Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is atheism a religion? Is the many-worlds interpretation pseudoscience?

In response to my op-ed piece "A Bright Idea for Atheists" (expanded from a speech I gave at the grand opening of the Centre for Inquiry Ontario), and the essay "Science and God" I wrote for Borders Books to help promote the release, back in 2000, of my novel Calculating God, a friend wrote to me to object to two points I make.

First, he objects to this statement: "Atheism is no more a religion than not playing chess is a hobby."

Second, he objects to my citing of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (which, coincidentally, Lloyd Simcoe discussed in last week's episode of FlashForward, the ABC TV series based on my novel of the same name).

My reply:
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. It all comes down, to me, to what a religion is. For me (codifying here in words off the top of my head what I believe) the defining characteristics of a religion are:

(1) a belief in a supernatural sentient being or beings, whether extinct or extant, that has or had an influence on our own existence, and

(2) a systematic undertaking to communicate with, get the attention of, worship, avoid the wrath of, or otherwise interact with or act in response to the existence of said supernatural being or beings.

I freely admit that others have their own definitions of religion, but for me atheism fails to meet either of the above criteria and therefore is not a religion. (It may be a movement, a club, a cult, a lifestyle, or a community, but it is not a religion.)

And I gently disagree on the possibility of alternate realities, many-worlds, or multiple universes being "a pseudoscience that is not falsifiable and can never be 'proven' nor 'disproven' since the theory itself demands that no information can ever be exchanged between universes."

I invite you to cite where the theory demands that no information can ever be exchanged between universes; it's true that there's no current mechanism for that, but except for the argumentative sleight-of-hand that says "I insist that this theory and all iterations and variations of it have this defining characteristic [that no information can ever be exchanged between universes] because insisting on that characteristic is necessary for me to be able to dismiss this theory as unprovable pseudoscience," I'm unaware of any laws of physics that prevent individual universes within a multiverse ever exchanging information.

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At December 09, 2009 5:39 PM , Blogger Eric Olsen said...


We were having this exact discussion on our last podcast. One of our hosts, Dave, is currently reading and being blown away by "Calculating God". And it spurred some theological debates, of which both of us, as theists, tried offering our imagined "atheistic" rebuttal and quickly realized how dishonest that approach is. It's like Plato making Socrates look like a genius by writing both sides of the debate in "The Republic." But, we both agree that "Calculating God" works so well precisely for the fact that you are an atheist. Keep up the great work!

At December 09, 2009 8:41 PM , Blogger GP said...

The many worlds interpretation is one that is poorly formulated even among physicists... very few people have any idea what it means aside from the pop-culture idea of parallel universes. I read a description once that put it in terms of Schrodinger's cat. Instead of the cat being both alive and dead until you look, it is not the rest of the universe that is a superposition of states---one in which the observer finds a dead cat and the one in which he finds a live one. When the box is opened, it's the universe's wavefunction that "collapses" into one of the two universes. I think this was how Many Worlds was originally developed, not in terms of many actual parallel worlds but in terms of many possible worlds, but somewhere along the way people started taking this idea of another possible world and running with it. The pop culture many worlds interpretation is, much like the big bang theory, quite different from the scientific version.

At December 10, 2009 11:05 AM , Blogger D said...

Atheism is a religion (or at least a faith) for one simple reason:

It runs on faith just as much as any other religion.

Fact: there is EXACTLY as much evidence to disprove the existence of god/gods as there is to disprove it.

Finding scientifically explainable reasons for things that used to be explained as "God's work" doesn't in any way prove that there is no god, it just proves that people don't like saying "I don't know."

I think the real non-religion is actually agnosticism in its pure form, which is where my worldview sits. The basis is that there is some kind of power greater than myself that controls everything external to me. That might be god or gods, it might be physics, it might be complete random chance, but it's something.

And I'm totally comfortable with defining that something as "I have absolutely no idea."

At December 10, 2009 11:43 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

D writes, "Fact: there is EXACTLY as much evidence to disprove the existence of god/gods as there is to disprove it."

You emphasize EXACTLY. So, you either mean that in a measured analysis comparing all the evidence for and against God's existence, they precisely balance out. In which case, what evidence on each side do you cite? It would be astonishing if they exactly counterbalanced each other, and clearly it's a personal judgment call that they do.

Or you mean there's NO evidence for either God's existence or nonexistence, in which case why would one give the notion of a god any special standing? There's no evidence for a giant purple aardvark in orbit around Tau Ceti -- nor is there any evidence against it -- but only a fool would argue that it's just as likely to be there as not, and thus contend that the only reasoned position is to be agnostic on the question of whether said aardvark exists.

At December 10, 2009 12:05 PM , Blogger D said...

First, let me correct myself. I meant to say " there is to prove it."

I will say it's a personal judgment call that the evidential amounts perfectly balance, in that there is none on either side that I've ever heard of. Show me a Babel fish and I'll change my stance, though.

I completely agree that only a fool would argue that it's "just as likely as not" that there's a giant purple aardvark in orbit around Tau Ceti.

However, a fool would also say with complete certainty that there is "absolutely no giant purple aardvark in orbit around Tau Ceti" without at least having some Hubble telemetry to consult on the matter.

The point I'm trying to make here is that certainty of knowledge in light of a complete lack of evidence pointing one way or another is the very definition of faith, which is in turn the linchpin of religion.

I'm not saying that the only reasoned position is to be agnostic about the aardvark, but I am saying that the furthest I'll go with the argument is to say that I think it's astronomically unlikely (pun a little bit intended) that the Tau Cetian aardvark deity exists because I don't have any evidence to say otherwise (lacking a current video feed of what's going on in the area). The same goes for the existence of god as a supernatural being; I think it's very unlikely, but I'm not willing to completely rule it out based on the lack of evidence in either direction.

At December 10, 2009 12:18 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

D, why do you define "atheism" as a position of absolute certainty? Do you define Darwinism, Fiscal Conservatism, Liberalism, a belief in animal rights, pro-life/pro-choice, those who favour the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, those who hold that the even-numbered STAR TREK movies were better, or any other intellectual or cultural position as one that a person must subscribe to as an unassailable absolute if one is to claim allegiance to that view?

If not, why, out of all systems, do you insist on defining atheism as such? Except that defining it thus is necessary to making your argument that it's a religion work, I can see no reason to hold atheism -- or any other position -- to this rigid standard.

Indeed, I know many religious people who have doubts and are flexible in their position; why would you say, alone among positions, that atheism is a rigid, absolute, unwavering, inflexible, immutable position?

It's perfectly possible to adopt atheism as one's working position, based on a reasoned assessment, without it being an act of blind faith.

At December 10, 2009 12:39 PM , Blogger D said...

That's all entirely fair, and I suppose that I should clarify that my definition here is pretty limited to the highly devout. There are all manner of people out there who will tell you with complete and unwavering certainty that god does or does not exist, and they believe it to the point that large parts of their worldview would collapse if proven wrong. I'm in large part speaking about them.

However, I think atheism comes much closer to being a position of certainty than you give it credit for because by nature, it's based on a binary proposition. There either is the existence of a higher being, or there isn't. All the other groups/beliefs you mentioned have huge tracts of grey area in which to function with the possible exception of the "even numbered Star Trek movies are better" people.

The dividing line then, seems to be certainty. That guy who stands outside of churches and ridicules the people inside as idiots and sheep? It's a religion for him, he's even proselytizing.

Those who take atheism as a rational view based on a preponderance of evidence? Not a religion.

Therefore, I revise my original statement and say that atheism CAN be a religion if an individual decides to treat it as such.

At December 10, 2009 2:16 PM , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

However, a fool would also say with complete certainty that there is "absolutely no giant purple aardvark in orbit around Tau Ceti" without at least having some Hubble telemetry to consult on the matter.


