Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Believers Say the Darndest Things: “We know so little!”

One of the things I’m interested in exploring on this blog is the variety of “scripts” that religious believers employ when conversing with atheists and skeptics.

One believer script relies on an estimation of the amount of knowledge that humans have of the universe. It goes something like this (note: although I have created the exact wording of the passage below myself, it is a close paraphrase of several real arguments I have encountered over the years):
If you consider how much knowledge that humans could potentially have of the universe, the amount of knowledge that humans actually do have of the universe is almost infinitesimal. If we were to assign percentages to it, we could say that humans probably know less than one percent of all of the possible knowledge that there could ever be of the universe.
How arrogant of atheists to presume, on the basis of that less than one-percent knowledge, that there are no gods. Isn’t it very possible that indeed there may be gods lurking in the 99+% of the knowledge we haven’t acquired yet?”
Setting aside for a moment the fact that atheism is not a position of certainty nor a positive claim that there are no gods, the above argument confuses the theoretical possibility of the existence of gods (or demons or occult powers or whatever the supernatural claim is under discussion) with the currently available evidence for the existence of gods.
As we will see, just as believers routinely confuse the impossibility of having absolute knowledge with the process of evaluating claims on the basis of currently available evidence, believers also confuse the impossibility of “complete” knowledge with the same process.
Obviously, no one but an utter fool would claim that humans have discovered all the knowledge that there is to be had. So many discoveries have been made in only the last century alone that it is extremely likely that there is a great deal more to learn about the universe. And while it’s probably impossible to assign actual probabilities, it is reasonable to assume that our knowledge of the universe is on the lower side of the scale measuring the total amount of knowledge that is possible.
It should be noted, however, that while the knowledge we have of the universe is not complete, everything we’ve discovered is entirely consistent with a completely natural worldview. It’s not as if the world is brimming with evidence that makes us question our basic assumptions about the universe. It is very reasonable to suspect that the remaining knowledge we will gain of the universe will similarly be consistent with naturalism.
Of course, we must admit the theoretical possibility that we may discover evidence tomorrow that completely refutes naturalism, as unlikely as that may be.
But the theoretical possibility of a particular claim being true doesn’t in any way imply that a person is currently justified in accepting the claim.
It gets worse when believers claim that these theoretically possible beings or powers are beyond the ability of anyone to measure, thus putting these beings or powers completely beyond the scope of anyone to verify and justify. If such beings or powers are beyond the ability of anyone to measure, then believers have no basis on which to claim that such beings or powers actually do exist.
To use a silly example: it is theoretically possible that, every night while I am asleep, my television is taken apart by a small army of invisible pixies, spirited away to their supernatural lair on another plane of existence, reassembled to function as a big screen television at their nightly group viewing of Girls Gone Wild, and then quickly de-assembled again, returned to my living room, and reassembled once more, all with me not realizing any of this and being none the wiser.
It’s theoretically possible. After all, I don’t know everything about the universe. In fact, I may be ignorant of 99% or more of the universe, so this claim might actually be part of that 99% ignorance that currently escapes human knowledge.
However, while this claim is theoretically possible, there is absolutely no reason that anyone in his right mind would think that this claim is true. Furthermore, everything that we do know about the universe suggests very strongly that no such supernatural beings exist. And on top of this, if it is true that the existence and activity of such creatures is outside of any human ability to detect, then there is absolutely no basis by which one can claim to believe that they do exist.
As discussed in the previous post, the “proper default position” in regards to this claim would be to not accept it until there is some evidence available for it. That this claim is “theoretically possible” is irrelevant in exactly the same way that it is irrelevant that we cannot be “absolutely certain” about a claim.
An example of this religious script appeared just the other day on, where one poster, in discussing the skepticism advocated on this blog, wrote:
I also however have had experience which, shared insanity notwithstanding, do not correspond with a current scientific explanation of reality. Not leprecorns [sic] mind you!
As you have described in a universe there are scientific laws and principles which we can see and measure and deduce reality as near as possible from the results of our experimentation. In the case where we can "see" something to measure that is. The universe being relatively (in the greater scheme of things) very small how can or would we be able to ever measure what we can't see. Should we forever therefore remain in our goldfish bowl in self imposed bliss of negative physical perception?
In this passage, the poster is following the religious script of claiming that there is so much more of the universe to know that our knowledge of it is practically nothing, and he further claims that humans cannot “measure what we can’t see.” In other words, this occult believer is saying that there is a special category of claims that is beyond our current knowledge – our current knowledge being “very small” – and that claims in this special category cannot be measured in the way that the claims that fall into our current knowledge can be.
First of all, humans do measure things we “can’t see” all the time (we can and do measure air, for example). Presumably, by “see,” this poster means “detect in some way.”
But more important, this poster’s position is a contradiction since he is, on the one hand, saying that claims in this category “cannot be measured” and then turning around and insisting that they actually can be measured, since he apparently has been able to acquire evidence that convinces him that such a category of claims exists in the first place and probably – although, to be fair, he doesn’t explicitly say this – evidence that convinces him that some of these supernatural claims are true.
Again, the theoretical possibility of any of this occult mumbo-jumbo is completely and totally irrelevant to the question of whether there’s any good reason to think it’s true and whether tons of evidence against it exists.
As ever, the "proper default position" here is not the "angosticism" trotted out by empty-headed fools who want to hold open the door on fantastic and ridiculous claims. The "proper default position" is most definitely to not believe the claim until there is sufficience evidence available.
Now, the question remains whether “experiences which, shared insanity notwithstanding, [an interesting phrase – L] do not correspond with a current scientific explanation of reality” constitute “evidence.”
They do not.
A full explanation of the fallacy of believing that claims of this kind can be proved "to you" by virtue of fallible subjective experience in uncontrolled conditions will be addressed in another post to follow shortly.

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