Human Fallibility

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

From my previous post, on the contingency of knowledge, I’ve arrived at the point where our working model is that we think with our minds and we have senses to sense the natural world.

But on closer examination, by our minds, these senses appear to be fallible, so we concoct methods for gaining confidence in particular sense experiences. On even closer examination we discover that our reasoning and other cognitive faculties can also be fallible, so we take steps to account for that observation too. So all we can do is construct experience and look for multiple ways of confirming what we experience to gain confidence in it, to give credibility to it, to compensate for the fallibilities. When we do this rigorously we call this science. Science gives us the best and most reliable explanation of our cognitive and sensory experiences, accounting for and accommodating for our fallibilities the best it can.

Note that this is an entirely inductive experience, from the particular to the general. It is true that induction lies on top of no firm and absolute foundation. An inductive argument indicates some degree of support for the conclusion but does not ensure its truth. So, just to make it clear, none of this is offered as a proof! Of anything.

For any of the detail along the way we might use deductive reasoning, which is often thought to be more thorough than induction, more concrete. This does not mean that deduction is always the better choice. Deduction is fine if you construct a valid argument; and if you have true premises then you have yourself a ‘sound’ argument, the most sure argument there is. But it’s an illusion to think you can have a sound deductive argument at the limits of philosophy, in metaphysics – you can never be sure your premises are true! Why? Because all we have are our thoughts and our senses – we have no prior premises and arguments upon which to build our starting premises. So, if someone tells you they have a proof that, say, God exists, it’s baloney, because it always relies on presupposition, and the presupposition can’t be guaranteed to be true. If someone wants to offer you ‘evidence’ for God, that’s a different matter and should be treated seriously.

We are fallible human beings. The very best we can do is accumulate data, examples, lots of them, and compare them and subject them to any tests we can. We create hypotheses, of which Richard Feynman said they could just as well be guesses. Any old random guess won’t usually do – we could be here forever checking every possible hypothesis – something some theists think atheist are claiming (and what Pirsig mistakenly thought was a problem, in ZAMM – more of that in another post). Of course we base hypotheses on prior experience that appears to work. This is induction and science in action.

Science concludes (this means best explanation so far, not we’re absolutely certain) that according to our senses and reasoning there is a physical world out there. It gets a bit quirky sometimes – e.g. quantum physics – but so far nothing has been found to refute this tentative conclusion. I mean, really, nothing! You have to consider what it would mean to refute this. You would have to find something that isn’t physical. This is a tall order. Before sub-atomic particles were figured out the world was still physical. Discovering the sub-atomic particles didn’t introduce some magic into the universe – it was simply that we discovered something we didn’t know was there before, but is still considered part of the physical universe.

This is what will happen with any ‘paranormal’ effect or ‘energy’ that might exist. If it exists, then when it is found, that is when there is evidence of it, then it too will become a part of our physical description of the universe. The reason the paranormal is ridiculed so much isn’t because we know it to be false absolutely, it’s that fantastic claims have been made, but no evidence has been found to support them.

Astrology? No evidence. And further more, many of these ‘crank’ pseudo-sciences, are actually shown not to fit with scientific ideas that have much more support. The moon clearly has an immediate impact on our lives, with the tides; and has influenced us over a long evolutionary period. The other planets contribute to the stability of the solar system, and provide attractors for debris that might otherwise come our way. A supernova going off too close would have a significant impact too. Some cosmic events could wipe out life on our planet. But the suggestion that the particular arrangement of planets and stars at the time of our birth has some impact on the formation of our individual character? No only is it a dumb idea, but we now know of many more personal localised biological, psychological and sociological influences that are involved in the formation of our character. Astrology is a good representation of how bad ‘mystical’ nonsense can be – it doesn’t even rate as pseudo-science.

Evidence is the route to discovery and the support and maintenance of ideas and theories and facts. No evidence? Then it might as well not exist.

Not, you note, that it doesn’t exist! Science does not have to assert that anything in particular does not exist. It only says to what extent there is evidence to support an idea or the existence of something.

In everyday life, if we can’t see it, taste it, feel it, etc., then we might as well act as if it doesn’t exist, even if it does, for how can we tell the difference. We can happily go about our daily lives as if the speed of light does not have a limit, because in our daily lives we never reach that limit, and where it does impact on our lives, we are usually ignorant of it. Many cities around the world are built as if earthquakes don’t exist, because in those regions they rarely experience any of significance – and yet on a larger scale, for thos eliving in safe zones, we not only know they exist but we consciously participate in relief for those that suffer from them.

The extent to which reality affects us has some influence over how much we live as if some aspect of relaity exists or not. So, what about God?

