Tuesday, March 31, 2009

An External Purpose for Being

I notice that there are still a lot of atheists who attempt to attach some sort of mystical purpose to their existence. For example, there is the claim that we are the instruments by which the universe discovers itself, or that we are here to find out the nature of our existence (a purpose thwarted by covering up the facts with religious fairy tails).

I do not know where this want for an external purpose comes from. Perhaps it is some left-over brain program from our childhood where we are inclined to prefer the values of our parents. Perhaps it is something that is taught from one generation to the next without stopping to consider the wisdom (or foolishness) of doing so.

Whatever its source, there is no external purpose and, even if there were, it would not have any special significance.

With respect to the above case – the universe has no desires. It particularly has no desire to discover itself, Furthermore, it has no means to create us as an instrument for discovering itself.

Finally, even if all of the above claims were false, why would it be more valuable to be an instrument or tool being used by another for the fulfillment of its own desires? This is akin to valuing slavery or rape – because the slave and the rape victims are also treated as mere instruments for the fulfillment of external desires.

To see the problem with this idea that an external purpose is somehow necessary for a life to have value, I imagine that the universe is some sort of reality show.

Imagine that some omnipotent being who was bored with his life seeking some entertainment. He creates a planet and populates it with people who he has made disposed to split up into tribes that go to war with each other.

To help matters along, he appears in different ways to different people telling each of them, "You are the chosen ones. You have the one true religion. Everybody else is a bunch of infidels." All of this is then designed to set up conflict and war. God then sits down on his heavenly recliner with a bag of chips and a beer to watch and see who wins.

If this story were true, we would have our external purpose – our divine "reason for living". However, it does not follow from this that there is any greatness to be found in sacrificing ourselves for God's amusement. The claim, "You must believe in and obey God because, without God, our life would have no meaning and purpose," falls flat if that meaning or purpose is to have a bit part in the ultimate game of Survivor Earth.

The relevant facts are

(1) There is no external purpose to our being here

(2) Even if there were an external purpose it would have no special claim to our allegiance,

(3) If there were an external purpose, and it was a good purpose, the drive to adopt that external purpose is still internal.

There is no justification that a person who serves an external purpose has a better life than one who does not. Even if an external purpose has value we are still trapped by the need for an internal desire to serve that external purpose.

No matter what we do we cannot escape the fact that, ultimately, our motivation and the purposes we serve are internal, not external – or external only in the derived sense of being an external object of an internal desire.

Consequently, it makes no sense to say that a life governed by an internal purpose is "empty" and "meaningless" on account of this absence of some type of external purpose. Indeed, a life spent in service to an external purpose can be even more meaningless and empty. However, even a person who finds value in ‘serving God’ or ‘helping the universe discover itself’ or some other external purpose is still merely following an internal desire to do so.

It can be downright evil.

Even in the absence of an external purpose, there are internal purposes that people generally have reason to promote or to inhibit. However, when we talk about the reasons that people have to promote or inhibit certain malleable desires, at least we have the advantage of talking about something real. Plus, we have the advantage of talking about something where we are not inclined towards the false belief that those reasons have a special merit above and beyond their status of being other people’s reasons for action.

We come into the world with the opportunity to view a cosmic flash of the universe’s life. We have no external purpose for being here. We are simply here. For now.

But, now that we're here, what are we going to do with ourselves?

40 comments:

Transplanted Lawyer said...

I love that there is no external purpose to our existence. It means I get to choose for myself what my purpose in life is. To me, that seems far preferable than having a nebulous part to play in some ambiguous "plan."

NAL said...

Maybe it's an ego thing. Imagining that a supreme being is concerned with you personally, must give a person a sense of immense self-worth.

Richard said...

NAL, until there is sensible evidence, self worth cannot be acquired from an imaginary being!

Anonymous said...

haha before I became an atheist I actually was that guy who believed that God was a dude who sat on a celestial lawnchair drinking brews, watching the cosmos. I think mostly because I didn't want to believe in any of the other gods offered to me.
I guess I can totally see how religious thought really gets in your brain - how dumb could I have been to think that god sits on a cosmic lawnchair, much less anywhere else?

Now I'm like "why did it take me so long to become an atheist?". And now I'm loving life. the end!

love this blog.

Skeeve said...

While I agree with the content of the post, I have question.

In the first sentence you state:

"I notice that there are still a lot of atheists who attempt to attach some sort of mystical purpose to their existence."

Am I not reading the right books? Do I not have the right blogs bookmarked? I've never met one atheist who claimed an external or mystical purpose to their life.

Where are "a lot of atheists" who think this way? I find it odd that an atheist would think this way.

Anonymous said...

You spelled "tails" wrong. I think you meant fairy "tales".

Anonymous said...

Proposing to explain the nature of reality, i.e. the "external purpose of being", often ends up being an exercise in arrogance. People used to be convinced that the world was flat. How lucky for us you have all the answers. The truth is reality and experience are relative. You don't know what I've experienced, what I've seen, what has happened to me that has made me believe that there is more to reality than what meets the eye. I wish I could be an atheist, but my reality and what I've experienced has made me believe otherwise. A wiser view for you perhaps should be the agnostic one. Then you don't profess to know with unquestionable certainty that isn't a God, but rather you admit that you really can't know, and that you really can't speak for every other being that you've shared the Earth with.

