Absolute Agnosticism

Workability:

When I say something supernatural has zero workability I mean simply that it does not provide me a tool for accomplishing anything or discovering other reliable information. A map of London may prove useful and workable. A map of heaven is not of much value that this feeble mind can imagine. Of course a person could say “The way to happiness and salvation is to let Jesus into your heart.” and they could conduct their life accordingly and could therefore describe their untestable assumption as “workable”. Well, good for them. For me, I simply have no idea what their statement even means, so for me it is unworkable.

Bigfoot(s):

Reports of divine resurrection are anecdotal. I should have said no empirical evidence. My bad. Apparent design is, again, subjective interpretation. I’d be prepared to wager that if one took 10 million coins, dropped them from some height onto the ground enough times, eventually a perfect likeness of my face would appear, thereby proving to some people that I am god. As to the efficacy of prayer, I am not familiar with any studies concluding that, though I admit to having seen reference to this phenomenon. If it is true, then that is something that should be studied in depth. I am not saying there is no possibility of evidence for supernatural phenomena or beings; only that I am unaware of any and cannot conceive of any – unlike with Bigfoot, for whom I can easily conjure up potential evidence.

Footprints:

Again, I think you are posing a false, or at least unnecessary, problem. If someone brought me the footprint why on earth would I consider any question other than “What made this footprint?”. Why must I relate it to Bigfoot who is psychic, Bigfoot who can walk through walls, or any other wacky version of Bigfoot? A scientist does not, when encountering some piece of beetle-related physical evidence, ask “I wonder if this is related to a beetle… or to a beetle with telepathic powers?”

Logic:

I think “logical investigation” is something of an oxymoron. “Logical consideration” or “logical contemplation” I could accept, but investigation is investigation – observation, manipulation, and measurement of that which is observable, capable of manipulation and measurable – not simply thinking about it. I disagree when you say science uses logic all the time. Is this not exactly what Galileo railed against when he dropped his whatsit from the tower? Perhaps I am mistaken but I have always thought that one of the primary purposes of the scientific method was to remove logic in favor of empirical examination because historically logic had led to incorrect conclusions. Logic may come to bear in the construction of an objective investigation, of course, but may not be used as a substitute for it.

Furthermore, and this is a point we seem to disagree on, if the subject is supernatural then logic, which is based on the consideration of relationships between natural phenomena, objects, or games conditions, can simply not be used as a valid tool for examination. When one introduces “logic” into discussion of the supernatural it can lead only to the statement “That defies logic.”. “God is everywhere.” is 100% illogical. However, by definition, God is metaphysical, beyond the physical, so science and logic may not be assumed to apply. Whatever wild statement one may make about god, all that science and logic can say is “That could not be so in this universe.” But god is not in or of this universe. It seems to me you keep trying to apply (or to get me to apply) baseball rules (physics/logic) to a game of football (metaphysics), which you are free to do, of course, but I suspect the result will always be unsatisfying.

To summarize:
Q: What can logic tell us about the supernatural?
A: Nothing.

Occam’s Razor:

I do not believe I said these things are equally meaningless in the sense you seem to attribute to me. I said that because their actual existence is untestable, the differing details appended to that existence are irrelevant to me. The equivalence I assert is about relevancy, not likelihood. I am agnostic about likelihood of existence and therefore agnostic about anything that flows from or is a function of that existence. Is it more likely that an invisible flying blue weejee-weejee has 4 limbs or 687 limbs, each with an eye having Superman-like X-ray vision? Well, I really don’t know. I will debate the various levels of limb-age likelihood and other fantastical attributes after it has been shown to me that the creature, whatever its form, actually exists.

I believe that Occam’s Razor is applied to theories for which there is evidence, as a guide to evaluating the relative quantity and weight of evidence vis a vis two competing theories. e.g.

1. The universe explained by Big Bang/Physics, with the varieties of evidence available combined with the variety of currently untestable assumptions the theory requires, vs

2. The universe explained by God with the fact of existence of the universe plus the biblical account of Genesis combined with the near infinite number of currently untestable assumptions the theory entails.

