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Posts Tagged ‘existence of god’

Theism and science compatible?

In critical rationalism, plantinga on 09/02/2012 at 7:30 am

Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened. (1 Kings 18:27)

Yes, they are. But first, I should explain …

I see only the prima facie absurdness in religious dogmas. I’m a genial atheist, the kind that will listen to those with a religious bent and let them believe what they will — as long as their metaphysical system is not incoherent: their beliefs are coherent and consistent with our best available knowledge. I might be wrong; they might be right. But overall, in the social sphere, I find most religions to be obviously manmade, at their best boring or neutral, and pernicious at their worst.

Consider a physical system that at first blush appears to contradict a metaphysical system, say that the universe is guided by a deity that acts directly in the world, or initially designed so that its movements follow its aims. Further suppose that we know precisely the history of this physical system. By statically analyzing the data, we learn that the apparently random effects have an organization so that they appear to not be random, so it does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. If accepted, this would falsify the claim that there is a random source. Of course, this leaves open the possibility that the source, while not random, is not due to this hypothesized designer or guider (apophenia happens), but it would be a significant blow to any claim that the source is random and corroborate claims about the existence of a guider or designer.

On the contrary, if we find that the data is in fact random, then nothing follows. The data does not warrant the claim that a random source is behind it. Rather, it corroborates that the source is random, but it equally corroborates that the source is guided or designed, but the designer or guider could act in ways that we are unaware of; or with plans, aims, and whims with which we have no access.

So, given the physical system and initial conditions shortly after the big bang, what is the probability p that in this universe an intelligent species will evolve purely by unguided means? If p had a very low value, this would falsify unguided evolution, for unguided evolution would probably not produce an intelligent species. If p had a high value, this would not falsify guided evolution, for the religious individual could claim that their deity guided or designed the universe in such a way that intelligent beings would evolve. Thus, against our intuitions, any advancement in the natural sciences has the potential of falsifying unguided physical systems, but not guided or designed physical systems.

What is the moral of the story? Metaphysical claims about deities are unfalsifiable, and can be held on to come what may, as long as the claims do not logically contradict one another and in line with our best available knowledge (or our best available knowledge is explained away with ad hoc rationalizations for inconvenient facts), but — since we’re good Popperians — unfalsifiability does not support a position; rather, it detracts from it. If the metaphysical system is to satisfy these two requirements (coherence and consistence with best available knowledge), they need only be constructed in such a way that a central religious claim is not amendable to scientific inquiry. By happenstance, there are an infinite number of coherent metaphysical systems: the Prime Mover may be left-handed, or the Great Architect live in a shack on the back side of the moon, and so on. The very fact of the unfalsifiability of metaphysical claims about deities is enough for us to reject it due to our wish to keep our ontological baggage light and rule them all out, and not set question-begging standards that let in some but not all metaphysical beings that are unobservable/uncriticizable.

Addendum: Here I should give a rudimentary account of Popper’s argument according to virtue epistemology: one way to understand critical rationalism is that there are intellectual traits that are virtuous in so far as they help solve problems ranging from the concrete to the most abstract. We create solutions to these problems, but our solutions will often make some mistake, and not solve these problems. If we want to solve problems, the only way to eliminate error is through criticism of these solutions.

It is far too easy to find positive stories, surreptitiously save our theories from criticism (either by slight modification of the theories at the core or ad hoc adjustments to the periphery), or sit back knowing that our metaphysical beliefs are untouchable, and such intellectual traits can take place with different content. Therefore, to promote intellectual well-being, we ought to shy away from giving self-serving positive stories about why we believe things to be so, or attempt to inoculate our theories from criticism, or believe metaphysical claims that cannot be subject to criticism.

Searching for confirming evidence, gradually changing positions without acknowledgement, and adopting beliefs that are beyond the scope of critical discussion are not virtuous acts. Rather, it is virtuous to refrain from these activities, virtuous to actively listen to criticism from others, and even more virtuous to be actively critical of our own theories. If we cannot do so, we retire from solving problems as failures.

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Debate Styles

In critical rationalism, justificationism, popper, wittgenstein on 12/07/2011 at 12:54 pm

There’s a lovely debate that’s been around for some time between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig at Biola University. I recommend that you watch it — or watch parts of it, namely Christopher Hitchens’s turns at the podium. William Lane Craig is an awful speaker. Christ must have granted Hitchens a silver tongue and Craig a wooden ear. If you can bear through Craig’s turn at the microphone, then you’ll witness a great ‘debate’ between a philosopher-hack and a public intellectual.

What I find most interesting about the debate — besides the subject of ‘Does God exist?’ — is Hitchens and Craig’s respective debating styles. I will start with Hitchens:

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