Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What's a reliable principle by which to award supernatural claims belief?

I ask this question a fair bit these days, but sometimes it confuses people. Let me explain the question.

Here, god-claims, and claims-of-miracles both fall under what I am talking about when I say 'supernatural claims' (though it's a much broader question).

1: The world is full of supernatural claims (ghosts exist, fairies exist and are tiny and have wings, fairies exist but are human sized and don't have wings, Thor exists, Zeus exists, Ahura-Mazda exists, the Rainbow Serpent exists, Yahweh exists and is a trinity, Yahweh exists and is not a trinity, Ganesh exists, Jesus is divine, Jesus is a prophet and not divine, Jesus is neither a prophet nor divine, ...)

2: most such claims contradict other claims. Where multiple mutually contradictory claims exist, most of them must be wrong (since at most one of a set of mutually contradictory claims can be true at once). If we aren't especially lucky or careful - unless we're 'special' or taking particular precautions, we have no basis to assert our beliefs are more likely to be right than any others.

Without good reasons that establish otherwise, claiming we're special is special pleading; having suitable precautions requires some way to tell claims apart that reliably distinguishes true claims from false ones.

3: If most supernatural claims of a particular type are necessarily wrong (because of 2:), then without some reliable(1) principle(2) by which to evaluate them, we are left to use unreliable means.

4: if we use unreliable means to evaluate them, then unless we're somehow astoundingly lucky (again, see special pleading), we will end up believing almost entirely false things, on average.

(1) reliable, in this context would include that different people applying the same principles to all available information will either come to consistent conclusions, or will have a clear means by which to reconcile any differences in conclusion - differences will be resolvable by means provided within the principles themselves.

(2) principle, in this context, means a mechanism by which information and ideas and claims can be compared and selected between - such as a general rule by which we can identify either true or false claims. It doesn't include evidence or logical arguments, but could include mechanisms by which to evaluate such things (evidence and logic aren't principles as such, but if we had a principle like 'vaid logical arguments based on true premises will be true' that says that we can rely on logical arguments that fulfill those conditions). We need principles to evaluate reasons rather than just having 'reasons' in the absence of principles by which to judge them, or we again end with with special pleading. That is, our own reasons are held to lead to a valid conclusion but someone else with the same kind of reason but a different conclusion to our preferred one is not. Either all such reasons are valid, or they are not.

A collection of principles should be applicable to all similar claims.

So to get back to the question:

What's a reliable principle by which to award supernatural claims belief?

This raises some interesting aspects to consider as part of the main question, relating to consistency between how people think about religious beliefs held by others:

"What is a reliable principle by which we may judge to be true the supernatural claims of religions other than one you hold?"

"Do you apply the same principles to the supernatural claims of your own religion?"

And finally ... the big consequence of the usual answer (that there aren't actually reliable principles, and hence no actually reliable reasons):

If your reasons are unreliable, why on earth would you rely on them?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

"What if God is puppies? You believe in puppies, don't you?"

I often see questions like this:

"what if god is time?"

"what if god is science?"

"what if god is simply the order in the universe?"

"what if god is love?"

"... how can you say you don't believe in god?"

Usually accompanied by some kind of assertion that an atheist is assuming a particular god in order to lack belief in gods.

I call this the 'god-is-puppies' argument.

The word 'god', like the word 'toaster', carries meaning. I can claim "When I say toaster I mean a can of minestrone soup" all I like, but if I say "thereby, your claim you don't own a toaster is false - there's a can of minestrone right here in the pantry", you'll get short shrift.

The purpose of words is communication, isn't it?

When you use a word, people tend to understand particular things. If you deliberately choose it to mean something else, and leave them to misunderstand, you're choosing to mislead them. And are thereby a cad and a bounder.

I can call my rat "A Thousand Bucks", but if I offer you a thousand bucks for your car and when you give me the keys, I hand you a rat, you'd rightly be miffed. You'd likely punch me in the nose and take back your keys. If I was lucky.

Where does the responsibility for the miscommunication lie?

It would lie with me, for knowingly using a term people use for one thing to refer to an unrelated thing, in order to convey a different meaning to the one I would claim to use.

Even if you tell them your bizarre definition, so that the deception is lost, the patience for the mental gymnastics required to keep replacing the ordinary word with your odd meaning is likely to be very limited.

So, to "what if god is time?" I say - we have a name for that concept already; it's called time.

If you care to communicate with people, you'll call it that.

When I say I lack belief in gods, I mean the ordinary understanding of the word 'god', like you might find in a dictionary. I'm prepared to adopt a fairly broad interpretation of it, but its basically something along the lines of a powerful supernatural being. Something with intent. Concepts of 'time' or 'science' or 'order' or 'puppies' simply don't have the intended attributes people generally mean when they say 'god'. I can encompass the vaguest of deistic creator-entity hand-waves, but a deity's a deity, not a can of soup.

I don't carry belief in any powerful supernatural beings with intent.

If you want to propose some variation on that ordinary meaning, then ask about that variation and I'll let you know if I carry belief in it, but if you pull the 'god is puppies' type of word-game, I may well be moved to reward your deceptive shenannigans with "You I love with all my heart, and by love I mean, lovingly punch in the snout."

If you're lucky.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Australian Census Religion Results - an infographic

Well, they're not all that great as statistical graphics, but I always wanted to try making one of these guys. So I did.

With apologies to Tufte.