Saturday, November 30, 2013

Gnus and Skeptics, Gaps and Burdens

Anyone who's spent time talking to a Cultist of Gnu is going to notice that the gnus typically want to maintain two mutually exclusive positions at once.

1) They want to perpetually be in the position of 'skeptic' - as in, they only want to be on the offense in most conversations. They want to attack ideas, not defend theirs. You see this manifesting through the constant attempts to redefine atheism to mean 'a lack of belief in Gods', as opposed to 'a belief that God/god(s) do not exist'. The latter is a claim, and therefore something that must be defended - so it's something a lot of Gnus avoid dealing with at all costs.

2) At the same time, they desperately want to push the idea that God does not exist, that there is no evidence for the existence of God/god(s), that God is very unlikely to exist, etc. After all, they want to spread their idea - they are evangelical atheists. And to do that means convincing people who believe that God exists that, low and behold, God doesn't.

But you can't have 1 and 2 at the same time. At least, not in a consistent, intellectually honest way. The moment a Gnu decides to take up arms and advance position 2, they've sacrificed the ability to hold position 1.

That doesn't mean they won't try to get away with both. Lately I've had a conversation over at Vogt's site, which started off with an atheist saying that there was not sufficient evidence for God's existence. I said, already - what would be sufficient evidence?

There was some talk about how philosophical and logical arguments don't give us empirical evidence (put the 'So what?' aspect of this aside for now), but then the response was 'Well, what do you have?' I said, no, you said there's not sufficient evidence. So clearly you can tell me what would be sufficient, right? I mean, you'd have to know what sufficient evidence is to declare there isn't any.

So they bite. And of course, it's what you'd expect: God could make everyone stop aging all of the sudden. God could cure all cancer in the world and cure all the amputees at once. Etc, etc. If that happened he'd be convinced God exists!

I point out the problems. First, that's not 'scientific evidence', contrary to what they were saying. But more than that - they were asking for gaps. Amazing things that science couldn't explain. There would be their 'sufficient evidence for God's existence'. So, I ask - I take it you believe that God of the Gaps reasoning is valid reasoning?

They try a few bluffs. Incredulity. (Are you saying YOU wouldn't believe in God if that happened? I say, nope, I think that'd work as evidence. But then again, I'm not the one discounting gaps-reasoning.) Intellectual bluffing. (Well if you tell me that's God of the Gaps evidence maybe I'll just have to say that not even THAT would count as evidence, and that evidence isn't possible! I say, go for it - PZ Myers and Michael Shermer have already made this move. At least then you'll be honest that nothing could convince you.) The moves don't work.

So then they try turning it around - 'Well, if you want me to give you evidence that would show God exists, you'll have to define God for me and tell me what evidence you have!' I say, no thanks. I didn't walk in here making any claims - you did. Why don't you define God for us? After all, you clearly had an idea of what God is in order to make comments about the sufficient evidence. But that led to gaps claims. Now, what you can also do is withdraw your claim about the sufficient evidence. But I'm not here to prove God exists. I'm here to evaluate your claims. I've highlighted some problems.

This gets a few more Gnus wading into the fight, but they all just try repeating what the first atheist said. 'The evidence he asked for would so be scientific, because we'd see it and things we can see are scientific!' No, that's not sufficient, and the appeal here would be to our inability to explain things. 'But they would contradict our best scientific theories!' Sure would - this shit's been done before. It may well happen again. We're back to 'gaps as knowledge of God.' You're just haggling over which gaps will work.

Finally comes the Gnu who insists that I've been dishonestly manipulating the conversation because *I* didn't give everyone my definition of God to begin with, and I should be the one providing evidence for God's existence - not asking others to define God and give their evidence. I say, horseshit. We have a man here who made claims about God. I wasn't even in this conversation when he made them. 'Oh yes, well that was poorly considered on his part, but now he's learned his lesson and...' I ask, and he'll be withdrawing his claims then? It turns out that he can't evaluate the evidence for God's existence after all, because he has no idea what he's talking about? Or can he, and he embraces God of the Gaps reasoning?

And throughout, the whole thing becomes clear. They want, desperately, to be able to make claims about God's existence... but they do not want to be put in the position of having to defend those claims. They want to stay on the attack, but they want no burden of proof. The moment they have one, they're looking for every possible way to drop it, short of being put in the position of having to say they have no idea how to evaluate the claim. (Which, by the way, seemed to be an issue with the original Logical Positivists. As near as I can tell, their intellectual framework made questions about God utterly undecidable, but damn, they wanted desperately to be able to say God does not exist anyway.)

Part of what struck me about the whole conversation was how damn obvious their inconsistencies were, but how they clung to them anyway. They want to denounce the God of the Gaps, but they don't want to be denounced when they demand gaps as evidence for God. They want to never have a burden of proof, but they want to be able to make claims, even strong claims, about God's existence. And if you catch them in an inconsistency, they never consider 'Oops, I made a mistake, wow maybe I was wrong about this.' Instead it's more, 'How DARE you point out my inconsistency! That's supposed to be what I do, and my side alone!'

