’re Wrong?’

What if you're wrong about God, atheist?

Introduction

When an atheist becomes involved in discussing religion with Theists they tend to find themselves confronted with many common questions from different believers of different religions. There are questions like ‘who created the universe?’, ‘who created the laws of physics?’, ‘who was the first human?’, as well as other similar ones. While atheism itself obviously has no answers for these questions, atheism simply being a lack of belief in gods, we can turn to science to find answers to these questions.

There are other questions, more philosophical questions such as ‘what is our purpose?’, ‘why are we here?’, ‘why is there good and evil?’ and similar questions. These questions of course have no simple answer. Many great minds have discussed and considered these questions, and not all of them have come to the conclusion of a god, and as we can see from history not all of those that concluded a god came to the conclusion of the same god. So while we can give our personal opinion about this, we do also have the opportunity to turn to other works to offer explanation or discussion.

Then there are also personal questions. These too are philosophical questions of course, but these are the kind of questions only a personal answer can be given to. When I get asked these questions during discussion or debate I rarely get a chance to give my full answer, as only a short reply is expected or will usually be read. One of these questions is usually ‘what if you’re wrong?’.

However, I have given this question a lot of thought, and while I can give a short reply it does not come close to covering just what I think of this question; because the question is not as easily answered as it seems.

There are several scenarios to this question. We can approach the question with the condition that I’ve died and ‘woken up’ in the after life, the condition that undeniable proof is shown while I’m alive (which itself has a couple of conditions), or the condition that we know just as much as we do now. So as there are different approaches to this question, I will approach the question in different ways.

Which God Is It?

If I was to ‘wake up’ after I die and be confronted with the afterlife, the first question I would ask is which god it was. Which is something I rarely find the people asking ‘what if you’re wrong?’ asking themselves. For all I know it could be a god that we have no idea exists, because, hypothetically speaking, a god could be true and none of the religions could be. So, before I could make a judgement about my error, I would need to get more facts.

I won’t go into the idea of a god that we have no idea exists though, because unfortunately this would take up far too much time. We would after all have to consider many other elements, why did the god create the universe, what type of afterlife exists, why it doesn’t get involved; there are just too many variables and combinations to go over. My main reason for writing this is to answer the many Muslims and Christians that ask me the question, so it would probably be best to focus on what I would do if it was the god of Abraham.

The God of Abraham

To which I could only give one reply, I would tell him to send me straight to Hell. Although this may sound like arrogance to a Christian or Muslim, it isn’t. Believe me, if Hell is a real place it isn’t somewhere I would choose to go to out of arrogance, or pride, or any other trivial emotional reason. No, this is a stance I have put great thought into. While a theist may simply see the never-ending joy of Heaven and the never-ending pain of Hell, I see much more than that. This is a stance I have chosen based on my ethics, a stance based on my reason, and most of all it’s a stance based on my humanity.

You see, when I look at the god of Abraham, the claims made about it, the religions based around it and the results of them, I don’t see what most Theists see. I’m not willing to make the excuses they make for it in order to gain that oh so important prize of eternal happiness. No, when I look at the god of Abraham I see hatred, destruction, anger, violence, immorality; and most importantly I do not see love. I don’t see this when I look at Judaism, I don’t see it when I look at Christianity and I don’t see it when I look at Islam. See for yourself here, my colleague at AIR presented the immoral nature shown true in the scripture of the Old Testament in an article last week entitled Jehova, The Immoral God

Follow The Religions

What I see when I look at the god of Abraham is a god that sent three different religions to teach mankind, and at the same time told each religion not to believe the other religions. Not only did it tell them not to believe each other, it told them to hate each other. Just to add some fun to the mix it told the second group of people to resist any violence, to ‘turn the other cheek’, and then told the third one that convincing the others through violence is acceptable; it teaches the complete opposite of the second religion. This is not a loving god, a loving god doesn’t tell one group of people to bow before another group of people’s swords. This is a bloodthirsty god, one who creates things just to watch them kill each other. This is a god that loves violence so much that it doesn’t even want to see the fight, it doesn’t do it for the thrill of combat; it does it for the love of death.

How can I be asked to praise this god? How can I be asked to call this god loving? While others may be able to overlook this for the bribe of eternal happiness, I cannot. While others may be willing to allow themselves and their loved ones to be pawns in what is essentially a blood sport for a bloodthirsty god, I am not. I cannot be asked to respect this god, and I don’t know how anyone else could accept this just for the bribe of Heaven. A bribe which could turn out to be false, after all this god of Abraham does appear to be a god of suffering and injustice as well.

We only have to look at the tales spun about it in the religions that it sent for our guidance. We only have to look at the tale of Job for injustice. Here we see this god whimsically killing people and taking away their livelihood just to prove how much a person loved it. This is not justice, this is not fairness, this is not love. This is a god treating its creation like an ant farm, like humanity is nothing more than a needy, bullying teenager’s science experiment. Not only do we see injustice in the story of Job, we see needless suffering. This god kills people in horrific ways, even though it could simply have stopped them living; but no, it had to do it with flair.

I could of course go on about other tales, the tale of Noah, the tale of Adam and Eve, and even the beloved tale of Jesus, but there are so many tales of violence, bloodshed, suffering and injustice I could probably write a book in support of this argument. You see, I haven’t even started on the state of the world, the problems the religions of the god of Abraham have caused, the confusion they have caused, or the crimes against humanity in its name. As I say, I could probably write a book about why I would not worship the god of Abraham. Which also hints towards the answer of what I would do if I was alive and undeniable proof was given that the god of Abraham was our creator. If that happened I would acknowledge its existence, I would not however worship it, for exactly the same reasons I would choose to go to Hell. As I said, I would rather choose Heaven; unfortunately the god of Abraham doesn’t make that a viable option for me.

