September 11, 2007

Richard Dawkins: Champion for Atheism?

I've just started reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and I'm only about half way through the first chapter. I have to say: I am woefully unimpressed. Much like Carl Sagan on the matter, he concedes too much. He allows Theists to get away with their silly word games and omni-flexible definitions and confines his discussion not to the simple fact that the supernatural does not exist but to a particular perspective on that fantasy.

I'll continue reading, but I've been mentally ranting about him all the way into work this morning.

Posted by Flibbertigibbet at September 11, 2007 08:34 AM | TrackBack

I loved The God Delusion. Hmm? I wonder what, if any, book you would recommend on the subject?

Posted by: patrick at September 11, 2007 10:36 AM

On the topic of atheism, specifically, I would happily recommend Atheism: The Case Against God by George Smith.

For an even more robust of the epistemological principles in play, I recommend the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 11, 2007 10:40 AM

In recent atheist studies, the division is made between two approaches to disproving gods: either that gods are impossible, or that gods are improbable.

Your preference, that gods are impossible - possibly through linguistic analysis - is a solid approach, and the one I most often use as well.

However, research into the improbability of gods is not incompatible with that into the impossibility of gods. Even if the arguments stand because the conceptual and consistency problems with theism cannot be reconciled, gods are believed to have some impact on the world and those some empirical and scientific considerations can be relevant.

Impossibility does not preclude improbability. A metaphor could be, say, a man accused of a crime. You could argue simultaneously that it is impossible for the person to have committed the crime (for example, he was far away from the scene with an alibi), and also that it is improbable (he is a law abiding citizen and has never been involved in a robbery before).

It is mildly upsetting that Dawkins is not so familiar with the history of atheism and atheist argumentation, and his attempts to attract people would have been more robust had he studied this.

However, I think is argument about complexity is quite valid, and that his social arguments about the harm of religion, esp. viz. children, could helpfully be accepted by society.

Posted by: John W at September 11, 2007 11:34 AM

John, your comment makes so little sense to me that I don't really know where to begin.

The whole notion of "atheist studies" is silly.

I do want to point out that impossibility does preclude improbability; impossibility describes absolute improbability, actually, so to suggest that the impossible is probable at all is to contradict the first premise that something is impossible.

I am just assuming that when you say "linguistic analysis" you mean that I look at the definition of a term and determine whether or not the definition is internally consistent then and whether or not it is consistent with reality. If that's what you mean, then that is the approach I take, but I really don't know what other approach you could possibly take.

In brief: The supernatural does not exist because it assumes that something exists beyond existence. Either things exist or they do not. There isn't a third case and that's where people try to put god and magic and other such things.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 11, 2007 12:09 PM

When there are disagreements like this, perhaps it is best to express things formally. Surely you don't want to discuss whether x>p>0 for x some small number is consistent with p=0.

Perhaps I should have said that an argument that something is improbable is not incompatable with an argument that it is impossible.

Here are two reasons they are compatable:
If you argue that something is improbable, you are may be arguing that its probability is less than some value x which is small. You haven't argued that or proved that the value is zero -- maybe because you can't, or maybe because you want to have a fallback position in an argument to impossibility is refuted or not accepted.

An opponent may have a conclusion (or premise) that is shown to be impossible by argument, if you add certain other fair premises. Different arguments, with varying premises or formulations, could argue for different conclusions - possibly conclusions of improbability. For example, a standard argument against theism keys off a standard formulation that a god could be both all powerful and all knowing.

A = god is all powerful
K = god is all knowing

we add the statements
W god knows what will happen next
C god can change what will happen next

Then the argument could run:
1. K
2. (K->W)
3. (W->~C)
4. (~C->~A)
Therefore, not A.

which can easily be shown (A, therefore C, therefore ~W, therefore ~K, for example).

This argument required the addition of two premises (3-4) which seem reasonable, but were not part of the original statements.

You could say that statements A and K could, together or separately, imply something else.

For example using C as being a being of complexity:
Kx->Cx(using relational logic):
and thus:
If god is all-knowing, god is a being of great complexity.

Now if you did this, you could take the statement that Cx, using some formulation like:
in the majority of cases, if x is Complex then x has some property etc. etc. In that case, the complexity argument follows along a separate path, and yet still be consistent with an argument of impossibility.

Tell me what you think,

Posted by: John W at September 12, 2007 12:58 PM

I was chatting with Mister Bookworm last night and I wondered how long it would be before you whipped out the formal logic notation! ;o) I'm curious: what is your formal experience with philosophy?

Onward! I recently touched on this topic in a post I just submitted, so I will try to be brief.

Rather than say "improbable" I am simply going to say "probable" which means that the probability of X is greater than 0% but less than 100% where 100% represents certainty. I retain "impossible" and "possible" because rather than describing a spectrum, this is a binary condition.

If something is impossible, then it has 0% probability AND it contradicts ALL other statements of truth in some way. This being a function of the fact that all knowledge is interrelated.

So, if you establish that something is impossible, then you would never suggest that it is in the smallest amount probable or even possible. Here, I am not speaking in terms of debate club, but in the fundamental quest for truth.

I believe, however, you're talking about probability and possibility in reverse. Once you've established that something is of any probability, you are still free to discover or prove that it is impossible.

My problem with Dawkins is that, so far, he doesn't seem to be willing to confront the possibility of anything. Is it possible that there are fairies in his garden? No, but he still accepts a sliver of possibility for that notion. The same with God. Is it possible for there to be anything supernatural? No, but he calls himself an "agnostic" if only be a small degree.

I haven't gotten to his discussion of complexity yet. I've read it somewhere else before, but I can't remember where. I regard it as something of a "parlor chat argument," by which I mean that it is tangential to the core issues and may be safely presented to confound and confuse those arguing the affirmative, but should not be used to actually change the "hearts and minds of America."

Posted by: Flibbert at September 12, 2007 02:29 PM

No formal experience -- just something I read (quite a bit, more it seems than some philosophy geeks). However, I do use formal logic constantly, as I am a code developer.

Anyway -- good comments, quite interesting and overall its good to see people who have thought things through ("If something is impossible, then it has 0% probability AND it contradicts ALL other statements of truth in some way." -- which to me is inherent in the truth table for implication (00,1;01,1;10,0;11,1)).

Posted by: John W at September 13, 2007 11:49 AM

Ah. Cool, then.

The thing to glean from that important implication, though is that all truth is interrelated in some way because it is all derived from reality.

The set of impossible things is the same as the set of contradictions. Reality itself is internally consistent and stands as the ultimate externality for any argument.

The statements "1 + 2 = 4" or "God exists" are contradictions not simply unto themselves but stand as an offense to the whole of reality.

This is why Ayn Rand refers to reality as the ultimate arbiter in any disagreement.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 13, 2007 01:09 PM

John, I was thinking about it this morning while lazing in bed and watching the news: I think the argument can be made that probability and impossibility are mutually exclusive.

Meaning, if you prove that something is of any probability, no matter how small, you are already implying that the argument is possible, which excludes the impossibility argument.

I guess if you fail at the impossibility argument you could fall back to an argument of remote probability, but that leaves you open to being agnostic about whatever argument is at hand.

Dawkins doesn't even attempt to say that God is impossible and that's what irritates me. He just assumes that God is possible, but argues that he's of ultra-low probability. Agnosticism of this sort is like low tar cigarettes, which kill you just as well as regular cigarettes.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 14, 2007 09:42 AM

I notice John said "Gods" in his original post.

To be clear, it is the Christian (and all other "all-powerful") Gods which are impossible. Things like Zeus, Gremlins, Fairies and the like aren't impossible. They don't exist and I'm not "agnostic" about that fact. But there is a distinction.

(Fairies and such are merely arbitrary assertions - things people claim exist without proof. The burden is on them to provide the proof, not me to attempt a dis-proof. Calling such things "probable" is silliness; until proof is provided for a claim, there is no probability about it: it is arbitrary, which in short means that I don't have to entertain the idea.)

Posted by: Inspector at September 14, 2007 10:05 AM

I disagree with you there.

Zeus, Gremlins, Fairies and the like are impossible because they each involve magic or some connection with the supernatural. Magic, by definition, involves a violation of the acxiom of identity whereby one thing does something or behaves in some way that is not according to its nature.

So, unless you change what those words refer to (a Greek god, a malevolent little monster or spirit that bedevils airplanes, a benevolent, winged, little person/spirit) they are impossible. They don't merely not exist -- like an iPhone with 100GB memory -- they are excluded from existence.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 14, 2007 12:43 PM

I suppose it depends on what kind of magic you think they have. So long as it doesn't violate the law of identity, then these things are not in the category of "impossible."

If those things are supposed to have that kind of magic, then I wasn't aware of it. Even Zeus was bested by mortals on occasion, as I recall.

Posted by: Inspector at September 14, 2007 07:23 PM

There are lots of ways to be magical.

Zeus was a thunderbolt-tossing, shape-shifting womanizer. And sometimes he did those things all at the same time. And sometimes he "rewarded" his lovers by shoving them into the stars.

Gremlins are mischievous little critters that aren't human, but have a preoccupation with machinery, particularly planes, and the wherewithal to muck up the works. They can somehow teleport into the engines of planes and make them crash.

Fairies are allegedly benevolent spirits that take the form of tiny little people with wings.

Trolls are really ugly monsters that live under bridges and are equally fictional.

I'm only saying this because it it doesn't mean that you have to be especially bright to be magical.

To violate the law of identity, something need only behave or make something else behave in a way that is inconsistent with its own nature or that of the rest of the universe.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 16, 2007 08:06 PM

Flib, are you agreeing or disagreeing with me?

"To violate the law of identity, something need only behave or make something else behave in a way that is inconsistent with its own nature or that of the rest of the universe."

Right, and I don't see how gremlins, fairies, or Zues do that. The Christian God clearly does do that, what with his whole Microwaving Burritos So Hot Even He Can't Eat Them, but then He Can Because He's God thing. And His, if He created the universe, then where the hell was He before He did so and if so, then what created Him? Huh? Huh? Thing.

I mean, Gremlins and such don't exist. I can say that quite confidently even if they don't violate the law of identity. And furthermore are silly nonsense. I don't need Dawkins' wimp-out move of agnosticism.

Let's take Chewbacca. He doesn't violate the law of identity. But he doesn't exist (other than as a movie character). So whether you agree that gremlins fit it, there is quite clearly a category for such things.

Nor does Luke Skywalker violate the law, because even before they came out and said so, it was perfectly possible that all his magic was just microscopic bacteria in his bloodstream.

Why couldn't the same be true for Zeus?

Teleportation? Captian Kirk does that all the time. And he doesn't violate A is A. (he still doesn't exist, though) In fact, I think he and Zeus may have bumped heads once or twice.

Where the Christian God gets in trouble with the law of identity is where the wild claims about His powers start to contradict themselves. Like omnipotence, and my example of the burrito above.

Zeus, from what I remember, may have had magic, but it was at least limited in its power such that it didn't contradict itself.

Does that make sense?

Posted by: Inspector at September 17, 2007 08:00 PM

I'm disagreeing with you. Magic is, by definition, a violation of the axiom of identity. It doesn't have to be unlimited in order to do this.

As an example, let's say that I have the magical power to make an acorn grow into a robot. Acorns don't grow into robots. Such a power is impossible because acorns and robots have specific identities. Acorns grow into oak trees and robots are built by people.

The Christian God's characteristic of omnipotence as well as that of omniscience does stand in stark violation of reality, but I would argue that it is no moreso incongruent with reality than making acorns grow into robots. False is false, after all.

Chewbacca doesn't inherently violate the axiom of identity, it's true. It's possible that there is some race of very tall, hairy aliens who live in trees and communicate by moans and groans. We don't know of any such thing, obviously, but we can't automatically exclude him from reality on the grounds that his "definition" is a violation of some aspect of reality.

Luke Skywalker is a bit more problematic because he's presumably human. Even with an alien infection, the ability to move things with his mind, tell the future, telepathically control others, and the other abilities assumed by the Jedi press far beyond the limits of biochemisty and physics to a point where even though I am not an expert in these things I feel confident in saying that they are not merely implausible, they are impossible.

The same goes for gremlins. Unlike Captain Kirk whose machinery at least pays lip service to theoretical physics, gremlins somehow possess the ability to teleport biologically. Let's also keep in mind that these are critters alleged to be native to earth. Even if we expand the description of a gremlin to allow for the possibility that they are aliens, I feel confident again in declaring the ability to teleport as well beyond any organisms inborn capabilities.

While we might imagine all manner of critters with abilities and identities that are internally consistent, as you've described Zeus, we have to also look to see if they are externally consistent with reality.

"Impossible" means that things are excluded from any chance of being in existence, not merely that the description given doesn't contradict itself. (Although, we could probably argue that shape-shifting on the scale attributed to Zeus represents an internal contradiction of a sort.)

Posted by: Flibbert at September 17, 2007 11:27 PM

Not much to say -- except it isn't important here whether it is or is not compatible -- that depends on the definition of improbable ... for example, in some case if n<p<=0 seems sound, whereas n<p<0 does not, then interpret it that way .. which brings other things up ...

There is a principle in informal logic called the Principle of Charity -- and since you seem to like Rand I should express this is a charity of personal strength -- the principle saying that you should interpret an opponent's argument in the strongest way possible, adding extra premises, reworking order and logical structure, fixing up definitions, anything possible without contradiction. Before you refute your enemy, you must try to prove them correct first. It is certainly not a charity of giving fools any ground.

There are at least four reasons for this (do you like lists?): (1) it helps to prevent misunderstandings and quibbling of small matters of definition, etc.; (2) it may strengthen your own arguments, by allowing you to incorporate others' arguments into your own (like the rule of Chinese conquest, that your conquerors become provinces of the Empire); (3) it prevents, with some additional thought, incorporating arguments that would be shown invalid by an argument improperly dismissed; and, (4) it has rhetorical advantages, in that it may win the appreciation of your opponent (for treating an argument fairly), win the respect of your audience (for showing your superior powers of formulation), or both.

This applies, I believe , even when your opponents are openly hostile (which I was not).

btw. Who is the hero? You or Rand?

ps. I had to hard code the < symbol (as &lt;).

Posted by: John W. at September 18, 2007 06:46 PM

"Unlike Captain Kirk whose machinery at least pays lip service to theoretical physics, gremlins somehow possess the ability to teleport biologically."

What is it about being biological that excludes an entity from doing what a machine can do?

My point is that a lot of the things attributed to "magic" do not necessarily have to be magic. Proper magic, I mean.

I mean, with star-trek style nanites and matter-energy converters, someone very well could turn an acorn into a robot. Or teleport a robot in from elsewhere and simply tell you they made it from an acorn.

If you insist on defining these things as having real, proper magic, then yes that would violate identity. If you don't, and simply define them as having amazing biological or technological abilities, then no they don't violate identity.

When I hear the term "magic" (or its equivalent), my first inclination is to immediately substitute "Some means beyond my comprehension," rather than "some means beyond all comprehension." Yes, some people do mean the latter by it.

Perhaps this is because I grew up watching Doctor Who, where it was a common thing for some "magic" or "monster" to be in play only for the Doctor to expose it as simply some form of esoteric technology or biological creature. Ditto for old school Star Trek, which actively featured actual Greek Gods as being powerful alien entities. Same for my all-time favorite show, Farscape, in which the hero even identifies such beings colloquially as "god-like aliens." In all of these shows, all of these entities are ultimate reducible to, and defeated by, science. (every last one of them)

I'd say this is just me, being a Sci-Fi Geek, but I've seen a number of Objectivists make this argument. I even hear tell that Dr. Peikoff himself excused the ancients' belief in the Greek gods because they are categorically different from the instantly-identity-violating Christian one. (in his lecture on Ancient Greece)

Consider the example from OPAR that a "convention of gremlins is studying Hegel's Logic on the planet Venus." This is given as an example of an arbitrary assertion, not a false one. Yes, arbitrary assertions, as Dr. Peikoff puts it, "can be transferred to a cognitive context and converted thereby into true or false statements, which demonstrably correspond to or contradict established fact... as I did in the opening chapter: one can demonstrate that the idea of God contradicts all the fundamentals of a rational philosophy."

But in the very next phrase, he reminds us that there is no value in seeking to define the arbitrary, aside from knowledge of the precise kind of error being committed. Claims of gremlins and even God are arbitrary first (which is "worse than false"), before we even examine if they are false on their face or doable with some kind of sci-fi.

God is not. Gremlins may be, depending on how the nutter who claims they exist chooses to define them. Either way, none of this pushes any of it one micron toward "true" or "possible." (you know that; I'm just reminding the "audience")

But my point is that the Christian God is fundamentally and categorically worse than Zeus, Gremlins, or anything of that ilk because He violates identity in His very "definition."

(also, your comments thingy is still broken - if you follow the link on the recent comments device, the "post" button is blocked by overlap from your sidebar)

Posted by: Inspector at September 18, 2007 07:44 PM

John, I don't disagree with your points about charity at all. I find myself trying to persuade others to grant their opponents greater benefit of the doubt -- where warranted.

Sadly, I have precious little patience for the mystics and fully support granting them as little wiggle room as possible. They're still far too dangerous in our culture to allow it.

But I do grant your overall point.

As for my blog, the blog is about me, my life, my thoughts on this topic or that. Rand is a particular hero of mine, but this blog isn't about her. You'll notice that compared to many Objectivists, I rarely mention her by name.


Inspector, there are far too many items there for me to address, so I will have to boil the point down to its most essential point: if you tell me something is magic, I will tell you that either you are wrong about the nature of the thing in question or that the thing in question does not exist.

Magic, by definition, is not real and cannot be real. I'm not talking about illusions. I'm talking about invoking supernatural forces to whatever.

I think Aurthur Clark makes a point that is similar to your argument. He said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I understand what is being said there, but I do hasten to point out that "magic" as I only ever mean it and have described above does not and cannot exist. So, I never need to distinguish anything from magic. I would just say, "Wow! I have NO idea how that happened!"

Posted by: Flibbert at September 18, 2007 08:59 PM

Well, then, this is my essential response:

"If you insist on defining these things as having real, proper magic, then yes that would violate identity. If you don't, and simply define them as having amazing biological or technological abilities, then no they don't violate identity."

To make the claim that something is magic - real, proper, identity-violating magic - and not just possessing highly weird and esoteric abilities - is so completely retarded that I just don't tend to assume someone is doing it unless they say so fairly explicitly.

My point is that for things like Zeus and gremlins - although you can claim them as magic, you don't have to do so. Not so for the Christian God: per their explicit "definition" of him, he must be magical. (and therefore impossible)

Does that make sense to you, Flibbert?

Posted by: Inspector at September 18, 2007 10:46 PM

I know what you're saying but inasmuch as you can safely assume when someone talking about "god" they're talking about something involving real magic which cannot possibly exist, you can assume the same about things like Zeus, gremlins, fairies, ghosts, unicorns, Baal, etc. All of those things are similarly defined explicitly as involving magic.

I don't think it's uncharitable to say that when someone talks about something that is ordinarily defined as having magic, they're talking about just that.

I guess it would depend on the context. I mean, if YOU came to me and said that there's a gremlin in your kitchen, I would think you're either joking, there's something in your kitchen that you haven't properly identified, or there is a whole new something that is very much like the gremlins of myth minus the "real" magic.

I am very hard-pressed indeed to come up with something even remotely approaching the typical definition of God. I mean, I can imagine a SOMETHING that closely resembles a gremlin or a fairy or even Zeus that, in order to describe it efficiently, I would use the magic word to draw an analogy. But if I came to you with a box and said, "I have God in a box," I can't think of a single property that is typically ascribed to God that can be observed in other things in nature. Omnipotence? Omniscience? Omnipresence? Omni-benevolence? There isn't a single thing that has even one of those traits.

So, I can see your point from THAT perspective. What the Christians mean by "God" is more obviously impossible than a fairy or a gremlin.

But now that we are sufficiently advanced in our understanding of the universe, we can also categorically reject all references to magic.

I wish I had my older posts imported here. I posted a brief screed against Arthur C. Clark's Third Law (stated in a previous context) on this very topic that magic does not exist and some woman calling herself a witch told me I didn't know what I was talking about. Some people still mean magic when they say "magic!"

Posted by: Flibbert at September 18, 2007 11:34 PM

"So, I can see your point from THAT perspective. What the Christians mean by "God" is more obviously impossible than a fairy or a gremlin."

Yup. I'd say you've got a pretty good handle on what I was getting at there, Flib.

Posted by: Inspector at September 19, 2007 03:56 AM

"So, I can see your point from THAT perspective. What the Christians mean by "God" is more obviously impossible than a fairy or a gremlin."

Can anything be "more impossible" than any other? That makes no sense, because it shouldn't.

I think it is pretty clear that gremlins, fairies, Zeus, and all such stuff is perfectly impossible.

Posted by: Ergo at September 19, 2007 08:00 AM

I get the point Inspector was driving at. He's referring to the *logical* impossibility of God as opposed to the *logical* permissibility of gremlins.

But remember that as Objectivists, we don't think purely in abstractions. If all existential facts are relational, then the impossibility one fact precludes even the logical permissibility of another fact. In other words, to postulate the logical possibility of Zeus or gremlins would be to ignore the relational nature of facts and knowledge and focus purely on isolated logical abstractions.

Posted by: Ergo at September 19, 2007 08:34 AM

As I said, such speculation is only useful as a postmortem on someone's bad ideas. And, "Either way, none of this pushes any of it one micron toward 'true' or 'possible.'" An arbitrary assertion, such as that of gremlins or Zeus, ought to be dismissed out of hand immediately, regardless of whether it is logically impossible or not.

Posted by: Inspector at September 19, 2007 09:54 AM

Actually, the operative word in my statement is "obviously."

God and Zeus and the rest are all flatly impossible, but supposing a primitive or less philosophically trained mind (untainted by religion and not too deeply versed in science), God is much more easy to identify as being completely nuts.

Such a person, like the early Greeks, might say, "Well, I know that some eels can generate electricity and they are kind of small. If a really large person could do that, it might be a full-on lightning bolt!" And it's not a far leap from there to hypothesize something called Zeus who has the fallibility of a human but can throw lightning bolts around. The point is that they might not immediately recognize that someone is using magic to explain something.

Correct me if I'm wrong on your point here, Inspector.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 19, 2007 10:55 AM

Not at all wrong, Flibbert.

Remember our discussion of environmentalism as religion? This is that same thing. You need some applied science to be able to say that Zeus is impossible. You don't need any applied science at all to say that God is impossible - He's much more impossible than that, to stretch a metaphor.

Posted by: Inspector at September 19, 2007 08:59 PM
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