God, Zeus, Fairies, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 9, 2009 in General Atheism

fsmI often compare God to Zeus, fairies, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Many Christians have complained that these are unfair comparisons. I disagree.

Christians seem to think I’m saying God is identical to Zeus, fairies, and the FSM in every significant way, even though I keep repeating that I’m only comparing them in very specific ways. For example, both God and Zeus have magical powers, both God and fairies can be used to explain the unexplainable, and both God and the FSM are logically possible even though this does nothing to show they are probable.

Let me give you some examples of how I’ve used these comparisons and how Christians have misunderstood me.

First, from the comments on a post at Jesus Manifesto:

Mark: You assume that lies, placebo, and hallucinations are more plausible explanations because of why? Evidence? Random “healings” happening because of an unknown un-God reason is more likely than a divine cause because why?

Lukeprog: For the exact same reason that I think lies, placebo, religious mania, and hallucinations are more plausible explanations for a given miracle of any religion than the hypothesis that the Flying Spaghetti Monster did it, or the hypothesis that aliens from another dimension did it, or the hypothesis that tiny invisible gremlins inside each subatomic particle conspired telepathically to do it. The reason is evidence. We have TONS of evidence that people lie, hallucinate, get wrapped up in religious mania, and can affect their own healing by positive beliefs that they will be healed. That stuff happens all the time. In contrast, we do NOT have good, well-tested evidence of [the FSM, tiny invisible gremlins, etc.].

Andrew: I think part of the objection to comparing belief in God to belief in a pink, unicorn or fairy is that those latter things obviously have physical characteristics.

Lukeprog: I never said that belief in God is like belief in fairies or the Flying Spaghetti Monster in all respects. I used these analogies for very specific purposes, which I outlined in an earlier post. For example, whenever you give an argument that God is logically possible, I point out that this doesn’t get us anywhere towards plausibility, since unicorns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are logically possible but not at all plausible.

Or, see the comments on my post at Fallen and Flawed:

Lukeprog: The problem is all the “evidence” that is offered [for theism] is not evidence for what Christians think it is (usually, it is merely an argument from ignorance, like “Lightning is so complex we can’t understand it, therefore Zeus is the best explanation”), or else the argument fails badly.

Demian: You continue to lump Yahweh [and implicitly Jesus of Nazereth] with Zeus demonstrating your fundamental lack of understanding the difference between a myth and a historical religion.

Lukeprog: You keep forgetting that I have NEVER made a claim that Yahweh is much like Zeus or Mbombo. I have only give SPECIFIC comparisons. For example, it is simply TRUE that all three are gods once worshiped by men. This is not “lumping them together”, it is making a true claim of a specific similarity.

The same goes for when I point out that all three gods can be justified by “faith.” I can have “faith” in Mbombo just like I can have “faith” in Yahweh. But I cannot have good evidence of either if they don’t actually exist.

Likewise, it is also true (I argue) that Yahweh is a very poor scientific explanation for abiogenesis or the origins of the universe in the very same way that Zeus is a very poor explanation for lightning. What I mean by that is very specific, relating to Pierce’s abductive reasoning. Positing Zeus as an explanation for lightning or Yahweh as an explanation for abiogenesis has very little explanatory scope, explanatory power, etc… These “answers” also fail Occam’s razor very badly.

Or, in some comments on my first post:

Lukeprog: Is it necessary to have disproofs of the existence of fairies to be justified in disbelieving in fairies?

unkleE: Luke, the two cases (God and fairies) are very different… Fairies are postulated to be creatures that exist on earth… There are no ontological, cosmological, teleological or moral, etc, arguments for fairies. So there is no argument to meet. But there are many arguments which have been developed to high degrees of precision about the possible existence of God.

Lukeprog: I have not made any sweeping claims of similarity for God and fairies, not any argument by analogy. All I have done is to point out that we are justified in disbelieving in fairies without knowing any arguments against their existence. But you can substitute “fairy” with Vahiguru, magical teapots, unicorns, or whatever. All I’m saying is that I don’t need a disproof of God to be justified in disbelieving in him… What I’m saying is that a rebuttal of the positive arguments for the existence of God is enough to justify my disbelief in him, just like a rebuttal of positive arguments given for the existence of psychic powers is enough to justify disbelief in them.

Even after all this, many of my readers don’t get it. So let me take a moment to explain how comparison works.

A comparison happens when you notice that two or more things share the same property, and you say “Hey, look! These things share property X!” This does not imply that they share any other properties. Nor does it imply that they share all significant properties. Rather, it claims that those things share the property being called out.

clifford-wrigleySo, if I say, “Both Clifford the dog and the Wrigley Field welcome sign are red,” I’m saying that both things share the property of being red, but they don’t necessarily share any other properties.

