Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Disputing Dawkins II

I realize that Dawkins lays down groundwork before this, but I will get to that, I think, in the "Style" segments, because most of it consists of 'lack of explication.' Instead, I will get to one point which is both crucial and ultimately faulty. That point is this:

Argument for The Spectrum of Probability

Dawkins wants to argue that the existence of God is terribly improbable, and that we should therefore not believe in God. A believer's first objection might be that God is not terribly improbable; a believer's second objection might be that, even if God's existence was improbable, that should not necessitate our unbelief--or, more accurately, our belief in God's non-existence. I will get to these. My first objection, however, is that God's existence ought not be measured in probabilities at all.

The first challenge to objecting to Dawkins' claim that we can determine roughly how probable it is that God exists is that he makes no argument in favour of it. In other words, I have no actual proofs or logical process to dismantle. We ought, in spite of this, to look a bit at what Dawkins does say.

"Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty." (pg. 50)

The thing that I truly enjoy about this passage is his use of the British "judgement" over the American "judgment"; generally I prefer British spellings, and this is certainly no exception. Other than that, of course, I find the passage unfortunate and ludicrous. The thing is that this passage is preceded with not an argument, as the "then" at the beginning would generally indicate, but simply the assertion that he does not reject the idea of determining the probability of God.

The only attempt he makes at persuasion, other than mentioning his personal feeling that indeed this method is useable, is to reason by analogy. There is a considerable hazard in reasoning by analogy; analogies work only along the lines in which the two objects compared actually bear resemblence. I do not know enough logical terminology to make myself clearer, so I will use an example.

"People's personalities are like icebergs; the part you see is only/less than 10% of the whole. That an iceberg seems long and narrow on the surface does not mean that the iceberg is not broad and roundish beneath the water. Similarly, a person who appears to be narrow-minded and ungenerous may in fact be revealed as open-minded and generous after getting to know him."

So far, the analogy works. People and icebergs are similar in discrepency between appearance and reality. Now let's watch the analogy break down a little.

"When icebergs break from the iceflow, they float away to melt in warmer waters, never returning to their origins. Therefore, when people--who are like icebergs--leave their parents' home, they will not last nearly as long as they would at home, and they will never return."

I'm sure any reader will agree that this is a silly arguement, and will be able to point out that, as far as population movement is considered, people and icebergs vary significantly and therefore what is true of icebergs is not also true of people. I am not trying to insult anyone's intellegince with this example. I want to make clear where the reasoning by analogy succeeds and where it fails, and an easy example should help more than a complex one. I hope I have succeeded.

So let's move on to Dawkins. He essentially argues, if it can be called such, for the Spectrum of Probability by calling on Russell's teapot, the Quest unicorn, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. For those who have not heard of these and are not interested in searching Wikipedia, here is a rundown of each.

Russell's teapot: Bertrand Russell once posited the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun that is too small and too far from Earth to be seen by human technologies. He then went on the claim that if he told people that they ought not doubt its existence because it could not be disproven, those people would think him mad; if ancient books and powerful institutions, however, instilled in our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents that this is true ever since they were children, people would think one mad for claiming it can be disproven.

The Quest Unicorn: Camp Quest, which could be called a radically liberal organization if there ever was one, encourages its campers to try and disprove the existence of an invisible, inaudible unicorn that cannot be felt, smelt, or tasted. This is related to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, which has the wonderful attributes of being both colourless and colourful. Camp Quest, of course, was trying to train its campers to be atheists. Don't let anyone tell you that atheist indoctrination doesn't exist.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster: The FSM is the diety of the parody religion Pastafarianism. The religion was founded by a student of a Kansas school to protest the decision by the school board to require Intelligent Design be taught as an alternative to evolution. He crafted a wonderful story of revelation incorporating pirates and Eight I'd Really Rather You Didn'ts. While the Quest Unicorn was a parody of God, Pastafarianism is a parody religion.

Dawkins brings these up to demonstrate this point: we are willing to discuss how probable it is that Russell's teapot, the Quest Unicorn, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster exist, so we ought, by the same token, be willing to discuss how probable it is that God exists. No one can "prove" that any of the four exists or doesn't exist using traditional empirical, or even logical, standards. Therefore, reasons Dawkins, it is perfectly fair--and possible--to try to determine God's probability.

I do not want to make a straw man of this argument. Dawkins is not claiming that we can put a precise number on it. That would truly be absurd. Among other things, the spectrum is a continuum, and the human mind is quite simply incapable of conceiving the difference between, say, 98% and 99%, let alone 98.888...% and 99%. Dawkins is suggesting, I think, of a sort of range in which with think the probability lies, being constantly refined by incoming evidence. This is much more reasonable, and something we do frequently in other cases in our lives.

The problem, instead, lies in the analogies. None of the three Dawkins gives resembles God closely enough for this analogy to bear out. This is why.