This also leads me on to the question of what if I’m wrong but no god has revealed itself undeniably. What if I’m wrong and all the evidence is still just the deductive arguments, the Bible, the Qu’ran and the apologetics that go with it?

Glad of Being Wrong

Do you know what? I’m glad. I’m glad I’m wrong, and I hope I manage to convince others to be wrong as well. I think we as humanity should proceed as if we are wrong, as if all the religions are wrong. I think we as humanity should tell the god of Abraham that we’re tired of it. We’re tired of the violence caused by its religions, we’re tired of the oppression caused by its religions, and we’re tired of the suffering caused by its religions. We’re just plain tired of it.

You see, as I explained earlier, the evidence shows that this god, this infinitely wise being, created two religions that were told to disbelieve each other. It told them that under no circumstances should they believe each others religions. Not only did it tell them that they couldn’t believe each others religions, but that they should try and convince each other that they were wrong. Then, just for added fun, it told the first group that they should ‘turn the other cheek’, while at the same time telling the other group that sometimes violence wasn’t just acceptable, it was necessary. While history may show that Christians did not always ‘turn the other cheek’, it doesn’t change the fact that the religion itself taught it.

No, this god sat back and watched as various countries were taken over in its name. It sat back and watched as people slaughtered each other in its name trying to prove that their religion, the true religion, the real one, the one that had the god of Abraham’s seal of approval, was right. It could have intervened at any time. It was not unknown behaviour from this god. The lore is full of incidents of the god of Abraham intervening. So at any point it could have guided those willing to kill in its name to the right path, but it didn’t. It let them slaughter each other in new and inventive ways. So even if this god is real, even if I am wrong by not picking one of them, I think we all should be.

Nobody’s Choice

If nobody chose a religion, then nobody could argue about the right path, there would be no confusion over which is the ‘one true religion’. Nobody would be willing to kill for the right path. Nobody would die for the right path. If somebody claims to be speaking for a god, I believe that as a human race we owe it to ourselves, to our history, to demand no less than that god. We should not accept a conduit unless each of us gets a direct conduit, with direct communication, so that we can tell who really does speak for this god.

For if we accepted this all along perhaps history may have been different. We could make an argument that all the things that happened in the name of religion would still have happened, just in a different manner, and I would agree. It’s a moot point in my opinion however, because as much as we could philosophise about how it may have changed the past, our discussions and my arguments won’t actually change the past.

Some of the Fruits of Religions

We can however look at the present. Let me hold up the Catholic Church and the systematic abuse of children we see in our recent history, as well as today. Think of the difference to our present world that dropping all of our religions simultaneously would do in this case. Think about what would happen if we were to say ‘We no longer think you speak for a god, and we are now holding you accountable for your crimes’. Think of the paedophiles that would be taken off the street, the number of futures saved; think of the sigh of justice from former victims of those that go unpunished and unheard of. Think of the hope for a better future they would see. Is our eternal soul not worth risking to save those children and to show these victims they matter? Think of the difference it would have made if when the abuse was first being brought up people listened, instead of seeing a man of God that wouldn’t do such a thing.

Keeping to the present let us draw our attention to the Palestine and Israel conflict. This is a thin line to tread, I’m sure, because the conflict draws a heated emotional response for most. I don’t want to focus on the politics behind it, or who is right and wrong, though. I want to draw your attention to the fact that if I’m wrong then it means that this god promised a land to a group of people, and then convinced another group of people to conquer it. Not only did it do that, it convinced an entire world to go to war, dispose of millions of the first group of people; and finally got another group of people to conquer the land and then give it back to the first group. It then sat back and watched the violence, suffering and injustice going on from both sides; prompted by its commands.

Think of the Difference

Now think of what would happen if everyone involved suddenly decided that peace, that co-operation, that their children’s future and happiness, was worth more than who was right. Think of what a difference it would make if both sides decide to give up on who was right, and who had the right to live where, and instead decided on the best way they could live there. The best way they could build a place where their children would be safe, would be happy, would be healthy, and most importantly, would be unafraid. Just think of what it would be like if they chose to be wrong. Would it not be better to sacrifice their eternal soul for the future of their children?

Imagine the difference it would make in the present if the Sunni, the Shia and the Ahmadiyya all decided to stop caring about who was right, and start caring about what was right. Think of the difference it would make if they all decided that Mohammed was lying. Think of what would happen if they decided that killing each others children, that allowing their children to grow up in an environment where they could face a bomb, or even be a bomb, would make. Think of what would happen if they decided that their children’s future was worth more than their eternal soul, and worth more far more than the ability to say ‘I’m right’.

Imagine the difference it would make in countries like Uganda, where people are killed simply for the crime of existing while homosexual. Think about if they decided to be wrong about this gods punishment for homosexuals, homosexuals that it created to be homosexual. Keep on the same train of thought and think about the bigotry towards homosexuals caused by this gods commandments; the violence, the oppression, the fear and worst of all, the death. Think of the difference it would make to the present if all of them decided to be wrong about this god.

I won’t deny that all these things would exist to some degree, but think of how much harder it would be to justify laws used to do these things without an unquestionable god. Think of the impossibility for rational justification of the hate, the violence, the oppression and especially the death. The immoral behaviour towards homosexuals does not stem from reason, it instead stems from this god.

Some of the Harms of Religion

Just look around the world to all the harm that religion causes directly. The commandments against condoms, the sheltering of paedophiles, the obscene riches, the fat cat conmen and religious leaders, the corruption, the hate, the bigotry, the violence. Only those who want to delude themselves into believing that religion is not at the heart of these things can deny the difference it would directly make to the world if all of these people decided that not only was being wrong an acceptable option, it was the only acceptable option.

