Friday, December 3, 2010

Why I Am Not An Agnostic (2/17/2007)

This was originally posted on a horrible site called Myspace. When Myspace underwent a redesign in Fall 2010, hundreds of insightful reader comments that had been left over the years were lost. I have since deleted my account there.

2009 update: These days I think of myself as an agnostic atheist, meaning I don't claim to have knowledge either way, but I consider the atheistic interpretation to be much more likely true.

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I am an atheist, and I often meet people who consider themselves agnostics. "How can you be sure God doesn't exist?" they ask. I answer that I call myself an atheist not because I'm certain that God doesn't exist, but rather because, given the information that we have, the most likely scenario is that there is no God.* And I always say, if God came and clearly announced his presence tomorrow, I would switch from a non-believer to a believer in an instant.

But for now, I am a definitive non-believer. And given that certain prominent political figures -- such as the horrible Sam Brownback -- want more God in government as opposed to less, I am not ashamed to declare my unequivocal secularity, and wish to fight against that which I believe is threatening our society: organized religion gone wild.

To help explain why I choose the term "atheist" rather than "agnostic," I'll use an analogy. Imagine you are out dining with friends, and while leaving the restaurant, you are conked on the head by a falling flowerpot from an apartment window above. You are knocked unconscious but are otherwise okay. The next morning you wake with a headache; the last thing you remember is leaving the restaurant. Opening your eyes, you look around. Ahead you see your television. To the left you see your clock-radio on your end table, and to the right you see your reading glasses, where you last left them. Under you is your bed. Given this information, within the first five seconds, what do you conclude?

The simplest and most reasonable conclusion would be that you are in your bedroom.

Yes, there are other possibilities -- unlikely, but possible. For instance, you could be in someone else's bedroom, and by sheer coincidence, their room looks exactly like yours. Or, you may have been unconscious long enough for someone to build a museum in your honor, complete with a perfect full-scale replica of your bedroom, and that's where you woke up. But neither of these possibilities is likely to cross your mind. You'll simply assume that you're in your own bedroom, based on what you see, because anything else would be, well, a stretch of the imagination.

This is exactly how I see the God question. We have certain information about the size, age, and structure of the universe, on the grandest scales as well as the smallest. We have discovered certain physical laws, and there isn't a single reliably recorded case, in the history of the world, of those laws being violated by an external influence, whether in the form of a "miracle" or otherwise. There are stories and speculations about purported miracles happening, but when was the last time one was scientifically observed? It's just never occurred. Which is interesting, because if the laws of physics ever were observed being violated, I don't think the scientific community would want to cover it up or ignore it. That's the kind of thing that wins people Nobel Prizes.

Given what we know, then, the simplest, most reasonable, most rational conclusion is that God does not exist. To wake up in our bedroom after a minor head injury and conclude that we're in a museum built in our honor would be the height of delusion. So it is that finding ourselves on earth, and concluding that just because we're here, an omnipotent external power must have created it all (and perhaps even that it was created all for us, as some zealots believe), is equally delusional. Yes, it is possible, but highly unlikely, given what we know.

Furthermore, I just don't buy the notion that even though something is remotely possible, it should be considered a real possibility, to the point that it affects our worldview and behavior. To make another analogy, yes, it is remotely possible that a bridge could collapse at any minute -- but if I then refuse to cross that bridge, based on this remote possibility, most people would consider that an irrational decision, a delusional take on reality. Generally, people accept the risk of bridge collapse because it is astronomically small; they don't cross the bridge "uncertain" that it will hold up; they don't say "the jury is still out" on whether the bridge will stand; they don't call themselves "engineering doubters." They just go on the damn bridge! Is it a form of faith to believe the bridge will hold up? Yes -- but it's faith that the most likely outcome will prevail, based on the history of the bridge and the tradition of bridge-building. Unless you see metal sagging and cracking, or the span swinging back and forth in the wind, or a van marked "Al-Qaeda" driven by a guy holding a detonator button, you'll operate based on what you know: the bridge was designed and built by professionals and has held up for years, so, most likely, you will be safe to cross it. It's a simple conclusion based on simple information.

Some will argue, then, that the simplest explanation for the universe's existence is that God created it. But as Richard Dawkins and others have pointed out, there's nothing simple about that explanation at all: It assumes the universe began with immense complexity -- as any omnipotent, creational God would have to be. And then of course there's always the old saw, if God created the universe, what created God? It is astronomically, mind-bogglingly more likely that the universe had simple beginnings, and that the complexity we now observe is due to the fact that it's had some 15 billion years to get that way.

The problem is, as a being that stands roughly six feet tall and lives 80 or so years, humans have a difficult time comprehending scales of time in the billions of years, or scales of size in light years. It's so much easier to think small and say "God created the universe" -- or even, "Maybe God created the universe" -- and leave it at that, rather than contemplate the vastness of time and space and our insignificance in it. And that was a hell of a lot truer millennia ago, when organized religion took root.

So, here's to the advancement of reason and rational thought, and the drawing of simple conclusions about the world -- however difficult they may be for our limited brains to wrap themselves around.

Signed, an atheist. For now.


* A definition is important here. By "God" I mean any sentient entity that created the universe with some kind of intent aforethought, and/or that can (and does) influence the course of events at will universe-wide.

22 comments:

  1. Are you sure that your definition of what you mean by the word "god" is EXACTLY what you mean(no typos or anything)? If so I could probably convince you that you are actually Agnostic, or at the very least you would probably want to change that definition to remain an Atheist.

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  2. So you would find a "god" relevant if it was a sentient entity that created the universe with some kind of intent aforethought, but doesn't (or can't) influence the course of events universe wide? Or how about a "god" that did not create the universe but still has the ability (and utilizes this ability) to influence the course of events at will universe wide? The discussion becomes rather easy for me if you would think either of those "gods" relevant. For some reason most of the atheists that I talk to will only find a "god" relevant if it is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.

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  3. Define "relevant"...Either type of God would be "relevant" if there were any direct indication that it existed, but there isn't any in my opinion. However, I don't claim to absolutely know that neither type of God exists. It is only the conclusion that I draw given the information presented to me.

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  4. I don't think you're being fair with your analogies.
    If you get knocked down by a falling flowerpot and then you wake up in a room that's shockingly similar to yours, your confidence in the fact that you're waking up in your room is based on empirical evidence: you've woken up in that room possibly every day for a long period of time, so when you wake up there once more, the familiarity of the situation will lead you to think it is your room.
    The same goes with the bridge analogy.
    With the existence of God it's different, because there is no empirical evidence in either way. For there to be such evidence, we would have to be present in (or find the way to obtain evidence from) the moment when the universe came to existence - by creation or who knows what. We could even think the universe never had a starting point, but we still wouldn't have any information presented to us to suggest this possibility.
    I'm not suggesting we should accept "God of the Gap" theories as sound or rational, but God as a hypothesis for the origin of the universe isn't irrational. Science wouldn't be what it is today if it wasn't for people having the courage of making or pondering outrageous or improbable hypotheses. The only problem I have with the God hypothesis is when it is proposed in such a way that is inconsistent with itself (such is the case of the Judeochristian all-knowing but regretful God). But there are ways to propose it in a consistent way (a God that creates the universe and wants everything to happen in the exact way everything is happening; among many others).
    Richard Dawkins has strong reasons to question the probability of God, but honestly, I think it's a lame argument to put against a believer or an agnostic. People don't choose their beliefs, because there is an emotional component to them. Stubbornness is something everybody has experienced at least once in his life, even if we don't know when we are being stubborn.
    Furthermore, even if you think we can choose our beliefs, probability has little to do with the choices we make. If there would be a way for you to know the exact probability of you being crashed and killed by a car in a certain day, and it was revealed to you that such a probability is 3%, would you be able to go walk to the street without letting that knowledge affect your behavior (despite 3% means it is very unlikely you'll get crashed by a car), even if very slightly?
    In the abscense of a sound and plausible theory about the origin of the world, you can expect people to feel the probability of the existence of God to be higher than 3%, even among atheists. Some people are simply more sensible to probability than others, and might become believers just by thinking that the probability of God is higher than 10%. And of course, adding some element of cultural bias and irrationality to the picture, the perceived probability can go higher than 50%.

