And After A Sudden Surge... Still No Evidence For God.

Welcome to the first attempt at meeting The Hackenslash Challenge.

This particular outing stems from an apologist on Twitter who thinks he has a bit of a grasp of philosophy erecting yet another iteration of the previously debunked cosmological argument for god. I initially spanked this back, as it's little more than a regurgitation of Kalamity Kraig's nonsense. However, the apologist was persistent, and requested further contact. He subsequently posted on the challenge thread and it seems a way of getting the ball rolling. As we'll see, most of this was addressed comprehensively in In The Beginning, and the apologist in question, one Austin Duhe, was directed to that post but, as we shall see, failed fairly catastrophically to grok it.

So, here we are at the beginning, which seems an appropriate place to start:

The Cosmological Argument:
1.) Whatever begins to exist has an efficient cause
2.) The universe began to exist (Evidence)👇🏼
I'll give it to you in an acrostic.

S stands for Second law of thermodynamics. Which says that the unavailable energy in the universe is increasing (energy in the universe is running down). Well if it's running down then someone/something must have wounded it up with the available energy to begin with. We would have no energy right now if the universe is eternal.
OK, so straight off the bat, we have a fallacy of blind assertion. There are several problems with this assertion. The first is that the term 'universe' is undefined. This is hugely problematic from the get-go, as discussed at some length in Before The Big Bang Part I . Much of the content of the apologist's argument treats that which arose from the big bang as constituting the entire universe, when this is far from clear. This is an area of active research but, at the moment, the epistemological status of this idea is 'truth value unknown'.

Secondly, the term 'energy' is undefined, and this portion of the argument rests on having as robust treatment, not least because it invokes the law of entropy.

Thirdly, it hasn't been established just what kind of thermodynamic system our local cosmic expanse is, let alone the universe in toto, yet here a law of thermodynamics is offered as support for a contention. I will finish this post with some questions for the apologist to clarify some of this, and the discussion will continue in the comments. There are several questions concerning thermodynamics arising directly from the above paragraph.

Finally, I'd like the apologist to put some numbers on his assertions here. Without understanding much about what processes might be involved, he seems happy to wantonly erect assertions about how we wouldn't have any energy if the universe were eternal.

U stands for the Universe is expanding; Edwin Hubble detected that in 1929 and shows that everything came from a single point. Which is infinite density, the singularity, which is actually nothing. So the universe had a beginning out of nothing.
The first thing to note about this portion is that the apologist is combining the Fosbury flop with a Selachimorph. There are several factual errors here, and the leap in logic is one that Jonathan Edwards would be proud of.

Let's deal with them in order.

Yes, Hubble observed that the cosmos is expanding. In no way was it established that that everything came from a single point. As we discussed in Before the Big Bang Part I, the singularity theorem comes from a 1970 paper by Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose. We also discussed how the term 'singularity' has two distinct definitions. We noted that the Hawking/Penrose theorem, assuming that GR held, showed that the universe came from the physical notion, as given by the apologist here. However, we also noted that neither Hawking nor Penrose accept that this theorem describes our universe, not least because this type of singularity is prohibited by quantum mechanics. In that framework, this type of singularity is, at best, an asymptote.

Further, even were we to accept the existence of the singularity, the assertion that it's 'nothing' is asinine, and displays an ignorance of the relevant physics. What it actually is is a region in which the density and curvature both tend to infinity. This means, of course, that it has no spatial extent, but that doesn't mean that it's nothing. It's worth noting at this juncture that all of the particles in the standard model of particle physics are point particles, which means that they also have zero spatial extent. Would the apologist wish to contend, then, that they're 'nothing'?

Finally, these are all theoretical considerations, and even current theory cannot take us back to any sort of beginning, even of our local cosmic expanse, let alone the universe as a whole. Observationally, we hit a barrier long before we get even close to the Planck time. This brings me neatly to this:
The R stands for the Radiation after glow; this is the remanence [sic] heat left from the Big Bang discovered by Penzias and Wilson in 1965. Which is literally the smoking gun of the Big Bang; There is heat left from the Big Bang which shows the universe having a beginning
 What this, the CMBR, actually represents, is what is known in the jargon as 'the surface of last scattering'. We covered how this works fairly completely in Evolution and Entropy Revisited. What it really is is the photons that reflected off the last free electrons just prior to their becoming bound to atoms, about 380,000 years after the Planck time. 

It's worth pointing out here that the term 'big bang' is often misused as a matter of historical contingency. This is simply the name we have for the fact that the cosmos is expanding. It was, in the classical theory of the big bang, taken to be the event that started it all, but we've learned to be somewhat more circumspect in our language these days, and we're aware that what we've always thought of as the beginning may well not be. Indeed, as we've covered in some detail in the Before the Big Bang series, the two front-runners on the cosmology landscape currently do not have a beginning at t=0. 

