Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Wisdon of Ayn Rand ?

Maybe a great writer but great philosopher ....

I have a couple of observations here.

1. She makes the common mistake of holding the trial of God's existence in the same session in which religion is being tried. God is not religion and religion is not God. In short, the photo one takes of the ocean is not the ocean itself.

2. You cannot prove a negative? I've heard this often by those we believe to have great learning and intellect. I can prove an elephant does not exist between me and my computer screen. Just because it can't be proven that something exists does not necessarily mean that it doesn't. With the uncertainty principle it seems logical to believe it does until proven otherwise.

This reminds me of another of these populist thoughts that mimic for thinking. In business is this idea that perception is reality. I understand what they mean but it is not very well thought through. A man may perceive that he can fly and leap of a tall building in a single bound. However reality is approaching him at 32ft/sec squared and will be realized when f=ma rearranges his molecules.

Another of these is when people use 'begs the question' to sound smart when they are referring to a question that elicits another question. 'Begging the Question' is actually a fallacy of reasoning otherwise known as circular reasoning where the premise assumes the conclusion. A good example is "God exists because the Bible tells me so. After all the Bible was written by God."


chuckbutler said...

You wrote "I can prove an elephant does not exist between me and my computer screen." Unless this is another typo, you're missing the point.

Let's say you believe there is a cute, little pink elephant floating between you and your screen. You are perfectly free to make such an assertion, however if you'd like me to believe it you'll have to prove it with some kind of evidence. In other words, the burden of proof is on you. But because you're not going to be able to offer any evidence for your belief, I have no choice but to dismiss your claim as arbitrary.

Now, you may say, "well, you can't prove the elephant isn't there," and you're right--I can't. But since you made the arbitrary claim, it's not my responsibility to prove it untrue; the burden of proof is on you.

Anyone who believes in God is welcome to do so. But they should also be clear that they are making a leap of faith in claiming the existence of something for which there is no objective evidence. The question is whether indulging your emotional need for such a belief is ultimately a help or a hinderance. Rand believed that anything that undermines man's faculty of reason is probably not very good for him. I agree.

IOpian said...

Well let's approach it from another angle. Let's say you and I do some empirical tests. We take a flashlight and go to a zoo or circus and we find some elephants. We shine the beam of light at its side and observe if the beam of light passes through the elephant to emerge on the other side. In all cases we determine that a simple beam of light of that intensity cannot pass through an elephant. Then we come back to my desk. I say there is an elephant between me and my screen that has miraculously been able to defy gravity and not crush my desk. You would merely need to take the flashlight and remind me that we have determined that a beam of light cannot penetrate through the thick mass of an elephant. You would merely need to point to the reflection on my screen that the light is not only hitting it but bouncing back to our eyes. Therefore an elephant does not exist between us and the screen. You would have just proven to me that it does not exist.

Now on God. We cannot say there is or there isn't a God. Any choice we make is inherently based on some subjective view. Call it faith, speculation or Opinion. To make a definitive statement would require that everything about the universe is known. Our brains and knowledge will always be short of that requirement. This very fact undermines man's faculty for reasoning. He can only build upon a limited amount of information. He simply doesn't know enough to make a reasonable judgement either way. So for one to say there isn't, in fact, a God is every bit as absurd as one saying there is, without a doubt, a God.

There is one thing we do know for a fact. The debris of the universe can be assembled in such a way that beings came into existence that sense the observable universe. The non-living matter of the universe can, in a small way, become aware of itself. Given the vastness and mysteriousness of the universe I choose to believe that the human is not the most evolved form of cognitive being. That is a arrogance, unlike many 'great thinkers', that I will not allow myself to indulge. I doubt the human mind can even imagine the bounds of these possibilities in our four dimensional thinking and limited electro-magnet range of sensing.

Primates somehow became aware of a concept of morality. What is right and what is wrong. If there is no God there cannot exist a concept of universal morality. It is limited to Whatever the most powerful group determines is moral. Only if a God exists can there exist a universal morality. Now morality may just be an highly developed genetic adaptation for the survival of a species. Living things are just the things genes do to assure their survival and reproduction mechanisms. Yet there seems to be a universal morality even between species. That morality and the evolution of specifes appear to have an inertia towards improvement over what came before. It isn't linear but it trends towards perfection against the entropic nature of the universe.

Given Pascal's Wager and the works of Descarte anytime I see people proudly proclaim their atheism I simply see someone making the lesser choice. It would be wiser to simply declare agnosticism instead of atheism since we simply cannot ever know for certain.

To choose sides is to undermine one's faculty of reason by disregarding the other choice. I choose to think of it as framing one's theory. I choose to pursue the existence of a god because the universe has produced a thinking moral being and I do not know the bounds of that path. I can already speculate on the fate of the amoral path where man is but a self glorified animal in eventual self destructive descent instead evolving toward a potential more spiritual being. I could be wrong but it is my choice through reason.

Pardon any typos. Hopefully the form and context of the word is sufficient to fulfill its mission of conveying meaning to an astute mind.

chuckbutler said...

While much of your post appears to be an argument for agnosticism, it seems that you have in fact chosen to take a definite position, based on this from your last paragraph:

"I choose to pursue the existence of a god . . ."

If that is the case, as I said previously, you are welcome to that opinion and obviously there is nothing I'm going to write that will change your mind (and I reject any suggestion that it's somehow my responsibility to prove your opinion wrong). Having said that (and in the interest of others who may read this thread) I'll answer a few of the points you made above.

First, I applaud your suggestion that we apply scientific method in disproving the floating elephant. If only those who hold such beliefs would be so easily persuaded by evidence! Most mystics would simply retort that this particular elephant is transparent, or exists simultaneously in-and-not-in reality, or can only be seen by those who believe, or some such nonsense. In a sense, you're making my argument for me, which is: let's believe in things that are perceivable or knowable by inference from our perceptions.

The difference between the elephant example and God is that you've set up God as something that is beyond such proof (while you assume the floating pink elephant would have more-or-less the same properties as an actual elephant). But what if we change the elephant to a ghost, for example? Now how will I prove to you that there is no ghost floating in front of your computer screen? My point is that one could imagine all kinds of things; things that by definition would be unprovable by any means. What is the basis for belief in such things? In court they would be thrown out as "assuming facts not in evidence." When I reject belief in God as arbitrary, that is not "subjective." You say "He is." I respond, "show me," and you can't. There is absolutely no objective evidence to support your claim, and therefore I reject it. Nevertheless, you insist that anything you claim (so long as it's even remotely conceivable or, at least, not immediately disprovable) deserves the benefit of the doubt. But even doubting would require some evidence that your claim might be true; in the case of God you've given me a word representing a concept with no referent. You're not even giving me enough to conclude "might be." The whole universe "might be" a dream occurring in some alien's brain. Should I accept such a claim as "possible" or reject it as arbitrary?

You criticize me for making a "claim," but I've made none. I simply don't believe there's any evidence for your claim. I don't "proudly proclaim" my atheism--I'm not asserting anything. You're free to believe whatever you like; I just don't agree to join in your fantasy, and the (lack of) evidence is on my side. You think this means that I'm claiming to know everything about the universe. On the contrary, I'm only claiming to know what is known and nothing more. Like an oracle, it is you (not you specifically, but the prior mystics who put this notion of God into your head) who have asserted this fantastic, invisible being; an idea that I find at best entertaining, certainly not credible or useful and, in many ways, demonstrably destructive.

As to your "proof" of the possibility of God, I agree that conscious beings have evolved in the universe. Are you suggesting that the "debris of the universe" "assembled" itself into God? That's a fun notion, but it flies in the face of most religions, which put events the other way around. But leaving creationism aside, none of the conscious organisms we've actually observed have the properties you're ascribing to God, so again, this is your imagination at work: human consciousness is a fact, therefore a greater consciousness is possible. OK . . . if you say so. I'll just have to take your word for it.

Immanuel Kant definitely agreed with your argument for agnosticism, BTW. He didn't think it was possible to prove or disprove God either, so he figured that if it did people some good to believe in God, then what the heck--go ahead and believe. And you mentioned Pascal's Wager, which is the silly notion that maybe-there-is-and-maybe-there-isn't a God, so let's go ahead and believe just in case. Well, if you believe any of the western religions that kind of hedging-one's-bet is not going to work when you arrive at the pearly gates. And if you believe in God sans religion, what's the point? In that case, God is a disinterested "Prime Mover" and whether or not you believe in him is incidental.

But you make clear that belief in God is necessary for "universal morality." This is flat wrong, and we have plenty of evidence against this argument. Even some ancient greek philosophers, most notably Aristotle, offered ethical systems with no dependence on religion or belief in a higher power. More recently, Ayn Rand made important discoveries which complete Aristotle's vision for morality sans mysticism. But for proof, we need only observe the many atheists who lead completely moral lives (the vast majority, in my experience) as against the many atrocities that have been committed by religionists throughout history in the name of God. When was the last time someone flew a plane into a building, or blew up a school full of kids because they didn't believe in God?

Those are examples of extremists and religious fanatics, you'll argue. Fine. So what's wrong with an "innocent" belief in God, or saying, "I just don't know--maybe there is, maybe there isn't?" Superficially, there's nothing wrong with it. Lot's of people go through their whole lives holding such beliefs, and take great comfort in them. But here's the rub: human beings aren't just conscious on the perceptual level (like animals)--we are conceptual creatures. This means that, in order to deal with the vast number of things we observe in the universe, we form concepts. And since we survive by reason, and because the successful application of reason depends on the validity of our concepts (remember GIGO?"), it's important that we make sure our concepts are grounded in something observable in reality. The trick is that we also have imagination. This gives us the competitive advantage of being creative thinkers, but also means that we can generate concepts that have no basis in objective reality. So we have to be very clear about whether our concepts are based on some observable or inferable existent, or upon arbitrary assertions of what might be possible in our imagination. Just because someone puts an idea out there--that God exists, or that there are gremlins on Venus, or that there are ghosts in the castle--doesn't mean we should shrug our shoulders and say, "yeah, sure, I guess that's possible." Just because you can't prove some arbitrary idea wrong doesn't mean that it has merit, and just because an idea falls under the widest imaginable definition of "the possible" doesn't mean that it should be considered valid, valuable, useful, or anything other than what it is: arbitrary.