Science Saved My Soul

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 5, 2010 in Science,Video

First 20 seconds are slow, but then you’ll be glad you stayed.

Also, you can get a transcript of the video here.

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{ 109 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam November 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

“Some kind of celestial event. No – no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They Should Have Sent A Poet. So beautiful. So beautiful… I had no idea.”

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Rob T. November 5, 2010 at 12:19 pm

Saw this just yesterday – thought it was brilliantly done. Thanks for posting it here, Luke.

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Garren November 5, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Brilliant work, except for the audience-limiting cursing.

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Waldheri November 5, 2010 at 1:17 pm

@Garren: children wouldn’t understand it anyway, so I don’t see how it is audience-limiting.

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Garren November 5, 2010 at 1:34 pm

For one thing, I can’t link it on a Theology forum I frequent. Also, one unnecessary word will unravel a lot of excellent build-up for many conservative Christians. It’s a rhetorically foolish inclusion for what is otherwise a great advocacy video.

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stamati November 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Exactly this idea saved my life, too, although I was exposed to it through Buddhism. They call it anatman, or no-self, or interdependence. That idea that we are the universe, that we stepped out of supernovas, and the youngest child is as old as the stars… it is profound and like this man said, life altering.

@Garren,
Totally agree with you.
@Waldheri,
Kids are smarter than you’d think.

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Andy Walters November 5, 2010 at 1:48 pm

I have to say, the video moved me to tears… the thought that human race has only begun its journey is unspeakably inspiring.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 5, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Andy,

You are such a pussy. You probably cried watching Pixar’s Up. :)

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Andy Walters November 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Oh, dude. Totally. The truth is I couldn’t stop crying at that movie.

I like to think empathy is a noble quality :)

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Bill Maher November 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm

in Andy’s defense, I cried during UP too.

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Mastema November 5, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Awesome video. Easily up there with some of Carl Sagan’s speeches when it comes to giving me a “spiritual” experience.

Because of this knowledge and understanding of our place in the universe, I find the concept of a being who would create all this, and also care about us the way the God of the big monotheisms does is absurd. A God who cares where I put my penis and when I can put it in, or wants me to beat my wife and children, or not drink coffee, or wear underwear so unsexy that it amazes me that any religion that requires its use be known for its adherents having so many children, or not make a phone call or flip a light switch one day a week, or not get a blood transfusion is too petty and small minded to be taken seriously. If it is the case that such a being exists, I would weep for humanity.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 5, 2010 at 3:09 pm

Explaining the inside joke…

I had told Andy earlier about how I couldn’t help but cry at a certain point in Up.

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Ben November 5, 2010 at 3:22 pm

I see someone reads reddit, heh.

Found it for the first time today myself on there.

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Hermes November 5, 2010 at 3:35 pm

in Andy’s defense, I cried during UP too.  

I cry during Gilmore Girls. I mean Old Yeller! Erm. Shut up! I meant Old Yeller! Leave me alone, I hate you!

:-}

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Hermes November 5, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I liked the first 5~6 minutes best. While the rest was good, and well done, I knew it so well before that it was not as inspiring as I am sure it was to many other people.

I remember visiting my grandparent’s farm, and at night resting in the grass to look up at the cloudless sky near the stone road. Drifting my fingers through the air, half expecting the stars to trail behind them in swirls like campfire smoke.

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Keith J. November 5, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Yeah I was going to post this to my Facebook…. until he dropped the F-bomb. Why in the world include that? Sheesh.

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Justfinethanks November 5, 2010 at 5:02 pm

I got choked up during the beginning and end of Up. But I totally lost my shit at the end of Toy Story 3. My five year old daughter handled it better than I did.

Oh and I actually liked the cursing in the linked video. The fact that it was unexpected lent it some extra punch. The whole thing, the script and images, were beautifully orchestrated.

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The Atheist Missionary November 5, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Bravo. [I also shed a tear during Up but The Fisher King did me in].

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Jugglable November 5, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Wow, that guy just patted himself on the back and fellated himself for 15 minutes. It must feel great to be so enlightened!

I take issue with a lot of things in this video.

First, he speaks as if every religion has a different God. I don’t think that’s true. Religions have different ideas about the same God. I’m Catholic, and if I talk to a Muslim friend, we believe different things about God, but we’re both talking about the ground of contingency and intelligibility, the first cause, the unmoved mover, etc. We both mean God.

He speaks about RELIGION as if it’s one big big thing. Criticizing the big bad boogeyman of RELIGION is like criticizing IDEAS. Are ideas good or bad? Well, depends which ideas. “When I think about what religion tried to do to me…” Well, RELIGION didn’t try to do anything to you. It’s an abstract noun. Maybe some religious people did, but that’s different. That’s like a Jew looking at the Nazis experiments on Jews and going, “Look what science did to us!” It’s silly to caricature RELIGION when a lot of good AND bad come from religion.

He also acts like it’s RELIGION versus SCIENCE. Well, in the real world things are more complex. There’s overlap:

The irony is, he’s condescending to religious people about his knowledge of the universe, but in doing so he’s standing on the shoulders of devoutly religious scientists of the past who have contributed greatly to scientific knowledge–yes, his scientific knowledge. And a lot of the earliest scientists talked about how their faith FUELED their desire to learn about the universe–they viewed it as uncovering God’s plan. Some religious people have often fought science, but others have loved it. So let’s not talk in such simple black-and-white ways. That’s a dumbed down story for children. Don’t tell me “Anytime anyone has such a [scientific] mindgasm, religion steals it.” Religious people helped bring you to mindgasm.

“…makes the wrath of human Gods seem pitiful by comparison”

Well, Saint Anselm said that God is than which nothing greater can even be conceived. Try to beat that, bucko.

He encouraged religious people to ask questions about the universe. Well, many of them are way ahead of you–they’ve been on the case since before you were born. I’d turn it around on him and tell him to ask some questions, as well. Next time you’re looking up at the milky way, ask why this universe operates according to amazing laws. Ask yourself why there’s something rather than nothing. Science is amazing, but don’t stop asking questions right when the answers start to become REALLY interesting. To do so takes a great dulling of the intellect. So does treating religion as one big unified anti-science boogeyman.

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Hermes November 5, 2010 at 10:49 pm

First, he speaks as if every religion has a different God. I don’t think that’s true. Religions have different ideas about the same God.

There is a phrase I use quite often in one form or another; There are as many Christianities as there are Christians. To put this a bit in perspective, many non-Catholics consider Catholics not to be Christians at all.

Additionally, are deists monotheists? What about polytheists? Are all monotheists Christians? It makes no sense to say yes to these things, and that is the only way to end up with the same singular monotheistic deity. In the case of your Muslim friend, you are both pointing back towards the Jewish Yahweh, so that one can be categorized as the same deity, yet there’s not much on a scriptural level that you both share except for the Jewish texts, and distantly Jesus (who was part of Yahweh/God/Spirit/Jesus … group and to listen to some Christians Mary and/or Satan/… also are gods of some sort).

As for religion, there’s religion and then there’s theism. The two often are correlated, but they aren’t dependent.

That said, I don’t discount your or other people’s experiences even their theistically attributed experiences. Those experiences are real. What I do think is that those experiences are misattributed to a deity exclusively without giving credit to reality and the wonders that it entails.

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Jugglable November 5, 2010 at 10:53 pm

You make some interesting points. I’d say even polytheism has overlaps with what I believe, honestly. I’d say even certain experiences described the guy who made this video are religious, even if he insists otherwise. He intuits an intelligence behind the universe.

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Justfinethanks November 6, 2010 at 12:20 am

Jugglable, it seems you are really confirming part of the thesis of video. Namely, that religion takes credit for purely secular wonders and experiences, and in process cheapens them.

I’m Catholic, and if I talk to a Muslim friend, we believe different things about God, but [...] We both mean God.

This some really hippy dippy theology. I drive a ford Explorer. My dad drives a BMW 3 series. Imagine if I said “Our cars have different parts, but they both have transmissions, wheels, differentials, etc. So in a way, we have the same model of car.” It’s nonsense to think that just because two things have some similar properties (as the Christian God and Allah do), they can’t be called “different.” So contrary to what you say, every religion does indeed worship a different God (though they may share some same properties), just as as every vehicle manufacturer produces different cars (though they may share some properties.)

It’s silly to caricature RELIGION when a lot of good AND bad come from religion.

That’s certainly true. But in the video, his criticism of religion is focused on how it colors our experience of the universe. And that, to him (and me) is universally bad.

Religious people helped bring you to mindgasm.

Yes. But that mindgasm still isn’t religious in nature. If a religious chef makes me a meal, that doesn’t make the pleasure of the food religious. Cooking (like science) is a completely secular enterprise, and the fruits of each are also secular.

And all those religious scientists weren’t acting against their religious teachings in making discoveries about the natural world, but they weren’t exactly acting in line with them either. Does any ancient religion or text demand for people to perform experiments? Does Yahweh ever say “Thou shalt develop theoretical models that best fit the facts and evidence you have available, and change those models accordingly when thou are presented with new facts”?

If He did, perhaps we wouldn’t have to had to wait thousands of years after Moses and 1600 years or so after Jesus before the development of a mature and robust scientific methodology.

There is certainly no denying that many great scientists were religious. But science itself, and those discoveries that make us wonder and feel whole with the universe, aren’t religious in the slightest.

“…makes the wrath of human Gods seem pitiful by comparison”

Well, Saint Anselm said that God is than which nothing greater can even be conceived.

Wait, are you saying that your God is the most wrathful being that can even be conceived? Even more wrathful than say, Satan? Bummer.