We can ignore God as an entity because whether he exists or not makes no apparent difference. And even based on reason alone, so many varieties of teleological entities can be dreamed up, the limited theisms of the religious don’t really cover the bases they are trying to protect. And as for actual effects, … prayer does nothing to the event being prayed for, and has only psychological effects on believers. This means that despite the fact that theists can’t prove God exists and atheists can’t disprove it, it’s irrelevant, because there is no evidence, and that’s sufficient. We can act as if God does not exist because there is no evidence that such an entity does exist.

Many theists realise this and no longer require the existence of God as an entity ‘out there’ – See Rob Bell (h/t Lesley’s Blog). But that doesn’t mean theists have dealt with the problem of human fallibility in relation to faith. I’ll get to that in another post.

Of course, those people that believe God exists do themselves exist, and they do have an impact on the reality of the rest of us, which is a bit of a nuisance at times.

Contingency of Knowledge

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

I’m an atheist who is an atheist as a consequence of where science leads me – my atheism is a working conclusion rather than a presupposition, and certainly not a faith. I’m occasionally asked how I get to that point, so this is where it starts.

I like to take the track credited to Descartes and his Cogito[1] – I think therefore I am; or, if I’m thinking I can only conclude that something is doing the thinking, and that something I’ll call ‘me’. I’m not claiming this as a proof that I exist, but I am saying that it is the only evidence available to me that I exist. Feel free to criticise this; but it would be helpful if you could provide an alternative that is as all invasive as the experience that I am having of thinking.

I’m not sure what it would mean, what the consequences would be, if I were to say I am thinking but it’s not me, it’s something else thinking these thoughts, or, that my thoughts are an illusion (but what is it that is having the illusion of thinking), or that there is no thinking going on full stop.

So, based on this thinking experience, I accept the experience that is ‘thinking’, i.e. I think. I’ve had some people tell me this is my presupposition, but I don’t think it is, I think it’s a direct experience that I can’t refute.

Next I notice some senses, some apparent external inputs from some apparent external world – I see objects and people, I hear them, they appear to respond when I talk to them. Is this a phantom world created by my mind? Is there only thinking? This solipsism is a distinct possibility, I can’t deny it. Trouble is I can’t for the life of me tell the difference between the solipsism of imagined senses and real actual senses. Since that’s the case I’ll continue from here by choosing the arbitrary path – that my senses are real inputs from the external world, external to my thoughts. It’s important to realise that this is an arbitrary choice because I can’t tell the difference, I can’t refute solipsism.

Form there, through these senses, imaginary or real, I accept the discovery of other people who appear, according to my senses, to have the same experiences – at least that’s what they tell me. Not being able to refute any of this my basic working model, my working philosophy, is that we all exist and interact as our senses show us and our cognition (mind) understands us. This experienced world is the one we know as the physical world, or natural world, that applies to all of us.

At this point we can’t say to what extent our mind and senses report on the real, actual, universal, ultimate reality (or whatever you want to call it) that’s out there. We can’t even be sure there is such a thing. So note again the contingency of our position: we only think that we have a mind, and with this thinking mind we think that we have senses, but can’t be certain, and if we do have senses we think that they show us something of reality, but we’re not sure, and we don’t even know if this reality exists. But despite how contingent, how flaky and inadequate this position is that we’re in, it’s all we’ve got!

Next, I want to cover how humans deal with thinking about stuff in the light of these limitations: Human Fallibility.

[1] Cogito – Note I don’t consider too many of the options that Descartes does, because I can’t figure out what to do with them. And since nobody else takes us any further than this I am left to take from it what I’ve stated above.

Secret Agents

In many of the arguments about God and mind-body dualism there is the underlying notion of agency, or of an agent – an entity that has some autonomous control of its actions, some intent (i.e intentionality). If we can challenge the notion of agency then we can take a different view of the universe.

Dualists have an appreciation of the mind as something distinct from the physical brain. This dualism may be adapted to create the similar notion of the soul, as used by religions. The mind or the soul is the agency that to some extent or another exists or emerges out of the human brain and body; and familiarity prevents us accepting that we are totally physical entities.

This notion of mind, soul, or even self, conscious self, identity, seems to be a natural instinct that on the face of it appears difficult for the physicalist to explain. What seems clear to a physicalist, particularly one that also accepts Darwinian evolution as a satisfactorily explained process, is that this notion of agency has been projected, extended, by human creative imagination, to hypothesise the existence of gods. But from the physicalist evolutionary point of view there seems little doubt that this God is made in man’s image, not man in his. God is a construct of the human imagination.

