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“There’s No Evidence For The Existence of God”

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I used to think that the title-quote of this blog post was a good rejoinder when people asked me why I didn’t believe in any sort of god. Nowadays, I sort of grimace a little when I hear atheists use that phrase. Because now I consider myself a Bayesian. And for Bayesians, “no evidence” means something a lot different than how other people use “no evidence”.

As a Bayesian, if I say there is evidence for some hypothesis, then this means that P(H | E) > P(H). If I say there is evidence against some hypothesis, then this means that P(H | E) < P(H). Most importantly, as a Bayesian, I don't just update once; I update on multiple pieces of evidence to arrive at a provisional posterior probability about some claim. And it’s provisional because there’s always new evidence to discover. In this sense, and in my opinion, agnosticism is probably the closest mainstream or Traditional Rationality analog to being a Bayesian.

But what could it mean if I say there is no evidence for some claim? And does this apply to the concept of god?

Let’s compare two conditional probabilities: The probability of having some datum given that god exists and the probability of having some datum given the nonexistence of god. P(D | G) and P(D | ~G). So, assuming god exists, what would the most basic evidence be, and would this be more or less likely given the nonexistence of god?

Some axioms of probability to remind you of: P(E | H) + P(~E | H) = 100%. That is, the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis is true plus the nonexistence of (or existence of some other) evidence given the hypothesis is true must exhaust all possibilities. Meaning they add up to 100%. This is how you know that you have a 1/6 chance of rolling a 4 given a fair die. P(Roll 4 | Fair Die) + P(Roll Other Number | Fair Die) = 100%.

Given that, most simplistically, stories about the existence of god are more likely than no stories about god given that god exists. Meaning that P(D | G) > P(~D | G). And the opposite for the alternative: stories about the existence of god are less likely given that no god exists than no stories about god given that god doesn’t exist. Meaning, also, that P(D | ~G) < P(~D | ~G). If I can say this another way, if god did exist we would have more stories about him than if god didn’t exist: P(D | G) > P(D | ~G). Think about it. There are more non stories of things that don’t exist than there are stories of things that don’t exist. Sure there are stories of unicorns and unicorns don’t exist. But what about the trillions of things that don’t exist that we concurrently don’t have stories of? They are legion.

Basically, anecdotes about the existence of god are evidence that god exists. I go over this in the post Logical Fallacies as Weak Bayesian Evidence: Argument from Anecdote. This all might seem a bit counterintuitive, but relying on intuition to make decisions is just another way of saying that the decision conforms to your biases. Which is usually not a good thing.

So what does no evidence look like? To me, this would be some conditional probability that is equal to all alternatives. One where Bayes Factor is 1. In other words, the evidence exists independently of the hypothesis.

This all being said, I think there is evidence for the existence of god. I actually concede a little bit of relatively strong evidence for the existence of god. But, there is so much more evidence against the existence of god because god, as defined by laypeople and sophisticated theologians alike, is unfalsifiable. For most other data besides morality, god is the equivalent of a trillion^trillion sided die and expecting to roll a 3, and comparing that to the probability of rolling a 3 given normal die. This is what happens when one conceives of an all-powerful god; there’s nothing an all powerful god can’t explain.

So yes, there is evidence for the existence of god. But it is underwhelming in comparison to the orders upon orders of magnitude of the evidence — Bayesian evidence — against the existence of god.

 

The Motte and Bailey Doctrine

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(More than meets the eye)

As most people who read this blog are aware, I’ve read and have been subject to lot of religious apologetics. Either online or in meatspace. One of the things that I started to become aware of was a particularly nebulous debating tactic. There really wasn’t a name for it; but it would be pretty obvious when pointed out.

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Frustrating. I recently discovered that there is a name for this tactic: The Motte and Bailey Doctrine. The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along. It’s fitting that this is pointed out in an article attacking post-modernism.

It would be kinda like having a flower in your house. No one objects to flowers, right? But then whenever you get in an argument with someone, you transform the flower into an assault rifle. The person being attacked says “Hey! Hey! What are you doing with an M4???” and the then you say “I don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s just a flower!” because you’ve transformed the M4 back into a flower. But make no mistake: That flower is more than meets the eye.

Reading more about why people believe what they do, on the other hand, has made me realize that apologists probably don’t even realize that they’re doing this. Hypocrisy is a very fruitful strategy if you can get away with it. Your subconscious brain knows this. As Robin Hanson says:

Overcoming bias is also a Red Queen game. Your mind was built to be hypocritical, with more conscious parts of your mind sincerely believing that they are unbiased, and other less conscious parts systematically distorting those beliefs, in order to achieve the many functional benefits of hypocrisy. This capacity for hypocrisy evolved in the context of conscious minds being aware of bias in others, suspecting it in themselves, and often sincerely trying to overcome such bias. Unconscious minds evolved many effective strategies to thwart such attempts, and they usually handily win such conflicts.

Our big brains were not designed by the blind idiot god evolution to get impartial, objectively true answers. It was designed to be more like a defense lawyer defending a client that’s probably guilty.

Now, I didn’t discover the name for this debate technique. This is thanks to Slate Star Codex pointing out something that I’ve compared to religion before:

I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning – and then is actually used a completely different way.

The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” – and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”

The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”

I wouldn’t read this as a condemnation of feminism. I would read this as a condemnation of the architecture of the human brain. After all, any cause that deals with morality is bound to sacrifice what is truth to what is morality because of our inherently hypocritical, biased brains. We may want to do good, but we really have no control over our decisions. Free will doesn’t exist. We just rely on vague feelings of certainty that we’re doing good. But, crucially, we are kept in the dark about our subconscious algorithm for generating that feeling of certainty… the how of what we decide in the first place.

Case in point:

We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…

Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.

Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.

In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before.

Realizing that the same affliction that causes religions to be vectors for irrationality also inhabit more (to me) socially acceptable causes made me start being more tolerant of religion.

I’m certain there are a lot of people who don’t consider themselves bigots. But unless you are actively using some sort of mitigation strategy against your biases, using some actual humility, you’ll probably act in a bigoted way without even realizing it. And this cuts across everything; even people who are actively fighting for equality might not even realize that they’re subconsciously favoring their in-group to the detriment of the out-group. Yet their fuzzy feeling of certainty makes it feel like equality. Racism, sexism, nationalism, etc. aren’t foreign diseases that attack your cognition that you have to build up antibodies to… they are your cognition.

So when it comes to hypocritical behavior, we can’t think that we are being objective. Especially when it comes to moral behavior or any sort of normative, social justice goal. Overcoming our biases should be required education before we start making arguments and pronouncements when it comes to morality, or we’ll just be Motte and Bailey-ing at every chance to escape criticism. Just like a run of the mill Christian apologist.

 
 

Stifling discourse, on your Left

Originally posted on Scientia Salon:

PSM_V03_D380_John_Stuart_Millby Massimo Pigliucci

I may be in danger of becoming a libertarian. No, not the Rand Paul or even Pen Jillette type (or, worse, a Randian objectivist!). I’m talking of a version of libertarianism closer to the one famously espoused by John Stuart Mill. Mill put forth the idea that there should be little or no restriction on public discourse, on the grounds that bad notions will eventually wither away, defeated in the open marketplace of ideas.

Here is how he puts it in On Liberty [1]:

“There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other…

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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in religion

 

Alief vs Belief: Get Up To Speed

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Recently I read an article (forgot where) that stated that atheists don’t actually exist because they behave in certain ways that imply god-belief. I actually stopped reading at the point where the author subtly shifted goalposts by initially talking about god-belief to the sleight of hand of talking about belief in spirits (belief in god and belief in theory-of-mind like phenomena are different), but I’d like to make this point regardless of a crappy article.

There are many people who like to watch scary movies. A lot of scary movies in Western culture implicitly assume a worldview where demons are real, most of the time going so far as to have the demon or evil spirit as the main antagonist. I’m sure lots of non-believers who watch these movies don’t think that these spirits really exist, yet they probably get scared at all of the creaky floors and bestial growls just like believers. Does this mean that non-believers are hypocritical when they have the involuntary reaction of fear when the main demon jumps out of the shadows?

No. This is the same sort of fear that people have when they ride roller coasters, or the same sadness people have when watching Titanic or Avatar. A woman I was dating when that latter movie came out started crying during the movie. Does this mean that she really believes giant blue anthropomorphic aliens on a distant planet just had their sacred tree destroyed? Probably not. Another woman I dated started crying at the end of Looper. Does that mean that she literally believes that in the near future (which hasn’t happened yet) Joseph Gordon-Levitt shoots himself to make Bruce Willis disappear? Highly doubtful.

Psychologist call this phenomenon of seemingly contradictory beliefs and actions alief. Christians in the USA don’t have a belief that Japanese Jesus-less demonology is true when they get scared while watching The Ring, but they have the alief that it’s true and is the reason they get scared.

One also has to take into account our modular minds. There is no single “you” that holds all beliefs, there are a multitude of “yous” that have their own separate beliefs; and one way to inject a bit of alief into some of those modules is by telling stories. The process is automatic and unconscious.

So the moral of this story is, if atheist don’t exist due to the belief/alief dichotomy, then neither do Christians (or any believer, for that matter).

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2014 in apologetics, cognitive science

 

Grandmaster Meio (Strider)

I’ve been busy with work and grad school so I haven’t been reading much about religion. At least, not enough to blog about. However, I’ve still been playing guitar. I’ve covered another slice of the old school video game music catalog; this time from the 1989 arcade game Strider.

I’ve always loved the theme for the final boss, Grandmaster Meio. Its original instance is a bit like a slightly creepy/spacey Bach composition (listen here). I of course metalized it adding a bit of a doom-metal break in between. The title “deathless king” is an homage to a doom band called My Dying Bride (who also influenced my other song I posted).

The character Grandmaster Meio does consider himself a god, so I guess it is somewhat related to my blog!

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2014 in video games

 

Religions Promoted Welfare States

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From PsyBlog:

“Particularly in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, in which the state and the churches as well as the denominations were competing against one another, religions became highly committed to the welfare sector”, according to the Protestant theologian and social ethicist Prof. Dr. Hans-Richard Reuter from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence. “In countries like Spain or Poland, on the other hand, where Catholicism had the monopoly for a long time and was closely tied to the state, religions had hardly any influence on welfare statism, which is less well developed there to this day.”

I have to wonder why something similar hasn’t happened in the USA. There’s a ton of religious competition here due to there not being an official “state” religion. Though it could be due to how stratified the USA is; many states and even counties are very insular and thus might be seen as their own little “country” within the country. So while there are a lot of different religions in the USA, these religions don’t really come into contact or compete with each other.

That’s my guess anyway.

This is also sorta significant due to the role that welfare states have on religion. Is this some sort of teleological function that religions have — moving towards welfare states as an end game — or is it cyclical, going from religion to welfare state and back to religion like some sort of Ouroboros?

 
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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in economics/sociology

 

Guardians Of The Truth

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Reading about how and why religion comes about, you inevitably stumble onto the conclusion that religion isn’t just some aberration of humanity. The only thing that separates tried and true “religion” from other types of groups — or to put it in its real meaning, tribes — that people identify with is belief in the supernatural. Even if you take away belief in the supernatural, there’s nothing stopping a secular grouping (say, feminism or Objectivism) from tapping into the same family of negative behavior that religious people engage in.

The problem isn’t the supernatural. The problem is in-group vs. out-group. And this in-group/out-group animosity becomes more pronounced when you have a group that has an either implicit or explicit charge of guarding the truth:

“The Inquisition thought they had the truth! Clearly this ‘truth’ business is dangerous.” [...]

Questions like that don’t have neat single-factor answers. But I would argue that one of the factors has to do with assuming a defensive posture toward the truth, versus a productive posture toward the truth.

When you are the Guardian of the Truth, you’ve got nothing useful to contribute to the Truth but your guardianship of it. When you’re trying to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry by discovering the next benzene or buckyball, someone who challenges the atomic theory isn’t so much a threat to your worldview as a waste of your time.

When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into entropy by zapping anything that departs from the Truth. If there’s some way to pump against entropy, generate new true beliefs along with a little waste heat, that same pump can keep the truth alive without secret police. In chemistry you can replicate experiments and see for yourself—and that keeps the precious truth alive without need of violence.

Remember my little maxim that I made up: The more a group promotes prosociality, the less it cares about accurately modeling reality (this is because truth and morality, in practice, occupy two different magisteria). A group that forms on the premise of some social or moral cause (like religion), and is also defending “the truth”, will inevitably lead to horrible behavior just like all of those horror stories that atheists like to blame on religion.

Yudkowsky’s use of “entropy” might muddle the concept a bit, so granting myself the liberty of rewording it, the gravity of the situation becomes clear. “When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into [the immoral past] by zapping anything that departs from the Truth”

It also might be helpful to replace “truth” with information.

I am reminded of this very phenomenon of “guardians of the truth” pointed out by one of Jerry Coyne’s recent posts:

First Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s invitation to speak at the Brandeis commencement was withdrawn, and now there are more, for Political Correctness season is upon us. Certainly universities have the right to choose their speakers, but it’s bad form to choose someone and then rescind their invitation, or to cave in to student pressures that make speakers withdraw.

[...]

The WSJ is, of course, a conservative organ, and goes on to decry the “loopiness” of the left wing and the ostracism of conservative professors, as well the tendency of universities to allow “the nuttiest professors to dumb down courses and even whole disciplines into tendentious gibberish.” That’s an exaggeration, but still, it’s disturbing that we see the left attacking, in effect, freedom of speech. If you don’t like Condaleeza Rice (and I sure don’t), that doesn’t mean you should mount such a protest against her that she has to withdraw. Are all speakers to be vetted for signs of cryptic conservatism? Are students that loath to hear views that might disagree with them?

I’m no conservative, but these Commencement Police frighten me, and paint students as self-entitled, fragile beings who can’t countenance dissent—unless it’s their own. At my own commencement at William and Mary in 1971, we had an undistinguished state legislator as speaker—and this after many of us wanted a more leftist person. But we didn’t shout him down, or pressure the university to withdraw his invitation. Instead, we organized a “counter commencement,” held at a different time and place, and our class invited and paid for Charles Evers, the older brother of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers.

People! Stop the tribal thinking! Argument gets counter-argument, not reputation assassination and/or banishment from the tribe.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in rationality, religiosity

 
 
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