Or:

1. Money replaced a lost tooth under my pillow because a creature named The Tooth Fairy whom nobody has ever seen made a swap while I was asleep, vs

2. Money replaced a lost tooth under my pillow because my mother made a swap while I was asleep.

Here the known facts are the same: missing tooth + new money. But the assumptions are unequal (qualitatively, not numerically, since the parent’s alleged actions are testable in theory at least) and on Occamite grounds I’ll opt for Mommy’s deceptive generosity.

However, replace number 2 above, with:

2. Money replaced a lost tooth under my pillow because a creature named The Telekinetic Tooth Fairy with telekinetic powers whom nobody has ever seen made a swap via telekinesis while I was asleep.

Here Occam is of no help because, despite the fact that #2 contains more assumptions, the sine qua non (existence) is itself an assumption upon which any others depend (invisibility, telekinetic power) and is qualitatively equal for both. Prove to me that the invisible creature exists and then perhaps I will say the Tooth Fairy is more likely than the Telekinetic Tooth Fairy.

Where both theories are supported only by assumption(s), how could one and why would one try to apply Occam as a guideline?

Jehovah:

If Jehovah exists, perhaps he impacts on my life and I am unaware of it. Fine. But why would I bother pondering that possibility if I have no evidence of it being so? Because a Christian tells me it is so? Must I consider or attempt to calculate the veracity of every statement or claim made to me by anyone? Provide me objective evidence and I most certainly will consider the whole matter.

Discussion of deities:

I simply disagree with your assertion that such discussions would be useful, unless by useful you mean entertaining or time-killing. Otherwise, I’d be hard pressed to imagine anything more useless than two people who disagree completely on a basic premise discussing anything that might flow from that premise with a view to reaching agreement or arriving at conclusions. Perhaps a Swahili speaker and a German speaker debating intricacies of Farsi syntax might be in the ballpark.

Dowsing:

When I say “supernatural” I mean something that is not bound by the laws of physics. I do not believe anyone has ever described dowsing in those terms. Science does not say that all untestable things are equally likely and neither do I. I say they are equally meaningless.

Uri Geller:

I agree but disagree slightly but significantly with your wording. Science’s conclusion should be “No evidence has been found to support the hypothesis that Uri Geller can bend spoons without the application of physical force and it is therefore not accepted at this time.”

Two camps:

Correct. I fall into neither camp.

Me as materialist:

I couldn’t disagree more. When I say “I am an agnostic” I mean “I do not know.” Nothing more than that. To call myself a materialist would be to say “I do know.”. But I do not know, so I am not a materialist; I’m an agnostic.

My philosophy:

1) Science is the only valid method of gaining information about the world.

I do not agree with that statement at all. (That view is what the writer Ken Wilber, I believe, called “scientism”. An excellent word, in my opinion.)

2) That which cannot be tested for might or might not exist, but there is no way to tell the truth so there is no point in discussing such things.

Also an incorrect interpretation of my position. However, if you insert the word “currently” before “no way” and amend the final few words to “….there is no point in pontificating about, making declarations about or drawing conclusions about such things.” I would agree completely.

3) I have no opinion about whether or not things that cannot be tested for exist.

Correct.

Have I missed anything?

Cheers,
John

Excellent! I think this lets us narrow the scope of our conversation quite a bit.

The question about bigfoot footprints was, I think, very helpful. You are completely correct that a scientist wouldn’t even consider it to be evidence for a supernatural creature. But what this points out is that you do not consider “Bigfoot” and “Psychic Bigfoot” equally unworkable, even though that was the impression you were giving me. That makes much more sense.

I would argue that modern science uses logical investigation. We differ from the ancient Greeks in that we do not consider logic to be the be-all and end-all of science, but we still use it. Logic is used to weed out possibilities that might be tested so that we waste less time on fruitless experimentation. Einstein spent a lot of time logically analyzing what would become relativity before he proposed any experiments (other than thought experiments). It might be argued that some scientific disciplines, such as exobiology and theoretical physics, are largely logical investigation since they often involve things that cannot be currently tested.

Science certainly prefers investigation to pure logic, but sometimes pure logic is all we have.

We definitely disagree on the nature of logic. Logic is a branch of philosophy and can be expressed mathematically. I do not see why its nature should be tied to natural phenomena, etc., as you propose. To me, saying that logic is tied to the natural world is like saying that numbers are meaningless if there is nothing to count. Some people think that statement is true, but I don’t.

I disagree that the statement “God is everywhere” is illogical. I’d say that it depends on how you define your terms. (Of course, a statement can be logical but still be untrue, but that’s a different subject.)

Certainly Occam’s Razor applies to things for which there is evidence, but in a broader sense it applies to any theory, whether or not evidence exists. This is important because it implies that Occam applies not only to things for which there is evidence, but also to things for which there might one day be evidence. Occam says that Bigfoot is more likely than Supernatural Bigfoot, so we can say that, if evidence ever appears, Occam will prefer the former.

I would say that your statement that Occam is of no help in the discussion of Tooth Fairy vs. Telekinetic Tooth Fairy is incorrect. Occam’s Razor says entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity, so it would seemingly prefer a supernatural thing to that same supernatural thing plus an additional supernatural power. I grant you that, because I consider the possibility of the existence of the tooth fairy to be nil (you might disagree) the difference in this case is effectively meaningless. But in more practical situations, this distinction can be important.

A mathematical aside — if the probability of the existence of fairies and the probability of the existence of telekinesis are both zero, then multiplying their likelihoods gives us zero. But if the probabilities are non-zero, then multiplying them gives us an even lower probability. Then, from your statements, it seems that you are assigning these things zero probability. But in our previous conversations you were unwilling to say that fairies don’t exist, which implies a non-zero probability. Can you see why I would find this counterintuitive?

You ask when/why would one apply Occam when discussing two theories supported only by assumptions. I can think of several examples. Proponents of undiscovered physical phenomena often simply increase the complexity of their theories when confronted by evidence that they are wrong. It is useful to be able to point out that the more complexity they add, the more proof they are going to have to provide. More down to earth, it is useful when discussing purely theoretical branches of science, such as theoretical physics, or certain subjects in disciplines for which it may be hard to get evidence, such as history or evolution. For example, if we assume that there is an undiscovered species that serves as a transition between modern species A and past species B, Occam says we should search for a terrestrial B before searching for an extraterrestrial one, even though both possibilities are supported only by assumptions.

I agree that you are not required to consider whether or not supernatural beings may impact your life if you have no evidence that such things exist. However, it seems to me that implicit in this is an assumption that the likelihood of the existence of such a thing is very low. Would you agree?

We also definitely disagree on the usefulness of being able to have a conversation about deities. I can think of at least three cases in which such discussions are useful: 1) when I am trying to convince someone that their way of thinking is incorrect, 2) when I am trying to convince someone that their basis of morality is incorrect, and 3) when I am trying to understand how someone thinks. Practical, real-world results can come from such conversations.

I understand your clarification of my statement about Uri Geller. In terms of pure science, you are correct. But most scientists don’t practice pure science, they practice practical science. This means that, once a level of evidence gets low enough, they generally go ahead and say that something isn’t true. Again, this is a place where you and I have a fundamental difference in how we present ourselves.

I understand what you mean when you say you are not a materialist. This makes sense. But when you say that science isn’t the only valid method of gaining information about the world, you surprise me a bit. What else do you consider valid? I believe we’ve already eliminated pure logic. What about personal revelation?

Regarding your revision of my statement: “That which cannot be tested for might or might not exist, but there is currently no way to tell the truth so there is no point in pontificating about, making declarations about or drawing conclusions about such things.” I accept this as a statement of your philosophy, but do you recognize that it invalidates certain areas of scientific inquiry? It is not terribly uncommon for scientists to delve deeply into areas that are currently immune to investigation.

Posted on March 7, 2008 at 12:36 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Agnosticism

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