Saturday, February 06, 2021

So Ms. Atheist, "where is your evidence for the non-existence of god"

 This post comes out of a discussion on OGaP, a whatsapp discussion group, where, fairly regularly, the Theists on the group whom I think are exclusively Christians throw out the challenge to "present the evidence for the non-existence of god".  I think that this is a fairly understandable riposte to the oft repeated challenge of "where is the evidence for the existence of god" from the Atheist position to the theistic position.  It does make sense to me that if one advertises that that one bases one's justified beliefs on evidence and reason then one should not draw a conclusion in the absence of evidence and reason.

I have a few comments on the discussion that unfolded but I think that, in the end, it comes down to what a 'lack of evidence' can say about 'something's' existence. My contention and what I hope to show is that to establish existence one requires evidence but that it does not follow that a lack of evidence leads to a conclusion that 'something' does not exist nor that it does exist.  A lack of evidence actually say nothing about whether 'something' does or does not exist.

  • Example 1 : If 'something' is only the product of one's imagination i.e. it really doesn't exist; the lack of evidence of 'something's existence is due to it really not existing.
  • Exampel 2 : If 'something' is not the product of one's imagination i.e. it really does exist but no evidence of it's existence is available/accessible; the lack of evidence of 'something's existence is not due to it not existing but due to the unavailability/accessibility of any evidence of it's existence.

If one is trying to work out if something really does exist without any evidence there is no way to work out whether, as in example 1, it doesn't exist or, as in example 2, it does exist based on what one has which is a lack of evidence.  See Roland's Razor for reference. 

I am of the opinion that evidence and existence are one and the same thing like two sides of a coin.  One can only have evidence of existence if something really does exist and if something really does exist, there will be evidence. It may not be accessible or available but it does exist. So having evidence one can conclude existence but having a lack of evidence one can't conclude anything.  Seeing evidence and existence as equivalent turns the question "present the evidence for the non-existence of god" into a logical contradiction whereas it does not do the same for "where is the evidence for the existence of god".

My second point is that I don't understand how anyone, Theist or Atheist alike, can draw a conclusion of non-existence of supernatural beings based on the lack of evidence for their existence.  I can see how the Atheist position is more consistent in that all supernatural beings are treated the same way whereas the Theist position is to treat all supernatural beings the same way with the exception of their chosen set in which case the lack of evidence now draws a different conclusion i.e that the supernatural entity does exist.

If I was a Theist, I would counter the above by asserting that my chosen set of spiritual beings do exist because I can see the evidence of their existence.  However, arguing as an Atheist, I would say that if that same set of evidence is used by other people to support different sets of spiritual beings that, at least for me, brings into question whether that evidence really is evidence capable of supporting the existence of any spiritual being. Is that evidence, actually evidence at all?

Some Atheists attempt to show evidence of the non-existence of god(s) but it seems to me that what they are showing, or trying to show, is that a "good god(s)" or a "just god(s)" or, pick another attribute that god(s) are supposed to have, doesn't exist by showing that the attribute or combination of attributes are inconsistent with there being god(s).  This may show that god(s) with those particular attribute or set of attributes don't exist but not that god(s) without those attributes don't exist.  The evidence presented relates to the attributes and not to the god(s) themselves.

So to conclude, all the above is not to say that Theists shouldn't believe in their chosen set of spiritual beings nor that Atheists shouldn't lack belief in their chosen set of spiritual beings which is generally all of them. What I am saying is that when 'belief ' is confused with 'justified belief' or is  taken to mean 'justified belief' then the onus is on the one making the assertion to back the assertion up with evidence, logic and reason.

For an entertaining list of supernatural entities, see 

  • https://digitalcitizen.ca/2017/05/10/a-table-of-over-125-supernatural-collective-nouns-in-text-format/ 
  • https://www.bryndonovan.com/2015/09/24/master-list-of-mythical-creatures-and-beings/

Sunday, January 31, 2021

 "As John Stuart Mill explained, when a doctrine has been accepted so widely that the people have generally inherited, rather than adopted it, it begins an inevitable decline. Converts bring with them a zeal, but also an intimate understanding of the merits and pitfalls of both the ideology they left behind and that which they have adopted. Their beliefs were formed actively, by wrestling with objections and rebuttals. Those who have inherited the values that shape their lives may never have done this work, and thus may be far more susceptible to the simplest persuasion and emotional appeals."

