Saturday, 10 December 2011

The ontological argument for the non-existence of God

Most ontological claims that can be made are false. That is to say, there are more things that can be imagined than really exist. This can be demonstrated quite easily by postulating an animal with 1 eye, 2 eyes, 3 eyes...n eyes. Even if we ignore known physical constraints, we can say that the probability that there exists an animal with 1030 +1 eyes is rather low.

This can seen in the practice of science: There are more postulated entities than discovered entities. If a scientist proposes phenomenon x to explain some feature of a larger phenomenon (example: proposing that convection currents explain some feature of thunderstorms), they need to do work to show both that phenomenon x actually exists and that phenomenon x explains what is observed.

Why is evidence needed? Evidence increases the probability of something being true. This means that before evidence is found, the ontological claim that x exists is improbable. x exists in the sea of all possible ontological claims. Evidence raises claims out of this sea. The sea of all possible ontological claims is essentially infinite in size*

Because of this feature, when a scientist proposes x, the correct response is disbelief in x until evidence is brought forward to raise it out of the sea. The probability of plucking something out of the sea and being right is low - there are an infinite number of untrue ontological claims and only a finite number of true ontological claims. This position, where disbelief is the default position, is normally referred to as 'skepticism'.

Religious folk will make ontological claims as explanations for observed phenomena. Theists often argue that god exists and is an explanation for things such as

  • Morality
  • Love
  • Religious experiences
And theologians have done a lot of work trying to show how God would explain the above. I disagree that they have succeeded, I've yet to see how there is a causal link from God to any of those thing - how the mechanics of the explanation is proposed to work exactly and how it directly leads to the observation. Worse than that though, is that there is famously no evidence for the proposed entity, God. As such God, no matter how good an explanation you might think it is, remains adrift in the infinitely deep sea of all possible ontological claims. The probability that it is one of the true ones remains therefore negligible.
* It might be worth noting that applying known phsyical constraints and the assumption that we know our constraints may serve to prevent this being infinite in practice. Even so, the number is still high enough to warrant skepticism for any unevidenced claim. Of course, if we're even allowing gods and other supernatural/spiritual/magical beings to be considered 'possible' in our sea of possible ontological claims, I think examination will reveal that we're making the pool infinite in size again. After all, whose to say there is not a magical invisible pink unicorn with 1030 +1 eyes, right?

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Faith is not a reason

In debate, and whenever else a believer might be challenged on their beliefs - there is often the temptation on behalf of the believer to refer back to their beliefs as reasons why they hold those same beliefs. This is the 'faith' rebuttal. Here's an example:

A: Why do you believe that Jesus was resurrected?
T: Because the Bible says it is so.
A: But why do you believe what the Bible says?
T: I have faith that it is true.
A: I know that, but why do you have faith?
T: I just have faith.

Now, theologians practically make a living out of glamorizing faith and imbuing it with all sorts of connotations, but ultimately faith is just another way of saying 'I trust it'. Even if the theologians are correct, all they are saying is that faith is a special kind of trust.

Normally trust is something that is earned. The process of earning trust is through justification. I trust bridges won't fall down because of the observed safety protocols that are enforced, knowing that an inspector can be held morally and legally liable if they fail to detect structural defects in the bridge, I trust in the innate human tendency to want to avoid getting caught not abiding by duties and being morally culpable for the consequences. The bridge safety system has, in short, earned my trust through closing bridges at the first sign of potential trouble.

Theologians would argue that faith is a mystically unfathomable type of trust. What it seems to boil down to as far as I can see is that faith is special because it doesn't need to be earned. Indeed, faith seems to be homeopathic trust: The less justified the trust is, the stronger the faith is.

By promoting this unjustified trust, faith is seen by many to be a virtue. Con artists rely on exploiting unjustified trust. By thinking that faith is a virtue, you are creating a Trojan Horse of the mind: Clever people may successfully exploit your belief in unjustified trust, to your detriment. You may get off lightly, and merely end up believing in some strange things, but is it worth the risk?

Finally, there is something infantile about saying you believe what you believe because you have faith it is true. It reminds me of

A: Why did you punch B?
C: 'cos.
A: But why?
C: Just....'cos.


Suicide is a difficult subject for many people. This is presumably partially down to the fact that suicide seems so alien or impossible to really imagine. What person in their right mind would do such a thing?

What is suicide?

For my purposes: suicidal behaviour is behaviour whose primary goal is to end the life of the subject. This means that some things that might be considered suicidal by some, are not. There are some classic examples here. One is the example of throwing ones self onto a live grenade. This action might be suicidal, but if the primary goal is to save the lives of comrades, then by my usage here it is not.

Furthermore, suicide attacks such as Kamikaze, suicide bombing, or the September 11 attackers are not suicide by my definition. They all have alternative primary goals. The death of the subject is pretty much incidental to those goals. Sometimes it is a desired side effect, other times an undesired one.

But I'm going to be principally talking about suicide where one's own death is the primary goal.

When is it rational?

To the left is a graph depicting a hypothetical life. The x-axis is time from birth to death. The y-axis is a measure of happiness of some sort. It is a sum of all the pros and cons for being alive at that given moment. When the line is above the axis, life is good and worth living. When the line is below the axis, life is hard and not worth living.

I think everybody would intuitively agree, however, that just because life is tough at period B, suicide would not be a rational response. It is a relatively short period of time, and it is followed by an overwhelmingly positive life for an extended period of time.

However, at the start of period D, life becomes bad, and is going to get worse and worse and worse ending only at the subject's death. The most obvious explanation for this would be a terminal illness of some kind. We might argue, that if a subject knows the shape of their graph, that it might well be rational to kill themselves at or around stage D.

Is it irrational?

Our problem with suicide is one of omniscience. Or rather lack thereof. If stage B represents a depressed stage, it is likely that the subject's estimation of their graph will look more like the one to the right. Depression tends to magnify the perception of the bad, and removes hope regarding the future.

So how can it ever be rational? How can we be sure of our projections into the future to make the decision to end it once and for all? With emphasis on the 'for all'. As ever we have to turn to projected probabilities. If we are acting rationally, we need to estimate the probabilities for the future.

Obviously mental health issues will distort our probabilities, which is why mental illness can be so life threatening.

But what if the subject is very sick at stage B, with a physical illness? One that is so bad it makes one wish one was dead. The subject should work out what are the chances of recovery, and what are the prospects for life once recovery is complete. Hopefully, they will see the first graph as being a realistic possibility and will therefore not kill themselves.

But physical discomfort can be very coercive, and can affect our rational minds just as much as mental anguish.

Is it moral?

Let's re-examine stage B. At stage B it might still be rational to kill one self, though it might not be rational to commit suicide (remember my distinction?). For example, if one knew a secret that if revealed would cost many lives it might be moral to kill oneself to avoid revealing that secret if stage B represents a torture sequence (even knowing that stage C will be swell for us). This would be with the primary intention of saving lives, though, so it would not be the kind of suicide I'm discussing.

Can it ever be moral to commit suicide? Well, why is it immoral? I'm not going to entertain the 'subverting God's will' argument here. I think Hume covered that quite well. If you are curious you can search for Hume's Of Suicide to get the rebuttal to that kind of argument.

There are some obvious moral concerns though: What if you have dependents? What about your other duties and obligations?

These are all difficult issues to resolve, but I think that a moral subject can in principle put their affairs in order to minimize the harm their suicide might otherwise cause. And I think this all lies in tension with our right to life as we see fit (including its voluntary termination). Since suicide is death with consent, I cannot find it intrinsically immoral.

Society needs to adjust to account for this view, and I think it is doing - but slowly. Assisted suicide is becoming something that is accepted morally. For the immediate future, I think that people who want to die, who aren't terminally ill, will be considered mentally ill and thus society will resist their rights to die.

But mental anguish can be as bad as physical anguish, so if it is moral to let someone die to avoid pain, loss of dignity or other suffering - I think a case can be made to allow the mentally ill to die too. Naturally, we would want to try and help the mentally ill person have a good life instead of dying - but that isn't necessarily possible. Today, seriously mentally ill people that would rather die than continue living the way they do are forced to take suicidal actions which are uncontrolled and can result in greater suffering.

It's not an easy subject, but it is better for it to be talked about - than for it to be ignored. Lives are at stake. I recommend, as a starting point for anyone interested, to examine Stanford's Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Suicide. It goes into much greater depth than I have been able to.