Wednesday, July 07, 2010
Via Jerry Coyne, we have Greta Christina describing what it would take her to abandon skepticism. I'll just focus on the first "example":
What would convince me: If I saw an unambiguous message from God, I would be persuaded of his existence. If I saw writing suddenly appear in the sky, in letters a hundred feet high, saying "I Am God, I Exist, Here Is What I Want You To Do" -- and if that writing were seen by every human being, written in whatever language they understand, comprehended in the same way by everyone who saw it -- I would be persuaded that God existed. I'd be puzzled as to why he'd waited this long -- why he'd decided to do it in 2010 and not at any other time in human history -- but I'd still believe.Oh, goody! ... she at least recognizes Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
(And for the record: Yes, it's possible that this could happen without God. It could hypothetically, for instance, be accomplished by a highly technologically advanced alien species. But I don't think that would be the simplest explanation. If this phenomenon happened, "God" would, in my opinion, be a simpler explanation than "aliens" -- and unless I saw good evidence that the writing was done by aliens, God would be the provisional conclusion I would come to.)
But why does she abandon skepticism? "If this phenomenon happened, 'God' would, in my opinion, be a simpler explanation than 'aliens'..." But, wait a minute, if "God" survives Occam's Razor when it comes to writing in the sky, why doesn't he/she/it survive in the Cosmological Argument? Surely, if God is the "simpler" explanation for writing in the sky, then he/she/it is the "simpler" explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing!
I frankly don't for a minute believe that Coyne or Christina would be such scientific naïfs as to fall on their knees because of a few squiggles in the sky. They are merely engaged in rhetoric, attempting, in a most unconvincing manner, to show that they would seriously consider evidence for a god.
That's far more damning of their claims to skepticism than anything that theists might challenge them with.
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or that someone was playing an optical trick. Very few people, I dare to say, would find it convincing evidence for the existence of God.
Indeed, Coyne and Christina are merely dissembling for rhetorical purposes, probably without being aware of it, so confident in their rightness they can't acknowledge the emptiness of their claim they'd recognize evidence for God.
As a Christian, I believe in God but I acknowledge that the evidence is not convincing. I've often pondered what would be such evidence of God that I would consider a person who persisted in its face in non-belief to be irrational.
The closest I can come would be if I suddenly grew into my weight (i.e. sprouted up to 7' tall), my various joint ailments disappeared _and_, and this is the part where it would be surely down to God, I was suddenly able to play the role of centre in basketball at an NBA level. The growth stuff, well, who knows what might trigger and ultra-successful intervention of the body's maintenance and repair systems, but obtaining the mental skills and muscle memory to play a sport at the highest level when the highest organized ball I ever played was house leage in high school (scoring a total of 10 points in a 10 game season!)?
Sadly, God has not seen fit to vouchsafe his existence in such convincing terms.
BTW, 'The Plausibility of Life' (Kirschner & Gerhart) includes fascinating descriptions of some of the body's growth, maintenance and repair mechanisms in the course of demonstrating how these facilitate evolution by giving the body the ability to adapt to changes in morphology induced by simple changes in the DNA. Excellent, profound book that anyone seriously interested in the science of evolution should read.
I'm also struck by how many of these alleged proofs are just reverse theodicy--"if bad things only happened to bad people, I'd believe." It's interesting how much the anti-theist view of religion is bogged down in Freud's wish fulfillment stage.
Oh, I'll grant him that some theists would do that. I'm more interested in how he'd distinguish those thesists from those who push "evolutionary psychology," who Coyne rains equal disdain on. If believing in bad science by some theists disqualifies all theism from serious consideration, why doesn't the belief of some scientists in bad science disqualify all of science from serious consideration?
However much you assert that the Gospels (or personal spiritual experience, etc., etc.) provide strong evidence for a supernatural being, you should also acknowledge that this evidence has not been strong enough to convince billions of people of other faiths or no faith. Whatever you've got isn't enough for many people. It's too old for contemporary investigation and it's contradicted by other people's holy scriptures. Doesn't necessarily mean it is wrong, merely insufficient[ly] convincing for many other people.
If you really want to convince people you're going to have to come up with current examples of 'miracles' - i.e. where cause and effect have been superseded. If you could demonstrate repeatedly that prayers to your god could regrow an amputee's limb (without modern medical intervention) I'd be well on the way to being convinced. If you could state in advance that at 3pm on Saturday 3 July The Angel Of The North was going to be instantaneously relocated to Trafalgar Square, I'd be impressed (several physical laws would have to be suspended).
I've not picked these examples out of spite, truly. I'm just trying to show what type and quality of evidence would be needed in modern times to convince modern people who don't already believe.
The point I was making was that one-off miracles which 'happened' a long time ago are no use to today's skeptic. Repeated demonstration of the power of prayer to achieve impossible medical cures would certainly make me think twice. I agree though that I might look for a non-supernatural cause first.
And The Angel of the North (a 200 tonne steel statue) did not move last Saturday.
Oh, I have no problem with that ... in fact, it is among the reasons I don't have any faith in religion today. It is quite one thing to say "I'm not convinced by your evidence" and another to say "this is the evidence I'd accept now"!
... you're going to have to come up with current examples of 'miracles' - i.e. where cause and effect have been superseded.
What, exactly, would you accept as (empiric?) evidence that "cause and effect have been superseded"? As Hume pointed out 200+ years ago, we have no empiric evidence of cause and effect. We make do with correlation (which nobody thinks is proof of cause and effect) and temporal prescedence (which nobody should think is proof of cause and effect).
Now, I'm willing to take those as the equivalent of cause and effect as far as science goes, because I accept methodological naturalism and agree that it is is the best way to understand the natural world. But methodological naturalism constrains my knowledge of what is "true." There may be true "facts" about the world that are not amenable to investigation by methodological naturalism. What Coyne and Christina have not, and I believe cannot, tell me is when and how my assunption of methodological naturalism fails.
First off, Greta Christina never spoke of abandoning skepticism. Abandoning disbelief in God, yes, but that's not the same thing by a long shot.
Second, the phenomenon that Greta Christina described would be difficult to reconcile with the laws of physics, especially the part where everyone sees the message in the sky in a language that he or she understands. Even aliens are constrained by physics. She even made clear that it would have to be far more than just her seeing "a few squiggles in the sky," but everyone else in the world, and under circumstances that would make pareidolia a lousy explanation.
Heck, your argument "if God is the 'simpler' explanation for writing in the sky, then he/she/it is the 'simpler' explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing!" is so grossly fallacious that it's out of character for you. The former event involves an action, namely writing, that tends to be done by intelligent beings, coupled with other phenomena, such as people seeing this writing in different languages, that on first blush look miraculous. Intelligent agents, though, hardly explain the existence of something rather than nothing, something that as an agnostic, you are well aware of. Did you switch brains with Jerry Coyne or something?
No, but that's the effect. She's basically (pretending) to tell us when she'd switch off the assumption that a natural phenomenon (perceived squiggles in the sky) have a natural cause.
... the phenomenon that Greta Christina described would be difficult to reconcile with the laws of physics, especially the part where everyone sees the message in the sky in a language that he or she understands.
Oh, please! We can, with our present technology, induce hallucinations in human minds. The phenomenon is the reported perception of squiggles in the sky that are a language.
The former event involves an action, namely writing, that tends to be done by intelligent beings, coupled with other phenomena, such as people seeing this writing in different languages, that on first blush look miraculous. Intelligent agents, though, hardly explain the existence of something rather than nothing, something that as an agnostic, you are well aware of.
The issue is when to apply Occam's Razor. Give me a rational reason to apply it to something you vaguely say is something that "intelligent agents" (i.e. humans) can do but not to something you don't think, for no expressed reason, could be done by intelligent agents.
When you're done, you can explain why ID creationists are wrong to do the same thing.
How do you know she's pretending? That's quite an insult to someone, and it's based on very little evidence.
"The phenomenon is the reported perception of squiggles in the sky that are a language."
That leaves out a crucial part: that everyone around the world who sees the squiggles agrees that they are intelligible as human language and agrees on what the squiggles mean. It's the widespread agreement that's difficult to explain as hallucination, especially under circumstances where huge numbers of people see the same "hallucination" at the same time.
"Give me a rational reason to apply it to something you vaguely say is something that 'intelligent agents' (i.e. humans) can do but not to something you don't think, for no expressed reason, could be done by intelligent agents."
I presume that you think that I think that the creation of the universe couldn't be done by an intelligent agent, but rather it's that I think there is no good reason to posit one. You are at least as familiar with the weaknesses in the Cosmological Argument as I am, so I needn't rehash them.
"When you're done, you can explain why ID creationists are wrong to do the same thing."
But they aren't doing the same thing. Think about the problems in Paley's watchmaker argument. If we find a watch in the forest, we'd conclude that there was a watchmaker not merely because of its complexity, but because it contains features that we don't see in nature but do see in things known to be human artifacts, such as discrete metal parts. (BTW, writing is also a known human artifact.) There are significant disanalogies between a watch and a biological creature, like a capability of self-assembly (such as what went on in our mothers' wombs), and IDers gloss over these.
I've already said that I don't think that Coyne or Christina would be such scientific naïfs as to fall on their knees because of a few squiggles in the sky. I could be wrong. They could be that stupid but I was giving them the benefit of the doubt.
It's the widespread agreement that's difficult to explain as hallucination, especially under circumstances where huge numbers of people see the same "hallucination" at the same time.
[Sigh] Christina admitted that it could be the effect of unknown alien technology. What justifies the assumption that it is not some unknown alien technology that can cause worldwide hallucinations?
You are at least as familiar with the weaknesses in the Cosmological Argument as I am, so I needn't rehash them.
I happen to think that the "Unmoved Mover" is a rather strong argument, though it is a poor argument for any particular god. But if you don't want to discuss it, I can't and wouldn't try to force you. But I will note that you still haven't explained why we should apply Occam's Razor to one and not the other.
There are significant disanalogies between a watch and a biological creature, like a capability of self-assembly (such as what went on in our mothers' wombs), and IDers gloss over these.
Indeed. There are also significant disanalogies between a human being and a (posited) infinite, omniscient, omnipotent being. Your point was?
Oh, good grief! I already pointed out that reducing what Greta Christina was talking about to "a few squiggles in the sky" glosses over crucial details. It is essentially a straw man.
"But I will note that you still haven't explained why we should apply Occam's Razor to one and not the other."
No one but you suggested that Occam's Razor should be selectively employed.
I'm disappointed in you. You've generally been able to engage in adult-level argument and avoid torching straw, but this is the sort of thing I'd expect from an agnostic version of P.Z. Myers (and coming from me, that's obviously no compliment).
Even given Clarke's dictum, technology can't do everything. Try thinking of what it would take to get even one person to hallucinate exactly what you want he or she to see, given what we know about how the brain works. I doubt it could be done simply by sending some sort of rays into the brain. You'd probably need to implant something locally in the brain and then control the implant remotely. Oh, and do that without killing the person. Now multiply that one effort by the population of the planet and add in that it must be done in secret.
It isn't a straw man if you can't give me some rational basis for where you are drawing the line. We start out with the proposition that this phenomenon has an unknown cause. Under methodological naturalism, science assumes the phenomenon has a natural cause. All you have done is point to circumstances which do not provide any crucial test of (just two of the) possible explanations: the unknown powers of god(s) and the unknown powers of aliens. A vague appeal to Occam's razor based on a personal opinion as to which explanation is "simpler" is not, I maintain, the act of a skeptic. The cause of Cristina's phenomenon remains unknown.
No one but you suggested that Occam's Razor should be selectively employed.
Our differences here may have to do with the fact that I don't think Occam's Razor can be used consistently.
... this is the sort of thing I'd expect from an agnostic version of P.Z. Myers ...
Well, if you're going to engage in ad hominem ...
Look, the attitude of scientists is, and has been for the last 500 years or so, to look for natural explanations for phenomena. Those who have said that there can be no natural cause for some phenomena or another have been consistently shown to be wrong. That is the scientific skepticism that atheists have constantly touted as the basis for their atheism. Chistina's example fails that test.
We are talking about proofs of God here. The only standard that matters is that an explanation be either naturalist (even if we can't yet reconcile the science with our own except as an act of faith) or supernatural. The difference would include the totality of all scientific knowledge and technology unknown to us. Being able to reverse-engineer the phenomena like a David Blaine trick is not going to get us far enough.
(There is also the Cartesian/Wittgensteinian problem of how we *know* that everyone else is or is not also experiencing the same phenomenon. Maybe this is just part of the illusion?)
John is not saying that it is likely, or even necessarily possible, that massive illusions (or actual changes in "reality") on such a scale as we are describing could be induced by another life form. What matters is to compare that likelihood to a supernatural explanation.
Coyne and Christina are acting as though there is some neutral way to interpret the apparent intentionality of the writing in the sky, as though it were obvious that it's just what it seems--divine inscription. (A strikingly sudden abandonment of skepticism, as John notes. But any explanation is going to be metaphysically constrained. What is possible is preconditioned by how we believe the world works. This is why Occam's Razor is fallacious--the simplest, most elegant explanation cannot be unmoored from its metaphysical presuppositions (Epicycles were the simplest explanation of the movement of the planets along the ecliptic, until Copernicus reversed the relation of earth and sun. I think we'll find something similar to be the case with "dark matter" and "dark energy" which have a desperate, Ptolemean feel to them)
The scientific approach would be to postulate alternate explanations for the sky-writing and either devise experiments to adjudicate between them--or admit honestly that we don't know enough to come to conclusions except speculatively, and that our convictions have not be exposed to our skeptical faculty. (Not that there's anything wrong with that).
I think where we differ regards whether Coyne and Christina really believe such an event would undermine their atheism. I think this belief is sincere, though irrational (and wrong). I don't think it's realpolitik or agitprop, and the charm of their naivete almost--almost--compensates for the philosophical bankruptcy of the argument. (cf the citation of the great metaphysician Julia Sweeney who notes that the universe behaves exactly as we would expect it to if it contained no supernatural beings. Compare Wittgenstein: what would it look like if it "looked like" the earth revolved around the sun? Now *that's* skepticism!)
No, it's a strawman because it changes a situation that is very difficult to explain, namely everyone simultaneously seeing different writing in the sky but having that writing all mean the same thing, into something trivial, namely people hallucinating squiggly lines, which already has happened plenty of times.
Now back to this: "Surely, if God is the 'simpler' explanation for writing in the sky, then he/she/it is the 'simpler' explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing!"
God fails as an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, since he/she/it is just another "something" whose existence is left unexplained. Of course, there is more to it than that, but since this is a blog comment and the weaknesses of the Cosmological Argument have been laid out in plenty of other places, I won't dwell.
As for writing in the sky, well, we have plenty of reasons for at least concluding that an intelligent agent is a cause, since we have plenty of precedent for intelligent agents writing. Why is God more plausible than alien technology for this particular sky writing? That is a fair question, but one that has little to do with the cosmological argument. If you really think that aliens can do anything, then yes, Greta Christina's idea that God is simpler than aliens looks absurd. However, technology isn't magic, even if it may superficially resemble it, and that we can have some idea as to even what aliens can and can't do. Going faster than the speed of light is one thing we probably won't see (which brings up the question as to how aliens would even get here to play God in the first place). So we do have some rough idea of what would distinguish advanced aliens from deities.
I can see the possibility of subtle problems in Greta Christina's hypothetical scenario, but it isn't as obviously ridiculous as you make it out to be. Your substitute of mockery for actual argument doesn't suit you, nor does casting aspersions on someone whose track record on intellectual honesty has been nearly as good as yours.
I'll admit I was mocking the example but, I think, for good reason. There was noting substansive given to distinguish Christina's treatment of her example from those who have seen squiggles in the sky and leapt to the same conclusion that it came from god(s).
God fails as an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, since he/she/it is just another "something" whose existence is left unexplained.
I agree. But that was my point. Occam's Razor fails in both cases.
If you really think that aliens can do anything, then yes, Greta Christina's idea that God is simpler than aliens looks absurd. However, technology isn't magic, even if it may superficially resemble it, and that we can have some idea as to even what aliens can and can't do. Going faster than the speed of light is one thing we probably won't see (which brings up the question as to how aliens would even get here to play God in the first place). So we do have some rough idea of what would distinguish advanced aliens from deities.
Only if you assume that we know something about the limitations of technology based on our own technology. What would someone like Darwin have thought of a giant explosion far beyond anything that could be produced in his own day that went on killing people by mysterious (to him) burns? We now know it as atom/hydrogen bombs but would Darwin have been able to incorporate such an explosion into the science of his day? Indeed, why was Darwin so discomfited by Kelvin's estimate of the age of the Earth? The problem, as Clarke was pointing out, is that we cannot know just what it is that we do not know.
I can see the possibility of subtle problems in Greta Christina's hypothetical scenario, but it isn't as obviously ridiculous as you make it out to be.
I confess that I shouldn't have been so quick to mock Christina ... frankly, I haven't read enough of her stuff to form an opinion of her overall competence. I was doubtless influenced by Coyne's endorsement of her views. I've seen enough of his stuff to know he is often ridiculous when it comes to philosophy.
To some extent, we can. More to the point, we can estimate what technology is plausible based on the science that we do know. Faster than light travel? Star Trek-ish transporters? Unlikely, given relativity and the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, respectively. What about some sort of technology to allow telepathic communication, which would be one way to make the "message from God" trick work? Well, you have to take into account what the human brain is capable of? It's not exactly like it has evolved to receive radio-like wireless transmissions. Soft science fiction, where technology is pretty much magic with blinking LEDs, is probably not a good way to gauge what aliens could do.
"I confess that I shouldn't have been so quick to mock Christina ... frankly, I haven't read enough of her stuff to form an opinion of her overall competence."
She's probably better at discussing social issues, especially social issues relating to sex, than she is at philosophy, which she pretty much discusses at a "common sense" level, so to speak. (And yes, I write that knowing full well the dangers of "common sense.") Generally, her attitude is similar to Hemant Mehta, friendly to theists but blunt about the flaws she sees in their beliefs.
What you are effectively arguing here is that there is a threshold past which we should no longer seek naturalistic explanations. You are labeling this threshold "Very Difficult To Explain," and so it may be in this case, but a good scientist/naturalist, like a good playwrite, will not succumb to the temptation to introduce a Deus ex Machina over the exercise of a healthy imagination, or the conviction that there must be a more satisfying explanation. Neither Christina nor Coyne suggest testing the God hypothesis against alternates in the given case; they just throw in the towel, which is a notably unscientific response.
You observe, along similar lines, that aliens probably can't exceed the speed of light. Given what we know, that seems to be true, but is it valid to suggest that our scientific understanding is so complete that any violation of physical laws must be supernatural? Is it more likely that God exists (the god of the bible), than that Einstein was wrong?
This is a claim that we have somehow crossed a "threshold" where we have qualitatively more knowledge than we had before, rather than just a quantitative increase. In the early 1900s some scientists claimed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible ... until the Wright brothers proved them wrong. I'm sorry, history tells us we cannot know what it is that we do not know.
I don't think I'd go for a nice, neat threshold, but the working assumption of methodological naturalism is just that: an assumption. We've kept using the assumption because it has worked out so far, but if such an assumption started leading into clumsier and kludgier explanations and hand waving, that would be a sign that the assumption should be revised. That's true for any working assumption.
"Is it more likely that God exists (the god of the bible), than that Einstein was wrong?"
The God of the Bible is incoherent. As for any other deities, whether the existence of one would be more probable than the theory of relativity being wrong would depend on the evidence for said deity.
True. If methodologial naturalism couldn't explain wide swaths of penomena, we would eventually abandon it. But that's not what Christina was arguing for. She proposed that a single phenomena would make her abandon methodologial naturalism. That is more like the case of the precession of the perihelion of Mercury that was unexplained by Newton's laws of mechanics but was known for some 80 years before Einstein came along to explain it. A number of natural explanations were proposed and no scientist I am aware of said goddidit or abandoned Newton's mechanics (and we haven't to this day, though we know that we have to make adjustments to them at very high speeds or deep in gravity wells).
If we are forced to abandon methodological naturalism, then all of science is dead. The notion that we'd abandon all of science based on writing in the sky, no matter how unexplanable under our present knowledge, is even worse, if possible, than leaping to a conclusion that goddidit for any one phenomenon.
No, she described a scenario where she thought methodological naturalism would break down. It hardly follows that methological naturalism wouldn't be a useful approach elsewhere. Newtonian mechanics is still useful even if it breaks down in some places.
Now her scenario would imply the breakdown of philosophical naturalism, but the whole point of distinguishing that from methodological naturalism is that the latter can be employed even in a universe where philosophical naturalism may be false. Obviously in such a universe, such a methodology may fail in some instances.
"That is more like the case of the precession of the perihelion of Mercury that was unexplained by Newton's laws of mechanics but was known for some 80 years before Einstein came along to explain it."
Not really. There's a distinction between filling gaps in ignorance with God and a scenario where someone claiming to be God shows up and does what appear to be the miraculous things that we'd expect such a claimant to be able to do.
(Warning: Greta writes about sex a lot, and some of the blog content may be construed as not work-safe, depending on one's boss.)
But that's the point of methodological naturalism! You don't give up looking for natural causes since you can't test what it is that you don't presently know. And, yes, we still use Newtonian physics because it is right in many circumstances and explains so much. We didn't throw it out because there were things it couldn't explain. Just so, we shouldn't throw out methodological naturalism just because there are a few things it can't presently explain precisely because it does explain so much.
Now her scenario would imply the breakdown of philosophical naturalism ...
Then it is a philosophical argument, not a scientific one. I don't think much of it on that level either but my point was that, for people who place so much store in science, it is highly incongruous that they'd be willing to throw over science with such alacrity ... which is why I thought it was merely rhetorical, though I grant Chris' possibility that it is merely naive philosophy.
There's a distinction between filling gaps in ignorance with God and a scenario where someone claiming to be God shows up and does what appear to be the miraculous things that we'd expect such a claimant to be able to do.
Really? So I should credit every faith healer? What is it about Christina accepting writing in the sky, without testing, or even an attempt to test it, that is any different than some gullible believer in a tent revival who is convinced the Holy Spirit is in the room because people are falling over after being "slain in the spirit"?
As for Christina's explanation that she was
... drawing the line here to prove a point. Yes, an argument could be made that "aliens" would be a more plausible explanation for the skywriting than "God." But even when I give religion the benefit of the doubt in the evidence game -- even when I say, "If this skywriting thing happened, I would be persuaded" -- it still falls short.
It's a neat way of trying to back out of what she had written but then why not call her article "6 (Unlikely) Developments That Shouldn't Convince This Atheist To Believe in God"?
We seem to be going in circles and will have to agree to disagree. I will go on calling the attitude embodied in Christina's example deeply unscientific.
Quite simply, the former is a heck of a lot harder to fake, especially with the details that Greta Christina mentioned.
"We seem to be going in circles and will have to agree to disagree."
I'm afraid so. The trouble that I see with your position is that it makes naturalism indefeasible. Anything in principle can be explained by unknown causes with the label "natural" slapped onto them, even if those unknown causes practically amount to magic. Your stance makes it impossible for the equivalent of "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian" to exist for atheism or agnosticism. That doesn't sit too well with me.
The God of the Bible is incoherent.
Well just whose existence are we trying to establish, then? An omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being who is not the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being worshipped by Christians, which atheists do not believe in?
whether the existence of one would be more probable than the theory of relativity being wrong would depend on the evidence for said deity.
Again you are making the mistake of considering evidence as metaphysically neutral. Relativity and theism both come with various priors and assumptions. It would be ironic to treat these as sacred when trying to determine the empirical probability of God.
We've kept using the assumption because it has worked out so far, but if such an assumption started leading into clumsier and kludgier explanations and hand waving, that would be a sign that the assumption should be revised. That's true for any working assumption.
Precisely. Naturalism has remained intact, though its contents have changed. Why would we not make a provision for this to be so in the face of presently inexplicable phenomena? If dark matter turns out to be bullshit, and we have to revise or replace the standard model, we'll probably be able to do so without re-introducing god(s).
The trouble that I see with your position is that it makes naturalism indefeasible.
That's the proper way to approach an ontology, until the moment you just cannot. Difficult-to-explain-letters-in-the-sky are not that moment. The alternative would be to say, in each case, "of course it's possible God put the fossils in those rocks to test our faith." There's no scientific way to adjudicate between geology and YEC
at this point, but you seem to be arguing that we should try.
btw Brandon @ Siris has some nice words about this today.
Haldane's line was, typically, witty and quotable but not necessarily right. Wikipedia actually has a nice discussion of it:
Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith doubted that a single set of anachronistic fossils, however, even rabbits in the Precambrian, would disprove the theory of evolution outright. The first question raised by the assertion of such a discovery would be whether the alleged "Precambrian rabbits" really were fossilized rabbits. Alternative interpretations might include incorrect identification of the "fossils", incorrect dating of the rocks, and a hoax such as the Piltdown Man was shown to be. Even if the "Precambrian rabbits" turned out to be genuine, they would not instantly refute the theory of evolution, because that theory is a large package of ideas, including: that life on Earth has evolved over billions of years; that this evolution is driven by certain mechanisms; and that these mechanisms have produced a specific "family tree" that defines the relationships among species and the order in which they appeared. Hence, "Precambrian rabbits" would prove that there were one or more serious errors somewhere in this package, and the next task would be to identify the error(s).
Your stance makes it impossible for the equivalent of "fossil rabbits in the Precambrian" to exist for atheism or agnosticism.
I have no problem with that. I don't think that my agnosticism is evidence based. That's not to say it is irrational. Reason is not necessarily based on empiric evidence. In fact, my agnosticism is based more on the lack of reliable evidence on the existence or non-existence of gods(s).
The trouble that I see with your position is that it makes naturalism indefeasible.
Methodological naturalism is indefeasible by science. The only way to defeat methodological naturalism is to show that science doesn't work at all.
On the plus side of it all, it all seems to show that you can catch up completely on almost the whole range of theist-atheist debate outside of academic philosophy simply by reading Hume's Dialogues, which is bound to be a considerable time-saver.
This is the whole argument. Science flows from methodological naturalism--the conditional, operational supposition of metaphysical naturalism. Not the other way around. No *scientific* finding can disprove it. But plenty of non-scientific ones can (God put those fossils in those rocks, e.g.)
Much of the ensuing discussion seems to have been centered around whether or not her example is appropriate. I would propose that in such circumstance as described any rational person would include God on a very short list of possible causes, along with mass hallucination and telepathic aliens perhaps. It is nonsensical to argue that one of these proposed causes (phenomena) is more natural, and therefor more plausible, than the others, as you seem to attempt in you response J. J. Ramsey. This is because of the simple fact that supernatural phenomena, by definition, don't exist. The phrase is somewhat of an oxymoron. If God exists he must be considered a natural phenomenon, by virtue of existence within the universe. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, what would it look like if it looked like supernatural phenomena really existed? The answer: We would not perceive them as supernatural at all, as they would be part of our reference of natural phenomena. Therefor the the three proposed explanations must be viewed with equal skepticism, because they all posit a natural explanation.
I'd also like to point out that Occam's razor gets bandied about far too often as an indicator of truth, and inappropriately so. Occam's razor is not a standard of, or a method of, proof by any means. If god exists then god exists regardless of the relative simplicity or complexity of god not exiting. Similarly if god exists then god exists regardless of the lack of proof. Proof is not necessary for existence! Of course this is not a generative statement, but it does show that if one is to argue for the non-existence of something, it is NOT sufficient simply to point to a lack of evidence, which is to say, be a skeptic. To be sure, being a skeptic is no guarantee against being wrong. On could look up at the night sky, with the naked eye, and say, "I see no evidence of binary systems, I therefor conclude that they don't exist." This would be a very reasonable conclusion, in accordance with Occam's razor in fact, but it would be dead wrong.
I have, indeed, re-framed it, which is a perfectly legitimate way of looking at the reasonableness of any argument.
You've replaced the question, "What would I personally consider as evidence of the existence of divinity?" with an imaginary question was never actually asked of her, "What would make me abandon my skeptical ways?" It seems clear to me from the context of the original article that her response to your question would be, "Nothing will make me abandon my skeptical ways. I will always require evidence. Here is an example of such evidence..."
Actually, she says "what would convince me", not "what I would consider evidence". But the question is why any skeptical person, without more, would take writing in the sky as "evidence," especially when she acknowledges that it provides no critical test of the proposition.
It is nonsensical to argue that one of these proposed causes (phenomena) is more natural, and therefor more plausible, than the others ...
Mass halucinations of human beings and the existence and abilities of natural, though extraterrestrial, beings are certainly considered to be investigatable topics by most scientists because those phenomena (presumably) operate by the regularities we call "natural law."
If God exists he must be considered a natural phenomenon, by virtue of existence within the universe. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, what would it look like if it looked like supernatural phenomena really existed? The answer: We would not perceive them as supernatural at all, as they would be part of our reference of natural phenomena. Therefor the the three proposed explanations must be viewed with equal skepticism, because they all posit a natural explanation.
Then there is no basis for Christina choosing one over the other and her insistence that writing in the sky would somehow convince her of one over the other is a failure of skepticism.
It is true that, if god(s) acted with the kind of regularity that we associate with "natural law" (e.g. one particular prayer = a cure of a disease), they would be indistinguishable from "natural law." But the very reason Christina chose her example was because it (supposedly) so violated what we know about natural law that it would convince her that "natural law" had been superseded and that very supersedence would be evidence of god(s). Her example assumes that there is a difference between the natural and the supernatural!
The point of methodological naturalism is that science assumes that all phenomena have natural causes (an admittedly difficult concept to define) and that science will go on looking for natural causes no matter what, instead of declaring our present ignorance is somehow "evidence" (the way IDers do). I still maintain that her example of a reason to believe in god(s), when examined, would require an abandonment of skepticism and science.
On Occam's Razor we agree completely.
For that reason it is not true that "any rational person would include God on a very short list of possible causes [of letters in the sky], along with mass hallucination and telepathic aliens perhaps," any more than we would include him on a short list of why there are fossils in rocks ("to test our faith.")
Bishop bernard jordan