Friday, May 31, 2013

Christian apologist Randal Rauser invites discussion

Christian apologist Randal Rauser kindly invited me to take part in a series he is writing for his blog in which he asks certain "well-established" atheists to respond to the question "Why do you reject theism and/or Christianity?" (Representative link). Rauser describes himself as aiming for "progressively evangelical, generously orthodox, rigorously analytic, revolutionary Christian thinking." I'm glad he's taking the time to engage with atheists and skeptics on his blog, whatever his purposes are, and I'm glad he took the chance of inviting me to participate.

I am assuming that he intends to publish my response to his question on his blog with his commentary, as in the representative link above, and I'm assuming that he is not averse to me publishing my own thoughts on my own blog (i.e. that I wasn't giving him exclusive blog publication rights). Since I've had some interest already expressed in this matter by some of my own readers, I'm going ahead and putting those thoughts down here also. A link to Rauser's commentary will be added when it's available. EDIT: That link is now available. Rauser's response.

For what it is worth, this piece highlights where my thinking about theism is going lately. Hopefully it's clear that it's not the "throw the rocks at the cathedral" stuff I've engaged in at times before, nor is it the same hard-line "new atheist" approach, nor is it in any way accommodationist to religion as an optimally viable mode for approaching the world. If anything, I'd classify it as being even more profoundly antitheistic than the usual fare in the genre.

Without further ado, then, here is the essay I sent to Rauser addressing the question "Why do I reject theism and/or Christianity?"

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As with many things, this is not a simple matter. After reading through examples on your blog, I realized that I'm a "complex" case with a very slow process of leaving theism. There are many instances I can think of that hold significance as having been game-changers, some that I realized at the time and some that I didn't realize until much later. I now have very different reasons than I did at various stages along this journey. Since this is about my argument, though, not a process of deconverting and the insights involved therein, I'll try to stick cleanly to your question about my reasons.

Now, I've been pretty careful with my wording so far particularly because I find fault with the wording of your question. This fact is nothing upon you, but it is revelatory of your thought processes. As a mathematician, I see something in your wording, which I realized while contemplating my response to the question "why do I reject theism in general and Christianity in specific?"

Here's the catch: in statistical hypothesis testing, we have two hypotheses, the "null" and the "alternative" hypotheses. We assume the null unless there is sufficient reason presented to reject it for the alternative, given with a level of confidence determined beforehand to be sufficient to the degree of evidence required. Particularly, it is erroneous to "reject" the alternative hypothesis--it is only possible to fail to accept it. For me, as "negative atheism," as Anthony Flew called it, is the null hypothesis, I cannot "reject theism" but can only fail to accept it. For you, as a Christian, you have worded your question about "rejecting theism" to indicate that your position takes theism as the null hypothesis. This statement is profoundly interesting because it reveals a bias--one I claim you have and yet that you might try to claim that I have.

In short, then, for levels of confidence that suit me in this question, I fail to see sufficient reasons to accept the hypothesis of theism. Since Christianity is predicated on theism, I fail to accept Christianity as well. Indeed, while I feel I could talk at length in the realm of your strength--Christian theology--to the reasons I find Christianity in particular to be unacceptable nonsense, I actually feel that it is beneath commentary entirely because (1) I see no reason to accept theism, and (2) Christian theology, as viewed from the outside, is easily dismissed even while accepting theism, as billions of Muslims, Hindus, etc., demonstrate handily.

For me, then, since I see no empirical reasons to accept theism but see billions of people who do accept it anyway, the real question comes down to "why do people accept theism?" Certainly it's not because it's true, in the usual sense of the word, and particularly not because it is demonstrably true. So here I can talk about my personal reasons for ignoring theism as being essentially irrelevant, beyond the fact that I have no reason to believe that it is true.

I don't mean to suggest that the reasons that people accept beliefs in a deity are simple, but there are rather broad categories of psychosocial needs that are met by religion with "God" as the emblematic figurehead. These needs can be listed briefly: attribution (including meaning), control, esteem, sociality (including an overarching moral framework), and perhaps a need for some kind of mysticism or spirituality. In part, on the personal level, I do not accept theism because I do not think theism sufficiently provides for these needs. In fact, I find that theism often stands in the way of meeting these needs deeply, hence my failure to accept theism resulted from a long-term search that I can now understand in light of attempting to satisfy many of these psychosocial needs for myself.

To wit, I find science does a better job of providing my basic attributional needs, i.e. explanations for phenomena. Indeed, suggesting a supernatural agent cause does nothing but leave open the question of "how?" which off theism can be worded "how does/did this happen?" and on theism "how does/did God do this?" Those questions are functionally identical although the latter contains the famous unnecessary hypothesis. For my deeper attributional needs, a sense of meaning or purpose, I'm content understanding that my meaning in life is inherently subjective and therefore up to me to create and appreciate for myself. The theistic hypothesis adds literally nothing but unnecessary, confounding, and ultimately meaningless questions to this process.

For the other needs, control, esteem, and sociality, I have other means of satisfying them as well. I find my needs for control met in the abundant evidence we have for human resilience in the face of adversity, including my own, although I would suggest that my explorations with Buddhist non-attachment were very helpful in realizing that I need far less control over circumstances than I thought I did. My sense of esteem is intertwined with these other needs and is often quite stable. As to any "spiritual" needs--which I also see as being psychological--I feel even more successful exploring that aspect of my mind without a hypothetical "God" to represent attribution for various experiences than I did when I still believed some "God" is out there.

Now morality, though, as an avenue to social cohesion, is a big kicker. It is my studied opinion that theological attempts to explain morality fail utterly in that their roots are often tied to authoritative dicta instead of real-world salience. Indeed, I often think of theism as an avenue to "morality lite," with lite meant in precisely the same way as with  "lite" beer. I'm coming to see "God" (as defined as moral perfection with agenticity) as an emblem of a conceptual ideal within a particular moral framework, whether or not this moral framework has any grounding in salient notions like care and harm, or well-being and suffering. Of course, this isn't all that is meant by "God," which is something of an amalgam of many ideas. This is merely how I'm seeing the "moral perfection" aspect. At any rate, I don't need to apply agency, divine authority, or supernatural origins to these concepts in order to achieve the goals of "being good" and meshing with the social framework into which I was born.

So, to summarize: your question doesn't technically make sense, as "rejecting theism" would only be possible if I already assumed it. I do not accept theism, though, because I see a paucity of evidential reasons to believe any such agent is required and because it has been my consistent experience that I can meet my intellectual and psychosocial needs vastly better without the hypothesis of any "God" of any kind.

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Again, I encourage you to  take a moment and visit Dr. Rauser's blog and read his response (Link). I am deeply grateful to Randal for the opportunity to have shared my thoughts on his platform and for the time he took to engage what I had to say.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Machines

Imagine for a moment that some mad scientist were to invent a machine, which we'll also suppose came out in a number of versions. The design of the machine is quite clever: it takes human beings in, does its functions, and when they come out the other end, the people are changed, almost like new people.


By and large, the machines produce changes in people that are positives. After going through a machine, people are imbued with a sense of meaning in life; they feel that they have answers to important questions; they have a more centered sense of esteem; they feel a greater degree of control over their personal circumstances; they have a greater social connection and adhesion to other people that came from the same machine, close versions of their own machine, and even people from other machines more heavily modified; and, in most respects, they come out of these machines by many objective measures as kinder, nicer, more satisfied individuals.

Indeed, research shows that people who are put through a machine self-report higher life satisfaction and happiness, and they simultaneously show a tendency to live longer, more fulfilled lives. The changes are often described as bringing great comfort and hope to people who go through them. The machines themselves are considered something of miracles for these reasons, and many, many people sign up to go through the machines (though most are put through by their parents early on to ensure what they feel is maximum benefit).

But, on the other hand, the machines have a certain error rate in producing their outputs of "improved" people. Indeed, the error rate is proportional to the degree with which the beneficial changes occur and the fastness with which they hold. Suppose, for instance, that one very popular version of the machine, perhaps Version 3.0, and the related variants 3.x, have an error rate of roughly 2-5%. A newer, more potent model, particularly in creating community cohesion, Version 4.0, has an error rate perhaps as high as 5-10%, though for a variety of reasons, not least the degree of community cohesion Version 4.0 produces, this number proves nearly impossible to determine accurately. Of course, there are a couple of related Versions 4.x as well, similar enough in most regards but not identical in every detail.

