Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mocking the proud mocker, an aside in the Faith Discussion

A fellow, G. Rodrigues, commenting over on Tom Gilson's blog, here on the post where Gilson appears to have taken his end of the Faith Discussion into meltdown, has made an interesting comment. Normally, I'd ignore it, but I wouldn't want anyone to read it and come away thinking that his proud mockery is productive communication. Thus, he gets a moment in the spotlight here too. As he seems to know something of what he's talking about, this response gets a little more technical than some of the others.

Rodrigues is, I guess, a mathematician or philosopher. I also guess, though more certainly, that he is blinded and confused by his faith. That's not too surprising. Faith is a thing that bogs down the mind with pretending to know things that aren't known and that leads to irrational responses when challenged epistemically.
G. Rodrigues, addressing and then quoting me:
@James Lindsay:
Axioms are statements taken to be self-evidently true. Establishing the soundness of an axiom really means establishing that we have good reasons to call such a thing self-evident.
(1) Stop using words of which you quite obviously do not know the meaning of. Only deductions are valid or sound, not statements and certainly not axioms.
It seems like a good time to put this here, since Tom Gilson and crew are so fond of definitions.
Axiom: n. 1. a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true
Perhaps, though, what Rodrigues means here is that axioms are all okay and can't be judged in any way regarding how accurate they are. I guess, in a sense, that's true, but bad axioms lead to bad theorems. I have this odd feeling he would wail that I'm begging the question, though, if I said that I axiomatically assert that God doesn't exist. He might also disagree with me if I tried to axiomatically assert that there are right angles that aren't congruent to other right angles.

G. Rodrigues:
(2) Axioms can be argued for dialectically, but they are not proved, at least not in the usual sense of the word.
Sigh. No joke. See the definition. They can also be utter nonsense, but that doesn't make them worth using. It seems that he's saying that we have no way to judge these things, though, and that seems positively weird.
G. Rodrigues:
(3) A minor quibble, but in the technical sense, no, an axiom is not a statement “taken to be self-evidently true”.
"Taken" as in "treated as if." So, yes, it is. See the definition.
G. Rodrigues:
(4) If a statement is self-evident, then there is nothing to establish. That is kinda the point of the “self-evident” qualifier…
Sigh. No joke. "Taken" as in "treated as if," as in I didn't say that they're self-evident.
G. Rodrigues:
(5) And no, “establishing an axiom” does not mean “establishing that we have good reasons to call such a thing self-evident”. First, there are axioms which are accepted and are far from being self-evident. Second, a statement may be deemed “self-evident”, but if someone disputes its self-evident status what this usually means is that said someone is really disputing is the truth of said statement. But in that case, it does nothing to advance the discussion to establish “that we have good reasons to call such a thing self-evident”; it accomplishes exactly nothing.
IOW, what the heck are you talking about?
See below.
G. Rodrigues (initially quoting me):
The God hypothesis simply assumes a lot of stuff (much of which has been shown to be superfluous) and thus really teeters on the far side of being self-evident.
Huh? The existence of God is not an “hypothesis”, certainly not in the sense of a scientific hypothesis. And assumes a lot of stuff? What does it assume? What superfluous “stuff”? How does an *hypothesis* *assume* anything other than what it purports to explain? And since what is in discussion is precisely whether God exists or not, who the heck is claiming anything about “self-evident”? In God’s name, from where are you pulling this much crap?
I actually agree. It's probably not a hypothesis. It's more than likely an axiom. That means it, meaning God here, is abstract. That's a gigantic point of my book Dot, Dot, Dot. What does it assume? Everything you think is true about God. That's how the axiom works. The superfluous stuff is everything that used to be God's province (usually for giving explanations) that can now be explained without a God. "I have no need for that hypothesis," or something like that.

Speaking of hypotheses, God's existence can be treated like a hypothesis, though, if one doesn't accept the theological axiom that "God exists" (more on this below). Such a treatment isn't favorable to his beliefs, so he's better off keeping it as an axiom, except that that shows that his God is abstract. Yikes (for him).
G. Rodrigues (initially quoting me):
Why, by the way, do you assume that proving God exists must be different than proving something physical, say a keyboard, exists?
Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe because God, if He exists, is not “physical”, and thus the method of proof employed is necessarily different from that of proving the existence of physical things? Just a random thought. But hey, we are the ones pretending to know what we do not know, so what do we know about proving what we pretend to know what we do not know? For all I know (and I am just pretending), we are pretending all the way down, even to the level of pretending we are pretending.
Fascinating. People are truly fascinating.

Can Rodrigues prove God isn't physical, or is this part of his axiomatic construction of him? There are lots of questions here, actually, like: what does all of this non-physical stuff even mean, apart from God being an abstraction? Note, by the way, that everything else we call non-physical and eternal is an abstraction (the universe, even if eternal, is not exactly non-physical). There are also the usual suspects like: how would such a God interface with the physical if he is strictly non-physical, or, as an abstraction does God just not do that kind of thing? Slightly less random thoughts, I suppose.

I lament his sarcasm in his admission about pretending to know, as he is indeed pretending to know things he doesn't know. I don't really know a lot about what he pretends to know but does not, or at least I wouldn't, but these guys talk about and write about it a lot, so I have some inkling as to what kinds of things they think they know but do not. We could start with God, but that's their bag.

I will say, though, that he has given us an interesting take on the nuclear option--"pretending all the way down." (This can be identified with what philosopher Stephen Law called Going Nuclear in that it could be used to level all arguments to the level of pretending to know.) It might be true, in the strict philosophical sense, but it's stupid, useless, and offered in poor faith. Rodrigues almost surely doesn't write, act, or think as if he believes it's true, so let's just pretend he didn't say it to spare him that embarrassment.
G. Rodrigues (initially quoting me):
Is it because you’ve taken on faith that God is immaterial and nonphysical?
It is not taken on “faith”, (if you are using “faith” in the same disingenuous, intellectually dishonest sense Boghossian is) but follows logically by what God necessarily is if He exists.
I wonder: can he prove that God necessarily must be immaterial and nonphysical? Can he do it without exposing God as an axiomatic abstraction, like every other immaterial and nonphysical thing? Good luck to him.
G. Rodrigues (initially quoting me):
If so, I’ve already covered that issue: it’s not possible to conclude that God exists because, at best, the prior plausibility for the hypothesis is indeterminable.
Of course you did (smile). But if you actually did that (giggle), what you did was establish that “it is not possible to establish that God exists”, not anything about whether He is immaterial, which He must be if He exists. And if you did that (laugh), please enlighten us, what are the prior probabilities of the *assumptions* you used in the proof? And if you actually did that (laugh out loud), why do you think we should be worried by it? Since the best arguments for God’s existence are *deductive* arguments, whether or not you have established that the prior probability is “at best” (??) “indeterminable” (roll on the floor laughing) is absolutely irrelevant.
See below.
G. Rodrigues:
This is too ridiculous for words.
Indeed, but I think he has misidentified the antecedent of "this."

Below, which is to be seen, a la "see below":

Of course there are axioms that are used but aren't actually self-evident. And they're argued about, particularly with regard to their soundness, or, if we want to be more precise and careful, their grounding, i.e. whether or not we should take them seriously or use them for anything.

As an expert in these things, Rodrigues is no doubt familiar with the Axiom of Infinity, for instance, which is certainly not self-evidently true, but for the purposes of doing certain kinds of mathematics is taken to be "self-evidently true" (without requiring outside justification) in practice. To do mathematics that requires it, we have to assume it, and for math, that's good enough justification to be getting on with. Of course, math--even by its own admission--isn't exactly tethered to making only salient claims about reality. (NB: We might expect it is sort of "evident" because, for instance, the Peano Axioms of number theory suggest that it might be something important, though they certainly don't establish its truth--see Dot, Dot, Dot for more information.)

The core theological axiom (really axioms, plural, because it's unlikely that any two believers agree on what theirs mean, at bottom, in all the details) is that God exists. It's a philosophical axiom, not a mathematical one, of course. It carries with it all kinds of interesting premises like that this "God" is a "necessary agent cause of contingent reality" or that "God is the source of objective morality" or that "God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, perfect entity." None of this is self-evident. It's just the definitions (often apparently made ad hoc after less abstract and more mundane conceptions of God get thrashed) that theologians employ in their God-axiom, largely to win enough debates to get to keep talking about this nonsense, so far as I can tell, though impressing the credulous seems to be a part of it as well.

But before we get too far afield, let's come back to the Axiom of Infinity. Note that there are some people (finitists) who reject that axiom, saying it's insufficiently grounded (because we cannot complete the construction of an infinite set) to use in mathematics. These people have done more than complain too! They've gone through the substantial trouble of proving a huge swath of the important theorems of mathematics without it--which in many cases can be identified with doing math in Hard Mode. (They argue essentially all of mathematics that isn't directly about infinity and much of what is can be done without accepting the Axiom of Infinity.)

Maybe the finitists are right--perhaps math can be better captured without requiring an axiomatic acceptance of the actually infinite. Similarly, maybe the axiom(s) that God exists are also superfluous--here, perhaps the fundamental nature of reality is better captured without requiring the axiomatic acceptance of some "necessary agent cause of contingent reality," who happens to be multiply omni-able and the source of objective moral values and ultimate teleology and available to have a personal relationship with everyone who wants it. Just maybe. What with all this inability to establish God outside of believing in God first (that challenge/invitation remains open), God smells awfully axiomatic, but I'm open to solid evidence of the kind Rodrigues says doesn't exist that proves me wrong about that.

Some of us don't treat "God exists" as a valid axiom. Because God is said to interact with the world, that renders the matter salient enough to treat "God exists" as a hypothesis instead of an axiom. Doing so allows us to analyze the question differently. In one way, we can analyze such a hypothesis in a Bayesian manner, which has stood up extremely well in practice when we want to properly assess how confident we can be in a particular claim or claims.

But how would someone assess the plausibility that a God hypothesis is true? The only evidence we have for God quite plainly requires us to look at the evidence via acceptance of the beliefs first! This is really a case where if we wished to do a Bayesian analysis, we have no salient starting point (see chapters 12 and 13 of Dot, Dot, Dot, again).

So, we can either pick some prior willy-nilly or we can admit that when treated as a hypothesis, one cannot be assigned. In the willy-nilly case, there is no way to justify any choice of prior.

(Only almost certainty in one direction or the other can be defended, both values rejected in strict Bayesian analysis. Also, there are very good reasons why almost certain existence is a bad choice--as it could then apply to any fictional thing as well. I argue in Dot, Dot, Dot that almost sure non-existence isn't an automatic death-knell for a hypothesis too because almost sure evidence could potentially overcome it in an application of Bayes's Theorem. Note also that we usually take the position that having to produce almost sure evidence of non-existence, which we would require if we chose almost sure existence instead is on the wrong side of the burden of proof for any existence claim.)

In both cases, the growing body of evidence--slowly chipping away at that which God has traditionally been necessarily responsible for--suggests that such a hypothesis is unnecessary. In fact, this has been a universally one-way street. No scientific explanation has ever been replaced by a theological one, but theological ones have been replaced every time science has touched them (when they're falsifiable). That means in both cases, a Bayesian assessment of God's existence as a hypothesis renders a negligibly low plausibility for accepting it as true.

Rodrigues's way out of this is (a) to mock me and (b) to double-down on the axiomatic conception--God is non-physical, beyond time, beyond space, outside the universe, and so on. Okay, fine. Whatever. He can have it his way. God is an axiomatic, thus abstract, construction. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting for me. Nice abstraction he's got there.

Of course, that Bayesian assessment I mentioned, though, still casts serious doubt on the groundedness of that axiom if we want to say it pertains to the real world. This turns out also to be true of the Axiom of Infinity, which gets some pretty serious fire, especially from finitists, by considering the apparent paradoxes of physical infinities and the real possibility that there are no physical infinities. Mathematicians avoid this problem with honesty: infinity is (very probably just) an abstraction, not real. Move on.

Now perhaps God is really just meant to be an abstraction--an idea in the human mind--what else are we justified in thinking about it? Again, as the idea of God grows increasingly superfluous as an explanatory mechanism, it gets harder and harder to justify accepting any philosophical position that relies upon it.

And I did all of this without even having to point out that Rodrigues has effectively just argued that his God is unfalsifiable, meaning it's a notion beneath taking seriously.

Now, I think, would be a good time to pick yourself up off the floor, Rodrigues.

Editorial note, a few hours later: I originally published this in a slight rush and thus have edited it slightly for grammar and clarity since.


  1. I just read your comments on TC -- it looks like you've partly stunned them with your writing.

    My favorite: "Incidentally, since I find many of [Jesus's] teachings rather misguided, I can’t conclude he’s a good teacher either. C.S. Lewis was right to point out that if he’s not really God, the picture for him is grim. Like I said, I don’t think he was God."

    I love the whole, "Well, what do you believe about God?", and "Well, how do you define faith?" questions to you. I don't know why they think a good response to your (Boghossian's) question would be that, but it's pretty common -- Gilson keeps on coming back to it.

    This was an epic and beautiful takedown of what read like one of the nastier and more superior comments I've read in awhile, btw.

    1. I think our favorites align.
      Incidentally, in this one, it's: "I don't really know a lot about what he pretends to know but does not, or at least I wouldn't, but these guys talk about and write about it a lot, so I have some inkling as to what kinds of things they think they know but do not. We could start with God, but that's their bag."

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    1. James you said on the "Thinking Christian" comment thread:

      You don’t have to prove everything. I’ve only asked you to prove that your foundational premise (axiom, really) is sound before using it. I’ll note that I have no trouble effectively proving the existence (within reasonable bounds on what those words mean) of the keyboard I’m currently typing on. Do that for God, and you can start talking about God in a way that doesn’t reek of pretending to know what you don’t know.

      This strikes me as a very odd comment. It's like saying to a scientist, "Before you can do science you first need to prove that there is a world that is external to our minds that is testable, and that our senses are generally reliable." How can these foundational presuppositions be proven? By their very nature presuppositions are unproven; they are assumed to be true. These unproven presuppositions under-gird other knowledge claims which can be argued for or demonstrated.

      I'm curious how you would go about demonstrating the existence of your supposed keyboard. Can you demonstrate the existence of the keyboard without using any presuppositions?

    2. We've been over this before, Keith, so it's a bit disingenuous for you to have tried to bring it up again.

      No one assumes theism in a vacuum. They assume theism and the world. Those of us who don't assume theism only assume the world.

      It's within the bounds of the definition of axiom to operate on the presumption that the world exists and that we are capable of gathering evidence about it via our senses, etc. Atheists (or if you want to specify more carefully, materialists or empiricists) do it; theists do it too. My request is for them to justify the additional assumption of theism before using it or to admit that they're using it as an assumption, their choice.

      The difference is plain. Note also that science openly admits their use of the basic assumptions of some form of realism and empiricism. Theism refuses to admit that its belief is based upon an unprovable assumption because that gives away the whole game. Additionally note that theism produces absolutely no usable predictions, which could be used to justify it, although this is evidently the case (I know, I have to use that axiom to get here) with science. All theism offers are superficially explanatory statements that don't actually explain anything because they offer no answer to how those things were done.

