Probabilities or Proof?

Bob just moved his blog and when I popped over to check it out, I noticed that he had been continuing our discussion about Belief in Belief without me πŸ™
From his comments,

Since there is no proof of the existence AND THERE IS NO PROOF OF THE NON-EXISTENCE of God or FSM, any position taken on the matter, other than agnosticism, is pure faith. Without proof that God does not exist, it is possible that God might actually exist.

By a pleasant happenstance, I just read the chapter in Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works where he talks about scientific proofs and how inappropriate they are for everyday circumstances. According to Pinker, our ancestors on the savanna evolved sophisticated mental machinery for dealing with probabilities but formal proofs … not so much.

The number of domains outside of pure maths where proofs are appropriate, or even possible, is vanishingly small and only a logician would claim that belief in something completely improbable and disbelief in something completely improbable are in any way equivalent. Fortunately, most of the rest of us deal in probabilities and most of us would conclude that the possibility of an entity existing

  1. which violates many of the known laws of nature and
  2. for which there is absolutely no evidence

is so close to zero as to be not worth considering.

Bob seems to be asserting that, given a proposition that is almost certainly false, the only reasonable position to take is to say “I don’t know” and that any other position requires an unreasonable leap of faith.
I cannot prove that I am not brain in a vat. I cannot prove that you exist. I cannot prove that I existed this morning. I have no need to prove them. It would not be useful to prove them. The evidence to support those positions is overwhelming, is reasonable and requires no leap of faith. The opposite positions – that I am a brain in a vat or that you do not exist or that I did not exist this morning – require an unreasonable leap of faith.
There is no god. I am certain of it.

Published by

Ragged Clown

Based in San Jose, California

12 thoughts on “Probabilities or Proof?”

  1. Not to disagree with you per se (on the logic bit, it’s nonsensical to argue with you about what you believe or “are certain of” πŸ™‚ ) but…

    Are you certain that if you buy a lotto ticket that it didn’t win?

  2. Don’t think I understand the question. I can think of two possible interpretations and I’ll answer both.

    1. The lottery hasn’t been drawn yet… I would not be certain either way. I’d think it extremely likely that I won’t win. I’d probably calculate that

    the chance of winning X the size of the prize < the cost of the ticket and decide that I would have better off spending my money on something else. But I would not be certain. But I am certain that there is no god. 2. The lottery has already been drawn. The winner was either a) me b) not me In case a) I would be certain that I had won. In case b) I would be certain that I had not won. There is a small chance that the organizer had committed fraud and that I had really won but he had told me that his brother-in-law won. For most honest lotteries the chance of this is negligible. There is a chance that the Law of the Excluded Middle did not apply on the particular Tuesday when the lottery was drawn. But I am fairly certain that The Law always applies in binary propositions like "I won" and "I did not win". I am even more certain that there is no god.

  3. Of course, I can’t prove that the Law of the Excluded Middle always applies and there is a cult that believe that Unicorns can be both Pink and Invisible but I am pretty certain they are wrong.

  4. That makes sense. I meant part 1. Is there an X such that if it were X times less likely (say, add additional numbers to the lotto), would you be certain you didn’t win like you’re certain there is no god.

    Given enough time, and if we don’t blow up the planet 1st, might advances in genetics and technology produce something / someone that meets the definition of god to the 2007 Kevin? The whole “advanced enough tech becomes indistinguishable from magic” thing. Or does the fact that this future thing not considered supernatural to the year 200007 brights, even though it can part the red sea, set bushes aflame, have a fatherly regard for some less evolved species/people and give them tablets with commandments, etc mean it’s not “god”. If it can do everything that the god of religion x,y and z can do?

    You can see where I’m going with this, one jillion planets in the universe, the odds of life on any if them is nonzero, the odds of them evolving thus is nonzero, etc. Seems we have one data point with a planet where people progressed in not much time at all to be able reverse cardiac arrest, screen for genetic diseases before birth, go to the moon, be able to vaporize cities on the opposite side of the planet etc, which seems a good percentage of the way there between what was possible in say jesus’ time and today.

    If you detonate 10 nuke warheads in my bathroom while I’m in the shower, I’m certain I’d die. I’m not certain there’s not something/someone out there that’s as powerful as the god of the christian bible, (particularly if you read some of it as metaphor), that got that way through an explainable progression. The universe is a big place, and things have been happening for quite some time. I’d think if this god came and gave a powerpoint presentation on his origins to the next Bright Convention, he’d be warmly welcomed. If he happened to be the christian god, (which seems highly unlikely to me, but I’m not certain) then you could have brights in church and we could all agree that supernaturalness was not a key part of their doctrine.

  5. Sorry if I left disconnected the last bit and the lotto bit. Where I was going was that, in my view, the odds that god is possible are at least comparable to the odds of winning the lotto, given my definition of god. If I’m off by a few orders of magnitude, dunno if that’s within the realm of “certainly false – I know it”. I think a likely cause of disagreement with this notion would mean not buying my definition of god, or underestimating the number of planets in the universe.

  6. If there were a lottery where the chances of winning are essentially zero, I would not buy a ticket.

    I believe that future humans and hypothetical advanced societies elsewhere in the universe will have technologies that appear magical to us. I believe that those technologies will obey all the known laws of the universe.

    I am certain of it.

    I am certain that visitors from outer space did not resurrect Lazurus or turn water into wine, part seas or carve tablets. There is a simpler explanation. Those things did not happen. The stories were made up by people. I am certain of it.

    What would it take to change my mind? Evidence. Any evidence at all. There is none.

  7. So it sounds like your saying that the a god could exist, but that you’re certain that the christian god doesn’t?

    I had understood you to say earlier that gods can’t exist, practically impossible that is, therefore you know the christian god can’t. Supernaturalness was a key part of your argument.

    If you don’t think they’re practically impossible, supernaturalness isn’t requried, then that changes things a lot I’d think. I agree that the christian god was probably made up, (based on my view of human nature, not because I think it’s much simpler) and I’m as sure as I’m sure that if I buy a lotto ticket tomorrow it won’t win. I’m not certain though. If I didn’t believe that a godthing could have a non-supernatual origin, then I’d be certain it doesn’t exist. (actually, that’s a lie, because I’m not sure there aren’t supernatural forces afoot, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t, but you know what I mean in the prev sentence).

    I don’t think some something being around in biblical times is unlikely like it’s unlikely a dropped rock falls up. I thought you were saying it’s this kind of unlikely which would lead to a certainty I could understand. Perhaps you’re saying more like your certain jesus wasn’t over 7 feet tall, or closer to that anyway.

    Clearly certain is subjective, so again, I’m not trying to tell you what to be certain about based on what I am or am not certain about, but I’m questioning your logic.

  8. We have evidence that lottery winners exist, therefore I am agnostic about a lottery ticket being a winner (it *could* be based on the evidence I have). I am nearly certain based on the evidence that I have that a winner of the lottery drawing exists (or will exist) so I am a believer in lottery winners.

    God(s) … no evidence whatsoever, therefore I am an athiest as far as the existance of god(s) go.

    I present a counter-challenge to you: Prove that the christian god is more plausible than the FSM.

  9. I think there has been evidence for gods, but I’m not sure. Consider the tales we hear (which may be false for I know, old wives tales), of stone-age tech tribes being confronted with modern people “he thought the camera captured his soul” kind of stuff. Someone was thought to be a god by someone, therefore gods existed. If you know how a camera works, and how they were able kill people at range with a loud bang, I’m not sure that invalidates their god-ness. There are those that consider the Dalai Lama a god (though he himself doesn’t). I guess I’m not sure what the test is. I’ve not met anyone demonstrably omnipotent, to be sure.

    I can’t prove something is more plausible, because it’s subjective, but I think the fact that millions more people believe in the christian god than the FSM, makes it more plausible. How much more plausible depends on your view of humanity. I certainly don’t think millions of people believing in thing x is a conclusive proof.

    Kev, my previous post might be beating a dead horse now that I re-read your post about aliens water, wine and brains in vats. I think we’re in agreement except for the “could a god exist if advanced aliens count, and if so, does that change anything”, where I’m unclear of your posistion. I am clear WRT your views on this and christianity.

  10. I accept your right to believe that there is no God. There are two points you might go against your argument here. First, the eminent Dawkins agrees with me early on in his book, that it is impossible to prove that God does not exist, and therefore he proceeds on trying to establish the probabilities. Fair enough, since he is trying to quantify the unknowable in lieu of proving that which he cannot prove.

    As to Pinker, it is irrelevant and no basis for an argument that I can see. The supposition that our ancestors on the Savannah did not invent formal proofs, but rather invented probabilities does not discredit proofs, therefore, it does not warrant the statement that the utility of formal logic or proofs is vanishingly small today. Interestingly, those early hominids did not invent airplanes either, but airplanes sure are useful today. Further, just for fun, airplanes were invented by ancestors, just a little more recently, same with formal proofs.

    The utility of proofs is in dealing with very abstract concepts. One could argue that the age of reason really pushed the need for formal logic. As we became more reasonable (pun intended), and strove to understand more abstract concepts, we discovered logic. I would venture that God is a very abstract concept that begs for formal logic. It is one of the few tools for dealing with this weird phenomonon that so many people share independently of culture.

    As to the good fortune that most of us deal with probabilities today, it is only fortunate if you are trying to make the argument that God does not exist and also asserting that proofs are not useful in that endeavor. I refer back to Dawkins as to the assertion that it cannot be proven that God does not exist.

    It’s a bit late, so I might need to fill in some arguments at a nicer hour, but in summary, you can’t state unequivocally that God does not exist without partaking of faith yourself, and that is fine, as long as you recognize it. Trying to dismiss logic because it doesn’t get used all the time by us or by early humans is like saying that cows don’t contribute to green house gases because they aren’t made of styrofoam πŸ™‚

  11. Oh wait, what I meant to say is that it is funny how I make up a world that has these other brains in vats in it that think they are not brains in vats, and that therefore God could not exist. It’s just like a brain in a vat to do such things isn’t it.

    Or, it could be the problem that all the laws of the universe are not known. If they are then that should be proven. It is not, as far as I know. Therefore, the jury is just out on a bunch of stuff. Probabilistically one could say that it is unlikely that something will turn out to be true, but that is a belief – which is OK. Rationality has to require an empirical grounding to promote a belief to a fact. Otherwise, it requires leaving a placeholder marked with a question mark and the current calculation of the probabilities. This could also be described as agnosticism.

  12. Couple of procedural notes: I did not mean to imply that we should not use formal logic _because_ our ancestors did not. I was _observing_ that we do not use it often because it is usually not applicable.

    It is not useful to prove or disprove gravity or evolution or that we are not brains in vats. But still I believe those things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *