Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Subjectively True God?

There’s a curious move that some theists make when arguing their position.  They will back away from the appearance of making claims with certainty.  Here’s a real example:

My belief system is more than a shell of faith, so for me - there is a great deal of subjective evidence as well as personal convictions regarding the conclusions I've accepted from the cosmological, teleological, and contingency arguments. I'm well aware that skeptics such as yourself reject subjective experience and personal convictions (as evidence cited to convince others), so there's really no further need to discuss them.

The exchange started with this claim (from the same person):

The means and ends of God's creative acts are beyond our scope of knowledge or understanding. So while I don't know for certain, I have a good idea based on the premise of theology and faith I have in God.

There is a benefit for the believer who takes this sort of position in that it makes their assertions unassailable.  We don’t have access to another person’s “subjective evidence”.  Even if we could get some sort of access to the believer’s “subjective evidence”, there’s little we can do with it.  Personal convictions are, well, personal – perhaps we might be able to mock someone for holding convictions that are clearly bizarre to us, but from their perspective it’s clearly not bizarre to hold those convictions and our unpleasantness may well just contribute to cementing their position.  I do think though that a person’s personal convictions are, in the final analysis, going to be based on some sort of evidence.  This opens up the possibility of challenging a believer’s personal convictions via evidence (better evidence or evidence of a different kind).  But if the original evidence that set the believer’s personal convictions is subjective, and that’s the sort of evidence they like, then there’s no guarantee that our objective evidence, no matter how good it is, will be at all effective.

There is however a problem for the believer taking this approach ... 

Say that you are training to be a pastor or a priest (as the person quoted above was) or you are a parent and you want to pass on your faith to your children or even if you are some sort of amateur apologist, and you have taken this defensive position.  If your god is only subjectively true, noting that you can’t claim any more than that using "subjective evidence" and "personal convictions", then you are going to have difficulties justifying your right to impose your views about it onto others.  There’s no way for you to know whether your subjective truth is any better or worse than someone else's subjective truth (even that of a child).  You're certainly not in a position to say anyone else is wrong with their position, including those pesky atheists who would say that your god simply does not exist.

To be intellectually honest, you would have to be willing to say that while you are personally quite convinced, you might well be wrong.  You'd also be bartering away any firm claim about the nature of your god, like its omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent (3-O) nature.  And if any of your divine existential arguments relied on the claim that your god is a 3-O god (and they mostly do), then you’d need to abandon those.  If you wanted to be intellectually honest.

If you didn't care about intellectual honesty, then I suppose you could go down the path to mysticism, which takes a wide detour around the divine existential problem.  If you became a mystical pastor, then you could talk about the nature and motivations of your god without troubling yourself with evidence at all.  (The reader might notice that I have issues with mysticism, as I have discussed before.)

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

cnearing's argument, subjective probability and the whole Reverse Monty debacle

Over at Craig-Land, in his thread on what constitutes a "good argument", a forum member called cnearing wrote this:

I would point out that I take a strictly subjectivist approach to probability.  Probability is not an objective feature of reality (probably--set aside potential quantum weirdness for the moment) but rather a representation of the uncertainty one has about the way things behave.

Probability comes from models.  Models are built through inference from experience.  Both are subjective.

This reminded me of the terrible trouble I got myself into with respect to the "Reverse Monty Hall Problem".  I went into it with an assumption which, for one reason or another, had become implicit rather than explicit and which then became forgotten, hidden and/or overlooked.

There are a lot of articles connected with the one I've provided a link to, so I'll try to distil it down to essentials.

If we don't know, and have no way to know, the probability of a particular claim or premise in terms of it being true or false, we are required by the principle of indifference to assign it a notional probability of 1/2.  If we know more, for example that there are more options, say:

A is true, B and C are false.
B is true, A and C are false.
C is true, A and B are false.
One of A, B and C is true.

Then, knowing nothing else, we are required to assign a notional probability of 1/3 to A, B and C.  We don't know anything that makes A more or less likely than the others.

Say then, that we have an urn in which there is an arbitrarily large number of balls that are identical in size and that is all we know.  We draw out all but one of them (say 999 of them), and they are all white.

What is the likelihood that the last one is also white?  If we know nothing else, then the answer is one in a thousand, the same likelihood of a single non-white ball being placed in any specific position in a sequence of one thousand extractions.

What was the likelihood, after having drawn 99 balls, that the 100th was non-white?  The same logic applies and it was one in one hundred.  As more white balls were drawn, the likelihood of a non-white ball being drawn went down.

Now, compare this to the likelihood of drawing a non-white ball as assigned by someone who has one more piece of information, the knowledge that the balls were initially drawn from an enormous barrel in which there were 900,000 white balls and 100,000 black balls.

Unlike us, who had no additional information and could only work on the basis of what balls we had drawn out, this other person will know that there is an increasing likelihood of drawing a black ball after each white ball is removed.  In fact the likelihood of the 1000th ball being non-white after a sequence of 999 white balls is very slightly higher than one in ten.  The likelihood of drawing 999 non-white balls in a row is extremely low, but that is immaterial, since we are only looking at the likelihood associated with the next draw once this extremely unlikely scenario has already played out.

We can fiddle with the figures to make it more explicit.  Say we only know about 999,999 balls that we've drawn, over a period of a couple of boring days.  All of them are white.  We have to say that the likelihood of the next ball being non-white is one in a million.

But if our more knowledgeable friend knows also that there is one black ball in the barrel, then she will have to say that the likelihood of the next ball being non-white is one in one, 100%.


My point here is that we have evidence, and we might also have assumptions.  The assumptions that we make about the distribution of balls in the urn will change our assessment of the likelihood of a non-white ball being drawn.  If we characterise our (potentially false) assumptions as "knowledge" - as theists are often wont to do - we will consistently misjudge the likelihood of our premises (and subsequent conclusions) being true.

Add to this the possibilities that we don't consider (i.e. thinking only of A being true or false, rather than factoring in other possibilities like B and C), then we end up with very little likelihood of reaching reliable conclusions.

Here Comes the Flood

Well, not really a flood, but I do intend to establish a somewhat more consistent trickle for a while.

For far more time than I should have, I have been putting effort into arguing my corner over at Craig-Land - which means that I wrote things in forum threads that I possibly should have been making into posts here.  Fortunately, that is history now since I finally got permanently banned.

And because I am environmentally aware and into recycling, I thought I should dig through what I have written over there in the past few months or so and convert the most adequate of it into blog posts.

My apologies in advance to anyone who has already seen this material.  For everyone else ... it's new for you!