    3. James A. Lindsay wrote: "We've been over this before, Keith, so it's a bit disingenuous for you to have tried to bring it up again."

      I'm not exactly sure what you're referring to. Please don't get mad I'm just trying to clarify your position.

      James A. Lindsay wrote: "No one assumes theism in a vacuum. They assume theism and the world. Those of us who don't assume theism only assume the world."

      I don't think that everyone assumes the external world, but I'm not going to quibble over this as I think most theists believe this--I certainly do.

      However, I do question your third sentence. I can readily think of a few presuppositions of naturalism such as the belief that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact, and that there is a natural explanation for everything. Just the other day our friend Cal said, "We cannot have evidence FOR a brute fact," in regards to possibility that universe has eternally existed as a brute fact, so here is an example of a non-theist presupposition, that is additional to our shared minimal presuppositions, that can't be proven or falsified.

      If non-theists can assume that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact based based on the assumption that the external world exists then why can't theists, based on shared presuppositions, conclude that God likely caused the world based on scientific evidence that shows the universe is ~13.7 billion years old and the observation that material objects have causes for their state or existence?

    4. Keith, it looks like despite repeated requests for you to clarify your understanding of the terms and concepts you use, you still don't understand what a brute fact is, and the difference between a brute fact and a supposition.

      As I wrote earlier, "We cannot have evidence FOR a brute fact. The brute fact is the evidence. By virtue of its being a brute fact, there is no (currently understood) way to resolve / explain the existence of the brute fact."

      Honestly, the rest of your "question" is just a kind of malformed gibberish. For instance, "If non-theists can assume that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact based based on the assumption that the external world exists..." would take a fair amount of time to unpack, but until you can demonstrate that you understand the terms you are using, or at least appear to make an effort to correcting your understanding, I can't see why your question deserves much attention.

    5. Cal, I don't think that you know what a presupposition is because no non-biased person who knows what a presupposition is could say that the belief in an eternally existing universe with no cause is not one. Presuppose vb: to suppose or assume beforehand; take for granted in advance. Cal, you don't know that universe has always existed or that it has no cause; you are just assuming it because as a non-theist you committed to believing either the universe or the multiverse always existed because you won't say that God is the cause and no sane person thinks that the universe popped into existence un-caused out of literally nothing. You can go on-and-on about not having evidence for a brute fact or that the brute fact is the evidence, but the fact remains that anyone who says that the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact is only assuming or presupposing this because for all we know the universe could both caused and only ~13.7 years old.

      Honestly, Cal, the fact that you didn't touch the other naturalistic assumption tells me that you're avoiding answering my question because you can't answer it without employing special pleading for your side. You're dodging the question because we both know that I have you pegged.

  3. Keith, an inability or unwillingness to correct your understanding makes you seem like a troll. I can point out where you are mistaken, but I can't make you understand it.

    Brute facts are the end of a chain of explanation. That's the wrong end for a (the "pre" part should tip you off) presupposition, which is where one starts. You need to take a deep breath and realize that your continued inability to understand basic terms is affecting your ability to even form a coherent objection.

    1. Cal, I understand that a brute fact is something that can't be explained, but what I don't understand is your position on the assertion the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact. Are you saying that because a universe exists this is evidence that it has always existed and has no cause or explanation?

      By the way, for the sake of advancing this dialogue, I propose tossing out the term brute fact as well as referring to the non-theist proposition as the eternally existing un-caused universe because the term brute fact has been a great distraction.

    2. KR: "[W]hat I don't understand is your position on the assertion the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact. Are you saying that because a universe exists this is evidence that it has always existed and has no cause or explanation?"

