Friday, 27 July 2012

My World View - Part 2

Being labelled Part 2, you might be assuming that this article should be preceded by a Part 1.  We don’t want anyone to be rushing around making any wild, unjustified assumptions so I’ll confirm up front that, yes, there was a Part 1.  Here.


Recapping very briefly, there is a “Set of All Things” (where Thing is defined broadly) in which there are the subsets: the “Set of True Things”, the “Set of False Things” and the “Set of Neutral Things”.  The “Set of True Things” is far smaller than either of the other two sets.

True Things don’t conflict with other True Things.  False and Neutral Things can conflict with each other, and with True Things.

I also mentioned that I can’t necessarily know which Things are True and that my world view is an intellectual construct consisting of thoughts, ideas and concepts about Things.

As individuals we all divide the “Set of All Things” is into the “Set of Things Held to be True” and everything else (that is the “Set of Things Not Held to be True”), as illustrated below:

Over the years I have come to realise that some effort is necessary to make crystal clear something that should be reasonably obvious.  If I seem to be labouring the obvious, please accept my humble apologies.

Look carefully at the diagram.  You will see a yellow circle representing the “Set of Things Held to be True”.  Outside that circle, is the remainder of the “Set of All Things” which is labelled the “Set of Things Not Held to be True”.

There is no “Set of Things Held to be False”.

There is no “Set of Things Held to be Not True”.

A question that often comes up concerns default positions or presuppositions.  Let me try to make this as clear as possible:

Nothing ends up in my “Set of Things Held to be True” by default.  Before I add a Thing to this set, I need to be convinced that I am justified in holding this new Thing to be True.

Nothing that has wormed its way into my “Set of Things Held to be True” is sacrosanct.  If I am given reason to doubt that a Thing is True, then it gets removed.

Once I hold certain things to be True, I reach a situation as illustrated in the diagram below:

Note that I hold to be True (or “believe”) some Things that are True, some Things that are False and some Things that are Neutral.  The remainder of things I simply do not hold to be True (in other words, I don’t believe them).

Despite my efforts above, you may still be thinking to yourself … “Are you saying that you don’t hold some Things to be False?  Really, I mean, really?”

Well, yes, really, I don’t.  Let me explain by example.  Say that Trudy turns up and tells me that new research reveals that Napoleon Bonaparte was a monkey.  Now I think this assertion is a False Thing, but should I really go to the effort of actively believing that Napoleon Bonaparte was not a monkey?  I don’t think so.  I put as much effort into this claim as I would to the assertion that Napoleon Bonaparte was a tit-mouse, or a small piece of cheese, or a mortal avatar of the Grand Pixie.  I simply withhold belief.

Note that I don’t need justification to withhold belief (to not hold something to be True).  But let’s say Trudy is insistent and desperately wants me to accept her assertion, do I have any justification for such an acceptance?

When I look at her claim, and my existing “Set of Things Held to be True”, I find that I don’t.  An Emperor of France who was a monkey would conflict with many Things I hold to be True.

But let’s say I was particularly ignorant about history and not able to use the internet.  If all I held to be True about Napoleon Bonaparte was that he was hairy and short, that he lived in a tree, that he had a prehensile tail and that he was fond of bananas, then I might be willing to accept that he was a monkey.  The reason for this is that the new Thing presented by Trudy would correlate with all the other Things I hold to be True on this subject.

Correlation is the tool I use to work out whether I should hold a new Thing to be True.  Correlation is particularly useful as the number of Things you hold to be True increases.  If I know 100 Things pertaining (directly or indirectly) to Napoleon Bonaparte, and all of them correlated with the assertion that he was a monkey, then I would be justified in thinking that “Napoleon Bonaparte was a monkey” is a True Thing.  However, if only 96 of those Things correlated with that assertion and 4 of them conflicted with it, then I would need to reconsider.

The protection against erroneously holding False Things to be True is the fact that it is only True Things that always correlate.  If two Things do not correlate then, at most, only one of them can be True.  This allows me to “falsify” a Thing, to show that I should not hold that Thing to be True.

I have to be careful, of course, since if I held “Napoleon Bonaparte had a prehensile tail” to be True, this would correlate with “Napoleon Bonaparte was a monkey”.  I am aware that some of the Things I hold to be True are, in fact, not True.  I don’t know which they are, or I would do something about it, but experience tells me I occasionally trip over “facts” which conflict with new, more authoritative and well-supported “facts”.

Therefore, when I hold a Thing to be True, I only do so probatively.  This means I only hold the Thing to True tentatively, but when I am tentatively holding something to be True, I can use it as evidence in assessing whether other Things should be probatively held to be True.

When I do stumble over a more authoritative and well-supported fact (or set of facts) that shows that a Thing I am probatively holding to be True is not True then I consider this Thing to be falsified so, figuratively, I take that Thing out of the “Set of Things Held to be True” and toss it into the “Set of Things Not Held to be True”.  This could be a gallery of contemporary paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte, which cumulatively demonstrate that he did not have a prehensile tail – or perhaps an autopsy report, or a DNA sample.

Similarly, when I notice that a Thing in my “Set of Things Held to be True” is inconsistent with the majority of other Things in my “Set of Things Held to be True”, then I will remove it.  I might already know that a friend of mine is related to Napoleon Bonaparte (through an obscure cousin of the latter).  I also know that humans and other species can’t interbreed and that humans don’t have prehensile tails.  The idea Napoleon Bonaparte had a prehensile tail is not consistent with these facts, all of which I hold to be True.

I try not to assimilate new Things that are inconsistent with Things that are currently held to be True, but it does happen.  Generally, I’ll first perform the step of working out which Things are more reliable: those I currently hold to be True or the new ones.  I’ll clean up my “Set of Things Held to be True” accordingly, and then assimilate the new Things as appropriate.

So, in short, while I don’t put effort into actively holding False Things to be False, I do put effort into an attempt to align my “Set of Things Held to be True” more closely with the “Set of True Things”.  The picture below illustrates:



During discussions, I might take a position that “Assertion X is False”.  I take this to be rather different to realigning my world view to create a new set, the “Set of Things Held to be False”.  Instead, it is just adding a new probatively True Thing to the “Set of Things Held to be True” – in this case the notion that “Assertion X is False”.