Come on. You'd be a "fool" to say this? Let me go on record as a fool. Since there's no air in space, I don't need a Hubble telescope. Deduction or induction from known data is a reasonable position. Given, as Robert puts it, that it's implicitly acknowledged that this is a reasonable working position, like all "facts" in science, I can deduce from known data that there is no god in heaven just as there is no aardvark in orbit. Maybe I'm wrong. But there is certainly more "evidence" for this reasonable working position, even if it is indirect evidence, than for the alternate position.

On another note, Robert, your op-ed about the unfortunately tendency of atheists to be aggressive and disrespectful is a fine piece of writing and an underrepresented viewpoint, sadly, in the current "discussion" in the US sparked by all those recent books.

At December 10, 2009 2:47 PM , Blogger Ron Friedman said...

Rob, if you look at the dictionary definition of atheism, “D” and your other friend may have a point. Atheism is not a religion, but it can be a belief system.

1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009

I consider myself a skeptic or an agnostic more than a hard core atheist, simply because I don’t know if God / gods exist.

By the way, I loved Calculating God.

At December 10, 2009 8:14 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Jonathan Ball, thank you. And I agree it's an underrepresented viewpoint. I'm hoping to rectify that a bit more in April 2011; I will be a featured speaker at the American Atheists Annual Conference then. :)

At December 11, 2009 10:38 AM , Blogger Silverfish said...

I'm sure you will give them something to think about at your talk, Rob.


At December 11, 2009 11:26 AM , Blogger g d townshende said...

Of course there are Atheists who object to their position being defined in terms of theism. It's been some time since I read about this, but, as I recall, the term they prefer is Rationalist.

There are also those who give "religion" the loose definition of being "a way of life" so that all human beings, no matter what their position, are "religious." With that definition in hand, they go on to posit that atheism is as religious as Christianity or Islam or < insert the religion of your choice here > and Darwinism is as religious as Creationism.

My own position: I'm a theist who, for many months now, has been moving more and more towards atheism. There are many reasons for my "conversion," if you will, but especially enlightening for me was reading a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of prayer, which included, as I recall, a scientific study comparing the likelihood of one group of people recovering from a given health ailment as a result of prayer to another group recovering from the same ailment without prayer. (It's been some time since I read it, so I don't recall all the specifics.)

At December 11, 2009 11:35 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

"g d" (we won't try to guess what the initials stand for in this context!) makes good points. In the writing world, lots of writers of things other than made-up stories object to being defined by what they're not: the term "nonfiction" is frowned upon for similar reasons.

At December 11, 2009 11:39 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Eric Olsen, thank you very much for your very kind words. I really do try to be sympathetic to all well-considered points of view.

As my once-blind character Caitlin Decter (a math genius) muses in WATCH (the second WWW book, coming in April 2010):

There were things in math that she saw when others didn't -- things that were so very clear to her but that her classmates couldn't see. Could God be like that? Could Bashira really be detecting something that, for whatever reason, Caitlin just wasn't wired to see? Hell, for most of her life, she hadn't been wired to see anything -- but she'd had no trouble accepting that others did see; she never for a moment thought it was all some big con job, some lie or delusion. It never occurred to her to say to Stacy, "Oh, yeah, sure you see the moon, Stace. And can you see the monkeys flying out of my butt?"

At December 11, 2009 1:38 PM , Blogger g d townshende said...

"g d" (we won't try to guess what the initials stand for in this context!)

LOL! They're just my initials. My first name is Gary. :)

At December 11, 2009 8:16 PM , Blogger Erthjeeni said...

I found the purple One here:

I like the many worlds interpretation, but science is an act of faith for me.

At December 11, 2009 8:17 PM , Blogger Evan said...

If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair colour.

At December 11, 2009 9:16 PM , Blogger g d townshende said...

Oh, I'd like to add that the scientific study on prayer to which I referred earlier was referenced at Why Won't God Heal Amputees? In fact, this is the page where the studies are mentioned and linked to.

At December 15, 2009 10:49 AM , Blogger Sean OBrien said...


I claim there is a difference between atheism and agnosticism. Therefore what you define as atheism is actually agnosticism. You appear to blur the distinction to the point where they are identical. Perhaps you believe they are identical, but they are not.

Agnosticism chooses not to practice or discuss deep religious issues. Atheism provides a clear answer to the following questions: Is there a God, was God born as a human, is prayer efficacious, is spirituality a valid lifestyle?

Atheism answers "no" to these questions, belittling the beliefs and practices of perhaps 4 billion people.

Anyone who attempts to answer those 4 questions is practicing religion. Anyone who declines to discuss those questions is an agnostic.

At December 15, 2009 11:44 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

You're playing rhetorical tricks, Sean. To disagree with someone is not to belittle that person's beliefs, so when you stack the deck and say that atheists are "belittling the beliefs and practices of perhaps 4 billion people," you're being unfair.

(And, even if what you said was true, the majority of the human race once believed that slavery was right and that the sun revolved around the Earth; surely you aren't arguing that the abolitionists and Copernicus, Galileo, and their ilk, should have shut up and gone along with the crowd, rather than "belittling" the majority.)

And if one is to argue about what words mean, one should actually open a dictionary. Atheism and agnosticism have precise meanings, and no dictionary I know of defines agnostic the way you do. Technically, an agnostic is "a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and probably unknowable" (Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary), or, broadly, "one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or nonexistence of God or a god."

Millions of agnostics discuss deep religious issues all the time. For that matter, lots of deeply religious and spiritual people consider such matters to be private, and don't discuss them.

If you want to post again about what these words mean, include citations of dictionaries or other recognized reference works that back up your assertions, please. Otherwise, you're just being Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland, asserting that words mean whatever you want them to mean.

At December 17, 2009 1:04 AM , Blogger v_jurado02 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At December 17, 2009 3:46 AM , Blogger James said...

Yes, but Rob, did you read my last email reply (no worries if you haven't yet!).

a.) Everett (inventor of the multi-worlds idea) insisted that no information could ever be exchanged between the universes, which is why he was not permitted to include it in his Princeton doctoral thesis because multi-worlds is not a scientific theory (it is neither testable nor falsifiable). This is (one reason) why Schrodinger and Wheeler rejected it.

b.) Penrose did a great job of mathematically demonstrating that alternate realities collapse within 1/37 second of their creation.

c.) I dispute that belief in 'God' is analogous to belief in a purple space aardvark. You could definitely make a case that believing in a specific VERSION or ANTHROPOMORPHISM of 'God' is kinda like believing in the aardvark. But we're not talking about specific religious doctrines here, which attempt to debate the _nature_ of 'God.' We're talking about atheism versus theism in general. I don't think that most theists presume to understand much, if anything, about the _nature_ of 'God' at all (except for Palin-esque extremists, but they are basically just idol-worshipers).

The theist position simply says "I recognize the existence of a causal creative element behind the universe. He/she/it could be a personal intelligence, impersonal force, or something else altogether, which we call 'God' for lack of a better term." I see that as a statement of basic causal logic, recognizing the very heart of all scientific inquiry, which is that all things in the universe must have a cause. To say "the big bang / the universe itself has NO cause" does not strike me as very scientific; it's like saying "this new pandemic that's spreading through Asia has NO cause." I guess one COULD believe that, but it would be a statement of faith, not science or reason.

At December 17, 2009 8:11 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

v_jurado02, since when is the position that slavery is wrong a "PROVEN FACT" (to copy your capitalization)? It is a belief, not a fact; it's a belief I hold dearly, but it's not a fact.

You write, "I believe in God. and to say i am wrong is very belittling considering you have no way to prove your belief against mine."

You can substitute anything at all for "in God" in the above sentence and have it be semantically the same; in other words, you want to have the unassailable right to believe whatever you want to believe even in the absence of evidence, without you being required to prove your claim to others; more, you want the right to claim umbrage when others take a different position.

In fact, no one claimed anything to your face; no one said, "v_jurado02, I disagree with you;" you clearly googled and found your way here after sniffing around the Internet looking for anyone anywhere who might hold a position other than yours. Sorry, but the world doesn't work that way: people other than you may state their worldview, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with you; if you feel "belittled" by the fact that the whole world doesn't share your perspective on everything, well, that's your problem, not the rest of the world's.