Russell's teapot: It is certainly the case that we are, with today's technologies, incapable of proving the teapot's non-existence. In fact, it is possible that we are even theoretically incapable of disproving the teapot's existence, since absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, the teapot is unlike God in a few significant ways.

First, you'll notice that "today's technologies" feature importantly in the premise. If our astronomical technology improves, we may be able to actually find Russell's teapot. I suppose Dawkins will claim that, if a future astronaut were to see a piece of servingware out the window of a future spacevessel, it could always be a hallucination. That being said, it could, eventually, be possible to scientifically verify the existence of Russell's teapot in the future, given the requisite increase in technology. I really doubt that this can be said of God, and I will argue that in the next point. The difference here is that even if you cannot in theory disprove beyond all doubt the existence of the teapot, you could still theoretically prove its existence, if it exists; the existence of God, alternately, even if true, could not be proven using scientific methods, as far as I am aware.

Second, we can measure the properties of a teapot. We cannot measure the properties of God. Despite the volumes written on theology in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, no one in any of these religions--or no one who really represents any of these religions--claims to have a real idea of what God is or looks like. It would be ridiculous to assume one could. Most of the properties attributed to God include the prefix 'omni-,' or include the word 'ultimate,' or are related to themes like 'infinity,' 'eternity,' or 'perfection.' Notice that these all preclude the very possibility of measurement, which requires some sort of limits. Believers frequently believe that God's existence encompasses, and then exceeds, all reality. My point, then, is that in the case of the teapot, we know what we're looking for. We have examples of teapots to analyze. We can use our examples to determine how quickly the celestial teapot might be moving, how far it may be from the sun, how it might have arrived there, etc. When we don't find pieces of china in the predicted locations when we know we could possibly stumble across it, we can then talk about the probabilities of its existence. However, when we can neither experience the entirety of God, nor be certain that we would recognize whatever part of His presence we might experience, the resemblance breaks down.

A summary of why Russell's teapot can be discussed in terms of probability and God perhaps may not: not only could we theoretically find the teapot some day, but we also know what we're looking for. Put differently, if we never find the teapot, this is not because we never could find it in the first place or that we might not be recognising it when we see it; if we never "find" God, or evidence for Him, it could be because we never could find evidence in the first place or that we might not be recognising it when we see it.

Quest Unicorn: In this case, we cannot be sure that we could ever find the unicorn, if it existed. Further, we're not sure what it looks like or how to measure it when we find it. In these respects, it bears greater resemblance to God than the teapot did. However, it still differs in an important respect. It is entirely contained within the dimensions of reality of which we are aware. It exists along the planes (cubes? supercubes?) of space and time. Not only this, it presumably has a concrete location in both, and absences in both, instead of filling all of both. God, as He is described by most religions, exceeds all of these measures, as we discussed before. Therefore, assuming it is possible to ever come up with a probability for the Unicorn's existence, this may not necessarily transfer to the case of God. It is my understanding that probabilities, as we understand them, refer to things that happen entirely in our world--certainly they refer only to things that our comprehensive faculties can grasp. I'll refer you to the original quotation, and you'll notice that "human judgements" are in fact the measure. In other words, if you not only have little idea what you're talking about, but aren't even capable of conceiving the places where you would have to look to find it, it's pretty unlikely you could determine a probability for it's existence. While the unicorn at least would exist in a way with which we are familiar, God may not.

Flying Spaghetti Monster: This one, of the three, bears the greatest resemblance to God, and is the hardest to dismiss. For one, it is possible to claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists at least partly outside of this reality in the way that God may. The FMS may not be constrained by time and space--I'm not sure about Pastafarian "doctrine," but I will assume for now that they give the FMS most of the attributes of the Abrahamic God, for safety's sake. So why does the analogy not bear out? Well, it may not be a case of the analogy is imperfect. It may be a case that what Dawkins claims about the FMS isn't true.

For one, Dawkins claims that we'd be willing to discuss whether the FMS probably exists. Personally, I don't think I am. I do not believe the FMS exists. If I were forced to wager on it, I'd wager against. But this is not because I think I know what the probability is. Despite Sager's (I think it was Sager) refusal to commit to believing or disbelieving in aliens, I would imagine he'd be able to wager one way or the other if he were forced to (say he has to make a decision between two courses of action; if he takes course A, he will if aliens exist or will live if they do not, while if he takes course B, he will live if aliens exist or will die if they do not). That doesn't mean a probability exists or not; it just means that he has to make a decision and so will make one anyway. My disbelieving in the FMS has nothing to do with probability. It has to do more with intuition--and faith, but I hardly expect you to buy that before recognising that you are of a faith yourself.

But say you push this. Say I am weasling out of this and that, in fact, I do think that it is more probable that the Christian God exists than that the FSM exists, even though I claim not to think so. Maybe I truly believe that I don't think this, but my psychology is muddled and I in fact do. Perhaps it is similar to how I implied that you have a faith whether you know it or not in the previous paragraph. Let us, for the sake of arguement, say this is the case. I would then like to pint out that to claim something is more probable than something else is completely irrelevant to how probable it is on its own. For example, take the following typical puzzle: "John is taller than Jane. Carl is taller that Jane. Mark is taller than Carl, but not Audrey. John is taller than Audrey. Is John taller than Carl?" You can answer this puzzle fairly easily. But what if the final question were replaced with "How tall is Jane?" Obviously you cannot know for sure; in fact, you have no idea at all. But maybe you object that this analogy doesn't work, because height does not have limits...these people could be as small as ameoba or as large as planets. Probabilities, however, are bracketed squarely between 0% and 100%. Fine, I say. How about this: There are two girls (or guys, if you prefer) to whom you are equally attracted in all ways. You are contemplating which to ask out; they are sitting in ear shot of each other, and you can only ask one out--to ask the second out if the first rejects you would insult both of them, and that would ruin any chances with either in the future. You decide, then, to ask out that one which will more probably say yes. Therefore, you choose Bobby, who will be more likely to say yes than Sam (notice gender-neutral nicknames). However, this does not necessarily entail that you know, or really have any idea, how likely it is that Bobby will accept. It's not even necessarily the case that you have any concrete idea why it is more likely. Certainly you don't have to have calculated the probability out for each and then determined which is greater numerically.

You can now step in to object that this isn't really a half-decent probability. This is too subjective; this is too intuitive. Well, perhaps. But I feel the same way about God (Yahweh, Theos, Allah, whichever you prefer) vs. the FSM. You don't need the numbers to say, "Really, I feel Yahweh is more likely to exist than the Flying Spaghetti Monster." And this is all Dawkins can claim people do. I don't think many people feel that they're willing to produce evidence as to why the FSM does not exist. They just feel that it isn't. Maybe it has something to do with this common sense stuff that Dawkins dislikes. Maybe it has to do with the Holy Spirit, a particularly useful entity, at least as far as philosophical arguement goes, which is likely why Dawkins never brings this up (I'll deal with why it's potentially dangerous for Dawkins at a later date). Maybe it has to do with alien thought rays, or the influence of the Tao, or inclinations to a Platonic Truth. It certainly doesn't have to be mathematical probabilities, somewhere between 0% and 100% and adding up to no more than 100. Probable may in fact be more metaphorical than technical language, something like the inverse of phycist's use of 'God' to mean 'laws of the universe' that Dawkins laments so much. We use mathematical language to discuss intuitive notions (or metitative truths).

As I think I have fairly demonstrated, Dawkins attempts to reason by analogy. This is simply not adequate. The first two analogies do not accurately compare, and the third doesn't prove his point anyway. Actually, none of them do. In all three cases, Dawkins says that people are willing to discuss these entities' probabilities of existence. In no way does Dawkins make a legitimate case that we are actually allowed to do so under the laws of logic. Even if reasoning by analogy were valid in these cases, it wouldn't mean anything--the cases he is making the analogy with only prove that people are willing to talk about it, regardless of whether they should. Dawkins ought to know this. His argument actually depends on the majority being wrong.

Unfortunately, I have failed at any semblence of brevity. While a shame, I think that this long exposition has been necessary. This is very close to the core of Dawkins' argument, and if I succeed in dismantling it, his whole enterprise will collapse. After all, if God's existence cannot be measured for probability, then God's existence cannot be enormously improbable. If God's existence is not enormously improbable, it is not irrational to believe that God exists. If rational people can believe that God exists (and if we believe that truth is valuable, as Dawkins seems to), then we cannot legitimately abolish belief in God, regardless of the evils it supposedly generates.

And I will point out that a sizeable number of the other "steps" in Dawkins' "argument" are faulty. I will deal with those later. I will even deal with them as though this premise were true. But I must emphasize that if I succeeded in proving that you cannot determine the probability of God, or at least that Dawkins does not demonstrate that you can, then it must follow that Dawkins' argument fails, as he builds from this premise. In fact, if a reasonable person could even think that you cannot determine the probability of God's existence, then his argument fails. This is why making this clear is of such importance.

Feel free to post rebuttals or calls for clarification. I cannot promise to respond, but I will try. I will promise that I won't dismiss any polite and well-argued objections, and that I will delete any impolite or not-argued objections. And I really don't expect any posts, since I suspect that only 2-4 people read this blog with anything even resembling regularity.

And this link goes to my Dawkins mission statement sort of page, in case you're wondering what's what. At some point I think I'll make a Dawkins-specific directory.

Well, good night, all, and God bless.

Go to the Dawkins Directory

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin