Sunday, October 26, 2008

“Anything is Possible”

The last time I was on AE, a woman used this line. I asked her if she understood that what is possible has no bearing on what is real. A friend of mine indicated he would have rather asked the woman if it’s possible she is wrong. I liked his reply better, because it creates an interesting situation: Is it possible that not all things are possible? And if so, doesn’t that mean that you’ve just said it’s possible that your assertion is incorrect?

What is impossible, on the other hand, has a great deal of bearing on what is real. A married bachelor or a square circle, for example, would be examples of things that are clearly not possible, because they would be contradictory by definition. Some things, in fact, we can demonstrate are not possible.

While I wouldn’t deny it is not a misuse of the term “possible” to say “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use of the term. And in the article below, I’m dealing with the more pragmatic usage (as in the headline), where people apply it as a means to express that which is not impossible, but also not a requirement of existence or definition. So, while I could say, “It is possible for a square to have four sides,” that would be an uncommon use. Generally a person would say something like, “A square has (or must have) four sides,” as a requirement of a square, and the term “possible” would be reserved for what may be, but also is not required.

An atheist is anyone who does not believe a god exists, or who further adds that no god exists. An atheist, then, is not concerning himself with what is possible, but with what s/he believes is most likely to be true. And if this atheist is also a skeptic or counterapologist, s/he is also concerned with what evidence suggests is most likely true. But even the “hard” atheist is not making any sort of shocking claim. S/he’s not assuming anything each of us doesn’t assume daily for all sorts of situations. Here is an example of what I mean:

Scenario: John and Mary are happily married by their account. Mary has just left to go shopping for the afternoon. As she walked out of the house, John was watching a football game. After 30 minutes at the mall, can Mary claim John is not engaged in an infidelity? Is it “impossible” that John is now with another woman?

Of course, the only logical answer to that question is “no, it is not impossible. And even Mary cannot logically make such a claim.”

Based upon what we (including Mary) know, it is possible, for John to, at this moment, be with another woman. There is absolutely nothing stopping this from being a possible scenario.

However, based on the scene as described, has any reason been given for Mary to suspect that John actually is with another woman at this moment? No. Certainly he has opportunity—but opportunity and possibility are, obviously, not necessarily correlating to reality if the reality is that John is faithful.

Whenever we acknowledge an event or scenario is possible (not required, but may be), we are also acknowledging, whether we admit to it or not, that the opposite scenario must also be possible. So, to say “It’s possible John is unfaithful,” means, inescapably, that we are also saying that it might not be so—that it is, in that same moment, possible that John is faithful.

And this is the context in which most theist apologists use “possible,” in my experience—in a context where I must always hold as true both that John is possibly faithful and John is possibly unfaithful. But the moment I acknowledge one, I have acknowledged the other.

I have heard more times than I care to mention someone appeal to mathematical models of other dimensions and then insist that a god may be existing in such a dimension. In other words: It’s possible these mathematical models correlated to reality and that other dimensions exist; and it’s possible that something we would agree can be labeled as “gods” might exist within those other dimensions.

Yes. It’s possible. It’s also possible that reality does not correlated to the math. And it’s possible that even if there are other dimensions, there is nothing within them either of us would be remotely inclined to label as a “god.”

What does that tell us about reality? And how does that move forward as “evidence” for the existence of a god?

In other words—how do I take those two conflicting possibilities and convert them into beliefs?

We can believe that mutually conflicting possibilities exist. As John showed us, we actually must—since, for every “unknown, but possible” scenario, there is an equal and opposite “unknown, but possible” scenario. John is possibly faithful and possible unfaithful. And I believe this, and there is no conflict or contradiction in that framework.

However, I cannot both believe John is faithful and also believe that John is not faithful. That is very much a conflict and a contradiction. So, the atheist—who is concerned with what s/he believes, is not dealing with possibilities, but with what s/he actually believes is correlating to reality. The fact that many things are possible does not help us to determine what we should believe to be true.

The hard atheist, then, is not saying anything more critical than Mary would be to insist that "John is faithful to me." And how many spouses would feel safe making that statement—even without 24-hour surveillance on their husbands/wives? Surely some would be wrong. But we can all grasp the pragmatic reality that we make such statements daily with an unstated asterisk behind them that leads to the footnote, "to the best of my knowledge." Saying no god exists is no more than this. And saying I believe god does not exist is to say even less—even less than people (atheists and theists alike) assert every day about all sorts of things of which they cannot be sure.