At December 17, 2009 8:33 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

James, you wrote:

>> The theist position simply says "I recognize the existence of a causal creative element behind the universe. He/she/it could be a personal intelligence, impersonal force, or something else altogether, which we call 'God' for lack of a better term." I see that as a statement of basic causal logic, recognizing the very heart of all scientific inquiry, which is that all things in the universe must have a cause. To say "the big bang / the universe itself has NO cause" does not strike me as very scientific; it's like saying "this new pandemic that's spreading through Asia has NO cause." I guess one COULD believe that, but it would be a statement of faith, not science or reason. <<

The sneaky part of that, old boy, is that you slip in the word "creative" as if it were just another way of saying "causal" in your first sentence, but then by the second turn "creative" into implying a being who is the creator: "which we call 'God' for lack of a better term." And then you ramp it up and say, see, God must exist, or it's not science.

Try it this way, without the semantic legerdemain, and you'll find few scientists who disagree: "I recognized the existence of causality in the universe; events have causes."

THAT (not what you said) is a statement of basic causal logic, and, indeed, most scientists would quite comfortably go on to say from that, "the big bang did indeed have a cause; there was a process or processes that led to it."

But you want to slip in that the cause MUST be "something which we call 'God' for lack of a batter term." Nope; that's where it stops being reasonable -- when you insist that your loaded term has to become part of the discussion.

The argument for causality does NOT necessarily devolve to an argument for anything remotely like God, and to slide the word into the argument, even with handwaving that pretends ever so briefly that you aren't ("impersonal force"), isn't fair.

In point of fact, very, very few scientists or lay people would call an impersonal force God; we DON'T "lack a better term" for those; we have all sorts of terms for them: "impersonal force" itself is one, "law of nature/physics" is another, "phenomenon" is a third.

What one actually might be able to say without much contradiction is, "I recognize the existence of causality in the universe. Causality might be the result of a personal intelligence (which we call 'God' for lack of a better term), or an impersonal force (which we don't call 'God') or something else altogether (which we also don't call 'God')."

But to conflate God and causality is not a position that you've actually proven, and you don't GET to call it a proof by simply asserting that your original formulation is "a statement of basic causal logic, recognizing the heart of all scientific inquiry." The way I said it above is close to that; the way you phrased it simply isn't.

At December 17, 2009 10:14 AM , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

I don't know why everybody is talking about belief. Once the word "God" is thrown out, and used in its Christian context, the issue becomes an issue of faith, not belief. The (Christian) theist position is not that one believes in God (thinking there is a God despite proof) but that one has faith in God (knowing in one's heart that there is a God, proof or knowing in one's mind being unnecessary). Clearly many of the people who proclaim "belief" are actually professing "faith" and attempting, for some reason I don't understand, to make this position seem rational on scientific grounds. What belittles the theist position is not the atheist position, but their own insistence that the uncertainty inherent in the scientific notion of a "theory" is somehow relevant to religious thought, in regards to a God they simultaneously profess to believe in as an article of faith (making the theist position seem weak and theists themselves seem shaken and uncertain).

If we just replaced the word "God" with another word, like "Ialdabaoth" -- and limited this "creator's" role to simply that, being the creator/cause of the Big Bang, moving the discussion of God's existence fully into the scientific realm, which appears to be the demand made here by theists -- then it would become an unsatifactory discussion because it's clear that the existence of some demiurge that would explain the cause of the Big Bang and thus serve as a creator-god is NOT what a theist has in mind when s/he talks about God. As well, Ialdabaoth is an instantly unserviceable "explanation" for the Big Bang for an atheist, since it's no different, fundamentally, from saying that "Zeus did it" and thus going back to superstitious explainations for currently incomprehensible natural phenomena.

At December 17, 2009 12:03 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Well said, Jonathan!

At December 17, 2009 12:16 PM , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

Thanks Rob, and thanks for maintaining an interesting blog. There's always something fun here, or something to think about. Although it can be a distraction --- must... return... to writing!

