Paul P. Mealing

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Friday, 26 June 2015

Some ruminations on a debate about the existence of God

I came across this debate on YouTube between Sye Ten Bruggencate and Matt Dillahunty (31 May 2014): “Is it Reasonable to Believe that God Exists?” I’ve come across Sye before and even argued with him on Stephen Law’s blog (or attempted to) a few years back; probably more than a few years, actually. He’s a self-described presuppositionist and a member of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, who lives in Ontario, while Matt is a former Christian and now hosts a cable TV show, The Atheist Experience, based in Austin, Texas.

The debate is close to 2 hrs, including questions from the audience, which is followed by the participants’ ‘summing up’. I watched the entire debate partly because I was curious how Matt would handle Sye, who’s debating style is to make unsupported assertions then try and put the burden of proof, or disproof, onto his opponent. To give an example from my own experience: he once asked me to provide evidence that God had not made himself manifest to humankind (I’m paraphrasing from memory). I said I can’t provide evidence of something that didn’t happen, not happening. And his response was that it was my assertion therefore I had to prove it.

I was impressed by Matt’s temperament as well as his arguments, where he was very careful and precise whilst not being difficult to follow, even though he spoke quickly to ensure he stayed within the time limits imposed. Both of them were well prepared and had obviously researched each other’s positions. Sye cleverly used video excerpts of Matt to not only pre-empt Matt’s arguments but to support his own counter-arguments. Matt used humour in combination with rigid logic and precise language.

Sye’s argument was simplistic in the extreme: “It’s reasonable to believe that which is true; it’s true that God exists; therefore it’s reasonable to believe that God exists.” In his summing up Matt called it ‘kindergarten theology’ and ‘kindergarten philosophy’.

One of Sye’s key points of argument (which I’ve seen him use before) is to claim that his opponent can only argue from his (Sye’s) world view, and his world view is provided by God. He argues that any other world view is ‘absurd’, and in Matt’s case, Matt could, by his own admission, be a ‘brain in a vat’. However, Matt clarifies this by saying that he doesn’t believe he’s a brain in a vat, but it’s a well known philosophical conundrum that this can’t be proven. I first came across this in Stephen Law’s Philosopher’s Gym about 12 years ago, before I discovered him on his blog. In the debate, this logically led to a discussion on solipsism, which, Matt argued, can’t be proved to be false.

I’ve discussed this before, and, whilst all of us believe that everyone else we meet is not a figment of our imagination, there is one situation, which we have all experienced, where this is actually true. Neither Sye nor Matt mentioned this but that situation is a dream. A dream is solipsistic. So how do we know that we’re not in a dream. Because we have shared memories when we’re not in a dream. If I have a dream that includes someone I know, then when I next meet them in real life, they have no memory of that interaction, only I do. So unless one’s entire life is a dream then solipsism is a non sequitur if we have shared experiences that we can both remember.

One of the things that came out of this debate for me, and which Matt touched on briefly, is that if you have no common ground to begin with then you really can’t debate a subject. Specifically, Matt pointed out that he and Sye had different definitions of truth, which logically means that they would never be able to agree on whether something was true or not. I realised that it would be pointless for me to engage in an argument with someone whose entire world view is premised on fiction: a book of mythological stories. Sye argues that everyone knows that God exists, including babies (when Matt specifically asked him). No one can argue with that and Sye knows it, which is why he claims he’s unbeatable when it comes to arguments about the existence of God.

Matt argues that knowledge is a subset of beliefs, which I hadn’t considered before, and truth is based on evidence. Sye responded that evidence is something you take into a court and you become the judge but you can’t judge God. But if you don’t believe in God then that argument is irrelevant and without a God who actually intervenes in the assessment, one must use one’s own intellect to judge the evidence, which is what we all do all the time otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live.

So Sye’s basis for truth is God, which is revealed in scripture, and my basis for objective truth is mathematics, so we couldn’t be further apart. Sye would argue that I need his world view to believe that, because mathematics wouldn’t exist without God.  However, I would argue that mathematics trumps God because even God can’t change a prime number to a non-prime number or vice versa or change the value of Pi or make 2 + 2 = 5.  If Sye was to respond that God is mathematics then I might agree with him, but that has nothing to do with scripture.


