Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Leaps of faith

There’s been some discussion on the Dilbert Blog about whether sceptics and believers require the same leap of faith. For example, here's a comment from Omar:
It does require faith to believe in both the existence AND non existence of God. And by faith here, I mean a leap from the place were the evidence ends, to the place where you draw the conclusion.

I think that there IS an important difference here. Basically, claiming that God does not exist is inductive, whereas it may be argued that claiming that God does exist involves a leap of faith. Let’s have some explanation of a couple of terms before we go on.

Deductive means that the conclusion of an argument is necessitated by the premises, as in the typical syllogism:

  • All men are mortal;
  • Socrates is a man;
  • therefore
  • Socrates is mortal.

Induction is an argument in which the premises of support the conclusion but do not ensure it, such as:

  • All observed crows are black;
  • therefore
  • All crows are black.

Generally, a careful sceptic will make an inductive argument about the existence of God, something like this:

  • No evidence of the existence of God has been observed;
  • therefore
  • God does not exist.

Note that this is not a deductive proof of the non-existence of God. It does not exclude the possibility of some future proof, but it does take current evidence and base a generalisation on it. The typical response of a modern Christian believer is that belief in God does not require proof, but faith, and no amount of ‘missing’ evidence can disprove anything, let alone God. These two positions can coexist with little more trouble than the usual tension between believer and non-believer: on the basis of the lack of evidence the sceptic sees no reasonable grounds to believe, while the believer claims that ‘reasonable grounds’ are not the point.

Less sophisticated believers and sceptics will make more ‘aggressive’ statements which have absolutely no validity, such as saying that no proof of God constitutes a disproof, or that since there is no disproof, that constitutes some kind of proof. It would be wrong, however, to think that either of these positions require a ‘leap of faith’, since that would be synonymous with ‘faulty logic’ here. A ‘leap of faith’ happens elsewhere.

Going back to the more sophisticated positions, it may be true, as Omar suggests, that faith begins where evidence ends. An inductive argument about all crows being black may require faith in the sense that it assumes that all the non-observed crows will be similar to the observed crows. But one should be careful talking about ‘faith’ here, since the word has far wider religious connotations, and conflating faith based on evidence and faith based on belief would seriously muddy the waters of discussion.

The inductive argument cannot be said to require a ‘leap’ either, although we can still distinguish between strong and weak induction, an example of the latter being as follows:

  • I always hang pictures on nails;
  • therefore
  • All pictures hang from nails.

That may well involve a ‘leap’, but it is still based on evidence, and is as such inductive rather than faith-based.

The believer, on the other hand, makes a leap of faith because they believe regardless of the evidence. They may well describe their faith as precisely ignoring the lack of evidence, such as saying that God wants you to believe freely with an open heart, rather than requiring some qualified evidence-based belief.

Both positions may arguably be valid, but they do not require the same ‘faith’ or the same ‘leap’.

It might be, however, that a believer may base their belief on a different kind of evidence (the evidence of the heart, for want of a better way of expressing it). And if that is the case, then they might also claim that their belief does not require a leap of faith, because to them it is self-evident. Asking a sceptic to take their word for it and therefore to believe, would be asking the sceptic to make a leap of faith, which no sceptic would be prepared to do. In fact, rather than saying that both sceptics and believers have to make a leap of faith, I’d be tempted to argue that neither do.


Free Will and Determinism

Been a while since I posted anything on The Dilbert Blog, but today’s topic got me going, so here you are: a typical Matt rant.

Here’s my take on the whole free will thing, for what it’s worth. And I’m going to start by talking about Leibnitz.

Leibnitz’s view of cause and effect is that they are, in themselves, unconnected. What we call a cause does not lead to what we, with our teleological world-view, call an effect. They are simply events, occurrences. What holds these two things together, according to Leibnitz, is God, who has created a pre-established harmony between all things. Here's an example from Wikipedia:
An apple falls on Alice's head, apparently causing the experience of pain in her mind. In fact, the apple does not cause the pain - the pain is caused by some previous state of Alice's mind. If Alice then seems to shake her hand in anger, it is not actually her mind that causes this, but some previous state of her hand.

I mention this for couple of reasons. Firstly, to illustrate cause and effect may not be as simple as most people assume. The statement ‘X causes Y’ makes assumptions about the nature of the world, and those assumptions may be substituted for others - indeed, with no difference to what we see in the world around us. I will still associate the apple falling on my head with pain - all I must do is discard the notion that the apple ‘causes’ the pain.

Secondly, Leibnitz ascribes the actual relationship between a supposed cause and effect to God. While this may seem somewhat preposterous with the example of the apple, most everyone in the Christian world (I can’t vouch for the others) is perfectly familiar with this concept. ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, we say, meaning that some event cannot be understood by our usual appeals to ‘simple’ cause and effect, or indeed free will. It’s a form of shorthand for explaining how some absurdly fortuitous event came to take place - how, out of the multitude of possibilities, the right person seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the right thing to happen to them. This common phrase simply means that a certain series of causes and events seems best understood as have been aligned by God. And of course, this is not dissimilar from the whole Intelligent Design argument (don’t worry, we won’t be going there).

If we think about the example with the apple, the same explanation can easily be applied - the wrong person was in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong thing to happen to them. But this too can easily become ‘the right thing’ - Alice is knocked unconscious by the falling apple, then falls in love with the nurse who tends to her. A seemingly bad series of events leads to a good result, and the best explanation we can offer is those mysterious ways of God.

Now my point here is not that I think that God is responsible for a pre-established harmony, but rather that there is, if we look closely, something indefinable - mysterious - about cause and effect, in particular in how it relates to our lives. We have a very localised common-sense understanding of cause and effect - the apple causes the pain - but the moment we start to look further afield - to the wind blowing, causing the ripe apple to fall, hitting Alice on the head when she only paused under the tree to tie her shoelace which had just come undone - that common sense understanding of cause and effect begins to break down into something which we generally struggle to understand. Leibnitz, and the familiar phrase mentioned above, called that indefinability ‘God’. The essence of Leibnitz’s argument about pre-established harmony is taking this oddness of wider, less-localised causality, and applying it to supposedly ‘simple’ causality - in effect saying, ‘There’s no such thing as simple causality - we can’t even understand why an apple falling on a head causes pain!’

In the discussion about free will and cause and effect, this is the level at which we have to pitch the argument. ‘X causes Y’ it isn’t; you’ll get a better idea of the problems and implications of causality if you remember the notion that ‘God moves in mysterious ways’.

Someone might object that Alice chose to bend down under that tree and tie her shoelace, but how do we know? What does ‘choice’ mean? A proponent of the determinism (such as me, I guess) would say that she thought she chose, meaning that she was unable to see the near-infinite complex of causes which led to that action. That complex of causes is mysterious, indefinable and imperceptible to our human perception of the world, and in everyday parlance we are happy to call it ‘choice’, or to ascribe purpose to God. But these are short-hands for our limited perspective sensing something it cannot grasp, and seeking to describe it.

Free will, in its common everyday usage, is no better than ‘choice’, in my view. It is simply a (natural) inability to understand the wider causes and effects. We ascribe it to ourselves, as the ‘highest’ intelligence we are aware of, and are sceptical of applying it to supposedly ‘lower’ life-forms, whose determinism we think we understand. But I’m sure that in some way a cat ‘thinks’ it's thinking, thinks it has free will - from its own perspective - and most likely ascribes the same level of intelligence to us. The late, brilliant, Douglas Adams supposed than mankind was only the third most intelligent species on the planet; naturally, the more intelligent species (dolphins and mice) were aware that humans were less intelligent, but humans were unaware of the fact - assuming themselves to the the only intelligent creatures, and the only ones with free-will.