      First off, I am not asserting that the universe has always existed -- this is just a misunderstanding on your part. Calling the existence of the universe a brute fact is virtually the opposite of an assertion -- it's an admission that for the purposes of explanation the clearest position regarding the reason the universe exists is one of agnosticism. That's because there's no known way to even theoretically test or verify what could have brought about the universe, and for that reason, although we allow that something else could have created the universe, all that does is push back the question of what created the thing that created the universe. So, and this is basic epistemology, we adopt the process that has served us best for increasing our knowledge -- we accept the fact that, based on our current knowledge, the most we know is that when it comes to existence, the last thing we can't explain is the universe. You can make what you want from that, but that's the actual state of things -- something I'd hardly call an assertion.

      "By the way, for the sake of advancing this dialogue, I propose tossing out the term brute fact as well as referring to the non-theist proposition as the eternally existing un-caused universe because the term brute fact has been a great distraction."

      It seems like you now understand that the term "brute fact" is not a presupposition. If you can start using the term as it's normally understood then please do so, but if you don't agree to the definition found on something like wikipedia or in the philosophy journals then yes, I think you should use some other term.

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    4. Thanks for clarifying your position, Cal. However, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that a brute fact, which is traditionally defined as something that cannot be explained, cannot be a presupposition. The phrase "the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact" is a proposition and like all propositions is either true or false. To see why the proposition about the universe is a presupposition let's compare that one to the propositions: "Bob has eternally existed as a brute fact" and "a world exists that is independent of mind." The proposition about Bob is false because I know that my friend Bob is 40 years old and was caused to exist by his parents Fred and Mary. However, when it comes to the proposition about the universe the truth or falsity of it can't be determined; it may be true or false.

      When we compare the proposition about the universe to the proposition "A world exists that is independent of mind," which we both agree is a presupposition, we can see the similarities between the two. Firstly, we aren't able to determine the truth or falsity or either proposition. Also, both propositions are logically possible. Finally, both propositions can be assumed or presupposed in order to build provable/arguable knowledge on top of the assumed proposition.

      So, we can see the similarity between the propositions dealing with the universe and the world and the dissimilarity between the one dealing with Bob and the others even though two of the three propositions deal with the claim that something is a brute fact. The propositions about the universe and the world are both presuppositions because they are both unverifiable, they are logically possible and they function as a foundation for verifiable knowledge claims. The proposition dealing with Bob is not a presupposition because it is known to be false, it is not logically possible and it is not foundational knowledge. In conclusion, the propositions "the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact" and "a world exists that is independent of mind" are clearly both presuppositions, but the proposition dealing with the world can be assumed by both theists and non-theists while the one dealing with the universe will only be assumed by non-theists.

    5. Keith, what are you trying to salvage here?

      After all this it still doesn't seem like you've really gotten your head around the term "brute fact" yet. Your phrasing around the term remains awkward at best -- truly, I have never, ever heard anyone say something "existed as a brute fact." I think I know what you mean, but it's a twisted use of the term, and if you're going to pains to demonstrate you can use the term correctly now I find it strange you'd continue to torture the phrase like that. And the rest of your comment just seems kind of bizarre to me.

      For instance, you write: "The phrase "the universe has eternally existed as a brute fact" is a proposition and like all propositions is either true or false." But it's odd, to say the least, that your choice for something that must be either true or false is also something that can't be determined to be true or false.

      But it gets even more bizarre. You also write, "The propositions about the universe and the world are both presuppositions because they are both unverifiable..." What? A presupposition is just something that is taken for granted. It's usually a convenience, because if we had to start every discussion with "Do you agree that you exist?" and "Do you agree that there is an external reality independent of your mind?" then things would be very tedious indeed. But presuppositions can also be checkable -- I could presuppose that you like chocolate, for instance, when I say "You're going to love this ice cream!", but that presupposition would be exposed as false when you spit out the ice cream because it tastes like chocolate. So, obviously, presuppositions need not be unverifiable.

      At this point I have to say that I've patient long enough, but it's more than obvious that you don't even know what it is you're trying to say. Until you can sort that out, I don't think there's much point in responding to your comments any further.

      Keep on working on it. You'll get there!