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  5. How could we compute probability of something unseen?

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  6. First of all, there's no such thing as a "God" hypothesis in science, because a scientific hypothesis must be able to withstand testing. No God, "relevant" or not, can produce, nor have they ever produced, any testable data for the scientific community to consider. People's feelings don't matter in Science, only in probability, which really doesn't stand up even to the average joe if you give them the whole story.

    As Eddie said in the blog, the information presented is what brought him to this decision, I'm sure if we polled 100,000 people BLINDLY without presenting the scientific information that the vast majority of the world does NOT possess, the numbers would change (as they have been, all over the world new non-believers are popping up.)

    The biggest problem with religion in my opinion...it NEVER changes it's mind. Even the lowest lifeforms on this earth realize that knowledge, abilities, environment, and every damn thing else in this world change all the time. Religion's story is making less and less logical sense as time (and science) progresses forward, and our Generation of a LONG line of humans trying to explain our existence is now turning to the ever-changing phenomenon known as Science.

    BTW, the probability of a car crash can be tested, by region, by country, by highway, by car, hell even by age demographic. Why? Because we have testable data regarding car crashes. You can't make that a comparison to "God" ever existing, creating the earth (and the rest of the universe which every single religion to date seemed to OVERLOOK) or being actively involved in our lives.

    The biggest problem with Science in my opinion... too few of the world actually understand it.

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  7. Correction, first paragraph, I meant the numbers *wouldn't* change

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  8. I consider God to be a hypothesis because he COULD be testable some day, however unlikely this might be (I don't even suggest we should expect or hope this situation to ever happen).
    By this I don't mean we can have a bunch of miracle workers claiming to be using powers granted by God, but testable evidence that supports God could exist in the future. The fact that it doesn't exist now means nothing, and tells nothing about his existence or non-existence.
    True, we have no reason to take God's existence seriously while working with science, but the fact that there is an unsolved scientific mystery (the creation of the universe) means we shouldn't come up with any answers to this mystery just yet, or even rule out possible answers just for the sake of keeping God out of science at all costs. To do such a thing would turn the scientific method into something as dogmatic as religion currently is.
    What atheists do is the equivalent of what medieval men did when they claimed that "men will never fly." At that time, they didn't have any evidence to back a claim for the possibility of flying, but centuries later such evidence presented itself because of the creativity and wit of two American brothers.
    I mentioned the emotional engagement of people with their beliefs, not to claim that Dawkins' argument for the improbability of God is wrong, but to argue that his argument is powerless against a religious or agnostic person. My analogy was aimed at explaining how I believe people make decisions and act CONTRARY to what cold probability commands. Probabilities aren't represented in peoples minds in cold numbers, they are determined by their exposure to certain facts and information (i.e. if an impressionable person witnesses somebody get killed by lightning, that person will take lightning storms more seriously than you or me, despite having the same information we have about the probability of us getting killed by lightning).
    In my opinion, the same happens with god-believers and atheists. Their convictions aren't the result of a thorough understanding of probability and science, it's the exposure to certain information that penetrates their sense of identity. They feel for their religion in the same way as Americans or British people feel for their home country. It takes a process of emotional struggle to change or soften their sense of identity (i.e. an American person watching a dramatic video - even if it's bullshit - about the horrible things their government has done over the years, or a religious person watching a similar emotionally inspiring video about the untruthfulness of their religion or its moral teachings; better yet, these same people having direct experience on these matters).
    The biggest problem I see with religious and ethnic/national identities is that their holy books, churches, educational curriculum, anthems, prayers, etc. contain messages that tell their followers to carry them to the next generation, so that they can catch people when they are most impressionable (childhood). Their worldview is tainted with self-righteousness, and the utmost conviction that they are right and people with conflicting identities or beliefs are wrong.

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  9. Alfonso, I would be interested in hearing your ideas on how the God hypothesis could be put to a rigorous, repeatable, predictive experimental test. Even remotely.

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  10. Many people that call themselves agnostic seem to think that just because there is a chance that god exists, however small, this makes it wrong to be an atheist. I don't understand this at all. According to this logic you couldn't not believe in anything since there is always some uncertainty. This just isn't how the word belief is used. If you think there is less than a 50% chance of something being true then its safe to say you don't believe in it. I don't believe in fairies, ghosts or god even though I recognize there is some chance they could exist. Most people who call themselves agnostics are just pussies who want to appeal to everyone by taking some fake middle ground.

    A real agnostic would say that it is impossible to even assign a probability to Gods existence. I don't really understand this. If there is no evidence that something exists then then I think you can be pretty sure it doesn't exist. This is how I would speculate about the probability of an event or the existence of something in reality with no evidence.

    The probability of an event is determined by the probability of its outcome occurring divided by the sum of the probability of all possible outcomes (The sum of the probability of all possible outcomes = 1). When considering the probability of some ideas existence we can think of it as 1 event among a multitude of other alternative reality events. These realities encompass any imaginable state of the multiverse + the set of unimaginable states which may be infinite in size. Without evidence there is no way to say that one idea has any more likelihood than another other than how general or specific it is (Obviously very vague and general ideas will encompass many more specific ideas and thus have a relatively large probability.). This makes the probability of an event with no evidence just as likely as an infinite number of alternative possibilities thus making its likelihood 1/infinity.

    Obviously this isn't completely sound reasoning but basically the inevitable conclusion is that if you want to believe something you have to be able to make some kind of reasonable case for it. This is where people can have a real debate. What you can't do, however, is say that just because something can't be dis proven then its worth considering. The burden of proof is always on the person trying to prove that something exists.

    The case for a god with any non trivial properties like consciousness, power, personality etc is extremely weak so I find it highly unlikely and thus don't believe in it.

    I spent a lot of time writing this so plz respond k thx bi.

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  11. Edward, on the top of my head, I could say that God would let him/her/itself be recorded in several locations by millions of people, as unlikely as this might be, and then explain us how he created the universe in a logical and consistent manner (and maybe even would leave some impressive monument - that only God could create - as evidence for the next generations). Yes, once it happens, you could think we are all collectively crazy (yourself included) and that there's no way that monument exists even though it's right there in front of us, but I think that would be enough to convince me.
    Of course, just as I explained in my previous analogy (about the medieval "man will never fly" ascertion) the available information we have now does not provide us with information that hints to the existence of God, but I find there is no truth value on negative statements about hypotheses that haven't been tested yet, and we have evidence against similar negative statements that have been proven false, despite at the time they could've passed as true under the "you're never called to prove a negative" rule.
    Micah, I'll give you another analogy to illustrate my point. Suppose that you're a little girl that doesn't know how the teeth she puts under her pillow become money. Your mom tells you "it's the toothfairy that did it", but since you don't trust your mom because she often lies to you, you say "there's no evidence! prove to me the toothfairy exists!" and then you say (with the same certainty you're saying "if there is no evidence that something exists, then I think you can be pretty sure it doesn't exist") that "there's nothing that put money under my pillow". Well the fact is that you would be wrong, because now we know it was probably your mom that put the money under your pillow. Both in the God hypothesis and the "someone put money under my pillow" hypothesis, there is a moment when you don't know what caused some unexplainable event. In this example, the Judeochristian God plays the same role as the toothfairy (since we know he's inconsistent with many of his traits, like creating a self-illuminating moon among others). But a God that has been hypothesized in a coherent way (i.e. the God of the deists) can fill the role of your mother. Thus, I figure you can be an agnostic that leans to deism or an agnostic that leans to atheism (the latter is my case) and still be rational.