For example, one is fictional and one is real. One is alive, the other is not. One has legs, the other does not. They do share many properties besides being red – for example that of originating in the Midwestern United States – but this was not assumed by my original statement that “Both Clifford the dog and the Wrigley Field welcome sign are red.”

Now, let’s consider the comparisons I’ve made between God and Zeus, fairies, and the FSM.

Zeus

I’ve often compared God and Zeus to show why an argument from ignorance doesn’t work. The Christian often says:

Consciousness / morality / abiogenesis / cosmic origins cannot be explained by current science, therefore God probably did it.

To which I reply that the ancient Greek could just as sensibly have said:

Lightning cannot be explained by our current science, therefore Zeus probably did it.

The comparison I’m making here should be obvious. I am not saying that the God and Zeus are identical in all ways. I am certainly not saying they are equally silly. The ‘ground of all being’ God of the philosophers is more plausible than Zeus the lightning-hurler who battled with the Titans. (However, Zeus is not particularly less plausible than the Biblical God, who hurled rocks from the sky at the fleeing Amorites, appeared to Moses in a burning bush, and took Elisha into the sky on a chariot pulled by horses of fire.)

What I am saying is that both God and Zeus share the property of being a poor explanation for the unexplained. What I’m saying is that just because I say “I don’t know” when faced with the unknown and Christians say “Goddidit” does not mean the Christian answer has any plausibility. Having an answer does not win you any points unless you give me reasons why your answer is plausible. A nutjob may proclaim undetected alien surgery as the cause of his mother’s cancer remission, but this explanation does not gain any credibility simply because the doctors can’t explain the remission.

This is such an important point I must highlight it:

There are still millions of things we still don’t understand about this universe, and “It must be magic!” is not a compelling explanation, whether the name attached to that magic is Zeus or Yahweh or Vahiguru.

That is the comparison I make between God and Zeus.

Fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster

fairiesWhen I compare God to fairies or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I’m usually trying to illustrate the point that just because something is logically possible does not mean it is at all plausible. Christians often go to great lengths to show that:

  • Despite the amount of superfluous suffering in the world, it’s still possible an all-powerful, all-good God has moral reasons (that we can’t understand) for allowing it all.
  • Despite the immense confusion and violence that has arisen from people receiving ‘revelations’ of hundreds of conflicting religions, it’s still possible that this was the best possible way for God to reveal himself to mankind.
  • Despite the unfathomable size, age, and violent waste of the universe, it’s still possible God created all of it for the purpose of slowly and painfully evolving a barely-conscious, ignorant race of humans on a tiny dust speck in the suburbs of an insignificant galaxy.
  • and so on

Yes, that’s all possible. It’s always possible that the Christian story is true, no matter how many absurdities you have to bend over backwards to explain away. It’s also possible that all this is the work of fairies, even though that makes little sense. It could also be the work of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, though FSM theology has to explain away lots of absurdities, too.

So what’s the comparison I’m making? I’m saying that God, fairies, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster all share the property of being logically possible but not necessarily plausible. And in fact, that’s generous of me. There are many popular conceptions of God that are not logically possible.

Summary

So, when I’m making these comparisons, please note the specific comparison being made. I am not saying that God is identical to all these silly things. Obviously not. I’m always making a specific comparison in order to illustrate and important point that theists often forget, like the failure of arguments from ignorance.

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Justin Luddington June 9, 2009 at 10:46 pm

“Consciousness / morality / abiogenesis / cosmic origins cannot be explained by current science, therefore God probably did it.”

Of course, some might argue (based, I might add, on well-established and respectable philosophical positions) that it is not even possible in principle for science to ever explain these or certain other things.

If this is what is being argued or implied, then there is no ‘argument from ignorance’ fallacy being committed. Rather, a supernatural deity is being advanced as a possible explanation.

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Haukur June 10, 2009 at 4:20 am

The ‘ground of all being’ God of the philosophers is more plausible than Zeus the lightning-hurler who battled with the Titans.

Zeus is the original ‘ground of all being’ God of the philosophers (you can try some Plotinus). Consider Varro’s distinction between three kinds of theology: natural theology (the theology of the philosophers), civil theology (the theology of the people) and mythical theology (the theology of the poets).

Comparing the Zeus of mythical theology with the YHWH of natural theology is what really gets my goat in these discussions. Comparing Zeus the lightning hurler with YHWH the rock hurler, like Luke suggests in this post, is a bit closer to the mark (but still not entirely there – hurling rocks at the enemies of the Hebrews is meant to be a description of historical events on Earth, hurling lightning at the Titans happens in the mythical realm).

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Haukur June 10, 2009 at 5:02 am

I forgot to format my comment properly – the first paragraph in my comment is of course not something I’m saying but a quote from Luke’s post.

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Andy June 10, 2009 at 5:23 am

Justin said: “If this is what is being argued or implied, then there is no ‘argument from ignorance’ fallacy being committed.”

I’m afraid that’s just special pleading. Just because science can’t necessarily answer a particular question, doesn’t make it open season to insert your own particular bizarre explanation. You’re still “ignorant” (in the non-offensive meaning) and making the same argument. The fallacy is still being committed.

Okay, it’s a possible explanation, but it doesn’t make it more likely than any other. If you start pointing at “evidence”, then by definition, it’s something that could be answered by science. At some point, you’ll realise that there is no evidence sufficient to support your claim and  your position has no more validity than believing in the FSM.

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Lorkas June 10, 2009 at 6:26 am

Justin Luddington: Of course, some might argue (based, I might add, on well-established and respectable philosophical positions) that it is not even possible in principle for science to ever explain these or certain other things.

If that’s what you want to argue, then “Consciousness / morality / abiogenesis / cosmic origins” are poor examples. We’re making great strides on research on all four at this point in time. We have two fields working on consciousness and morality: neurology and evolutionary biology. There are several competing hypotheses of abiogenesis that are currently being tested. We might very well make a great deal of headway on the cosmic origins question as soon as we turn on (successfully) the LHC.

Anyway, even if we never do, in fact, explain these things by science, it would still be an argument from ignorance to say that we never will. Why? Because there is no evidence for the claim that we will never explain them. It’s just an argument from perpetual ignorance.

Before Darwin, it wasn’t really thought that we could ever explain the diversity of life without invoking God, and then Darwin showed that it was possible (and extremely likely, he would like to add). Even if there is a near-worldwide consensus that we will never explain abiogenesis, that doesn’t mean that a brilliant scientist won’t come along and prove the world wrong.

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Hylomorphic June 10, 2009 at 11:30 am

Lorkas: If that’s what you want to argue, then “Consciousness / morality / abiogenesis / cosmic origins” are poor examples. We’re making great strides on research on all four at this point in time. We have two fields working on consciousness and morality: neurology and evolutionary biology. There are several competing hypotheses of abiogenesis that are currently being tested. We might very well make a great deal of headway on the cosmic origins question as soon as we turn on (successfully) the LHC.

While scientific explanations for abiogenesis and cosmic origins are certainly making headway, I don’t know that one could say the same about consciousness and morality.

To know what a scientific explanation for morality or consciousness is, we first have to analyze the concepts themselves to see if they are even open to scientific explanation. It is not, at this point, clear that they are; even atheist philosophers are divided on that question.

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Reginald Selkirk June 10, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Hylomorphic: While scientific explanations for abiogenesis and cosmic origins are certainly making headway, I don’t know that one could say the same about consciousness and morality.

Uh, what? Actual progress is being made, which makes me doubt very much your contention that nothing can be accomplished until the concepts are worked out. I could insert any of a multitude of studies on animal morality here as an example. 
Article on animal morality, NYTimes, June 2009

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Lorkas June 10, 2009 at 6:48 pm

To add to what Reginald says, I would also point out that scientific research can help us when we try to figure out what those things are. If anything will ever help us figure out what consciousness is, it is studying brains, since brains are what do consciousness (in the same way that my computer does Windows XP, anyway). If we will ever figure out what morality is, it will be by studying moral beings.

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blindingimpediments June 11, 2009 at 4:01 am

if there is no conclusive evidence for or against something (ex. God, Zeus, fairies, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster), then is it more reasonable to be “agnostic” on such issues rather than to dismiss them as being untrue? is there any harm in simply being agnostic instead of committing oneself one way or the other.

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Reginald Selkirk June 11, 2009 at 5:43 am

blindingimpediments: if there is no conclusive evidence for or against something (ex. God, Zeus, fairies, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster), then is it more reasonable to be “agnostic” on such issues rather than to dismiss them as being untrue? is there any harm in simply being agnostic instead of committing oneself one way or the other.

I would say that might depend on how much effort has been put into searching for evidence, and how the lack of evidence reflects on the probability of a proposition. I.e. if one proposal should result in a plethora of evidence, but none is found, that reflects badly on the proposal.

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Chuck June 11, 2009 at 6:12 am

blindingimpediments: if there is no conclusive evidence for or against something (ex. God, Zeus, fairies, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster), then is it more reasonable to be “agnostic” on such issues rather than to dismiss them as being untrue? is there any harm in simply being agnostic instead of committing oneself one way or the other.

It isn’t that there’s no conclusive evidence for God. It’s that there’s no evidence for God. There’s a difference. Are you agnostic on Hobbits, Balrogs, and Wizards?

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Jeremy June 11, 2009 at 4:17 pm

The problem I see with this and some of the comments posted, is that many of the arguments for God are not arguments from ignorance. Arguments such as KCA and Moral Arguments are deductive, logically valid arguments which do not at all argue from ignorance. You might disagree with the soundness, but that doesn’t invalidate its logical validity.

Some people here respond by saying “science will explain it”, but  that seems circular. Why can’t we accept metaphysical arguments for God? The only reason is because they have presupposes scientific naturalism, and hence God can’t be the explanation. It’s trying to argue for naturalistic explanation, but it presupposes naturalism.

As for progress being made on Morality and Cosmology, there is no doubt there will be progress. Scientific progress are being made in Sociology and Political Science, yet science will never truly explain any of those. Morality by definition exclude any scientific explanation, because it is an “ought”, not “is”, which is all that science is entitled to. Cosmology excludes scientific explanation as well, because science is study of the natural world. Yet there is no natural world before the big bang.

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Kiwi Dave June 12, 2009 at 12:58 am

Jeremy says, “Morality by definition exclude[s] any scientific explanation, because it is an “ought”, not “is”, which is all that science is entitled to.”
That depends a bit on what you mean by ‘morality’. If we mean the codes of behaviour we actually practise, then science does offer explanations, such as the one Reginald linked to.
If we mean how we rationalise specific moral decisions science also can give explanations, or at least note regularities in human decision making.
If we mean how do we ultimately justify by reason a coral code then I think science probably can’t offer an explanation which would satisfy, say, a rational but argumentative psychopath, but metaphysical arguments are even less explanatory because both the KCA and the goddidit morality arguments invariably help themselves to assumptions of fact in the absence of relevant knowledge.
Take your last sentence ‘Yet there is no natural world before the big bang.’ What does this statement mean? How do you know it is true? And if, as I suspect, laws of logic are emergent properties of this universe, how can I justify applying such laws to whatever was before the universe?

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Kiwi Dave June 12, 2009 at 1:02 am

Doh! Sorry about all that format trash. I wrote it in Word and then pasted it without realising that would happen.

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Blindingimpediments June 12, 2009 at 2:46 am

Chuck: It isn’t that there’s no conclusive evidence for God. It’s that there’s no evidence for God. There’s a difference. Are you agnostic on Hobbits, Balrogs, and Wizards?

. I don’t believe in those things because tolkein himself says that his books are works of fiction and is not meant the characters and races represented in his books are not real. However, if u were to say that there is somewhere in this universe a planet with aliens that call themselves hobbits and wizards and balrogs, I suppose that I would not really have any proof for or against it ( since I am not an expert in such areas) and would have to say that I am agnostic on such issues and would have to remain open to the possibilities until I come by some more information that would sway me. So can the same be said of the fsm and faries? I mean I don’t know much about these entities or their characteristics, but something like these could possibly exist somehere in the universe. Whether or not their existence is experientialy relevant to me currently is another matter.

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Justin Luddington June 12, 2009 at 10:55 am

Andy: “I’m afraid that’s just special pleading. Just because science can’t necessarily answer a particular question, doesn’t make it open season to insert your own particular bizarre explanation. You’re still “ignorant” (in the non-offensive meaning) and making the same argument. The fallacy is still being committed …  it’s a possible explanation, but it doesn’t make it more likely than any other.”
It’s not special pleading, because the fundamental philosophical assumptions we make about the universe determine how we assess the arguments of others. For example, if you were a dualist with respect to philosophy of mind, then you would maintain that even a complete neuroscience would fail to fully explain consciousness, qualia, and mental states like belief and desire. If you are a physicalist, then of course you would disagree — but that’s because you presuppose physicalism. You’re already of the opinion that a complete neuroscience would erase all of the problems and paradoxes of consciousness, &c.
Atheism, almost by necessity, implies metaphysical naturalism and physicalism. But what grounds does anyone have for holding those positions? Because they seem more likely? Because they fit with how we feel the universe should be?
Some propose that we should hold naturalism as the ‘default’ worldview until convinced otherwise. Why? What makes it special? To me, that is special pleading. It is certainly not because that position has less inherent difficulties than any other — naturalism has plenty of holes in it, that have been pointed out by far cleverer than I. Of course, there are difficulties with dualism as well. But there are difficulties with every possible philosophical worldview; it is easier to find out how one theory falls short of truth than it is to propose a truth yourself. The problem is that we don’t know the truth, we can only guess, reason, and argue about it, stumbling about in the hopes of tripping over it in the dark. If there were ever a complete and consistent worldview whose implications jived with our perceptions and whose truth was convincingly arguable, then we wouldn’t be arguing at all, because we would all subscribe to it. But of course there are no convincing arguments. If there is a non-trivial, valid, and demonstrably sound philosophical argument out there anywhere about anything, I’ve yet to find it. To me, that’s what makes philosophy so fascinating.
Of course, we may eventually find out which of the many competing views is closer to the truth. But not by testing the theory — rather by testing its implications. To return to my initial example: if dualism is true, then when we do arrive at a complete neuroscience, we will find that we still haven’t got anywhere closer to explaining consciousness or perception. Surely it is not an argument from ignorance at that point to posit that the human mind is supernatural? Then why is it now? There are many reasons to believe that dualism is true.
Andy: “If you start pointing at “evidence”, then by definition, it’s something that could be answered by science.”
That’s questionable. The limits of science themselves are not exactly clear, but I don’t think that mere empirical testibility is the proper boundary. Science is more than just evidence: science is rigourous, it is methodological, &c. Luke did a good job summing this up in another post. Anyway, there are a number of things that are beyond the realm of science, but to which we can still adduce evidence. We can talk about the consistency, the logic, and the applicibility of philosophical theories, and to the extent that these theories are non-natural, they are not testable by science even in principle. And just because these theories contain the supernatural doesn’t mean that they are ‘ridiculous’ and that we should discard them; to say that presupposes naturalism and begs the question.
Andy: “At some point, you’ll realise that there is no evidence sufficient to support your claim and  your position has no more validity than believing in the FSM”
I feel I’ve sufficiently defended my position. But, at the risk of belabouring this — your assessment of my lack of evidence depends on your judgment based on your assumptions, chief among which (and correct me if I’m wrong) is naturalism.
Lorkas: “Anyway, even if we never do, in fact, explain these things by science, it would still be an argument from ignorance to say that we never will. Why? Because there is no evidence for the claim that we will never explain them. It’s just an argument from perpetual ignorance.”
I never claimed that we would never explain them. I just noted that there are some who claim the explanation is nonphysical. Surely if we are never able, despite all of our valiant efforts, to explain abiogenesis, consciousness, morality, or our cosmic origins, that would be a pretty strong clue that our naturalistic assumptions were mistaken (unless we abandon the idea that these things have explanations at all, or at least that are comprehendible, like ‘new mysterianism’ or some forms of non-reductive physicalism).