If we imagine and follow the developmental and evolutionary path, from physical inanimate objects, to the first replicators, through simple life forms, lesser animals, mammals, primates, and on to man, it is clear that there is no evidence of any mechanism, or any intervention, that suddenly switches on or enables agency. Agency, like free-will, and consciousness, are illusory, so the physicalist hypothesis goes. They are simply hypothetical models of complex systems in action. The fact that we, in the complex biological process of responding to our environment and our current inner physical (chemical and electrical brain system) state, respond as if we are agents, as if we have free-will and consciousness, is merely an efficient mechanism that helps us to operate.

Watch the video clips of the ‘insects’ created by Robert Full’s and other teams. I challenge you not take an inner or explicit gasp as you inevitably look on these machines as being alive in some crude sense – that is your agency recognition system kicking in and recognising agency where there is none. We recognise agency in ourselves, in other animals, in some robots, in cartoon characters, in toys. We are built to perform this recognition of agency.

Did I say “We are built to perform this recognition.”? See? “We are built…” We are not built, in the active sense that someone built us. That’s precisely the point. We can’t help but think in this way. Richard Dawkins did the same throughout his book The Selfish Gene – his actual words, the title, imparted apparent agency upon genes, when of course this is precisely what he didn’t intend. We use phrases implying agency all the time, even when that’s exactly what we are arguing against. The phrase “We evolved (intransitive) to do …” itself could be interpreted as “We actively, through our own will, evolved (caused) ourselves to do …”, or as “We were evolved (transitive) by the agency of Evolution itself to do …” Our language is so evolved to inherently assume agency we have to resort to quite contrived language to describe the physicalist view without agency. So, when talking about something I do, to make it clear there is no intention and free-will in my action I have to resort to words like, “This complex responding organism (me) responded in such a way…”

Agency is a vehicle that gets us through the journey of life efficiently and quickly. But we need to get out of this vehicle now and then and ruminate in the grass, stroll through the woods, take in the view. Once we park agency on the road side we can proceed to walk carefully through life examining in more detail the arguments that tell us that agency is all there is, and just suspend that notion. Simply review the arguments as if there is only physical stuff; put agency to one side.

Some theists will happily tell you how necessary God is to explain the physical universe – he’s the first cause, he’s infinite, etc. But let a physicalist propose that the universe might be infinite, or that there might be multiple inanimate universes, with no agency, and the theists will ask how this is possible. They will raise paradoxes that physicalism appears unable to explain. But there really is no difference between any hypothesised cause of the universe, whether it be theistic or physicalist – except for the presence or absence of agency. Both theists and physicalists have to struggle with the fact that they don’t know what lies beyond the known; we don’t know if it’s infinity all the way or not; it’s hard enough to be sure that the concept of infinity has any significance, any reality. So, the only difference between any proposed God creator and an equivalent non-theistic beginning is the presence of God as the agent.

But if there is no concrete evidence for agency’s instantiation, no evidence of it springing into existence, then there is really no argument for it existing outside the universe, as God. And since we are the only agents we do have evidence for, if we figure we are complex stuff but not agents, then there is no known concrete evidence of agency anywhere.

Now, having said all that I’m still happy to use terms like agency, free will, consciousness, mind, etc., as creative notions, as convenient models, for complex physical systems and processes, like ourselves. I’m happy to say “evolution built us this way” without any teleology implied. It’s how I’ve evolved to think, so I can’t help it.

Wager On An Atheist’s God

Getting bored with arguing with theists, I thought it might be easier if I just give up and join the club. I’ve been trying to find a God hypothesis that comes close to working for me. There are none out there that completely satisfy my needs.

Though I’m not prone to believing God stuff without evidence, from my point of view it is legitimate to concoct hypotheses and check them against what my reason and senses tell me. Here’s one.

There is a God. He created the universe as we have come to know it through our senses, reason and science. He wanted nothing more than to create a universe to see what would happen. He is not omniscient, so he was curious. Being alone, but otherwise a good scientist, he is very hands-off and observational.

Jesus Statue
“Look, I know you don’t exist, right, … but if you did …”

Continue reading “Wager On An Atheist’s God”

God On My Mind – BBC

This new programme from the BBC pulls together some strings from evolutionary biology and neuroscience to attempt to explain religious and other beliefs.

I think these programmes will only be available to UK listeners, but if I can find a transcript I’ll put up a link.

From the programme information…

Part 1: Evolution:

We are programmed by our genes to believe in supernatural powers and to obey moral codes. Is this because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage? Iranians, Scandinavians, Papuans, chimpanzees, twins and wedding rings offer some startling answers.

Part 2: Neurology

Almost half the population claim to have felt the presence of a power beyond themselves. But what happens in the brain during religious experiences? If magnetism can produce visions, then what price mysticism and meditation? What’s the difference between sainthood and schizophrenia? And why are many believers convinced that God speaks to them in their dreams?