What I’m getting at is that the idea of free-will stems from the limits of our own perception of cause and effect. We conceive of ourselves as having free-will, but a creature more intelligent than us would most likely not - although they might very well be aware that we think we do. We ourselves are no longer convinced, as we look more and more into genetics, biology, psychology, and so on to find explanations for behaviour and actions.

But free-will is not dead, just a hypothetical default. If we find an acceptable alternative, we employ it. If a court of law determines that a murderer is insane, he or she is not punished in the same way as someone who is considered to be in full control of their senses. On the argument I’ve put forward above, the sane person is no more in control than the lunatic; only in the case of the lunatic we have a ‘simple’ explanation - a simple cause, if you will - and with the sane person we do not. But the court still acts ‘as if’ the sane person is in full control, ‘as if’ they have free-will. Whether they ‘actually’ do has no bearing on the functioning of the court and the world in general. There would be no anarchy if everyone became a card-carrying proponent of determinism; indeed, it might be more complicated if everyone became a proponent of absolute free-will. Nothing would be changed, anymore than, to the naked eye, the world looks any different if we use a Ptolemaic system (the sun goes round the earth) or a Copernican system (the earth goes round the sun); but the finer details will be more precise.

In my view, everything about the scientific perspective leads to determinism, and free-will is at best a metaphor. It is an important one, which, when no simpler, more practical explanation is offered, has a fundamental role in the functioning of society. Yet while there is nothing more to it than an ‘as if’, there is nothing simplistic or debasing in recognising that determinism is the only adequate description of the world; Leibnitz, after all, equated cause and effect with God.

ID is as old as the hills

Scientists do not welcome teaching ID in science classes for the simple reason that, apart from NOT being science at all, it is a totally made-up construct built with the intent of sneaking religion in the science classroom by presenting it as a plausible scientific theory. 
—Ugo Cei, on the Dilbert Blog

That one’s easy to knock on the head at least. Wait for it… ID is older than Darwinism. It’s known as the teleological argument for the existence of God, and can be formulated as follows (I’m quoting the Wikipedia article):

  1. X is too complex to have occurred randomly or naturally.
  2. Therefore, X must have been created by an intelligent being.
  3. Y is that intelligent being.
  4. Therefore, Y exists.

In fact, the more cautious ID people would only go as far as step 2 above, and make no claims about which Y is that intelligent being (the FSM enters the argument at step 3, and as such, as I said a couple of days ago, is irrelevant.)

And the Wikipedia article also notes that Cicero (106 BC-43 BC - note BC) made one of the earliest teleological arguments:
When you see a sundial or a water-clock, you see that it tells the time by design and not by chance. How then can you imagine that the universe as a whole is devoid of purpose and intelligence, when it embraces everything, including these artifacts themselves and their artificers? (Gjertsen 1989, p. 199, quoted by Dennett 1995, p. 29)
Just to put that in context, Darwin first proposed the theory of natural selection in 1858. That’s nearly 2000 years after Cicero. There is nothing new or made up about ID. It is only a modern formulation of an extremely old idea; and if people keep shouting at the proponents of ID that they are only making it up in order to force religion into the science classroom, it’s no wonder they become indignant. The least we can do is have the common courtesy to acknowledge that the theory they are espousing is far, far older than anything that upstart Darwin ever thought of.

Finally, a good defense of ID

After literally hundreds of posts on the Dilbert Blog, someone called Mark came up will a good defence of the principles of Intelligent Design. I’ll quote a bit:
They only propose that according to their theory logic demands a single uncaused cause for all and that various phenomena support the theory of design better than randomness and therefore the implication is intelligence.

That places the ID discussion on the very edge of science, where it becomes metaphysics in the sense of the word which Kant meant - what comes after physics. As such, it is a proper object of science, although hardly the kind of science you should be teaching in school rooms.
But the identity of this intelligence is beyond the scope of their theory just as it is beyond the scope of the theories of most astrophysicists who restrict their analyses to that of existence at its earliest moment and no further back.

And so it isn’t theology either. Now that is something we can get our teeth into. Thanks, Mark, for the interesting post.

Why the Flying Spaghetti Monster misses the point

I’m afraid I've caught the ID/evolutionism bug. The following is based on a post I just made to Scott Adam’s blog, where I got infected in the first place. I made three pages of notes in the Chinese restaurant today, so there's more to come.

What I have been thinking today:

The Flying Spaghetti Monster, which several people provided links to, utterly misses the point of ID and so precisely provides more evidence for Scott’s point in his original post. ID needs only to say that the evidence could be interpreted as supporting either the existence of an intelligent designer, or a process of natural selection - in fact, all it needs to do is say that it neither proves one nor the other. That, despite all the protests, is a scientific/philosophical question, because it challenges our assumptions about how to explain the evidence, and about whether the evidence actually proves evolutionary theory or not. Any debate about which designer is the realm of religion.

So the Flying Spaghetti Monster theorists contend that FSM should be taught alongside ID, on the basis that God didn’t create the universe, the FSM did. Which means they’re attacking the religious agenda which they infer as being behind ID, rather than the actual point being made. And that comes under mistake #2: Turn someone’s factual statements into implied preferences [from the Scott Adam's Results of why I'm stupid post].

What is needed is to attack ID on it’s own terms. Ironically, that’s just what the FSM people see themselves as doing. But whether we claim that the designer behind the universe is God, a Flying Spaghetti Monster or a fur-ball is completely irrelevant to ID.

The Dilbert Blog

I’ve become something of a regular over at the Dilbert Blog recently. About a month ago, Scott Adams launched the blog, and it has proved to be well worth a visit. Generally the posts are humorous, but a recent post dealt with Intelligent Design vs. evolution and prompted a great deal of fervour among the readers, much to Scott’s delight, I think. I myself printed out the first post on the topic and used it as a basis for a discussion in my Proficiency class, with the general gist being: what is the problem? Three people in a class had even heard of Intelligent Design, and none thought it was deserving of the controversy which it has obviously generated on Scott’s blog. Seems like it’s the hottest scientific America, but that no-one in Europe would even realise it was a topic. Very odd, and interesting reading.

So, I would absolutely recommend people stopping by Scott’s place and subscribing to his RSS feed. Intelligent, often surreal, controversial, and wonderfully funny. Even the comments are an eye-opener.

God’s Debris, by Scott Adams

There’s a couple of things I’d like to note about the book. When I was doing philosophy at university, I wrote an essay in the form of a dialogue about Wittgenstein in a pub playing chess with a guy called Frank (because, well, he was frank *groan*). I’m mentioning it here because of the comment I got back from the assessor, which was something like: ‘Pretty good for this sort of thing, but there's always a Wittgenstein and always a Frank.’ What he meant was that there is always a great thinker who teaches a ‘normal’ guy in this kind of dialogue, and the real philosophical classics which use this form square off two equals, both of whom have good answers to the good arguments of the others (precisely what Scott said the Intelligent Design vs. evolution debate didn't have.) In the kind of dialogue which has a Wittgenstein and a Frank, or an Avatar (the Old Man) and the Courier (as in God's Debris), what you end up with one character proselytising, and the other fumbling for words in an attempt to reconcile the new teaching with what they experience in everyday life. The result is that the Frank figure ends up with their world-view being changed, but only because they were unable to see the wool being pulled over their eyes, or were unequipped to deal with the assault even if aware of it. Now, put a Wittgenstein in a room with Avatar, and we'd have a very different dialogue.

Ultimately, I can’t say whether God's Debris is in this sense a flawed dialogue, or whether that is precisely Scott’s point: that we encounter people like Avatar all the time - politicians, scientists, journalists, priests, anyone who tries to convince us of anything - and they are constantly pulling the wool over our eyes. The Wittgenstein/Avatar debate rarely happens, because Wittgenstein wouldn’t bother, and so all we have are conflicting wool-pullers trying to shout the loudest, and the rest of us simply try to work out whose mast we are going to pin our colours to. Even my talk of Wittgenstein falls into this trap, as I’m setting him up as a ideal of sceptical rationality - but he’s still a teacher.

I’m just streaming thoughts now. ‘Avatar’, my dictionary says, had two main meanings: 1) a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth - an incarnate divine teacher; and 2) an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea. My guess is that Scott intends the second: that this Old Man is the embodiment of the idea that the wool is constantly being pulled over our eyes by people who seem to have an answer for everything, but actually say nothing.

How many people are aware of Popper’s falsification theory? The idea is that any scientific proposition must be testable, and indeed, the proper aim of science is to strive to falsify current theories, because no matter how much evidence you amass in support of a theory, just one iota of contradictory evidence will relegate it to the scrap-heap of history. Popper isn't talking science as such, but philosophy of science, or about the scientific attitude, if you will. And what was striking in the ID/evolution discussion on Scott’s blog was that the evolutionists would brook no challenge, merely amassing evidence upon evidence, which is scientifically irrelevant (and now I will be accused of being an ID supporter and an armchair philosopher). Yet we’re all familiar with the legal concept of ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ - that although there may be enough evidence to convict someone, such a conviction in no way represents The Truth, and should other evidence come to light at a later date the ruling may be overturned. So why is it that science (by which I mean the ID/evolution debate specifically, although it goes further than that, I’m sure), which historically championed knowledge over belief, has forgotten the principles on which it should be based and reverted to a form of belief? - Why? Because we’re all humans.

I mention Popper’s theory because the Introduction to God’s Debris reminded me of it: Scott warns the reader to be sceptical and try and work out what's wrong with what Avatar says. If you meet someone who seems to have a simple answer for everything, the only healthy response is to try and find out what is wrong with it. However, that isn’t a thought experiment, but a puzzle: we’re warned by the author that much of what Avatar says isn’t true, that it is simplistic, and we should be on our guard. A thought experiment would rather be, for example, to see how may readers would get to that point without being told to do so, or better still, how many readers, despite being forewarned, would still have their world-view radicalised. My guess is that this is the thought experiment, or rather, experiment in thought: will you like it, love it, hate it, analyse it, contradict it, absorb it; will it change your life, make you start a new religion, challenge your preconceptions, or convince you that Scott Adams is utterly vacuous and writes things he knows nothing about? The experiment is on us, as far as I can see, and another guess I’m willing to make is that this is the main reason why Scott made this e-book free: to find out how the experiment is going, by getting all of us to email him feedback and make posts on his blog. Just a guess, mind you, since I’m also quite willing to take Scott at his word when he says, ‘You won’t discover my opinions by reading my fiction.’ That should be obvious, but how many people will think that the rest of God’s Debris is actually What Scott Thinks and that this disclaimer is in fact the only lie in the book?

An interesting and provocative read, then, which I’m not going to claim that I understand the motives behind. But even if I met Scott in a pub and he told me what it was about, I’m still not sure I’d believe him ;-)

I know this post has turned into a bit of a rant, but I wanted to make another (semantic) point: the word ‘omnipotent’ is frequently misused in God’s Debris to mean ‘omniscient’, and maybe also ‘omnipresent’. ‘Omnipotent’ means all-powerful, ‘omniscient’ means all-knowing and ‘omnipresent’ means ‘in all places and times’. Much of the discussion at the start of the book is about God being omnipotent and therefore knowing everything, i.e. being omniscient. It is very easy to imagine a being who knew everything but was powerless to act, and also one which was all powerful but did not know the future, the past, or even the present - problem of God’s Free Will solved! Generally, God is said to be all three, but any one does not necessarily entail the others. Whether this confusion is intentional (as in, intended to confuse the Courier and/or the reader) or erroneous, I can’t say. But I quite like the idea of an amnesiac God.

Incidentally, I’m well aware of the innuendo in the third paragraph above ;-)

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