Emu Sam said...

I don't know. Neither do I believe.

Eneasz said...

Latest Anon -

I reject your attempts to get me to sit down and shut up. Saying "I can't really know if there's a Santa or not" to make Santa-believers feel less threatened is cowardly. There are things I can say I don't know. I don't know exactly how life started. I don't know if life exists elsewhere in the universe. I don't know what happened before the planck time.

But I do know that there's no such thing as the supernatural. I know it as certainly as I know that gravity is what makes my pen fall to the ground. And as long as a definition of "God" includes a supernatural aspect (which any standard definition of God does) I can just as certainly say that there is no god.

Obviously I can't speak for anyone else on earth. Many people don't realize that the supernatural is an impossibility, so they might believe in a god, or postulate that they don't know but don't personally believe. This doesn't change the fact that the supernatural is non-existent.

Jayman said...

Eneasz, I would be interested in seeing proof that the supernatural is impossible.

Eneasz said...

Jayman, my answer may sound condescending. So I want to start out by saying I am not trying to make any claims of superiority. I'm still relatively young. I'm very stupid in many respects. I never completed college. I can make no claims to superiority.

To answer your challenge directly would be pointless, because I'm guessing the explanation would be a non-sequitor for you. And to answer it comprehensively would take much more than a single comment on a blog. It took me years before I understood it. Unfortunatly this is no different from the answer "You can't understand the ways that god/the universe works" that I so detest. So I'll try to point you in the right direction, if you care to pursue it.

How do you know that gravity will not stop working tomorrow?

If you can't answer that, or if your answer is along the lines of "No one can know that, it COULD stop working, it's just very unlikely", then the supernatural may seem possible. It's only once you can answer this that the impossibility and down-right silliness of the supernatural makes sense.

The answer to this question, or at least the beginnings of an answer, can be found here

Jayman said...

Eneasz:

To answer your challenge directly would be pointless, because I'm guessing the explanation would be a non-sequitor for you.

Admittedly I expected a non sequitor or straw man argument as that is all I have ever seen on the subject.

And to answer it comprehensively would take much more than a single comment on a blog . . . . I'll try to point you in the right direction, if you care to pursue it.

I'll happily take a link to a compelling argument.

How do you know that gravity will not stop working tomorrow? . . . The answer to this question, or at least the beginnings of an answer, can be found here

The main point of your link seems to be that you couldn't change a law of nature without there being a kind of ripple effect. I don't see how this is a reason to believe gravity could not possibly stop working tomorrow. It just means that if gravity stopped working a bunch of other things would change as well.

I'm even more confused as to how it rules out the supernatural. Perhaps you are trying to point out that if the supernatural occurred there would be a ripple effect too. Even if that were true it wouldn't rule out the possibility of it happening. And of course it ignores the possibility that a supernatural agent could stop or alter the ripple effect.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Jayman and Eneasz

Let me attempt a short answer to Jayman's question.

Methodological naturalism has been, to date, the most successful means to understand the world. (I should not have to note, but will, that this allows for possible supernatural explanation yet there has been no need to employ such so far).

By contrast methodological (or other types of) supernaturalism has, to date, been an incredibly unsuccessful means to understand the world.

Given the contrasting history of differential success and failure of these types of methods, the likelihood of a new supernatural explanation being correct is incredibly low, so low that it would be perverse not to hold that practically it is impossible. A more careful statement would say that it is "most likely practically impossible".

Is it logically impossible? Of course not, but that could not have been the demand implied in the question (otherwise the subject matter -supernaturalism - is defined out of existence).

Eneasz said...

Hiya Faithless!

I agree that this would be a good line of argument for the logically inclined. But it doesn't work on the superstitious. They rebut with "Just because it's never been observed doesn't mean it can't happen!" Much like they claim that just because exploding someone's head has always caused death in the past, it doesn't necessarily mean that it'll still cause death in the future!

Jayman - like I said, it's not something that is necessarily obvious on it's face. It takes a lot of additional background knowledge. It was just a starting point. But allow me to put it in more direct terms. Which, admitedly, I know you will reject. But maybe someday.... /hope

The point is that the forces that define how reality works - how quarks and electrons interact - are not malleable. They are what they are, and won't change by some act of will.

It is hypothetically possible that they can be altered. That with sufficient knowledge and technology, we can manipulate them. It's possible an entity or race of beings has that ability. However they will still be working within the natural framework, exploiting the nature and laws of reality to alter these forces. These would be purely NATURAL, just very advanced. They would still work within the rules of nature that exist. They would be advanced, not magic. Their actions could be entirely defined within the laws that describe how reality works. They would simply be natural.

The supernatural is, by definition, extra-natural. It has no regard for how reality actually works. It is literally magic. It does what it does simply because someone imagines it'd be cool if matches didn't work in a different world. The supernatural has no limits, no connection to reality. Statues could come to life and speak to us, then turn into water. History - not recorded history, but what ACTUALLY happened - could change constantly, and the effects of it's changing would be felt by those in the present... or not! Fire could shoot from fingertips, unless those fingertips where underwater (or didn't possess enough currency called "faith"). It doesn't matter. It has no tie to anything that is real, it is simply imagination.

Much like gravity might not exist tomorrow, in a supernatural world the keyboard I'm typing on right now could be a watermelon. But, in reality, it is not. That is the difference. Reality is what it is. The supernatural is an imaginary world that does not exist in reality in any way.

Again, I know you will not accept this at face value. But once you really understand how reality works, you'll wonder why you ever thought it could be any other way.

Jayman said...

faithlessgod, I don't share your confidence in our abilities to explain everything without resorting to supernatural explanations. When confronted with an account where the laws of nature are violated the unbeliever in the supernatural denies the account rather than explains the account. Of course resorting to only natural explanations will have great success as long as you deny that which cannot be explained naturally.

Eneasz, I can read your main argument in two ways. The first reading is that you are saying the laws of nature are immutable and therefore cannot be changed by the will of a supernatural agent. If this is the case you're assuming your conclusion. The second reading is that you are saying us natural beings cannot change the laws of nature and therefore a supernatural being cannot change the laws of nature. If this is the case the conclusion does not follow from the premise.

Eneasz said...

Actually, like I said, the supernatural is impossible and does not enter the discussion if we are speaking of reality. It doesn't make sense until you truly understand why reality works the way it does. Until then, I can only hope. There is honestly nothing else I can say at this point to convince you. All I can do is hope that you continue in your search for the truth.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Jayman

@Jayman:"faithlessgod, I don't share your confidence in our abilities to explain everything without resorting to supernatural explanations."

The is not about my confidence or your confidence. It is about what has been repeatedly demonstrated in the past and present. Confidence can be quite misplaced and the evidence strongly indicates that believers in supernatural explanations are most likely mistaken.

@Jayman:"When confronted with an account where the laws of nature are violated the unbeliever in the supernatural denies the account rather than explains the account."

It is one thing to have an "account of the violation of the laws of nature" but many people have repeatedly investigated such claims and have not to date found any such accounts that pass muster. Until one does then there is no need to propose an explanation.

(Your labelling here is peculiar and indicates you are looking at this and prejudgement the answer. Could this be why you impose the same calibre of prejudgement but in the opposite way when you say the "unbeliever in the supernatural"? This is not an accusation just an observation. To try to honestly and truly understand any phenomenon requires not prejudging either way. This requires transcending one's prejudices, preferences and perceptions (being epistemically objective not subjective) whether one is a believer in the supernatural or an unbeliever in the supernatural. That is the issue of belief must be set aside. When one does that the only provisional conclusion that I offered in my previous comment follows.)

"Of course resorting to only natural explanations will have great success as long as you deny that which cannot be explained naturally."

Again the question is, is there anything to "deny"? It is not about denial at all but as Laplace put it "I have no need of that hypothesis". Until there has been shown that there actually is something to deny, such accusations fail. That is until you can show that there is something in need of such an explanation then there is no need to seek such explanations.

Jayman said...

faithlessgod:

The is not about my confidence or your confidence. It is about what has been repeatedly demonstrated in the past and present. Confidence can be quite misplaced and the evidence strongly indicates that believers in supernatural explanations are most likely mistaken.

I realize the evidence is important, which is why I grounded my lack of confidence in our inability to explain everything with solely natural explanations.

It is one thing to have an "account of the violation of the laws of nature" but many people have repeatedly investigated such claims and have not to date found any such accounts that pass muster.

It is equally true that many people have investigated supernatural events and walked away believers. And there is a big difference between being unconvinced that a miracle happened and being confident a miracle did not happen (see next paragraph).

Until one does then there is no need to propose an explanation.

If you conclude that the witnesses to an alleged miracle are lying or mistaken you must make your case with evidence. If you can't do that and you haven't prejudged the matter then neutrality, not strong disbelief, is the rational choice. Neutrality does not allow for statements like, "The supernatural is impossible."

Again the question is, is there anything to "deny"?

I did not mean denial in some psychological sense. There are accounts of the supernatural. These accounts are denied by skeptics.

It is not about denial at all but as Laplace put it "I have no need of that hypothesis".

I don't need any hypothesis but I find some better than others (I bet certain theists say they have no need for natural explanations). If the best hypothesis involves the supernatural I'll go with it until I find a better hypothesis.

Until there has been shown that there actually is something to deny, such accusations fail. That is until you can show that there is something in need of such an explanation then there is no need to seek such explanations.

I think the underlying source of our disagreement is over how much evidence is required to believe in the supernatural. It seems everyone has different answers and it is very hard to determine who is right.

faithlessgod said...

Jayman

@jayman"I realize the evidence is important, which is why I grounded my lack of confidence in our inability to explain everything with solely natural explanations."
Then your lack of confidence is upside down.

First, no-one claims we can explain everything *now* (what a boring world that would be).

Second if the premise for your lack of confidence is the inability to explain, presumably *correctly*, then this is grounds for you to have no confidence in supernatural explanations since so many have come and gone, quite contrary to the success of natural explanations.

@Jayman:"It is equally true that many people have investigated supernatural events and walked away believers."

First, they have used failed methods to become believers. Eliminate those methods that have been repeatedly demonstrated to be unreliable and then one has eliminated the grounds for such to believe.

Second, the observation of people having different beliefs on different topics is irrelevant to the facts of the matter, as I said before it is not a matter of belief, this proves nothing. Surely if one is truly concerned about truth, one would not use such arguments in support of a position here?

"And there is a big difference between being unconvinced that a miracle happened and being confident a miracle did not happen (see next paragraph)."

It is not about being convinced or being confident. It is about the how well supported and strong the evidence for or against a position.

"If you conclude that the witnesses to an alleged miracle are lying or mistaken you must make your case with evidence."

This has been repeatedly done. Whole reams of cognitive psychology is devoted to this field - Heuristics and Biases Program, plus studies of testimony in court cases, in parapsychology and so on. We have an overwhelming amount of evidence to show how eyewitnesses can be misled. Not such claims to date can pass this standard. As Hume says always choose the lesser miracle, and the evidence overwhelmingly supports that people can be deluded for a wide variety of reason, many quite innocent and this is the vastly more likely explanation.

"If you can't do that and you haven't prejudged the matter then neutrality, not strong disbelief, is the rational choice."
Then why are you not employing your principle here? As for me, I have done that and my conclusion is result of not prejudging the matter. This conclusion has even come from those who were prejudiced towards the supernatural such as Susan Blackmore, in spite of her views she went to where the evidence led, not to where she wanted. Indeed this was the same for me.

@Jayman:"Neutrality does not allow for statements like, "The supernatural is impossible.""
Neutrality does not prevent provisional conclusions being made, indeed it is required to make them.

Please explain how you think neutrality can lead to your presumed conclusion that the supernatural does exist, I cannot see how you can do it - given the specific history and evidence we actually have.

End of Part 1

faithlessgod said...

Reply to Jayman Part 2

@Jayman:"I did not mean denial in some psychological sense. There are accounts of the supernatural. These accounts are denied by skeptics."

You are not making sense. What sceptic denies that there are "accounts of the supernatural"? Of course there are, otherwise the sceptics would have no material to examine! What sceptics (and any sensible, reasonable and unbiased person) usually *conclude* is that the *explanations* by believers of such accounts are mistaken.

@Jayman:"I don't need any hypothesis but I find some better than others (I bet certain theists say they have no need for natural explanations). If the best hypothesis involves the supernatural I'll go with it until I find a better hypothesis."

You need to define what you mean by best and better, the tacit implication here is that this relies on your preconceptions and subjective preferences. This is not an adequate and sufficient standard and has long been rejected by those who seek the truth of the matter.

@Jayman:"I think the underlying source of our disagreement is over how much evidence is required to believe in the supernatural."

No it is not how much but as to what standard. The only way to believe in the supernatural today is to lower the standard of evidence yet it was this higher standard of evidence that has brought about much of the world that we rely upon today, including the internet and the ability for us to communicate here. How can you justify lowering the standard of evidence to support your supernatural beliefs without utilising the benefits and results of the higher standard of evidence, this looks like a performative contradiction.

Please explain how any double standard such as what is implied by your argument can be rational and empirically justified.

"It seems everyone has different answers and it is very hard to determine who is right."

That is why we have developed standards of evidence and reason, to get beyond such "seemings". That is, however hard it is, is how we determine who is right (or, more accurately, who is most likely wrong, we can never know when we have reached the truth qua truth, but it is worthwhile aiming for this and nothing less).

Jayman said...

Hi faithlessgod (two-parter on the way):

First, no-one claims we can explain everything *now* (what a boring world that would be).

My point is that if certain accounts are accurate then there is little reason to believe we will EVER find a natural explanation for what happened because what happened directly contradicts the established laws of nature. For example, suppose we know (1) that, when nature runs its course, dead people stay dead and (2) someone rose from the dead. Point 1 rules out finding a natural explanation for point 2.

Second if the premise for your lack of confidence is the inability to explain, presumably *correctly*, then this is grounds for you to have no confidence in supernatural explanations since so many have come and gone, quite contrary to the success of natural explanations.

I see no reason to choose only natural explanations or only supernatural explanations, especially when there are supernatural explanations that have remained unscathed for millenia and natural explanations that have fallen by the wayside. Then there is the irony that the success of natural explanations is predicted by Judeo-Christian beliefs about creation.

First, they have used failed methods to become believers. Eliminate those methods that have been repeatedly demonstrated to be unreliable and then one has eliminated the grounds for such to believe.

You'll have to elaborate here. First, are you saying the eyewitnesses themselves should not trust their own senses? Second, my experience has been that skeptics do not follow normal methods when investigating the supernatural. For example, I have run across skeptics that say they would not believe a faith healer was legitimate even if he passed numerous clinical trials. Such a skeptic believes clinical trials are a fine method when investigating, say, pills but a poor method when investigating faith healers.

It is not about being convinced or being confident. It is about the how well supported and strong the evidence for or against a position.

When I speak of conviction or confidence I implicitly mean that those feelings are based on evidence.

Jayman said...

This has been repeatedly done. Whole reams of cognitive psychology is devoted to this field - Heuristics and Biases Program, plus studies of testimony in court cases, in parapsychology and so on. We have an overwhelming amount of evidence to show how eyewitnesses can be misled. Not such claims to date can pass this standard. As Hume says always choose the lesser miracle, and the evidence overwhelmingly supports that people can be deluded for a wide variety of reason, many quite innocent and this is the vastly more likely explanation.

You note that eyewitnesses CAN be misled but you need to show that the eyewitnesses WERE misled while witnessing the alleged miracle. When we have multiple, impeccable witnesses (and even video or photographic evidence) to an alleged miracle these natural explanations fail. Also, skeptics (including Hume) rely on eyewitness testimony every day of their lives so they clearly think it is generally a reliable means of acquiring knowledge. I see no reason to choose the "lesser miracle" if the "greater miracle" provides an explanation of all the data in a more parsimonious fashion. This is all the more the case when the skeptic can do nothing but provide purely hypothetical explanations.

Please explain how you think neutrality can lead to your presumed conclusion that the supernatural does exist, I cannot see how you can do it - given the specific history and evidence we actually have.

I did not say neutrality would lead to a belief in the supernatural (evidence would lead to such a belief). Neutrality leaves the door open for both supernatural and natural explanations. It makes no sense to admit that the door is open for the supernatural and simultaneously say the supernatural is impossible.

You are not making sense. What sceptic denies that there are "accounts of the supernatural"? Of course there are, otherwise the sceptics would have no material to examine! What sceptics (and any sensible, reasonable and unbiased person) usually *conclude* is that the *explanations* by believers of such accounts are mistaken.

I meant skeptics deny the accuracy of the accounts. And most skeptics go beyond disagreeing with the explanations of the event. They go so far as to say the events did not happen as the witnesses claim. For example, I've never run across a skeptic who says that Jesus Christ came back to life on Easter Sunday and then go on to provide a natural explanation to counter the standard supernatural explanation. Instead the skeptic says Jesus is still dead. The same type of thing happens routinely.

You need to define what you mean by best and better, the tacit implication here is that this relies on your preconceptions and subjective preferences. This is not an adequate and sufficient standard and has long been rejected by those who seek the truth of the matter.

The best hypothesis explains all the data in question in the most parsimonious fashion.

Jayman said...

Make it three parts:

No it is not how much but as to what standard. The only way to believe in the supernatural today is to lower the standard of evidence yet it was this higher standard of evidence that has brought about much of the world that we rely upon today, including the internet and the ability for us to communicate here. How can you justify lowering the standard of evidence to support your supernatural beliefs without utilising the benefits and results of the higher standard of evidence, this looks like a performative contradiction.

It is not a matter of high or low standards, it is matter of the correct standard. If you place the standard too low you'll believe falsehoods but if you set the standard too high you won't believe the truth. Where, exactly, to set the standard of evidence is an incredibly difficult problem.

The "higher standard" you seem to have in mind is the scientific method. I have no problem applying scientific tests to someone who claims they can work miraculous powers on demand. However, I don't see how the scientific method is going to help me determine whether, for example, Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. We need to employ the historical method for that.

Please explain how any double standard such as what is implied by your argument can be rational and empirically justified.

Since I utilize both the scientific and historical methods I don't see the double standard. It is skeptics who say extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In other words, skeptics apply one method to claims about nature and another method to claims about the supernatural.

That is why we have developed standards of evidence and reason, to get beyond such "seemings". That is, however hard it is, is how we determine who is right (or, more accurately, who is most likely wrong, we can never know when we have reached the truth qua truth, but it is worthwhile aiming for this and nothing less).

Unfortunately skeptics throw out the normal standards of evidence when dealing with the supernatural. Not once have I seen a skeptic apply standard historical methodology to an alleged supernatural event. I've seen the scientific method jettisoned too. What other standard(s) do you propose?

Eneasz said...

For example, suppose we know (1) that, when nature runs its course, dead people stay dead and (2) someone rose from the dead. Point 1 rules out finding a natural explanation for point 2.

hehehe :)
If I can interject, suppose we know (1) that when nature runs its course, dead people stay dead and (2) zombies have destroyed most of the major cities in the US and are systematically eradicating all life on this continent.

I, of course, have unimpeachable historical evidence that (2) happened in the 1970s. Explain THAT away, skeptics!

faithlessgod said...

Jayman part 1

The question is as to whether certain accounts are accurate or not. We have more than enough knowledge of how people can be mislead or self-deluded that provides far too many doubts on the accuracy of their claims and this is a better more parsimonious explanation than that the accounts were accurately reported.

@Jayman"For example, suppose we know (1) that, when nature runs its course, dead people stay dead and (2) someone rose from the dead. Point 1 rules out finding a natural explanation for point 2."
First this is a rather extreme claim when investigating the supernatural surely the auto-ganzfeld experiments are a far better place for you to make a wedge.

Second this is a common claim through history in many traditions (not just religious) and there is no evidence (combining historical *and* scientific inquiry) that these really happened. Until there is, there is nothing to explain.

@Jayamn:I see no reason to choose only natural explanations or only supernatural explanations,"
Then this is a fault in your seeing. Supernatural explanations for a huge range of natural phenomena have failed and we now have better more parsimonious natural explanations. The differential is such that there is plenty of reason to seek natural explanations first. If you do not see this then you are not approaching this domain in a neutral fashion.

@Jayman:"especially when there are supernatural explanations that have remained unscathed for millenia and natural explanations that have fallen by the wayside."
This is an utterly ridiculous claim. It has been the other way around, you have a vary biased of this topic AFAIKS! You claim to rely on the evidence, but I see no indication that you are doing what you are claiming. AFAIK there is not one supernatural explanation that has remained unscathed.

