Friday, December 20, 2013

_Why atheists fail to persuade theists._

_Why atheists fail to persuade theists._

Most people have the wrong epistemology, theists and atheists alike. One's epistemology is how he determines what is true and what is false.

Karl Popper found this mistake and called it Justificationism. This is how justification is supposed to work. Say you have an idea. For this idea to be believed, i.e. considered knowledge, i.e. considered true, the idea must be justified.

The problem with this epistemology is that it’s impossible to work — an idea can never be justified. Whatever justification one has for the idea, is itself an idea, so by justificationism's own reasoning, the justification needs a justification to justify it so that it can be considered true. But then, in order to consider that justification true, we need another justification for it. And so on, forever. This is an infinite regression problem that needs a solution.

So what’s the solution? Popper figured out that the solution is to break the cycle by not seeking justification at all.[1] Instead, he said that an idea is considered (tentatively) true if there are no criticisms of that idea [2] — a criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea.[3]

To be clear about how criticism works, we need to understand that flaws can only make sense in the context of a problem. Ideas are solutions to problems. So if there is a criticism of an idea, it explains why the idea fails to solve the problem — that is it's flaw.[3]

Now, even if an idea has a criticism, thus rendering the idea false, the criticism itself could be wrong. So if somebody comes along with a criticism of that criticism, then the idea is rendered true again. So this means that an idea can be true, but only tentatively, until a criticism of it is found. So instead of using the terms true and false, it’s better to use the terms unrefuted and refuted because it's more clear that these labels are always treated as tentative.

So let’s do an example. Isaac Newton created his theory of gravity.[4] No one had any criticisms of it for 300 years. During that time, the theory was unrefuted (aka tentatively true). Then Einstein showed that Newton’s theory doesn’t work for anything going near the speed of light. For 300 years scientists thought that Newton’s theory was true — would never be refuted — but they were wrong. Einstein refuted it. [To be clear, we still use Newton’s theory of gravity in situations where the objects are not going near the speed of light because it’s a pretty good approximation as long as you stay within these constraints.]

Now, what some atheists do is to say that the God idea is wrong because it’s not justified by evidence. And this is a mistake because justification is a mistake. And the theists can claim the same thing: that the idea that God doesn't exist is wrong because it’s not justified by evidence — and they are correct about that. So, by atheists using this false epistemology in their arguments, they give theists the same tool to use in their counter-arguments, thus creating a stalemate. But the only reason this is a stalemate is because the atheists are framing the problem like this: You don't have evidence to justify your claim.[5]

The Popperian way to think about this is to think about which idea is unrefuted and which is refuted. Now to be clear, a refutation does not require physical evidence gathered from experiments. A refutation can be an explanation of a flaw in an idea.

So let’s consider the God and No-God ideas. Both the God idea and the No-God idea have no evidence against them. But let’s ask why the God idea doesn’t have any evidence against it. It’s because the God idea doesn’t make any testable predictions.[6] And without testable predictions, we cannot design an experiment that could test it. So it's not a scientific theory. But that doesn’t mean that we should consider it true. We should also look for criticisms of the idea that don't use physical evidence..

As for the No-God idea, it also doesn’t make any testable predictions. But that’s not really the rival idea to God. The competing idea is Evolution. And the Evolution theory does make testable predictions. And to date, we haven’t found any evidence that refutes the theory of Evolution. To be clear, that a theory makes testable predictions, means that it’s a scientific theory. So the Evolution theory is a scientific theory that hasn’t been refuted by evidence, while the God idea is not a scientific theory and thus cannot have any physical evidence against it because it doesn’t even make any testable predictions.

But as I said before, we don’t need physical evidence to refute ideas. We can do with criticism alone. If we have just one unrefuted criticism of an idea, then that idea is refuted.

So are there any criticisms of the God idea? Well in order to figure that out, let’s consider what problem the God idea is supposed to be solving. The most common problem that theists claim the God idea solves is this [7]:

"Where does 'apparent design' come from? Where does complexity come from? Where do adaptations come from? Where do useful or purposeful things come from? All of these questions are fundamentally asking roughly the same thing: Where does knowledge come from?" (source:

Now, everyone knows that people create knowledge, but where did people come from?

The God idea attempts to solve this problem by saying that God created people. But this doesn’t solve the problem — all it does is add a layer of indirection. God is a complex, intelligent being, like people. God contains knowledge, so where did God come from?

So that’s the contradiction. The “solution” does not solve the problem because all it does is create a new problem of the same type: What created God?

The solution to this problem should address the question of knowledge, rather than sidestep it.

The solution to this problem is Evolution. For more on that, see _Evolution and Knowledge_, by Elliot Temple (link:

--------------[ 1 ]---------------

Q: But this clearly doesn't apply to mathematics because mathematics is only concerned with proof and justification. And without either of these two elements, you have nothing (as far as mathematics is concerned).

A: I disagree. When mathematicians created their math ideas, they did it by guessing ideas, and criticizes their guesses. What you're calling a proof is an argument that argues for the math idea. When a math guy creates an argument (aka proof), he goes through many iterations before he lands on something he's happy with, something that addresses all of his own criticism. The point is that the argument is fallible, and the mathematician treats it that way.