I kid of course. But you are making a very odd application of Anselm’s definition of God in response to someone bragging about the wrath of nature.

But again, in the video he’s comparing the destruction of a star to the kinds of destruction that Gods are accredited with doing. Yahweh is pretty wrathful and destructive all right: Things like slaughtering civilizations, drowning an entire planet, and sending terrible famines and plagues are nothing to sneeze at. But compared to reducing an entire solar system to dust, the greatest destruction recorded in the old testament seems kind of piddling.

He intuits an intelligence behind the universe.

I can’t speak for his experience of natural world, but if you said this about mine, I would find it deeply insulting. (And weird. How could you make a claim about my intuition like that without possessing telepathy?)

When I started to believe that there was nothing beyond nature, that there was no cosmic decorator who had put all those particles and natural laws in place, it became so much more stunning and joy inspiring to me. The final power of reality isn’t some distant, intelligent, and powerful abstraction behind the stars. They were the stars themselves, something that I can actually directly experience and see. And is so much more fulfilling.

When I contemplate the stars, the only intelligence I ‘intuit’ are my own and the good people who worked so hard to learn about them.

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Al Moritz November 6, 2010 at 12:50 am

Good post, Juggable.

Like Hermes, I liked the first 5~6 minutes best. They were awesome, most of the rest forgettable.

I come to the opposite conclusion than the speaker does at the end. To me, science has made God much more awe-inspiring. And I am keeping my Catholic religion, which was (almost) always science-friendly. The Big Bang hypothesis (now theory) first was proposed by Georges Lemaitre, a physicist and astronomer who was also a Catholic priest.

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Al Moritz November 6, 2010 at 1:06 am

Mastema,

“Because of this knowledge and understanding of our place in the universe, I find the concept of a being who would create all this, and also care about us the way the God of the big monotheisms does is absurd. ”

This is what I wrote elsewhere on the topic (not that, by reproducing this, I automatically assume that you think the same way as Dawkins does):

In his discussion with Francis Collins, moderated by Time Magazine, Richard Dawkins says that the Christian God is parochial.

“When we started out and we were talking about the origins of the universe and the physical constants, I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to me to be a worthy idea. Refutable – but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. They strike me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”

I agree with Dawkins that the God of many believers is sadly quite parochial, since they do not contemplate the wonders of the vastness of God’s universe but have a rather small view of God’s creation. But Dawkins appears to be unaware that theology has long held a view that fully satisfies his demands. As we have seen, theologians have held since many centuries that God is infinite and omnipotent, and some have suggested that only an infinite universe would be worthy of its Creator. In other words, theologians have held since ages that God is of incomprehensible grandeur indeed.

And I do not think that the God of science-informed Christian believers is parochial at all – quite the contrary. Those believers see an expression of God’s infinity in the universe, yet still believe that God intimately cares about humankind on our ‘insignificant’ little planet circling one of about 300 billion stars in our galaxy, which in turn is just one average galaxy among about 300 billion other ones – so much in fact that He became a human being in Jesus Christ who died for our sins on the Cross. That is a truly mind-boggling concept, but would you not expect God to be mind-boggling, completely beyond human comprehension? It should be expected that God would be so great that He vastly transcends the limited understanding of the small human mind. But in comparison the God of Dawkins appears just great within human understanding and expectations, which would not allow for something as allegedly parochial as the incarnation in Jesus Christ to be worthy of God, the designer and creator of the universe. That would be a God who more snugly fits into the back pocket of the human mind, in terms of being able to be comprehended – but this would make Him a more truly parochial God as well. Thus, the God of Francis Collins or of any other science-informed believer seems the greater one.

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Sabio Lantz November 6, 2010 at 3:56 am

I agree with the insight of commenter Stamati (a Buddhist) and some criticisms of commentor Jugglable (a Christian).

(1) Confusing the Model with the Experience
This guy calls his experience a “Mindgasm” and describes, loss of fear, a sense unity and belongingness, a peaceful embracement of insignificance, and ecstatic. AND, he happened to be thinking of astronomy, physics and in a science model. Both others have had these experiences while thinking in no science model, in no theist model. Some had them using their religious models. Thus, the experience is independent of science and religions. Lots of different models can be used to embrace it, nurture it and communicate it.

(2) Deluded by an Abstraction called “Religion”
His broad stroke attack on religion may stir those who hate the religion they left, but it is naive. He says “religion stole our love”, “religion paints everything, not of itself, as ugly.” Of course I understand his disgust for what many religious folks have tried to do with their ideology, but just as science tries to be careful in analysis, he needs to be more careful. For all the ugliness he sees in religion can be found in practitioners of non-religious ideologies too. That is because humans made them.

I get his experience but he generalizes it, just as he generalizes the abstract word “religion” to capture his own feelings. It seems his experience was not as purifying as he may like to think.

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Zeb November 6, 2010 at 7:29 am

Justfinethanks

This some really hippy dippy theology. I drive a ford Explorer. My dad drives a BMW 3 series. Imagine if I said “Our cars have different parts, but they both have transmissions, wheels, differentials, etc. So in a way, we have the same model of car.”

There was a time when I believed there was a god, but did not know which if any religion described god best. The god I believed in was basically a personal omnimax creator, and so compatible with Christianity, Islam, and others; I was just waiting to find out if any more details could be filled in. I leaned toward Islam because its description of God was simpler, but due some personal experiences I came to accept Christian doctrines. I didn’t start believing in a different god, I just learned some more about the god I believed in. If something happened to convince me that my Christianity is false and in fact Islam is true, I would not start believing in a new god, I would just believe different things about the same god I’ve known all along.

Here is a better analogy. If you and I both know Bob, but I believe he is a hemophiliac who went to Yale and won the lottery in 1986, and you believe he is a diabetic who went to Penn State and inherited a million dollars in 1990. We both know the same guy, we just believe different things about him.

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Zeb November 6, 2010 at 7:35 am

Al Moritz, do you have a blog or know of any theist or Christian or Catholic blogs as high quality as your comments here tend to be?

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stamati November 6, 2010 at 7:48 am

@sabio:

excellent points both!

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Sabio Lantz November 6, 2010 at 9:43 am

@ stamati

I think Buddhists also confuse their meditative experiences with their theological/philosophical models. Thus you get different reports on their experiences colored by their ideology.

Luke is very careful on this site to try avoiding generalizations about religion and the Ethical Atheist has written here about the bad outcomes from such practices. Yet this video partakes in exactly such simplicities and has been posted without commentary. Many atheists will let this video slide because they like so many of the other points. Yet we get angry at liberal theists who don’t speak against the fundamentalists in their midst and say that such silence is equivalent to participating in the folly of the fundies. Thus, should we no be diligent to catch our own sloppy habits?

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Jugglable@gmail.com November 6, 2010 at 9:49 am

Justfinethanks–thanks for your comments.

“This is some really hippy dippy theology. I drive a ford Explorer. My dad drives a BMW 3 series. Imagine if I said “Our cars have different parts, but they both have transmissions, wheels, differentials, etc. So in a way, we have the same model of car.”

—–>You see, the philosophical difference here is that there can only be ONE necessarily existing ground of contingency. So the moment we start talking about the ground of contingency, we are talking about the same SINGLE thing.

You also said:

“The final power of reality isn’t some distant, intelligent, and powerful abstraction behind the stars. They were the stars themselves, something that I can actually directly experience and see. And is so much more fulfilling.”

Careful here. You just said that the final power of reality is stars themselves. But that’s a little careless. Stars are entirely contingent. Yes, we’d agree that we can see them and that they’re awe-inspiring. But stars cannot be the final power of reality because they’ve come into being and they’ll pass out of being. They’re all fleeting and evanescent. I’ll wonder at them, but I like to reserve my worship for that which exists through the power of its own essence.

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Michael November 6, 2010 at 9:51 am

@ Zeb
“Here is a better analogy. If you and I both know Bob, but I believe he is a hemophiliac who went to Yale and won the lottery in 1986, and you believe he is a diabetic who went to Penn State and inherited a million dollars in 1990. We both know the same guy, we just believe different things about him.”

This analogy only works if you have a theory of how to identify and distinguish bits of reality apart from the properties they possess. Bob is nonetheless Bob in virtue of being a biological entity, a human being living in the late 20th century: that is a huge set of properties which fixes Bob to a remarkable extent. That bit of reality would not be a giraffe or a virus or an iPad or an octopus’s eye or the supercontinent Rodinia or Gliese 581g or any other of an open-ended list of actual or possible bits of reality.

If we pick one or 2 or 20 properties of humans living in the late 20th century and disagree whether Bob has those properties, we could conclude as you do that those claims might be in error but that it was still Bob we were talking about.

Even if their name was really Bon-hwa and they were really female and never graduated high school because they died of hemolytic anemia in the Guatemalan village in which they were born, your analogy might still work. I think it might still work because the MASSIVE set of properties involved in fixing Bob as a human being living in the 20th century allows you to claim that you were still referring to THAT person, you were just wrong about a few properties of their properties.

That is why your analogy fails. Neither Yahweh and Allah have some immense set of properties which fix them so thoroughly that a few changed properties here and there don’t make much of a difference. Claiming they could refer to the same entity makes about as much sense as claiming that you weren’t mistaken in calling a glass of water a proton because they are both made of quarks.

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Jugglable@ November 6, 2010 at 9:55 am

Justfine thanks– another thought.

I agree that science itself in general is a secular thing, and religious scientists should not have their science be different because they’re religious. Religious people and atheists should do the exact same science.

But if you look at the founders of the modern sciences, their quest for scientific knowledge itself was deeply religious. They were seeking to know God with their scientific endeavors. “Through a knowledge of God’s works, we shall know him.” Robert Boyle. There’s a lot more they wrote than just that one pity quote. Religious motivation inspired them to be scientists. At least that’s the way they described it at length. It’s not that way for everyone, I know. But because they said that it’s not true that religion always screws up science.

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Michael November 6, 2010 at 10:02 am

Al and jugglable…

It doesn’t bother you to remove God further and further away from evidence, experience, and rational deliberation? I mean… really… the puny human mind is unable to conceive of or process the magnitudinous grandiosity of the supremely noncontingently luminous smallness and utter uber-stank that is GOD!!! TADA!!! GOD!!! Really, that far gone?

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Hermes November 6, 2010 at 10:19 am

Jugglable: You make some interesting points. I’d say even polytheism has overlaps with what I believe, honestly. I’d say even certain experiences described the guy who made this video are religious, even if he insists otherwise. He intuits an intelligence behind the universe

Awe and wonder are true on a personal level.

They are true on a cultural and thus experiential level as well.

For example, if you are out hiking in the wilderness and you come to a break in the trees that opens up on a mountain range jutting from the ground into the clouds, you probably will feel awe and become inspired by the experience. Yet, take someone from another society — another culture and with different experiences — and they may either ignore the mountains or see them as something that they dread or even are threatened by or just annoyed by. That’s not idle speculation, it can be seen in the accounts of the ancestors of many westerners as well as those from tribes who live in jungles or away from any hint of a substantial hill let alone a mountain range.

Should everyone feel awe on seeing such a landscape? Possibly, but they do not. Just as you did not viewing this video. The point being that awe and wonder may be universal, but what we attribute to them is not universal.

That difference in attribution is where I think many theists go down the wrong path. They bind the experience so tightly to a preconception that they start to see the preconception as necessary for the experience.

This is why so many non-theists tend to scorn those experiences when talking to theists. They know that the first thing that will happen when a theist hears of a valid experience is that they will not see that the experience itself as awesome without that layer of theism.

For example, on a hike with a former girlfriend, I noticed an eagle sweeping in front of us on the trail, as well as dozens of other animals and insects and strange growing mossy areas, flowing off the rocks with the outpouring of traces of water running out of fissures. She asked me how I could be so excited about all of nature and not see that as an indication of something extra — a god if not her idea of god. I turned to her and asked if she felt that this was glorious — and on her saying yes, I simply said that it is glorious all by itself because we are here to experience it. Nothing needs to be added, and if anything was it would only be a distraction from what was already here.

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Kyle Key November 6, 2010 at 1:21 pm

@Juggable:
It’s not clear why you originally brought up that

“[the] irony is, he’s condescending to religious people about his knowledge of the universe, but in doing so he’s standing on the shoulders of devoutly religious scientists of the past who have contributed greatly to scientific knowledge,”

Given that the author said as much in the video description:

“Yes, many of those thinkers to whom I owe my mental freedom were religious, like Newton, a Christian, who believed God made the Earth but who then showed me why the Earth would have formed without a god’s help. Or Plank and Schrodinger, two more Christians, who believed God ruled the Universe but showed me how God could not control a single electron. The discoveries these and many other people made, the laws they are famous for, are the very things that make gods getting humans pregnant, or angels whispering to prophets in caves, look infantile. I could never and would never question their intelligence. Their honesty and intellectual consistency are a different matter.

“So does treating religion as one big unified anti-science boogeyman.”

Religion needn’t be “anti-science” to be derided.

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Jugglable November 6, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Kyle Key– ah, that’s very interesting. I had not seen the text you quoted.

In reaction to what he said:

“believed God made the Earth but who then showed me why the Earth would have formed without a god’s help”

I think this is one of the biggest misunderstandings about God today, a big obstacle for a lot of people. Of thinking that as we learn more about how the universe works, it makes God recede. It doesn’t. It does only if you conceive of God as one force or one cause among many.

If you ask an atheist how you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he’ll say “You need peanut butter, and jelly, and bread.” You ask me, a religious person, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I am NOT going to say “You need peanut butter, and jelly, and GOD, and bread.” We can explain A LOT of things without invoking God.

We’d laugh if I said that, because it makes a fundamental category error or thinking of God as one fussy competing force among many in the universe. Science can answer questions about the mechanistic interactions of finite, conditioned things. God is the answer to a fundamentally different kind of question. Questions like, “Why is there such a thing as contingency?”

Many atheists and even intelligent design people make the same mistake of conceiving of God as a scientific hypothesis. They think if we can explain something without appealing to God, then it’s a loss for God. But that’s insulting to God. God is greater than being one fussy cause among many. If God is the necessarily existing ground of contingency, what Thomas Aquinas called ipsum esse subsistens–being itself. So he is not one cause among many, but exists in and through all conditioned things. Yes, we can describe how a lot of the universe works without appealing to God. But that doesn’t mean God is not involved. God is involved in creation in a more intimate way. In such an intimate way that he doesn’t come “from the outside” as one little fussy competing force.

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Al Moritz November 6, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Al Moritz, do you have a blog or know of any theist or Christian or Catholic blogs as high quality as your comments here tend to be?

Thanks, Zeb. No I don’t have a blog and I haven’t looked much at Christian blogs actually. Lately I have taken a look at the Catholic Answers Forums, department Philosophy

http://forums.catholic.com/forumdisplay.php?f=118

and while the average posts seem, well, average, there may be a few posters there that make high quality contributions. So far I have done only some cursory reading there though, so don’t take my word for it. See for yourself if you think that’s true.

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Al Moritz November 6, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Yes, we can describe how a lot of the universe works without appealing to God.But that doesn’t mean God is not involved.God is involved in creation in a more intimate way.In such an intimate way that he doesn’t come “from the outside” as one little fussy competing force.  

Precisely.

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Kyle Key November 6, 2010 at 3:35 pm

Jugglable: “You ask me, a religious person, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I am NOT going to say “You need peanut butter, and jelly, and GOD, and bread.”
Well, if the sandwich was offered up for dinner, tens of millions of theists–at the least–
would (claim) to talk to god and thank him for the meal , so I wouldn’t be so quick to take god out of the theist explanation there.

“Yes, we can describe how a lot of the universe works without appealing to God. But that doesn’t mean God is not involved.”
That’s modern Christianity in a nutshell.

“God is involved in creation in a more intimate way.”
Ooh, yeah, I get it–a sexier way. seXtianity.

But more seriously, your entire post reads to me as such: “Sure, it may LOOK like I worship a God-of-the-Gaps. But I don’t! And here are some questions that God still answers to prove it! They’re TOTALLY different than before, promise.”

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Al Moritz November 6, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Al and jugglable…
It doesn’t bother you to remove God further and further away from evidence, experience, and rational deliberation?  

On the contrary, Michael, there could be no more intimate experience of God than receiving the creator of the universe (or the multiverse) in the Holy Eucharist.

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Andy Walters November 6, 2010 at 4:14 pm

@Jugglable–

Yes, we can describe how a lot of the universe works without appealing to God. But that doesn’t mean God is not involved. God is involved in creation in a more intimate way. In such an intimate way that he doesn’t come “from the outside” as one little fussy competing force.

There is always the possibility that invisible gremlins really power petroleum engines, but the question is what good reason do we have for thinking that? Following Dawes here, the most successful explanations we humans have ever encountered are falsifiable, consistent with background knowledge, ontologically simple, and so on. Unfortunately, the invisible gremlin explanation is unfalsifiable, inconsistent with background knowledge, and unnecessarily complex, so we have no good reason to think invisible gremlins power petroleum engines.

Similarly then, in the case of the universe at large, we have no good reason to assign a high probability of truth to an explanation like God which is unfalsifiable, inconsistent with background knowledge, and ontologically complex. Of course, it’s always possible that God exists, but then again it’s possible invisible gremlins power petroleum engines. The more interesting question is whether we have any good reason to think God exists, and given the God explanation’s failure, I can see none.

To be sure, theists have given plenty of reasons to think God exists, like the modal ontological argument you’ve alluded to. But by my lights, since these reasons only serve to underwrite an explanation, we are forced to assign a truth probability to God’s existence in virtue of, and only in virtue of, its explanatory merit. And of course, it seems to me if the question of God’s existence must finally be judged in the court of explanatory merit, it fails miserably.

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Jugglable November 6, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Andy Walters:

I don’t think of God as an explanatory hypothesis. That was kind of a big point of my last post. Maybe I’m using “explanatory hypothesis” in a naive way philosophically, but I don’t think of God as an EXPLANATION. My favorite argument for God is the argument from contingency. I don’t think of that argument as saying “God is the best explanation for so-and-so.” I think it just follows logically and deductively from the argument that there’s a necessarily existing ground of contingency. If the logic works, it doesn’t matter if you like the “explanation” or not, or if it’s too mind-bending for you. That’s just what you’re left with.

As for your invisible gremlins thing, if you were to define a gremlin I think we could give good philosophical reason for doubting that they power engines.

Kyle Key:

You seem to be accusing me of believing in a god-of-the gaps. But remember, the God I believe in isn’t a scientific hypothesis, as I said. This god doesn’t fit somewhere in the causal chain. This god is the source of why there’s such a chain at all. And that’s not a god of the gaps. God of the gaps is “we don’t know how it happened, so God did it.” But I don’t think that’s what I’m saying. I’m not just appealing to god based on ignorance. I’m saying that based on what we DO know (not ignorance)–what we DO know–is that contingent things cannot contain within themselves the reason for their own existence. So to explain a contingent thing, an infinite appeal to other finite conditioned things won’t do, so ultimately we must come to that which exists through its own essence. This isn’t shoving God into a gap in knowledge based on ignorance. It’s starting with what we do know and reasoning carefully step-by-step to his existence.

