Today I interview Paul Almond. Among other things, we discuss:
- God as an explanation
- Faith and the problem of induction
- Is God necessary for morality?
- Could God be beyond logic?
Download CPBD episode 061 with Paul Almond. Total time is 44:03.
Paul Almond links:
Links for things we discussed:
- Problem of induction
- Gell-Mann, The Quark and the Jaguar (good book on complexity and information theory)
- Tegmark on the multiverse (Tegmark argues that a multiverse is less complex than a single, limited universe)
Luke Muehlhauser: Paul Almond is a mysterious figure. He works in business but publishes articles on cognition, artificial intelligence, and philosophy of religion on the side. He is known for his many in-depth articles at paul-almond.com. Paul, welcome to the show!
Paul Almond: Thank you. I’m glad to be talking to you.
Luke: Well, Paul, much of your work has focused on simplicity and theory selection. How can we tell if something is really simple, and how can we go about choosing the best theory among several alternatives, do you think?
Paul: Well, for a start, ideas such as simple or complex can have a number of different meanings. In this particular context, when we are talking about theory selection, a simple theory would be one which doesn’t contain much information. And what we’ve got to start with is what we expect of a theory or an explanation. And I think some people, particularly the religious people, they have the wrong expectations. They think in terms of some ultimate explanation. And, really, you can never have that because if you explain something in terms of this, you’ve got to explain this in terms of that. You never get anything which doesn’t need some sort of explanation.
All an explanation is, it is something which is a model of reality which gives you the ability to make predictions which has less information than the previous level of explanation.
I’ll give you an example: gravity. Just prior to Newton, gravity wasn’t really popularly understood. They had two separate models for two phenomena. They had the idea of objects falling near the Earth and accelerating, believe that objects accelerate when they move downwards, and we had a model about how the planets of the solar system move around.
Now, they could use both of these models for making predictions. What Newton did, is he took both of those models, and he replaced them by a single model, the theory of gravity, which explains why objects fall down and explains why the planets orbit in the way that they do.
Now, the point of this is, he didn’t give an ultimate explanation. There’s no “why” to this. There’s no final answer. What Newton did really was he removed the amount of information we need in our model of reality. He improved our prediction mechanism, and he made it more efficient and more reliable. And that is all you can ask of a theory.
Theories are to lead to predictions. Explanations are simply theories which have been improved a bit. An explanation is simply a more economical thing than the thing it replaces, and that is all we ask of it. A theory should be expressed formally, ideally, and, for any computer specialists amongst your listeners, you could say that it comes down to the number of information bits in the theory.
So we might think of theory in terms of some sort of computer software paradigm. Does that make sense?
Luke: Yeah. I wonder if you could give another example of how our successful theories have been ones that contain less information than our previous way of understanding certain phenomena.
Paul: OK, yeah. Chemistry is a classic example. Prior to the current understanding of chemistry in terms of atoms and molecules, you’ve got all these thousands and thousands of different substances. You’ve got wood, you’ve got glass, you’ve got all the metals. And all the world is, is a million and one different special cases. If you don’t have a theory of chemistry for you to describe the world, there’s no kind of cohesive nature to it. It is just a big long list. When you’ve got a theory of chemistry, all that immediately starts to collapse a bit. You’ve still got all of this stuff. You’ve still got richness on top with all the different substances, but underneath that is the explanation.
The explanation is an explanation because it gives rise to all that, but it is a more efficient model. You’ve got a periodic table, you’ve got some physics associated with it. It might be complicated from a human point of view. The sort of complexity and the simplicity we’re talking about here has nothing at all to do with psychology. It is to do with information content. Be clear that the amount of information content in the basic principles of chemistry is much less than the amount of information content you would need to describe pretty much everything on the planet.
Luke: Right, yes. So let’s apply that type of thinking to theism. Many theologians are fond of saying that God is conceived of as a very simple being, and that the “God did it” theory is a good explanation for certain things like fine-tuning or biological complexity or consciousness or whatever. What do you think of that claim about using God as an explanation and a simple explanation at that?
Paul: I think what you have there is a total train wreck. That is my opinion of theistic explanations. For a start, when they say “God is the simplest explanation,” who says that? Suppose instead of Newton, someone had come along and said, “I think that your inverse square law of gravity is much too complicated. I’m going to explain the motion of the planets in terms of woo-woo.” And you say, “What’s woo-woo?” And they say, “The woo-woo is the thing which makes the planets move. It’s the single perfect entity which makes them go round in their orbits. And what can be simpler than woo-woo?”
Now, what you might see there is I’ve pulled a fast one because I’ve cheated. I haven’t actually given you the theory. All I’ve done is given you a word. Anybody can say that a word is simple; anyone can say that a concept is simple if they don’t have to explain the details. The thing is when I dropped my woo-woo theory in there, it didn’t have any predictive power.
I said earlier that the idea of theory is a model used to explain and predict things. Well, to predict things really. And that’s all they can really do. You can never have an ultimate explanation. So all a theory is good for is making predictions. A God theory isn’t going to make predictions unless you specify it with a lot more information.
So you can either specify it vaguely, and just say God it, or you can try to turn into some sort of predictive model. Let’s look at what predictive model you’ll have. God is a person. What we have is the insanity of using a psychology-based model.
Brains are about the most complex thing in the known universe. The only psychology we’ve ever seen is in brains, and it is by far the most complex thing we can think of. And you’re dropping that into your bottom-level description of nature, where the last thing that you want is complexity; where you should be wanting simplicity. It is an absolute nonstarter.
Luke: What I hear you saying is that either the theologian is going to say that God is very simple and God did it and that’s all the explanation there is. But in that case, that’s really just a woo-woo explanation. It’s a word, and there’s no predictive power to the explanation at all. It’s not even worth calling it an explanation. Or they could actually turn the God hypothesis into a predictive model and make it into an actual explanation. But the only conceivable way they would do that, because God is thought of as a person and not a mechanical force, is to talk about God’s beliefs and desires and so on. And so this happens because God desired it and he willed to do it and that kind of thing.
But then you’re invoking psychology, and the only psychology we know of is just about the most complex thing in the universe. So that really makes things so much worse. You’re offering an explanation that is more complicated than that which you’re trying to explain, which doesn’t really work.
Paul: Yep, I would go along with that. Now, they could argue with this. They could say that I’m trying to impose some kind of computational paradigm on God. An obvious thing is to say, “Aren’t you trying to think of God as some sort of computer program running on a substrate, which needs a lot of information to write?” That’s an obvious thing they’re going to say. The point here is I’m not saying that at all. Here, I’m not criticizing God. God can do what he wants and you’ll never know that he exists. I’m criticizing the explanation. The explanation is a psychological one. The explanation would require an enormous amount of information as a predictive model and I’m not assuming that God has to work like a computer program.
But what I’m saying is the explanation has to be formally expressed to be any good and a formally expressed God explanation is… The way you described it is very well, it’s got to just be a complete monster of inefficiency.
Luke: [laughs] A monster of inefficiency.
Paul: Let’s look at how monstrous it would be. Suppose you had a computer and you said to your computer, “Act like a person,” and you’d have to describe to your computer how a person works. That is going to be one big description.
Luke: Yeah, that’s going to be a computer program with trillions of lines of code.
Luke: Yeah. So you’re problem here really isn’t that you’re saying necessarily that God himself must be complex in some way, but the God explanation that you offer, if you put it formally, then it just becomes hugely complex. That’s where the real problem with offering God as an explanation comes from.
Paul: Exactly! And the theists could counter that by saying, “Well, God is beyond formal explanation.” Now, if they want to do that, fine. But they are then in the position of someone who’s brought a pair of skis to a football match. They wanted to play this game. They wanted to play the theory selection game and try to win it with their theory. If they want to win it with their theory, their theory should be able to survive semi sort of formal theory selection processes. If you want to bring along the theory and then say you don’t want to play and it can’t be tested like a theory, then it can’t be expressed like a theory, you are then doing something quite ridiculous.
One point I would make as well on this, I’m not saying that any explanation of psychology and intelligence is wrong. That now, you’re talking to me on the phone and you were explaining the sounds you hear in terms of psychology. You think there’s a person you’re talking to, you’d happen to be right. The difference here is, that isn’t intrinsic information. You know that I can be accounted for by physics, by the theory of evolution.
It’s sort of the assumptions you have to make to believe I’m in the world, other people in the world, is not the same. The problem with God is all of that is assumed at the bottom level of reality. You’ve got all of this psychology, all of this complexity with no hope of anything of underpinning it which is simpler.
It’s this whole non-contingency, fundamental basic nature. All of the things theists claim of God, there is not a base of anything, there’s nothing underpinning him. They’re all what fatally kills him off, because it is only something simple underpinning him that would give you any chance at all of saying that there could be some simplicity behind this which might give it merit.
Luke: So this is actually, in a way, much, much worse than talking about explanations in terms of human psychology. Because at least with human psychology, we’re starting to get some kind of hint at the story of how human psychology arises from much simpler mechanical and well-understood processes, whereas the theist is positing some kind of divine psychology as the most fundamental thing in the universe with nothing behind… There’s no God atoms supposedly, according to theists, that make up God’s mind. So this seems just even worse than human psychology, as far as I can tell, for an explanation.
Paul: Exactly. In fact, if you think about it, it’s worse than anything you could possibly imagine, really. I mean, let’s throw out some things. Aliens. Theists often get upset that a lot of atheists think aliens might exist. Alien psychology could be accounted for by the theory of evolution, which is a very, very efficient way of explaining things. And in fact one of the ingenious things of the theory of evolution — and I think the most important thing — is that the theory of evolution allows us to accept the presence of other minds, other psychology, the potentiality in the universe, without having to have this enormous baggage of intrinsic information that you have to assume.
Which means it only leaves you with God as an issue. It deals with everyone else’s mind. There’s no way around it. It really does make everything these people say a non-starter.
Luke: Yeah. So you were starting to compare a God-based explanation to, say, an alien-based explanation. And one of the reasons that an alien-based explanation for — let’s say the pyramids, or consciousness, or whatever. Let’s say the explanation for those things was that aliens did it. Now, with our current information that’s an extremely implausible explanation. But at least there the information content of that theory could be much lower than the information content of a necessarily predictive God hypothesis, because we have some ideas of how aliens could exist by way of more simple processes, like evolution and chemistry and physics. Whereas the God hypothesis is just starting out at base as the most complex, information-rich hypothesis you could ever imagine.
Paul: That is exactly correct. I couldn’t have put it better. And I agree with you. And so no listener is misunderstanding this, I am not trying to push things like aliens as an explanation for anything. As you say, the idea that the pyramids were made by the aliens is implausible. But even though to me, that is a kind of implausible, ridiculous idea, it is nowhere near as ridiculous as the God concept. The God concept is so ridiculous that it’s more ridiculous than all the other ridiculous ideas, because of its huge amount of information content.
Luke: Is it really fair to criticize the theists for coming to a football match with skis in the sense that aren’t there other accepted ways of formulating theories and then comparing them on something other than information content? I mean, aren’t there systems of evaluating theories that are used by scientists or philosophers of science that the theists could appeal to?
Paul: That’s a fair comment. And in fact, I’ve got to be honest to you, the sorts of methods I’m talking about are rarely used in practice, because they are not really easy to apply. Most of the time theory selection is done by an intuitive process. When Einstein came up with general relativity, he didn’t go home, write the theory down, turn it into bits of computer code, count them, and see how many there were. He knew he was right. It was an intuitive process.
Now what I’m saying is, when Einstein did that, he would have had some intuitive grasp that he had somehow reduced the information content of science. I’m not saying he knew that specifically. I’m not saying he consciously knew that. But part of the way the human brain works when it goes for patterns – we actually do this in daily life. We try to reduce the information content we need to explain things.
And all I’m saying is this idea of information content really has to underpin everything. In other words, if you propose a theory to me, I might not be doing some formal process of counting all the information in it, but I should at least intuitively have some idea of what sorts of results I would get if I did. And that has been what we’re talking about.
And this basic process, I really do think it has to come down to that. And I can justify it. The reason I can justify it, is it’s about specificity. We don’t know what sort of universe we’re in, but let’s say that there’s a whole range of possible worlds we could inhabit which are consistent with what we know about.
We could live in a world where the sun’s going to rise tomorrow as it does now. We could live in a world where the sun’s going to explode tomorrow. We could live a world where the pixies are going to land outside of our house. All this kind of stuff.
Now, we want to have some sort of expectation about what’s going to happen tomorrow. We have to make some model. If we come up with a model of reality which has a lot of information in it, a much smaller proportion of all the possible worlds we could inhabit will actually comply with that model.
If we come up with a model which has a smaller amount of information, the chances, the proportion of possible worlds which we could inhabit which follow that rule, which comply with that, are going to be larger.