This is one of the easier inconsistencies to call Gnus out on. If they tell you God doesn't exist, ask for their evidence, their proof. If they say God is unlikely to exist, ask for the same. And when they inevitably squirm and try to turn the conversation into one where you're claiming God is likely to exist, don't let them. Be the one thing that drives them out of their minds: a skeptic who is skeptical of their assertions.

15 comments:

lotharlorraine said...

Hello sir Crude.

Since the principle "the absence of evidence is evidence of absence is clearly fallacious, the Gnus have a burden of proof to explain why they think there is no God.
I also believe that the universal validity of Ockham's razor is far from being certain, especially if it is extraprolated to domains very far from natural science, such as metaphysics.
Such unwarranted extrapolations are an intellectual sin that both theists and atheists are culpable of.

I think that it is vital to point this out in every debate and show (as I did) that the silly examples (such as the pink invisible unicorn or the FSM) completely miss the point.

I am currently exploring Bayesian epistemology since many Skeptics heavily rely on it. To my mind it is necessary to go into such basic problems for they are the foundation upon which worldviews are built.
And we should always be ready to accept the possibility that our own cherished beliefs are wrong.

Anyway I would be glad to learn your thoughts on that.

Best wishes from the UK.

Crude said...

Since the principle "the absence of evidence is evidence of absence is clearly fallacious, the Gnus have a burden of proof to explain why they think there is no God.

I think they have a burden the moment they make any kind of claim. That's really the way it works - make a claim, get a burden. And I think it's instructive that most atheists are absolutely petrified of having any burden in relation to these arguments. They will only make claims, typically, as long as no one calls them on this. The moment they're called, they switch from the positive atheist to the agnostic immediately - unless you start spelling out exactly what the terms of that particular move are.

I am currently exploring Bayesian epistemology since many Skeptics heavily rely on it. To my mind it is necessary to go into such basic problems for they are the foundation upon which worldviews are built.
And we should always be ready to accept the possibility that our own cherished beliefs are wrong.


Always, though I'm a little cynical there, I admit. I don't think Bayesian views are all that useful with these topics. The only atheist I really know who made much hay about Bayes was Richard Carrier, and last I checked, he was shown to be pretty incompetent with it when he was shooting his mouth off. And that was specifically with regard to Christian testimony, etc. Not the bare and fundamental question of God/god(s), period.

Anyway, what did you want to know my thoughts about in particular? I liked your posts, though I think I'd take a different tack. If Jeffrey Jay Lowder wants to argue that sometimes things begin to exist without a cause, he's more than welcome to. Let's just point out that JJL believes in magic and fairytales then, because that's exactly what he'd be appealing to with such a claim.

Syllabus said...

The only atheist I really know who made much hay about Bayes was Richard Carrier, and last I checked, he was shown to be pretty incompetent with it when he was shooting his mouth off.

There's also the Less Wrong crowd, IIRC. While not exclusively composed of atheists, there are a lot of them there.

Crude said...

Lesswrong is hard to take seriously. I know, I know, they work really hard to cultivate that image of 'we are extremely rational people who are dedicated to making ourselves more rational', but it really seems like a collection of people marveling at their own imagined rationality, and whoever can marvel at theirs for the greatest amount of time, in the most obnoxious ways, becomes their leader. Which explains why Yud is what he is over there.

Doubly annoying because that's atheist territory, but they've got a community of simulationists - and I maintain that anyone who's a simulationist is just an old-school pagan theist.

aporesis said...

Hi Crude,

I meant to post this some time ago when you announced your intention to create a new website, but time, etc...

Anyway, I wanted to say that one of the many pleasure afforded by the internet is watching clever people using their intelligence for the common good. A venue like the combox at Ed Feser's blog has a value, aside from particulars of the topics that are discussed, because it offers people like me, who are less knowledgable and less articulate, the opportunity to see a line of argument unfold to its conclusion, regardless of whether the other person accepts it or even acknowledges it. I know you probably think what you are doing is like shooting fish in a barrel but it does serve a useful purpose for people like me.

Looking forward to the new website.

Crude said...

Aporesis,

Thanks for the kind words. I'm still trying to put the website together mentally - and also I keep thinking about anonymity, etc. Probably overthinking it - I am a nobody and likely to remain so.

That's encouraging to hear, and half of why I let myself get drawn into the conversations I do. I know better than to think most people I'm arguing with will change their minds - despite what they say, very few Cult of Gnu atheists are big fans of reason, much less science, and getting them to so much as admit a theist has a point is like pulling teeth with them. My general hope is that someone watching the conversation will notice what's going on and take something away from it.

Accent on the 'take something away from it'. I have tremendous respect for (not to mention belief in) 'classical theism', natural law metaphysics, etc... but I don't think those are necessary for a reasonable belief in God, nor are they the biggest problems people face when discussing their religious beliefs. They are valuable to understand, important to know, but really - noticing when a Gnu atheist is unjustly shifting a burden of proof (or even understanding who justifiably has a burden of proof in any given situation) or the like strikes me as vastly more important for day to day discourse.

Anyway, hopefully when I get a site together I can provide something like that. I want to make a resource for what I think are important ideas, simple arguments and patterns, for people to keep in mind when discussing these topics in their day to day life. We'll see how successful I am. I just need to figure out a few more things about running a site.

lotharlorraine said...

Hello Crude.

I believe that Bayesianism is problematic because they view probability as degrees of belief.
In contexts unrelated to frequencies, it is hard to see how they could mean something more than subjective brain states.
For example, what does that mean to say that String Theory has a likelihood of 15%, 30% or 45% to be true? It just seems to me there is no way to find a connection with the real world, where String theory is either true or false.

However I believe one can consider objective and frequential probabilities of historical events by considering a theoretic infinite population which might really exist if we live in an infinite multiverse (though of course some approximations will be necessary).
So I would advise historians to give up computing the intensity of their subjective beliefs and instead to use Bayes theorem as a mean to calculate frequential probabilities existing objectively independently from us.
Scientifically it is obvious that the latter approach is superior since it directly touches the real world. In future posts, I will explain how this can play out.

But the belief of Bayesian zealots (such as Carrier) that EVERY proposition (such as "God exists") has a probability seems unwarranted to me.

If you have the courage, look at this video from Carrier. Only the title show that he views the Bayesian interpretation of probability with a religious devotion many Evangelicals could not compete with.
This has lead some observers to speak of a cult of Bayes's theorem.

I think that reading this might interest you.
Cheers.

Crude said...

Lothar,

However I believe one can consider objective and frequential probabilities of historical events by considering a theoretic infinite population which might really exist if we live in an infinite multiverse (though of course some approximations will be necessary).

This sounds kind of crazy to me. Especially 'infinite multiverse'. I think the moment you start playing with that conceptually all bets are off.

Can you give me an example of a 'proper' historical events Bayes calculation in your view?

I read the Cult of Bayes post at some point in the past. I recalled it being pretty fascinating. I disagreed with a lot of what the author said, but he had a unique perspective, and that's always something that catches my attention.

Crude said...

Only the title show that he views the Bayesian interpretation of probability with a religious devotion many Evangelicals could not compete with.

I'm skeptical. I think Carrier views *his* Bayesian interpretation of probability with religious devotion. Interpretations and calculations that don't lead where he goes are probably the Worst Things Ever.

Which is just another way of saying that Carrier thinks way too much of himself, a conclusion which most people not in the cult of arrived at. He's kind of a self-parody.

Lothar Lorraine said...

Hi Crude.
I'm going to further develop this approach to probabilities in the future, so wait a bit please before deeming it crazy ;-)
(Well since all my friends think I am utterly insane, this could very well turn out that way).
The multiverse does not need to actually exist or be infinite for this to work, since these are theoretical quantities.
I am sure other people have come up with similar ideas during the last decades and perhaps even centuries, unfortunately I could not yet find a peer-reviewed article defending this concept.

I don't really know what to think about Dr. Richard Carrier.
I think he probably views himself as a genius, but sometimes he is humble enough to recognize his mistakes.
He can behave like an arrogant asshole, but he can also be quite gracious and kind towards his opponents at times.
I guess he is a mixed bag like most of us.

But his suggestion to systematically bully religious believers is utterly immoral.

I have started a related post about the definitions of fundamentalism, atheism and anti-theism and the danger militant atheism poses for freedom.
I have already received an heated answer.
If you have time and interest you would be warmly welcome to participate in the discussion.
I really liked the insights you gave the last time, and to be honest, it's not so fun if I am the only Christian :-)

Whatever you decide, have a blessed day and may the Lord guide all your steps!

Crude said...

The multiverse does not need to actually exist or be infinite for this to work, since these are theoretical quantities.

I'll wait to see it, but even conceptual infinities and multiverses are death-knell problematic in my view.

I think he probably views himself as a genius, but sometimes he is humble enough to recognize his mistakes.
He can behave like an arrogant asshole, but he can also be quite gracious and kind towards his opponents at times.
I guess he is a mixed bag like most of us.


I disagree entirely, especially regarding the humility. He shows humility the way any other bully shows it: when the tide has turned against him, usually because he tries to bully too much, too fast. He capitulated before the McGrews in large part because he got caught shooting his mouth off and they were tearing apart his 'Bayesian' expertise in public. He tried to be the Big Leader of Atheism+ and threatened to lead the charge in kicking out everyone who didn't cop to his views, until the large-scale atheist reaction was to laugh at him and attack him.

And, I will have a look at the post.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

http://www.arguingwithatheists.com/

http://www.magisreasonfaith.org/index.html

Where might those sites fit on your apologetical/apostolic spectrum?

Crude said...

As in what? What do I think of them? How I categorize them according to some schema?

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I mean in terms of not playing softball with atheists and in terms of establishing theism as a cornerstone (I.e. in relation to your project)?

Crude said...

At a glance, they look valuable. The project I have in mind his different - having a priest right on the front of the webpage broadcasts that this is a Christian project immediately.

Arguingwithatheists starts off better, but they do one thing that really puts me off early - they refer to ID arguments as arguments for God, which is just perpetuating a longstanding problem that even the most prominent ID people are constantly busy trying to fix.

That said, both seem valuable and sharp. I'd just take a different approach.