When pushed frequently on a Thing I do not hold to be True, I might get a stronger sense of where that Thing is objectively, but even if I suspect a Thing is probably in the “Set of False Things”, I still don’t realign my world view.

As an atheist, my world view can be illustrated as in the following picture which should make clear how I categorise the following:

  • the Christian god
  • the Muslim god
  • the Jewish god
  • the Hindu gods
  • the divinity of the Buddha
  • Santa
  • ghosts
  • aliens that visit Earth to abduct and probe random humans
  • the Easter Bunny
  • pixies
  • faeries
  • satanic or Brothers Grimm variety witches 

I don't waste effort actively holding Things to be False unnecessarily.

My view on magical beings is an example of this in action.  I’ve put in Ganesh as a god I don’t hold to be True, but Ganesh is only one of an estimated 330 million gods associated with Hinduism.  It’d be far too much effort to hold each of these gods to be False, along with all of the various types of magical creatures.

You could say that I am eucamenical when it comes to the treatment of gods and other magical beings.  Including your god and any other magical beings you might hold to be True.

In my world view, it seems rather bizarre that one should pick a single icon from the limited range I have illustrated in the “Set of False Things Not Held to be True” and place it into the “Set of True Things” on the basis of a book that is internally inconsistent or the testimony of enthusiastic people who are extremely vague about exactly what it is they believe.

Penultimately, please don't expect special treatment for your pet icon unless you can bring me some evidence that fits in with all the existing facts to hand. If you can bring such evidence, I promise you that I will take you seriously. If you can't, you should seriously consider giving up kidding yourself.

To wrap things up, here are my “presuppositions” together with my process for rationalising my “Set of Things Held to be True”:

  • True Things do not conflict with other True Things
  • False and Neutral Things will conflict with each other and with True Things
  • the number of True Things is vastly outnumbered by the combined number of False and Neutral Things
  • All Things in my “Set of Things Held to be True” are held to be True probatively
  • I will remove a Thing from my “Set of Things Held to be True” if I discover that it conflicts with the majority of Things in my “Set of Things Held to be True”
  • I will remove a Thing from my “Set of Things Held to be True” if it conflicts with a new Thing, where that new Thing is authoritative, well-supported and well correlated with the Things in my “Set of Things Held to be True”
  • I will add a Thing to my “Set of Things Held to be True” if it does not conflict with Things already in that set

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Patently Paradoxical Pabst's Perplexing Performance

I recently looked at an article by Adrian Pabst posted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), titled Politics of paradox: Reclaiming the radical centre.  I remain unconvinced that this is not some sort of hoax, Sokal-style.  Try to see if you can read more than a couple of paragraphs without stumbling across such nonsense as:
"The events of 11 September 2001 marked the displacement of secular terror by religious terror and the clash of fanatical faiths that are secretly collusive."
The clash of secretly collusive fanatical faiths?  What?

When doing a bit of research to see whether Adrian Pabst was a real person, I stumbled across a similar article posted two years ago at a centre-left policy think tank.  Interestingly, however, at that time Pabst made no mention of "the uprising of civil society and the Church against authoritarian regimes and state-orchestrated atheism" or that his work was based on "the tradition of Platonism and Christian Neoplatonism".

What's going on here?

And don't get me started on the ABC's decision to lump religion together with ethics ...

(For those wanting something less brief, I recently posted My World View - Part 1.)

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

My World View - Part 1

If you haven’t already, I urge you to check out the preludes to this: "On Evidence" and "The Risks in Sharing a World View". For those who, for some reason, want to leap straight in, be warned that this is my world view. It’s not intended to be linked to any school of philosophical thought. Even if it’s similar, this does not mean that I share all, or indeed any, of the tenets held by any school of thought.


My world view is relatively simple, although working it all through might make it seem complex.

First I will define some terms:

Thing: a very broad term, broad enough to encompass pretty much anything you can think of: object, being, process, thought, idea, concept, statement and so on.

True: consistent with reality.  The nature of “True Things” varies a little with the category of Thing, but to the extent that they are True, they are consistent with reality.  As True Things, objects, beings and processes exist in reality.  To be a True Thing, a thought, idea or concept must both pertain to a Thing that is real and be correct in reference to that real Thing.        
False: inconsistent with reality.  As far as my world view is concerned, the category of “False Things” does not include objects, beings and processes.  A False object, being or process would not by definition exist, so the set containing only these would be null.  One can, however, have thoughts, ideas or concepts about objects, beings and processes that don’t exist.

Say I tell you that I have a pocket full of two and a half cent coins.  I can clearly have the concept of a two and a half cent coin, and the idea of having a pocket full of them, but the two and a half cent coin doesn’t exist (to the best of our knowledge).  This does not mean that I have a pocket full of False objects.  The same sort of argument applies to beings and processes.  (My house is not full of non-existent Hobbits and I don’t devote my waking hours to not teleporting.)

Neutral:  independent of reality, neither True nor False.  Again, this category does not include objects, beings and processes (see above). 

True Thing:  this term should be interpreted as either:
  • an object, being and process that exists; or
  • a reference to any thought, idea, concept or statement about an existent object, being or process that is consistent with the reality of that existent object, being or process (irrespective whether the thought, idea, concept or statement has yet to be formulated or will ever be formulated).

My world view should be considered an 
intellectual construct.  Therefore any interaction of my world view with any True Thing in the former category will be via thoughts, ideas, concepts and statements.

Examples: Me (somebody other than you wrote this, for ease of reference I’ll refer to that person as “me” – even if I am not a real being, I am the consequence of processes in your brain which is trying to put your experiences into some sort of context … and that’s a process that exists) and “In 14 quadrillion standard Earth years, the human race will be extinct” (along with the universe, most likely).