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  12. @Alfonso You are misunderstanding my statement "if there is no evidence that something exists, then I think you can be pretty sure it doesn't exist". I am saying that any solution proposed with little to no evidence is unlikely to be true. The way you are interpreting that makes no sense whatsoever. You are saying that she has no evidence to believe her mom did it so I'm wrong because her mom actually did do it? Ok..... lets assume the girl has brain damage and can only generate potential solutions without any ability to consider their likelihood (she is aware of 0 evidence to suggest that her mother did it). Maybe it was fairies, aliens or her father. Unwilling to admit ignorance she randomly chooses one of the propositions to believe. I am saying that it his highly improbable that she will guess that her mom did it. Obviously in reality a normal girl could probably figure out that it was one of her parents that did it because she could reason that it was a very simple solution not requiring the existence of any entity she had never seen before.

    On a side note... how do you propose a coherent deist explanation for the universe. Is your god at least a conscious creator? (If not, then your not using the word god in any way I've seen it defined and I think it would be a lot clearer to just use the word nature.) Then what created god... checkmate. Saying that this god entity did it doesn't actually provide any solution solution at all. Its not coherent. It only complicates things because a being with consciousness/intelligence probably requires a lot of complexity like in our brains which would be less likely to spontaneously assemble. The only reason great thinkers used to be deist was because before Darwin the argument for creation was actually compelling.

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  13. @Micah: Sorry if I mistook "pretty sure" for "certain" (when you actually meant "very likely"), though I think this doesn't invalidate my point.

    I find your assumption of a brain-damaged girl to be very close to how we currently stand in the face of the origin-of-the-world puzzle. A normal girl could count on her past experiences to assess the likelihood of her mother being the one who replaced her tooth for money, and compare it with that of the toothfairy existing and doing it (i.e. she knows what her mother is capable of and how simple this operation is). I say we are more similar to the brain-damaged girl because we have no precedents of a universe being created other than the one we live in (if we consider it was created at all), so experience can't help us out.

    There is very little information available about the moment when the universe came to existence. For all I know, we can make a case for an uncaused universe with no "beginning", just like what god-believers think of their God (i.e. check Roger Penrose's theory of an uncaused universe here http://www.economist.com/node/17626874).

    I don't seem to be able to find a good standard to assess the probability of God or an uncaused universe or a third option I don't yet know of, because common sense answers (like the one you made with your assumption that an unstudied, unwitnessed being like God requires complexity - thus applying the same rules that apply to any observed post-creation being) don't work when you don't have past experiences to rely on. Occam's Razor works whenever you can identify the occurence of an event or a phenomenon that is taking or has taken place. In our problem, the very occurence of the event is in dispute. The question 'What is the origin of the universe?' could be seen as a loaded question, because it assumes the universe had an origin (disputed by Penrose's theory), just like 'What created God?' assumes God was created (disputed by theists and deists). In either case, it depends on where do you think it's reasonable to make an exception for causality. Common sense would tell us (or at least it tells me) we simply can't do without causality.

    Therefore, I consider myself (technically) an agnostic until more information becomes available and a standard for measuring the probability of God is formed. For practical purposes, atheism has worked best for me thus far because it fits my worldview (if my worldview was different I'd be a practical deist). I am simply not able to attach any truth value or better probability to atheism.

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  14. I'm an atheist, not an agnostic.

    Main reason is that I don't actually withhold judgment on the supernatural.

    I believe (though not necessarily /know/) that when someone chants spells, I won't be effected. I've got plenty of inductive evidence to that effect. It's possible someone in the world is a real (supernatural) witch. But given the evidence, it seems unlikely.

    Same with gods. They seem to be myths. Projections of human needs. I have evidence that nothing violates the laws of physics. Gods (being magical creatures) would. It seems reasonable to conclude they probably don't exist.

    Of course, if evidence comes along, I'll revise my beliefs.

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  15. Alfonso EncinasMay 1, 2011 at 2:59 PM

    @Stephen: I'd share your position if our notion(s) of God would involve intervention in world affairs (after the universe was "created") and reacting to people's chants.

    Otherwise I'd need a better standard to measure the probability of God's existence. It should be noted that by God I mean any possible deity (considered simply as the "first cause" of the universe), not just the standard theistic gay-bashing, prayer-answering, plague-sending, virgin-impregnating God.

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  16. @Alfonso I agree that my common sense says we can't do without causality. Unfortunately common sense hasn't meant jack shit since the dawn of modern physics. As far as the beginning of the universe there wasn't something that happened before that to cause it as it was the beginning of time. There may have been something though. String theory describes the mathematics of a multiverse in which our universe is a part... Anyway it sounds like we agree for the most part. You just use an extremely vague meaningless definition of the word god compared. According to the way 99% of people use the word you are an atheist.

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  17. Alfonso EncinasMay 7, 2011 at 9:26 AM

    @Micah I consider myself an atheist in relation to theistic gods, and an agnostic in relation to the deist God. The difference between me and Richard Dawkins (and the atheists who agree with him) is that he ventures to claim that a god-created universe is more improbable than a godless one, while I don't think that probability can be measured for the reasons I mentioned in my previous comments.

    Of course, if a new theory is formulated whose "probability" (compared with that of deism) can be measured without making dangerous assumptions, I'll gladly reverse my agnosticism.

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  18. I consider myself as an agnostican, but not because there is a low propability that God could exist etc... btw, Edward, well said, your post really made me think.
    I think that the rules of Physics, their heighess themself, are subject to propabilities. They are, of course, very propable to exist and be the only "reality" that is there. BUT the universe could also consist of a Subjecticistic model of the world, meaning that everything that we can absorb out of our environment with our senses is not the "real world", but rahter a projection of our own brain, which works on its own rules and therefore makes the existence of God or anything in conflict with the rules of physics possible and maybe even probable. In this model, my own life would only take place in my own imagination and this imagination makes up rules, some of those we call "physics". As the idea of God is in great correlation to philosophy, and by thinking about philosophy, we can be sure of one thing: Nothing is really sure with the few bits of information we get, way too many variables could make it look different, ...i think that we can never be sure of the non-existence of God.
    As great parts of humanity have already wasted their time with some sort of God, in a system that doesnt require the laws of Physics to be the ultimate truth, it could be true that the ultimate truth was some sort of God, wanting us to worship him.
    Then again, it is more probable that we are biologically just in need of a God, which neurology recently also supports. But it could still all just happen in your brain, as we just have dont have no clue about how the world really works.

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  19. Agnosticism and atheism are two different thinks, and Eddie is right to separate the two. Saying you're an agnostic only states that the existence or non-existence of God is unknowable, it does not, however, actually convey what someone actually BELIEVES. One can be an agnostic atheist (someone who doesn't believe but claims not to know for sure) or one can be an agnostic theist (one who does believe in a god but doesn't claim to know for sure). You're update that you are an agnostic atheist is completely fair. I don't even consider myself to be an agnostic atheist, b/c while I can't "disprove" the existence of God, the burden of proof is not on me, it's up to those that believe to prove He exists. So far no one as done that, and so I don't believe, and none of the arguments for His existence make any sense or are backed by any sort of reason or logic, which is a good indication that the notion that there is a god is probably false altogether. That is why I am a straight-up atheist.

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  20. How can we know what the real world actually looks like, maybe it is incomprehensible to us

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