Of course, I should clarify the fruits of these errors. Suppose that errors from these miraculous machines produce people who come out horribly disturbed--literally willing to perpetrate violence including murder for patently bad reasons as a result of their defective ride through the machine. They are hostile, demanding, and self-assured with what can only be called a sense of divine right, and this sense provides for them an enormous double standard by which they judge themselves justified in committing whatever their horrors. They stand directly in the path of creating a stable global society, and indeed, they fight between each other, even close cousins, with surprising abandon, sometimes even using self-destruction to destroy their enemies.

Imagine such machines were really invented, that they really exist. The machines reliably produce very positive changes in better than 90% of people on the personal and social level, and they reliably produce dangerous, violent, reactionary, oppositional extremists at a rate of some 5-10%.


How would we respond to such machines in reality?

Would we ban them? Destroy them and the plans to build them? Would we even allow anyone to use them?

Would we recommend strongly against their use? Prevent children from being exposed to them? Plainly display and advertise the potential dangers?

Would we hold the inventor liable for the errors? Would we hold those who put their children, families, or friends liable for them?

Or would we hold them on a pedestal, protect them from any critical review, kowtow to them on personal, public, national, and international levels, acknowledge them as the sole path to virtue, and encourage their their continued widespread use, justifying the errors by saying "it's not the machine; it's the individual that doesn't represent the machine"?


These machines are real. They are ideologies, not least the religions of the world, which reliably produce, and will always produce, extremists. And when these ideologies are religions, we're in the last case, the case of protection.

If we wouldn't stand for such a machine, why should we work so hard to protect these ideologies?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An exchange with Christian apologist Victor Reppert

I sometimes participate in the commentary on John Loftus's blog Debunking Christianity, and this affords me the opportunity to have discussions with some of the apologists that frequent it as well, attracted like moths to a flame, we might say. One such apologist that infrequently comments, at least since I've been following the blog, is Victor Reppert, who essentially follows in C.S. Lewis's line of thinking.

Loftus asked an open question on his blog a couple of days ago: "Question for Discussion: What evidence is there for Christianity?" (Link). Amid discussion about this or that in the Gospels or from the Epistles of Paul--which aren't exactly evidence, a point Loftus has been consistently and clearly able to defend for years--Reppert joined in to make a more sophisticated reply. Here it is, Reppert speaking in green:
Wouldn't it be an idea to come up with a concept of what we mean by evidence before we ask whether we have any? X is evidence for Y just in case Z?

To me, X is evidence for Y just in case X is more likely to exist if Y than if not-Y. But now, if we go with that definition, then the existence of reports that Jesus was resurrected from the dead is unlikely given the claim that Christianity is false. After all, most people do not have people claiming they were resurrected after they died. (Not even Elvis Presley, though there are people who claim he never actually died). But we should expect it to be reported if Christianity is true, so, in and of itself, the existence of resurrection claims on behalf of Jesus are evidence that Christianity is true. Plug it into Bayes' theorem and it ups the probability.

Now, you might say that that's crummy evidence, and in and of itself it surely wouldn't persuade much of anyone. But if you want to deny that it is evidence at all, you need to supplant my definition with one of your own.

I am willing to embrace the logical consequence that the testimony to the Golden Plates is evidence for Mormonism. But my view would be that the weight of the evidence is against Mormonism, not that there is absolutely no evidence at all for it. I've, for a long time, been asking for a definition of evidence that allows us to draw the conclusion that there is no evidence for Christianity, a claim I would NOT make even about such patently false claims as Mormonism, or even Scientology.
Okay, it would be nice to "come up" with a concept of evidence, but I would expect that the philosophy of science (and scientists) have this pretty well hashed out already. Perhaps, from Reppert's perspective, we still need to "come up" with one because it doesn't work for establishing that religions like Christianity are true?

In any case, I offered this reply, my interest piqued by his mention of Bayes's Theorem, upon which I've blogged before (which reminds me... I really need to write that piece about how the method I presented before, which I employed following Richard Carrier's use of the theorem, is not the best way to use Bayes's theorem):
Really?

That's evidence to add to the veracity of the resurrection using Bayes's theorem?

Only if you consider it against alternative hypotheses, for example--that people just make up stories about their hero figures. But you feel you've protected yourself from this by saying "most people do not have people claiming they were resurrected after they died." Hmm, don't need most. We only need big heroes, and really only need the death/rebirth theme.

Like...
Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, Osiris, Dionysus, Tammuz, Ra, Ishtar, Persephone, Bari, Dumuzi, Asclepius, Achilles, Memnon, Alcmene, Castor, Heracles, Melicertes, Aristeas of Proconnesus, the boy raised by Elijah (1 Kings 17), the son of Shunammite woman raised by Elisha (2 Kings 4), body thrown into Elisha's tomb (2 Kings 13), and Lazarus, to limit ourselves to well-known ideas in the relevant region preceding the time of the writing of the gospels.

It's pretty hard to look at that list and think "people who wrote the bible would never have thought of that theme unless it really happened to Jesus." Contribution to Bayes's theorem? Not only would it be negligible if argued positive, it should be a hammer blow on the idea that such a story is "evidence" for the resurrection of Jesus, even by your odd definition.
Perhaps I should elaborate briefly upon why Bayes's Theorem is not favorable to Reppert here. Essentially, the existence of other resurrection-type stories that would have been preceding or contemporary with the writing of the gospels indicates that such stories are a likely alternative hypothesis to "someone actually came back to life magically." With evidence of this kind--this many stories, some of which from the Jewish tradition itself and others sharing other similarities with the Jesus narrative--Bayes's Theorem should return a lower posterior probability for the resurrection than whatever prior is assumed. So, erm, go ahead, Reppert, plug it into Bayes's theorem, but don't cheat.

What captured my attention here, leading to this blog post, is how Reppert responded to the above rebuttal.
Why is my definition an odd one? What would you replace it with?
That's all of it. I didn't cut that piece out particularly; it's the whole reply. Out of all of that, all he wants to focus upon is a comment made in passing about his definition? I have already responded and will close this post with my response to Reppert since it makes the major points that I would make from this observation:
First of all, let me note how weak it appears that you've decided only to respond to a nitpicking about a definition instead of to the substance of my argument. In fact, the comment I made about the definition you used was only made in passing, and yet almost inexplicably, it's the only content that you bothered to engage. I say "almost" inexplicably because I have a pretty good guess at the explanation--the usual trick of derail the substance of the conversation to focus on some triviality that may or may not create the appearance of undermining the perception of authority of the person making the argument against you.

Now, I call your definition an odd one because it reads that you would count as evidence anything that is more likely to occur under the conditions. On the one hand, this lets in some specious ideas as "evidence," and this confuses correlation and causation, on the other.

Specious ideas: You already demonstrated this for us. A story of Jesus' resurrection would be more likely if Jesus actually was resurrected. That's relatively undeniable. In strict logic, it reads: "If RESURRECTION, then RESURRECTION STORY." What you're trying to claim is an example of affirming the consequent: "so if RESURRECTION STORY, then RESURRECTION." The implication doesn't go both ways, as my comment clearly illustrated.

If those examples of resurrection-type myths aren't sufficient, perhaps I'll spin a few new ones here and now that consist of "evidence" that a real resurrection happened? You'd reject that as ridiculous because you actually understand that affirming the consequent is logically invalid--except when it comes to something you want to have established. This is why I call faith a cognitive bias.

Correlation and causation: As is well known, performance on certain kinds of intelligence tests come out remarkably higher for people with larger shoe sizes than for people without. This would mean, by your definition, that we might be able to conclude that larger shoes (or feet) imply more success on certain kinds of intelligence tests (with the implication of "more intelligence"). This inference is incorrect, though, because it confuses correlation and causation. Hopefully you'd expect it? Can you explain it? I can: adults, on average, wear bigger shoes than kids, and the tests referred to happen to be IQ tests written for adults, ones that kids have a hard time understanding.
Since the theme I want to convey in this post, aside from some notes about Bayes's theorem, is this diversionary tactic, the only thing I'll add to this response is that the usual trick of derailing the conversation would proceed this way if engaged in: Nitpick about the comment about the definition, get me to offer an alternative definition, and then waste time arguing over which definition is better. This allows the apologist to continue talking, continue avoiding his burden of proof, and appear knowledgeable (about words and perhaps scripture), all without adding the first bit of real substance to the conversation.

I consider this more evidence, by decent standards, that a (perhaps the) primary goal of religious apologetics is to distract from the apologist's burden of proof.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Handling those who mishandle Freedom From Religion Foundation challenges

I suppose it was inevitable since I live in the Southeastern US--a Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) legal challenge came relatively nearby. Predictably, a local paper published the story, and predictably Christian Supremacists argued to "put prayer back in" where it hasn't even been taken out. Equally predictably, atheists and secularists (not all of whom are atheists) argued with the Christian Supremacists--many of whom bizarrely think that the Constitution is an "unwanted outside influence" because the FFRF happens to be located in Wisconsin. I want to write a short piece here highlighting how to handle these situations better.

First, let me note that it is imperative for everyone involved, particularly secularists, to remember that the full weight of the law and legal precedent falls on the side of secularism, barring the bizarre ruling in Texas regarding bible verses on high school cheerleading banners. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the American Constitution has been clearly interpreted for decades to mean that it is unfairly exclusionary and thus illegal for public schools, county or city councils, school boards, etc., to open their meetings with a sectarian prayer of any sect or creed. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has been consistently interpreted, with numerous examples of precedent, to be the legal backbone of this issue, and this is where we'll find the correct argument to make.

The point is clear, then. The point is equal protection before the law, consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to the First Amendment.

Since the law is relatively unambiguous in this case, the Christian Supremacists intent on making prayer a part of every meeting have only one main goal: cloud the discussion with red herrings to prevent anyone from focusing upon the law. This behavior is exactly what we see, and often, wanting to keep the records straight, secularists and particularly atheists seek to step in and correct these fallacies--which pulls the discussion further away from the proper focus: the law. I'll list a few of the most common red herrings involved here and how they pull the discussion off course.

The Founders (or Framers) Intended: This is almost always the first go-to argument among any relatively savvy defender of the illegal behavior: claim it was part of the original intent of the Founders of the United States and the Framers of the Constitution. This is a black hole. Do not go into it.

First of all, it doesn't matter what the Founders, Framers, or any other 18th century person thought about these matters, intended, wanted, or planned. Their vision, whatever it was, has been clearly elaborated upon and interpreted to mean--with the full weight of law and legal precedent--that the prayers are illegal. Thomas Jefferson himself could speak from his grave and say that's now how he wanted it to go, and it wouldn't matter because Thomas Jefferson would be on the wrong side of American law if he said so. Attempting to argue about their intent gives unwarranted credence to the idea that their intent matters. It doesn't. Point this fact out as often as necessary and don't engage the irrelevant argument itself.

Second, a monolithic original intent of fifty-five disagreeing men from the 18th century cannot easily be determined. Since it cannot be determined without enormous study, a substantive case cannot easily be made via "Founder's intent." We might ask: Which founder? At what point in his life? Why? Good answers to these questions will be very hard to come by and highly contentious. Even with good answers, though, none of this matters. The Christian Supremacists make their case because they cherry pick and appear to sound knowledgeable while distracting from the real legal point at the center of the discussion. This means that they will not respect a carefully researched argument about original intent if it disagrees with their position, and again the idea that the original intent matters is reinforced.

Third, the Founders are relevant to a time, place, and audience that is not timeless: 18th century white men of privilege, primarily. They did not believe in equal protection before the law, in fact, or at least a substantive case can be made that they did not. African slaves weren't freed until the 1860s and didn't get the first shake of anything like equality, particularly in the South, until the 1960s, a battle they still have to fight today. Women weren't even on the map in the late 18th century, having to wait until 1920 to earn suffrage and still having to fight for equality with men today. The Founders did not encode equal protection before the law to all citizens, which had to wait until the Fourteenth Amendment to get any legal traction for men and the Nineteenth Amendment for women. It still doesn't exist in full. We need not listen to the Founders on this point.

The point of this line of argumentation often includes that the First and Fourteenth Amendments have been interpreted against the Founders' original intentions or wishes. So what? The Founders' (here, Thomas Jefferson's, specifically) original intentions included "let later generations figure out the problem of slavery." Later generations figured it out by writing the Fourteenth Amendment (along with Thirteen and Fifteen), which applied to the First Amendment gives us what we're talking about here.