False Thing:  this term should be interpreted as either:
  • a reference to any thought, idea, concept or statement about a True Thing that is not consistent with the reality of that True Thing (irrespective whether the thought, idea, concept or statement has yet to be formulated or will ever be formulated); or
  • a reference to any thought, idea, concept or statement about a non-existent Thing that implies that the non-existent Thing exists (irrespective whether the thought, idea, concept or statement has yet to be formulated or will ever be formulated).

Examples: “Germans come from a cave in Persia” and “Pixies exist”.

Neutral Things:  this term should be interpreted as either: 
  • a reference to any thought, idea, concept or statement about a True Thing that is subjective - subject to opinion, definition or consensus (irrespective whether the thought, idea, concept or statement has yet to be formulated or will ever be formulated); or
  • a reference to any thought, idea, concept or statement about a non-existent Thing that does not imply that the non-existent Thing exists (irrespective whether the thought, idea, concept or statement has yet to be formulated or will ever be formulated).

For example: “German is a harsh language” (opinion), “Wales is an element of the United Kingdom” (definition/consensus) and “Pixies are generally smaller than Elves” (description of non-existent Things).


A quick clarification: I don’t distinguish between a Thing that does not currently exist and a Thing that is simply not apparent to anyone.  I also don’t distinguish between a Thing that actually exists right now and a potential Thing.

For example, black holes (for which there is mathematical and theoretical evidence) existed as True Things even when the most sophisticated of our ancestors were first putting stick to clay tablet about 8600 years ago.  Equally, the aeroplane being a True Thing today was a potential True Thing 8600 years ago.  Black holes and aeroplanes made out of jelly are False Things now, they have always been and will always be False Things.  (Note: by this I mean black holes made out of jelly are False Things, I guess it's possible that in the future some ridiculously rich jelly manufacturer might try to prove me wrong, but it would take a lot of jelly - enough for me to be quite confident about my claim.)

As far as I am concerned, instantiating a False Thing (by imagining an aeroplane made from jelly or a jelly black hole, for example) does not set that False Thing apart from False Things that have not yet been instantiated.  For example, up until this very moment you had probably never considered the possibility that Aztec priests used, as fascinators, small hummingbirds liberally coated in guacamole which were held in their hair with porcupine quills, nor that the hummingbirds would invariably revive from their avocado induced stupor at an inconvenient moment and that this was the most common cause of disruption to Aztec sacrifice rituals – I consider this to have been a False Thing even before I made it up.

The diagram below represents the “Set of All Things” in my world view. 

A large proportion (and arguably almost all) of the Things in the “Set of All Things” are False.  Imagine for a moment the notion that Napoleon Bonaparte was a Tyrannosaurus Rex who was born in Hampshire and invaded New Guinea in 1992.  This, according to my exhaustive research on Wikipedia, is a False Thing (in that the statement is incorrect).  There is essentially an infinite number of False Things.  We could slightly massage the data about Napoleon to say that he was of a different species.  We could say he was a beaver, or an ant, or two ants, or three ants and so on.  Even on that single data point we could, if we had the time, imagine an infinite array of False Things associated with Napoleon Bonaparte.

You could argue that the regress involved with thinking about Napoleon Bonaparte as a number of ants resolves down to one False Thing "Napoleon Bonaparte was a colony of an unspecified number of ants".  I would say, yes, you can do that but it just makes another False Thing to add to the list!

The “Set of True Things”, on the other hand, is limited in scope.  Once one has settled on descriptive or indicative categories there tends to be only one variant of True Things. We might not know the exact detail that constitutes a True Thing, but we know that if there are a range of conflicting assertions, they cannot all be True.  For example, we might know that Napoleon Bonaparte was born on an island, but not be sure which.  What we can be sure of is that he was not born on Gibraltar, Crete, Ibiza, Corsica and Sicily.  One of them, maybe.  But not all of them.  The “Set of True Things” is therefore a much smaller set than the “Set of False Things”.

The remainder of the Things in the “Set of All Things” fall into the “Set of Neutral Things”.  There is also an essentially infinite number of potential Neutral Things.  For example, we could say that Napoleon Bonaparte was less attractive than Horatio Nelson.  We don’t necessarily need to compare these two against each other, there are approximately 50 quintillion (50x1018) comparisons we could make with people alive today, and more than 10 sextillion (10x1021) if we consider everyone who has ever lived.

But we are not limited to comparing people to people, we could make comparisons regarding the relative beauty of all individual ants who have ever lived giving us a ridiculous number of Neutral Things to consider.  If we tried to compare all the ants alive right now, that would be about a nonillion comparisons (1030) and most ants only live for about one to three years, meaning there may have been as many as 50 million generations of ants that have ever been to compare (total of about 25x1042 comparisons).  And that’s just one species of insect.

If we were able to make a snap decision on the relative attractiveness of ants within the space of a hundredth of a second, we would get through comparing all the ants that have existed up until today in a period equal to 50 sextillion times the accepted age of the universe (50x1021 x 14 billion years).  That’s near enough to infinite for me!

(If we were just searching for the World’s Next Top Ant Model, looking for the prettiest ant right now while taking one hundredth of a second to look at each, we’d only take about 300 thousand years – a far more manageable project.)

That all said, I think the number of potential False Things is greater than the number of potential Neutral Things.

While the examples I’ve given may be trivial, they are hopefully illustrative.  Just in case they are not, I’d like to emphasise the following:

  • the number of True Things is vastly outnumbered by the combined number of False and Neutral Things
  • False and Neutral Things will conflict with other Things (False, Neutral or True)
  • True Things do not conflict with each other

At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I’d like to also point out that while I accept there are Things (including potential Things) that are objectively True, I am not saying that I know what those objectively True Things are.

(Continue to Part 2)

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Risk in Sharing a World View - A Second Prelude to "My World View"

As mentioned before, I’ve had the misfortune recently to have listened to the ever-humble Don Johnson’s performance in some of his podcasts.

Humble Don and his shaved chimp sidekick (Brandon), both self-described as “evidentiary Christians”, are keen debaters of atheists, alternate theists and also incorrectly believing Christians.  Humble Don has written a book, which he occasionally refers to (read as “often refers to”), in which he tries to map out how Christians can successfully engage atheists, alternate theists and incorrectly believing Christians.