I should also note that I have no problem with the universe having a beginning. Indeed, I've presented in the past a précis of one means by which this might be achieved entirely in line with known physical principles, in The Certainty of Uncertainty.
The G stands for The Great galaxy seeds which we're very fine temperatures in that radiation after glow which showed the galaxy to form in the early universe
And the E stands for Eisenstein's theory of General Relativity which shows that space matter and time are co relative; they came into existence together and had a beginning. He knew this in 1916 and then observational evidence came in 1919 when Eddington did his test on the eclipse, then Hubble in 1929, then the radiation after glow and the great galaxy seeds after that.
Not sure what the apologist thinks he's proved here, except that he doesn't know his history. The existence of inhomogeneities in the CMBR that led to gravitational clumping and the formation of galaxies has nothing to do with the relatedness of time and space. As for the history, Einstein knew no such thing, and it appears that the apologist has ripped this from elsewhere without bothering to check any of it. The obvious glaring error is that Einstein most definitely didn't know this in 1916. Indeed, Einstein introduced a fudge into his equations precisely to avoid any changes in the cosmos, precisely because he was wholly wedded to the idea that it was eternal and unchanging.

Several things seem to have been mashed together here, and it isn't easy to make sense of it. What can be made sense of is either trivial or wrong.
3.) Therefore the universe has an efficient cause
And here we find the apologist has shot his load without making anything like a robust case.
Conclusion:So the evidence shows that the universe is not the uncaused first cause. There must be something beyond space matter and time, which is a cause that is spaceless timeless and immaterial; in order to create space time and matter in the first place. This cause also has to be powerful, personal, & intelligent. Powerful: because this cause created the universe out of nothing. Personal: because to go from a state of non-existence to a state of a creation, you had to make a choice (non-personal things don't make choices, they merely react. Example: Gravity, Rocks, molecules). Intelligent: again, intelligence in necessary to make a choice and to be personal; also this cause was intelligent enough to fine tune the universe so precisely. So we have a spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal, and intelligent being that caused the universe into existence. This is exactly what we mean by a Theistic God; an "unmoved mover"- Aristotle
And this is the usual pseudo-philosophical word salad. The first thing to address here is Aristotle. Here's a protip: If you want to talk about principles in physics, Aristotle is exactly the wrong way to go about it. By today's standards, he was a complete ignoramus. We looked in In The Beginning at Aristotle's thinking, and concluded that he had as much place in a discussion of this nature as he does on the subject of sexual dimorphism in human dentition.

Further, the degree of circularity buried in there is approaching singularity. The conclusion is smuggled in by virtue of referring to the universe as 'creation'.

Frankly, I'm still waiting for the argument to begin. 

Bad objection to P1:
What we mean by "cause" is "efficient cause". Pardon me I'll use Aristotle again, but this is what he meant by a cause: that brings an effect into being. That is an efficient cause, not a material cause. A material cause is the stuff out of which the thing is made. For ex., Michelangelo was the efficient cause for the statue "David"; but the material cause was the block of marble that was sculpted.
The claim was that Everything that begins to exist has an efficient cause. And having the universe beginning to exist, (which is what the evidence shows), must have an efficient cause.
I know what he meant. He has no place in this discussion. Here's physicist and philosopher Sean Carroll:
But there's a bigger problem with it which is that it is not even false. The real problem is that these are not the right vocabulary words to be using when we discuss fundamental physics and cosmology. This kind of Aristotelian analysis of causation was cutting-edge stuff 2500 years ago; today we know better. Our metaphysics must follow our physics - that's what the word metaphysics means. In modern physics, you open a quantum field theory textbook or a general relativity textbook. you will not find the words 'transcendent cause' anywhere. What you do find are differential equations. This reflects the fact that the way that physics is known to work these days is in terms of patterns. Unbreakable rules; laws of nature. Given the world at one point in time, we will tell you what happens next. There is no need for any extra metaphysical baggage like transcendent causes on top of that. It's precisely the wrong way to think about how the fundamental reality works. The question you should be asking is what is the best model of the universe that science can come up with.
'Nuff said.
You also say that "quantum tunneling" can be used as evidence for an effect without a cause, or evidence that something can pop into existence out of nothing. Sorry, but the quantum vacuum is not "nothing" (nothingness has no properties). Any physicist can tell you that. Also, they're are at least 10 different interpretations of the quantum vacuum but we don't know which one is right. But if the quantum vacuum is not nothing, then it to must have an efficient cause; just like space matter and time having a cause. But if the evidence (SURGE) shows that space matter and time had a beginning, then the efficient cause must be spaceless timeless and immaterial because the cause can't be made of/subject to space time and matter. It has to be outside of the universe which contains such things. Also, timeless beings do not have beginnings, therefore they have no efficient cause. So what ever the cause of the universe is cannot have a cause. It must be eternal.
First, I never said quantum tunnelling could be used as this sort of evidence. I did mention quantum fluctuations, however. I do note that it's extremely interesting that you invoke things coming into existence out of something in your first premise, then switch to out of nothing, in a brutal fallacy of equivocation, but suddenly you object when I note something that negates your first premise on the grounds that it doesn't address your second premise? Are you serious?

That said, the quantum vacuum is indeed nothing. It is not nothing in the sense that it's seething with activity, but absent that activity, which is the very activity under discussion here (quantum fluctuations), it is indeed nothing. Again, this was covered at some length in The Certainty of Uncertainty.

Finally, you've erected an awful lot of unsupportable assertions in there. I'll add them to the questions.

Seriously, you need to drop these Aristotelian notions of causation.They're a comprehensive failure of thought. Good in Aristotle's day, useless now.
Bad objection to P2:
Premise 2 does not commit the fallacy of composition. The universe itself, is space matter and time. Space matter and time is not the part of the whole, it is the whole. Therefore, there is no fallacy. Also notice that we don't say "everything in the universe that begins to exist has a cause...... therefore the universe has a cause." Rather," everything that begins to exist has a cause..... therefore the universe has a cause." Forgive me, but it seems like you're putting up a straw man.
And here we see the full failure of understanding. I didn't actually assert that premise 2 commits the fallacy of composition, the argument in its entirety does. You've taken a principle that seems to hold in the universe and attempted to apply them to the universe itself. This is a crystal clear fallacy of composition.

So, questions:

1. What type of thermodynamic system is our cosmic expanse?
2. What defines a thermodynamic system?
3. What is energy?
4. What is a timeless being?
5. Can you provide any evidence of such an entity?

That should be enough to be going on with.

1/10. Must try harder.

The Hackenslash Challenge

Here it is, folks.

Like many in my sphere of influence, such as it is, I'm often accused of going after the low-hanging fruit; of taking on only the arguments and opponents that are easy to defeat, maybe motivated by wanting to look better.

It's difficult for me to give voice to the contempt I have for this notion. My motivation is simple: To improve the quality of thought and discourse in the public sphere, and to provide sceptics and science-oriented people with the best tools in logic and rhetoric that I can muster.

As has often been done before, then, I offer a challenge:

If you think you have an argument that I haven't addressed for some theological idea, fringe science (loosely), or some other pet notion often scorned by sceptics and the scientific establishment, bring it.

I don't purport to be in a position to provide a robust scientific answer to every question, but I'm a demon researcher, and I have a high degree of scientific literacy, so I'm confident that I can at least answer any questions that are coherent.

Creationists, theists, flat-Earthers, expanding-Earthers, UFOlogists, dowsers, fortune-tellers, whatever. Post your challenges here and they will be met with the best I can provide.

If you don't feel up to the challenge yourself, feel free to nominate somebody who you think is the best advocate of your idea, and I'll happily hound them to the ends of the Earth (as long as you furnish me with some means of contacting them.

I expect this thread to remain unpopulated, but let's see, shall we?

If you can win the argument, I promise to champion your cause far and wide, and to ensure that all my scientist friends (of which I have many) are aware of the strength of your argument.

This is no idle challenge. It's genuine, and I will devote myself to promoting any idea that I am convinced has merit.

Over to you!

EDIT: In light of lack of traffic here, and to avoid having to monitor this post, I've set up an e-mail address for this purpose. If you have a challenge, please e-mail

This will give greater flexibility in presenting your argument, and will allow the inclusion of images.


Is your conclusion related to a premise by some multiple of \(\pi\)?

There's an increasing trend in apologetics, arising from a presuppositionalist stance, that horribly abuses a fairly well-established principle of logic, specifically a known fallacy, and I've seen some pretty poor approaches to addressing it. I'll start with an example. I'll note that the particular example I've chosen is one of the better approaches I've seen, and the atheist here - Adam Johnson - clearly grasps logic well and handles the situation admirably. However, he misses a trick.
The apologist - Dustin Segers - insists that reason is required to validate reason, and that this is circular. This would be a valid line of objection if it weren't for a couple of fatal problems.

The proper term for the fallacy cited by the apologist is petitio principii, or begging the question. 

It's important to note that some care is required here, because not all question-begging is circular reasoning, but all circular reasoning is question-begging.

So what do we mean by circular reasoning? We looked at this fallacy briefly in Deduction, Induction, Abduction and Fallacy, where we noted that:

This is one of the most common fallacies you're likely to come across. It's committed when the conclusion of an argument is contained within the premises. It's generally easy to spot but, occasionally, the conclusion is 'smuggled' into the premises in a form not easy to spot. It will usually be in the form of a premise whose truth relies on the truth of the conclusion (hence begging the question) or vice versa. Note that a question-begging argument is always valid and, if the premises are true, then it's also sound (it couldn't really be other in cases where the conclusion is contained in the premises because, if the premise is true, and contains the conclusion, the conclusion must be true). Gary Curtis gives the following example:

P1. Murder is morally wrong.
P2. All abortions are murders.
C. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.

This is clearly a valid argument, and it doesn't appear that the conclusion is in the premises, so what's the problem?

It becomes clearer when you strip away the loaded term 'murder'. The first step is simply to remove the first premise, which lends nothing significant to the argument, and then to replace the word 'murders' with something more neutral. Then we're left with:

P. All abortions are wrongful killing.
C. Therefore, abortion is morally wrong.

In content, this argument is identical to the original, yet now the circularity is crystal clear.