So when you make your model very, very big, you are getting specific, and it is much less likely that the reality that you live in – out of all the possible realities – actually agrees with you.
And that’s why it really has to come down to information content. Every bit of information you add to your theory makes it less likely that reality is going to actually obey it.
Luke: Now do you think that it’s wise to express Occam’s Razor in terms of information content?
Paul: Yes, I do. I want to be clear as well on this. This is not necessarily what Occam said. Occam came up with something which is possibly a bit vaguer. Occam says don’t multiply entities unnecessarily. Now I think the word “entity” is so vague. What’s an entity? It might be an object in a theory. But where does one entity end and another one start?
I would say the modern equivalent of that is we could consider an entity to be simply a bit of information in the theory. And this actually makes sense. We should view theories in terms of information content. We might now always be able to formally apply that process – we’re going to be using human intuition a lot of the time – but that is we should be looking for.
When we look at a theory, we should look at what’s it doing, what’s it’s predictive power, what’s its information content relative to other theories which achieve the same ends.
Luke: Yeah. And we humans are limited beings, so we’re always taking shortcuts. We can’t calculate every single thing all the way to the millionth digit. But what you’re saying is that objectively it’s going to be the theory with the least information content that achieves the same predictive results that’s going to be the most probable in this base of possible worlds. And so what scientists and philosophers can do is try to guess as best they can by looking at the theory what the information content would turn out to be if we were actually able to do all these calculations.
Paul: Yes. And I think a lot of the time it is done simply by thinking, does it look right? A lot of the time, scientists have often said they look for beauty in a theory, they look for elegance. And I think that is human intuition, doing these similar sorts of things.
Luke: Moving on to another topic, some believers will bring up Hume’s Problem of Induction to say that science requires just as much faith as religion does. Could you tell us what was Hume’s Problem of Induction? And then what do you think of the theists’ claim that science requires just as much faith as religion does?
Paul: I think it is wrong, and I’ll try and give you an idea of why I think this. What people think of as Hume’s Problem of Induction is this: we see patterns in the past and then we expect those patterns to continue in the future. Hume’s Problem of Induction, I consider it in terms of a weak sense and a strong sense. The weak sense says that you might not be certain that the patterns are going to continue in the future, but you might be able to apply statistics.
Now if you apply Hume’s Problem of Induction in a strong sense, you might go even further – and this is what some theists do. What we say is the past is no evidence at all for any sort of expectation of the future, or at least so you can’t philosophically justify this.
In other words, the sun comes up every day for a million years, is the sun going to come up tomorrow? You have no philosophical justification for actually saying that. However, we expect that to happen, and we expect a scientific law, which has worked for a hundred years, to carry on working tomorrow.
What theists is saying is that is faith-based, and therefore what we are trying to do is we’re trying to lower science to the same sort of level as religion. I think this is wrong because — some of what I’ve already said might have started to approach some of this. If we want to know what is going to happen, then we should consider these sets of possible worlds. We could call this a reference class. A reference class is just a set of all the possibilities in some statistics exercise.
What people are trying to tell when they’re doing this, we’re trying to say that the reference classes put together bit by bit. In other words, you’ve got a world where the sun rises every day for a million years and then explodes, you’ve got a world where the sun rises every day for a million years and then changes into tea leaves, a world where it rises every day for a million years and it rises again normally, and so on.
What we’ve got to look at is how this reference class is constructed. If you’re going to construct a reference class by saying, here’s an instant in time, stick another instance in time to it, stick another instance in time, another one and so on, and you’re going to do that for every sort of world, you are just building this set of possible worlds up, bit by bit.
You’re going to end up with these weird creative results where there’s no real reason to presume that the future is going to be anything like the past, because the way you’ve constructed your reference class is just by randomly sticking bits of worlds together.
What I’m saying here is that is a flawed idea. What we should think of as the reference class is the formal description of the world as a single object. So really what we should do is we should look at the state of reality, we should look at the world together with all of it’s time, and we should say the world and everything which happens in it, all of it’s entire history, has a description.
We would never get that description, it’s going to be inaccessible to us. But that description is going to be some kind of formal description containing information, and the reference class of possible worlds we could be living in should be made up like that.
Now the point is of this, a world where something crazy is going to happen, it’s going to need a lot more information to actually describe a world which happens like that. In another words, if you want to write a description of a world down where the sun rises every day for a million years and it then rises again, that isn’t too bad.
If you want a world where the sun rises every day for a million years and then changes into a tree, if you want that sort of world, it is going to take a lot more information, because to make the crazy things happen, you’re going to have to start putting in lots of information to describe the crazy things.
To have something sensible happen over a period of time, it’s going to be very, very efficient in terms of information. What I’m saying is, when you consider every possible we could be living in, the ones that behave reasonably sensibly, the ones where the future is very similar to the past, the ones where the future is a sensible continuation of the past, those are the ones which are going to represent the much bigger set of that sort of world, because there’s a much smaller amount of information needed to actually do that. So they’re going to be the much larger set of the possibilities.
In that sense, there’s no reason to take this problem of induction seriously at all. Simple statistical common sense would require us to just expect the future to be like this.
Now the one thing the theists could criticize me on here is one decision I’ve made. The theists seem to be saying – they aren’t saying this explicitly, but they are implying it when they come out with this nonsense – that the reference class is simply the history of every possible world written down.
I’m saying the reference class is the formal description of everything that happens all the time in every possible world. And they could say I’m wrong to do that. They could say, for example, “How do you know that worlds have to follow these formal descriptions? How do you know that it has to go along like that?”
I’m not making any assumption at all. All I’m saying is that a formal description of reality is about the most basic thing you could have. You aren’t even assuming that reality is going to be sensible. You could have a formal description of reality which acts crazy. You could have a formal description of reality which acts completely randomly. The formal description would just be, do this crazy thing, do this crazy thing, do this crazy thing, and so on.
Luke: Yeah, you can write a formal description of the world in which the sun suddenly turns into a tree. You can do that.
Paul: Yep, you can do that. And if you keep going, you’re going to have a very, very long description of that reality. And it is very, very unlikely you live in such a reality. It is much more likely that the sun is going to rise tomorrow because less information is needed to make it do that, and therefore it is more likely that a bigger proportion of the possible galaxies will have that. And it’s more likely that one of those happens to be the real one.
Luke: Right. So if we’re looking at the total space of all the ways that the universe could be, all the possible worlds that are out there, then the ones that have less information content are going to be a lot more probable. They’re going to take up a much larger space of the probability space of possible worlds. And so it’s far more likely that we’re in one of those worlds, rather than in one of these really, really complex worlds where there’s just a million lines of code, shall we say, that say do this crazy thing and then do that crazy thing next and then do that crazy thing next.
So when we’re looking at the space of possible worlds, it’s much more likely that we’re in a world that makes use of all of these regularities that would make us predict that the future will be pretty much like the past.
Paul: Yes, with one qualification. I’m not necessarily saying that the world has to be simple. I’m not saying that simple worlds are going to be more common than complex worlds. Our explanation of the world, our description of that, is different than the actual world. We might have a complex description of the world, and then that would mean that very few of the possible worlds would actually conform to that description. Now, we might have a simple description of the world, and that would mean that many more of the possible worlds conform with that description. Each of those worlds might be simple or complex.
So it’s not about whether the actual world itself is simple or complex. It’s whether a description made by humans, which is only a partial description of the world which is complex, is likely to match up with the actual real world.
There’s a slight difference here between the descriptions and the actual worlds. The description is only a small piece of the world. What I’m saying here is the real world is going to be all the information in our description and a load more information besides. So just because we’ve come up with a simple theory it doesn’t necessarily mean the world is simple.
Luke: So why is it that the worlds that can be described more simply take up a larger space in this probability space of possible worlds?
Paul: It is because the more information you put into a model, the more specificity you are having, the more chances reality has for not matching it. Let’s say that you have a theory and you describe it with three binary digits: one, zero and one. It means that for the world to match that theory, it’s got to agree with one, zero, one. Now if it’s just random, it’s a mess, you’ve got a reasonable chance.
Now if you say the world has to match a theory which has one, zero, one, one, zero, one, every time you add a digit you are demanding far more of the world to match that.
I’ll try and give an analogy in more human terms. Let’s suppose you were in a library, and that library contains every novel which could ever possibly exist. So the reference class here is every single novel which anybody could write is actually there.
Now you read part of a novel, and let’s say that the novel describes some events happening. You want to guess what happens next, but you’ve put the book back in the library, and you can’t actually see what’s next. So you want to guess what happened next in that novel that you’re reading. You are going to come up with some kind of description of what was happening in that novel.
If your description is actually a very unwieldy complex description, it is not likely that many novels in that library are going to match up with your description, because the more description you have, the more you are demanding of it. If your description is economical, then it’s much more likely that you’re going to find a lot of novels which actually match up with it.
It’s really a statistics game. It’s about specificity, and it’s about how the more you put into a model, then the less likely it is that the reality is going to match up with it. Because the reality’s got to match up with every single bit of your model. The reality’s got to match up with this bit, that bit, that bit, that bit, that bit. And the more bits you have, the less likely it is that the reality is going to play along.
Luke: So the response to the theist is, no, science isn’t depending on faith in the way that religion is. We actually have a good statistical reason to expect that the future will behave much like the past.
Paul: Yes, exactly.
Luke: Paul, another topic now. Many theists claim that God is somehow necessary for morality. What do you think of that idea?
Paul: I think it’s flawed. But then again, you knew I was going to say that.
Luke: I knew it!
Paul: OK. Firstly, all the morality which you see in a religion tends to be human morality which has been projected onto the religion in the first place. The best indication of this is when theists start to interpret the holy books, most holy books contain things which are objectionable by modern standards. And you get theists saying, well, that doesn’t apply now. A good example is, there’s a bit in the Bible where you’re supposed to stone disobedient children to death. Few Christians would actually do that. And that’s interesting because if God is an ultimate source of morality, why not do it?
Now, some Christians might say, well, hang on, God didn’t really write that. Not all Christians have a literal interpretation of the Bible. So some Christians might say, well, that isn’t really part of what God said.
Now if you’re doing that, if you’re picking and choosing like that, you are referring to a morality which is independent of the actual Bible. If you’ve got to refer to some sort of morality outside of the Bible to decide which bits of the Bible are the ones which God came out with and meant, and which ones aren’t, it rather makes a mockery of this idea that the Bible itself is a source of morality.
It’s the other way round. What’s happening is people are fitting the Bible, or any other religious book, to the morality which they actually find acceptable. It doesn’t mean that’s always good morality.
Somebody might live in a society where they think it is OK to kill people who have a certain lifestyle. And therefore, if a religious book says that, then that is fine, they’re going to do it. But if a religious book says something which they find objectionable, or which causes them problems…
Luke: Yeah, like give to the poor, or something. That’s no good. [laughs]
Paul: Yes. Let’s look at one example in the Bible. In the Bible you’ve got passages which are rather prejudicial to gay people, and you’ve got passages telling you not to eat shellfish. Now amongst a lot of conservative Christians, which one of those is more common? Of course, there’s probably a lot more prejudice against gay people than there is against eating shellfish. I think the reason is simple. Having prejudice against gay people is probably a lot more fun, if you’re a fundamentalist Christian. Not eating shellfish is less fun, and it’s inconvenient.
So what you’re doing is, people are just picking and choosing the bits that they want, and that is not being used as a source of objective morality. It’s being used to fit what you want to do in the first place.
Luke: Another question is when theists get trapped in the corner and it seems like the atheist has shown that their idea of God is incoherent or problematic, they’ll sometimes resort to saying that God is beyond logic or superior to logic or something, and therefore logic can’t disprove God. What do you think of that approach?
Paul: I think it’s another fairly cheap evasion tactic to try to put their God beyond any sort of argument or refutation. Firstly, if a theist comes out with a lot of claims and proof and evidence for God, of anything that God has done, and God is beyond logic, the problem is I’m not arguing with the God. I’m arguing with the claims, and the claims aren’t beyond logic. The claims are just information.
Let’s look at a simple example. You’ve a got Christian apologist, William Lane Craig. William Lane Craig writes a book claiming to show how there’s a God. If I argue with that book, then a theist could say, “No, you can’t do that. God is beyond logic. God won’t be subject to your petty, atheist, evil Satan logic.” And it’s supposed to be game over then.
But hang on. I wasn’t arguing with God. I was arguing with a book by William Lane Craig. Is William Lane Craig’s book beyond logic? I think not.
I think the idea of anything beyond logic is ridiculous in the first place, so I’m not even entertaining it as a coherent idea. But even if we did, it is ridiculous to think that someone’s ideas and claims and the expression of those claims is somehow immune to attack.
Even worse, even if we assumed it was coherent for something to be beyond logic and even if we assumed the universe was caused by something beyond logic, even if we accepted that, you would actually destroy any chance you had of proving a God.
Because if you’ve got something beyond logic, you imply there’s some area of philosophy or there is some sort of domain which is beyond logic, which logic can’t enter. I supposed it’s like a philosophical twilight zone. You’re saying there’s a twilight zone in philosophy where logic doesn’t work. The universe came out of this twilight zone where logic doesn’t work, and that’s it. But then what do they do?
They try to tell us the cause of the universe must be intelligent. The cause of the universe must be personal. The cause of the universe must want us not to work on certain days of the year. The cause of the universe must have a mind. It must be a person. It must have consciousness and intentionality.
What they are doing is they are telling us that there is a logic-free twilight zone in philosophy, and then they are telling us what is going on inside it. How do they justify this? If a theist says that the cause of the universe must be intelligent, why? If the cause of the universe is beyond logic, then surely the cause of the universe could be a pile of carrots. And if you’re going to say, “Well, how could a pile of carrots cause the universe?” I don’t know. It’s beyond logic. It’s not really something we should have to consider, is it?
Once you’ve accepted something beyond logic, you’ve thrown away any chance you had of making any arguments about what that sort of thing is or what it’s doing or what its properties are. And the fact that theists consistently claim that God is beyond logic and consistently tell us what the properties of God are, using various logical arguments, implies that this is purely just a self-serving argument.
They are trying to have it both ways. They are trying to tell us about a logic-free domain, and then they are trying to use logic in that domain to tell us what it’s like in there.
Luke: Now, Paul, you’ve leveled a lot of criticisms at theism, and I’ve been helping you along. But do you think that atheism can be positively justified? Do you think we can say that we know there is no God? Or is your atheism more of a negative position? Like, well, we can’t really know, but so far we don’t have any good reasons to think that God does exist. Which way would you express it?
Paul: OK. Well, even to have this discussion, we’ve got to assume someone’s got a coherent description of God, and with a lot of theists I’ve spoken to, that’s a bit of a reach. However, let’s assume someone’s managed to put a coherent description together. I will actually say there is no God. That is my position. I don’t sort of go along saying, “Well, I don’t believe in a God. I have no reason to think that a God exists.” I actually just say there is no God, and I can justify that position.
This is how I would justify it. In everyday life, we could throw up extreme skepticism on practically any statement we could make, and we don’t usually acknowledge that sort of skepticism, that sort of possibility.
I have an example. If you’re sitting in a restaurant with a cup of coffee on the table in front of you, then if someone says to you, “What is that on the table in front of you?” you are going to say, “It is a cup of coffee.” Now, when you say that, have you proven with 100% confidence that that cup of coffee isn’t a hallucination, that it isn’t a miniature alien battleship from the planet Zog in stealth disguise mode, that it isn’t somehow an emissary from the pixie empire in disguise mode?
Now the point is, what I’ve just said sounds stupid. Most people, even theists, would say that because of lack of evidence for such ridiculous ideas and because they are so extreme, they don’t even need to be given house room. But in normal language, we don’t need to acknowledge that level of uncertainty. We can just say it’s a cup of coffee.
I’m quite happy to say that there is no God in the same way that I will say that is a cup of coffee on the table. It doesn’t mean I’m claiming 100% proof. All it means is that I’m satisfied that the extreme nature of the God concept — and we’ve been discussing that earlier in this interview, why I think the God concept is so extreme — combined with the lack of evidence needed to support such an extreme claim makes it so implausible, and it makes for chances that that hypothesis is correct so ridiculously low that, essentially, it is probably less likely than lots of other things, like cups of coffee being aliens in disguise, that we would never even consider referring to in normal everyday conversation.
And it means while I might philosophically accept that there could be some sort of possibility, but that is purely mathematical hairsplitting. In normal everyday language, it is well below the level at which it would be recognized.
Luke: I’m going to start being more wary about cups of coffee and seeing if they’re setting their lasers to kill or something.
Paul: Actually, given the information loading issues I’ve mentioned, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if I said that that is more likely than the existence of a God. Aliens who evolve, who build miniature battleships disguised as cups of coffee, who come here to spy on us, could be explained with a lot less information than you need to explain a God. It is a ridiculous idea. Both of them are ridiculous ideas, but you could probably see how God just wins out for ridiculousness every time.
Luke: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and thanks for coming on the show.
Paul: Thank you very much, and it’s been a pleasure talking to you.