And I’m a little concerned now that quite a lot of time and energy is spent in dialogues with theists about what might be possible and what that would mean for reality if what were possible were actually true. Such discussions are fine if people enjoy philosophical exploration for the sake of sheer exploration. But if the dialogue is about “why should I believe a god exists?,” they are an utter waste of the atheist's (and, therefore, also the theist's) time. They get us no closer to truth. This is one reason, it just dawned on me, that Pascal’s Wager is not at all compelling to me. Despite the many faults with this particular apologetic offering, the main problem with it, for me, is that it starts out with an assumption that we should operate on pure possibilities without any consideration regarding whether or not those possibilities can be shown to correlate to reality. And who in the world operates using that model in their day-to-day life?

It’s possible I’m hallucinating traffic signals. And certainly if I am, the consequences will be dire if I attempt to drive. It’s far safer, then, to not drive my car. But would I be wise to function in that mode of reason in my life? Obviously not.

I submit that discussions that begin with a premise of “possible,” be nipped in the bud—unless philosophical discussion is what you’re into. As soon as the apologist goes down the path of, “in mathematics, there are models of other dimensions,” or anything else that is “possible” but not known to correlate to reality, the response should be to ask if they are intent on discussing what is most likely to be true or merely what is possible. Because I will acknowledge off the bat that any number of “possible” gods can be defined. But that doesn’t offer me any compelling reason to believe that any of them correlate to what really exists. And if their premise starts off with what is possible—how do they intend to get to what is convincingly true? The premise is possible, but so is the negation of the premise—so there had better be some really compelling reason for me to move forward on such a premise.

When someone puts forward to me that "X is possible" as a premise for believing in god, I will hopefully remember to point out that "–X is also possible," and ask if they believe that as well, since it is also a possible scenario. I simply wonder if it would not be best to not pursue fruitless arguments about what is possible, but to simply negate the possibilities until it sinks into this type of apologist’s head that “possible,” when used in this vein, is utterly bankrupt of meaning. If “it is possible god exists” is a reason to believe, then surely “it is possible god does not exist,” is just as much a reason to disbelieve. I, though, see neither as a reason for anything, and I will try to remember to press this point at every opportunity to see if it actually can get the apologist’s mental light bulb to click “on,”—not to get them to agree with me, but to at least make them understand the fallacy they’re working under with this particular line of “reasoning.”


  1. I enjoyed your discussion with this caller and I thought you did a great job trying to pin her down on this. The problem is that I don't think you would have gotten through to her (or anyone making this argument) in one phone call no matter what you said. Perhaps in an extended, ongoing discussion with a theist the repetition of this idea that possible ≠> true would eventually have an effect, but in a single phone conversation I think this kind of theist is simply too slippery to pin down.

  2. I would submit that the majority of hardheaded folk (no matter of what religious stripe) would be too difficult to pin down on anything.

    Thanks for the clear and rational write-up Tracie. This sort of stuff is the core of what I love the Atheist Experience for (besides, of course, Russell's biting wit)

  3. Thanks for the feedback. While I tend to agree that in some cases nothing will sink into the head of a particular sort. I want to stress that by not proceeding with a debate that begins with an unsolid premise that is merely "possible," but not demnostrable, the net gain may only be that people stop wasting time discussing scenarios which are completely irrelevant to the question: Does god exist?

    So, even if the woman doesn't ever get the point, the conversation cannot proceed unless she can offer something more relevant and substantial than "it's possible god exists." If I reply, "It's possible god does not exist," she must acknowledge this. And the next step is "Now that we've established a god does or does not exist--which is really establishing nothing whatsoever--what do we do about actually answering the question, 'does a god exist'? Do you have anything to offer on THAT front? Because I already knew that a god may or may not exist. That's hardly profound by anyone's standards. If you want to talk about what is real, I'm in the conversation--if you just want to discuss implications based on 'what ifs'--which have no demonstrable relation to reality--that's not really my cup of tea."

    Now, again, if that _IS_ your cup of tea--by all means, engage. But I think that too many people who really want to address the question "does god exist?"--are being led down a winding road to nowhere with theists who seem to THINK they're addressing that question, but who are actually only addressing what is possible--which again, amounts to nothing at all about reality if both X and -X can be said to be possible.

  4. There isn't much I'd like to say here. I suppose I should start by saying I'm a theist, though one who will readily admit that it is possible God does not exist. I have only two things to add to your post.

    1) Arguing within mathematics that an object with contradictory properties cannot exist is fallacious. A "squared circle," as you put it, can in fact exist. It would either be trivial (the empty set, which exists despite itself) or universal (the entire space within which you are working.) In other words, the entire Cartesian plane is both a square and a circle. A married bachelor, however, would be harder to come by :)

    2) As far as I understand Schrodinger's work--and let me say up front that I'm a mathematician, not a physicist--theoretical knowledge doesn't work quite the way you've envisioned it. From the time some thing becomes possible until the time that someone (anyone) has knowledge as to whether that thing is true or false, it is both true and false. Schrodinger's Cat is the most famous example of this, of course, but his larger point wasn't concerned with killing a helpless animal. His bottom line, so far as I understand it, was that in the pure vacuum of zero evidence, all options are not only possible, but are indeed equally valid and (in a sense) true.

    Now, I sincerely doubt that many atheists actually think of the problem of existence in this light. Most probably believe ample evidence exists with which either to prove their assumption or disprove its opposite. I do not dispute this. Reasonable people can disagree about this, and I respect nothing so much as reason.

    In the end, however, I see possibilities not as reasons to believe, but as reasons to entertain belief. I would not say that I am write and you are wrong ... I would merely hope we are both comfortable. If I've made you otherwise, I apologize.

  5. Hi gunny:

    Actually what I said is a "square circle"--not a "squared circle." I was using definitional contradictions (as further demonstrated by "married bachelor")--not mathematics. The definition of a square, in English, negates that item also being a circle.

    Existence is defined as the set of items that manifest. In a theoretical model, where nothing can be known to manifest--all items might be considered "equally true," in that I would assert they all have zero truth value while we lack a capacity to verify any of them.

    So, in a dimension that we cannot verify as manifesting--we also cannot assert it exists outside of a conceptual model. Without a capacity to verify--it is lacks practical truth value--and it is, additionally, veridically worthless.

    >In the end, however, I see possibilities not as reasons to believe, but as reasons to entertain belief.

    Belief means to accept a proposition as true. You can entertain a possibility--the idea of what implications might follow if X were true. But to entertain it is true--I don't see how it can be any more than entertaining the possibility. You either believe X or you do not believe X. Considering "what if" X is true is not entertaining a belief, but entertaining a possibility.

  6. True enough. "Entertaining a possibility" captures my intent.

    In terms of a "square circle," however, I respectfully disagree. The Cartesian plane is both a square and a circle.

    The strength of your argument (as I see it) rests on convincing your audience that a thing cannot have contradictory characteristics. Once they are convinced, proving that something they believe exists does indeed have such characteristics is tantamount to proving that thing does not exist.

    My problem is that the premise is generally false in mathematics. Of course, when something does have contradictory characteristics, it's usually not very exciting. In the Cartesian plane, for instance, if something is both a square and a circle, it is either the empty set (trivial) or the whole plane (universal).

    Since it seems to me that a somewhat educated theist could raise the argument in response to your earlier one, I wanted to point it out as a sort of warning. I know what you mean to say and "married bachelor" says it all.

    The trouble with mathematical arguments (or even those that appear mathematical) is that, in general, they offer nothing to question of existence. In the case of the "square circle," I can present a cogent argument that you've proven that, if God exists, He is either trivial or universal, which is the whole argument in the first place.

    Sorry. I don't mean to be preachy. I'm a mathematician, so I focus on the little things I know a little about rather than on the more important things I know nothing about. If you take anything from this, be careful with your math ... or with words that could be construed as math :)

    Either that, or ignore me. In general, that's not a bad precedent either.

  7. Hi Gunny:

    One thing I noted was, " is lacks practical truth value--and it is, additionally, veridically worthless."

    I guess my question is this:

    If you decided to put in a swimming pool, and asked the contractor to give you a circular pool, would you feel there was a problem if he put in a square pool?

    Do you believe there is a valid definition of "circle" that is not to be confused with a "square" or not?

  8. I don't know a reasonable way to answer that question.

    Circle: All points in a plane equidistant from a fixed point.

    Square: A quadrilateral with four congruent sides and four congruent angles.

    I will admit that these seem contradictory. And, if you limit yourself to non-trivial, finite cases, they are. But the idea of God (or a god) is nothing if not either trivial or infinite.

    Bottom line, I know what you mean to say and there are many, many ways to make your point. But you must use language to do it and that leaves you open to the inevitable semantic arguments. Using mathematics only makes it worse.

    You are dealing with people who are, at the outset, admitting that their beliefs are unreasonable. That is why they say things like, "anything is possible," rather than "anything is reasonable." You cannot expect to stand against them with reason alone.

    Now, in an effort not to evade your question, my answer is: No, I would not be happy if I asked for a circular pool and got a square one. However, if I did so without giving dimensions, I would not be able to argue if the contractor provided me with a pool the size of a single point or the size of the entire Earth. And, in either case, it would be both circular and square.

    In other words, if you limit yourself to non-trivial, finite cases, your initial point holds up. But, except colloquially, you did not. And the assumption that your audience will accept colloquialism is tantamount to the assumption that your audience will be reasonable.

    Of course, as a theist, I am unreasonable from the outset :) Hence, all of the above could be wrong.

  9. Gunny:

    I agree with just about everything you just said. My only point of contention is this (which no longer addresses the circle/square):

    >You are dealing with people who are, at the outset, admitting that their beliefs are unreasonable.

    In reality, these people do NOT admit they are being unreasonable. That's pretty much my whole point. They appear, when I speak to them, to think that "It's possible god exists" is a REASON to then assert "I believe god exists" (that is, they accept the proposition god exists as _true_). I think we agree that is not reasonable. But my post is trying to explain WHY it's not reasonable--because so many people give "it's possible" as their _reason_ for belief.

    If you took me to be saying that using "it's possible" as being an unreasonable suport for "I, therefore believe it," you read my right. But many people aren't actually understanding this very simple point. And that disturbs me because it's only just hit me (as I blogged this) that _this_ unreasonable position is seen as absolutely "reasonable"--somehow--by a great many people.

    I would be interested to have heard her response to "If all things are possible, then it's possible god does not exist, and if what is possible is a reason to believe what is possible, do you ALSO believe god does not exist, in addition to your belief god does exist?"

    Long and convoluted as that is--that's not a difficult point to grasp, but it is a point these people seem to consistently miss.

    It's just one more example where "it's possible god exists" is a good reason to believe, but "it's possible god exists" can't be used as a reason to disbelieve unless you're an arrogant atheist who thinks he knows everything. It seems that believers have the idea that "it's possible" means that somehow the weight leans toward the positive possibility and away from the negative possibility. And I'm not sure I've seen a believer presented with that point before; but I would wager they would, as so often is the case, then just skip to another argument (another "reason") and just set that one down for the time being...?

  10. I cannot speak for any believer but me. But, for my part, I see "God exists" as an axiom.

    Whether or not you agree with me as regards the validity of my axiom, you cannot reasonably ask for proof of it. Or, at any rate, you cannot reasonably ask it from me.

    I accept the idea that someone may someday be able to prove my axiom false, just as someone may someday prove the Axiom of Choice false. But, up until now at least, no one has been able to do so (on either count.)

    But I seem to be digressing from the original point of this discussion. The bottom line is that belief in the statement "God exists" is entirely reasonable and rational if one takes it to be an axiom. You are, of course, free to provide evidence to the contrary in order to disprove the axiom.

    For example, though the overwhelming majority of mathematicians accept the Axiom of Choice, there are those that do not. The world they build up with the mathematics that follow from disbelief in that axiom is very different (at least in a mathematical sense) from the one in which I believe we live.

    By way of an analogy, though the overwhelming majority of people accept the Axiom of Existence, there are those that do not. The world they build up with the ideas that follow from disbelief in that axiom is very different (at least in a theological sense) from the one in which I believe we live.

    But I do not discount the arguments of either their mathematics or their theology. I disagree with their axioms, not (generally) their logic.

  11. Hey Tracie,

    Majorly off topic but I just managed to get the Atheist Experience 576 loaded up and while I'm only 30 seconds in let me just say that I think that's a lovely T-shirt you're wearing + your smile is pretty awesome too

    Now on to the rest of the episode!

  12. ...and Matt just said it for me (feels silly)

  13. Gunny: "The bottom line is that belief in the statement "God exists" is entirely reasonable and rational if one takes it to be an axiom. You are, of course, free to provide evidence to the contrary in order to disprove the axiom."

    Seriously? I mean, wow. Ok, well, I wish someone had told me earlier it was so simple. Here I go:

    I see "there are no gods and all religions are superstitious nonsense" as an axiom. Feel free to disprove it, of course. While I'm at it I see "unicorns exist" as an axiom too. I've always wanted to have my very own "unipony" as a pet.

    How does that even begin to make sense?. You've never heard of Sagan's invisible dragon in the garage?. You could use that for anything, in what way could that possibly be reasonable and/or rational?.

    So, let's recap. A god exists 'cause it's an axiom. No gods exist 'cause it is also an axiom. Nice work, everyone, we're exactly where we started. whoo-hoo! that's a wrap, we got it. I'll see y'all Monday.

    Note to self: Go to bank first thing on Monday. Explain to cashier "I have a million dollars in my account" is an axiom.

  14. When you say “axiom” I’m not sure what you mean. You most likely mean one of two things. So, I'll address both:

    1. That “god exists” is self-evident—which I disagree with, but which could still be verified. So I assume this is not your intent, because asking for verfication would not be out of line, since self-evident realities are the simplest to demonstrate.

    2. That “god exists” is not a true statement, but rather a proposition you are merely examining for pure philosophical interest. If this is the case, I wouldn’t ask for verification or evidense "god exists" because this is not “belief.” It would be no more than saying "Let's assume a god exists," and I don't know anyone who isn't capable of speculation. But speculating about a thing is not at all the same as believing it. Just as speculating my husband is cheating should not be confused with believing he is actually unfaithful.

    If you "believe" the proposition god exists, then you hold that it is true that god exists—since that’s what belief means. In that case I absolutely can reasonably ask for verification and demonstration for your belief.

    I don’t ever ask people for “proof,” because I’m not talking about math or logic.

    I’m talking about existent, objective, demonstrable, verifiable reality of the sort we see all around us every day—the same "existence" we successfully function in and interact with via constant verficiation and demonstration. The existence that is ever demonstrating and verifing itself to us--in the objectively verifiable, demonstrable sense _outside_ of our minds.

    Ideas exist inside our minds. And I don’t require evidence for ideas—expressions of them are sufficient evidence. If you say “god exists as an idea of mine,” I accept that as true.

    But the same cannot be said for objective reality—outside the mind. In that case, existence _is_ manifestation--by definition.

    If god cannot be shown to manifest, then it cannot be reasonably stated that god does exist. If god does manifest, then it is certainly reasonable that belief in the proposition "god exists" can be demonstrated and verified.

    I’m not sure what I’d be trying to “prove” false? If something exists, it manifests. If there is no manifestation, then the word “exist” is being used in a proprietary fashion that is nonstandard. In other words, I’d be saying, “If we mean by exist, something that does not manifest, rather than something that does manifest, then my god exists.”

    Yes, and if we mean by hate, something just like love, then I can say I love all those I hate. But that’s nonsensical and ridiculous redefining of terms to try to force my point.

    >The bottom line is that belief in the statement "God exists" is entirely reasonable and rational if one takes it to be an axiom.

    For me, I guess this hinges on what you mean by axiom. I utterly revolt against the idea that the existence of god is self-evident. But if you mean only that you accept it as an idea that may be pondered, I have no problem with that.

    > By way of an analogy, though the overwhelming majority of people accept the Axiom of Existence, there are those that do not.

    I have spoken to such people--those who do not believe anythingn exists. However, I have yet to meet one who behaves as though he accepts his own stated belief that nothing exists. In other words, when such a person is willing to drive his vehicle disregarding street lights (which do not exist), or jumping from tall rooftops (which do not really exist), or playing Russian Roulette with a gun (that does not exist), I will accept his assertion that he, truly, doesn’t believe in existence.

    But I’ll have to meet such a person first. It's easy to assert I reject existence--and it would be easy to demonstrate that belief. I've met many who assert it--but none willing to demonstrate it.

    "Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder." -Carl Sagan

    And I only quote this here, because I absolute agree with this sentiment, and have argued this many times myself.


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