Sunday, June 21, 2015

Probability And Plausibility: A Kinda-Sorta Rumination

     Any number of persons who call themselves atheists do so because, as they would put it, “I just can’t believe all that stuff.” If you probe a wee bit, you’ll discover that the can’t is about the plausibility of the claims made for God, the supernatural, an afterlife, and so on. In the case of Christianity, it’s about the plausibility of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, most particularly His Resurrection.

     I wrote earlier this year that:

     [T]here is no way to determine “the probability that God exists.” That would require:
  • The attribution of a specific, spatiotemporally based definition to God;
  • Deductions from that definition about what circumstances “should” evoke a manifestation of God;
  • A tally of observed manifestations of God and failures to observe such manifestations.

There’s only one word for any such proposed investigation: ridiculous.

     However, the typical atheist bases his assessment of implausibility on a different standard:

  • The miracles attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, particularly His Resurrection, cannot be performed by anyone living today.
  • That makes the Jesus story one of a unique life and unique events, not to be reproduced, and beyond rigorous historical investigation.
  • The premise first enunciated by David Hume – “Proportion your belief to the evidence” – seems applicable.
  • Therefore, the evidence being infinitesimal, the atheist dismisses the Jesus story and its appurtenances.

     I’ve said it before: That is an entirely respectable position. Its defensibility is unaffected by my quite different, equally respectable, and equally defensible position. That’s why it’s called faith.

     But plausibility is not certainty. It’s a subjective evaluation of probability, founded on one’s personal exposure to the world and personal knowledge of times past. It is therefore the weakest, factually and procedurally speaking, of all methods for arriving at a probability. Though it can thwart the acquisition of faith, it does not disprove what persons of faith believe and hold to be true.

     Any problems that arise between atheists and theists emerge from disrespect: the unwillingness of one to concede the intellectual defensibility of the other.

     The weakness of the plausibility approach to religious questions can be shown merely by applying it to any other dramatic but unique event of the past. This works for a single, simple reason: there is always more than one possible explanation – i.e., one causal hypothesis – for a past event.

     Hillary Swank’s excellent movie The Reaping provides a good example of this:

     [Hilary Swank as protagonist Katherine Winter:] “In 1400 B.C., a group of nervous Egyptians saw the Nile turn red. But what they thought was blood was actually an algae bloom which killed the fish, which prior to that had been living off the eggs of frogs. Those uneaten eggs turned into record numbers of baby frogs who subsequently fled to the land and died. Their little rotting frog bodies attracted lice and flies. The lice carried the bluetongue virus, which killed 70% of Egypt's livestock. The flies carried glanders, a bacterial infection which in humans causes boils. Soon afterwards, the Nile River Valley was hit with a three-day sandstorm otherwise known as the plague of darkness. During the sandstorm, intense heat can combine with an approaching cold front to create not only hail, but also electrical storms which would have looked to the ancient Egyptians like fire from the sky. The subsequent wind would have blown the Ethiopian locust population off course and right into downtown Cairo. Hail is wet, locusts leave droppings, spread both on grain, and you have got mycotoxins. Dinnertime in ancient Egypt meant the first-born child got the biggest portion, which in this case, meant he ate the most toxins, so he died. Ten plagues. Ten scientific explanations.”

     Given that the events in question are past, and that they and their precursor conditions can no longer be observed, the above explanations are intellectually acceptable. To the observationally-oriented mind, they will seem more plausible than the supernatural explanation offered by the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus, because the proposed causes are more mundane – i.e., they rely upon causes and influences that have been observed in other contexts, rather than postulating intervention by something that cannot be observed, reproduced, measured, and studied.

     Which doesn’t prove that they did bring about the ten Biblical plagues that afflicted Egypt, any more than the narrative in Exodus “proves” that it was God’s way of loosening Pharaoh’s grip on the Hebrews.

     The great challenge, both to the theist and to the atheist, is to find and to exhibit respect for the other’s position. You cannot validly claim to respect another person if you insist on deriding his cherished beliefs. That doesn’t mean you must accept those beliefs. Neither does it mean you must accept their implications, nor grant the other any special exemptions from the law or the rules of polite discourse. It’s more a matter of conceding the nature of a faith: the acceptance of a proposition or a set of propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved. Theism and atheism are both faiths by that standard.

     It would be easier, I think, if we were more conscious of the many things we take on faith at each and every moment of our lives. Anything believed upon authority is taken on faith unless personally verified – and not merely by recourse to another authority. Any assumption made “for practical purposes” – e.g., the assumption that the floor of a room will not collapse beneath you – is taken on faith until it’s tested and found to have been true — but we must allow that such a test verifies the assumption only for the duration of the test!

     Arthur Herzog, in his masterpiece The B.S. Factor, exhorted us to become “rational skeptics.” His rational skeptic accepts that there is indeed an underlying objective reality, which is composed of facts rather than opinions or suppositions, but that his sensory and ratiocinative capabilities are only partially capable of apprehending it. It’s rather a pity that the word skeptic has a negative connotation, because the Herzogian approach to reality and the conditional nature of the many propositions upon which we rely is the best defense against the arrogance that has so frequently precipitated rhetorical warfare, if not worse, between theists and atheists.

     May God bless and keep you all...whether you believe in Him or not.

     UPDATE: This literally just arrived in my email:

     I find it compelling. What about you, Gentle Reader?


Dr.D said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Weetabix said...

Your rumination sparks two thoughts:
1. Atheism is a faith. (Maybe you said that.) But good luck getting an atheist to admit that. For me, faith in God means taking fewer liberties with what is observable than an atheists faith would... for me. Sort of an Ockham's Razor thing.

2. With regard to Katherine Winter's explanation of the plagues - that could all be true. But that doesn't mean God didn't do it by using tools He already had in place. I think God is a great craftsman. Wouldn't it be more elegant to use the tools that were at hand? No need to lose faith just because He used tools He'd already made.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Concerning your second observation, Weet: That, unfortunately, is something both atheists and theists tend to forget!

All of Creation is God's to use as He pleases, when it pleases Him. Arguments over natural versus supernatural causes for important events miss the point: that God stands above all of it, and that should He will to use some part of it in some fashion, His will shall be done!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps understanding the source history of "gnosis" (including Jesus) would help.

Read Blavatsky and/or Gerald Massey (Achara is of equal value).

They clear away much of the cobwebs from history. But, like anything written - your mileage will vary.

Anonymous said...

"Any problems that arise between atheists and theists emerge from disrespect: the unwillingness of one to concede the intellectual defensibility of the other."

Great piece, and great statement. I am the internal atheist/external agnostic that responds here from time to time. I do not believe there is a God, I KNOW there is not a God, but this only goes so far as the bounds of my consciousness. Beyond this, all I can be is an agnostic, because it's true, atheism entails just as much faith as the belief in God. I find interesting the fact that God "made proof impossible", as proof being impossible would also be the outgrowth of there being no God, but that is neither here nor there.

I do not impose my disbelief on others, and in fact, I exhort others to believe if they can. It's a far more tolerable life to believe than to disbelieve. I will continue to respect the prerogative of others to believe, and although I expect the same respect towards my disbelief, I also recognize that it is the imperative of believers to prosthelytize. Just know that THAT, right there, is NOT the view of most atheists, and so, if you find yourself in the company of a militant atheist, keep in mind that they are not as tolerant of being preached to as someone such as myself, who accepts others and their beliefs without taking personal insult.

Preaching to an atheist IS insulting, in their mind, and you might consider alternatives if you wish to reach them somehow. Maybe start with the whole "both are leaps of faith, neither can be proven or disproven" argument. With that in mind, I've found far more believers unwilling or unable to consider the alternative to their viewpoint than atheists. Most believers, having no proof, are STILL unable to imagine, for the sake of argument, that there is no God. It's as if there is an underlying predisposition to believe, lacking any solid evidence, and a refusal to see that the atheist's position is equally solid to the believer's. In other words, if an atheist was shown proof, they could only switch their viewpoint to belief. But there IS no proof that can be shown to a believer to switch their viewpoint, it's impossible to prove a negative. And so, before you cast stones at the atheist (not you Fran, your piece is excellent) look at yourself and ask, have YOU considered the alternatives, honestly, the way you feel the atheist should? Think about that.