Sunday, March 06, 2011

Open Thread / Show #699: Tracie & Matt

I would like to talk a bit about something I explained in a recent viewer mail to someone who wrote in to ask the following (emphasis mine):

In agreement with the Big Bang theory, where the existence of the Universe was once an immeasurable "ball" of infinite density and mass, and wherein a reaction took place causing the creation of the Universe; was the matter always existent? Was the matter created? If everything has a beginning, would not the matter need a beginning as well? If science cannot explain such a question, then why is the unexplainable or supernatural not more plausible than "no, it wasn't created", considering that science will never be able to explain before the existence of time and space? (And yes, I'm aware of quantum gravity and physics)

After I replied, he said only: "I thank you very much for you reply, and the information relating my cosmological questions. This was very informative. Again, thank you!" This leads me to be hopeful that my response actually may have been helpful to a person who did not know why supernatural explanations are less valid than natural ones. If it can shed any light, then I would like to share it:

The second part of your question is why supernatural hypotheses would be considered less valid than natural hypotheses in claims of causation. The short answer is “things that do not exist cannot be the cause of other things.” This is not a claim that supernature does not exist. It is a statement asserting that in order for anything (including supernature) to be put forward as a valid cause, that “thing” must at the very least be existent. Nature (matter) is known to exist. Supernature is not known to exist. So, if we wish to posit supernatural explanations, we then compound the problem by putting forward an explanation that also needs an explanation. In other words, to make our supernatural explanation even begin to be valid, we need to find a way to show that there actually is such a thing as supernature that can do what we're claiming. Until we can examine supernature, we can't make any valid assertions about what supernature is or what it does.

So, we have an unexplained event-X. And we have nature which can be examined to see if it can do what is required to achieve X. Then we have supernature, which we can’t examine, neither can we demonstrate, and about which we can make zero informed claims. So it is literally just an unknown variable: Y. In this case, if we put supernature forward as the cause, we’re saying something we can’t explain was caused by a thing we can’t know anything about and for all we know doesn't even exist. So, mysterious event-X is caused by unknown, possibly nonexistent cause-Y.

Saying Y caused X where Y cannot be defined is not an explanation.

I hope this helps.

Part of why I put this forward is that it seems to me to be the first step in many conversations that gets shoved out of the way as though it doesn't matter. We forget to verify our cause exists and jump into arguments regarding what it does, what attributes it may have, what motivations (if any), and so on. However, we can't verify any of our claims about this cause-Y are valid if we can't examine cause-Y. It's a very different question to ask "can this occur naturally," where we have nature to examine and investigate the answer, than to invoke supernature, where we have no means to compare claims against the cause-Y we're claiming.

The practical benefit, I hope, will be less people arguing with theists about what sorts of things god does/doesn't do, and whether or not there is actually a god. I would hope that the atheist who finds himself arguing against endless or repeated claims of god's attributes or actions would see a light come on and ask "Wait--how can we be arguing over the attributes or actions of something we can't even say exists?"


  1. I'm a little confused as to who is saying what in this conversation.

  2. Anytime someone says something like "...and yes, I'm aware of quantum gravity and physics..." to prove that they understand something, it almost always guarantees that they indeed do not understand those things.

  3. I don't believe in the supernatural. At all.

    Theists like to equate the supernatural with things that are as yet unknown and unexplained. At the risk of sounding trite, when and if these things become know and explained, then they will be natural.

  4. That's a great explanation Tracie. My only quibble is that defining nature as basically matter gives rise to those silly arguments that paint atheists are the crude materialists and then dismiss the argument.

    I prefer a definition of nature as 'a realm where everything operates under a changeless pattern' It is therefore the regularity of natural laws that would define nature. In contrast, the most prevailing characteristic of the descriptions of supernature is that it pliable, subject to the whims of one or more minds.

    It infuriates me when I see theists try to conjure their god into existence by defining him as to account for something we know exists. "MY God accounts for logic. You can't account for logic, therefore every time you use logic you are actually proving MY god."

    What's infuriating about this is not just that they go from one unsubstantiated claim ("God exists") to three ("god exists", "God accounts for logic" "we need to account for logic before we can use it") but that they then think they get to selectively ignore logic when it disproves any of their claims.

