Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Proof revisited

This post started life as a rather long comment in response to a comment that my favourite Poor Unhappy Soul wrote to this post. But I'm not sure how many of you read the comments, and I'd actually quite like some input on this, because my ramblings may not make a lot of sense.

The whole point about faith is that you believe something even though you have no proof. I don't BELIEVE IN the cup of tea on the table beside me - I have objective proof that it's there, and I would be stupid to deny its existence, as would anyone else who was in the room with me.

You, on the other hand, have no way of knowing whether I have a cup of tea beside me or not. It would be reasonable for you to assert whether or not you believe that I have a cup of tea here. You could then share your belief with another person, and they could also choose whether or not to believe you.

There is an objective reality there, but you would have no proof that your belief was true. In fact, you could be wrong about it and never know - perhaps there is no cup on the table beside me, or even no table, or perhaps there is a cup, but it contains coffee rather than tea.

I could be wrong in my belief that there is a God - I have no way of objectively proving that I'm right. If I did, that would be knowledge and not belief. As it is, I KNOW what the Church teaches, and I BELIEVE it to be true. I can't prove it to you, and any attempt to prove it would contain the sort of false logic you see in my arithmetical example.

The fact that you wouldn't be able to prove to a third party whether or not I have a cup of tea on the table beside me (because you can't see me, don't know who I am, don't know where I live, and so have no way of objectively verifying my assertion) doesn't alter the fundamental and objective truth. Either there is a cup of tea here or there isn't.

And either there is a God or there isn't. I believe there is. Drac believes there isn't. Only one of us can be right. And neither of us can genuinely prove it one way or the other. The absence of a rock solid proof that is accessible to both of us does not disprove the existence of God.


Dracunculus said...

You make some good points but I think there is a problem in your example and it is the flaw is similar to that in the comment I made to your earlier post where I posted Carl Sagan's "Invisible Dragon" narrative.

You have a cup of tea beside you. OK so for me the fact the tea exists/does not exist is in a superposition state of 50%/50%. Now I know about cups of tea, I've seen them before and I know you own a kettle so let's move the numbers to 80%/20%. Can you send me a picture to my mobile of the teacup, yes you can... we move to around 99%/1% (you could have faked the picture!)

Now I don't "believe" you have a cup of tea, I can deduce from experience and evidence that you have one.

When it comes to God we are in the same initial position. Your church tells you that there is this being who created everything (including tea). Whereas I have seen cups of tea and know they exists I have no experience of this being and the church has a vested financial interest in as many people as possible believing in their version of this being so I have to be sceptical so I can only give you a 10% might be. Now lots of people over hundreds of years have believed in this being so there may be something in it but I know lots of people have previously believed things that were later shown to be false, like the earth goes round the sun, so lets go up a few percent to 20%. Now can you be shown any physical evidence of this being? No, you can't, everything I suggest either can't be done or is provably false or in the case of something like faith healing likely to have a more physical reason for happening than the intervention of an undetectable being. We're back with Sagan's dragon and Russel's teapot again and the odds for existence of this being start to tend to tend toward zero; never reaching zero of course as it is impossible to prove a negative.

So it is incorrect to say that "Drac believes that there is no god". Rather I deduce that, on all the evidence available to me, that there isn't. I cannot say with mathematical certainty that there is no such thing but based on the evidence then the chances are to all intents and purposes zero.

If I believe that I'm really a small green dragon who just happens to look like a fourtysomething computer programmer that's a belief, probably a harmless one, based on absolutely no verifiable evidence but my say-so.

If you believe that an undetectable being came to earth in the person of a human 2000 years ago then that has the same level of evidence of my scaliness* It might be a belief that causes people to do good things like help the poor and needy but it is a belief that flies in the face of any kind of evidence whatsoever.

Milk and two sugars with my tea please.

