Claims to knowledge

Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Thoughts | 21 comments

Deepak Chopra went off on a bit of a Twitter rant today, and this is sure to cause a stir, because those who agree with his philosophies will re-tweet him furiously, and those who don’t will recant his ideas with just as much fervour. One tweet in particular caught my eye. It falls into line with a few ideas that I have been thinking about of late. The Tweet went like this:

@DeepakChopra: No one knows enough to be an atheist #atheism

He was obviously baiting atheists who like to search on the hashtag of #atheism and recant the faith claims of theists who often troll it. He received a heap of replies and even engaged with me, during which he basically told me I was a fake for having a Krampus image as my avatar. He then proceeded to call me a pagan because I like to celebrate the summer solstice with my family and friends, because atheists don’t believe in Christmas.

As amusing as it was, it really didn’t achieve anything, and only really served as a bit of afternoon amusement, but his first tweet resonated with me somewhat. Many of you will be familiar with the Richard Dawkins 7 point “Spectrum of theistic probability“; 1 equals someone who definitely knows there is a god, or gods, and 7 is someone who definitely knows there is no god. He describes himself as a very strong 6, and says that no thinking atheist should go so far as to call themselves a 7, as that presupposes a knowledge that it is impossible to have, given that the answers are unknowable, at least with today’s scientific abilities. This has been talked to death, and people use this claim of “not actually knowing” as grounds for someone to be called a fake for allowing for the very slight possibility, however remote or implausible, that there may very well be a god out there somewhere. But in truth, we are ALL agnostic. Those who claim to know are either completely deluded or are lying. The levels of agnosticism, though, fit into the spectrum between 6 and 2, and most people will, if given the chance to fully reflect on it, place themselves somewhere within those points.

Okay, so I don’t know that which is by definition “unknowable”, but I can safely say that I certainly see no reason to think there is a god, nor would I be so self-centred as to claim that there definitely is a god. So many theists, however, claim that they definitely do know there is a god, and they know this because they “feel” that there is, or make claims that life makes no sense without one. Many theists place themselves as a 1 on the spectrum of probability, and therefore posit themselves as “gnostic” or knowing, as opposed to the truth which is that we cannot know.

“Self-centred”? Well I can’t speak for all people who believe in gods, but most of the believers out there think that the world was made specifically for us, for humans, and that each one of us is special to their god. They believe that god listens to them, and they believe that god will judge them. And they believe this because either they were taught it so early on, or in such a manner that they can’t imagine their life without this core belief. But question them on this “fact” and they so often answer that they “just know.” In a world specifically designed for humans, this knowledge makes sense. Take away the idea of a specifically designed planet, and suddenly the idea of being special, or part of a plan loses some of its polish.

Young Earth Creationists hold on very tightly to their idea that the earth of the Bible or Koran is the literal truth, that Mohammed spoke personally with Allah, that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected, that Noah made an impossibly large boat and carried the ark of sample animals into the new world, and that the world is impossibly young. This is a faith claim, and there is no evidence that any of this happened, except for those words written in those special books. And while it is true that Mohammed was an historically documented person, and that there’s likely claims that Jesus was a real man also, these texts are written by men, not by an all powerful god. There is no way of knowing what the actual origins of these books is except by using independent historical study. So we go on faith. (There is a fair bit of independent knowledge about both the Bible and Koran, but I won’t go into that here.)

Admittedly, there is a also certain amount of faith involved with believing the claims of scientists, but the difference here is that the discoveries made are tested, retested, repeated and if need be, falsified to make room for new discoveries. Science is a continuing story, one that bulids upon previous knowledge, and discards hypotheses that have been disproven. It is not a closed book, and it is so broad in its studies that one can never know all of it. So the faith we have is not in science itself, but in the men and women, real living people, whose aim is to bring about the truth of a situation, to work together and give us what we call scientific fact. This is a very different kind of faith, and it is not even close to the kind of faith involved in religion.

