Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why gravity is real but god is not

Christian Platt, in his recent article "Atheism: A Null Hypothesis on God", admits that "I have tried in vain over the years to understand atheism.". He then goes on to make various analogies for acquiring knowledge of various phenomena empirically, such as our seeing things from reflected light, and our verifying gravity by its effects, with his claims of witnessing god by god's reflections and effects. He, and other people like him, will continue to have difficulty understanding atheism because he is not understanding the difference between arguments based on empirical evidence and his arguments for god. This distinction is not difficult to grasp, and after understanding this distinction, he may come closer to his positive goal of "getting" atheism.

But first, lets dispell the unbalanced notion, which Christian Platt mistakenly promotes, that agnosticism is consistent with Christian theism but inconsistent with atheism. He appears to confuse uncertainity that god exists with faith that god exists, and since atheists don't have faith that god exists he concludes atheists are not agnostic. But all agnostics do not have faith that god exists. Not having perfect and direct knowledge that something exists does not equate with faith that it does exist.

Christian Platt is correct that everyone should be agnostic because humans are not omniscient. But he is incorrect to say that atheism precludes agnosticism. Richard Dawkins, for example, has acknowledged that he has such uncertainty. All atheists who are thoughtful acknowledge agnosticism. He also claims that atheism 'implies the same kind of certitude that a religious fundamentalist might claim is arguing they "know without any doubt that God exists."'. Some atheists may say that, but in my experience most atheists either say they don't believe and stop there, or say they believe there is no god, instead of saying they "know without any doubt". This notion of disbelief isn't difficult, and there is no good reason for intelligent people to have difficulty with this concept of disbelief in the singular context of god belief when everyone disbelieves lots of things. The real issue here isn't whether someone has any particular conviction, nor whether that conviction is definite or indefinite, nor whether the conviction is in the middle, or towards one end, of a true versus false spectrum line. The real issue is whether the belief, or disbelief, is well justified and held in proper proportion to the evidence.

Christian Platt then approvingly quotes John D. Caputo for his argument that God belief "insists, so that the rest of creation might exist.". This sounds like an argument that the universe must have a creator. That is a dubious assumption. For example, insects exist, but they do not have a creator. Insects exist because of abiogenesis and evolution. Some cosmologists think that the universe was spontaneously created, or self-created, and most cosmologists think that a self created or spontaneously created universe is consistent with all of the known laws of physics. While the notion of a creator is intuitive, we know from the very long list of non-intuitive and counter-intuitive conclusions found within modern knowledge, that intuition is not a good guide to, let alone a good source of, knowledge.

Christian Platt then declares: 'God is the impetus, the spark, the divine breath, the "inspiration," if you will from which all the rest of creation finds meaning.' I think this is silly, and I will try to explain why. Meaning is found in our experiencing and living our lives. Merely declaring otherwise does not constitute a justification for claiming otherwise, let alone constitute a compelling argument for a god. The notion of creation finding meaning makes no sense. There is no meaning to be had outside the context of minds capable of contemplating the concept, and all such minds that are known to exist reside in physical brains that are attached to physical bodies of animals. Saying that "creation finds" a concept or sentiment, such as meaning, is a category error. This is poetic language, but evidence and argument is not found in poetry. If it were then we would go to poets instead of medical doctors for our annual medical health checks.

Christian Platt then argues that God is found "conspiring with the physical world to create something that makes sense." Here is where he indulges the flawed analogy with seeing an object indirectly as "the result of the interaction between the light and the observed object.". Light is a physical entity that is measurable, it has amplitude and wavelength, it is empirically observed and evidenced. This is very different from the assertion about the vague concepts "something that makes sense" and "conspiring". This analogy doesn't work at all, since the foundation of our knowledge in the second case is precisely the empirical evidence that is completely absent in the first case.

Christian Platt then tries to argue that empirical evidence is not necessary because in the past we didn't know about atomic particles, or dark matter. He appears to be confusing what we know, a.k.a. ontology, with how we know, a.k.a. epistemology. It would be nice if we could just eliminate the effort and time needed to acquire knowledge and magically skip to having knowledge through some unspecified direct mechanism to this particular truth claim (god). However, such magical and instant capability to directly possess knowledge has not demonstrated much success as a non-empirical, alternative method for acquiring knowledge. There is a time sequence constraint here that applies to everyone. Time travels in a single direction from past to present to future. Before we can have knowledge about what is true we must first obtain the evidence to justify the conclusion that it is true. The latter achievement precedes the former achievement in time, we cannot properly leap directly to a conclusion without the evidence needed to justify the conclusion.

Christian Platt cites gravity a second time, saying it 'cannot be directly observed: only measured as it affects other objects. It's not a "thing" that can be pinned down.'. Gravity is due to curvature in space-time, and space-time curvature is a thing that can be, and is, predicted and indirectly measured. It is true that all empirical measurements and observations and knowledge can be said to be indirectly acquired. But the critical and essential attribute of evidence is that it is repeatedly measureable and observable, attributes that are entirely missing from poetic "evidences", if we can call them that, for god. Even if it is true that everything that is empirically evidenced is evidenced indirectly, it doesn't follow that everything that is argued for indirectly is therefore also properly evidenced.

Christian Platt then asserts "to say that even science is entirely constrained by the scientific method is to ignore the creative imagination required to stretch the boundaries, to imagine what might be, beyond what is now understood to be. It's this kind of imagination that pushes humanity to create new tools that have allowed us to observe things we never knew existed before.". The notion that atheists define the scientific method so narrowly as to preclude a role for imagination is false. Imagination, when married with empiricism, can be an important contributor to getting productive ideas. But imagination is no substitute for grounding existence claims in empirical evidence. Undiscplined imagination unfettered by empiricism has been a path to much fictional fantasy falsely claiming to be knowledge. There is excellent reason to think that imagination by itself is a source of fiction only.

Christian Platt then argues "making room for those possibilities, seem, to me, to be at the heart of science as much as the rigorous processes defined by the scientific method.". If by "those possibilities" he means all of the possibilities that have no empirical support then the fact is that the scientific method does not endorse, and cannot arbitrarily endorse, any such possibilities. But the issue here is not "scientific method". The issue is the need for empirical evidence in support of existence claims to justify the corresponding existence beliefs.

The article concludes with this comment: "However, to leap from that to certitude of God's non-existence is to violate the principles of the scientific method, isn't it?". Explicit atheism is not a conclusion of science. It is a belief based on an assessment that the overall direction and weight of the available evidence favors the conclusion that there are no non-material actors with non-material super intelligent minds that created the universe or that take some special interest in humans or that intervene, monitor, or oversee human affairs on earth, nor that humans continue to live forever as material or non-material entities after they die under circumstances dictated by such a god, nor anything of this sort. Instead, the available evidences best fits the conclusion that all god stories are human created fictions that have no relationship to anything that is true.

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