So, if it's a valid argument, what's the problem?

The answer to this question should be reasonably obvious, but it's such a common fallacy that appealing to the fact that it's obvious is probably not going to get us anywhere. 

The problem lies in the fact that this is a deductive argument. Recall that, in a deductive argument, if the premises are true, and the reasoning valid, the conclusion is necessarily true. When I say 'necessarily', I'm using the full technical definition of necessity, in which the conclusion 'cannot fail to obtain'.

Of course, since the conclusion is what the argument sets out to prove, having the conclusion in the premises means that what we're saying is that if the conclusion is true, then the conclusion is true. Not only is this tautological, it means that we haven't actually proved anything, because it's tantamount to simply asserting blindly that the conclusion is true, which is itself a fallacy (ipse dixit - he said), as discussed in Onus Probandi, Assertionism and Peer-Review. In short, we simply can't say that the argument is sound, because the conclusion stands unsupported.

So, does this apply to science and reason? Let's start with science. We'll leave reason for the moment, not least because reason is at the root of it all. For the purpose of advancing the subject, we'll simply operate on the principle that reasoning works and circle back to it later (see what I did there?) for the coup de grâce.

The first place to look is at whether science is deductive. There are certainly deductive elements to the logic of science, but it isn't deductive in its entirety, and it's doubtful that those areas where it is are going to support a charge of circularity. To be rigorous, though, let's look at the process again, from the first cited post above:

1. Observe phenomenon.
2. Formulate hypothesis (abduction).
3. Compute the consequences of your hypothesis (deduction).
4. Compute a consequence that, if observed, will show your hypothesis to be incorrect (deduction).
5. Devise experiment (or observation) that will show one or other of the above.
6. Observe phenomenon:
7a. If 3 is observed, your hypothesis survives (induction).
7b. If 3 is not observed, your hypothesis is incorrect (deduction), 
and should be modified (at least) or discarded
7c. If 4 is observed, your hypothesis is incorrect (deduction), and should be modified (at least) or discarded.
8. Rinse and repeat.

Looking at the deductive portions of that, we can see that no charge of circularity can actually apply. Beginning at 3, the premise there is 'if my model is correct, we should see this'. Or, formally, \(P \Rightarrow Q\) (hypothesis \(P\) implies consequence \(Q\)). No circles to be had there.  We also have deduction in 4, but here the form is slightly different, namely 'if my hypothesis is correct, we definitely won't see this'. Formally, \(P \Rightarrow \lnot Q\) (hypothesis \(P\) implies not consequence \(Q\)). 

The next deductive portion is 7b, which is \(\lnot Q \therefore \lnot P\), while 7c is \(Q \therefore \lnot P\) (\(\therefore\) = therefore), which displays a suspicious absence of curvature. In content, we have the precise formulation of two of the most basic argument forms and, as rules of inference, they're pretty unassailable.  These are the forms of the modus tollens, or 'way that denies by denying'. Formally, and to show them completely, \(P \Rightarrow Q, \lnot Q \therefore \lnot P\) and \(P \Rightarrow \lnot Q, Q \therefore \lnot P\) respectively. In both cases, the conclusion is the negation of the premise, so it could hardly be said that the conclusion is contained in the premises. In each case, the logic is completely linear, and not even the remotest hint of an arc in sight. 

Note that, where a falsifying observation is made, this may not be the death of the hypothesis. Some falsifying observations will be so catastrophic to the hypothesis that it must be discarded completely, but we need to check it first. It may be that the computed consequences are incorrect, for reasons not yet elucidated. It may be that the falsifying observation highlights some limiting factor or effect that the researcher was unaware of while computing consequences. In all cases, she must go back to her calculations and check. 

All hypotheses, and indeed the broader theories they form part of, are apportioned degrees of confidence commensurate with Hume's famous dictum. They're used to generate predictions, and we accept that, when predictions are validated, our model survives, and we can apportion a bit more confidence. We state of such models that they are empirically adequate, and accept them tentatively pending future observations and theoretical developments that allow us to compute more consequences. Thus, because we're not employing our conclusions as deductive, and we're not asserting them as truth, the charge of circularity is fatally undermined.

Science is pragmatic and, as a result, self-correcting. Once the above is complete, the peer-review process begins. I deal with this in detail in Onus Probandi, Assertionism and Peer-Review - linked above - so I won't belabour it here. Suffice it to say for our purposes here that the entire system is geared toward showing that our model is wrong. Even for a theory that has withstood every bit of testing for centuries, we keep revisiting it, because a single observation is sufficient to fatally undermine a theory. We've covered this in various ways in the physics sections of this blog dealing with Newtonian mechanics and Relativity. Newton was having predictions validated to the eyeballs for more than 150 years, yet along came Einstein and showed that he was wrong. Not only are we actively working to break our theories when we first propose them, we're actively working to break them all the time. Breaking extant theories ishow Nobel Prizes are won.

As our understanding progresses, we gain more confidence in it, which makes our reliance on it as empirically adequate and unfalsified as any theory or hypothesis. In other words, our reliance on science is itself inductive, and each new triumph of prediction or explanation increases our confidence. We go from evidence, to hypothesis to computed consequences, to tentative conclusion, the conclusion in this case being:

Image: XKCD 
Incidentally, it's worth tracking the story of that graph, because it's one of the great triumphs of modern physics. There's a wonderful book by Marcus Chown called Afterglow of Creation, in which the above logic takes centre-stage, and the pragmatic nature of science is vindicated in absolutely spectacular fashion. I can't recommend this beautifully-written book highly enough.

So I've conclusively demonstrated that our reliance on science is anything but circular, but what about reason?

Well, here's the thing. The entirety of what's been said above can also be applied to reason, because the reasoning employed in science is exactly the same reason that we apply to reason itself. Ultimately, reason is pragmatic. We utilise all of the same principles in reason as we do with science, The logic is identical. We rely on reason because, once again, it works, bitches!

There's a famous old saw attributed to Heraclitus of Ephesus:
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
Circular? Yeah, right.

Thanks to Sendraks and Atyhans for their input in attaining clarity. Original video can be found on Eddie Becker's Channel.

But, But... You Have Faith Too!

What does it mean to have faith?

This is a question I struggle to answer, because I have no experience of it. That said, I have some grasp of the relevant subject matter, and I feel the need to address some common apologetic arguments regarding faith and belief, and to elucidate the reasons why these are problematic terms. As is often the case with such topics, this is largely going to be about semantics. That shouldn't put us off because, contrary to popular tropes, semantics is an extremely important discipline, and forms the backbone of philosophy, and indeed thought. For more on this, see the previous outings Are Babies Atheist? and The Map is not the Terrain, wherein this is dealt with at length.

Most dictionaries will describe faith as 'complete trust or confidence', which seems on the face of it to be fine, but as we start to unpack the terms in that definition, we see that there are pitfalls. For example, what exactly do we mean by 'complete'?

While I was never a believer, I've spent a lot of time in discussion with former believers of all stripe, and they generally tell me much the same thing, namely that their faith was unshakeable, unquestionable even, right until the cognitive dissonance became unbearable and the cracks started to appear. Regular readers won't find this surprising, not least because, I suspect, most of my readers were once believers, but also because this touches on ground we've covered before, not least in Patterns and the Inertia of Ideas, in which we discussed a phenomenon for which I later coined the phrase 'cognitive inertia' for our tendency to resist ideas that didn't fit well into our existing intellectual frameworks, and the tendency to give in to our cognitive biases.

Often, it begins with the storing of a few innocuous-seeming bits of information that don't appear to have any impact on the framework in general. Then once enough of these innocuous facts are in place, it can take a single fact that fits with these facts but doesn't fit with the original framework to make the cracks start to appear. Sometimes, this can happen all in a rush, as a true epiphany.

The general point here is that faith is total, unswerving and unquestioned. I define it as 'acceptance of a truth-claim without evidence or in the face of contradictory evidence'. 

What about belief?

I've talked previously about belief in The Art of Philosophy, and why I think it's a problematic term. I won't belabour the point here, except to say that I have no use for the term because it covers such a broad range of disparate concepts, each of which is better described by a more accurate and specific term, as to be next to meaningless. I only ever employ the term in settings like this, in which I'm discussing the term itself. One of the things I realised very early in my studies of epistemology is that there are very few propositions in which we can be categorically certain of the truth. As a result, I've worked hard to shed any firm acceptance of propositions that can't be demonstrated to be absolutely true. 

I define belief as 'acceptance of a truth-claim absent a demonstration of its truth'. This definition in mind, I have no beliefs. It's worth noting once again that the definitions I employ here are mine, and mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect usage. The two previously-linked posts on semantics deal with why that is, rooted in the proper use of semantics.

This opens up all sorts of problems and, when I've expressed this without qualification, it's generally led to much discussion around whether or not I believe the sky is blue, or some such, so it's worth categorising the levels of epistemology here as I see them.
  1. There is that which I know: I call this knowledge.
  2. There is that which I accept as the best explanation currently available for the data: I call this empirical adequacy. 
  3. There is that which I don't know: I call this ignorance.
What do I mean by empirical adequacy? This simply means that any hypothesis that stands as an explanation for all the available data and has not yet been shown to be wrong - we'll come back to this shortly - stands as an extant hypothesis. It needn't be the only empirically adequate hypothesis, and indeed it's rarely the case that we have a single hypothesis for any area of science.

As should be readily apparent, there is no room in there for belief. The only possible domicile for belief in there is 2, but it's also clear that this is tentative and, moreover, enjoys evidential support. There's certainly no room in there for faith.

Ultimately, what this boils down to is degrees of confidence. Hume tells us that we should apportion our confidence to the evidence available and the degree of consilience between our models and the data. 

This should be sufficient groundwork for us to delve into the topic proper, which is to treat some common claims from apologists, the broad class of which is reflected in the title of this missive; the claim that reason, science, etc, require faith.

We'll start with something much closer to home, though, because a corollary claim is that we must have faith in the love of our families. This is a specious argument, because we don't love in a vacuum. We might lust, but our love is based on experience. This is true not only of our own love, but of our confidence in the love of those close to us. Mrs Slash's love for me is not remotely in doubt. This isn't a matter of faith, it's a matter of accord with the data, based on the evidence provided me by nearly 30 years of her putting up with my foibles and nonsense, and still being there, and with me, and concerned for my well-being, despite the fact that I can be an intolerable shit at times, and so pragmatic that I can seem emotionally detached and cold. There is no room for faith in this. 

So what about science and reason? Do I have faith in them? Do they require faith?

As the above should make abundantly clear, the same epistemological trichotomy applies to those as I've erected above. Indeed, it's via the application of reason and the methodology of science that this trichotomy was devised.

As we explored in Deduction, Induction, Abduction and Fallacy in some considerable detail, science proceeds by showing hypotheses to be wrong. This is a principle famously formalised by Popper as 'falsification', and it involves testing the predictions generated by hypotheses, either in the form of not observing something that should definitely be observed if the hypothesis is correct and the critical conditions are met, or of observing something that should definitely not be observed. Science never asserts its hypotheses to be correct, because to do so would require that every potentially falsifying observation has been made with no challenge to the hypothesis. Since being able to assert that we've made every possible observation would require omniscience, we can never go that far, because omniscience is self-refuting, as we saw in All Kinds of Everything

That's not to say, of course, that we can never assert that something is true, contrary to the popular translation of soundbites on the topic. When I dropped my pencil a few moments ago, it fell to the floor. This is objectively and eternally true. However, it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that our model that explains this - the general theory of relativity - will be shown to be wrong, in the same way that Newtonian gravity was shown to be wrong.

What this tells us is that our trichotomy above is reflected in science in the following manner.

  1. Observations, along with falsified hypotheses. These we call knowledge, or facts.
  2. Theories and hypotheses. These we call empirical adequacy.
  3. Areas of open research. These we call ignorance.

So what we actually have with regard to science is confidence that's rooted in a large body
of evidence that tells us that the method is reliable, and that confidence is proportional to the evidence available at any given time. As more data are gathered in support of a hypothesis, our confidence increases. It only takes a single observation to kill a theory stone dead. 

So, while I have no doubt that there are those who accept the conclusions of science on faith, it isn't actually required. For myself, even in those areas of science in which my knowledge is less than entirely robust, I understand both the underlying principles detailed in the research and, more importantly, the method by which our scientific models. Also, even for those who simply accept the conclusions of science, they're reliant on a large body of evidence that the underlying process of science works.

Faith is the illusion of knowledge, the excuse we give when we should simply plead ignorance.
“Faith is the surrender of the mind, it's the surrender of reason, it's the surrender of the only thing that makes us different from other animals. It's our need to believe and to surrender our skepticism and our reason, our yearning to discard that and put all our trust or faith in someone or something, that is the sinister thing to me. ... Out of all the virtues, all the supposed virtues, faith must be the most overrated” - Christopher Hitchens

Thanks for reading.

Suggest A Topic!

Is there anything you'd like to ask? Some bit of apologetic you've struggled with? A bit of science you'd like explained in layman's terms? Have an argument for/against god that you'd like to try out? Any logical fallacies you'd like exposed? 

I thought it might be a fun idea to open the floor, and make a little space for requesting topics. If you have anything you'd like to chat about, use the comments section below.

Where possible, I'll answer every entry, or I'll write a more broad blog post that exposes it if it's an interesting topic or something I already had some plans for.

Over to you!

The Executioner's Argument

Can you behead an entity that has no body? It seems tricky, to say the least, yet this is what I intend for this post or, more accurately, to cut the body off from the head.

The post title is a reference to a discussion in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, in which the King ordered the beheading of the Cheshire Cat, who appeared only as a disembodied head. The executioner argued that it wasn't possible to decapitate something that was all head, and had no body. The King argued that it was perfectly possible.
Some suggest that much of Carroll's work of nonsense was an allegory, bemoaning the state of education in Victorian England, especially in Carroll's chosen field of mathematics and logic (there's also a suggestion that the pictures of the Mad Hatter in the original edition were meant to represent the great Bertrand Russell).
Anyhoo, is it possible? It's a thorny logical problem, to be sure. From what are you decapitating the capital? It's my intention to decapitate something that has no body in this post, by simply destroying the head with some simple logic.

There seems to be a burgeoning of late of a branch of apologetics known as presuppositionalism. It appears to be a method for little more than simply frustrating counter-apologists. It's pretty effective, too, because it can be difficult to pin down a position to argue from. 

As an interesting aside, I had a bit of a chat the other day with Sara Uckelman, lecturer in logic at Durham University, that included this exchange:
If you want to know what my answer to this question is, see Who, What, When, Where, How, Why? The Art of Philosophy. It gels fairly well with Sara's response, but goes into considerably more detail.

Let's talk first about what presuppositionalism is, and how it manifests in apologetics and debate.

Presuppositionalism in Christian apologetics is, at root, the belief that the Christian worldview is the only rational one, and that the bible is the revealed, inerrant word of god. It mostly proceeds by attempting to expose logical flaws in other worldviews. This is problematic in and of itself, not least because it represents several fallacies before we even begin to examine it, not least the false (di)chotomy (or however many worldviews it encounters) and our old friend petitio principii, or begging the question. Moreover, as the above exchange should be highlighting, a central problem is identification of failures of presupposition, and this framework asserts for itself that its presuppositions cannot be wrong.

The way it approaches the task is to show that other worldviews can't account for certain things, and concludes that they're self-refuting on that basis. Among other things, I intend to show here that the presupp stance is most definitely self-refuting on the basis that every tactic it employs to refute another worldview applies equally to presuppositionalism, thus the apologist refutes his own position.

Let's start gently, though, and simply show that presuppositionalism fails on its own terms. In order to do that, we need do no more than find a single instance of something the hokey blurble gets wrong. Can we do that?

Well, errrr...

Just kidding, of course. It's trivial to find something, because the only thing that's actually consistent about this book of turgid drivel is the wrong in it. Classifying bats as birds, insects with four legs*, the idea that you can affect wholesale changes in the genome by having parents bump uglies alongside coloured sticks. And that's barely scratching the surface.

Time to get serious, then. 

The strongest argument arising from presuppositionalism is that atheism - or secular humanism, to cite an example employed in a recent debate between Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Debates Patreon project and Matt Slick, head cook and bottle-washer at CARM(dot)org - is self-refuting because it can't account for the laws of logic. 

Let's do a bit of unpacking here, because it will save some tedious work later on.

Slick asserts first of all - quite incorrectly - that the laws of logic aren't the same sort of thing as physical laws, the laws of the universe. This is rooted in an abject failure to grasp just what physical laws are.

It's a common misconception that physical laws are rules that the universe must obey. This misses the mark in one important aspect, an aspect we touched on in a slightly different context in The Map Is Not The Terrain when discussing dictionaries and definitions. In that post, we discussed the fact that dictionaries, popularly thought to be prescriptive, are actually descriptive of usage. In the same way, physical laws are descriptions of observed behaviours. Specifically, they're descriptions of the relationships between observed quantities. They describe interactions between one entity and another arising from the properties of said entities..

Similarly, logical laws are descriptions of principles of thought, specifically dealing with contradictions. Is it possible for a contradiction to obtain in the universe? That's a question we can't answer with any robustness, but it certainly appears that it isn't, and we proceed on that basis. Like physical laws, they're subject to the problem of induction (setting aside whether we'd recognise a true contradiction). 

We discussed the three laws of classical thought in Deduction, Induction, Abduction and Fallacy, the earlier offering on how logic is used in the sciences. In summary, they all basically say the same thing, yet they apply in a subtly different ways. They are as follows:

1. No proposition can be both true and false simultaneously - the Law of Non-contradiction (LNC).
2. Nothing can be both what it is and not what it is - the Law of Identity.
3. For any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is true - the Law of the Excluded Middle (LEM).
I know that my friend and mathematics guru Phil Scott, who we met in Definitions and Axioms, thinks that the case for these laws of thought is massively overstated at the very least, and he makes a compelling case, which lends weight to what I'm saying here. Ultimately, although they've shaped our thought since antiquity, they can best be thought of as useful guidelines, or indicators of when we should look more carefully at our reasoning and conclusions. 

I'll say no more about this for the moment, not least because Phil has expressed an interest in addressing this in another guest post, which will be a treat. The point here is that we should treat these laws of logic, and indeed logic itself, as not having truth-value, but as being useful guides.

Let's look at them in a little more detail. The first is fairly straightforward (though possibly the most contentious). In Paradox! A Game for all the Family! we looked at some well-known instances of where contradictions had been thought to have arisen. I asserted - correctly, I think - that there were no genuine paradoxes. The nearest we got to one was Russell's Paradox, which arises in naïve set theory. This comes about via the assumption that things can be collected into sets without restriction based on some property. This assumption then leads to the idea of a set of all sets that don't contain themselves as a member. If this set does not contain itself as a member, then it must be a member of the set, which means it can't be a member of the set, so it must be a member of the set, and round and round and round (you may want to read that through a few times; it confused the holy fuck out of me). As Phil likes to say, 'here we go again; first we discover recursion'.

The point here is that, when we encounter a situation in which two or more mutually exclusive circumstances obtain in our thought, it's a very good indicator that something's gone a bit pear-shaped.

The second is the law of identity. This states that something cannot be both what it is and not what it is at the same time. Can a stone be not a stone? Again, this is pretty much intuitive, and requires no real justification. It's basically another formulation of the LNC, because for something to be what it is and not what it is at the same time is a contradiction. These are mutually exclusive, binary states.

Note that this doesn't preclude something being what it is and simultaneously something else, which is perfectly acceptable. A stone, for example, can be a sculpture, while still being a stone. There is no contradiction there.

The third is the law of the excluded middle. This states that, for any proposition, either the proposition is true or its negation is true. This law must be treated with some care, not least because it only applies to binary states and is often misapplied in the fallacy of the excluded middle. That there is a fallacy with the same form as the law tells us something important about how it works. I won't belabour the point with this one, not least because I gave this a complete treatment in Fuzzy Logic, Classification and the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle.

Ultimately, these principles of thought are pretty much common sense and, like physical laws, they arise from the properties of thought. They're a guide to ensuring that our thoughts are coherent and avoid absurdity. In reality, insofar as they're 'true' at all, they require no justification, they're simply brute facts, i.e., they cannot fail to obtain.

Indeed, it should be noted that, on the view of the theist who believes in an interventionist deity, any foundation they might have is severely undermined, not least because, to borrow a phrase from David Edwards, who we met in Radionuclide Dating is Rigorous, any universe containing an entity who can tell the laws of the universe to take a hike whenever it suits his administrative convenience is a universe in which absurdity abounds, making science and indeed logic impossible. 

What this entire position boils down to, then, is very much akin to the assertions of creationists in one of their pet arguments against evolution, namely that it can't account for the origin of life. This overlooks the fact that evolutionary theory doesn't have to account for this, because the origin of life is the remit of a completely different field of science. Evolutionary theory is the central theory of biology, while abiogenesis is the remit of organic chemistry. Moreover, and again like the evolution/abiogenesis issue, the explanation offered by the presuppositionalist isn't actually an explanation, it's merely an assertion that an explanation exists. They can't give you any content, or any justification that suggests how god might have gone about instituting these laws, or the laws of the universe, or anything else. Remember that anything that explains everything explains nothing. It's unfalsifiable, and thus has no epistemological utility or value.

In this light, we can say simply that logic 'exists', and proceed from there, without asserting anything at all about the foundations, in precisely the same way that we can say that life 'exists' (this is a problematic term to use in this context, because life isn't a thing, it's a behaviour, and failing this distinction is at the root of an awful lot of shoddy thinking; the same can be said for mind and consciousness, for precisely the same reasons).

While recovering from a hand injury that made typing difficult (no, not wanker's cramp), I was asked to look at another argument, namely the 'argument from reason', popularised by C.S. Lewis. Similar in content to the presuppositionalist stance detailed above, it's an argument against philosophical naturalism and for the existence of god. It asserts, via very convoluted reasoning, that if naturalism is 'true', then the basis of all beliefs is explained by non-rational means (the firing of neurons), and no belief can be rationally inferred. He goes on to conclude that, to avoid infinite regress, there must be a rational entity at the bottom of it all to serve as a foundation. Sound familiar? It should, because it's pretty much identical to the stance of Matt Slick above.

There are all sorts of flaws in this, but I'm again conscious that this is getting to be quite a lengthy submission, so we'll go straight for the jugular.

The first thing to note is that I'm not a philosophical naturalist, which is sufficient to defeat Lewis' argument in and of itself.

Philosophical or metaphysical naturalism is the position that nature is all that exists. I'm entirely agnostic on this point, although I see no good reason to suppose that anything exists beyond nature. Science is not a framework that entails philosophical naturalism. It is a framework that entails methodological naturalism or, as Hawking and Mlodinow put it in The Grand Design, 'model-dependent realism'. This, however, doesn't assert naturalism as 'true', it simply employs a naturalistic stance as a method. This is sufficient to undercut the argument, if not defeat it.

Science deals with phenomena. It asserts nothing about the ontology of those phenomena, and it certainly doesn't deal with them as noumena, to borrow a Kantian term. Noumena are the ontological counterpart of phenomena, which is to say that noumena are the proper constituents of reality. While we have no good reason to suppose that phenomena and noumena are different things, we also can't assert categorically that they're the same. More importantly, we don't have to. We deal with phenomena and build our models dealing with how they behave and interact.

Furthermore, Lewis' argument commits a pretty egregious false conflation, because he's treating the mechanism of belief - the firing of neurons - with the content of belief, or knowledge, and suggesting that if all we have is brain activity, then we can have no knowledge, because we can't rely on reasoning that is purely mechanical. This is a horrible bit of shoddiness in thinking, no matter how sophisticated it looks. The mechanisms by which our brains work are entirely irrelevant to the fact that they do work, and that we can show via simple logic that what they produce is knowledge.

In the end, as with the presupp's assertion about God being the explanation for logic, all we have at the foundation of this stance is assertion, which is no foundation at all. It also commits an extremely basic logical fallacy, namely affirming the consequent. You can find a full exposition of this fallacy in Deduction, Induction, Abduction and Fallacy, linked above.

In short, presuppositionalism is unsound in the extreme, and can be dismissed on that basis alone.

Can you behead a bodiless cat? 

Nits, crits and comments welcome, as always.

*Leviticus 11:19 and 23 respectively
Genesis 30:37-39