So can I say that I know that my left hand is made up of atoms which were produced in the heart of an exploding star? No, I can’t. But studies in nuclear physics can, and if I were in a situation to need this proof, there would be ways to measure this. I know people who work in this field, and can tell me what they know from their own experiments. However I don’t know anyone who can prove to me the claims of Jesus’ or Mohammed’s divinity, and nobody can prove god to me.

Deepak Chopra has made claims of knowledge throughout his career. He was recently pulled up on his knowledge claims by Sam Harris and he admitted that he can’t know for sure what he was saying is true. He is agnostic about his claims, as we all are about a lot of things. So to say “No one knows enough to be an atheist” is a cop out, because if we go by that which we can truly measure, surely it should be the other way around “No one knows enough to believe in god.”

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

21 Comments

  1. Can’t put it much more clearly than that.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  2. I would place myself as a 1 on the Dawkins scale. I do not believe there is a man in the sky who will judge me after death, I don’t believe the the flood story of the bible along with many others. These stories are allegorical, the word God or Christ is used to describe a part of us that is indescribable and incomprehensible to us in our present state. I used to be in a similar situation as you, I am a biology major and you cannot argue with science. What I found in my studies of science led me to feel that there is a higher power. I’ve come to view atheism as an easy way out. The answer to our existence is a life long journey and should not be decided so readily. I realize that what I say here will have no sway on you. Spiritual realization can only be found within oneself. It cannot be taught from one to another, but I suggest you read some Hermetic and Qabbalistic doctrines. As Frances Bacon stated “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  3. I tend to lean towards the 6.9 to the third power as does Dawkins in the probability category. But, if you would have asked me that 40 years ago, I’m 62 now, I would have probably said I’m a “4″. (50/50) chance. Education, maturity along with experience, and the internet, plus just watching what religion & belief in god has done to society has changed my opinion from a 4 to a 6.9…… Does that make god any less probable? Nothing is a certainty, but I know for certain to the umpteenth power that if there is a god it sure isn’t the Judaeo-Christian one. No god, if it existed, could ever be such a MONSTER!

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  4. I tell people I’m technically agnostic about the existence of a god or gods, but atheist with regard to your god. I, too, would put myself at a strong 6.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  5. Good call, Marty. Six or seven, really is splitting hairs. The point is simply that there’s no good reason to believe, and many reasons not to believe, in any god/s you care to name. Claims to “truth” (either of god’s existence or non-existence) are really meaningless. As Carl Sagan said so eloquently, “why not save a step?” and conclude it’s actually unanswerable. – But that expressly does not mean one should make up or believe in fairy tales

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  6. I like that last statement. I’m sorry I missed this. It’s been on my mind lately, too.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  7. Are you trying to “sell”your spirituality to us,since you want us to read Hermetic and Qabbalistic doctrines? I’m a teacher of philosophy and atheist,so I don’t buy the statement of Frances Bacon.
    This is an answer to Adrey.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    • I’m not trying to “sell” anything. I’m just saying don’t rule things out so quickly. If you don’t seeing the underlying meaning within Bacon’s statement, then obviously you aren’t much of a philosophy teacher. I brought up these doctrines because they are beautiful pieces of work that are worth looking in to. Take All into consideration.

      VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
      Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  8. Matthew’s comment nails it.

    As skeptics we aren’t 100% confident that the universe is without elusive godlike entities.

    Just that written descriptions of a character named God are fiction, without exception.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  9. The Dawkins scale doesn’t distinguish between the probability of a particular thing being true, and one’s degree of commitment to a related course of action.

    Gambling can provide an illustration of this distinction. A roulette wheel offers slightly less than 50% odds on red and black, and pays 2:1 on each. Betting simultaneously on both options offers no possibility of gain: you’ll either break even or lose. Thus, if you are going to gamble, it’s reasonable to choose one to the exclusion of the other, despite the fact that the two options are essentially identical. On an ideal roulette wheel, every option has the same expected value, but it would be economically rational to place one’s money on the option with the largest expected value if they differed, even if that means betting on a less probable outcome.

    So, is the Dawkins scale a measurement of objective probability, subjective convincingness, commitment to action, or some blend of the above?

