Friday, February 29, 2008

Machine guns in the Yu dynasty

Please note: It was brought to my attention that this was a repeat of an argument that I already posted on this blog earlier. I have decided to leave it up because the argument is more fleshed out than it used to be. See the comments section for a link to the first time I posted it.

One of the more interesting, but frustrating discussions I had online recently was on the first cause argument. The fellow with whom I had this discussion has a good scientific mind and frequently denounces creationism very eloquently. I don't know eactly what his beliefs are, but I think I would characterize him as an agnostic theist. He appears to believe in a God, doesn't claim that he can know for sure, but frequently insists that carefully qualified belief is a superior alternative to qualified non-belief.

The reasoning, as I understand it, goes like this: We don't know where the universe comes from. But we do know from experience that intelligent agents can create many wonderful and complex things. We can't be certain that the universe was created by an intelligence. But we do know that it's POSSIBLE in principle. Therefore, doesn't it make sense, purely from a scientific, deductive point of view, to take seriously the hypothesis that intelligence was probably involved?

So I have a counter-proposal, and it's this. Emperor Yu the Great, who founded the Chinese Xia dynasty around 2070 BCE, was killed by a machine gun.

Now you may say that this is implausible. You may even complain: "But that's ridiculous. There weren't any machine guns in 2070 BCE." To which I say, no, that's just your opinion. You weren't there in ancient China, and the historical records from that far back are kind of spotty anyway. But I say it is worth seriously considering the hypothesis that there was a machine gun that killed Emperor Wu, even though we're not aware of any that exist.

Why? Well, it is much easier to kill someone with a machine gun than without one. Wikipedia's description of his death is pretty vague, saying only that he was killed "while on a hunting tour." Well, there's another point in my favor. We know today that many people hunt with machine guns, and that machine guns actually make a hunt much EASIER than being without one.

So, if there is even a small chance that some machine guns were present, then shouldn't we deduce that the use of one on Yu's hunting trip is extremely probable, and his subsequent "accident" was in fact machine gun induced? Why should we rule out the existence of something as complex as a machine gun, which can supply such a handy explanation for Emperor Yu's death, just because of nitpicky details like incomplete historical knowledge?

Yeah, I'm not particularly persuaded by my own argument either, but I think it's no more egregious than the logic that is applied to some unspecified intelligent creator.

I mean, in the first place, all of our experience with machine guns shows that they don't just existence at random. They are the end result of a extensive tinkering with progressively more sophisticated designs. There is a historical progression of technology that we can follow. These technological changes are based purely in physical laws and processes. Humans don't pluck designs out of some magic supernatural ether; they build on past successes over time. We have never seen an example of a machine gun that didn't require the historical development of a machine gun.

Well, we know much the same thing about brains. We have seen the historical record of brains coming into existence; we know that they come about as the end product of highly complex natural processes. We have never seen a brain that didn't require such a thing. No magic. No anachronisms. No human brains appearing out of place during the Cambrian explosion. No signs of brains that are as smart or smarter than ours during times when plants or bacteria were the dominant life forms on earth.

Is it possible to imagine a magical brain that exists outside of earth and didn't require an evolutionary process? Sure it is, and by the same token, it's possible for a fully formed machine gun to have spontaneously appeared in the hands of Emperor Yu's enemies, without the need for all that messy "historical progression of technology" to get in the way. I can't prove that didn't happen, nor can I prove that there isn't a superbrain that didn't evolve.

But I don't find it a plausible assumption in either case. If you don't like the logic of having a machine gun in 2000 BC, then I think I'm free to raise the same objection to having a brain in 14 billion BC.

You can't just assume the existence of things like guns or minds at all periods in history for the sake of convenience. You are only justified in treating this as a reasonable suggestion when some other information specifically points to even the basic possibility of such a thing. And that's what we mean when we say "We don't believe in God because we lack evidence." It isn't enough to say "How else could these wonderful things have gotten here, if not through intelligence?"


  1. >The reasoning, as I understand it, goes like this: We don't know where the universe comes from. But we do know from experience that intelligent agents can create many wonderful and complex things.

    I realize you're restating someone else's argument, but assuming this is the fellow's stance, here's the problem I see:

    If the universe is evidence of design, then we have nothing that is not an example of anything not designed. A pile of puke or wad of gum on the sidewalk, in this case, is as much a wonderous example of this intelligence as Victoria Falls.

    If "everything" is the result of design, then what is our basis for comparison? What is "not design"? What would "not design" look like? If a bunch of pebbles piled up beside a brook are evidence of thoughtful design, what would constitute not designed?

    If we aren't aware of any designer, then one could just as easily argue that _nature_ produces incredible--and sometimes not so incredible stuff--all the time. A rock, a waterfall, a pile of wombat puke. It's all nature.

    And if nature can do this without a designer, then the initial statement above could just as easily read, "We don't know where the universe comes from. But we do know from experience that NATURAL AGENTS can create many wonderful and complex things."

    THIS we have all seen for ourselves. To say that it's a designer doing this, or that it's the result of a designer makes us borrow from the "made up" and the "unknown" and the "never seen," in order to explain what we do see. Nature produces sh*t--lots of sh*t--all the time, right before our unamazed eyes. But attribute it all to god, and suddenly it's "amazing" and "brilliant." Suddenly that pile of puke sports a halo and takes on a whole new meaning and gives us purpose in life.

    Asking "where is the being that uses nature to create stuff?" Is not necessary. Better to ask "How does nature create stuff?" At least, that doesn't require making things up.

  2. Didn't you do a post about Julius Caesar getting killed by a machine gun?

  3. For the record, you need to bring this Sunday. It's a very elegant way to address the argument.

  4. Tommy: Didn't you do a post about Julius Caesar getting killed by a machine gun?

    That was in a post from Kazim:
    First cause argument and machine guns

  5. ...when plants or bacteria were the dominant life forms on earth.

    Were? Did something change recently?

    Back to the original argument: Even if an outside agent did create the universe, it would not exist within our universe or obey the laws of our universe, else it would not have existed before the universe was created, if before existed or even makes sense.

    If this agent exists and can interact with our universe it becomes a natural phenomenon that can be studied, catalogued, known. So, at best, first cause is the Deist argument, and not an argument for the Abrahamic god.

    With what we know of the early universe and quantum mechanics, the agent could only set large-scale structure and physical laws, not detailed structure or detailed interactions. This would further weaken even the Deist interpretation.

    Which, to my mind, renders the argument moot for nearly everyone using it.

    But it doesn't really matter, as (to paraphrase a quote I read recently) you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

  6. Oops you're right. This is a double post. I was going back through an old message board discussion, and found this thread, and thought "Hmmm, here's something I haven't posted before." I guess I was mistaken.

    This is from later in the argument, and it's a little more fleshed out than before. The reason that I morphed it from Julius Caesar to Emperor Yu is because the guy was objecting that we know lots about the Roman empire because they were good historians. I answered that if the problem is TOO MUCH data from Caesar's time, let's go back to a time that we know much less about.

    Anyway, sorry for the repeat, I'll note that in the post.

  7. you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

    I like that phrase, and I love the argument of the machine gun. Clever. I love examples of regifting theist arguments with different wrappings and bows. I haven't listened to Sunday's show yet, so I guess I'll go do that now.


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