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MisterPengo
July 20th, 2008
09:45 am
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When the game is broken.
Religious-themed post today, folks. Here comes the cut.



I doubt it'll shock anyone to learn that I do some online arguing now and then. I think I've mellowed out considerably from a far more debate-prone past - most 'debates' are little more than posturing, or are undertaken not with the hope of learning but of advancing a social or political cause. Sometimes I just can't help myself, but ultimately I know that on the topics I love to discuss most - religious, primarily - in the end, not much progress can be made. I'm not saying this as a mere critique of human nature either; I'm saying that based on our current state of knowledge, our current technological capabilities, some seemingly insurmountable philosophical barriers, and finally our foresight and imagination, we're in a permanent bind. Another way of putting it is 'we're fucked'.

Now, let me state right off the bat that I'm Catholic. I rejected the church in my youth, for just about every reason any expectant atheist would - claims of hypocrisy, of incredulity, of harm to society, etc. I returned because I became increasingly convinced of the power - the unique power - of Catholicism's rationale for just about everything they stand for, from just war doctrine to contraception to charity to justice to elsewise. All this while being a monolithic faith dedicated to the idea that humanity is, at its nature, fallen and twisted. I could go on here, but I think that's enough to mention where I stand. I'm a bad person in a lot of ways, certainly imperfect, but there's a place for me in the Church, and in Christianity at large.

But if I wasn't Catholic, I'd still be a theist. At the very least, a deist. And the reason has nothing to do with faith, supernatural experience (never really had one), or Pascal's wager logic - though I have respect for these, and will write more about them another time.

See, despite what you hear nowadays - deism/basic theism is the most rational option on the table, and always will be. It best fits the data, and best plays the role of null hypothesis. And this holds true even if you take the most materialist/physicalist 'all there is is matter and interactions with matter' stance possible. In fact, such a stance only bolsters this position.

At core, deism/theism makes only one assertion about our reality: It is fundamentally related to mind. Everything in nature - from galaxies and planets to cells and bacteria - is related, at origin and base, to a mind. Everything we see can ultimately be understood, conceptualized, orchestrated and originated by an agent.

At core, atheism makes the opposite assertion about our reality: It is fundamentally not related to mind. Everything in nature - from galaxies and planets to cells and bacteria - came about, at origin and base, unplanned. Unforeseen. Unorchestrated. It "just is", and the fact that those with minds can understand, conceptualize, orchestrate and originate these things to any degree is at most coincidental.

Problem one: Both of these positions are unfalsifiable. No evidence can be rallied to disprove the other.

This point doesn't get enough airtime nowadays, due to a lot of confusion on both sides. I can imagine the instinctive response to this: "That's not true! If God exists, He can just come right down and appear! Atheism would be falsified!"

I'm going to explain why this isn't the case, but before I do, we have to move on to the next problem.

Problem two: Both of these positions involve an entity that is, for all practical purposes, omnipotent.

Now, for deism/theism, this is obvious - it's a core claim (with some philosophical griping here and there) of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and just about every other theistic faith around.

But the same holds for atheism too: Anything, any being, any event, can be accounted for by a claim of brute-fact 'just is', deception, or appeals to chance + large enough odds pool. And any instance whatsoever of the intervention of God can be discounted and explained as either 'lucky coincidence' or the actions of a powerful, but less-than-God being. Write 'I Exist - Signed, God' on the moon? Predict the lottery 1000 times in a row? Predict your own thoughts hours in advance, moment for moment, before you make them? Defy the known laws of nature?

It doesn't matter. Message on the moon? That's just superior technology at work. Predict the lottery 1000 times? Congratulations on your amazing capability to rig the lottery. Your own thoughts predicted? Brainwashing, hyponosis, or other kinds of advanced technological meddling before or after the fact. Defy the known laws of nature? Illusion, more manipulation, matrix, or 'Well, it looks like we have more to learn about the laws of nature.' Even if God certainly exists, the world the atheist envisions can do it all - there is always a way available to the imagination.

But here things start to break down.

Problem three: But between atheism and deism/theism, the only available evidence we have and can ever acquire supports deism/atheism.

Now as I said, there's no way to falsify either God or atheism. But you can still get evidence in favor of deism/theism - in fact, it's the only kind of evidence you can get. And the reason lays with good ol' Descartes: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

Mind is undeniable for us. But it's not just pure subjective experience we're dealing with here, but creativity. Creation. Design. Not only can we do this purely in our heads in the form of dreams and imagination, but we can conceptualize the actual world we live in - come to understandings about everything from quantum mechanics to galaxy formation to creating life to otherwise. We can understand, predict, and even simulate - all with progressively greater accuracy. The result is that everything we see, we can conceive mind being behind as a guiding or originating force - regardless of any length or pattern of the chain of causality. And every incremental advancement in our knowledge and our technology provides incremental, if inconclusive evidence in favor of a mind being fundamental to reality itself.

But we have no similar analogue for the atheism proposal - and by definition, we cannot. The best we can do is propose an eternal, mindless past with all the right conditions and features to eventually lead to us - or mindless, pointless material popping out of true vacuum. We can't even properly /imagine/ this happening because, guess what? Imagine it happening and you're just showing how a mind can act as the source for what you envision. You end up with the bizarre proposal that the universe, with no intention at work whatsoever, just happened to give rise to beings with subjective knowledge of the only property that can satisfactorily account for everything we see -without- necessary ingredient of fundamental brute-force luck. All this without touching on any appeals to revelation or miracle.

It only gets worse from here on out. Let's say an atheist proposes a past-eternal cosmology - the universe has always existed with all the right properties to eventually result in creatures who have minds, like us. Unfortunately, this is not an evasion of the idea that our reality, our existence, is fundamentally related to mind.

It's practically a guarantee.

If you're allowing the past to be eternal, you're not proposing a mindless eternity. You're ensuring that our existence was preceded by intelligent life that literally had eternity to develop and figure out the surprisingly rational, organized reality it inhabits. Worse yet, if simulations of reality - any reality, not just the 'real' one - can be built, they've been built. In fact, an infinite number have been built. And the odds don't favor us occupying the 'real' universe world in that infinite haystack. Eternity can't favor atheism - it just establishes mind as every bit as fundamental as matter.

Of course, there's always the alternative: Inexplicable creation out of nothingness, by nothing - with all those brute-force 'right' properties for the universe to be rational and give rise to minds which can conceive of a more plausible method. And if this gets proposed, it will only show that atheists are entirely capable of providing vastly more "magical" cosmologies than the most mushroom-stoked theist ever dreamt of. Worse, it's the ultimate in unfalsifiability; how can you ever be sure 'nothing' was really the source?

Paraphrasing Churchill, 'Deism/theism is the worst explanation for existence, except for all the alternatives.'

Next time I'll talk about how computer simulations provide a powerful model for theistic concepts of the supernatural and God's relation to the universe(s).

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