Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Popperian epistemology lets theists off the hook?

Some people say:

The Popperian idea of refuting instead of justification strikes me as too much like theists who claim a god exists and then expect other people to disprove it.
This is a confused criticism.

First, this person hasn't demonstrated that he understood Popper's epistemology (judging from the quote), so why does he think that he has understood it? How can he say that something is too much like something else if he hasn't understood one of them? Instead, he should have done the following: (1) quoted something from Popper, then (2) explained what he thinks the quote means (exposing it to external criticism), then (3) explained the epistemology of the theists, then (4) explained the flaw in the theists epistemology, and then (5) explained how Popper's epistemology has that same flaw.

Now I'll explain Popper's epistemology, and how it applies to the God theory.

Popper's epistemology approaches theories by considering the problems they are purported to solve. It says to look for rival possible solutions to that problem, and then it says to use criticism to refute all but one rival -- the one left unrefuted is the conclusion. And this conclusion is considered tentative because we know that more rival theories and more criticisms might be proposed in the future.

In the case of the God theory, a rival possible solution is the theory of Evolution. Between these two rivals, all we need to do is find one criticism that refutes one of these theories while leaving the other theory in tact. And Elliot Temple did exactly that [1]: 

In the famous watchmaker analogy, William Paley said that if you find a watch on a heath (area of uncultivated land), you can tell the watch had a designer because of its complex inner workings. He further argued that the complex inner workings of human beings imply that they had a designer too (God).

This is an important problem and a good question. There are several other formulations: 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?

One place Paley said knowledge does not come from is randomness. We need a genuine explanation. I agree with him.

Everyone agrees that people can create knowledge. We can be designers, and invent watches as well as nuclear power plants. But where did people come from originally? And where did animals come from? People didn't invent penguins.

Paley answered that people were designed by God. This is a bad answer. God, like a person, is a complex, intelligent being. God contains knowledge. So where did God come from? Paley hasn't solved the problem, he's just added a layer of indirection.

Besides the God answer, which doesn't work, there were no obvious answers to Paley's problem. It's a hard question.

Today, we have found one and only one answer to the question. It's conceivable there are others which we haven't discovered yet, but no one is even close to finding another answer. There are no breakthroughs on the visible horizon.

We found a mechanism by which knowledge can be created which does not assume any knowledge as a premise. It's called evolution.
So the criticism that refutes the God theory while leaving the evolution theory intact is that the God theory assumes knowledge as a premise (while the evolution theory does not). In other words, the God theory fails to solve the problem it's purported to solve, and we do have a theory that successfully solves this problem. So the God theory is refuted, and the evolution theory is unrefuted.

Now that we've seen Popperian epistemology at work, let's compare it to the epistemology of theists "who claim a god exists and then expect other people to disprove it." 

The first thing I notice is how this theist is not interested in finding errors in his own theories. Instead, he's expecting other people to do his work for him.  This is anti-Popperian. In contrast, the Popperian method tries to look for flaws in one's own theories, so he wouldn't be waiting for other people to look for criticisms for him.

The second thing I notice with the theist's approach is that he's not thinking in terms of problems, solutions, or criticisms. He's not thinking of theories as solutions to problems, and consequently he's not doing the things necessary to determine whether or not his theory actually solves the problem it's intended to solve. The things necessary to do that are (1) brainstorming rival theories, and (2) using
 criticisms to refute rival theories. So the theist epistemology is anti-Popperian.


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[1] _Evolution and Knowledge_, by Elliot Temple.

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