At December 17, 2009 5:04 PM , Blogger James said...

Honestly, I didn't mean to sneak anything in. I'm just not sure I understand the position that the prime cause of the universe was not necessarily 'creative.' Seems to me that, by definition, whatever the prime cause was was inherently creative. But I am uncomfortable with speculation about the _nature_ of the prime cause (whatever word we use) being conflated and entangled (pun intended) with a general discussion about atheism/theism:

"In point of fact, very, very few scientists or lay people would call an impersonal force God."

But I’m not convinced of that. Einstein did just this. He believed in God, and used that word, but thought God was an impersonal force. There're a lot of friends I have who feel that way as well -- I would venture to say maybe even the majority of my circle of friends. In this New Age-y era, there's a significant (and growing) population of spiritual people who grok that there's a higher force at work in the universe, but who do not necessarily believe that force is a personal being. I even know a number of ‘religious’ people -- Unitarians, Jews, and even some Anglicans -- who think of the cause as a force. Most of them I know refer to this as 'God,' and I can't discount them as statistical exceptions.

You guys are putting forth what physicist Amit Goswami calls the "straw God" argument. Basically, he says that this is a trick of logic, because the argument is based upon atheists defining what the theists are saying. I.e., atheists insist that 'God' is a 'loaded term' and therefore they try to force the debate into a discussion about whether or not it can be logically demonstrated that 'God' is a specific personal being. That is an easy debate for atheists to win, because logic can fairly easily demonstrate that this "straw God" they have set up can be reduced to a matter of faith only, not logic. But when one tries to discuss the idea that 'God' does not necessarily mean a specific personal being, then atheists tend to get bothered and try to swing the debate back over to an argument about how there is no evidence for a personal God.

In other words, athiests are insisting upon telling thiests what theists are saying, then the atheists tear _that_ position down. But that argument wouldn't be permitted in any forensics class. You may not tell the other party what they are saying, create an over-simplified model of their position, and then attack _that_ position. Well, I guess you can, but you're not going to win many points with that type of reasoning (which is why, I think, many theists feel that atheists are often an insulting group).

At December 17, 2009 5:14 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Well, then, James, tell us EXACTLY what you mean by God; otherwise, you're doing the opposite of the straw-God position: you're saying God can be ANYTHING AT ALL, and then asserting that therefore you HAVE TO AGREE that anything at all can exist.

To most people (indeed, rounded to the nearest percent, I'd say to either 99% or 100% of humanity), the term God refers to a self-aware, conscious, intelligent being who is or was volitionally interventionist in the affairs of the material universe. That's not "a staw God," that's just God, period.

If you say the laws of science and rationalism require us to acknowledge that such a God exists, the burden is on you to make that case, and so far, I don't see that you have.

On the other hand, if you're just saying, "God is my special name for causation," that's fine, but it's a statement about you, not about the fundamental nature of reality. :)

At December 17, 2009 5:26 PM , Blogger James said...

"If you say the laws of science and rationalism require us to acknowledge that such a God [self-aware, conscious, intelligent] exists, the burden is on you to make that case, and so far, I don't see that you have."

I don't suggest that at all. Science and reason will never shed insight into the nature of the cause. That is for speculation. I fully acknowledge that there is not a scientific basis for individual opinions. I am saying that God is a special name for causation, for a very large group of people. Some believe it is personal, others believe it is impersonal.

Although frankly, I think the whole "personal being / impersonal force" question is moot, because these are classical physics/biology concepts that cannot be attributed to something which, by definition, would not be classical. I think God is likely altogether different from anything we can imagine. However, I think it is healthy and important to speculate, because that is our inquiring nature.

For example, if we saw a ball fly into the room, we'd all agree that something caused it. If we couldn't see outside the door, we'd debate who or what threw that ball in. We'd probably never find out for sure, but the discussion would be healthy and -- who knows -- somebody might, in time, stumble upon a fairly accurate idea of the force's nature. I suspect the majority of people would feel that it is _most likely_ that an intelligent person threw the ball in (granted, without being able to prove that), especially if the ball appeared to have a planned trajectory (which would be a matter of opinion). Some would dispute that, and would believe that something impersonal (such as the wind) caused it to fly in. Some would say that they have no idea of the nature of the cause, but would find it effective to THINK of the cause in terms that they could wrap their minds around, acknowledging the limitations of this. But I doubt anyone would say that 'nothing' caused it to fly in. Yet at LosCon, that is precisely the argument that I heard time and time again; an athiest stood up and said "Why can't we all accept that the universe just IS; we don't have to assume there's a cause behind it!" (That strikes me as an attempt to shut down inquiry, and leads me to wonder if such people are actually theists who are trying to convince themselves they aren't.) When I pointed out the decidedly unscientific nature of that statement, he tried to fall back on the old-easy-one -- pointing out that "all theists mean 'personal being' when they say 'God.'" At which point a WHOLE bunch of people in the room said "I believe in God, but I think it's an impersonal force." Then the guy didn't know what to say.

In any case, I think we're just talking about two different word definitions here, and probably are actually in agreement. It's a semantic difference.

At December 17, 2009 6:11 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

The problem with the "if we saw a ball fly into the room" argument implying a thrower (or the allied "if you found a watch in the desert" argument" implying a watchmaker) is that it takes a commonplace occurrence and asserts that somehow said commonplace is analogous to something that is sui generis: the creation of the universe is NOT like anything else we have everyday experience of, and neither, for that matter, is the creation of life, and so any argument that essentially says, "Well, every other time we've seen a universe created, a guy with a long white beard did it, so there surely must be a guy with a long white beard doing it this time" doesn't work. :)

(Now, you could argue that something we've never seen before requires a supernatural explanation, but you'd have to make that case based on the uniqueness of the phenomenon, not based on how it's just like everyday occurrences.)

Yes, all events have causes; no, all events do not have persons causing them.

When people talk about a personal God, they mean a God that they personally have (or can have) a relationship with, and I agree that there is much debate amongst even theists about whether such a God exists (or about whether God, if he exists, chooses to have such relationships).

But "personal God" and "God who is a person" (a self-aware, conscious, volitional entity) are not the same thing; there are NOT very large numbers of humans who would accept defining God as a non-self-aware, not conscious, nonentity that does not act willfully (that is, by its own volition); indeed, it becomes very hard to distinguish "God" from "inanimate object" if you accept that definition, and vanishingly few people would accept it.

The statement, "I believe in God, but I think it's an impersonal force" amounts to saying, "I believe in an impersonal force, which I call God in defiance of the way most of the human race understands that term." Far simpler to simply say, "I believe the creation of the universe is the result of impersonal forces" -- why bring the term God into it at all?

(And, pray tell, what term WOULD you use for Biblical-style or Koranic-style God? Does that become a "Super-God"? You leave us no term for what most of the rest of humanity means by "God" if you co-opt the term to be synonymous with "impersonal forces.")

Finally, James, you gotta remember, the audience at LosCon, or any other science-fiction convention, is highly atypical of the human race at large -- which is precisely why we choose to gather together at such conventions. ;)

At December 17, 2009 6:26 PM , Blogger James said...

LOL! Love that. Yes, you're right, I probably associate with deeper thinkers than the norm. There are plenty of non-introspective Palins out there, true. :)

Yes, I personally feel it is _most likely_ that the causal force is intelligent. Hoyle, Davies, and Smolin’s odds-of-design numbers have never been effectively contradicted IMO (other than by people who say "The numbers are wrong!" but don't show any math to back that), and therefore, as you have pointed out, the only way that the causal force could NOT be intelligent is if there are multiple universes (or if we buy into some astronomically high odds, and I'm not a gambler).

Since I doubt the multi-worlds hypothesis (both because its own originator considered it unfalsifiable, and because I think Penrose’s math is sound and demonstrates that alternate universes have insufficient energy to manifest), I therefore conclude the odds are that the cause is intelligent. Although I fully acknowledge this cannot be ‘proven’ scientifically, I do think that the odds are in favor of it, while totally respecting others' right to disagree.


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