@Jayman:"Then there is the irony that the success of natural explanations is predicted by Judeo-Christian beliefs about creation."
That is just post hoc rationalisation and quite irrelevant to the successes and failures of conceptual and empirical inquiry.

@Jayman"You'll have to elaborate here"
The elaboration was provided later in my comment already.

@Jayman:"For example, I have run across skeptics that say they would not believe a faith healer was legitimate even if he passed numerous clinical trials."
That is not a skeptic. Then again I have run across religious believers would believe the resurrection of Jesus occured even if they could go back in time and see he was not resurrected! That is not someone who cares about evidence, AFAIK William Laine Craig is the most famous holder of this position.

@Jayman:"Such a skeptic believes clinical trials are a fine method when investigating, say, pills but a poor method when investigating faith healers."
Then these are not sceptics! You are misrepresenting sceptics and making straw man arguments now. Can we stick to actual sceptics, those who do hold that clinical trials are equally applicable?

faithlessgod said...

Jayman Part 2


@Jayman:"When I speak of conviction or confidence I implicitly mean that those feelings are based on evidence."
The evidence must come before the feelings, it does not look that way in some of your points.

@Jayman:"You note that eyewitnesses CAN be misled but you need to show that the eyewitnesses WERE misled while witnessing the alleged miracle."
No, one needs to show what is *more likely to be the case*, that people were misled or that the miracle really occured, the evidence has repeatedly pointed towards the first alternative.

@Jayman:"When we have multiple, impeccable witnesses (and even video or photographic evidence) to an alleged miracle these natural explanations fail."
Well there is, to date, no such account. Until there are there is nothing to talk about.

@Jayman:"I see no reason to choose the "lesser miracle" if the "greater miracle" provides an explanation of all the data in a more parsimonious fashion."
Then that would be the lesser miracle! The idea the your "greater miracle" is more parsimonious looks absurd please provide evidence and argument that it is not.

Jayman:"...and simultaneously say the supernatural is impossible."
I got into this thread over this point and you know I do not say this. This is quite irrelevant to our discussion. Can you stick to the point please.

@Jayman:"I meant skeptics deny the accuracy of the accounts".
If so it is because they can provide more parsimonious explanation of why they reported the accounts as they did.

@Jayman"They go so far as to say the events did not happen as the witnesses claim." In some case this is corrrect in others, for example spiritual experiences, they do not deny that these experiences occured, only that what the believer thought these entails is most likely false.

@Jayman"I've never run across a skeptic who says that Jesus Christ came back to life on Easter Sunday and then go on to provide a natural explanation to counter the standard supernatural explanation. Instead the skeptic says Jesus is still dead."
Why choose such a poor example when arguing for the supernatural? Anyway the historical basis here is so shaky it would be quite unreasonable to hold that it did actually occur, (in addition you have its leading debating proponent insist that he would believe in it even if he could find out it did not occur!!!!!)

@Jayman:" The same type of thing happens routinely."
If people repeatedly do not attempt to eliminate errors of reason and minimise mistakes of fact then it does become routine to provide the same objections. That is not an objection but to be expected.

@Jayman:"The best hypothesis explains all the data in question in the most parsimonious fashion."
That is insufficient. It has to at least eliminate errors and minimise mistakes too (and there are other points as well). Regardless the most parsimonious explanation is not to multiply entities unnecessarily so on your basis of "best/better" *you* would always eliminate the supernatural! You are contradicting yourself in arguing otherwise.

faithlessgod said...

Jayman Part 3

"It is not a matter of high or low standards, it is matter of the correct standard."
Correctness is *internal* to the standard as I said eliminating errors and minimising mistakes, there is no justification in allowing in errors and mistakes in one domain as you want to do with the regard to the supernatural.

@Jayman:"If you place the standard too low you'll believe falsehoods but if you set the standard too high you won't believe the truth."
This is an opinion where is the argument and this is not a justification for lowering the standard when it the truth of the matter that is to be *concluded*

@Jayman:"Where, exactly, to set the standard of evidence is an incredibly difficult problem."
No it is not. The standard of evidence should be independent of and prior to topic under inquiry. You seem to want it the other way around which is quite unsound.

@Jayman"However, I don't see how the scientific method is going to help me determine whether, for example, Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. We need to employ the historical method for that."
No, historical *and* scientific methods, they work together. However why do you keep on proposing such a poor and extreme example in order to argue ofr the supernatural, does not look like you are approaching this field in a neutral fashion.

@Jayman"It is skeptics who say extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In other words, skeptics apply one method to claims about nature and another method to claims about the supernatural."
False, it is the same standard- Sagan is merely but eloquently restating Hume's "a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence". Unlike you I am advocating, as do all real sceptics, one standard for all, no exceptions.

You finish with repeating straw man and false claims about sceptics that is not worth answering as I have already done so.(Well this was the answer to your last paragraph).

Jayman said...

Hi faithlessgod, to keep things shorter, I'm not going to quote everything you say. I'll just try to respond to the main points.

(1) You are correct that an eyewitness can be misled but it is equally true that eyewitnesses are generally reliable. This means that if we have multiple eyewitnesses who are honest and mentally healthy individuals it is far more likely that they are telling the truth than lying or being mistaken. You can't say eyewitnesses provide solid evidence when observing scientific experiments, providing accounts of historical events, and in court cases and then turn around and say eyewitnesses are useless when observing alleged miracles and remain consistent.

(2) You object to calling supernatural explanations parsimonious because they add an entity, the supernatural agent. But natural explanations often add even more entities (delusions, optical illusions, conspirators, pranksters, etc) and completely ignore the eyewitness testimony. When dealing with eyewitness testimony concerning a non-miraculous event, we generally don't resort to explanations that completely ignore eyewitness testimony and appeal heavily to delusions, illusions, and the like. This is why professional historians don't take conspiracy theorists seriously and this is why I can't take certain natural explanations of the miraculous seriously and remain consistent.

(3) As noted in my last set of posts, I do not object to scientific and historical methods, so I don't know why you think I am lowering the standard.

(4) You may think I am attacking strawman skeptics but these kinds of people are quite easy to find and they call themselves skeptics. I don't claim to be an expert on Hume, but even he appears to be a case of a skeptic unable to weigh eyewitness testimony in an even-handed fashion when it involves miracles:

There surely never was a greater number of miracles ascribed to one person, than those, which were lately said to have been wrought in France upon the tomb of Abb(c) Paris, the famous Jansenist, with whose sanctity the people were so long deluded. The curing of the sick, giving hearing to the deaf, and sight to the blind, were every where talked of as the usual effects of that holy sepulchre. But what is more extraordinary; many of the miracles were immediately proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world. Nor is this all: a relation of them was published and dispersed every where; nor were the Jesuits, though a learned body, supported by the civil magistrate, and determined enemies to those opinions, in whose favour the miracles were said to have been wrought, ever able distinctly to refute or detect them. Where shall we find such a number of circumstances, agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation.

It appears to me that Hume admits the miracles are as well-attested as any historical fact, meaning a consistent historian would believe they happened. Note he does not provide a natural explanation of what happened so the supernatural explanation is left uncontested. He rejects the miracles because he's already made up his mind and he won't change it based on evidence to the contrary.

faithlessgod said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
faithlessgod said...

Hi Jayman, thanks for making this shorter. I will do the same.

Relying purely on eyewitness testimony especially for stranger events has been repeatedly shown to be unreliable and we can show why with hundred of perceptual illusions, cognitive distortions, and illusions, logical formal and informal fallacies, connative biases and prejudices and so on. Many of these are encouraged and taken advantage of by politicians, advertisers and religion amongst many others. Then there is the numerous analysis of eyewitness testimony court, the problems of group think in juries and governments and elsewhere.

In particular we have tested thousands of supernatural beliefs and have repeatedly found the same patterns of errors and mistakes.

Now if you want to discuss the supernatural the logical thing was to focus on the only candidate that possibly supports this today which is the auto-ganzfeld.

Instead you seek poorly documented historical claims and events such as person becoming alive again are numerous in many ancient mythologies and you presumably don't believe pretty much all of them and can give no good neutral objective reason why you, I presume, believe a particular one and not the others.

All this knowledge was unavailable to Hume and a selective quote from him does not make a your case. This is not typical of modern sceptics.

Calling all this cognitive mistakes etc. "adding entities" is playing semantics when we know they exist and have considerable evidence that they are pervasive and endemic and comparing to proposing entirely new entities for which there is no independent evidence of this is perverting the principle of parsimony. Plus you have failed to address my key point over eliminating errors and minimising mistakes which you cannot ignore.

You claim to not object to scientific and historical methods but you are only using them selectively and with a double standard. There is only as single standard applicable to all, with no justifiable exceptions, certainly not for supernatural claims today or in the past.

Jayman said...

Hi faithlessgod:

(1) Videos, photos, and medical examinations can be used in addition to eyewitness testimony for reconstructing what happened. A person who believes in miracles need not rely soley on eyewitnesses.

(2) In "What Is Recollective Memory?", W. F. Brewer notes that accurate memories are more likely to arise from (a) unique/unusual events and (b) significant events. Miracles are unusual events that impact the witnesses in a significant way. In Memory in the Real World (p. 222), Gillian Cohen concludes: "Research has tended to emphasize the errors that occur in everyday memory functions. The picture that emerges is of an error-prone system. This emphasis is partly an artefact of research methodology. In experiments it is usually more informative to set task difficulty at a level where people make errors so that the nature of the errors and the conditions that provoke them can be identified. . .. People do make plenty of naturally occurring errors in ordinary life situations, but, arguably, the methodology has produced a somewhat distroted view of memory efficiency. In daily life, memory successes are the norm and memory failures are the exception. . . . Considering how grossly it is overloaded, memory in the real world proves remarkably efficient and resilient." I don't deny people can make errors, I'm just not going to resort to such an explanation each time someone reports something that contradicts my current expectations. How inaccurate do you think human observation is regarding the gist of an event? It would have to be incredibly low to make it at all probable that numerous witnesses are all mistaken.

(3) If you always choose the explanation that uses only currently known entitites I don't see how you can ever learn about a new entity (natural or supernatural). At some point the highly unlikely explanation using only currently known entities needs to be rejected in favor of the simple explanation positing a new entity.

Eneasz said...

(3) If you always choose the explanation that uses only currently known entitites I don't see how you can ever learn about a new entity (natural or supernatural). At some point the highly unlikely explanation using only currently known entities needs to be rejected in favor of the simple explanation positing a new entity.

How odd. Using only the scientific method, hundreds of such entities have been created and proved. Bacteria, electrons, nuclear forces, curvature of space-time, quarks, black holes, atoms, etc etc. And yet the REPEATEDLY asserted entities of gods/supernatural forces have not only never been needed, they have consistently been discard as false. Must be all that anti-new-entity bias.

faithlessgod said...

Jayman

"1) Videos, photos, and medical examinations can be used in addition to eyewitness testimony for reconstructing what happened. A person who believes in miracles need not rely soley on eyewitnesses."
This is called changing the subject. I was foused on the wekanees of eyewitness testimony. Any there are no videos, photoes from 2000 years agao ;-)

Yet more selective quoting to support you argument. There has been numerous studies to research to show otherwise. It is not just about the reliability of memory (recollection) but about the formation of memories. And don't forget 1/3 of people have been easily convinced they met Bugs Bunny in Disneyworld.

"I don't deny people can make errors, I'm just not going to resort to such an explanation each time someone reports something that contradicts my current expectations."
No you should resort to it when someone confirms your expectations, otherwise you are operating with double standards.


Eneasz utterly demolished your third point. Lets see no more fiddling over parsimony which I repeat is only one criteria in "best/better" anyway.

Jayman said...

Hi faithlessgod:

(1) Our discussion is not over whether Jesus rose from the dead. I used that as an example in conjunction with broader points. And I brought up the other types of evidence for miracles prior to my last post to show that the skeptic needs to explain away more than just eyewitness testimony.

(2) Obviously I'm not going to quote whole books but I believe quoting the conclusion of a work is acceptable for blog comments. Regarding the Bugs Bunny story, you may find this interesting.

(3) The third point of my last comment was about adding entities to historical explanations. I'm glad you and Eneasz have no problem adding entities to scientific explanations. My question to both of you is: what standard of evidence would have to be met for you to add an entity to an historical explanation?

faithlessgod said...

Hi Jayman

1a. I have already pointed out that any resurrection myth is a very poor starting point for arguing for the supernatural

1b. Other types of evidence, apart from eyewitness testimony, can be dealt with using the suitable tools applicable to that type of evidence.

Neither alters one of my main points that if you wan tot argue for the supernatural at least chose the best currently available candidates.

2. Thanks for the Bugs Bunny link, interesting. However this does not alter the substance of my position, that there are reams of empirical support for my conclusion over yours.

3.One should use the same standard of evidence to introduce or eliminate entities in historical explanations as in scientific explanations. Clearly many, many purported historical entities we now know never existed. And this point is particularity relevant to historical supernatural claims, but this is not to exclude other purely historical criticisms as well.

So far, in our debate, you have presented nothing to counter that anyone who is neutral on the existence of the supernatural would, after unbiased examination of all the evidence, not provisionally conclude
that it does not exist.

Jayman said...

faithlessgod, I entered the discussion wanting to know why someone would believe the supernatural is impossible, not to prove that a specific supernatural event actually occurred. Anyone who wants to look into the evidence for any specific miracle should read books on the matter.

As for introducing new entities, I was hoping for a list of necessary and sufficient conditions that, if met, would justify positing a supernatural agent had acted in history.

Eneasz said...

Well, we've gone off on a tangent here, but I'll go with it.

Jayman, no one has ever needed to introduce a supernatural entity into a historic account. Historic accounts come pre-loaded with thousands of supernatural entities. The direction has always been in the other way - historians have found it necessary to remove the greek gods from the history of the Trojan war. They've had to remove tales of divine winds guiding Japanese warriors. They've had to eliminate Illuminati from accounts of JFK's assassination, and discount video evidence of zombies ravaging America in recent decades. There isn't list of conditions to ADD a supernatural entity to a historic account because it has never been needed, history is overflowing with ridiculous entities that are systematically found to be false.

And in any case the supernatural is silly and impossible. Could you possibly present a list of necessary and sufficient conditions that, if met, would justify positing that the earth was, at some point in the past 10,000 years, flat?

I'm not joking, that's a serious question.

faithlessgod said...

Jayman

I entered the discussion criticising the claim that the supernatural is a priori impossible, as this precludes it from scientifc investigation, which is false.

Still you keep on making vague arguments in favour of the supernatural but have provided nothing concrete. Now I do not expect you to prove that a specific supernatural event actually occurred but have been asking for some or indeed any clear evidence in favour of your conclusion but so far you have offered nothing but a non-neutral preference of supernatural explanations which biases your take on the evidence and against alternate explanations.

"Anyone who wants to look into the evidence for any specific miracle should read books on the matter."
I have done that ad nauseum in the past. There is nothing that survives objective scrutiny,

"As for introducing new entities, I was hoping for a list of necessary and sufficient conditions that, if met, would justify positing a supernatural agent had acted in history."
Like I already said history makes no difference with regard to entities. It is the scientific basis that does and anyone who wants to look into the evidence for any specific entity should read books on the matter.

Emu Sam said...

Eneasz and faithlessgod, thank you for this discussion. I gave up on believing in the supernatural long ago, but I could not explain why. Please forgive me if I hope it continues long enough for me to express some of the argument in my own words.

faithlessgod said...

Hi Emu Sam

Long time no speak. AFAICS this thread is pretty much done, unless Jayman can add something new or original, but, with all due respect Jayman, I ain't holding my breath.