Addendum: I've given this some more thought, plus I've watched the entire debate again. I believe I can challenge Sye's world view. Notice I say 'challenge' because that's the best one can do; I don't believe I can get him to change his world view any more than I believe he could get me to change mine.

Just to clarify my own position, I'm not anti-theist per se (as I've explained elsewhere); I believe God is something that people find within themselves, but that's another argument for another time.

My challenge is to do with my last paragraph of my original post, because I believe that mathematics gives us the only transcendental truths we know, whilst acknowledging that not everyone agrees with that position. By transcendental, I mean that mathematical truths exist independently of the human mind and even the universe. As someone once joked: If tomorrow the universe ceased to exist, the only part of science one could continue to do would be mathematics (that’s me paraphrasing John Barrow quoting Dave Rusin). I've discussed this position elsewhere.

My challenge to Sye is that mathematics even transcends God, for the reasons I pointed out in that closing paragraph. God can't change mathematics any more than we can: he can't make 2 + 2 = 5, amongst even more esoteric mathematical concepts like changing primes. If God can't change them, then logically they are independent of God. So I have a means of finding 'truths' that transcend God, therefore I don't need God in order for them to be true. What's more, mathematics provides 'truths' that anyone with the requisite intellectual ability can discover, without reference to any religious scripture or any divine revelation.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Freedom, justice, happiness and truth

This is the subject of the Question of the Month in Philosophy Now (Issue 108, June / July 2015). The actual question: What's The More Important: Freedom, Justice, Happiness, Truth? Please give and justify your rankings in less than 400 words.

Someone I showed this to said that the question was grammatically incorrect because it should be 'What's The Most Important'. However, I pointed out that then you would only discuss one of them and not all four.

Obviously, I don't always respond to the Question of the Month, even though I'm a regular subscriber and have been for a number of years. I'm not sure why I chose to respond to this one, except that it looked like a challenge. It's certainly something that I hadn't entertained before.

What's interesting is that when I started to write it, I had no idea how I'd rank them. I've done this before and it's actually very satisfying to resolve a philosophical issue simply by writing about it without much contemplation beforehand. It's similar to the spontaneity one finds when writing fiction, where I believe it's a necessary part of the process. Below is my submission.


To answer this question one must contextualise it and the context I choose is relationships. Relationships between spouses, relationships between governments and the people they govern, relationships between parents and children, relationships between employers and employees and relationships between figures of authority and the public at large. Because all these qualities: freedom, justice, happiness and truth; may have other contexts, but it’s in relationships that they are most important and most inclined to be abused or perverted. And there is one quality I would put above them all and upon which they are all dependent and that is trust. Because once trust is lost or suspect, then everything one values in a relationship becomes compromised at best and forfeit at worst.

Truth is the cornerstone of trust, so, arguably, truth is the lynch pin, but, if trust is lost, truth becomes a casualty. Honesty to oneself comes first, because, without that, one can’t be honest to anyone else. Truth informs justice because justice without truth is injustice. Justice and freedom are interdependent and require balance. Paradoxically, freedom is dependent on justice, because without justice we would have anarchy and only the powerful would have freedom. Here trust is paramount, because justice that doesn’t incorporate trust becomes oppression, and oppression is antithetical to freedom. So freedom arises from justice but only when trust is preserved. Happiness is intrinsically linked to freedom; suicide and self-harm are often the consequences of freedom curtailed, especially when it’s extreme enough to eliminate hope. Freedom and hope are partners, with hope being essential to psychological well-being; a precursor to happiness.

So there is a logical sequence of dependence, therefore importance. You can’t have justice without truth, you can’t have freedom without justice and you can’t have happiness without freedom, but requisite to them all is trust.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The fine-tuned Universe

I’ve discussed this before in relation to John D. Barrow’s revelations concerning the fine structure constant, amongst other things, in his excellent book, The Constants of Nature. A recent episode of Catalyst, called Custom Universe also raised this issue, plus the latest issue of New Scientist (6 June 2015, pp.37-39) explaining the extraordinary fine difference in mass between neutrons and protons (that can’t be explained with our current knowledge of physics) and, in particular, the consequences of small variations to that difference.

In other words, the stability of atoms, including the prototype atom, hydrogen, is dependent on the neutron being slightly heavier than the proton by 0.14% (the neutron is 939.6 Mev and the proton is 938.3 Mev). Making the difference much bigger would result in more complex atoms becoming impossible to create and much smaller would have converted all hydrogen atoms into inert helium, therefore no fusion in stars and no other atoms. Smaller still or making protons heavier than neutrons would have resulted in protons decaying into neutrons and therefore no atoms at all.

This is just one of many examples of fine-tuning in our universe that makes the evolution of complex life forms, and therefore intelligent life, possible. And, of course, we still don’t know why matter outweighed anti-matter in the early stages of the universe by 1 billion and 1 to 1 billion, otherwise the universe would be just radiation and nothing else.

The standard answer to this is the multiverse, which postulates that there exists up to an infinite number of alternative universes, and, logically, we must exist in the one universe that allows intelligent life, like us, to evolve. Brian Cox (in Human Universe) uses the analogy of a lottery. When we buy a lottery ticket the chances of winning is some astronomical number, and in our individual lifetimes, very few of us ever win. However, as Cox points out, someone wins every time, and that’s the same with the multiverse. We win because we are in it and all the others that don’t win are unknown and unknowable because no consciousness can evolve in them to find out. This is known as the weak Anthropic Principle, which I’ve discussed elsewhere.

What many people don’t realise is that if there is an infinite number of universes then there must be an infinite number of you and me, because, in an infinite amount of space and time, anything that can happen once must happen an infinite number of times – a mathematical truism.

But many see the multiverse as a cop-out, because it explains everything and nothing. It says all things are possible therefore we are possible, problem solved. It provides an answer with no explanation. And, at its extreme interpretation, it says that everything is possible an infinite number of times.

Max Tegmark advocates this extreme interpretation in his book, Our Mathematical Universe, where he postulates up to 4 levels of multiverses, including the quantum multiverse. In fact, Tegmark conjured up a thought experiment, whereby if you die you just find yourself in an alternative quantum universe, and therefore you are effectively immortal. To take this to its logical conclusion, there must exist a universe where everyone lives forever, therefore we all eventually find Heaven, or at least, its mathematically plausible equivalent.

Equally relevant to this topic, is the issue of biological evolution, and I’ve just finished reading an excellent book on this subject, Life Ascending; The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane. Now many people (including Richard Dawkins, I imagine) will take issue with the word ‘invention’ and ‘evolution’ appearing in the same sentence, let alone on the cover of a book. But I doubt Dawkins would take issue with any of the material between the covers, even in the places where his name is cited. Lane, of course, is aware of some people’s sensitivity to the word ‘invention’ in this context, and is quick to explain he’s not referring to a ‘creator’ but to the extraordinary inventiveness inherent in the process of natural selection. In the same way, and for the same reasons, I have no problem in appropriating the word ‘design’ when discussing evolution because natural selection is nature’s design methodology and its more significant ‘inventions’ are the subject of the book, hence the totally apposite title.

Lane structures the book into 10 chapters that cover his ‘ten inventions’: 1) The Origin of Life; 2) DNA; 3) Photosynthesis; 4)The Complex Cell; 5) Sex; 6) Movement; 7) Sight; 8) Hot Blood; 9)Consciousness; 10) Death.

I have to say that this is the best book on evolution that I’ve read, not least because Lane has such a commanding knowledge of his subject and a very accessible style of prose. Lane is a biochemist by training and it’s his ability to explain what happens at a molecular level that gives the book so much intellectual weight. He appears up to date on all the latest discoveries and provides historical context everywhere; so we learn how theories have developed, sometimes stalled, sometimes been disproved and sometimes yet to be confirmed. Anyone who studies science, at whatever level, appreciates that we never know everything and we never will, but that we are constantly uncovering newly discovered nature’s secrets that would astound the likes of Darwin and his contemporaries with their depth and ingenuity.

All the chapters contain information that I wasn’t aware of previously, but the first two chapters are probably the most revelatory and the most enthralling. One suspects that it’s at this level that Lane is most intrigued and therefore most knowledgeable on all the latest developments. I won’t go into details, but he provides the best arguments I’ve come across on how life, at its simplest form, may have evolved from pure chemistry. In light of the title of this post, I was struck on more than one occasion on how just the right elements or combination of factors arose to produce the forebears of life as we now know it.

This is all good grist for those who believe we have a special destiny, and that there is the ‘hand’ of some immaterial force behind it all. The other extreme is to be dismissive of this view as ‘weak-minded’ and ‘unintelligent’, yet I find the idea that our existence is an accident that should never have happened equally absurd and, dare-I-say-it, unintelligent. My own view, that I’ve expressed elsewhere, is that the Universe is brim-full of purpose yet that purpose has evolved with no plan or blueprint in sight, no pre-destined goal, just a set of laws that have allowed it all to happen.

If there is a ‘creator’, then ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ works in a very strange fashion, certainly not in the manner that creationists and ID advocates would have us believe, because the ‘design’ has been done piece-meal with many wrong turns, much trial and error and many catastrophes on a grand scale, of which we could easily become one ourselves. In comparison to the epic story of life, we are like mayflies, existing for less than a day, thus far – it’s a sobering thought.

In regard to the ridiculous debate on religion versus science, it is worth quoting Lane himself from the last paragraph of his book.

I think the picture painted here in this book is true. Life most surely evolved, along the lines described here. That is not dogma, but evidence tested in reality and corrected accordingly. Whether this grand picture is compatible with faith in God, I do not know. For some people, intimately acquainted with evolution, it is; for others, it is not.

Addendum: This is a YouTube interview with physicist, Leonard Susskind, who discusses the fine-tuned universe on Closer to Truth, which appears to be a series of interviews with well known scientists and philosophers giving us their interpretation of philosophical cum scientific conundrums.

Susskind, not surprisingly, delivers a very compelling argument for the multi-verse, or, as he calls it, the mega-verse, and, in so doing, references String or M Theory as supporting this view. Personally, I'm a bit of a sceptic of String theory and its many variations, as it reminds me of Ptolemy's epicycles, but I may well be proven wrong in the near or far future. Only time will tell.

But what struck me as I listened to Lenny's argument, was that, even if it's true, it still means that our universe is very special, amongst all the possibilities. However, as I pointed out in my main post, if there are an infinite number of universes then it's not special at all.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Ex Machina – the movie

This is a good film for anyone interested in AI at a philosophical level. It even got reviewed in New Scientist and they don’t normally review movies. It’s a clever psychological thriller, so you don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy it, though there are some pseudo-nerdy conversations that are better assimilated if the audience has some foreknowledge. Examples are the Turing Test and the Mary thought experiment regarding colour.

Both of these are explained through expositional dialogue in the movie, rather seamlessly I should add, so ignorance is not necessarily a barrier. The real Turing test for AI would be if an AI could outsmart a human – not in a game of chess or a knowledge-based TV quiz show, but behaviourally – and this is explored as well. Like all good psychological thrillers, there is a clever twist at the end which is not predictable but totally consistent within the context of the narrative. In other words, it’s a well written and well executed drama irrespective of its philosophical themes.

One of the issues not addressed in the movie – because it would spoil it – is the phenomenon known as the ‘uncanny valley’, which I’ve written about here. Basically, when androids become almost human-like in appearance and movement, we become very uncomfortable. This doesn’t happen in the movie, and, of course, it’s not meant to, but it’s the real piece of deception in the film. Despite appearances that the character, Ava, is a machine because we can literally see through parts of her body, we all know that she is really an actress playing a part.

I’ve argued in the aforementioned post that I believe the source of this discomfort is the lack of emotional empathy. In the movie, however, the AI demonstrates considerable empathy, or at least appears to, which is one of the many subtle elements explored. This is very good science fiction because it explores a possible future and deals with it on a philosophical level, including ethical considerations, as well as entertaining us.

There are nods to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Asimov’s I Robot, although that may be my own particular perspective. I’ve created AI’s in my own fiction, but completely different to this. In fact, I deliberately created a disembodied AI, which develops a ‘relationship’ with my protagonist, and appears to display ‘loyalty’. However I explain this with the concept of ‘attachment’ programming, which doesn’t necessarily require empathy as we know it.

I bring this up, because the 2 stories, Ex Machina and mine, explore AI but with different philosophical perspectives and different narrative outcomes.