August 1, 2014

Nitpickings of "The Irrationality of Atheism"

If you were to simply judge a post by its title, Storey Clayton's recent post, "The Irrationality of Atheism," would seem to indicate an author who believes that anyone who is an atheist is irrational. That is, of course, not what his post is actually about. In fact, partly because he poorly defines important terms (ie, "God" or "atheism," for example), he is unfortunately guilty of having a weasel-like and generally difficult to pin down position. Nonetheless, Storey does have a position, and it can be summarized as thus: given the simulation hypothesis and the current big bang theory, it is irrational to completely dismiss the possibility of God.

It seems, on face, a strange statement to ultimately indite atheism with. That is because it is not a response to any serious academic attempt at atheism, and instead fundamentally comes down to the fact that most of the collegiate atheists Storey has interacted with are perhaps dicks. Nonetheless, there are many problems with what Storey is saying, and I will attempt to address them from my (admittedly poor) personal point of view, to point out problems with his thinking. Problems will be grouped under headlines for ease of organization and access. With that said, here are problems with Storey's claim:

Storey refuses to clearly define "God"

For Storey himself, this isn't too much of a problem. He calls his version of god the "Benevolently Sorrowful God," without really clarifying it much further. He doesn't pin down, for example, whether he believes this god is a god in our traditionally understood sense, or just merely a being much more powerful than us.

This kind of ambiguity causes a strange kind of problem for any kind of argument in favor of the possibility of a god. Let us assume, for a brief moment, that he is simply talking about a being that is much more powerful than humans, instead of any god as traditional religion would understand. It is partially implied by this quote:
At the point where we are willing to put lofty double-digit percentages on the chance that everything we are and see and sense is fabricated as some sort of simulation, the idea that something like God is behind that simulation seems so obvious that it almost defies the suggestion. At the very least, we should be creative enough to imagine that entities far more capable and intelligent that current humans (remember how much progress we’ve made since ancient China and/or Greece) are behind the one-way glass of our simulated existence. At the point where we’re being deliberately simulated, almost anything on the other side of that mirrored wall becomes akin to God in a way that’s meaningful and powerful, and yet there are no serious academic articles a la Bostrom putting God back in the discussion of our everyday life. Somehow we find it realistic and comforting to believe that a 4th grader in Earth-prime could be making us as a science project, but not that someone slightly smarter than a 4th-grader is conducting this as a test of moral progress? Are we really that self-obsessed?
This, however, seems like a cop out. I doubt that when Storey is talking about a belief in god, he is merely talking about a being that is more intelligent or capable than a current human being, if only because that would include the following absurd possibilities for "god":

  1.  Vulcans from Star Trek
  2. Jedi's from Star Trek
  3. 20 Albert Einsteins
  4. Future human beings
  5. Hitler from an alternate universe who is also a rocket scientist
  6. Those machines from the Matrix
So let's not give him this benefit of the doubt. Instead, let's take the assumption that is probably closest to his actual position: Storey is saying that you ought to give credence to the Christian God, but without any of the weird parts:
Look, I’m not defending Genesis specifically or the people who run around saying dinosaur bones are in the Earth to test our faith and fool us into following Satan. I don’t believe in Hell or the Bible’s specific Origin Story (though I think the metaphor of this quick creation dovetails impossibly nicely with current theories of actual creation, which is the whole point of this half of the post, QED) or the Garden or the ribcage or any of that. But it is so weird that God is so quickly dismissed by people whose best and tested explanation is that everything came from nothing in a hundredth of a second. 

And this is perhaps closest to his assumption, primarily because he's spends the entire post capitalizing "God" in a specifically Christian way: otherwise, he would have left it a lower-cased word, or otherwise sprinkled in references to Allah and G-d, to indicate his belief in a more generic, less Christian God.

But this is an even worse cop out on his part. Sorry, but you do not get to claim to be merely believing in some kind of higher power when your cultural stance, your wording, and all of your examples are clearly evincing your belief in a Christian god. You do not get to merely dismiss the nonsensical parts of the texts that are explanatory. This is intellectually dishonest, a sort of theological Nirvana fallacy.

But even worse, Storey gives no reason to privilege the Christian god over any other. Why does the existence of a simulation or the big bang mean we should believe in the god that brought us Jesus? It may perhaps be reasonable to leap from these two premises to a higher power: it does not therefore follow that Storey's god exists.

And even worse than that, the idea that we'd be living in a simulation doesn't even square with a Christian god. Why the hell would any god put us into a simulation? For fun? For said god's own personal amusement. Even if Storey merely believes in a Sorrowful Benevolent God, a simulation is only proof of said SBG if it is consistent with what a SBG would even do. There is no argument for that, and in any case, it would be hard to say that a benevolent being would want your entire existence and reality to be a lie.

Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is

This is perhaps where Storey's qualifying words cross the line into weasel words. Let us grant the seriousness of Nick Bostrom's impact on the scientific community with the simulation theory. See if you can identify what's wrong with this paragraph:
In any case, we now have Scientific (TM) backing for something that philosophers and intellectuals have always feared/suspected/wondered about, namely that reality is illusory and perhaps itself a self-defeating concept and that some other force is behind what we see to be true. Bostrom’s paper caused a firestorm in the scientific community and now we have news/media outlets regularly publishing the idea that there’s between a 20-50% chance this is all a simulation. Very serious scientists are now even developing new tests to see if we’re all simulated. And everyone seems to at least be taking this idea seriously until it is concretely disproven somehow.
 Here, Storey makes the huge mistake of misunderstanding what a scientific hypothesis is. He is treating the simulation hypothesis as if it were a scientific theory. But theories have evidence already in their favor. Hypothesis are merely ideas that may have support in the future, but in their current state lack any evidence supporting them. But that's not a problem for Storey: since he had so little respect for empiricism anyways, he claims that merely because news outlets are publishing the "idea" that there's anywhere between a 20-50% chance we're living in a simulation, it therefore must have merit. This is quite problematic: news outlets publishing an idea means very little for scientific discoveries like this: too often, the media wants the most extreme and sensational for science in order to attract attention and interest. How many potential cancer cures have been reported by the media, only for them to later fail once they left the lab? Storey's probability ranges are literally at best speculation and at worst dishonest guesses.

Even his links about "very serious scientists" developing tests belies his point. Notwithstanding the fact that it is literally just two scientists who are talking about theoretically possible tests, scientists haven't even yet developed the test to find the support for this hypothesis.

But even in the best case scenario, the simulation hypothesis has, what, a 50% chance of being correct? For everything less than that 50%, Storey's misleading title for his post is basically saying it's irrational to believe in something that is more likely to be correct than not correct. But in the more likely scenarios, a possibility with a less than 50% chance of being correct, with no current evidence, and with merely the beginnings of possible tests to gather that evidence, whose proof does not even necessitate the existence of a god to exist, should probably weighed much less than the simpler explanation that "we are not living in a complex simulation created by a god."

Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe

Specifically, he is seeing what he wants to here:
Look at that graph. Look at that expansion and that timeline. It’s like watching a firework and saying that no one shot it in the air and there was no intent behind the explosion, but one second there was sky and the next second there was color and sound everywhere and who cares why. Really? Really??
I should note that he is referring to Wikipedia's diagram explaining the Big Bang as it is currently understood.

Ignoring the obvious criticism that our understanding of the Big Bang is almost certainly imperfect at this time, and thus probably is a poor basis for belief in a god, Storey's reasoning is just ultimately not sound. A pattern or a so called "obvious" observation does not imply an intelligent creator (and assuming that Storey doesn't simply believe god = more powerful but somehow dumb as bricks being, intelligence is necessary here). His reasoning is literally no different than those analogies used by intelligent design advocates, or the watchmaker argument, or generally those who do not believe it is possible that over long periods of time evolution could work. It would be as if Storey saw a wasp's nest, realized it was intricately designed, and then demanded to know why people didn't seriously entertain the possibility that humans made them all as homes for wasps.

I am, shockingly an atheist. I do not rule out the possibility that there might be a god: after all, it is impossible to prove one way or the other. However, based on the evidence available to me, I've come to the conclusion that the probability of there being anything we could traditionally understand as a god is incredibly low. And so I operate with a strong Bayesian prior that god doesn't exist, subject to update with the right (ie, incredibly compelling) argument or evidence. Storey's post is not that. Storey is perhaps right to call for not everyone merely presuming that he is an atheist. He is perhaps also right that people should at least consider that maybe god exists. He is wrong that there is a strong case for god, or even a moderately strong case. It is based on a weakly supported simulation theory from which a god doesn't even follow and merely seeing what he wants to see in the Big Bang. I'm sorry, but that's not enough to say that atheism is irrational.

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