* The spiritual bits that is - I'm happy enough to go along with there having been a man called Jeshua ben Joseph wandering around Palestine and preaching.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, so you've seen cups of tea and own a kettle. What about a member of a primitive tribe of people in Africa who have never seen tea, teacups, Royal Doulton, kettles, or even a climate that would make it remotely desirable to warm a beverage? Does their inexperience with the ways of tea make tea's existence any less real?

Your acceptance of the objective reality of tea, in other words, seems primarily based on your own subjective experience of tea--provided, of course, that the tea, the pot, the cups, the tea plant, this blog and any conversations that take place upon it, and in fact any consciousnesses at all other than your own have any actual existence outside what may quite possibly be your own extremely fertile imagination.

The material universe can't really be proved to exist without certain assumptions, such as the belief that other people outside one's own consciousness actually have their own objective existence and that observable physical phenomena aren't merely the illogical manifestations of one's own mind--and it can't be *proved* that they are not.

Dracunculus said...

Your point about the tribe in Africa is fair. If I were to go and make an extraordinary claim of the existence of this delicious hot beverage that they had no experience of they would be entitled to be skeptical and / or wonderous. However the big difference and the point I was trying to make is that I can back up my extraordinary claim by physically producing a box of PG and making some tea for the tribe. Religion makes an extraordinary claim for the existence of one or more deities but when I ask them to produce the chap with the white beard and get him to part an ocean with a wave of his hand they cannot, nor can they produce any other material evidence.

I am therefore in the same position as if I had said to our African tribe "There is this wonderful beverage called tea, it is hot, sweet and wakes you up in the morning. But I can't show you any or give you any so you just have to take my word for it" They have every right to go "Well you can't show us this tea, cannot offer us any material proof of its existence, we just have your word for it; so its an interesting notion but to us the existence of this being you do call "Twinings" is just as mythical as the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn* you told us about last week. More to the point as there is no evidence of "Twinings" actually existing that you are able to produce we do not feel the need to believe the other things you tell us about it and certainly not the need to mutilate our childrens genitals, opress homosexuals or set fire to the other tribe who worship "Tetley" as you claim that this "Twinings" orders us to do"

The material universe, for all practical purposes, does exist in a manner that I can percieve it. It may well be that this is some huge hallucination like in the film "The Matrix" but I am currently percieving it in a certain way and that is all I can percieve. If I am in some sort of fever dream and none of this is real it doesn't actually matter for any practical purposes for my current reality. It does not, to me, alter the fact I'm sat on a train tapping this onto a laptop. There could be an infinite numer of alternate realities just out of phase with this one, even one where a real little green dragon is tapping these words into a lappy, but for any practical purpose they are undetectable, do not impinge on this reality so for any and all practical purposes THEY DO NOT EXIST.

Thus is it with religion's claims for deity. The central premise is resistant to any and all forms of verification and can, and in my view should, be treated as though it does not exist.

Always remember here that it is not the unbeliever that is making the extraordinary claim. It is therefore not the role of the unbeliever to disprove the claim, rather it is the job of the believer to produce evidence to support it.

(And the only true tea is PG tips pyramid bags)

* One fact of which, that she is invisible, is verifiable as no-one has ever seen her. We must however have faith that she is indeed pink.

Dracunculus said...

Off topic tea joke:

Engels goes round to Karl Marx's house.

"Hello Engels," says Marx, "would you like a cup of tea?"

"Yes please," Engels replies, "but not proper tea."

"Why ever not?" asks Marx.

"Because all proper tea is theft."

newhousenewjob said...

"They have every right to go "Well you can't show us this tea, cannot offer us any material proof of its existence, we just have your word for it; so its an interesting notion but to us the existence of this being you do call "Twinings" is just as mythical as the existence of the Invisible Pink Unicorn* you told us about last week."

But Drac, that's exactly my point. The fact that they just have your word for it and you can't offer them any material proof doesn't mean that objectively Tetleys doesn't exist. True, they're perfectly entitled to choose whether or not to believe what you say, but that doesn't alter the objective truth.

Similarly, the fact that I can't give you physical, tangible proof of God's existence doesn't mean that he doesn't exist. I believe that the only real, verifiable proof will come after death. Being flippant now, if I'm right, that's great. If I'm wrong, I'll never know about it, because death will be the end. So prima facie religious belief and practice is a safe bet.

Dracunculus said...

>But Drac, that's exactly my point.
>The fact that they just have your
>word for it and you can't offer them
>any material proof doesn't mean that
>objectively Tetleys doesn't exist.

No it does not. But the very fact that I cannot offer a single shred of material proof makes it, on balance of probabilities, less likely than more likely. Especially when the tribe ask me if I have tasted this beverage and I say no, all I know about it is that it was written down in a very old book which says someone thousands of years ago saw a cup of it once.

You see that's the point I'm trying to make. Of course I cannot prove that there is no god but, on the evidence available, the likelyhood is that there isn't one.

>Being flippant now, if I'm right,
>that's great. If I'm wrong, I'll
>never know about it, because death
>will be the end. So prima facie
>religious belief and practice is a
>safe bet

That's known as "Pascal's Wager" and it has a number of flaws. The main ones are:

1) You do not know which particular set of beliefs and practices are the right ones which will reward you with an afterlife - e.g. the Muslims might be right!

2) It assumes that, should a god exist, he requires belief. He may reward certain types of behaviour regardless of belief. (In fact certain passages of the New Testament can be read this way)

3) It assumes that there is a cost parity between belief and non-belief. This is not the case and I would argue that belief is more costly than non-belief as it imposes duties and restrictions on the believer that a non-believer does not have. For example I am at liberty to eat bacon sandwiches, gain pleasure from drinking alcohol, gain even more pleasure from sleeping with anyone who would like me to sleep with them regardless of gender and finally if I become mortally unwell and in pain the option to terminate my own existence. All "benefits" that are not available to certain classes of believers.

newhousenewjob said...

OK, let me respond in particular to 2) and 3).

2) The Catholic Church doesn't teach that belief is required in all cases in order to get to Heaven. It's one of the things I find reassuring about it - if someone is a good person and lives a good life, they shouldn't be condemned to eternal damnation just because they didn't adhere to a certain faith that they'd never even heard of. The fact remains that a believer will be quite chuffed to find after death that their belief (and attempts to live life in accordance with that belief) was well founded.

3) I don't find myself restricted by the limits which the Church places on my freedom to do whatever I please, because I accept those restrictions willingly. And for me, the rewards of practising my religion far outweigh any restriction I might feel - I truly believe that my Catholicism not only defines me as a person but makes me a better person than I would otherwise be, because it helps me to fight selfish and destructive urges.

Dracunculus said...

On (2) - well good for the Catholic Church. However the church my parents took me to when I was a hatchling said that I had to believe in Jesus or I would not go to heaven. Now in the absence of any evidence whatsoever for either point of view how am I to tell.

However I do try to live a "good life", help others, try not to be too selfish, that sort of thing but I do so out of a sense of trying to make society a better place for me and everyone else rather than because of a belief in a deity. Now should that pay off in some putative "afterlife" then great. I gain but I've not had to believe.

As to (3) yes you accept the restrictions willingly, but they are still a "cost". If you think that your beliefs make you a better person and help you to live a more rewarding life that is all to the good and I applaud you for it. However, and I think this is the crux of the matter, there is no more evidence for the veracity of those beliefs and the diety from which they flow than there is for The Invisible Pink Unicorn and the doctrine of what toppings to put on your pizza (ham and pinapple of course).

newhousenewjob said...

Ah, now there I have to disagree with you. Pineapple is a sweet and tasty fruit to have as pudding. It was not designed as an accompaniment to ham. The correct topping for pizza is ham and mushroom.

Dracunculus said...

Just so long as it's not pepperoni and mushroom or I, as a devout believer in the Invisible Pink Unicorn, would have to persecute you as a follower of the Purple Oyster of Doom! :-)

newhousenewjob said...

I have yet to be presented with concrete proof that pepperoni is actual food. Until I have such proof, I can never be one of its followers...