Think of the difference it would make to education around the world if everyone decided that everyone’s religious books were wrong. That all of these gods tales are wrong, and that we should rely on what we can realise for ourselves only. That none of these gods are worth arguing over, and that dumping them in favour of humanity was the right choice. Imagine if everyone decided that even if we’re wrong, we don’t actually care. We choose to be wrong in favour of a secure future for our children. We’re willing to be sacrificed to keep them out of the hands of this god, who appears to want to watch us kill each other, and argue with each other, and trick us into doing these things while it sits back and watches. Even if we’re wrong we’re willing to stand up and so ‘no more’, we’ve had enough of being misled.

Enough is Enough

We are at a stage in our development where we are in touch with each other, we are in a communication era. We are at a stage where we can all stand up and say enough is enough, we choose our future over any promise of divine information or reward. We can, and will, do our best to figure it out ourselves. If we look at the evidence in front of us through the means of history, not only do we see that these gods ways generally lead to violence, suffering and oppression, but the thoughts and ways of humanity far outshine those of the gods of scripture; and by magnitudes.

There are lots I could mention about the changes that everyone deciding that being wrong was the best option to take. Psychological and sociological arguments could be made, but as with any argument like this they could fill a book; and I’ve gone on long enough really. I get the feeling that only the most interested will have reached this far, and I thank anyone who actually reads this far!

As you can see though, this isn’t a question I’ve just taken a cursory glance at. One that I’ve just come up with a quick clever meme to pass on. No, this is a question I have taken seriously, and one that I believe everyone should not only take seriously, but come to the conclusion that being wrong is the better option.

That it’s better not to follow the advice given in these books, and to argue, fight, torture and kill over which one of these books is right. I hope you come to the same conclusion that each of our eternal souls is worth sacrificing in order that a better world can be created for those that come after. We are, after all, at a point when we can begin to make real changes in this world. A world where communication is made easy.

Conclusion

We live in a world where we can ask each other how best to proceed. Just look to the past, which in this age is only finger tips away, to see the difference that great people who decided to cast scripture aside in favour of the future have made. Great people willing to sacrifice their eternal souls, willing to say that they were wrong, so that people they would never meet could be free of that same scripture. They could be said to be giving up much more than Christians tell me Jesus gave up for me, because for them there is no reprieve, no resurrection, and no Heaven. For them there is not even the opportunity to be thanked by those grateful for all they sacrificed.

There is much to the reason why even if I am wrong at this moment, I’m glad to be wrong. If even this portion of my argument for why it would be better to be wrong doesn’t convince you, then I do admit that I’m slightly saddened. It is your choice however, and please be aware that I will continue to argue against you until my last breath because of these and many more reasons. Don’t think this doesn’t mean you can’t convince me of this gods existence, it simply means you cannot convince me of his worthiness.

Please don’t think this also means that I think people can’t question the existence of a god, or believe that a god exists. This doesn’t mean that at all. What this all means is that I think we should have a global rejection of scripture, a global rejection of the gods commandments, stories, judgements, morals, and anything else they have decided to reveal to us. It means that I think we should all reject anyone who claims that they speak on behalf of a divine being, or beings, and settle for nothing less than the diving being or beings themselves.

It means I believe that humanity has all the tools, all the intelligence, and all the capability to proceed. That religion, and the argument over who is right instead of what is right, is holding us back. Not only is it holding us back, it is setting us back. An argument could be made that it is literally killing us. It’s killing our children, and it will kill their children. It’s allowing the abuse of our children systematically, and it’s allowing those abusers to be protected. Not only protected but put in a position to harm even more children. It’s simply causing harm.

There are a lot of claims made about these gods, and especially about the god of Abraham in its incarnation in Christianity and Islam. I hear claims that this god is loving, and that he is infinitely wise and intelligent. If these things really are true, and I really am wrong, I am pretty sure that this god will understand why I choose to sacrifice my eternal soul in favour of those that come after me.

In favour of communication, information, ethics, co-operation, and most importantly, the love of humanity. I am pretty sure that not only would this god understand why I ‘am wrong’, but why I think ‘being wrong’ is the best option. I am pretty sure that any god like this, any loving god, any compassionate god, would understand why I think the living are far more important than the dead, and why I think our children’s suffering is far more important than my own eternal suffering.




Free Will

Free Will: A Compatibilist’s View

Free Will: A Compatibilist's View

Introduction

Free will, do we have it? If we were to ask this question to average believer in God, chances are we would come away with a unanimous, or near unanimous, yes. However, amongst others the answers are more divided. There are those that declare that we do not make our own conscious choices, that free will is an illusion, and other similar answers. There is also the idea of ‘compatibilism’, which argues that we exist in a state of both determinism and free will. This discussion hopes to explore the idea of ‘compatibilism’, and explain why it is a reasonable stance to adopt. Before beginning this discussion we should first define what we mean when we use the term ‘free will’.

Defining Free Will

When the average believer speaks of ‘free will’ they speak of an individual being able to make conscious choices out of independent agency. In other words, choices that come from their own consciousness and are not forced by another being of agency. It speaks nothing of the range of choices available, which could be as few as two options. So long as the individual is allowed to choose consciously and freely out of the two options, then this is considered ‘free will’. This seems like a reasonable definition, and one that this discussion will use. This discussion will consider ‘free will’ to be ‘the ability of an individual agent to freely and consciously make a choice or decision, without being threatened or forced by another individual with agency’. Here using the word ‘agency’ in the philosophical and sociological manner which refers to an entity’s capacity to act in any given environment (Wikipedia, 2016).

Absolute Freedom of Choice

There are those who raise the objection that because we do not have absolute freedom of choice in every aspect of our lives, including where we are born, our sex, the colour of our skin, whether we are born or not, and other similar claims, that therefore ‘free will’ does not exist. However, this is something of an absurd objection. Most importantly, this is a straw man of what is actually proposed when addressing the idea of ‘free will’. Those who argue for ‘free will’ are not claiming that we have absolute freedom in every matter in our lives, only that we have conscious agency, and can make conscious choices in given situations. It is also absurd as there is nothing that can live up to this standard. Even the god proposed as existent by believers cannot meet this standard, nor could any being be logically proposed that could meet this standard. It is a self-negating standard.

It is also a standard that we do not hold for other things when we speak of them being ‘free’. When we speak of a bird being ‘free’, we do not call it such because it has the ability to fly anywhere in the universe, or the ability to create another universe or end the universe we exist in. We describe the bird as ‘free’ because it is not caged, we describe it as ‘free’ because it is not in the possession of another agent. Similarly, when we speak of a country being ‘free’, we do not title it as such because the people in it are able to rob, and rape, and murder, with impunity. Countries that we describe as ‘free’ still bind their citizens by certain laws. We describe a country as ‘free’ because it is not run by tyrants. As with the bird, we only hold it to a certain level of freedom in order to declare it ‘free’.

Therefore it seems somewhat reasonable to suggest that we can define things as ‘free’ even if there are certain limitations or laws that are imposed upon these things that we describe as ‘free’. Let us return to our example of the bird described as ‘free’. The bird is described as ‘free’ even though it has limits imposed upon it by its very existence. It is limited by its biology, and by its physical existence as a being in space and time. This means that it is not unreasonable to define will as being ‘free’, even though it has certain limitations imposed upon it by the very nature of our own existence as physical and biological beings, who exist in space and time. This seems far more reasonable than holding it to an impossible standard that nothing could achieve. We are also then defining it according to reality, rather than attempting to define reality according to particular standards. The question then is not ‘can we choose to do anything we wish’, but instead the more realistic question ‘can we make our own conscious and cognizant choices within the limits of our own existence?’.

The Limitations of the Brain

The brain with all of its complexities is responsible for much of what our body does. It is responsible for regulating our organs, our nervous system, receiving and processing sensations from the external world, our thoughts, and much more. Without our brain we would simply cease to be. It is therefore no shock to learn that our brain is an energy hungry organ, that alone accounts for around 20% of our bodies energy (Brainfacts.org, 2012) . However, for all of its complexity, and awe inspiring functionalities, it is considered to be a ‘limited capacity processor’ (Kahneman in Edgar, 2007, p11). In order to explain and understand what this means, along with exploring whether we can make conscious choices, we must turn to psychology and neuroscience, and to the metaphors, experiments, explanations and conclusions that these fields put forward.

Neuroscience and psychology are the best fields to look for answers to these kinds of questions because, of course, they are the fields devoted to studying the workings of the brain and the mind. They offer us the greatest amount of information and supporting evidence for any arguments that we may put forward regarding the workings of the brain and the mind. Neuroscience tends to look at the brain in terms of ‘information processing’, and to make things more relatable and understandable, uses metaphors that liken the brain to computers. Hence terms such as ‘limited capacity processor’. So what do we mean when we call the brain a ‘limited capacity processor’?

A Limited Capacity Processor

The idea that the brain contains a ‘limited capacity central processor’ was put forward in a theory by Kahneman in 1973. There are other theories that put forward the idea that there are ‘multiple cores’ that handle the processing, such as that proposed by Navon and Gopher in 1979 (Edgar, 2007, p14). However, all theories agree that the brain is a ‘limited capacity processor’. This simply means that the brain does not have an unlimited capacity in the way it processes information coming in from the senses, nor unlimited capacity when dealing with our own consciousness, thoughts and behaviours. For the brain not only needs to deal with our consciousness, and our mind, and our thoughts, but it must deal with the regulation of our bodies, and internal organs, and nervous system, and much more.

In order to function efficiently, and to save energy costs, our brain runs on what are known as ‘automatic’ and ‘controlled’ processes. That is to say, our brain allows for consciously controlled processes (controlled) as well as sub-consciously controlled processes (automatic). Some of those automatic processes are obvious, being things like regulation of the heart, the lungs, and other internal organs. However, some automatic processes began their lives as controlled processes. Things such as speaking, reading, walking, and other tasks that we have performed repetitively through our lives. In order to see this in effect, and to see that there is indeed a separation of the two processes, and that the automatic can and does interfere with the controlled, let us examine something known as ‘The Stroop Effect’.

The Stroop Effect

‘The Stroop Effect’ was first proposed by John Ridley Stroop in 1935, who created an experiment known in psychology as ‘The Stroop Test’ (Edgar, 2007, p21). ‘The Stroop Test’ is a very simple one, and many may have taken it without actually knowing that this is its title. The test involves a list of words. Each word printed in a different colour ink, with the word itself describing either a colour, or a non-colour related word. The list usually contains around 20 to 30 words. The participant is then asked to go through the list and describe the colour of the ink of each word.

At face value, the test sounds and seems to be relatively simple and easy. If the brain functions simply as simple input and output way, the task is simple. For we simply input that we want to describe the colour of the text, and the brain outputs the colour of the text. However, it is trickier than it sounds. For the participant usually hits a problem when the word describes a colour. The brain’s automated process interferes with the controlled process of describing the ink colour, and it does this by putting the word itself into the participants mind, slowing the process down. The brain automatically attempts to read the word, and we must consciously correct this. We become aware of our mistake, and we must consciously correct it. If we are not paying attention we will mistakenly read out the word itself, rather than describe the colour of the ink. Showing a clear separation of controlled and automatic processes.

If the brain simply took in input and then gave the relevant output, then we should not see this ‘glitch’ and we would have no need to consciously correct the output, and if we had no control over own processes then we should not be able to consciously correct it. This shows that we do have some control over our brain’s processing, and it shows that we have conscious awareness of some of the controlled processes that our brain outputs to our consciousness. We are able to tell our sub-conscious what we desire to do, and validate what it returns to us. Think now of many examples in our lives in which we do similar.