The "Founder's Intent" argument is a red herring used to distract the focus from the law of the land and its legal backing in judicial precedent. Our goals in advancing secularism, atheist or otherwise, have to keep our eyes on the ball: the illegality of the behavior being challenged.

The religion is/isn't true! Yes, we know. They don't, though, and this argument is often intractable. More importantly, it is a red herring from the relevant point about the illegality of the behavior. It doesn't matter if the religion is true or not in a secular society, and if a secular society could exist with a religion that is demonstrably true, it wouldn't even matter then. The law gives no preference to any sect or creed and thus no difference in treatment to anyone holding any sect or creed. This argument, then, is an unnecessary distraction that requires very little attention.

How would you like Muslim prayers? This is an often-given rebuttal by secularists, not an argument made by the Christian Supremacists themselves, and while we might hope that it would drive home an important point with them, it usually doesn't. Meanwhile, it creates another tangential discussion that distracts from the point about the legality of the matter.

It's important to note, because many Christian Supremacists will raise the point that in a different situation they'd be okay with Muslim (or other) prayers, that any sectarian prayer is still illegal for the same reason. It doesn't matter what they'd be okay with. What matters is that the core of secularism says that it is not okay at all for any sect, majority, minority, or otherwise. If this point comes up, it can be used to remind the point that all sectarian behavior is inappropriate, so the point they're trying to make is moot.

The only exception is if they were to offer equal time for prayer or invocation from every sect. There are tens of thousands of them. To represent all of them with one minute each would require more than a month with no breaks at the beginning of every meeting and would still exclude all nonreligious people. This is obviously impossible and still illegal because it excludes all nonreligious people.

Waste of valuable time and money: Indeed, it is. So since the law is unambiguous, instead of arguing this point, we should simply urge our agencies to concede to the FFRF challenges, follow the law, and stop wasting time and money. In a secular society, no one pays taxes--including the few dollars that might go toward facilitating a thirty-second prayer before a city council meeting--for the promotion of any sect. In fact, no one can pay taxes for that even if they want to because it would require a law directing taxpayer money for sectarian use. Engaging this point beyond a reminder of the law is unnecessary, however obvious it is that the cost of the lawsuit (which the local government will lose based on the clarity of the law and legal precedent) is an utter and irresponsible waste of taxpayer money.

Prayers don't have to be engaged in, so freedom is preserved:  This is less a red herring and more an attempt to reframe the discussion to be about religious freedom instead of about equality under the law. It needs to be addressed as it is actually key to understanding the proper legal argument. In fact, this argument carries some red herring with it because the argument is not over "freedom" but rather over equal treatment before the law.

So, no, freedom isn't preserved. The relevant freedom is that everyone in the country gets equal treatment before the law. This is impossible to maintain when a sectarian prayer, rite, ritual, etc., is engaged in or sectarian symbolism is displayed in a public place since by definition "sectarian" implies that there is an in-group (the sect) and an out-group (everyone else). It is not possible for a person of Group B (another sect or none) to have full confidence in the idea of equal protection before the law if the commission explicitly engages in behaviors that indicate a commitment to Group A (here, some brand or another of Christianity) at any point during the meeting. Equal treatment has already been compromised the instant anything gives even an ambiguous indication that there may be sectarian preference.

The correct argument:

The focus should stay on the law, and arguments that arise should aim to keep that focus clear. The law is not ambiguous. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been interpreted via the Fourteenth Amendment to extend equal treatment under the law. Any attempts to include a sectarian prayer automatically violate this legally protected and worthy principle, and ignoring the FFRF challenge will result in a costly, wasteful lawsuit that will be lost after wasting taxpayer money and bringing embarrassment to the community.

My goal with this has been to urge secularists, religious and nonreligious, theist and atheist, to keep the focus on the proper aspect of the discussion when these discussions arise. The law is on our side.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Revisiting my case that the existence of God is infinitely unlikely

"There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."


"Probably no God," but how unlikely is it?

Richard Dawkins, pictured above, is famous for his Spectrum of Theistic Probabilities, a scale from one, absolute belief, to seven, absolute unbelief. He remarks that a six on this scale is identifiable as "De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. 'I don't know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'" Dawkins referred to himself as a 6.9 on this scale. I wanted to explore what "short of zero" means.

In God Doesn't; We Do, I suggest that the existence of God is infinitely unlikely. This is handled by modern mathematical formalism by a term known as "almost surely," which means true off a set of "measure" zero. Measure is a modern mathematical term that generalizes the length of intervals and is the standard accepted basis for analysis (the field in which calculus lives) at present. To avoid a long, detailed, and abstract mathematical discussion, the idea is that places where the claim is false contribute literally no weight, even if they can be said to exist. In other words, the "very low probability" need not actually be "short of zero."

My essential claim in God Doesn't; We Do is that the probability that God exists is zero, almost surely, with the suggestion that Dawkins's position is more accurately 6.999... (which happens to be 7), without any loss of philosophical defensibility on his part to take that stand. Normally, I would say I have to prove such a claim, but the point I want to clarify here is that I don't think I actually do. That, indeed, is the trust of the argument I make in God Doesn't. Technically, I make this argument on a conception of God that does things and don't particularly need to make a case against abstract ideas called "God."

Burden of proof?!

Yes, I know. I accuse theologians of shifting the burden of proof (as an art form that defines their field) all the time, and it looks like that's what I'm doing here. It's not. I'll present an argument here attempting to establish that claim, noting the question-begging fallacy all along. Question begging means assuming the conclusion, for those unfamiliar, and it can be remarkably subtle in occurrence.

So, let's start big and work to small. We should all agree that it is question begging to state a priori that the probability that there is a God (or some specific God) is 100%. If you assume God exists from the outset, you are, by definition, begging the question. So the probability that God exists must be less than 100% to avoid philosophical indefensibility. N.B.: This assumes a position that understands probability as measurement of our state of knowledge. There are others that I am not employing here.

What about 50%? This is what Dawkins calls a four on his spectrum, and it is a state of pure agnosticism, given the nota bene at the end of the previous paragraph. I don't think we can honestly hold this position without begging the question, though, in the same way that I do not think that I can conclude that the fawning eyes of the women in lingerie catalogues have a 50% chance of being indicative of those women being in love with me. It is the case or it isn't, but that need not imply equal likelihood. Unless we start with God, it is very difficult to conclude that anything constitutes evidence for God, and if we look at the hole carved by science in attributional necessity for God, 50% seems a bit steep.

My job here, though, tempting a trap as it might be, is not to make the case that there isn't a 50% chance that God exists. It's to point out that it is the job of the person claiming that there's a 50% chance that God exists to be able to establish that. I don't feel such a number is warranted in any way whatsoever by the evidence of the world, and "it is or it isn't" is a fallacious way to think about the matter. Since "God" is the hypothesis of the theist, though, it is the theist's job to establish that 50% is a reasonable number. What case can be made for this without begging the question?

Fifty percent was the hurdle. The same argument applies going downward, so we can skip quickly to 5%. Is there a compelling argument that the number that describes the likelihood that God exists is at least 5%? My claim is that it is up to the theist to provide such an argument, or that we are not required to accept that claim.

As Dawkins points out with his "very low probability" in his spectrum, we can slide to 1% or 0.1% or 0.00001% on this same construction. Where is the argument saying that God's existence is at least that likely? How low is the "very low probability"? I contend that any positive number that a theist puts out requires defense or begs the question. If I wanted to do this in math-speak, for any small number epsilon greater than zero, assuming that the probability that God exists is epislon begs the question without a proper and solid defense.

But, you can't say that?!

The only defense the theist has at this point is "but you can't say that the probability is zero that God exists without proving it!" Well, two responses are warranted. First, I haven't. I said every positive probability begs the question without an argument to support it. Second, actually, I can say that, so long as I qualify it with "the probability is zero, almost surely, that God exists." Since "almost surely" admits wildly unlikely possibility, it does not run afoul of philosophical defensibility.

So, my claim is that unless a substantial argument can be provided that establishes a nonzero, almost surely, probability for the existence of God, theists beg the question to suggest any positive probability. Some "very low probability" can actually be zero, almost surely, then, and Richard Dawkins can describe himself as a 6.999... on his spectrum. Technically, 6.999... equals 7, but since he defined a seven as "Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one,'" perhaps this justifies the use of the nonstandard form of that number as a rhetorical device.