    Given the subject matter, I don’t see that it can possibly be an objective measurement of probability. That kind of thing is reserved for mathematical games with known and precisely defined rules, like an ideal roulette wheel. If we knew what the rules of the universe were, then we wouldn’t need to speculate on the probability of God. Under this interpretation, everyone should rank a “4″, not because there is a 50/50 chance that God exists, but because it is the position of maximum uncertainty. Show your working if you reach some other value.

    “Subjective convincingness” is the interpretation which keeps us more in line with the advice to steer clear of “1″ and “7″: even if all the evidence so far supports your theory, it’s presumptuous to suppose that no important piece of evidence is unknown to you. This is a subjective measure because it involves personal judgements on the significance of various pieces of evidence, and whether or not things can even qualify as evidence, and so on. If we had concrete rules for these things, we’d be computing an objective measurement of probability (as above).

    Degree of commitment is another matter. As we saw with the roulette example, this can justifiably be quite different from the probability figures, and both “1″ and “7″ are reasonable positions to take. Well, it should be pointed out that Blaise Pascal (scientist and mathematician, partly responsible for the concept of “expected value”) argued that atheism (i.e. “7″ on the Dawkins scale) was not a rational choice because it had no winnings to offer, even if it had a high probability of being right. That is, long odds to gain heaven is better than short odds to gain oblivion, particularly given that if the atheists are right, we all get oblivion no matter what we do.

    In short, there’s a relationship between one’s degree of assent to a proposition, and one’s willingness to commit to a course of action based on that proposition, but the two aren’t the same thing, and there can be good reasons to commit to a course of action based on the less likely alternative.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    • Belief in god is not simply a matter of “gauging the odds” of the situation. Nor is it even practical in any sense to follow. For example, if you believe in a god with the “knowledge” that god offers eternal salvation, how can you be sure it is the right god? There are thousands to choose from, and in the two most prevalent religions, Christianity and Islam, both differ in their requirements for you to attain heaven. Do you simply place your faith in the religion that has the most followers (read: the best at evangelising followers) or do you follow the version of god that seems more likeable. Or is it the god that offers you more? Or the one who punishes you less? What is the likelihood that one or the other is wrong? Well it’s 50/50 if we use these two choices. If you discount Islam then you discount a whole society of people who claim as strongly as you do that they are right.

      Which brings me to another point. If you truly follow Pascal’s Wager, in only a Christian sense, then there are a lot of requirements in the bible which you must fulfil in prefer to meet your God’s wants in order to attain heaven, and these are all spelled out in detail. The Koran has the same thing, but the demands are different. Do you think that by simply believing in god that you will attain heaven? Pascal’s wager does not even begin to touch on the differences in doctrines. It quickly becomes a false dichotomy, there is no way to possibly choose one or the other based on probability of being given the correct information, as the information itself is obviously equally as compelling from both sides, or there wouldn’t be so many people in both religions. So it’s not 50/50, it’s 1/4000 (if there are 4000 possible gods in human history). This doesn’t even begin to talk about denominational differences between the Christian or Islamic faiths, many which would damn you for not praying every day or even 5 times a day in the case of Islam.

      Aside from Pascal, if not knowing the answer, but having enough evidence to think the likelihood of god is an unreasonable proposition, then how can one even begin to believe in it? Would a person have to wake up daily and brainwash themselves into this improbable situation in order to attain salvation, or does this sound a bit like someone trying to convince themselves, even if doubt is in the background? Not only is it difficult to do, but would not an omnipotent god see through the charade of apparent belief?

      The most compelling thing about Pascal’s Wager is the avoidance of possible punishment or the possibility of reward, but the odds of picking the right god/s and religion and religious variation are really poor, and the risk/cost is that you waste your time not using electricity on Saturdays, or sacrificing human lives, or sitting in a church when you could be helping the poor and needy. It’s unfortunately not a very compelling argument when you realise it’s no longer a choice between Jesus and Atheism, but rather a choice between Quetzalcoatl, Zeus, and so forth. Of course I understand that people, in general don’t worship the Greek, Roman or Aztec gods, but I’m sure they followed these gods with much the same fervour that people today follow Yahweh.

