Sunday, March 27, 2011

Myers and Coyne on belief in God

I am late to the game, as most of this was discussed late last year by Zara and Myers, and rehashed by Grayling, Dawkins, and Coyne this month.  But I'll weigh in, or rather simply review the arguments put forth so far, on the question: “What would it take to convince us of the existence of the supernatural?”  Steve Zara wrote:
But how can we non-believers accept something as evidence when that “evidence” is supposed to point to something which is beyond logic, beyond rules? What does “evidence” even mean in such a situation? ...This astonishing complexity of God adds yet another barrier to evidence, as literally anything else is a better, more likely explanation of phenomena in the real world.
When thinking about this question yesterday, I also arrived at this conclusion.  If evidence is something you can understand, but God transcends understanding, then he also transcends evidence.  Hence, no evidence for God is possible.  But this is just a silly game of logic.  Zara continues:
The idea of evidence for miracles being taken seriously was shown to be unreasonable by David Hume centuries ago...
While Coyne sets his position as opposing that of Myers and Zara on the question of evidence for God, I think when it comes to Hume's quote they do agree.  This is the common ground they share.  Hume wrote:
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), 'That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.
Zara and Coyne both refer to Hume as correct on this issue, Coyne wrote:
To take Hume’s view, when the probability of that evidence adducing a god exceeds the probability that it’s either a trick or due to some unexplained natural process, then I think it’s okay to provisionally accept a god. 
Coyne, defending his scientific integrity, states this is a possibility, but Zara and Myers do not.  I think it is because they take one extra step that Coyne doesn't when Zara writes, following Hume's argument to its natural conclusion "literally anything else is a better, more likely explanation of phenomena in the real world".  The possiblity of it is so remote, it has passed the vanishing point.  But can't we all be happy that we agree with Hume? 


  1. Yes, I do think it is that last step of taking it to its natural conclusion which is giving us (at least me) fits. I saw one person describe it as a mathematical limit, in Hume's terms: that there is always an alternative lesser miracle with a natural explanation behind it to a miracle that could be hypothetically proposed as evidence supporting the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient supernatural being, the simplest two of which are that we don't know enough about physics or that we are hallucinating even on a mass scale.

    Reading Chapter 2 of The GOD Delusion is giving me an abundance of confused ideas about this, though. Do you remember TAP and PAP? Temporary Agnostic in Practice vs. Permanent Agnostic in Principle over the question of existence.

    This current line of attack seems to me to be a PAP-2: Permanent Atheism in Principle, or: a 7 on the Dawkins Scale. This seems to worry many because it appears dogmatic, but I don't believe it is for the same reason a 7 on the equivalent Santa Claus scale or leprechaun scale wouldn't be considered dogmatic: we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that phenomenon associated with these creatures are produced by other means or that the phenomena themselves are bits of folklore.

    What I think I am saying is that I think there is doubt inherent in PAP-2/Level 7 on the Dawkins Scale: irrational doubt. We can leave open the possibility that we are wrong but consider that possibility irrational based on what we currently know.

  2. Continuing (side note: the CAPTCHA word was "Dobbe" which reminded me of the house elf in Harry Potter)...

    For example, I can say unequivocally that you could not convince me that Santa Claus is real, although I might be convinced of it if I were insane or if physical laws were to appear to break down at some point in my life. For, to convince me that Santa Claus is real, one would have to convince me that the conspiracy against children which is Santa Claus is itself a conspiracy, and that is just for starters.

    You would also have to convince me that my own parents lied to me about lying to me about Santa Claus and that their parents did, and so on for all parents of children who ever believed in Santa Claus. Then I would need to be convinced that the documented history of the Santa myth is false--another conspiracy. And I would need to be convinced of how Santa transmutates to get through extremely narrow chimney stacks, how he gets inside houses without chimneys at all, how he does it for every child on the same night without breaking the light barrier, how his reindeer fly, why we don't find evidence of him or his abode or his elves at the true or magnetic north pole, etc.

    This is the level of disbelief one would have to overcome for me to believe in Santa, and that is small potatoes compared to what one would have to do to convince an atheist that a god is real. At least Santa is somewhat well defined.

  3. I think Coyne’s fear is that if we sacrifice the possibility of evidence for God, then we unwittingly place him outside the purview of science. And it is the application of a modern scientific understanding to the questions of religion that defines the New Atheist movement and has made authors like Dawkins and Coyne successful. In The God Delusion, Dawkins criticized Gould for removing God from the purview of science. But Myers is simply saying God is a meaningless concept; evidence could establish God, but we’ll never have a testable hypothesis in any sense of the word. (We don't know what we mean by the word God!) Ipso facto, "there can be no god evidence." As for myself at least, I’ve never seen any coherent theological description that I felt confident about. I think this is a subtle argument that hasn't been spelled out to Coyne's satisfaction.

  4. I wonder if this helps.
    1) In order for there to be evidence for something, the concept must be coherent.
    2) God is an incoherent concept.
    3) There can be no evidence for God.
    To be clear about this, we can investigate coherent religious claims empirically, but even if evidence supported them, it still could not support God (vis-a-vis premise two, above).

    Now, has anyone proposed a way to test this claim to see if it is consistently applied? If not, I suggest the following questions: Do we allow evidence for anything that isn't really a coherent concept elsewhere in science? Or more simply, is everything we have evidence for a coherent concept? The strength of Zara and Myers' assertion rests on the answer.

  5. Continuing from my first comment, I'd like to consider the 1 on the Dawkins Scale. A rating of 1 is a PTP (Permanent Theist in Principle). The question is, do 1s consider disbelief in their god to be rational? I would say they do not. In fact, most 1s I've known seem to be under the impression that atheists believe that their god exists, but that the atheists hate this god, which seems to align symmetrically with Hume's concept of the alternatives needing to be more unreasonable to accept miracles--disbelief in their god is more unreasonable to the 1s than pretentious hatred of their god.

  6. Considering your first comment, is a 7 on the Dawkins Scale a person who "places [gods] outside the purview of science"? I would have to say that they do not, instead 7s would consider real gods impossible in principle (as gods are in fact characters of fiction which do not exist) but also consider evidence of their alleged interventions explainable by other means.

    With respect to your second comment, I'm not sure I can accept that fictional characters are incoherent. So it occurs to me that I need to look into what "coherence" even means. I wonder if this is a good place to start:

  7. A one on the Dawkins Scale is a fundamentalist. And you're right - doubt has no place in their narrow worldview, for themselves or others. They are usually well acquainted with hatred however. A lack of evidence does not prevent belief, if that was the case there'd be no theists at all! Therefore anyone on the Dawkins Scale can say "there can be no evidence for God". And a person who says "I know there is no God" does not also have to maintain that gods are outside the purview of science.

    In my second comment I was rewriting (oversimplifying?) the argument Grayling made in his exchange with Coyne. It seems to me his whole case hinges on establishing this point, which is also central to Zara and PZ Myers. None of them rely on the argument that "there can be no God evidence" because God is a fictional character. Astronauts were fictional at one time, to take one example, and this did not prevent their subsequent reality. Coherence of concept does not tell us anything about whether the concept is fact or fiction. But for Grayling, Zara, and PZ, it does tell us whether it can be supported with evidence.

  8. I asked Coyne about this, and he cited black body radiation and the birth of quantum theory as possible disproofs to the idea that only coherent concepts are allowed to have evidence, though he admits the analogy may not hold all that well.

    I doubt any single proof or disproof will settle the matter, maybe not even a combination of several, but the evidence clearly points in one direction. More reflective theists would admit that probability is not on their side.

  9. Thanks for fleshing this out a little more. I did read that bit from Grayling and thought it was well said and that you did an accurate job of summarizing it. I guess I was trying to explain my own continually advancing views. I suppose I agree with Zara, PZ, and Grayling the way you put it, but in some ways I do not (and thus agree with Coyne) because I think most conceptions of supernatural things are coherent enough to be shown false by virtue of self
    contradictions, breaking of currently known physical laws, and shallow or authoritarian thinking.

    Anyway, I just realized a better way to say what I meant after reading this comment. What I mean is that a god existing is inconceivable to me and the burden of proof is nearly insurmountable for anyone claiming that a god does exist--so great in fact that I wouldn't pay much mind to any claims that one does exist other than in passing.

  10. The latest interesting disagreement in philosophy and science is whether there is a science of morality, as Sam Harris proposes, or whether there isn't. I see you've joined in the discussion on Coyne's blog about this, I put my two cents in as well!

  11. I see that :)

    Am looking at Garner's online book right now:

    Really, I don't understand many of the jargon-laden morality arguments at all and have no training in moral philosophy. What I do know is that everything Harris said in the debate with Craig about morality sounded reasonable while nothing Craig said did.

    Also, it does seem to me that Harris is most interested in seizing the word "morality" from the grasp of religions, not in building yet another doomed authoritative view of morality. I think Harris would agree with Garner's introduction; they might even have a similar goal and ultimately be moving in the same direction.

  12. Instead of "seizing" morality I should have written "rescuing" morality. LOL