--------------[ 2 ]---------------

Q: So as long as I say something is true, even if it isn't it's true until someone says "no it isnt" then what they say becomes the truth. I don't think we would get very far if this were the case.

A: That's how the US judicial system works. And I think it works pretty good. Somebody might go to jail because of a theory of his guilt, but the case can always be appealed, because the court knows that it's possible something was wrong with the evidence, or something else. So even the courts know that their decisions are tentative.

Q: I don't know if I agree. There is a burden of proof requirement in criminal cases in the US. It's a fallible system and innocent people do get convicted. That theory in the op has no burden of proof. It's simply states because "I say so"

A: No you’ve misunderstood. If “you say so” that I’m guilty by doing specific thing X. And “I say so” that I’m innocent by doing specific thing Y instead, and if there is no evidence to refute either claim, then it’s a stalemate — both are refuted — innocent until proven guilty.

--------------[ 3 ]---------------

Q: Rami, if I am correct, you are arguing that the default position for any argument should be that it is correct until it is criticized. I do not think this is reasonable. For one thing, it is difficult to define what a criticism is. How do we show something is a criticism?

A: My answer is long so I decided to blog it: How does criticism work?

--------------[ 4 ]---------------

Q: You're using the wrong definitions for theory, hypothesis, and law. So your essay is wrong.

A: No. Just because I use different words than you do, that doesn't mean that my ideas are different than yours. Two people can say the same sentences and mean different ideas by them. Also, two people can say different sentences and mean the same ideas by them. So, the words theory, hypothesis, and law, in the way I used them, are all the same thing in that they are testable/falsifiable theories, which is what gives them scientific status. As Popper explained, a theory is scientific if and only if it can, in principle, be ruled out by physical evidence. This is known as The Line of Demarcation -- it separates science from non-science. Note that some people claim to be doing science but they don't create testable/falsifiable theories and test them, so they aren't doing science since they aren't doing the scientific method. So it's important to be selective with which theories get to be classified as scientific. Just because it's claimed to be scientific doesn't mean it is. Make your own judgement call. Don't trust it just because it's claimed to be scientific.

--------------[ 5 ]---------------

Q: If (physical) evidence isn't used as justification in support of a theory, then how is it used?

A: Evidence refutes theories. Evidence is criticism. To be clear, only scientific theories can be ruled out by evidence.

--------------[ 6 ]---------------

With the God idea I'm talking about the harder case where it doesn't make any testable predictions. I know that some people's idea of God does make testable predictions, but I didn't talk about that in my essay because that's easier to refute, since you can refute it with physical evidence.

--------------[ 7 ]---------------

There are some other common reasons people give for believing in God which I explain in another essay, _Is God real?_.

----[ What about morality? ]----

Q: If people become atheists, doesn't that mean they will become immoral?

A: Why would that happen? Morality is a body of knowledge about what is right and wrong. Humans can create any kind of knowledge, including moral knowledge. So just because a person leaves a religion, that doesn't mean he'll throw out his morality. For example, a christian knows that murder is wrong. If he stops believing in god and christianity, that doesn't mean that he'll stop believing that murder is wrong.

----[ What about certainty? ]----

Q: If anyone is very sure about existence of God, either atheist or theist, how do you have that "certainty?" Would anyone like to share?

A: Humans can not have certainty. All our knowledge is conjectural. We do not have infallible sources of knowledge. [...] I am an atheist. I believe that there is no being that created the universe. And I came to this conclusion by the same standard that I come to all my conclusions -- if an idea has an unrefuted criticism, then it's refuted, and alternatively, if an idea does not have any unrefuted criticisms, then it's unrefuted.

-----[ more on persuading ]-----

Q: How do I persuade a theist?

A: Ask him, "What question does your god claim answer?"  Or "What problem does your god claim solve?"  That puts the ball in his court. Don't take the ball back until he has given you a question to work with. Then you criticize it. Show how their god claim doesn't solve their intended problem. ~~~ If you are arguing with a theist and you're not sure how to criticize his question, post it here and I'll help you. Or email me privately.

-----[ Clarification on Popper ]------

Q: Popper did not argue that anything non-scientific cannot be true, rather he criticized pseudo-science - ie claiming something is scientific when it is not. Popper recognized that some things cannot be tested.

A: I didn’t argue that either. I said that scientific theories can be refuted by empirical evidence and by criticism, and that non-scientific theories can be refuted by criticism. So any theory, scientific or not, that has an unrefuted criticism of it, is false. And any theory, scientific or not, that doesn’t have any unrefuted criticisms of it, is true. Now I use these labels true and false tentatively, since we can’t predict future criticisms, i.e. we can’t predict future knowledge creation.

Rami Rustom a lot of arguments i hear from atheists go like this: What evidence do you have of god?

12 minutes ago · Like

Rami Rustom But that's a bad question because you can't get evidence of god.

12 minutes ago · Like

Rami Rustom And then the theist counters with: What evidence do you have that god doesn't exist?

10 minutes ago · Like

Rami Rustom And that's a bad question too, because you can't get evidence that god doesn't exist. (to be clear, i'm talking about the harder god claim, the one that doesn't make any testable predictions.)

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