Saturday, January 16, 2021

On Consciousness

I found the following link on Complexity Theory particularly interesting and enlightening :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71n4GSM1jhw&list=PLsJWgOB5mIMDRt8-DBLLVfh-XeKs2YAcg

One of the statements in the series of lectures is that Consciousness is an emergent property of complexity which, in our case, I take to be the biological complexity of our brains.

In spite of our inability to agree on a definition of consciousness; not to mention our lack of trust in others' answers, it still seems that we know that we are individually conscious.  We may suspect that others are also conscious given that we can ask them whether they are but what we don't know is whether we experience this as an individual or if we are all partaking in a collective consciousness (dualism) which exists independently of our physical form. Furthermore when looking at other species we don't have the luxury of being able to ask them so we try to infer from their behavior whether they are conscious or not.

Thinking of consciousness as being an emergent property of complexity takes it one step away from us as individuals and enables us to think in terms of different species having different levels of consciousness.  So consciousness may not be the binary question that I have thought it to be and by, theoretically at least, being able to measure the biological complexity of a brain, we may be able to determine how conscious a particular species is when full grown.

Not only do we have this problem inter-species but even within a species; as the organism develops from inception to adult at which point does the organism become conscious?  Maybe it is something like a gradual development from not having consciousness at all at inception to knowing that one is conscious when an adult.  Could this be different for different species where some species never attain the complexity required to be conscious whereas others are dimly conscious while others, ourselves included, attain self-awareness that we are conscious?

Does emergence hint at some kind of dualism in that, although dependent on the physical, consciousness exists in a sense independent of the physical?  I would argue that, no, the concept of emergence shows that it is possible for properties that are immaterial to arise from the material and this makes the rationale for dualism difficult to support.

If it turns out that consciousness is an emergent property of material complexity then it would seem that the immaterial would not be capable of being considered to be consciousness in the same way that we consider ourselves to be. (PK)

Lastly, and again, if consciousness is an emergent property of complexity then in the world of AI it would seem that it would be plausible for something inorganic to attain consciousness.  Not only would it be conscious in a way that is fundamentally different to us, we would be able to determine the level of consciousness beyond simply having to ask the AI entity whether it is conscious or not and simply having to believe the answer.

Thanks to Pauk Kotschy for his comments on my article and for sharing the following Scientific American article on much the same topic.

 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-consciousness-universal/

Saturday, January 02, 2021

Propositional Relationships

I have been doing some thinking about how we know and what we know especially given my last post regarding "Roland's Flock" and the ongoing debate about "Show me the evidence" in various groups I am in.

Firstly, I would like to view the belief/knowledge divide as a relationship that individuals have with a proposition rather than a property of the proposition itself. Further I would also like to define knowledge as "Justified belief" just so that it can be distinguished from belief without getting into what counts as justification and finally, I would also like to leave the True/False debate alone for a little bit because I think that it is property of the proposition rather then part of the relationship that an individual has with that proposition.

Taking the following statements representing peoples' positions on a proposition which in this case is "Odin exists" : 

  • Person A has a belief that "Odin exists"
  • Person B has no belief that "Odin exists"
  • Person C has knowledge that "Odin exists"
  • Person D has no knowledge that "Odin exists"

Justification, to my mind, may take many forms. It may be evidence, revelation, intuition, reason, logic or anything else that may be regarded as persuasive to the individual noting that what may be persuasive to one individual may not be to another.

Working through some use cases involving the relationship of an individual to a proposition : 

  • Some justification of a proposition is presented to an individual and the individual, after assessing the justification, decides that, for her, the justification is not persuasive so her relationship to the proposition can be categorized as D above. Having decided that it isn't persuasive there is a second step that she undertakes which is to decide whether in the absence of persuasive justification she is going to take the position of person A or that of person B above as her position relative to the proposition. She may choose A in which case she has a belief in the proposition even while acknowledging that the justification that she has isn't persuasive, even to her. Alternatively she may choose to take Person B's position and since the justification available has been found unpersuasive, she simply has no belief in the proposition. 
  • Some justification of a proposition is presented to an individual and the individual, after assessing the justification, decides that, for her, the justification is persuasive so her relationship to the proposition can be categorized as C above. Having decided that it is persuasive there is no second step; by finding the justification persuasive she automatically takes on the stance of Person A in addition to keeping the stance of Person C given that knowledge is defined as "Justified belief".
  • A proposition is presented to an individual without any justification of that proposition. In this case, since there is no justification (evidence, revelation, intuition, reason, logic or anything else), she may choose from Person A's or Person B's position and given the absence of any justification it is simply a choice that she makes as an individual.

Working through some positions and their relationships.

  • Position A is mutually exclusive with Position B; one can't hold both A & B at the same time.
  • Position C is mutually exclusive with Position D; one can't hold both C & D at the same time.
  • Position A may be held at the same time as Position C, Position D or neither Position C nor D.
  • Position B may be held at the same time as Position D or without Position D.
  • Position C implies holding Position A as well.
  • Position D implies holding either Position A or Position B.

When is it valid to challenge anothers' perspective : 

  • Asking an individual holding Position A to justify their belief only makes sense if the individual holds Position C as well. If the individual doesn't hold Position C but holds either Position D or neither Position C nor Position D, the question seems a little moot.
  • Asking an individual holding Position B to justify their no belief only makes sense if the individual holds Position D as well. If the individual doesn't hold Position D as well, the question seems a little moot.
  • Asking an individual holding Position C to justify their belief is a reasonable question to ask.
  • Asking an individual holding Position D to justify their no belief is a reasonable question to ask.

Some might point out that my definition of knowledge as "Justified belief" reduces knowledge to personal interpretation i.e. that knowledge is relative to the person holding that knowledge.  This is indeed the case but I draw a distinction between knowledge as held by an individual with a single perspective and Knowledge as seen from an infinity of perspectives.  Knowledge (absolute) with respect to a proposition can be identical to knowledge (personal) but because an infinity of perspectives isn't available to us; we have no way of knowing if one's own knowledge is in reality Knowledge.  This leads directly to the seemingly obvious position that knowledge (personal) can be incorrect.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Roland's Razor

In an online discussion group we stumbled on something that just seems like common sense but which none of us have come across anywhere else and which has come to be dubbed "Roland's Razor" by Paul.  I think he just liked the alliteration but thanks anyway.

If Proponenta uses an argument to come to Conclusiona and Proponentb uses the same argument to come to Conclusionb and Conclusiona and Conclusionb are incompatible or mutually exclusive the the argument itself is not able to be used to distinguish between Conclusionsa and Conclusionb. It is not that the argument is invalid, it can be a perfectly valid argument, but if it can be used to come to mutually incompatible conclusions then the argument can't be used to distinguish between the conclusions.

By way of example, suppose that a party is trying to decide between goda and godb both of whom make the claim that they are the one and only god. So Proponanta makes the argument that "She prayed for someone to be healed, and she was healed therefore goda exists" while Proponantb makes the argument that "She prayed for someone to be healed, and she was healed therefore godb exists". For the party trying to decide between goda and godb the argument "She prayed for someone to be healed and she was healed" can't be used to decide between goda and godb.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Roland's Flock

Lately, I have been coming across references to Gettier and his article "Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?" and what this has to say about a proposition being absolutely true.  The example below isn't the one's involving Smith and Jones in Gettiers article but, I think, it illustrates the same point.

An Observera views a paddock and sees a sheep and makes a statement to the effect that "There is a sheep in the paddock" given the evidence that she is able to see that there is a sheep in the paddock. Unbeknownst to her what she is looking at is a target that looks like a sheep but there happens to really be a sheep in the paddock, just not where she is looking. In this case, she has expressed a justified, evidence courtesy of sight, true i.e. there really is a sheep in the paddock, belief. She is not wrong in her statement but the reasons she uses to justify the statement are divorced from the truth of the statement.

For me, this calls into question how we can use evidence, sight in this case, to make pronouncements on what is true or not; are we left in a quandary where we can't know anything because we have to distrust any evidence provided as a reason for justified belief?

I would like to extend the example a little at a time:

Another Observerb views the same paddock and also sees a sheep and makes a statement to the effect that "There is a sheep in the paddock" given the evidence that she is able to see that there is a sheep in the paddock. Unbeknownst to her what she is looking at is a wolf in sheep's clothing but there happens to really be a sheep in the paddock, just not where she is looking. In this case, she has expressed a justified, evidence courtesy of sight, true i.e there really is a sheep in the paddock, belief. She is also not wrong in her statement but the reasons she uses to justify the statement are again divorced from the truth of the statement.

And so on but no matter how much evidence piles up from different observers and different perspectives the justification of the statement that "There is a sheep in the paddock" still doesn't lead to proof that there actually is a sheep in the paddock as it is all co-incidentally true rather than causally true.

There is an implied third observer that exists in the examples above which is the Observern that is making the statement "There really is a sheep in the paddock but not where the other Observers are looking". So how do we know that the third Observern themselves aren't mistaken and, in reality, there may or may not even be a sheep in the paddock.

Now we have called into question not only evidence as a means of determining if something is true but whether it is even possible to know if something is true in an absolute sense.

My take on this is that we have no way of determining what is absolutely true because it seems to me that in order to do so one would need to view the paddock from all possible perspectives and through the lens of all possible evidence(s) and that, as humans, I don't think is possible. Perspectives and evidence that are impossible at the current time to access could very well become possible in the future but we are only able to work with what is currently possible and available to us at the moment.

As uncomfortable as that may make us I don't think that all is lost and that the example points a way to, while not being certain, at least being confident, that there is or is not a sheep in the paddock by combining our perspectives and evidences so that we can state with confidence that "There is a sheep in the paddock" even though we can't be absolutely certain that there is one there.

As new evidence or perspectives become available to us we can revisit the question and potentially, the answer may change. So in the example Observera,b,n get together and walk around to their respective perspectives to see how things look. When gathered at Observera's perspective the target will look like a sheep, the actual sheep looks like a sheep but the wolf in sheep's clothing becomes clear for what it is. When gathered at Observerb's perspective the wolf will look like a sheep, the actual sheep looks like a sheep but the target becomes clear for what it is. Finally, when gathered at Observern's perspective the sheep looks like a sheep but the target and the wolf in sheep's clothing are clear for what they are.

In the example, Observern's perspective isn't in some way a privileged perspective but it is the one that what is observed remains a sheep from both Observera's, Observerb's and Observern's perspectives but the introduction of Observerc's perspective could potentially show them to all be wrong but not that there really is a sheep in the paddock! 

So as counter-intuitive as it feels, it seems that we are able to "know an absolute truth" i.e. "There is a sheep in the paddock" but unable to know whether "There is a sheep in the paddock" is an absolute truth or not. 

Comments 

 A friend pointed out that "It seems to me that you're arguing for corroboration as a form of validating what we take to be true" which isn't quite what I was intending but I think I need to explore the point a little bit.

On the "Yes" side of corroboration as a form of validation I was pointing out that having Observera, Observerb leave behind their perspectives to take on Observern's does strengthen Observern's claim that there is a sheep in the paddock and that it can be a justified belief albeit not a proven belief.

On the "No" side, the competition is between perspectives and not about the number of people sharing the same perspective but, that being said, perspectives are only held by people so, in the end, numbers do seem to count by virtue of holding a particular perspective and not another. Numbers are useful in determining the dominant or consensus perspective but not when it comes to determining which perspective, if any, is absolutely true.

Come to think about it, I think that we mostly base our beliefs on consensus perspectives simply because it is not possible for us to each be a cosmologist, a philosopher, a biologist, a mathematician, a physicist etc, etc so we use a heuristic of consensus on a perspective without going any deeper into the topic.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Kalahari Rest Camp to home.

Breakfast only started being served at 07:00 so we couldn't start at the crack of dawn and we had what was probably the best breakfast that we've had on this trip.  And best of all, really good strong coffee.

The trip itself was rather uneventful other than seeing three cows, one donkey and a cerval cat all killed by traffic and we couldn't have missed all of them on the way up so these must have been killed in the last couple of weeks.  After a couple of hours I started feeling tired so Caron drove from Jwareng to the border while I had a nap.

We stopped in at Kalahari Kofi again for some more really good coffee and pancakes and marvelled how we missed the main road on our way up and effectively took a detour through Lobatse before joining up with the main road again.

The border was a breeze and by about 13:00 we were back in South Africa and decided that we would head for home instead of staying in Zeerust like we had planned.

We messaged Sam to say that we were arriving a day early but he only got the message later because he was asleep by which point we were busy buying pizza for supper and were only 20 minutes away.  Too late to clean the house up properly so, for the first time, we arrived home to a not-so-clean house.

True to form when we arrived home, something isn't working.  Normally it is the internet connection but, for a change, it was the DSTV so we didn't get to see the rest fo the Springboks vs Argentina which we had started to watch while we were waiting for the pizza.

We didn't bother to unpack leaving that task for tomorrow but just had a long hot shower and enjoyed having our own bed and pillows.

End of another sojourn into africa.  Starting to look forward to the next one already ... possibly up the western edge of Okavango, into the Caprivi strip, Zambia and then back into Botswana at Kasane and then home.