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Lorkas June 12, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Justin Luddington: Surely if we are never able, despite all of our valiant efforts, to explain abiogenesis, consciousness, morality, or our cosmic origins, that would be a pretty strong clue that our naturalistic assumptions were mistaken

But we aren’t arguing about this at the end of time, looking back and reflecting on the fact that we could never explain those things. We are arguing about it right now, when a great deal of research is going on on all four areas.

I don’t see how, even if some things are completely inexplicable through science, it still would not be better to propose an explanation for which there is no evidence. The appropriate response is to admit that we can’t explain it, and try to get on as well as we can without an explanation. Now, if evidence was found (I can’t even imagine what this evidence could be) that demonstrated that some deity was responsible for those things, then we could draw the conclusion that a deity was a good explanation for those phenomena. A bad explanation is not better than no explanation at all.

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Justin Luddington June 12, 2009 at 8:08 pm

Lorkas: “The appropriate response is to admit that we can’t explain it, and try to get on as well as we can without an explanation.”

Really? The whole history of human civilisation is one in search of answers. Just because something may be supernatural doesn’t mean it is beyond explanation or conjecture and we should just shrug and give up. I mean, come on: that’s the whole point of arguing about God, which is the whole point of this blog!

Lorkas: “Now, if evidence was found (I can’t even imagine what this evidence could be) that demonstrated that some deity was responsible for those things, then we could draw the conclusion that a deity was a good explanation for those phenomena.”

Of course, direct natural evidence can’t possibly exist for that which is supernatural. You’re setting the bar impossibly high. But we can flesh out the implications of a philosophical theory of the supernatural and test how it pans out in the natural world. That’s the whole idea behind, for example, a complete neuroscience failing to explain consciousness. It’s absurd to say consciousness is illusory, and it would be simply defeatist in that situation just to shrug and move on.

Consider also if it is one day shown that social and behavioural sciences are irreducible to the physical sciences. That would support (though not prove) the conjecture that the universe is not ‘causally closed’ and that human beings do in fact have free will. Well, that’s evidence that the human mind is supernatural.

There are countless other arguments and potential scenarios to support the general existence of the supernatural: the subjectivity of experience, the problem of qualia (which encapsulates such arguments as “Mary’s Room”, “Philosophical Zombies”, inverted qualia, &c.), The Chinese Room, and so on. Should these arguments succeed, the notion that the natural world is not ‘all that there is’ is surely support for the belief in God.

I have no doubt that you are familiar with all of the arguments for the existence of God. You doubtless find them unconvincing — but it is disingenuous to then suggest that the arguments might as well not exist, that there is ‘no evidence’. Many are convinced who are no less intelligent, rational, or well informed than yourself.

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Lorkas June 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Justin Luddington: Consider also if it is one day shown that social and behavioural sciences are irreducible to the physical sciences.

What, pray tell, could provide evidence of that? Sure, if that happens, then I’ll revise my worldview. I can’t even imagine the evidence that would support that claim without being an argument from ignorance.

Justin Luddington: Of course, direct natural evidence can’t possibly exist for that which is supernatural. You’re setting the bar impossibly high.

Oh, pardon me. I know we can’t all be expected to provide evidence for the claims we make.

As it happens, I think you’re wrong about evidence for supernatural things. I do think that evidence could exist in the natural world for something that was supernatural, if the supernatural thing interacted with the natural world in the ways that it is said to.

For instance, James 5:15-16 tells us in no uncertain terms that the prayer of a righteous man has the power to heal sickness. Praise Zod! Something we can measure! If prayers made by Christians make sick people well, then we have good evidence that something supernatural exists. As it turns out, when proper controls are put in place, prayer has exactly no effect.

Other things I might accept as proof of a specific religion: If we arrived on the moon (or Mars, I guess), and we found an ancient, but perfectly preserved copy of some holy text, I would consider that evidence. Or if the first time we turned on an electron microscope, we found that the atoms on the surface of every human cell contained the words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son” in the original language. Or if Christians had certain magic powers (like Jesus says they will), and only Christians had those powers. Or suppose that every Christian (and only Christians) that died one Good Friday was brought back to life on that Easter Sunday. I would consider that good evidence that God exists, and he’s the God of the Bible. Certainly that bar is not too high if the God of the Bible is really omnipotent, and really wants us to know about him. I mean, he did all kinds of crazy shit like that back in the day. Why’s he so shy now?

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unkleE June 14, 2009 at 12:56 am

Luke, thanks for emailing me to inform me of this post, and of giving me my 15 minutes of fame by mentioning me in it. But I think if the explanation you present here is all you mean by the comparisons, then I have no real objection.
Your conclusion from the Zeus comparison is: ““It must be magic!” is not a compelling explanation, whether the name attached to that magic is Zeus or Yahweh or Vahiguru”  OK, if that’s all you were trying to demonstrate, I can agree, and you don’t even need to bother mentioning Zeus.
Likewise your conclusion from the FSM/fairies comparison is: something that is “logically possible” is “not necessarily plausible”. OK, I can agree with that too without any difficulty, and again, the comparison isn’t necessary, or even helpful, to make the point.
The problem is, those aren’t the points at issue in my view.
Most thoughtful christians I have read do not argue in those ways, and do not argue from ignorance. They, and I, argue from the facts or theories of science, from observations of the world, from experiences. You know the arguments. For example, granted the scientific understanding of the origin and design of the universe, what is the best explanation? One option, which philosophers have discussed at length, and which even some of the world’s most eminent scientists (and not all of them believers) recognise, is that God is the cause. There are obviously other options (though not many).
If you want to say Zeus is just as likely a cause as the christian God, then I’d simply ask do you define Zeus as powerful, wise, outside time and space and of a nature likely to create? If you say “yes”, then I’d agree with you. (The Zeus of Greek mythology doesn’t seem to me to meet all those requirements, but never mind.) And if you say that the FSM meets those requirements, then I wouldn’t bother saying any more.
In the end, the Cosmological and Teleological arguments point to a being with those qualities. We normally call such a being God. If you want to call such a being Zeus or FSM, then by all means do so (although it is confusing), but let’s be clear, while we are using different names, we are talking about beings with the same definition. So the Zeus/FSM comparisons are just artifices and achieve nothing. Either the arguments suggest that such a being likely exists (as I believe) or they don’t (as you believe). But why not just stick to that, and leave the other silliness aside?
In the end, these matters are not just debating points. If God exists, you are terribly wrong and are basing your life on that error. If God doesn’t exist, the same is true of me. Sometimes the FSM/Zeus arguments seem to me to be more like defensive tactics to avoid arguments for God and add nothing logical. As such, they may score a few points, but may just obscure important truths. I suggest, if you want to base your thinking on reason, you stick to the evidence and the arguments, and avoid these silly comparisons. But that’s up to you.
Thanks for keeping me in the loop, and best wishes.

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 1:13 am

unkleE,

Many, many Christians DO argue in these ways, including many thoughtful Christians. I think the specific comparisons to Zeus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster ARE helpful, because arguments from ignorance and arguments for possibility are extremely common, and reminding someone of the absurdity of these argument tactics with vivid comparisons to Zeus and the FSM is, I think, useful in ending these tactics. That’s why I don’t think these are “silly” comparisons. Arguments and counter-arguments by analogy are useful in all fields of philosophy – I’m not the only one to employ them!

And frankly, I don’t think the more sophisticated arguments to the best explanation actually avoid the problems of magical explanations for things – but I’ll write more about that in an upcoming series on Occam’s razor.

Zeus is about as likely a cause for things as the Biblical God. If you mean the Aristotlean God of Aquinas and other theologians who came 1000 years late to the party, then yeah that kind of god is slightly more probably than Yahweh or Zeus. The vaguer and simpler you make God – the closer you make him to the god of deism or no god at all – the more plausible he becomes. But I still don’t think he becomes at all plausible on the whole.

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unkleE June 14, 2009 at 4:42 am

lukeprog: I think the specific comparisons to Zeus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster ARE helpful, because arguments from ignorance and arguments for possibility are extremely common, and reminding someone of the absurdity of these argument tactics with vivid comparisons to Zeus and the FSM is, I think, useful in ending these tactics.

Well I guess you’ll keep on using them then, but I think the arguments, if they are every necessary, are clearer without the examples. Plus the comparisons are rather belittling, and I would think few serious thinkers would respect anyone who used them. I suspect most people who use those arguments mean more than the rather mild explanations you gave, and I think using them is a useful tool for them to obscure the only valid argument they are examples of and hint at stronger claims than you make.

lukeprog: But I still don’t think he becomes at all plausible on the whole.

I didn’t intend or expect to address that question in that post. : )
But I think any argument for God goes in stages. The cosmo and design arguments point to a powerful God, yes a deistic one if you like, or any other god who meets the criteria I suggested. Other arguments refine that definition. So I don’t have a problem with your objections.
As to the “Biblical God”, almost every atheist I have ever discussed with chooses the most primitive ideas of God in the Bible and ignores the fact the the Biblical revelation is clearly progressive – at the very least, progressing from the “tribal” God to the God of the prophets to the God of Jesus. This is pretty standard christian theology. So once you get your head around the idea that God revealed himself in terms understandable to the people at the time and kept updating, the only honest way forward is to deal with the God of the New Testament, and christian thought since then (because the revelation continues after the NT, via the Holy Spirit).
I understand that many christians don’t understand this well, or even accept it, but it is best practice to critique a viewpoint as expressed by its best adherents, and the above is pretty standard theology. So again, unless you grapple with reasonable christian thought, I don’t really have much to answer to.
I’m not sure, if I was an atheist, what attitude I’d take to religion – I think I’d probably leave it in peace unless someone really got at me personally. But if I was interested in arguing the case for atheism, I would want to do it in better ways than you are doing here. (And I’m sure you’re capable of that!)

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 8:42 am

unkleE,

Even “sophisticated” theists like Swinburne and Craig don’t really defend a ‘progressive revelation’ theology when pressed. They really do that God was definitively revealed 2000 years ago, and Craig at least believes that the Bible is inerrant. INERRANT! Bat shit crazy.

I criticize a wide variety of theological stances, including popular ones. So do the New Atheists, and I don’t see the problem with that. Why NOT focus our attacks on what billions believe, rather than the specific theologies of a few professors? If I only critiqued theism as expressed by its most rational adherents, I would just critique the vague theism of somebody like Wes Morriston – a theism held by very few people indeed.

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unkleE June 14, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Fair enough. But it means your comments don’t really touch what I (and many thoughtful christians I know) believe very much.
 
And I guess only “fair enough” if you see your purpose as confronting fundamentalist christians. But if your own reasons for being atheist and rejecting christianity are those given, then it still means your disbelief is poorly based.
 
Thanks again for going to the trouble of finding me and letting me know of this post. Best wishes.

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 4:18 pm

unkleE,

I make these analogies only when I am presented with an argument from ignorance or an argument about mere possibility. When I am confronted with better arguments, I respond to those as well (or at least, offer to respond to them when I have time).

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danielg July 6, 2009 at 3:29 pm

while all analogies are incomplete, some are bad, some are good.  If you have to make such clarifications and exceptions for the sake of clarity, perhaps your analogies are poor.
And in fact, it might be helpful to discuss what such anaologies are NOT saying.  I could, for instance, compare the similarities of atheism to some unfavorable parody of itself, and claim ‘it only applies in the following ways,’ but that’s really just sophistry, and it avoids the gross shortcomings of such analogies – they often prove little more than the truth that the presenter wants to belittle their opponents.
There is a good point to be made underneath the FSM, but it is lost in the snarkiness, and is in some ways a blunt instrument that avoids the difference between historical, legendary, and mythical theologies, and how evidence may be marshaled for and against them.
Please see my series on Pascal’s Wager

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lukeprog July 6, 2009 at 4:10 pm

danielg,

Cool, perhaps I will write a series responding to your series on Pascal’s Wager.

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jonesy September 24, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Perhaps if we really understood what “prayer” really is, our statements would have more veracity in that area. If everyone is part of a universal consciousness, and we contribute to it, and pull from it, then maybe that is some sort of energy source that can actually be tapped to achieve certain ends. When we “pray”, maybe we are dipping into that. And when we “pray” insincerely, or without dipping into the collective stream, maybe nothing is accomplished. Ok, so when some people “feel” the prayers out there offered on their behalf, maybe they are able to tap that source, and actually feel something that to them is profound (sort of you get what you put into it kind of thing.) Maybe it gives them more mental energy to self heal. Hence, for them, “prayer” produces results. IF any of this explanation were on target, does that mean prayer is or is not effective? Studied under the scope of our current understanding, we can’t “prove” anything. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t so. Doesn’t mean it IS so. Those who have experienced “results” can’t so easily be dissuaded. As I said, maybe it comes down to WHAT prayer really is or is not, and how we connect to one another that sets the chain of events into motion.I think it’s perfectly logical to remain open (“agnostic” if you prefer) until you have your own set of circumstances that “prove” something to your satisfaction. Or not. Meanwhile, why try to convince someone else? Like I just did (?)….Sorry!

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Gruesome_hound November 10, 2009 at 6:15 am

Concerning the usual flying teapot, spaghetti monster and invisible unicorns analogies, I think it is important to distinguish between atheism ( I know beyond all reasonable doubt that those entities does not exist) and agnosticism ( I don’t know whether they exist or not).
I am pretty sure none of those entities exist not only because of the absence of evidences (this by itself would only justify agnosticism) but also because there are incredibly strong reasons militating against their existence.
Take for example the celestial teapot: teapots are products of an human mind, contrarily to biological systems, there are no conceivable natural pathways by which they could have evolved, and no human being has ever been at the surface or even in the vicinity of Mars (and even if some secrete mission has done that, it is extremely unlikely they would have brought one teapot with them and let it fall in the space) , therefore one can conclude with almost certainty that there is no teapot orbiting around Mars.

Let us now consider other scenarios for which we have no evidence at all: somewhere in the multiverse, there is an intelligent species looking like bears, there exists a parasitic species capable of possessing their host’s brain like the Goaulds (Stargates) or hives (dark skies).
Or: we are living in a simulation carried out by intelligent design and we will one day also simulate a new universe.
Or there is in a parallel universe with different universal constants with creatures made up of burning materials like warmed iron.

I am “agnostic” but not atheist about these possibilities, because while there exist clearly no evidence, there is also nothing which speaks against that.
Similarly, I am atheist about any kind of invisible animals or visible or invisible unicorns existing on the earth, but I am agnostic about the possibilities that such creature may live on an unknown planet of an unknown remote paralell universe.

I therefore think that the principle (No evidences => non-existence) is deeply flawed, for affirming that something does not exist, we ought to provide reasons for not believing that.
So, I believe that atheist have to give solid grounds for believing with almost certainty there exist no god(s). These may be the evidence of meaningless evils, the widespread religious confusion, the numerous examples of bad design in nature and so on and so forth.

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Gruesome_hound November 10, 2009 at 6:15 am

Concerning the usual flying teapot, spaghetti monster and invisible unicorns analogies, I think it is important to distinguish between atheism ( I know beyond all reasonable doubt that those entities does not exist) and agnosticism ( I don’t know whether they exist or not).
I am pretty sure none of those entities exist not only because of the absence of evidences (this by itself would only justify agnosticism) but also because there are incredibly strong reasons militating against their existence.
Take for example the celestial teapot: teapots are products of an human mind, contrarily to biological systems, there are no conceivable natural pathways by which they could have evolved, and no human being has ever been at the surface or even in the vicinity of Mars (and even if some secrete mission has done that, it is extremely unlikely they would have brought one teapot with them and let it fall in the space) , therefore one can conclude with almost certainty that there is no teapot orbiting around Mars.

Let us now consider other scenarios for which we have no evidence at all: somewhere in the multiverse, there is an intelligent species looking like bears, there exists a parasitic species capable of possessing their host’s brain like the Goaulds (Stargates) or hives (dark skies).
Or: we are living in a simulation carried out by intelligent design and we will one day also simulate a new universe.
Or there is in a parallel universe with different universal constants with creatures made up of burning materials like warmed iron.

I am “agnostic” but not atheist about these possibilities, because while there exist clearly no evidence, there is also nothing which speaks against that.
Similarly, I am atheist about any kind of invisible animals or visible or invisible unicorns existing on the earth, but I am agnostic about the possibilities that such creature may live on an unknown planet of an unknown remote paralell universe.

I therefore think that the principle (No evidences => non-existence) is deeply flawed, for affirming that something does not exist, we ought to provide reasons for not believing that.
So, I believe that atheist have to give solid grounds for believing with almost certainty there exist no god(s). These may be the evidence of meaningless evils, the widespread religious confusion, the numerous examples of bad design in nature and so on and so forth.

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Chris April 10, 2010 at 11:18 pm

How can you call the FSM a myth!!! all unbelievers of the Pasta will be condemed to Prugostrim where they shall be subject to the torture of the divine FSM.

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denis December 27, 2010 at 7:32 am

this is bullshit men!

this faith are only for those who are crazy!!

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eunice January 4, 2011 at 10:50 pm

u r really crazy!!! will u just accept that everything came from God!!

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