Can science disprove God?

It really irks me when theists claim that science can’t disprove God. To me, saying that is like saying that science can’t disprove the existence of unicorns. It demonstrates an ignorance for how scientific proof works.

The only way to prove that something isn’t true is to look for proof that it is true. Finding none, we can reasonably conclude that whatever we were trying to prove does not exist. This is what science has done for God. We have naturalistic explanations for everything that God was created to explain: creation of the universe, good and evil, the mind (“soul”), natural events such as earthquakes, etc. It’s simple logic: When you have two possible explanations, you go with the one which makes the least egregious assumptions. This is called Occham’s Razor. So what assumptions do each of these theses make?

The naturalistic thesis makes the assumption that our powers of observation, experience, and reason are reliable sources of knowledge. This is why the scientific method is known as “rational empiricism”: it combines the best elements of rationalism and empiricism. The theistic thesis, on the other hand, makes the opposite assumption: we can’t know anything based on reason and experience. Sure, the universe seems to be 14 billion years old and operating on laws which were formed naturalistically in the first few milliseconds of existence, but that’s all really a big hoax perpetuated by an all-good creator-god. Which of these assumptions is more egregious?

Furthermore, absence of absolute disproof does not qualify as proof. It’s called Russell’s teapot, yo. Read it.

What would qualify as absolute disproof, anyway? A note from God saying, “Sorry, dudes; don’t really exist”?

The inconsistencies of God and free will

So I was reading the Objections and Replies to Descartes’s Meditations for class tomorrow and I think I have stumbled upon one of the most damning arguments against any sort of omnipotent, omniscient creator-god, specifically the Abrahamic one.

So, if you’re not familiar with the Meditations, in the First Objection Caterus engages Descartes on a dialogue about cause and effect, which essentially concludes with the assertion that God is the efficient cause of everything (i.e., he is the ultimate cause of all that was, is, and ever will be). This seems like something that most theists could get behind. However, if this is true, and if God is both omnipotent and omniscient, wouldn’t this make free will impossible? It seems so, since if God is the efficient cause of everything, he is responsible for all of our actions.

If God is omnipotent, he could have created the universe in any way that he wanted. If he was also omniscient, he would have also been able to fully understand every single consequence of his actions. Therefore, when he created the universe, he consciously and knowingly set in motion everything that ever will happen, and all of time is set in its tracks, completely predetermined without any chance of deviation aside from direct intervention from God. Therefore, if God exists, and is both omnipotent and omniscient, free will is impossible. This may not be a problem if you’re like most superstitious Americans and believe in the paranormal phenomenon known as fate, but what are the repercussions of a lack of free will? The most startling one is that it puts the blame for all evil in the world squarely on the shoulders of God.

If all of time is predetermined by God, then every action any individual makes is directly caused by God. This means that if I choose to murder someone, it is not my choice, but God’s. Therefore, I am not to blame for my actions; it was really God who murdered my victim. Therefore, God cannot be all-good as the Jews and Christians (and Descartes) believe he is.

Anyway, to me this last bit seems to pretty much put the nail in God’s coffin. If God is the cause of all evil, why the hell should I worship him?

A chat with some Mormon missionaries about miracles

So my Mormon missionary friends returned today and had me watch a video about Jesus. They asked me what I thought and I explained to them that I’m highly skeptical of miracles.

First of all, I don’t believe that Jesus’s miracles were fabricated out of whole cloth. I think that Jesus was probably a real person and that he probably performed some feats which the uneducated and uncritical masses took to be miracles, but really weren’t all that miraculous. A combination of bad judgment, faulty memory, and the fact that the Gospels were written centuries after the fact based on oral tradition led to a massive instance of confabulation. People were considerably more superstitious back then. (People are still considerably superstitious, but now they use faulty science and lack of knowledge of simple math to rationalize their superstitions.)

I also mentioned that I find it unusual that there have been no recent instances of miracles, to which the missionaries replied that they’ve witnessed all sorts of miracles. They explained that they believe in faith healing and cited this as an example of a modern-day miracle. Instead of wasting my breath on a lengthy explanation of the fact that there has never been a documented instance of effective faith healing, I simply pointed out that we seem to have different definitions of the word “miracle.” For me, a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature. (Some people say this is an incredibly narrow definition of miracles, but I say it is incredibly broad, as it includes any sort of paranormal or supernatural event, such as hauntings and psychokinesis.) Spontaneous recovery, the placebo effect, and the false placebo effect are not violations of the laws of nature. (I didn’t bother to mention the fact that most faith healing leads to disastrous results in the form of people thinking they’re healed only to stop medical treatment and have a relapse go undiagnosed and untreated. In retrospect, I probably should have brought this up.)

I still haven’t kept my promise to pray, but I figure I might as well since I can’t envision any harm coming of it. Maybe I’ll do that later.

Some thoughts on pantheism and deism

So I’ve been contemplating the mysteries of life (as usual) and I feel like I want to share my thoughts on two intriguing religious pgilosophies: deism and pantheism.

I’ll start with pantheism, since it’s the only religious philosophy I can get behind (given a few provisos). Pantheism is the belief that the universe, natural world, or nature is equivalent to god. I can get behind this idea, because the universe is the highest power I can think of. It is literally perfect; it could not exist if it wasn’t. It’s also indifferent, though, so New Age pantheists with their rituals and whatnot really blow my mind. That’s my first proviso for my endorsement of pantheism: that it ackowledges God’s indifference. My second proviso is that it is of the naturalistic variety, simply because I think knowledge is a function of the natural world, and if it did not exist, we would have no knowledge. Think about it: what would we truly know if the natural world did not exist? Our senses and minds would have lied to us; how could we know what’s true?

Deism, on the other hand, is somewhat more respectable than theism, if only for the fact that a noninterventionist god is more compatible with mainstream science’s understanding of the universe. However, I reject the argument that god can be known through reason. I know of no logical way to prove or disprove god; all strong claims one way or the other require a leap of faith. This is why I prefer so-called “weak” atheism.

Finally, I’ve come up with yet another way to describe my attitude towards god and the afterlife: spesism. Basically, I hope that there is something more out there, but I won’t hold my breath.

More on Descartes and God

So I’m reading Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy not just in History of Modern Philosophy, but in Theory of Knowledge as well (although in that class we’re only concerned with the first two Meditations). I’ve been puzzling over Meditation Three (“God”) since last night (I only got a few hours of sleep because my brain was working overtime analyzing Descartes’s argument). I think I’ve got some responses to Descartes, but I’m still uncertain, so if you’re not convinced by what’s about to follow, then don’t be shocked. These ideas are still in their infancy.

First of all, despite Descartes’s fame, he was by no means the greatest philosopher or logician that ever lived. In my opinion, his major contributions to philosophy were in his epistemological work and his methodology. For instance, there are a few logical inconsistencies in his First Meditation. I won’t get into them here, but ask yourself: are you really unable to tell whether you’re dreaming right now?

Anyway, one thing I’ve been puzzling over is the list of attributes he claims God has. But before we get into that, let me fill you in on his line of reasoning at this point (which really is evident as early as the First Meditation). He’s working with this theory that causes cannot be any less real than their effects. So, in order for something more perfect to come into being, even in the mind, something more real (or perfect, perhaps; I’m not sure if that’s an adequate substitution, though) had to create it. Using this line of reasoning, he begins to wonder how the idea of a perfect being could have been created in his mind. He goes on to list the attributes of God:

  • infinite
  • eternal
  • unchangeable
  • independent
  • supremely intelligent
  • supremely powerful
  • created Descartes and everything else

To me, these all seem like attributes of the universe, so to me it seems like all Descartes has done is prove that the universe exists. Let me deal with them one by one.

  • Infinite: This one should be obvious: anyone who has looked up at the sky knows that it’s infinite.
  • Eternal: Time is a function of the universe, so by definition it is eternal.
  • Unchangeable: The laws of physics cannot be changed. Although the elements of the universe may change, the fundamentals are eternally the same.
  • Independent: This one is a little more puzzling because I’m not quite sure what Descartes means by “independent.” I suppose it means it doesn’t depend on an external source for its existence. In that case, the universe is clearly independent: it supports itself.
  • Supremely Intelligent: This one requires that you subscribe to my epistemological views. I believe that we can only have knowledge of the natural world (as I have said elsewhere) and that therefore knowledge is a function of the natural world. Since the universe is the natural world, it is the source of all knowledge. Therefore, it is supremely intelligent.
  • Supremely Powerful: Again, this one is obvious. The universe is the most powerful thing known to humanity.
  • Creator of Descartes and everything else: Again, super-obvious.

I’m not sure how tenable all of this is, but it’s a start.

Also, I think I can use Descartes’s own conception of knowledge against him to force him into agnosticism. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Cartesian conception of knowledge, this is its basic formulation:

S knows that P iff

  1. S believes P
  2. P is true
  3. P is indubitable

This should be simple. Even is we grant that the proposition “God exists” is true, no reasonable person can claim that it is indubitable. Therefore, Descartes cannot truly claim knowledge that God exists.

Like I said, I’m not sure how tight these arguments are. I’ve been puzzling over them for a while and am not completely sold on them, mainly because I haven’t tested them in the laboratory of the classroom, where 30 other philosophers (one with a Ph.D.) can poke holes in them and force me to defend them.

For more on my theories of God, see my post from half an hour ago.

A chat with some Mormon missionaries

So, I’m very interested in anomalistic psychology as well as the critical analysis of religious texts (the origin of the science of linguistics is in the study of religious texts), so last summer when some Mormon missionaries came through my neighborhood looking for recruits I invited them over for a chat in hopes of getting a free copy of the Book of Mormon. It worked, and I agreed to let them come back for as long as they felt like and teach me about their religion (Americans are notoriously ignorant of Mormonism, which to me is simply another silly form of Christianity). They stopped coming after I got short with them when I was in a bad mood and began attacking their religion. Anyway, they came back tonight after a few months’ absence to see if I have been praying. I told them no, they taught me how to pray their way (insisting that it’s the only right way), and then we had a discussion about God.

The thing about our discussion about God that really struck me was not the fact that my argument for agnosticism went over with a thud, but the fact that we apparently have very different ideas of what the nature of a perfect being might be like. I asked them why they thought God demanded to be worshipped and prayed to and such, and they explained to me that it was an issue of humility. God is our creator, so he wants us to know it. I found their use of the word “humility” very interesting, because my conception of a perfect being is one who is the epitome of humility (among other things). This is the very reason why I think the concept of a perfect being who demands adulation is self-contradictory. I was struck by the difference of opinion. It doesn’t help that perfection is largely subjective (although most people’s ideas of perfection converge on many points). I’ll have to read up on concepts of perfection and synthesize a definition for myself. Honestly, my own conception of perfection comes purely from my own imagination; aside from a few major philosophers who’ve written on the subject, I’m not that well-read in the literature of perfection.

The missionaries are coming back next Saturday and I told them I’d try praying their way. I highly doubt it’ll work, but seeing as it’s simply talking to myself, as long as I don’t do it in public, what harm can it do? I’ll humor them simply to see how it goes.