      Pascal’s wager is nothing more than a tool for proselytising, using people’s ignorance of the complexity of the situation, as outlined briefly above, to try and further the cause of the Christian doctrine, and once you start peeling away at the layers, you see how flimsy an argument it really is.

      VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
      Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
      • Pascal’s wager is not an argument for Christianity: it is an argument against practical atheism. It merely points out that even if atheism has a high probability of being right, there’s no point in acting upon that belief, because it has nothing to offer. You don’t need to do anything to reap the atheistic reward of no-life-after-death: if the atheists are right, everyone gets that no matter what, so you may as well back some other horse. Which horse you back is up to you, but the rational gambler’s approach is to choose based on an estimation of probabilities and rewards.

        Evaluating the possibilities for God can’t be all that hard. If you can decide that atheism is most probably correct based on an evaluation of the evidence, then you can some up with something as “next most probable” through exactly the same process, and so on. If any of those less-probable alternatives has something valuable to offer, then it’s perfectly rational to pursue it, even if you’re less than 50% convinced.

        Your motivation to actively pursue a less-probable alternative is this: “although it’s a long shot, this course of action actually pays dividends if it’s true; if, on the other hand, atheism turns out to be right, I’ll be exactly as dead in the long run as I would have been anyhow.” That’s all the rational grounds you need. If that isn’t motivation enough, then you have emotionally-grounded issues with the alternatives, such as a predisposition to like or dislike certain things. I can’t offer advice on that front other than to suggest a measure of introspection: see if there might be some good reasons lurking under the feelings — but beware of rationalising them.

        VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
        Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
        • Pascal’s Wager isn’t an argument for Christianity? Really? Wow.

          Pascal’s Wager, also known as Pascal’s Gambit, is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher, mathematician, and physicist Blaise Pascal that even if the existence of God could not be determined through reason, a rational person should wager as though God exists, because one living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. Pascal formulated his suggestion uniquely on the God of Jesus Christ as implied by the greater context of his Pensées, a posthumously published collection of notes made by Pascal in his last years as he worked on a treatise on Christian apologetics. The Wager was set out in note 233 of this work.

          Following his argument establishing the Wager, Pascal addressed the possibility that some people may not be willing to sincerely believe in God even after acknowledging the enormous benefit of betting in favor of God’s existence. In this case, he advises them to live as though they had faith, which may subvert their irrational passions and lead them to genuine belief.

          Following the publication of Pascal’s Wager, some have argued that the Wager may also apply to conceptions of God within different religious traditions or belief systems, and as such has been used in traditions other than Christianity, such as Islam. Historically, Pascal’s Wager was groundbreaking because it charted new territory in probability theory, marked the first formal use of decision theory, and anticipated future philosophies such as existentialism, pragmatism, and voluntarism.

          If you were as amazing as you claimed, you might try looking into things before opening that mouth of yours.

          VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
          Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
          • If you’re going to construct an argument from authority, I recommend that you (a) cite your sources, and (b) quote something with more clout than Wikipedia.

            However, if you read the text that you quoted, you will see that it does not actually contradict my argument. Wikipedia says, “even if the existence of God could not be determined through reason, a rational person should wager as though God exists” — i.e., a rational person should not practice atheism, which is what I meant by it being “an argument against practical atheism”. Although Pascal himself used Christianity as the alternative to atheism in his formulation of the wager, the third paragraph that you quoted is in concordance with the other part of my description — that it is not an argument for Christianity (except in the special case that the target of the argument is an atheist who thinks that the Christian view is the second most likely possibility).

            VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
            Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
        • Pascal’s Wager? Really? Dude, you should really get out a bit more. Granted; it was groundbreaking stuff in the 17th century, but that was a long time ago.

          Your pathetic arguments have been noted and dismissed, just as Pascal’s were. You, like Blaise Pascal, think Christianity is somehow “special” and better than other religions, so the Christian god is the only one worth worrying about. Bullshit. It’s the same tired bullshit, over and over again, but you’ll never admit it.

          Don’t go mixing “possibilities” with “probabilities,” either.

          “Evaluating the possibilities for God can’t be all that hard. If you can decide that atheism is most probably correct based on an evaluation of the evidence, then you can some up with something as “next most probable” through exactly the same process, and so on. If any of those less-probable alternatives has something valuable to offer, then it’s perfectly rational to pursue it, even if you’re less than 50% convinced.”

          ROFL! You really don’t get out much, do you? Let’s see: I propose that it’s safe to assume that an intercessory god doesn’t exist, but my buddy chose the next best option; that such a god only exists if it’s 99.5% intercessory.

          You get more ridiculous with each comment you leave here, Brett. If your all-seeing, all-powerful deity is worth your worship, how would it fail to see through a person’s ruse of paying lip-service in order to avoid damnation? If I can fake it enough to fool your god, it’s not terribly bright.

          I’m sure you’ll laugh haughtily as you explain that we atheists simply haven’t made a rational, honest attempt to discover the truth about your god. We’re simply disingenuous fools who don’t know our Voltaire from our Amobius.

          In short, Brett, I think you’re nothing more than a pompous ass who spends most of his time stroking his own ego. Your mental masturbation may impress the lackeys at your forum, but the rest of us don’t really give a shit. I do, however, applaud your attempts at higher education. A degree in Philosophy is a wonderful thing. With it, you’ll be much more qualified to fetch me an extra shot of espresso for my latte.

          VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
          Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
        • I’ve expanded my ideas here
          http://www.martinspribble.com/2011/12/08/pascals-wager-why-it-doesnt-work/

          VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
          Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  10. @Audrey

    “I’ve come to view atheism as an easy way out.”

    An easy way out of what? Out of the knots you’ve been tying yourself in trying to make this God idea work?

    No offense, but please consider Occam’s razor. The easy way out is the most likely one, all things being equal.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  11. Audrey, just how has science led you to “feel” there is a higher power? Since an atheist also “feels” there is no higher power how is this taking the easy way out? Haven’t you readily made a decision since you speak of spiritual realization? Bacon was critical in the development of the scientific method so I wonder the value you see in that quote? Here’s some reading for you Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle Daniel L. Everett

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
    • I’ve given you an upvote because I’ve watched the video on youtube and also read the book. Here the pastor/minister becomes an atheist after having come to realize that the natives he’s trying to convert are the ones who see what the world really is. I wish more religious people would open their eyes to reality as he did. It’s well worth reading and watching the video.

      VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
      Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  12. Sorry Mr. Famous, I did read what you spouted. You burned me real good there. I guess I should have taken more throw away classes like philosophy so I could try to troll websites so my forum members could slap me on the back and say “You’ve really got those atheists on the ropes now!”

    You do understand that there are more beliefs out there in the world besides christianity that are far older that make just as little sense as it does, but it does not make them correct either. Why do you not believe in Inanna or Astarte? You’re mad because atheists go one god farther than you? Are you afraid of eternal hellfire or something? Do you get bonus reward points if you convert enough heathens in heaven to trade in for a shiny new iPod or something? Why are you mad at Zeus? Did he touch you in a bad way? He was known for that kind of thing.

    Why is it okay to come and harass atheists, because that IS what you are doing. You have been doing that since you decided in your little echo chamber of a forum to come over here and give Martin a hard time. Explain why you don’t believe in all those other gods and messiah claimants in the world and perhaps you’ll understand that atheists aren’t “lost souls” or “misguided”. We’re just people that don’t really need the nonsense that you hold so dear.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)
  13. RE Claims to knowledge:
    Given it’s true that one can’t have enough knowledge to know if god exists, then it’s also true that one can’t have enough knowledge to know if the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, and one can’t have enough knowledge to know if any fool thing anyone comes up with exists.
    That pretty much makes avoiding level seven on the scale because “one can’t know” irrelevant.
    As far as I’m concerned, if somebody wants me to believe in something, they have to prove it, not just say, “Well give it a chance — you can’t know it’s not true.”
    I will be a 7 until someone shows me I shouldn’t be.

    VA:F [1.9.22_1171]
    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Have your say

%d bloggers like this: