The Blind Spots of Atheism
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As long as we’re discussing the decline of religion and the increase in atheism (see last week’s post) this seems as good a time as any to discuss a few interesting arguments concerning the existence of God I’ve come across recently. The first couple are from Miles Mathis. I forget where I got the link from, and as I was writing this up I googled Mathis, and it appears that some people really loathe him. Perhaps there’s a good reason for this, I have no previous acquaintance with his work, but I’d like to think I’m one of those increasingly rare individuals who feels that arguments can and should be judged in isolation without having to consider whether someone has committed a thoughtcrime in some other unrelated domain. I actually doubt that I am quite so pure, but it’s still a worthy goal.
So, what are these arguments you ask? Well Mathis begins by explaining that he is not an atheist, nor an agnostic, nor even a skeptic. As a defense, for eschewing all of these various labels, he points out that all of them depend on having a certain amount of data. Data that people who do adopt these titles simply don’t possess. He illustrates what he means by making the very valid point that commenting on, or in the extreme case, ruling out the existence of God is a very different endeavor from commenting on the existence of, say, Big Foot.
Of course, with the existence of Bigfoot and unicorns and so on we do have a great deal of information. We have made searches. The Earth is a limited environment and we have populated it widely and heavily and long. Even so, the mountain gorilla was not discovered until 1902, and huge populations of lowland gorillas were only recently discovered in the Congo. Which is to say that we may lean a bit to a “no” answer for existence of larger beings in smaller areas we have scoured quite thoroughly, but even then we may be wrong.
But in looking for proof of gods, our search is pathetically limited. By definition, a god is a being whose powers are far greater than ours, who we cannot comprehend, and whose form we cannot predict. This would make our failure to locate a god quite understandable. A very large or small god would be above or below our notice, and a distant god would also evade our sensors. Not to mention we only have five senses. If we are manipulated by gods, as the hypothesis goes, then it would be quite easy for them to deny us the eyes to see them. Only a god of near-human size in the near environs would be possible to detect. [links added by me]
This is not only an excellent point, but it would seem to go beyond being just a clever observation, perhaps Mathis has more properly identified a new sort of cognitive bias. Though it has elements of the ambiguity effect, anthropocentric thinking, attribute substitution and availability cascade, and that’s just in the A’s. Though perhaps we can boil it all down to metaphysical hubris. Mathis himself describes the position of the atheist as being “epistemologically stronger”:
By [epistemologically] stronger, I do not mean that the atheist is more likely to be right, I mean that the position of the atheist requires more proof. The theist does not say he knows that God exists, he says he believes it. Faith is a belief whereas knowledge is a certainty. This gives the religious person some wiggle room. He doesn't need to talk of proofs, since a belief is never based on proofs. Belief and faith are built mainly on willpower. Atheists will say that such a foundation is quicksand, and I tend to agree, but atheists stand in even waterier mud.
From here he goes on to make another argument, one that’s very similar to the point I brought up in my post Atheists and Unavoidability of the Divine. That when atheists and agnostics engage in even the smallest amount of metaphysical imagination they come up with something very much equivalent to a God. They avoid labeling it as such, but despite this lack of a label they imagine something unequivocally god-like.
I’m grateful to Mathis for providing yet another excellent example of this phenomena:
...let us consider Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens has been called one of the four horsemen of atheism (along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris), and knowing him, it is likely a self-naming and self-glorification. Problem is, Hitchens is also famous for saying,
My own pet theory is that, from the patterns of behavior that are observable, we may infer a design that makes planet earth, all unknown to us, a prison colony and lunatic asylum that is employed as a dumping ground by a far-off and superior civilizations.
Hmmm. I suspect that the other three horsemen would have preferred he hadn't said that. Why? Because proof of a superior civilization using the Earth as a dumping ground would be proof of gods, heaven, hell, judgment, and a host of other things. If the Earth is a dumping ground for the unfit, that makes it hell, or very close, and makes the planet of the superior civilization heaven, or very close. It makes the superior civilization a race of gods, since they have powers we do not, are unknown to us, and have long evaded our detection. And to find us unfit, they must judge us, almost as a god does. Since we are born here, not transported bodily here in later life, we are either damned as spirits, which would prove a soul, or we are damned by the lives of our ancestors, which would prove a “sins of the fathers” theory. Regardless, it is clear that Hitchens, no matter his opinion of Christians, has a heavy Biblical residue. Also notice that he believes all this without proof, and without apology for his lack of proof. Clearly, he is allowed to believe what he wants to, while other people can't, even when his beliefs are shadows of theirs. Why he is allowed when they aren't is not so clear, but we may conjecture that it is because he is a loudmouthed bully.
Once again we have another piece of evidence illustrating that atheists have no problem imagining a God, it seems to be more that they just find the ones put forth by the various religions to not be to their tastes. I don’t want to spend too much time rehashing my own arguments in this space, but for those without the time to go back and read my previous post, here’s another example:
Richard Dawkins, widely regarded as the poster child for aggressive atheism said the following:
Whether we ever get to know them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.
In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but in their provenance. Entities that are complex enough to be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn’t start that way.
I’m not arguing that the distinction he makes concerning the provenance of gods isn’t an important one. But what if there were a religion that both understands that distinction and comes down on the same side of it as Dawkins? As a matter of fact there is, what Dawkins describes is in all essential respects what Mormon’s believe. Does this mean that Dawkins is on the verge of converting? I very much doubt it. In other words both Dawkins and Hitchens can imagine the existence of god-like beings. They just can’t imagine these god-like beings behaving like the God that all those creepy religious people believe in.
For the final argument I want to revisit Pascal’s Wager, or rather a variant of the wager those in the rationalist community have labeled Pascal’s Mugging. And I’ve always got the impression that the latter was devised in order to make the former seem more silly.
Presumably all of my readers are familiar with the wager, so let me explain what the mugging is. First the scenario assumes that you are a utilitarian, that you “choose those actions with outcomes that, after being weighted by their probabilities, have a greater utility”. As a utilitarian your forced to make any number of difficult choices, where the probabilities are unclear, but in this particular scenario, you’re approached by someone claiming to be able to cause an implausible level of harm unless you give them all your money. You’re being mugged, but in a way that resembles Pascal’s wager.
To make the example more concrete, imagine that the “mugger” says that they are an alien, of god-like power (note the connection to the above) and that unless you give them all of your money that they will use their alien superpowers to destroy the planet Omicron Persei 8 along with its 8 billion sentient inhabitants. As a true utilitarian you’re now forced to calculate the probabilities involved and decide whether to give the person all of the money you’re currently carrying (let’s say it’s $100 to make it easier) or whether, with infinitesimal probability, to refuse, and by so doing doom 8 billion Omicronians to death.
As I said, the probability that the mugger is in fact an immensely powerful alien is infinitesimal, but how infinitesimal? There are various ways to try to judge this probability, but they mostly boil down to the message, the messenger, and your priors.
One of the first things that jumps out at you is how self-serving his message is. How much incentive he has to lie in order to get the money he obviously needs. And of course the idea that he has the god-like powers he describes and yet still needs you to give him $100 is also a huge red flag. But what if instead he’s offering to help you. Maybe instead of trying to take $100 he’s insisting that he has to give you $100 or they will all die. You would still assign a low probability to the story being true, but the whole character of the interaction has changed. Also you would probably have no problem taking the money “just in case”.
You might recognize that Omicron Persei 8, is a Futurama reference. That would probably also make his threat less credible. But what if, instead of claiming billions of sentients would die, the mugger made the claim that giving him $100 would be a good deed, and provide spiritual benefits, both in this life and the life to come. Suddenly, for many if not most people, the connection is a lot easier to swallow. Finally, what if his message wasn’t limited to the brief threat I outlined above, what is he had a whole book on the subject which you could read? (Perhaps at gunpoint?) And what if the book was persuasive and well written? How does that affect things?
Moving on to the messenger, perhaps it shouldn’t make a difference, but I think most of us would react differently if the messenger were in a suit and spoke with a British accent, as opposed to a messenger who was tattooed, appeared high, and leavened his demands with profanity. What if the messenger wasn’t a stranger at all, but rather your father? Or what if there were more the one person telling you about this event? What if there were millions? What if they included all of your ancestors? (We’ll set aside for the moment how these ancestors communicate with you.)
Finally, if we’re talking about a bayesian utilitarian (or even if we’re not) we have to consider their prior estimates for there being ultra-powerful aliens, and whether any given individual, particularly one demanding $100, might be one of these aliens. Understandably when all of this combined together the prior probability is going to be very low, but we’ve also show that once you start tweaking the message and the messenger the probability can change pretty dramatically. In fact even if we moderate everything about the “mugging” and leave only the ultra-powerful alien, what’s your prior probability on that?
This is one of the justifications for why I keep bringing up Fermi’s Paradox. It’s a paradox for a reason. Our prior estimate for the probability of other intelligent aliens should by all accounts be very high. And further, we would also be very surprised if they weren’t vastly more powerful than us. Accordingly it’s mostly the implausible threat (plus the Futurama reference) that gives us such low priors. Strip those away and at the very least you would no longer call the probability infinitesimal.
Obviously there are a lot of moving parts at this point, and just as obviously you probably know what direction I’m headed with all this. As I said, my impression is that lots of people use Pascal’s Mugging as a quick and dirty way to dismiss Pascal’s Wager. But as I’ve hopefully shown, each step one takes towards making the example more closely resemble how religion actually works, makes it less silly and more probable.
A belief in God and religion does not come from nowhere. It’s not something you’re hearing about from one person with no prior context. It’s something that’s been around for thousands of years. Nor is there a single messenger, not only are there millions of other believers, but for most people there is a long line of ancestors. All of whom thought belief and religion were good ideas to one degree or another. Finally, I know people are going to disagree about money as a motivation and using the threat of harm befalling people in a world outside of this one, but as I and others have pointed out, religion makes the lives of its adherents better. Which is to say, most people are paradoxically better off agreeing to be mugged.
The point of all of the above is not to talk someone into religion solely by pointing out more problems with some common atheist arguments. Such an endeavor would obviously be futile. Nor is the point to stretch these arguments beyond where they can reasonably be applied, they’re interesting, but the argument over God’s existence has been going on for a very, very long time and these points are only the tiniest additions to that argument.
Also, if I’m being honest, part of my reason for bringing these points up, is that they make my team look better and the other team look worse. Sort of a Christians rule atheists drool motivation, if you will. But that point aside, what I’m hoping people will take away from this post and all of my posts on this topic is a caution against being overly flippant about the question of God’s existence.
Critics of Pascal’s Wager often ask us to consider it in isolation shorn of emotion, community, history or earthly benefits, reducing it to something shallow and silly like Pascal’s Mugging. That it’s a choice rational people consider once and just as quickly dismiss before moving on with their life. But in reality all of life and all of history is tied up in this choice.
Perhaps there is no God. I believe that there is, and I’ve bet my entire life around that belief. I freely admit that everyone is free to make that bet however they choose, and that many people are going to make a choice different than mine. What I will not concede is that this choice is silly or trivial, rather I believe it’s the most important choice we’re ever called upon to make.
A far less important choice is deciding whether or not to support this blog. I make light of that choice every time I post, but I consider it neither trivial nor silly. And for those who do support it, my gratitude, much like the reward of Pascal’s Wager, is infinite. Should you want a piece of that, consider donating.