Practice Makes Perfect

Think now of the many things we learn through our lives, such as language, reading, walking, riding a bike, playing a guitar, skating or skateboarding, martial arts and other similar tasks. These things come easier to some than others, however, we all go through a period of training. We all must learn how to make particular sounds, or balance our bodies, or configure our fingers or bodies. These things take practice. Take the example of playing the guitar. When we read the configuration our fingers must be in on the fret board, our fingers do not automatically assume these positions on the fret board when we play. We must consciously and mindfully move our fingers into these configurations when we begin to learn. It is only after much practice that these things become automatic processes. It is the same for any task we learn. We must do the task mindfully and consciously, until it becomes ‘second nature’; and once it becomes ‘second nature’ we are still capable of making mistakes, and becoming consciously aware of those mistakes as well as consciously correcting those mistakes. When we practice a task and become aware of our mistakes, we are also able to choose to continue on, disregarding the error, or stop and fix the error. We can choose to fix the error immediately, or go back and fix the error later.

Attention

Theories of attention suggest that we also have some control over our attention and what we attend to. There are automatic attention processes of course, for sounds and sights may grab our attention without our control. However, we can also focus our attention consciously. Take an optical illusion for example. When we first observe the illusion, our attention is drawn to a particular aspect of the illusion. However, we can also then examine the illusion in detail at will. If we use the example of the common illusion of two faces and a vase, where both sides of the image are faces and which cause the shape of a vase in the middle. Upon our first examination of the image we see whichever aspect of the illusion our mind is first drawn to, but afterwards we can consciously choose to attempt to see the other side of the illusion (Edgar, 2007, p6). The same can be said for listening to a piece of music. When we are listening to music our attention may be drawn to a particular aspect of the piece, such as the drums, the bassline, the guitars, and so forth, or the whole piece in general. However, we can choose to focus our attention on various aspects of the piece as well. We do have some control over what our consciousness attends to.

Optical Illusion

The ACC and DLPFC

Which leads us back to discussion about controlled and automatic processes, along with ‘the Stroop effect’. Recent studies have made use of neural imaging techniques while participants have been involved in taking ‘the Stroop test’. The neural imaging has shown that while performing ‘the Stroop test’ there two areas of the brain have been identified as being responsible for performing the tasks. These are the Dorsolateral Pre-frontal Cortex (DLPFC) and the Anterior Congulate Cortex (ACC). In order to attempt to identify each parts role in cognitive processing further tests, based upon ‘the Stroop test’, were created. Results from these experiments showed that it was highly probable that the Pre-Frontal Cortex was responsible for attention, and showed increased activity during the controlled processes, whereas the Anterior Congulate Cortex was responsible for the automated processes. Further studies and experimentation has shown that the DLPFC becomes more active the more attention is paid, and those that showed greater activity in the DLPFC tended to perform better during ‘the Stroop test’ and suffer less from ‘the Stroop effect’ (Edgar, 2007, p23).

Conclusion

This is not to say of course that there is not a high level of determinism going on. The situations we are in and the knowledge we have determine the choices available to us, the state of our mind determines how clearly we can make those choices, our emotional states and our desires are determined by biology. However, as can be seen from findings in psychology and neuroscience, and those mentioned in this discussion only scratch the surface, we do seem able to make conscious choices, and perform conscious acts. We are in control of some of our cognitive processes. Neuroscientists in Germany recently performed experiments that led them to the conclusion that we have more free will than was believed before (Science of Us, 2016) .

This means that it may not be as unreasonable as some believe to think that ‘free will’ does indeed exist, and that ‘compatibilism’ describes the state of affairs closer than strict determinism does. Definition is important of course, and how one defines ‘free will’ makes a difference the acceptance of the claim, just as with any other claim. Questions arise for those who argue against the idea of ‘free will’ of course. Questions such as how do determine the difference between a universe that allows for ‘free will’ and one that does not, how would a universe with ‘free will’ look, and how would we go about testing for the existence of ‘free will’?

References

Brainfacts.org. (2012). How does the brain use food as energy? – BrainFacts.org. [online] Available at: http://www.brainfacts.org/about-neuroscience/ask-an-expert/articles/2012/how-does-the-brain-use-food-as-energy/ [Accessed 5 Apr. 2016].

Edgar, G. (2007), ‘Perception and Attention’ in Miell, D., Phoenix, A. and Thomas, K (eds) Mapping Psychology Book 1 Chapters 6-9. Milton Keynes: Open University, pp. 3-45.

Science of Us. (2016). Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce. [online] Available at: http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/02/a-neuroscience-finding-on-free-will.html?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=oupphilosophy&utm_campaign=oupphilosophy [Accessed 5 Apr. 2016].

Wikipedia. (2016). Agency (philosophy). [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_%28philosophy%29 [Accessed 2 Apr. 2016].




The God of Nothing and Nowhere

The God of Nothing and Nowhere

 

Welcome

Nothingness

What do we speak of when we speak of ‘nothing’? The word is often used in many different ways. To say ‘there is nothing in my hands’ is to make a statement akin to ‘my hands are empty’. Just as when we say something along the lines of ‘there is nothing in the box’ we are speaking of an empty box. In other words, we speak of emptiness, and absence of things. Yet we are not speaking of an absence of everything. We do not speak of a literal nothingness when we speak of there being ‘nothing in the box’, the ‘nothing’ we speak of is still ‘something’. For inside the box are still atoms, and quarks, and air, and more. The box never truly contains an absolute absence of everything, for it would be impossible for the box to contain an absolute absence of everything. For an absolute absence of everything would mean the box contained non-existence, a literal lack of existence of everything.

It is a similar kind of ‘nothing’ that is spoken of by Lawrence Krauss in his seminal work ‘A Universe From Nothing’, when he speaks of the universe arising from ‘nothing’ (Krauss, 2012). He speaks of the universe arising from the vacuum of space. His ‘nothing’ is still ‘something’. Yet his worked is dismissed by many believers as an adequate answer, often accusing Krauss of committing ‘equivocation’, or ‘attempting to redefine the word nothing’. Yet when we speak of there being ‘nothing in the box’ we are not accused of equivocation, nor are we accused of attempting to redefine the word nothing. The believer declares that unless we speak of the universe arising from a literal absence of everything then we are not speaking of the universe arising from nothing.

This is, of course, an attempt to narrow the definition down to one where only God can be posited as the answer. The concept of God is defined in such a way so as to make it a plausible answer to the question of how a universe could arise from a literal absence of everything. We have no real evidence that there was ever a complete absence of everything of course. However, for the sake of argument let us accept this claim, that before existence there was absolute non-existence. Also for the sake of argument let us accept the claim that Krauss’ argument is equivocation and an attempt to redefine the word. Let us assume that there was at one time absolute non-existence. That there was literally nowhere and absolute nothingness before somewhere and something was created by God.

Does God explain how we could go from absolutely nowhere and absolutely nothing to somewhere and something? Can God explain how we went from non-existence to existence?

Non-Existence

Imagine for a moment what absolute non-existence would be like. Imagine what a complete absence of everything would be. It would mean that absolutely nowhere existed, and absolutely nothing existed. Herein lies the first problem with the claim by the believer. They also claim that God has existed eternally. That there has never been a time that God did not exist. Which also means that by their own definition there has never truly been something that could be termed as ‘non-existence’, there has always been ‘something’. That ‘something’ being God. Which means that they too are guilty of the very things that they accuse Krauss of. They are not beginning with a nothing that is an absolute absence of everything, they are beginning with ‘something’.

If Krauss is equivocating by declaring a something as his version of nothing, so too are they. For when they speak of nothing they speak of something. They do not speak of a literal absence of everything. Instead what they speak of is a literal absence of everywhere. If they accuse Krauss of attempting to redefine the word nothing, then they too are attempting to redefine the word nothing as ‘an absence of everything except God’; which most certainly is not ‘an absence of everything’.

They are also guilty of a special pleading fallacy. For they are guilty of declaring that every explanation must begin with an absolute absence of everything, a literal nothing, apart from their own. They are allowed to begin with a ‘something’.

An objection will be raised here of course. The objection being based on the ‘First Cause’ argument. That an eternal ‘something’ is necessary in order to explain the existence of the universe. It is not that Krauss’ version of ‘nothing’ is a ‘something’ that is the problem, but rather that Krauss’ ‘nothing’ is a ‘somewhere’. In other words, when the believer speaks of the universe coming from ‘nothing’, what they mean is that the universe came from ‘nowhere’, and that ‘nowhere’ existed before the universe.

Nowhere

The believer here is speaking of an absolute absence of everywhere when they talk of there being nowhere in the beginning. The absolute nothing that they speak of is an absence of everywhere. However, let us consider this idea for a moment. Let us consider what an absolute absence of everywhere would mean.

Imagine for a moment what it would be like for there to be literally nowhere, for there to literally be an absence of everywhere. It is a hard task, for we are beings bound by place, and by existence, and by somewhere. But think about what it would be like. There would be no ‘inside’, no ‘outside’, no ‘dimension’, no ‘existence’. Believers often like to cite the argument that God exists ‘outside of the universe’, but with an absolute absence of everywhere this becomes a meaningless and incoherent claim. As for there to be an outside of the universe there needs to be somewhere else, God needs to be somewhere else. There was nowhere for God to be.

An objection could be raised here that God existed in ‘Heaven’, or another dimension. However, that means that there was somewhere else, and that means that the argument starts from ‘somewhere’. An objection could be raised that God created ‘Heaven’ before creating the universe, and therefore had a ‘somewhere’ to be when he was ‘outside the universe’. But where was God when he created ‘Heaven’? If God needs to be outside of his creation, then God needed somewhere else to exist to be outside of ‘Heaven’. Just as the believer declares Krauss must do, so to does the believer need to begin with absolutely nowhere in existence first.

So then let us focus on ‘nowhere’ rather than ‘somewhere’, for regardless of whatever ‘somewhere’ we put God before creating the universe, God must have began from ‘nowhere’. For the believer argues that the only thing that has existed eternally has been God, and only God. So unless God is a ‘somewhere’ there could only have been ‘nowhere’. What then would this mean?

This would mean that the statement ‘God existed nowhere before creating everywhere’ becomes true. However, this is something of an incoherent statement is it not? If we speak of actual existence then we cannot say that something existed nowhere, for when we state that something exists nowhere we speak of it not existing. Saying something exists nowhere is the same as saying that something does not exist. If only God existed, and God existed nowhere, it would mean that God existed in non-existence. This too is an incoherent statement. To state that something existent exists in non-existence is logically, and linguistically, incoherent. For when we speak of nowhere, and non-existence, we cannot use the word ‘in’, nor can we use the word ‘out’. We cannot use any words that speak of any kind of locality, because there is no such thing as locality.

A Category Error?

An objection will be raised here that the argument commits a ‘category error’. That God is an immaterial being, and is therefore not limited by the things a material being is limited by, such as the need for the space. The logic is akin to the idea that because God is immaterial it means he is made of nothing, and therefore can exist in nothing. However, this objection confronts a strawman of the argument being made. The argument is not attempting to limit God by declaring that he must take up space, nor that God needs space in order to exist. This objection misses the nuance of the argument in that God needs somewhere to exist. That it is not possible for a being to exist in non-existence, or to exist nowhere and to still be an existent being. It is an objection to the category definition of an immaterial being, it is a declaration that the definition is incoherent. Even if the definition declares that it can exist in non-existence, or can exist with a complete absence of everywhere, the definition is faulty and is logically incoherent.

A Being Unlike Any Other

Another objection that will be raised is one based on the concept itself, and how it is defined and how its attributes are defined. The believer is often heard to say that ‘God is unlike any other’. That he is not bound by things like space, and time, and locality; and that words such as ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are meaningless when it comes to God. However, this still does not overcome the problem presented here. It is simply an attempt to define the problem away without confronting the argument. The claim that God is omnipotent and therefore capable of anything does not save the concept here either.

For the theological definition of ‘omnipotence’ defines God as being capable of ‘all things logically possible’. It is defined this way in order to overcome questions such as ‘can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?’. It is a definition designed to enable the believer to disregard certain ‘gotcha’ kind of questions that the non-believer may ask. It is this definition that also limits God’s ability to exist in non-existence, and to exist nowhere and still be real. For these things are not logically possible, regardless of other attributes assigned to God, and therefore beyond the remit of the omnipotence of God.

God is Non-Contingent

It is also often declared that God is a ‘non-contingent’ being, or to speak of it another way, God is not reliant on anything for his existence. Therefore this argument is invalid because it makes God contingent, it makes God’s existence reliant on somewhere for him to exist. Again though, this is simply an objection designed to dismiss the argument rather than confront it. The argument is an objection to the idea that God is not contingent on anything, and does not rely on anything else for his existence. The argument shows that, regardless of how the believer may define God that God is reliant on somewhere to exist in order to be logically coherent.

In Conclusion

So as we can see, the objections raised to arguments such as Krauss’ are actually a form of special pleading. For the objections raised against Krauss’ version of ‘nothing’ also hold true for the believers version of ‘nothing’, yet they make allowances for their god, and even attempt to define their God into being the answer. We can also see that when we change the argument from ‘nothing’ to ‘nowhere’ the God claim becomes incoherent, and does not overcome the same problems that the believer declares that others must overcome. We can see too that the definition of God, and attributes assigned to God, do not actually overcome the problem that occurs when it is demanded that we begin with a complete absence of everywhere, the literal nowhere. It is simply an incoherent claim when it is claimed that God exists in non-existence, or God existed nowhere in the beginning. It is not that they object to an answer like Krauss’, it is that they object to an answer that isn’t their god. Yet their god does not seem to be the answer they are looking for according to their own stipulations.

References

Krauss, L. (2012) A Universe From Nothing, London, Simon & Schuster.




Is it true that a scientific theory can be refuted but never verified?

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Scientific Theory and the Scientific Method

Introduction

There are many methods that humanity uses in its quest for knowledge about our existence. Of the many methods used to justify our world views one of those is the ‘scientific method’. Due to its regular ‘success’ at determining information about how the universe works, the ‘scientific method’ has gained favour over the centuries. There have been many arguments put forward in regards to the ‘philosophy of science’. One of the arguments put forward is that a ‘scientific theory’ can be refuted, but never verified. How well does this claim hold up though?

Before assessing the claim we should first look at the ways in which we gather and gain information and knowledge. Knowledge and information can be gained in two ways. It can be gained in an a priori fashion, independent of experience and observation, and in an a posteriori fashion, through experience and observation. These two methods are also described as ‘deductive’ or ‘inductive’.

Deduction

A ‘deductive’ argument allows us to gain knowledge independent of experience. It is one in which if the premises are indeed true, then the conclusion must also logically be true. An example of a valid ‘deductive’ argument is as follows –

‘P1) All men are mortal.

P2) Socrates is a man.

C1) Therefore Socrates is mortal.’

Here we can see that conclusion is deduced from the previous premises, and therefore must logically be true. To deduce anything else from the premises would be logically invalid, to state that Socrates is immortal would be drawing a false conclusion. This is the major strength of the ‘deductive argument’. It offers a guaranteed amount of certainty to the knowledge drawn from the conclusion, so long as the premises it is deduced from are in fact true of course. What though of conclusions drawn from false premises?

An example of an argument which draws a true conclusion from false premises is as follows –

‘P1) All men are immortal.

P2) Socrates is a man.

C1) Therefore Socrates is immortal.’

Here we can see that the conclusion drawn solely from the premises is actually correct. If all men are immortal, and Socrates is a man, then it must logically follow that Socrates is immortal. However, premise one is false. Humans are not immortal, so therefore the conclusion drawn is in fact untrue. However, the only way we can know that this conclusion is false is through experience. It is through experience with humans that we know that men are mortal.

Deductions about nature

Which leads us to a problem with using ‘deductive’ arguments as a sole method of gaining knowledge about ‘nature’ or ‘reality’. We cannot be certain of their ability to accurately describe ‘nature’ or ‘reality’ without some form of experience of the premises. If the ‘deductive’ argument is being used to come to a conclusion about ‘nature’ we must use some form of ‘induction’, along with the ‘deduction’, in order to assess its potential to accurately describe ‘nature’ or ‘reality’. So does this mean that ‘inductive’ reasoning would be a more accurate and more effective way of guaranteeing accurate knowledge about ‘nature’ or ‘reality’? Can observation or experience guarantee us knowledge about events beyond the observation or experience? Can it even guarantee us that the knowledge gained from the observation or experience is correct?

The problem of induction

‘Inductive’ reasoning allows us to take our experiences and observations and draw inferences based upon those experiences and observations. We often use these experiences and observations to give our lives some semblance of perceived order, and use these inferences to plan our day to day lives. These inferences are used in many different ways. We use them to draw inferences about events in the past as well as in the future. However, unlike the conclusions reached from a ‘deductive’ argument in which the conclusion logically follows from the premise, the inferences drawn from an ‘inductive’ argument cannot be guaranteed to logically follow from the premises. They cannot give us guaranteed accurate knowledge in the same manner in which a valid ‘deductive’ argument can.

Scottish philosopher David Hume argues as such in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He argues that the conclusions that we reach from experience and observation are not based on reason, but instead are based on experience. In his writing Hume uses an example of bread giving us nourishment (Hume in Cottingham, 2009, p434). It is because of our experience with bread giving us nourishment that we expect it to continue to give us nourishment. However, there is no good reason to assume that this will always be the case. Other factors, unknown and unpredictable to us, may interfere with the process, and render our conclusion invalid that the bread will give us nourishment. Our conclusion comes from probability based on our previous experience from eating bread, rather than reason.

There are many real world examples that show us that past experience cannot guarantee us accurate future results. Here we can take an example as simple as that of a watch or clock telling us the time. If we were to imagine owning a watch or clock, and that watch or clock has accurately told us the time for the entire length of our owning it. Every time we have observed the watch or clock, and matched the time against another accurate watch or clock, we have found the watch or clock to accurately match against the other. We may then infer that the watch or clock will always be accurate. However, unforeseen circumstances may render the watch or clock inaccurate. We could observe the watch or clock at 11:15, and then 60 seconds later observe it again and expect it say 11:16, however perhaps the battery could have ceased to function or perhaps parts unseen to the naked eye may have slowly worn down unknown to us and caused the watch or clock to run slightly slower than it should.

Just as we have experience of our watch or clock running accurately, so too do most of us have real world experience of watches and clocks running slowly or even ceasing to function altogether. Our experience of past events cannot guarantee us that same experience of future events, or even events in the distant past. Just because a volcano on an island in Hawaii has not erupted today, does not mean that it has never erupted or never will erupt. Where then does this leave us when it comes to gaining knowledge about ‘nature’ or ‘reality’? If ‘science’ is based upon observations made about ‘nature’ and ‘reality’, where does the problem of ‘induction’ leave the ‘scientific method’ and its ‘theories’?

Popper, science and falsification

Karl Popper, one of the most famous philosophers of science, approaches questions such as these in his paper titled ‘Conjectures and Refutations’ written in 1963. Popper’s main goal in writing the paper was to create a way in which ‘science’ could be distinguished from ‘pseudo-science’. So what is ‘science’ and what defines distinguishes it from ‘non-science’?

The disciplines of science are commonly seen as a set of disciplines that follow a particular method. This method is traditionally seen as ‘a method of gathering data from observation and experiment and of inferring laws and theories from it using induction’ . However, as we have seen, Hume put forward a strong argument for why the use of ‘induction’ is not wholly rational when it comes to predicting future events from past observations. Popper argues for why he believes this does not cause a problem for the sciences in his paper. So what is Popper’s answer to the problem of ‘induction’, and how to distinguish ‘science’ from ‘pseudo-science’?

Popper’s answer to this, to put it simply, was ‘falsifiability’. Popper’s idea is that the strength of a ‘scientific theory’ lies not in its ability to show how it is right, but rather in its ability to show how it can be wrong. He proposes that we should not set about trying to prove why a particular theory is right, for we can, in general, come up with data to support any idea. That as humans are a pattern seeking being we have a natural propensity to see supporting patterns in our observations when we set out to find them. It is suggested by Popper in his paper that we have a natural tendency to hold on to our ideas even when they appear to be wrong, that ‘we stick to our expectations even when they are inadequate and we ought to accept defeat’ (Popper in Cottingham, 2009).

Therefore the strength of a theory lies not in its attempt to find observations that support the assertions laid out by it, but rather in its attempt to find observations that would allow us to dismiss the assertions laid out in it. It is the ‘critical approach’ to examination that allows us to get closer to knowledge rather than a ‘dogmatic approach’. Popper states that this does not mean that we should dismiss all observations that support a theory. Rather that confirmations and supporting observations should only be considered ‘if they are the result of risky predictions, that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory – an event which would have refuted the theory’ (Popper in Cottingham, 2009, p455).

It is also suggested by Popper that a good ‘scientific theory’ should not start its point of argumentation from observation, or ‘inductive’ reasoning, but rather that a good ‘scientific theory’ should start its point of argumentation from ‘deductive reasoning’. For it is ‘only by purely deductive reasoning is it possible for us to discover what our theories imply, and thus to criticise them effectively’ (Popper in Cottingham, 2009, p458). If we are to take the example used in our explanation of ‘deductive reasoning’ at the beginning of this paper, that ‘All men are mortal’. Popper suggests not that we seek out examples of ‘mortal men’, rather that we seek out examples of ‘immortal men’. For the strength of the conclusion comes not from our ability to show that there are ‘mortal men’, but from the strength of our ability to show that there exists no known cases of there being men who are not mortal.

However, Popper also suggests in his paper that these conclusions should only be held tentatively, and that we should never rest on our laurels. That we should actively continue to seek out examples that disprove our ideas, even if ‘we feel unable to doubt them any longer’ (Popper in Cottingham, 2009, p459). For, as the problem of induction shows, we can never be certain that there has not, is not, and can never be, an example that disproves the conclusions we reach from our ‘deductive’ reasoning.

Conclusion

It is for these reasons that, if we are to take Popper’s argument for what defines a ‘scientific theory’ and sets it aside from a ‘pseudo-scientific theory’, that we cannot prove a ‘scientific theory’ to be true. That the answer to the question is indeed ‘yes, it is true that a scientific theory can only be refuted and never verified’.

If proper procedure as laid out by Popper is followed, then the intent is not, and should not, be to show the theory is correct. The proper procedure is to show that it is not correct, and to hold tentatively to the theory so long as it has not been shown to be incorrect. Could we not argue that this is one of the strengths of the ‘scientific method’ though? That its strengths lie not in its ability to claim it is correct, but rather in its ability to show that it has not been shown to be incorrect, and its willingness to accept, even when it appears to be beyond doubt, that in the future some new information could come to light that shows it to be incorrect?

References

Hume, D. ‘The Problem of Induction’ (2008 [1748]) in Cottingham, J. Western Philosophy:An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 433-437.

Popper, K. ‘Science and Falsifiability’ (2008 [1963]) in Cottingham, J. Western Philosophy:An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 453-459.