The recommended first step in a successful engagement is to ask the opponent to describe their world view.  The shaved chimp puts it like this:

“Everybody has a belief and they need to be able to make a positive case for it.”

Right, there’s a problem here.  While I’ve got no fundamental problems with describing my world view and I think it is only reasonable to establish up front what presuppositions both sides of the debate are grappling with, I do have a problem with presuppositions about my presuppositions.

I don’t have a belief in the same sense that Humble Don and the shaved chimp mean when they say “What are your beliefs?”  I’ve talked separately about my issues with the word “belief” in these sorts of debates, so I’ll just state up-front that if I am describing my world view, I am describing a world view, not (and I repeat NOT) a set of beliefs.

I remain a little wary of presenting my world view in certain contexts.  Don Johnson and his sidekick provide good reasons for this wariness.  Here’s an example.

In his podcast “Why Christianity is more reasonable and scientific than atheism”, Humble Don plays a short excerpt from Adam Savage’s speech at the Reason Rally.  Adam talks how he flew to Washington on a plane which was the result of tested and proven hypotheses, a product of reason and a direct consequence of “human capacity to make sense of the world”.  At no time during the speech does Adam mention the terms “positivism” or “scientism”.  At no time during the speech does Adam mention "David Hume".

Humble Don then speaks:

“Adam Savage describes a metaphysical world view, it’s called positivism or scientism, it’s the idea that all you can know must be measured through your five senses and perhaps mathematical equations based on those measurements. So you need to be able to empirically measure it with your five senses and you are then allowed to use mathematics to make certain conclusions based on that.  But beyond that, you can’t know anything … for certain.

“This goes way back, I’m going to give you a quote from Hume.  You know we had a guy on a few weeks ago who called himself a big Hume fanboy.  Well, Hume is a big hero to a lot of these guys.  Let me give you a little quote from Hume.  This is a presupposition that lies at the basis of this pseudo-scientific attitude.  Ah, this is what David Hume said:

“When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

“So, he says when you pick up a book in the library, does it offer you quantifiable number that you can measure and, no? Then burn it.  If it’s metaphysical at all, if it deals with big questions of life that you can’t measure, burn it.  This is David Hume.

“Now, those of you who might have thought through that little paragraph, that Hume wrote there, might already realise that it is self-refuting – on it’s face That the proposition that you cannot know anything unless it can be empirically measured, or calculated via mathematics, is itself not something that can be empirically measured or calculated via mathematics.  It’s a metaphysical claim, right.  He says: ‘Burn all those metaphysics books because they’re not empirically measured!’  How did you get that, David?”  (There is chittering in the background: “Burn your own book, man!”)

“How do we know that’s true, right, how do we know that what David Hume said there is true?  You … not via empirical measurement and not via mathematics!  It’s a metaphysical claim, it’s a metaphysical claim saying that all metaphysical claims can’t be trusted.  There you have it.  And y’know … and that lies at the heart of the irrationality of this project, okay.  Adam Savage says ‘I want stuff that’s testable and provable, like the way they built that airplane … and, this is what I’m gonna build my life on … and, this is the only thing you should build your life on …'

“Hold on, hold on, hold on.  How do I know that, Adam?  How do I know that that’s the only thing you should build your life on?  How do I know that this is all that there is to reality, that … that epistemologically all we can know is stuff we can measure?  Well, we can’t know it via measuring, right?  I mean this is just taking a huge leap of irrational faith to start your project, your intellectual project, saying ‘Oh, we’re, we’re just empir(ic)ists.’  Already, you can’t prove that.”

And they continue (it's worth listening to them with a critical ear; painful, but instructive).

It should be noted that Adam Savage is not, and has never been, David Hume.  It should also be noted that Adam Savage never claimed to be a devotee of positivism or of scientism.  Nor did he make mention of David Hume, or any of David Hume's views in his speech.

David Hume may be wrong about certain things, no-one doubts that.

Adam Savage may be wrong about certain things, no-one doubts that either.

But when Adam Savage is wrong about things, he is wrong about those things entirely by virtue of his own arguments.  You can’t claim, with any sort of intellectual honesty, that person A is wrong on the grounds that you think that person X is wrong about a subject that person A didn’t even mention.

Furthermore, Humble Don’s quote from Hume is the very last paragraph of his “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” (EHU).  Earlier in the document, Hume makes clear what he means by “metaphysics”:

But this obscurity in the profound and abstract philosophy, is objected to, not only as painful and fatiguing, but as the inevitable source of uncertainty and error. Here indeed lies the justest and most plausible objection against a considerable part of metaphysics, that they are not properly a science; but arise either from the fruitless efforts of human vanity, which would penetrate into subjects utterly inaccessible to the understanding, or from the craft of popular superstitions, which, being unable to defend themselves on fair ground, raise these intangling brambles to cover and protect their weakness. Chaced from the open country, these robbers fly into the forest, and lie in wait to break in upon every unguarded avenue of the mind, and overwhelm it with religious fears and prejudices. The stoutest antagonist, if he remit his watch a moment, is oppressed. And many, through cowardice and folly, open the gates to the enemies, and willingly receive them with reverence and submission, as their legal sovereigns.  (EHU 6)

It was a specific type of “metaphysics” that Hume, some 240 years ago, was railing against.  He was not railing against a more modern philosophical definition of metaphysics”, per Wikipedia:

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world, although the term is not easily defined.

In any event, Hume was not making a metaphysical claim; he was making an epistemological claim.  Humble Don accidentally confirms that he knows this is the case when he says “How do I know that this is all that there is to reality, that … that epistemologically all we can know is stuff we can measure?”  Epistemology is the philosophical field concerned with knowledge, what can we know?

Humble Don, who likes to claim that he uses his terms carefully, should not be using the term “metaphysical” at all, since it is unclear whether he means the term in its supernatural (beyond nature) sense.  He should be using either “epistemological”, as would have been correct here, or “ontological”, referring to the nature of being, existence or reality (“ontology” can be considered a part of classical metaphysics, the other parts being “natural theology” and “universal science”).

So, why does Humble Don use metaphysical?  If I were to make the generous assumption that he doesn’t do it deliberately to sow confusion, I would say it is because he’s a bit of an Aquinas fanboy.

According to Aquinas “something can exist separate from matter and motion ... because by its nature it does not exist in matter and motion; but it can exist without them, though we sometimes find it with them” and it is this something that is separate from matter that is the subject matter of metaphysics.  Therefore, things you cannot see or touch, or sense in some way, are sometimes – in the Thomistic sense – metaphysical.

But … and this is a big but … Aquinas in not just talking about something that “can exist separate from matter and motion”, but goes further to clarify that he is talking about something that “can exist without (matter and motion)”.

Ideas, such as being presented by Hume and Savage, satisfy the requirement stated in the first part of the description, if you twist your thinking enough.  However, ideas exist in physical brains which are composed of matter, they do not exist separate from matter and motion – unless you make a huge, unjustified assumption that the mind and body are separate.

Sorry boys, that’s a big embarrassing fail on your part.  Your straw man failed.  Your (ab)use of philosophical terms failed.  Your quote from Hume failed.  If you did indeed attempt to rely on Aquinas then that failed too.

Anyways, despite my misgivings that some idiot(s) might take my world view, misrepresent it, then compare it unfavourably to a misrepresentation of somebody else’s world view which, in reality, only obliquely resembles mine … I’m going to present that world view.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

On Evidence - A Prelude to "My World View"

Before presenting my own world view, I want to address the issue of evidence.  This (long) article also serves as a kind of cleansing process made necessary by the after-effects of subjecting myself to a few podcasts of The Don Johnson Show.  This weekly podcast ( stars Don Johnson and his sidekick-cum-lapdog, Brandon. The show is produced and distributed under the banner of the Don Johnson Ministries (  During these podcasts they (and Don in particular) advise humility, interspersed with plugs for the newest book published by Don Johnson.  Apart from humility, the main topic of their meandering discussions is ostensibly Christian apologetics but they stray repeatedly into Christian semi-polemics [1].

Don and Brandon are William Lane Craig fanboys and, being apologists they claim to be pro-reason, pro-rationality, pro-logic and pro-science.  They are so committed to all these that they regularly take Christians to task for airing what they regard as stupid arguments.  Stupid arguments are those such as “There is no evidence for God; you just have to take it on faith”.

Now while I agree that these are stupid arguments, I don't agree with Humble Don when it comes to his assertion that there are other, valid arguments for the God hypothesis. This is in the main because, as Humble Don and his loyal sidekick state, the evidence for God is not materialistic or, in other words: the sort of evidence that proves the existence of God does not lend itself to science.

Despite this, Humble Don and Brandon talk a lot about evidence, but not in the sense that a normal person [2] would talk about evidence.  If I myself were to talk endlessly about evidence, I would feel obliged to present some.

An example of how Humble Don talks repeatedly about evidence, without ever actually providing any, comes from the podcast in which they have a go at Ricky Gervais.  Before they get into it, Brandon talks about his recurrent doubt, which he characterises as “emotional doubt”, Humble Don jumps in and asserts that there is never any intellectual doubt because of the “preponderance of evidence” (I'll be marking all the evidence references in red for a while).  Then Brandon says:
“… when that, when that emotional doubt happens, no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, what should you do?  You should evaluate the evidence!  And when I have my emotional doubt, and I evaluate the evidence and put my brain back on for four seconds and think rationally and critically and logically about the issues, Christianity comes out on top.
“But when the atheists, some, some, because there are plenty of atheists who convert, right?  But, there are many atheists who will have sort of this emotional doubt come up and then they just stuff it, you know like ‘Well oh, forget about it, forget about it and don’t  inter …’ and that, that’s the moment, that’s the moment when you are ready to really interact with the intellectual arguments.  I mean if, if, if you just have to save face whatever, if your pride keeps you from really dealing with the good arguments well you’re never going to get to it, but when you find yourself in that sort of scared spot, that when they need to tune into this show basically and go ‘Oh yeah, the moral argument is really compelling!’ as opposed to just shutting it out on principle, right?”
They've gone from talking about evidence to raising the moral argument - the moral argument?  This is "evidence"?  But wait, there's more!  

Later, while addressing a Christmas message article by Ricky Gervais, published in the New York Times, Humble Don launches into a riff on the topic of evidence.  They start by setting the scene, and briefly attacking ignorant Christians, apparently a sport that we all enjoy.

“… you may have heard Brandon and me talking about some of the things that are characteristic of atheists, at least as we find them today, a-and some of those things would be theological ignorance, either they do not know, or they refuse to interact with the actual orthodox Christian message.  It’s not there in their rebuttal of ‘whatever it is that you believe, you stupid Christian, whatever it is’. (Laughs) They never actually interact with the Gospel!  Now, that may be, it might likely be, in fact, Christians’ fault.

“I mean maybe no Christians have ever told them the actual message, so they just don’t know it.  And (C.S.) Lewis actually addressed this too, he said: ‘Our doubters, much of their doubt is actually justified in the state of their knowledge.’  So that …”

(Brandon: “They’re ignorant.”)

“Yeah, basically, they’re so ignorant that their doubt is justified somewhat, their interacting with this idea that is stupid.  So I’m going to give you an example of that in this message.  I’m also going to give you an example of an ignorance of Christian epistemology.   Now, this  again … might be Christians’ fault, in that there’s a bunch of Christians out there apparently who don’t believe for the proper reasons.  They don’t have a proper understanding of how you know what you know, a-and so, if that’s the case, it’s unfortunate, but I’m going to point that out.

“And then, thirdly, a lot of atheists that I interact with have a lack of understanding of their own world view – on a couple of levels.  They don’t understand their presuppositions, what they are bringing to the table, based on nothing.  Nothing! It’s just their starting point.

“It’s not anything to do with evidence or reasoning or anything, it’s just the starting point for their argument.  And they don’t realise it’s the starting point, they don’t understand, they haven’t examined the presuppositions that are underlying everything they say.  So that’s on one level.

“And then, a lot of times, they just don’t have a philosophically coherent world view.  They’re grabbing things from here and there, and bringing it in, again for no good reason.  They have this purported ‘atheism’, this purported ‘materialism’, or whatever it is, but yet they’re grabbing stuff that simply cannot exist within that world view and they just want to bring it in willy-nilly.  So we’re going to give an example of all four of those characteristics in Ricky G.”

When they finally get to the article, they are kind enough to start positively, with Humble Don reading the first paragraph, or rather the first half of a paragraph (eight sentences):

“Let’s just stop, right there.  Now, he may have got this answer from somebody, perhaps some Christian who actually believes that you don’t need evidence of God, that you can have a Christianity that’s ‘true for you’ and not necessarily true for anybody else.  But those people … need to change their beliefs.  (Laughs)  I almost said they’re stupid.  They’re not necessarily stupid.  (Laughs)

“That’s just wrong, that’s not why Christians should believe what they believe.  You believe what you believe because you are convinced that it is true based on evidence and good reasoning.  You don’t get to say, ‘Oh well I just believe it and it’s true for me and it’s not true for you.’  This is ridiculous.  You can’t just believe something to be true for you, that’s not true for Brandon, okay.   Especially a world view and I hammered this last week and we hammer this every week, a world view is a system of beliefs which tells you what is true about the nature of reality.  You don’t get to decide that and whatever is true, is true.

“If it is in fact true that there is a God, then whatever Brandon believes about it, or whatever I believe about it, doesn’t matter – ultimately – what’s true is true.  So it seems that Mr Gervais has run into postmodern Christians, or he’s just throwing this out there, because it’s easier to knock down, that actually don’t have evidence for what they believe.  Oh, they’re just grabbing onto ‘It’s just faith.  I don’t need evidence.  I don’t need proof.  I don’t need any of this stuff.  Aah, I just believe in God.’  Well, this is idiocy.  And he actually goes on to present a nice paragraph that I think is solid.

“He says: ‘(y)ou can’t say, “It works for me.”  Placebos work for you.  My point being, I’m saying God doesn’t exist. I’m not saying faith doesn’t exist. I know faith exists. I see it all the time. But believing in something doesn’t make it true. Hoping that something is true doesn’t make it true. The existence of God is not subjective. He either exists or he doesn’t. It’s not a matter of opinion. You can have your own opinions. But you can’t have your own facts.’”

This was slightly misquoted and it’s actually the second half of the second paragraph rather than being a paragraph in its own right, but it was close enough.  Humble Don continues (with Brandon babbling in the background):

“Oh that’s good stuff.  That’s awesome.  100%.  Check.  I absolutely agree with him on that paragraph.  All Christians should agree with him.  If you believe in God, it’s because you believe it is true, not because he does something for you.  ‘Well, hey, I got this out of religion, but if you don’t get it out of religion, that’s fine.’”

Brandon gets to speak, with Humble Don talking a bit in support.

“If say why do you believe in God and your answer is ‘Because he gives me hope’, that’s a bad reason.  No, no.  God does give me hope, but that’s not why I believe.  Not at all.  Because I have a future.  Because he watches over me today.  No no no.  That is not why you should believe in something.  Come on.  Not at all.”

There’s a bit of a diversion in which they toot their own horns and refer to themselves as “evidential Christians”, then Humble Don reads some more of the first paragraph, not quite managing to finish it, and continues to speak:

“I don’t know exactly what (Ricky Gervais) is saying … but it seems like what he is saying is that he’d have to know God through “quote scientific evidence” and that is an impossibility.  It’s impossible to know God through scientific evidence.  Therefore, there is no God.

“It seems to me that that’s what he’s saying and if that is the case – what he is presupposing there is that all knowledge must be “quote scientific” but what he must mean by that is that it must be empirically verifiable, it must be matter based, that’s how we know stuff.  And, therefore, since this God out there is clearly not matter, how could we possibly know him, he could not exist.  Basically to sum all that up, it seems that he’s starting from a materialistic presupposition that says matter is all there is and therefore any argument for God, by definition, couldn’t have any evidence for it.

“Now you might say ‘You’re getting a lot from that paragraph, Don’.  Well … I don’t think so.  I think that the third paragraph down backs me up on this.  (Ricky Gervais) continues: …”

(Humble Don goes on to imply that Gervais is setting up and attacking a straw man argument, since Gervais says that a Christian’s beliefs are faith based, not evidence based.)

“This is how Gervais understands the whole interaction between believers and, and these atheists, is that believers are making this claim that on its face is crazy and unverifiable.  There’s absolutely no evidence, on its face.  Well, what world does he live in?   Right? (laughs)  What world does he live in where a religious claim is a priori before you even look at it?  It’s unreasonable and unrational (sic) … because that’s what he’s saying.  That’s not the world I live in!

“I believe, as do billions and billions of other people, that actually the default position if you will, the one the evidence points towards is not this ‘matter is all there is’ view, but, that, there is a spiritual dimension to life, there is a God, and that this is the default call because the evidence points in that direction.  That’s what I experience, that’s what other people experience, that’s what the evidence points toward.  It’s actually only the materialists, only the atheists who are the tiny minority, yelling over here in a corner ‘Hey hey hey! Why do you believe in a god?’

“So he’s saying the burden of proof is on you.  We’re saying ‘No!  The burden of proof is not on us actually.  You’re the one who’s actually presenting a bit of an odd claim here.’”

At this point, the sidekick jumps in (I am proud to see that I totally resisted the temptation to refer to him as a trained monkey, possibly because I see Brandon as being more like a shaved chimp [almost certainly without a perfectly round head] – oops, now I’ve gone and done it after all).

“Everybody has a belief and they need to be able to make a positive case for it.”

Brandon then goes on to equate an atheist with a person who doesn’t believe in airplanes because he doesn’t leave his house and he only accepts evidence sourced from the sensory data that is available in his house and any knowledge sourced from outside his house is “whacky stuff”.