I know you don’t buy the argument from contingency, so we don’t need to go off on that tangent. I just mentioned it to show that the form of reasoning that takes me to belief isn’t a god-of-the-gaps.

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Jugglable November 6, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Oh, and Kyle Key:

“Well, if the sandwich was offered up for dinner, tens of millions of theists–at the least–
would (claim) to talk to god and thank him for the meal , so I wouldn’t be so quick to take god out of the theist explanation there.”

I’m not sure how seriously you mean that. To give another example. How do we explain the weather today? Well, there’s a lot of different factors. An atheist weatherman and a Catholic weatherman could explain in terms of factorys x, y, and z. But the Catholic one wouldn’t appeal to God to explain the weather. He wouldn’t shove God into his explanation.

Because what causes different kinds of weather is a scientific question, and God isn’t a scientific hypothesis.

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Al Moritz November 6, 2010 at 5:13 pm

For example, on a hike with a former girlfriend, I noticed an eagle sweeping in front of us on the trail, as well as dozens of other animals and insects and strange growing mossy areas, flowing off the rocks with the outpouring of traces of water running out of fissures.She asked me how I could be so excited about all of nature and not see that as an indication of something extra — a god if not her idea of god.I turned to her and asked if she felt that this was glorious — and on her saying yes, I simply said that it is glorious all by itself because we are here to experience it.Nothing needs to be added, and if anything was it would only be a distraction from what was already here.  

Hermes,

My belief that God is behind them in no way diminishes my appreciation of all those awesome physical, chemical, biochemical and biological structures and processes. I can get excited about nature and its glory as such.

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Kyle Key November 6, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Jugglable:
“…but I don’t think of God as an EXPLANATION”

“So to EXPLAIN [emphasis mine] a contingent thing, an infinite appeal to other finite conditioned things won’t do, so ultimately we must come to that which exists through its own essence.”

This is a direct contradiction. The argument from contingency tries to show that the universe is contingent, therefore God explains its existence. You’re using god as an explanation in your argument even though you say “I don’t think of God as an explanatory hypothesis.”

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Hermes November 6, 2010 at 7:39 pm

My belief that God is behind them in no way diminishes my appreciation of all those awesome physical, chemical, biochemical and biological structures and processes.I can get excited about nature and its glory as such.  

On focus: If I focus on a snail, and then turn my attention to another snail, my focus is no longer on the first snail.

On awe: When I am in awe with things as they are, if my focus wanders to other things, my awe is diminished and at most replaced by awe over the other things I have switched my focus to.

To paraphrase from a source that you might recognize, in my case I don’t add in what is not needed in the moment nor do I force an attribution of an experience when there’s no need or justification for doing so.

For you, I seriously doubt, and I doubt you mean, that you can be fully in the moment and simultaneously fully focused on your deity just as you can’t be fully engaged in thinking of your loved ones and drive a car safely.

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Jugglable November 6, 2010 at 10:38 pm

I’m not just conjuring up God. I’m saying that given contingency, a necessarily existing ground follows logically. And I give it the name God.

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Hermes November 7, 2010 at 4:18 am

I’m not just conjuring up God.I’m saying that given contingency, a necessarily existing ground follows logically.And I give it the name God.  

I’m not saying that it does or that I agree with you, but why ‘give it a name’ that has so many implied extras? Why not just call it ‘a necessary existing basis’ or ‘Julian’ or some such?

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 4:34 am

For you, I seriously doubt, and I doubt you mean, that you can be fully in the moment and simultaneously fully focused on your deity just as you can’t be fully engaged in thinking of your loved ones and drive a car safely.

That is correct. Our minds cannot be fully focused on several things simultaneously. There are moments where I exclusively concentrate on the things before me, and there are other moments where I step back and concentrate on how things relate to God.

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drj November 7, 2010 at 5:59 am

I’m not just conjuring up God.I’m saying that given contingency, a necessarily existing ground follows logically.And I give it the name God.  

I think a lot of atheists agree with this, minus the God part. The only options I see are nothingness, infinite regress, or some necessarily existing ground. I think the contingency argument is pretty good, but I don’t see that it leads to a thing worthy of being called God, in any way.

The fundamental disagreement, often times, between the theist and atheist is simply about the nature of this proposed necessarily existing ground. Does it have a mind, or is it mindless? So far, for me, mindlessness seems more likely than not. And if its mindless, why call it God?

Would you still then say we are talking about the “same thing”?

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Jugglable November 7, 2010 at 6:39 am

Hermes: Because this necessarily existing ground is God, the God talked about the the Bible (whether the Bible is inspired or not). The unchanging source of all things.

drj:
I’ say no, we aren’t talking about the same thing in that case. Only in a very vague sense. I mean, the Muslim and I believe A LOT of the same things about this necessarily existing ground.

I think the necessarily existing ground is something like an intelligence (I’m careful with what I say because I think all our concepts always fall short of an infinite God). I think there’s a lot of good philosophical reason to think this necessarily existing ground is intelligent. Like the intelligibility of existence, but why don’t we leave it at that.

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Brian_G November 7, 2010 at 6:53 am

Atheist: Science is so cool!
Theist: yeah
Atheist: No really, science is so awesome!
Theist: ok
Atheist: You don’t understand. Science helps us learn about all kinds of things. The universe, biology, black holes, stars. So many really cool things!
Theist: ok, so what’s your point?
Atheist: God doesn’t exist and religion is bunk!
Theist: huh?

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Zeb November 7, 2010 at 7:06 am

drj, I think that is a very interesting topic for discussion. Myself, I don’t believe God “has a mind,” that is a thinking apparatus, any more than God has a brain or a head or a body. I rather think of God as a being with “no mind” in the Zen sense. However I do find that a necessarily existing ground must have consciousness and free will. The specificity of our universe seems to demand it. If our universe’s traits are contingent but their cause is necessary, the necessary cause does not have traits that lead necessarily to our universe’s traits; otherwise our universe’s traits would themselves be necessary. So the necessary cause must have freedom in which contingencies it causes. And to cause to exist only one set out of all possible contingencies, the cause must have something like knowledge of all the possibilities and a will towards only one set. And this – consciousness and will – to me is enough to call something personal, because it can have a consiousness of me and a will toward me, and so a relationship with me (and everyone/everything else).

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Michael November 7, 2010 at 7:12 am

This silliness about how the universe must necessarily exist and that shows us that Huitzilopocatli exists (because it exists as the only necessarily existent) and demands that we sacrifice human virgins by carving out their hearts is really annoying.

That is exactly what the con artists have in mind: shoe-horn the money and the cathedral and the morality by waving their arms towards cheap philosophical mumbo-jumbo. The same scam the witch doctors, sadhus, popes, imams and reverends have been running for millenia. Sekhmet would be proud.

Here is 1 answer to that part of the con which doesn’t require an imaginary magical buddy.

First, I like the ideas behind model-dependent realism. If string theory explains all observable phenomena, then nothing more is needed. No need for a variable like “little blue gremlins vape into being 2x10e-40 seconds before the Big Bang to enhance it” because… the model “explains” everything there is to explain.

That view has already been conceded by “theists” in nearly every other realm of inquiry: we can explain why it is raining here today with simple meteorological models that have no place for “the perturbative effects of fervent prayer” or “rain dancing has a 12% chance of causing precipitation during droughts”. A response like “but those models don’t explain WHY it rains! We still need God because she is the CREATOR of weather itself!” is just viewed as an apposite leftover of the stupid magical thinking which modelled the weather as reward and punishment of Odin/Yahweh/Jupiter/Skygod_007.

And this view reaches all the way over to nonsense like “necessary ground for a contingent universe.” This presumptive model has the “start” of the universe as one of the states it describes/explains/takes and then also describes how the universe inflates from there to now and the future. If that model explains all that we know and predicts future data accurately, there is no need to add Apocatequil into the equations. And the model itself is the “necessary ground” you seem to require. There is no further “explanation” above and beyond “this model is what the Universe is” and that is why you see what you do and why it came to be and whence it shall unfold.

I think there is a 100% chance the swindlers will pursue with questions like “but who created string theory?” and “where did the quantum vacuum come from?” and even “What could be the necessary ground for the existence of the quantum vaccum if not the necessarily existent Flying Spaghetti Monster (and that IS part of the definition of the FSM)? Because the swindle can always retreat to the unknown, even when all that can be known is understood…

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Kyle Key November 7, 2010 at 7:49 am

Jugglable: “I’m saying that given contingency, a necessarily existing ground follows logically. And I give it the name God.”

Yeah, I get it–your explanation for the universe is god, but god isn’t an explanation to you, i.e. you believe in a contradiction. I don’t even need to ask how you made the gigantic leap from the contingency argument to the god of the Bible until that first bit gets cleared up.

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Hermes November 7, 2010 at 8:11 am

That is correct. Our minds cannot be fully focused on several things simultaneously. There are moments where I exclusively concentrate on the things before me, and there are other moments where I step back and concentrate on how things relate to God.  

Yep. Thanks Al for getting it. More obviousness to complete the thought for me personally…

That’s why when I’m in awe and wonder over things such as nature, the idea of someone else’s set of deities isn’t even in the picture.

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Hermes November 7, 2010 at 8:18 am

Hermes: Because this necessarily existing ground is God, the God talked about the the Bible (whether the Bible is inspired or not). The unchanging source of all things.

As Drj mentioned. To that I’ll add you are making an attribution — jumping to a conclusion or forcing the whole thing from end to end — and giving no reason why someone without your compulsion of a preconceptions should take your word for it.

You can believe anything you want. After all, how could anyone stop you from believing and why would they care?

You can’t publicly assert anything you want and not expect to get demands that you justify your assertions with evidence available to people without your preconceptions.

As such, adding in yet another zinger by using a loaded label is something you should expect to be automatically rejected and not to gain you respect for your arguments.

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Hermes November 7, 2010 at 8:36 am

Michael, well said.

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 9:48 am

Yep.Thanks Al for getting it.  

You’re welcome;-)

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 9:51 am

Atheist: Science is so cool!
Theist: yeah
Atheist:No really, science is so awesome!
Theist: ok
Atheist: You don’t understand.Science helps us learn about all kinds of things.The universe, biology, black holes, stars.So many really cool things! 

Which theists are you talking about?

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 9:55 am

Zeb,

forgot, I like this blog:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/

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Zeb November 7, 2010 at 10:01 am

I don’t see that science ever really explains anything. Science describes. It tells us what is and how things happen, but it doesn’t tell us why they are the way they are and happen the way they do.

For example, gravity does not really tell us why things fall. The theory of gravity describes what “things falling” is and how things falling works, but it doesn’t tell us why the things are that way as opposed to some other way.

As far as I can see, science answers “what?” and “how?”, not “why?” I’d be very interested to hear a respectful explanation of how I’m wrong about that.

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 10:14 am

As far as I can see, science answers “what?” and “how?”, not “why?” I’d be very interested to hear a respectful explanation of how I’m wrong about that.

I agree, Zeb. Thus, when Michael says:

First, I like the ideas behind model-dependent realism.If string theory explains all observable phenomena, then nothing more is needed.No need for a variable like “little blue gremlins vape into being 2x10e-40 seconds before the Big Bang to enhance it”because… the model “explains” everything there is to explain,

the legitimate philosophical question remains (if string theory turns out to be true): why string theory and not any other universe-building system? Or why not nothing instead?

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Zeb November 7, 2010 at 10:32 am

Thanks Al.

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Jugglable November 7, 2010 at 10:48 am

Michael:
“I think there is a 100% chance the swindlers will pursue with questions like “but who created string theory?” and “where did the quantum vacuum come from?””
I think that these questions aren’t mumo-jumbo, but justified. It’s not swindling. The quantum vacuum has a past spacetime BOUNDARY, i.e. it began to exist. The quantum vacuum is described as a fertile sea of fluctuating energy. Based on my best attempts at honest observation of the universe so far, fluctuations have efficient cause, because nothing can move itself from potency to act. So it’s not unreasonable to ask what’s behind the quantum vacuum. Fluctuations have efficient causes, and this principle holds up in every corner of the universe where we can verify it, and it doesn’t mean somebody is suddenly trying to “swindle you” when the principle of efficient causality starts to point us beyond this world.
Kyle Key:
“Yeah, I get it–your explanation for the universe is god, but god isn’t an explanation to you, i.e. you believe in a contradiction. I don’t even need to ask how you made the gigantic leap from the contingency argument to the god of the Bible until that first bit gets cleared up.”
I’d point out that the argument from contingency isn’t an argument for Christianity. Any believer in a monotheism, or even a deist, could embrace that argument.
God is not a scientific explanation, maybe that’s what I should have said. If we’re asking “why is the weather the way it is today?” or “why are people of this blood type reacting poorly to this drug?” we’re asking a very different kind of question than “why is there contingency?” I don’t think God offers predictions. I think we can conclude a necessary existence from contingency, but the important thing is, if a necessary ground follows logically and deductively, it doesn’t really matter if it offers predictive power, or whatever. What matters is that it’s a logically valid argument with true premises.

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Brian_G November 7, 2010 at 11:14 am

Which theists are you talking about?  

I don’t see how this is relevant. The point of the dialogue was to show the absurdity in the atheist argument. The video makes a vague argument that I hear from many atheists. The argument is something to the effect of since science works so well, atheism wins. It’s as if the debate between atheism and theism is really about science verses those who oppose science. I don’t see any way to turn the benefits of science into a coherent argument for atheism. I don’t know of anyone who’s really tried. It’s as if it’s enough to just talk about how great science is and God and religion will just fade away.

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 11:33 am

You’re welcome, Zeb.

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

I don’t see how this is relevant. The point of the dialogue was to show the absurdity in the atheist argument.The video makes a vague argument that I hear from many atheists.The argument is something to the effect of since science works so well, atheism wins.It’s as if the debate between atheism and theism is really about science verses those who oppose science.I don’t see any way to turn the benefits of science into a coherent argument for atheism. I don’t know of anyone who’s really tried.It’s as if it’s enough to just talk about how great science is and God and religion will just fade away.

I see, and I agree. I think the main underlying problem is that many — though certainly not all! — atheists tend to think that the acceptance of a naturalistic worldview is a scientific question, not a philosophical one. They say naturalism is an extrapolation from science; while that may be so, it is still a *philosophical* extrapolation, not a scientific one.

The debate between atheism and theism, as you say, is really not about science versus those who oppose science. Not to brag, but to bring home the point, I am quite confident that I know more about the origin of life by natural causes (which now is a hiighly probable hypothesis) that any atheists here. As a biochemist I have written a review on the topic with about 100 references from primary scientific literature for a leading evolution website, talkorigins.org:

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/abioprob/originoflife.html

And I am still a theist.

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Kyle Key November 7, 2010 at 12:34 pm

@Al:
Just curious since you mentioned that you’re Catholic, do you do the whole crackers and wine, cannibalism bit at Mass?

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Brian_G November 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Al Moritz,

I think theists have good reason to be excited about origin of life research. The more I learn about the fine-tuning argument the more plausible I find naturalistic abiogenesis. We already have good reason to think that God can accomplish quite a bit by fine-tuning the laws of nature. How far can this go? Perhaps the fine-tuning can even account for the origin of life. If life is just a fluke, there’s no reason to expect an explanation within the laws of nature.* Perhaps, life is just a very improbable event, but given billions of stars and planets, life will occur on one of them. As a theist, I don’t expect that to be the case. If life turned out to be a fluke, just barely probable to happen once or twice in the universe, I think that would support atheism better then life arising from the laws of nature. I find it very encouraging that the evidence suggests that life appeared very early in Earth’s history (not long after the planet cooled). This isn’t what I’d expect if life was a fluke.

*I suppose one can nit pick and argue that a fluke would be consistent with the laws of nature. That may be true, but I don’t see how science can say anything meaningful about something that happens with such a small probability.

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Jugglable November 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm

“Just curious since you mentioned that you’re Catholic, do you do the whole crackers and wine, cannibalism bit at Mass?”

The eucharist isn’t cannibalism. It would be if the eucharist were physical flesh and blood. Christ is substantially present in the eucharist.

That’s really a pretty disrespectful and flip (and stupid) thing to say.

Yeah, Catholics do that whole “thing.” It kind of goes without saying that Catholics take the eucharist, so your question wasn’t too bright.

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Kyle Key November 7, 2010 at 3:47 pm

@Jugglable:
“It kind of goes without saying that Catholics take the eucharist, so your question wasn’t too bright.”
Not at all–I’ve known a few self-professed Catholics that don’t even go to Mass. Like any other denomination, there are as many Catholic interpretations as there are “Catholics.”
But to your larger point:
So you’re ‘explaining’ to me that your god is “substantially present” (I won’t ask you define that; I’m well aware of the standard Catholic defenses against charges of cannibalism…say you’re consuming the “being,” or the “whole body,” or Christ in his “entirety,” which works only because of its utter vagueness)–but how do you know? Because god said, or implied, or inspired someone to say as much in the Bible? But hold on there, Jugglable, you don’t think that god functions as an explanation, so I hope you’re not using words that you attribute to it to explain to me how Jesus is substantially present.

I’ll let you have the last word if you see fit; having done it three posts in a row, I’m bored of pointing out this blatant contradiction in your using god as an explanation but insisting that god isn’t one.

At any rate, I’m still curious to see how educated a person can become, yet continue to entertain even the most minute aspects of their religion’s dog and pony show–especially the more flashy ones.

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Jugglable November 7, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Not sure that you’ve replied to my point about deductive argument. I think God follows logically from contingency. I’m not invoking an explanation, I’m following logic step by step.

I believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist because he said he was. I take his word for it. But we are going afield here. There’s other theology behind it, but that’s it in a nutshell.

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Al Moritz November 7, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Al Moritz,
I think theists have good reason to be excited about origin of life research.The more I learn about the fine-tuning argument the more plausible I find naturalistic abiogenesis.We already have good reason to think that God can accomplish quite a bit by fine-tuning the laws of nature.How far can this go?Perhaps the fine-tuning can even account for the origin of life.If life is just a fluke, there’s no reason to expect an explanation within the laws of nature.*Perhaps, life is just a very improbable event, but given billions of stars and planets, life will occur on one of them.As a theist, I don’t expect that to be the case.If life turned out to be a fluke, just barely probable to happen once or twice in the universe, I think that would support atheism better then life arising from the laws of nature.I find it very encouraging that the evidence suggests that life appeared very early in Earth’s history (not long after the planet cooled).This isn’t what I’d expect if life was a fluke.
*I suppose one can nit pick and argue that a fluke would be consistent with the laws of nature.That may be true, but I don’t see how science can say anything meaningful about something that happens with such a small probability.

Brian, I fully agree with you. I expect naturalistic abiogenesis since it would show how elegant God’s creation of the laws of nature really is. No “tinkering” necessary when they suffice. I too think that life as a fluke would be something that would be more expected on atheism than on theism. That is also a reason why I am so enthusiastic about the topic, but the main reason is that the pure ‘mechanics’ of how life arose and developed are among the most fascinating things there are to discover.

That life appeared very early in Earth’s history, not long after the planet cooled, is encouraging indeed. What if the chances that life arises are only once in a million years? On the scale of geological deep time, this is still *incredibly often* — paradoxical as this may sound at first glance. I expect the universe to be teeming with microbial life; more advanced life forms may be a different story since they require more sheltered conditions. I think that the Rare Earth argument has some merits, I do, however, not subscribe to its use as a design argument. After all, there are about 300 billion galaxies in the universe, each containing about 300 billion stars, and possibly there are as many or more planets. So the chances that at least one, possibly more, planets are by default ‘just right’ for the development of complex, intelligent life might be quite good.

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drj November 7, 2010 at 6:28 pm

I don’t see that science ever really explains anything. Science describes. It tells us what is and how things happen, but it doesn’t tell us why they are the way they are and happen the way they do.

For example, gravity does not really tell us why things fall. The theory of gravity describes what “things falling” is and how things falling works, but it doesn’t tell us why the things are that way as opposed to some other way.

As far as I can see, science answers “what?” and “how?”, not “why?” I’d be very interested to hear a respectful explanation of how I’m wrong about that.

I’ve heard this before, and I think I even thought it at one time, but I don’t really think it makes sense.

There’s just some weird things going on with this. Scientific theories actually do explain why things are they way they are, but they do so in a way that isn’t teleological. That’s how its been so far, at least.

If by “why” one means “teleological purpose”, then of course, scientific theories today aren’t going to satisfy. If you already have some presuppositions about what the teleological purpose of the universe is, then all scientific theories can do for you is describe, not explain. But that’s a pretty loaded way to look at it, if you ask me.

And if there is a teleological purpose to the universe, I don’t yet see any reason to assume that science can’t eventually learn about it (except to comfort all the worried theologians).

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drj November 7, 2010 at 8:21 pm

drj, I think that is a very interesting topic for discussion. Myself, I don’t believe God “has a mind,” that is a thinking apparatus, any more than God has a brain or a head or a body. I rather think of God as a being with “no mind” in the Zen sense. However I do find that a necessarily existing ground must have consciousness and free will. The specificity of our universe seems to demand it. If our universe’s traits are contingent but their cause is necessary, the necessary cause does not have traits that lead necessarily to our universe’s traits; otherwise our universe’s traits would themselves be necessary. So the necessary cause must have freedom in which contingencies it causes. And to cause to exist only one set out of all possible contingencies, the cause must have something like knowledge of all the possibilities and a will towards only one set. And this – consciousness and will – to me is enough to call something personal, because it can have a consiousness of me and a will toward me, and so a relationship with me (and everyone/everything else).  

I’m not really sure what your distinction is between mind and consciousness, but I really guess it doesn’t matter so much.

Can we really say that contingency necessarily implies free will? Couldn’t contingency also imply randomness? Some multiverse theories seem to rely on that implication.

So if that’s the case, then both options are back on the table… and we’re back to a mindless (and/or unconscious) necessary ground versus a mindful (and/or conscious) necessary ground and we’d have to move on from the contingency argument to find an answer.

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J. J. November 8, 2010 at 2:31 am

I’ve transcribed the entire video and posted it on my website. I hope this helpful to those who prefer it. http://zepfanman.com/2010/11/science-saved-my-soul-transcript/

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Al Moritz November 8, 2010 at 2:54 am

There’s just some weird things going on with this.Scientific theories actually do explain why things are they way they are, but they do so in a way that isn’t teleological.That’s how its been so far, at least.

No, the ‘why’ you are talking about is actually ‘how’ things are — why what we observe follows from the laws of nature that we have, and what constitutes these laws. Science studies the laws of nature and how they work, but it cannot explain why the laws of nature themselves are the way they are. Regardless if there is teleology involved or not in the generation of these laws.

Science could only explain ‘why’ the laws of nature are what they are if “the fabric of nothing” would only allow for certain frameworks of physical laws to arise. Yet then ‘nothing’ would have to have properties, which is philosophically and logically absurd. Nothing has no properties whatsoever – nothing is, in fact, nothing. (The ‘physical nothing’ of empty space, the quantum vacuum, is not really nothing at all.)

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drj November 8, 2010 at 5:55 am

No, the ‘why’ you are talking about is actually ‘how’ things are — why what we observe follows from the laws of nature that we have, and what constitutes these laws. Science studies the laws of nature and how they work, but it cannot explain why the laws of nature themselves are the way they are. Regardless if there is teleology involved or not in the generation of these laws.

Science could only explain ‘why’ the laws of nature are what they are if “the fabric of nothing” would only allow for certain frameworks of physical laws to arise. Yet then ‘nothing’ would have to have properties, which is philosophically and logically absurd. Nothing has no properties whatsoever – nothing is, in fact, nothing. (The ‘physical nothing’ of empty space, the quantum vacuum, is not really nothing at all.)  

But then it seems as if religion is similarly incapable. It cannot explain why God necessarily exists, or why he thinks it a worthwhile endeavor to create universes except to cheekily say that God is “That Which Needs No Explanation” or “That Which Contains His Own Explanation” – neither of which are off limits to a naturalistic necessary ground, in any way that I can see.

In other words, it just seems like the theist employs a double standard here. He keeps asking “why, why, why” when he hits a naturalistic necessary ground, but arbitrarily decides to stop when he hits a theistic necessary ground.

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Zeb November 9, 2010 at 6:03 am

drj

Can we really say that contingency necessarily implies free will? Couldn’t contingency also imply randomness?

I agree that randomness may satisfy the need for freedom between the non-contingent cause and the specific set of contingencies which it causes. But what exactly does randomness mean in this context? Doesn’t it mean that the contingencies have not only epistemic independence (they are unpredictable) but also ontological independence (no causal relationship) from the nature of the non-contingent cause? I admit the apparent logical contradiction there (contingencies having a non-causal relationship with their cause) might be mere semantics resulting from my unsophisticated use of terms. The big problem in my mind is that if there is no necessary relationship between the nature of the cause and the particular non-necessary set of contingencies it causes, then how and why could it cause anything at all, and one set of contingencies in particular? The only way I can see is for it to have knowledge of all possible contingencies (but ‘knowledge’ perhaps only in the sense of registering, as photographic film registers light patterns), and a free will capable of directly picking the set of contingencies to actualize. How do you see randomness solving this?

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Zeb November 9, 2010 at 6:42 am

I’m not looking for teleological answers to all “why” questions. When I ask “why,” I want to know “why this and not something else?” For example, geometry gives me satisfactory non-teleological answers for why parallel lines cannot intersect on a flat plane. In what way can scientific knowledge answer “why” questions? I can think of only one way; by identifying the content of the universe and the physical laws by which it changes. The problem is, “why” questions about the universe boil down to asking why [some part of] the content and the laws are such as they are and not some other way. Or at least, that’s the case in the sense of “why” relevant to contingency. Obviously ‘human burned a lot of fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide leading to a greenhouse effect’ is a satisfactory kind of answer to the question “Why are temperatures rising around the world?” But that question might be more precisely worded, “How did it come to be that temperatures are rising around the world?”

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Al Moritz November 9, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Again, I agree, Zeb.

There are many who think that “one day” science will be able to answer all questions. I find this naive, and unwarranted for the reasons that we discussed. I say this being a scientist myself. But rather than disparaging my profession, I am simply a realist. After all, that is what a scientist should be.

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drj November 10, 2010 at 6:03 am

I’m not looking for teleological answers to all “why” questions. When I ask “why,” I want to know “why this and not something else?” For example, geometry gives me satisfactory non-teleological answers for why parallel lines cannot intersect on a flat plane. In what way can scientific knowledge answer “why” questions? I can think of only one way; by identifying the content of the universe and the physical laws by which it changes. The problem is, “why” questions about the universe boil down to asking why [some part of] the content and the laws are such as they are and not some other way. Or at least, that’s the case in the sense of “why” relevant to contingency. Obviously ‘human burned a lot of fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide leading to a greenhouse effect’ is a satisfactory kind of answer to the question “Why are temperatures rising around the world?” But that question might be more precisely worded, “How did it come to be that temperatures are rising around the world?”  

Could I not also say, “How did it come to be that God willed to create the universe?”. Why or why not? And could I not then question your answer, in the exact same way?

If so, I still fail to see the difference between ending the “why inquisition” on the will of a deity or the laws of the universe – it seems to me, that there is still some arbitrary bias towards a teleological ending point.

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drj November 10, 2010 at 6:08 am

There are many who think that “one day” science will be able to answer all questions. I find this naive, and unwarranted for the reasons that we discussed. I say this being a scientist myself. But rather than disparaging my profession, I am simply a realist. After all, that is what a scientist should be.  (Quote)

My point is only that its possible that some questions (like “why” questions) are answerable by science, provided that there are objective answers that can be investigated empirically. I’m not claiming that they definitely are.

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drj November 10, 2010 at 6:36 am

drj
I agree that randomness may satisfy the need for freedom between the non-contingent cause and the specific set of contingencies which it causes. But what exactly does randomness mean in this context? Doesn’t it mean that the contingencies have not only epistemic independence (they are unpredictable) but also ontological independence (no causal relationship) fromthe nature of the non-contingent cause? I admit the apparent logical contradiction there (contingencies having a non-causal relationship with their cause) might be mere semantics resulting from my unsophisticated use of terms. The big problem in my mind is that if there is no necessary relationship between the nature of the cause and the particular non-necessary set of contingencies it causes, then how and why could it cause anything at all, and one set of contingencies in particular? The only way I can see is for it to have knowledge of all possible contingencies (but ‘knowledge’ perhaps only in the sense of registering, as photographic film registers light patterns), and a free will capable of directly picking the set of contingencies to actualize. How do you see randomness solving this?  

To be honest, I guess I haven’t tackled the details of randomness myself. But let take a first try, with an analogy:

We see contingent things (contingent as far as we can tell anyway) produced by stochastic processes in nature, all the time. In natural selection we see blind mindless forces spitting out gene combinations, from the set of all possible gene combinations. Most possibilities will never be actualized and nature does not need “knowledge” in order to chose any particular gene combination.

Now if there is a set of all possible universes, a fundamental necessary ground containing an element of randomness, might just spit out some of those possibilities in a mindless fashion. It wouldn’t need to know the possibilities and intentionally select them – it just tries them.

Does that explanation help, and does it satisfactorily show how randomness (as opposed to knowledge + intent) might produce contingency?

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drj November 10, 2010 at 6:47 am

I think I missed my explanation of randomness in my last remark:

Doesn’t it mean that the contingencies have not only epistemic independence (they are unpredictable) but also ontological independence (no causal relationship) fromthe nature of the non-contingent cause?

So far, I think randomness, as applied to some fundamental necessary ground, simply implies something like ‘contains some arbitrarily changing elements’.

In such a system, it seems like contingencies would have a direct causal relationship with the “current” state of the system (bad words to use when talking about potentially atemporal things, I know) – but the states of the system itself are either uncaused or completely arbitrary.

Hopefully that makes some sense….

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Zeb November 10, 2010 at 6:50 am

Could I not also say, “How did it come to be that God willed to create the universe?”. Why or why not?And could I not then question your answer, in the exact same way?If so, I still fail to see the difference between ending the “why inquisition” on the will of a deity or the laws of the universe – it seems to me, that there is still some arbitrary bias towards a teleological ending point.  

drj, I meant to express that “How did it come to be…?” is the type of question that science can answer. And so when I ask “Why are temperatures rising?” and I’m looking for a scientific answer, what I am really asking is “How did it come to be that temperatures are rising?” And science can provide a satisfactory answer to that type of question.

I’m saying I don’t see how science can answer a proper “why” question, as in “why this and not something else?” I think that the free will choice of an agent can answer such a question, as can logical deduction. And I think the contingency of the universe points unavoidably to the former, for the reasons I’ve stated above. If you follow me that far (and I would guess that you don’t, and I want to hear why), you can then ask, “But why did the non-contingent cause with consciousness and free will cause this particular set of contingencies and not the other possible contingencies?” That’s a good question that I want to pursue, but the fact that no one may have an answer does not undo the argument that got us there in the first place.

But if you still say that science can answer “why this and not something else” questions, please tell me how.

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Hermes November 10, 2010 at 10:38 am

Zeb, bottom line, what does ‘answer a proper why question’ and can you give an example of such a question and it being answered?

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Kyle Key November 10, 2010 at 11:46 pm

Zeb: “I think that the free will choice of an agent can answer such a question…”
It might, if someone could present free will as a coherent concept.

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drj November 12, 2010 at 9:21 am

Zeb,

Let me try to bring this back to your original question, which was “Can science answer why questions”. Your objection to the belief that science can answer “why” questions, is that science can only tell us “how something came to be”. Free-agent choices are the best answers to “why” questions, though deductive arguments can work too.

Well, I just have to ask, how is it that “Free-agent choices” categorically out of the reach of scientific inquiry? Its certainly possible for “free-agent choices” (if they exist) are inaccessible to science, but its also possible that they entirely investigatable by science. Can you justify this belief?

If its possible that “free-agent choices” can be studied by science, then science might be able to answer “why” questions, according to your description of “why questions”.

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drj November 12, 2010 at 9:24 am

Wow, sorry for all the typos in the last post. I’m usually bad about that stuff, but that was especially terrible.

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 10:22 am

Hermes

Zeb, bottom line, what does ‘answer a proper why question’ and can you give an example of such a question and it being answered?  

I’ve named two possible types of answers already: mathematical reasoning and free-willed choice. Mathematical reasoning can answer a question like “Why do the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees (and not any other number)?” Free-willed choice can answer a question like “Why is there yellow paint on the lower right corner of Jackson’s canvas (and not any other color)?”

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 11:18 am

Kyle, could you please explain your problem with free will?

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 12:02 pm

drj
I’ve been thinking about a necessary ground with shifting random traits, and I think it is a very interesting direction but when I try to flesh it out I find the following problem. It seems to make the supposedly necessary ground contingent, and the supposed contingencies necessary.

Here’s why:

The necessary ground must have some relationship with all possible contingencies, in order to access and actualize a subset of them. If the necessary ground does not have some relationship with all possible contingencies, then it could not access them and they would in fact be not possible. I have suggested a knowledge relationship between the necessary and the contingent, whereas you are suggesting that the necessary might contain an element of each contingency within it; a seed or a trigger or some such for each contingency. You suggest that while the existence of the ground cause and all the triggers (if you will) that it contains is necessary, which trigger is active is a matter of contingency. Either only an arbitrary set of triggers will become active, or every trigger will be active, but in an arbitrary order. Either way, the necessary cause then becomes contingent; presumably the set of triggers that will become active, or the order in which they become active, could be different. There must be a reason why only a certain set or a certain order exists. On the other hand, given the certain set of certain order in the necessary cause, the resulting contingencies are the only possible ones that could be actualized, and are therefor non-contingent. You could take away the contingency of the particular set or particular order of the triggers if you posit that there must be some unknown law allowing only one set or order to exist, but then you’ve done away will all contingency whatsoever.

I’m sorry that was not written more clearly. I found this concept difficult to think through, and even more difficult to express. Perhaps you can clarify how to introduce randomness into a ground cause without introducing contingency in it, and how to keep a relationship between the cause and its effects without eliminating contingency from them.

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 12:29 pm

drj

Well, I just have to ask, how is it that “Free-agent choices” [are] categorically out of the reach of scientific inquiry?

First of all, I admit it is possible that science may explain away all proposed observable instances of free-will choice. By that I mean, it is possible that all the motions of human (and other) bodies is determined, and science may discover a total explanation for all motion human bodies. In that case, while human free-will choice may still exist as an epiphenomenon, it would not be needed to explain anything that humans do. In that case, the scientific answer to “Why is there yellow paint on the lower right corner of Jackson’s canvas (and not any other color)?” would boil down to ‘because the prior state of the universe and the laws by which the universe behaves are what they are,’ which is the only way science can answer any ‘why?’ question. But what if humans do have real free will? What would science find then? Well, scientific inquiry depends on the consistency of physical mechanisms. True free will, by logical necessity, defies the consistency of physical mechanisms. If scientific investigation finds events going on in human bodies that are not consistent with known physical mechanisms, what can science say about that? It can’t say anything. If those events seem to correlate in some way with prior states, scientists can quantify that correlation and develop models for what new forces or dynamics might be causally connecting the prior states with the events, thus explaining away free will. If they don’t correlate, scientists can only say that they have no scientific explanation for what is happening. The fact that the subject might offer an explanation after the event – “That event happened because I chose it.” – would not help a scientific inquiry, because the person’s statement could be an effect of whatever caused the event, rather than a reliable report of what caused the event.

That’s why I don’t think science can arrive at a personal free will choice answer to a “why?” question, and thus cannot really answer why questions. (I assume we agree that answers based on logical necessity are simply not what we call science, and that’s why science can’t go in that direction either.) Can you tell me any way science does answer “why?” questions?

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Kyle Key November 13, 2010 at 8:22 pm

@Zeb:
Well, it’s certainly not just my problem, but as I said, the concept’s incoherent. Since you’re positing the existence of “free will,” feel free ;) to define your terms and explain what it is.

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Zeb November 13, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Kyle, yeah, what do you mean “the concept’s incoherent”? Can you explain?

I’m sure you know what it means. A person is able to choose, freely, from at least two options. What is the problem that you are calling “incoherence’?

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drj November 13, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Zeb writes: Either only an arbitrary set of triggers will become active, or every trigger will be active, but in an arbitrary order. Either way, the necessary cause then becomes contingent; presumably the set of triggers that will become active, or the order in which they become active, could be different..

If the random “triggers” as you are calling them (I have been thinking of them as “inputs”) , are completely uncaused, I’m not seeing why that makes the necessary ground contingent – since it’s arbitrary inputs are uncaused, they are not contingent upon anything. The state of the necessary ground is not contingent – it remains the same, theoretically. Only its “inputs” change, without cause – but its state simply is. The combinations of and ranges of possible inputs would be theoretically infinite.

They would be uncaused causes, really just like the choices of a free-willed agent. And instead of consciously conceiving of all possible outcomes based on possible inputs and choosing a desired outcome, this conscious-less system just “tries” them.

Once again, this can be likened to natural selection by random mutation. If you consider the biological processes in isolation from the laws of physics that cause random mutation, it appears that random mutations are completely random and uncaused – so might be the “inputs” might be of the necessary ground. (We know mutations really aren’t uncaused, but its just an analogy after all). The state of the system – the arena where this process plays out – is static.

And yea, this is all getting pretty abstract and hard to pin down, so I hope this makes some sense to someone else besides myself;)

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drj November 13, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Upon further reflection, I think I see what you were trying to say.

Are the “triggers” causing the state of the necessary ground to be what it is, in your mind? If so, that would certainly add contingency into the necessary ground, and it would be a contradiction, but that’s not what I was envisioning.

Hopefully my post above explains my proposal a little more clearly. I think I might have come up with a couple problems with my proposal already, but I am going to think on it more.

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Kyle Key November 14, 2010 at 9:15 am

@Zeb:
“I’m sure you know what it means.”
Well, that’s a false assumption.

“A person is able to choose, freely, from at least two options.”
What do you mean by “freely”?

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Zeb November 14, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Kyle, by “freely” I mean that there is nothing preventing the agent from choosing any particular one of the options, and nothing forcing her to choose a particular option.

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Kyle Key November 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm

@Zeb:
But all you’ve done is define what it is to have options at all: if you’re prevented from some action, then that action isn’t an option and isn’t a part of the “choice,” and if you’re forced to act, then you had no options and it isn’t a “choice.” What is it that the actor is supposed to be free from here?

Certainly I’m prevented from doing many things based on my geographic location, my age, my height, my financial status, my professional status, the tools available to me, my education, my genetics, my socially sculpted attitudes and biases: do these things fall under “something” that would be preventing me from choosing a particular option, rather than the “nothing” that you say is required to have a free choice? If so, then I can’t see a single “choice” I make that’s “free.” If not, what does qualify as something that violates the “nothing” requirement of your definition?

And conversely, what are the things that “force” one to act (as I said, it’s nonsense to say that you’re “forced to choose an option,” when there’s no choice and no option there, less you’re not actually being forced)?

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Zeb November 14, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Kyle, I admit that I find the “free” in free will to be redundant. I prefer and sometimes choose to just refer to “will,” which in my opinion must be free in order to truly be what we mean by “will”. But “free will” is the convention, and besides it does serve to emphasize the fact that we’re talking about actually having options, not just seeming to have options but ultimately being forced to take one particular path. Is your only objection to my use of “freely” that it is redundant?

What would force one to act – or more exactly, to choose one particular option – would be a deterministic mechanism behind all “choices.” And here there may be ambiguity about what counts as a choice, which is why I used “freely.” For example, if you design a robot that always grabs a red object when it can, and I came up and held out an apple in one hand and a banana in the other, the robot would always grab the apple. Some might say that when presented with the choice between an apple and a banana, the robot always chooses an apple. Apparently you would say that no choice occurs, because the robot was forced by its internal mechanism to always only take the red object. I wanted to be clear that I was not talking about the kind of choice this robot makes, but rather a choice where the agent really can choose.

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Kyle Key November 15, 2010 at 1:26 pm

“Is your only objection to my use of “freely” that it is redundant?”
My objection is that you’ve yet to give a single instance of someone “actually having options,” i.e. a choice, that doesn’t involve the list of qualities, descriptors and states I mentioned (and we could name hundreds more), given that they obviously aren’t the “nothing” that you claim is required for someone to have a choice. To support your claim, you need to expand the idea of what this “nothing” is actually excluding. Unless you can, I must stand by my claim that free will is incoherent.

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Zeb November 15, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Kyle, now it seems like you are playing word games. Until you explain what exactly you mean by “the concept’s incoherent,” I’m not interested in continuing. You popped in and took a shot at my idea. If you are interested in having a conversation, I am too. That’s why I asked you to explain your comment. If you are just interested in scoring points, that’s fine, I’ll let you do it without my interference.

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drj November 15, 2010 at 8:32 pm

I’m not sure that debating the nature of free-will is productive here, but like Kyle, I don’t really think libertarian free-will makes sense.

It seems indistinguishable from randomness to me. Describing uncaused-causes with words like “free” seems like describing squares with words like “circle”. If our choices are uncaused causes, then it seems like we cannot call them our own in any meaningful sense, and certainly not “free”. A ‘choice’ would be nothing more than a random blip in the ether, which cannot be said to originate from our being, in any way. Our choices would have no conceivable reason behind them. And if that’s the case, then “free” will cannot answer any “why” question in the sense that you desire, Zeb.

You might say that our choices flow causally from our spiritual nature, but then it seems like that becomes another form of determinism.

The determinist might not be able to give an account of why or how a mindless naturalistic necessary ground exists, but it seems worse for the libertarian free-will advocate. He is helpless to explain any and all things which originate from choice on the part of a free-agent, as well as the existence of his proposed mindful necessary ground.

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Zeb November 25, 2010 at 1:28 pm

drj
Thankfully I finally have a chance to get back to this conversation. Let me see if I understand what you are proposing. The necessary ground of existence, which determines which subset of all possible contingencies actually will exist, has a single unified and unchanging (and therefore non-contingent) state. While this non-contingent entity determines which contingencies exist, it has no direct, necessary relationship to those contingencies, because that would mean that either something about this cause is contingent, or the “contingencies” we’re explaining are in fact necessary. Rather, there is a set of mediating entities, the “inputs,” that determine which specific set (out of all possible contingencies) is actualized. These inputs are themselves a limited set out of all possible inputs (at least at any one given ‘time’), but they are not contingent because they are not caused. Rather the set changes in a random way; that is, independently of any other entity’s nature. The causal potential of the non-contingent ‘ground’ is actualized through this uncaused limited set of inputs to determine the set of actualized contingencies. Please tell me if I have that wrong in any part.

That’s a sophisticated idea, but I don’t see how it really avoids the problems I brought up earlier. I don’t see how the inputs are not contingent. At any given time they could be something other than what they are; and as a set, even if the set contains all possibilities, the order in which they come up is contingent because it could be different (granted that may just be two ways of making the same point). Or, if they are not contingent (at any given time the set could not be different, or the order of the sets could not be different), then the actualities they cause could not be different and are therefore not contingent, but necessary. Another way of putting this objection is that the nature of the inputs (the specific set that is active in a given moment, or the order in which they are active) must be either contingent (could be something else) or necessary (could not be other than what they are). If they are contingent then they belong in the set of contingencies that demand an explanation; if they are necessary then they are part of the necessary ground and we still need to explain how the necessary ground determines all actualities in a way that maintains necessity on one side and contingency on the other. Randomness may get you out of a need for a cause, but it does not get away from contingency. What your randomness solution boils down to, it seems to me, is saying the inputs could have been otherwise, but they just weren’t – brute fact. That implies that contingency does not require a reason. If you are going that route, why not just apply it to the world we observe? Instead of proposing a non-personal answer to “why?’ questions, say “Just because.” Maybe you find that response as unsatisfying as I do, and refuse to give up on asking “why?” I’ll be glad to hear any more ideas you have about making a non-personal necessary entity work.

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Zeb November 25, 2010 at 1:29 pm

drj

Thanks for explaining the incoherence of free will to me. I think I see what you mean; if you think of a person as being the sum of his characteristics or traits, then a choice that was free from those traits would not be that person’s choice. However, I think of a person as being the center of identity that has characteristics and traits. As I said earlier in the thread, in itself a person may be no more than consciousness and will. Characteristics and traits may be no more than environmental factors which surround a person; they are a part of the outside world in which the person exists (though of course they are more closely connected to the person, and from the outside they are all we have by which to identify the person). Is there a reason we cannot think of “person” that way? I think both ways are conceptually valid, and while I recognize that free will seems incoherent on the first view, it is not, I think, on the second.

I agree that from the outside, free choices would be indistinguishable from either randomness or determinism. If the agent chooses in a way that relates directly to things we know, then the choice appears to be determined. If the agent chooses in a way that has no direct relationship to things we know, then the choice appears to be random. But that does not mean that the choices do not originate from the person, it just means that maybe only the agent would know when he chooses (unless we could determine deductively that free choice must have occurred). In the case of a free choice, the person himself would be the cause, and “he willed it” would be the answer to the “why?” question. If you ask, “Why did he will it?” there might be a teleological answer, but not necessarily.

For example, in a universe containing free willing agents, suppose you witness a painter putting a yellow splotch on the lower right corner of a canvas. If you ask, “Why is there yellow paint there?” a valid answer would be “The painter chose to paint it yellow;” in other words “She willed it.” If you ask the painter “Why did you choose painting it yellow and not some other color, or not painting it at all?” she might say, “I wanted a color that complemented the purple hues of the background,” a teleological answer. Or she might just say, “In the moment I was aware of all the colors on my pallet, and I chose yellow, no reason.” Either way, you now know why there is yellow paint on the canvass.

In either case, it is possible that the choice correlates to traits of the painter – to her predispositions and current inclinations. If she did choose thus, it would appear that her choice was determined. That doesn’t make her choice not free, it just means she chose to go along with her predispositions and current inclinations. But if she chose in opposition to her predispositions and inclinations, it would appear that her choice was random, while in fact, in the moment, it was her will (and not outside factors) that determined the nature of her choice.

This does not dissociate the person from their course of choices because the content of the options available to the agents may be determined by their traits, their place in the world, and their past choices. That painter did not have all possible choices available to her; she only had a small set of options, limited by her world (including her personal characteristics etc). But among those options she was free to choose. Why could it not be thus for some beings? Even if human choices are as a matter of fact determined and mechanistic, the concept of free will still seems a viable possibility that could apply to a non-contingent entity.

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drj December 1, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Just to let you know, I have read these replies, but will probably similarly delayed as yourself in replying.

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