“Well, what I am going to do with that guy?  If he’s unwilling to accept any knowledge outside of his house, yeah, the argument’s basically over.  I have to argue with him on an epistemological level, say ‘Listen, this is not the extent of true knowledge, okay, there’s a whole world out there (laughs), outside your house.  And guess what, there’s (sic) machines that fly and people fly in them all the time … and most people out there believe in airplanes.  And you’re in the minority.’

“Nah, na, ya, ya, you see that’s what this whole ‘scientific talk’ does to the theistic debate.  ‘Oh, this is how we know stuff’” (dismissively) “‘scientifically.’  Well if you’re defining ‘scientific’ as empirical, matter based knowledge and God is immaterial and not known empirically, how are you ever going to find him … scientifically?  You’re not!  You’re never going to do it!  Therefore, what I have to convince you of is that your epistemology is not comprehensive enough.

“You, you’ve got this little tiny area of knowledge.  Sure, you’re pretty good at, you know, counting grain, or whatever, but, guess what, that’s not all there is.  Matter is not all there is to the universe.  And until I can convince you of that, through evidence, fine – but it’s not going to empirical, material evidence … you might, you might see some of that in the effects … of the, of the supernatural, but by its very nature, if it’s not empirical, it’s not matter, how are you going to measure it empirically and through matter.

“And so your epistemology really drives how you approach the subject and, so you’ve got point two per cent or whatever it is of atheists in the world who think that somehow (laughs) you know, they’ve got the corner of epistemology and the rest of the world’s saying ‘Listen, I hate to break it to you, but we all experience the supernatural on a daily basis and … call yourself the Brights all you want, but frankly your epistemology is faulty.

“I think that’s what we’ve kind of being doing on this show for a couple of years now, I mean, we, we really generally boil the debate down to supernaturalism versus naturalism.  I mean it is the physical material world all there is?  Or, isn’t it?  And we, we go and we look at the arguments for it.  So, I think that you’re right; this really is an epistemological question.  How do we access information?  How do we learn new things?  And, if we are closed to a specific area, when in fact there are others, that’s a problem.”

The reason that I’ve gone through the pain of this transcription effort is to show how Humble Don and Brandon the shaved chimp talk.  They talk about evidence all the time (and epistemology which in context, given that they are “evidentiary Christians”, is also a reference to evidence).  But that’s all they do, the closest they get to providing evidence is a statement, by the shaved chimp, in which he states that “we all experience the supernatural on a daily basis”, but this is again a claim to have evidence, not evidence per se.

I also find it amusing that Humble Don gets all excited about Ricky Gervais apparently asserting that religious claims are considered by believers to be true a priori.  Then, immediately, and I mean immediately, within seconds, he states that he believes that the default position is that there is a God.  Um, hello?

The keys to all of this appear in their various podcasts.  Firstly there is a mistake with regard to the relationship between claims and evidence, in the Ricky Gervais themed podcast.  It is the shaved chimp that provides it, but the organ grinder doesn’t correct him:

(Humble Don [HD]) It’s theoretically possible that you could be presented with enough evidence to argue you to a different position …

(Brandon the shaved chimp [Bsc]) Oh, sure.

(HD) At which point, you would begin to intellectually doubt Christiantity …

(Bsc) Well, yes, what, wh-what, what those arguments would have to do is explain the evidence better …

(HD) Right.

(Bsc) … than the Christian claim.

The interesting phrase here is “explain the evidence better than the Christian claim”.  What does that mean?  This isn’t a scientific mode of speech.  Evidence supports or contradicts claims.  Claims claims may be consistent (or inconsistent) with the evidence but they don’t explain evidence.  Perhaps consistency with claims is what Brandon meant.

Somehow, I don’t think so.

The following is another exchange, taken this time from ‘Why Christianity is more Reasonable and Scientific than atheism’:

(HD) “I’ve got an article here from the LA Times, from … two days ago, I think. Ah, called ‘A Universe without Purpose’.  And this, this is, this is I think the ultimate baseline for these guys, it’s not even that matter is all there is or that, you know, we jus’, just study empirically, although we’ll talk about that.  Ultimately, I think, their starting point is ‘life doesn’t have any purpose and, and I like that actually’.  That, that’s his whole argument, ah Lawrence Krauss in the LA Times, ‘I’m glad it doesn’t have purpose, I don’t have to conform myself to anything, I can do what I want!’ (Laughs) That’s his argument.

“I think that’s actually the, I’m going to call that superstitious, that is actually a belief grabbed in spite of all the evidence and held on to closely in spite of reason or evidence, or anything else because that’s the way you want the universe to be, ultimately.”(Bsc) “So you’re saying the starting point for the atheists is that there is no purpose out there and that the, what we actually should do is say that there is a purpose? Are you going to get into why we pick the one over the other?”

(HD) “Ah, yes, I will, but what I want to expand a little bit more.”

(Bsc) “Go ahead. …

(HD) “…Yeah, we’ll flesh that out … but yeah.  I think it’s, the short answer is that, I think, it is self-evident that, that it’s almost axiomatic that things have purpose, that it is evident to us that, for instance, parts of our body have purpose, that the heart has an inherent purpose.”

(Bsc) “Now in the case of the heart someone might say we can, you know, test that, the biologist … or the, or the …”

(HD) “But I’m getting the, I’m talking metaphysically now.  I’m talking, is it just accidentally, is it there for no reason, it’s just lucky, ya … you know, the fact that it pumps blood around your body is just a simple meaningless fact?  Or is it there to pump blood around your body? And this actually has been a, you know, on one side you have Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas saying things have meaning and purpose, and on the other side you had this whole philosophy that said ‘No no no, there’s no inherent purpose in anything.  We label things having purpose.’  But anyway, I … I don’t want to get too far afield.  But , go ahead, you had a question …”

(Bsc) “No well, I … I just two follow up comments on it.  So, on the one hand we might say that, ah, life has purpose and we see this, it’s almost a self-evident truth, and in case you wanna, you know, cause a ruckus about that, just a few other things that seem to be self-evidently true, um, I would say morality existing and certain things being good and bad but, but here’s, here’s kind of a weird sounding one but I think it’s good.  Um, the existence of other minds.  I don’t mean other people, I mean other minds.  Thinking, willing things, or emoting things. 

“And ah, you really could be, you know, we use this all the time, but you really could be in the Matrix, you could be the only thing that exists and, you know, you just imagine the whole rest of the world.  Our sense that there are other minds out there seems to me to be basically a properly basic belief or axiomatic.  It is, it is, um, it’s something that I assume, that I almost have to assume, th-th-this, that this is how I, this is how I perceive the world. And I don’t think there is anything wrong in having that sort of a belief but if you really want to press the point, ah, of scepticism on that point, I’d have to say you, it is a bigger reach to say ‘Oh, no things don’t have inherent meaning”, I think the more natural baseline is things do.  But if you need some reasons for it, I think we can provide a few.”

(HD)  “Well … and I, I should, I should qualify my statement there because on this show we generally argue in the sense of we establish a piece of data that we can agree on, ‘can we agree that this is a fact?’ and then we offer a best explanation for that data, so it’s a hypothetical, propositional thing where I’m trying to find the best explanation.

“Now, ah, guys like Aristotle and Aquinas would not have accepted that as the reason to believe there’s meaning.  They would argue that there is meaning necessarily and they would offer all their proofs, as a logical proof.  And so there’s the difference between, for instance, Aquinas’ five ways – those are, ah, just proofs, you can, you can argue with his premises, but he’s not arguing in the way that I think we usually do, where we say ‘Sure, it seems like, what’s the best explanation for the fact it seems like the heart has purpose?’

“He’s saying ‘I can prove that the heart has purpose and that everything has purpose’ and that the rejection of that notion, the denial that, you know, the heart, has a purpose, is a metaphysical claim that he would suggest is provably false.  But I don’t want to get too much into that … we’ll do that another day …”

Humble Don cuts off the shaved chimp just before he could present something vaguely resembling evidence to support the claim that the heart has inherent purpose (which I can only assume will be an Intelligent Design-type argument).  So what evidence are we left with to support Humble Don’s claim?

First Humble Don says he thinks ‘it is evident to us that … the heart has purpose’ and later he says he’s looking for ‘the best explanation that it seems like the heart has purpose’.  Well, which is it?

Brandon the shaved chimp provides the staff answer: that the more natural baseline is to assume that things do have purpose since it is a self-evident truth.

Note the use of the word “evident”.  Don and Brandon are self-professed “evidentiary Christians”.  They talk about evidence (evidence as a concept, not evidence qua evidence) but, at least from this tract, it seems that they include “things that are evident” as meaning “evidence”.  "Evident” means “clear to the vision or understanding”, thing that are evident are not necessarily true - this is especially so if one has limited capacity for understanding.  The boys even include things that appear "self-evident" which, by definition, are "evident without proof or reasoning".  This means they would be accepting things which seem obvious to them without proof or reasoning as evidence!  Any argument that is based on the truth of a premise which is considered by one party to be self-evident and therefore unquestionable can only spiral into a childish “yes, it is”/“no, it’s not” exchange.

It occurs to me that an "evidentiary Christian" would be accurately characterised as "a person of Christian faith who believes things that are (self-)evident and ignores anything that is a bit complex or in contradiction to firmly held presuppositions", rather than (as implied) "a person who has sought out and critically evaluated actual evidence, rigorously applied logic and reason, irrespective of where it led and reached a justifiable conclusion that Christianity is true". Humble Don considers (humbly) that he and his shaved chimp are prime examples of “evidentiary Christians”, but when one listens closely to them (painful as that is) they are extremely evidence-shy and far too willing to go along with whatever conclusion they consider to be self-evident.

Listening to them on this reminded me of one weekend back in my undergraduate days when I was encouraged to attend a “Miracle Meeting” at a friend’s church.  He thought it would turn me around and I thought it would be interesting to witness first hand the sorts of evidence that Christians have available.  I thought that I might have my world view challenged by their revelations – but this was not to be.The "miracles" described were uniformly prosaic and mundane.

In the sparsely populated church hall, believer after believer stood and told a story about how they had some sort of trouble, until someone else from the congregation gave them a hand.  That's a "miracle"?  Where were the loaves and fishes?  Where were the resurrections?  At least they could talk about miraculous sightings of Jesus in raisin toast!  Something other than "someone was nice to me".  To quote the shaved chimp: "Really?  I mean, really?  Come on, man, come on!"

Hearing these stories of kindness and generosity as "miracles" made me wonder just what the people telling them thought of human beings in general.  Were the people in this church being told, from the pulpit, week after week, that their fellow humans were these horrible beasts who were incapable of pity or mercy, incapable of kindness or generosity and that it is only through the miraculous intervention of Jesus Christ would anything good ever be shown by them?  Yes, I did walk away from that evening with the words "brainwashing" and "sect" ringing in my ears.But if it is a bona fide "miracle" when someone reaches out and gives you a hand just when you need it, just how low is the miracle bar?  Is holding the elevator a miracle?  Someone making you a cup of tea?  A whole evening out without getting glassed?  If I ever go to another "miracle night", perhaps I should get up and declare: "I fell over when leaving a church service one day and while I was lying there on the floor, only two of the congregation kicked me.  Not only that but only one of them was able to kick me hard enough to break any bones ... hallelujah, it's a miracle!"

I wonder if Don and Brandon's secret treasure trove of evidence is filled with testimonies of mundane miracles?

The Risk in Sharing a World View - The second prelude


[1] I use the term semi-polemics to refer to a job only half done.  Per wikipedia:"... unlike debate, which may seek a common ground between the two disputants, a polemic is intended only to establish the truth of a point of view while refuting the opposing point of view."

[2] It may be arrogance on my part to consider myself a “normal person”, but I am writing from my perspective.

I also think that both of them say “impirical” all the way through, rather than “empirical”, but it could be their accents.  The shaved chimp seems to say “avaluate” as well, but again, it could be the accent.  To be consistent, I would have thought that it should be “impirical” and “ivaluate” or “ampirical” and “avaluate”, but who knows.  Humble Don most certainly says “unrational”.