  5. We don't know so 'GOD DID IT!' lol..jk. Good logical points for the masses to know.

  6. I attended a debate last night titled "Is God necessary for morality."

    David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, took a similar approach in his opening statement. He stated that since neither side can offer proof for or against the existence of god, it is therefore more valid to explore the source of morality, something that is known to exist. He then went on to explain how morals arose and evolved to what we have today.

    The theists response? Since we believe moral laws were laid down by God, it does not matter if you believe or not, God still works through you.

    Talk about missing the point.

  7. M Theory will eventually prove that a universe can be instantiated by purely natural processes. When that happens, it's Game Over for God.

  8. Mr. Brown.
    The game was over a long time ago.
    Darwin hammered in the final nail to god's coffin.

  9. So having just watched the show it's too bad there's no requirement for callers to have actually put their arguments into words before calling instead of wasting 20mins thinking this is their personal forum to set up and practice their logical exercises.

    The third caller had potential to be an interesting call but he needed to get to the point quicker and understand the format of the show :(

  10. That last caller said a whole lot of nothing and then tried to move the goal posts after Matt shut him down with the Dragon analogy. He was obviously trying to use Kalam but he never got his argument off the ground.

  11. The last caller seemed intelligent. But really? First-mover again? That was his best shot towards "rational theism"?

    It's like a law of physics that this argument must come up at least once a show.

  12. It's also telling that he was advocating "logic-ing God into existence".

  13. Once you started along the "cosmological argument" and "quantum physics" it becomes waffling. Advice from the chatroom to any future theist callers: Get to the freaking point already!

    Aife the Happy Penguin

  14. @ Robert: I agree man, I was left with the feeling that the caller wasn't quite sure how to present the argument to Matt and Tracie and whether or not he totally understood the argument.

    I really felt for that guy with the relationship issues at the beginning of the show. I'm married to a Christian women and we worked all the issues he's having out before we even started dating. Religion or lack of it isn't something that's ever caused a problem within any aspect of our relationship or when it comes to our children.

  15. Hosts need to press callers on WHY they believe and not accept flawed logical syllogisms of the William Lane Craig variety.

    Naturally, we already know why: childhood indoctrination, but you need to force them to confront that reality. Otherwise it is an exercise in onanistic wordplay.

    I tuned out this caller once he placed logic above empiricism. Please give philosopher-types no more than 5 minutes. Otherwise you lose your audience.

  16. This comment is in about the email Tracie posted, as I have not yet seen today's show.

    Normally, when I debate with theists, I typically take the existence of God as a given for the sake of argument, and then try to get them to demonstrate how they get from 'God exists' to 'the bible is true'. I've taken this approach mainly because in the past I've had problems explaining exactly what Tracie said in her response in a way that the theist I'm talking with can understand. Tracie's response is a very simple and elegant way to explain it, and I'll definitely be trying it out next time.
    Thanks, Tracie, these posts are much appreciated.

  17. Long-talking Kalam guy really seemed to waste a lot of time. He went into the foundations of epistemology, and dredged up... nothing. He went to Kalam, then admitted that it doesn't get you to God. Then, despite advocating pure reason, he went to physics. Quantum mechanics is an empirical theory! So is the Big Bang! And everything else in science, by definition! If you're going to use science to bolster your argument, why bother discounting empiricism in the first place?

    He also has a sort of fuzzy view of physics. It's more or less right, but it's full of the stuff that saliently mind-blowing, without a very deep amount of "getting it" in the context of the relevant theories. The quantum eraser experiment hints tantalizingly at things like, say, causality working backwards. But it doesn't do much more than hint. In practical terms, it doesn't have much use outside of cryptography; no time travel here. In philosophical terms, depending on how you interpret the experiment, it may or may not involve non-locality or violations of causality at all. That's true of all such quantum effects, by the way, there are limiting theorems that show that information doesn't travel back in time or faster than light. Not like an omnipotent God is bound by the laws of physics anyway.

    A lot of it just wasn't terribly relevant. The central claim of Deism is that the universe was produced by an intelligent. The first cause argument, at best, gets you to "produced" (somehow, by something). Without introducing the concept of intelligence (again, a subject about which our knowledge is mostly empirical), you've hardly gotten anywhere.

    The most unlikely part of Deism is the existence of this mind. If you can't prove that the first cause was an intelligent personal being, you're not even addressing the number one problem with your claim. And it's a mind unlike any that we've ever seen at that, not even the sort of thing we have reason to believe is possible, though so vague that it's not really disprovable.

  18. I meant:

    "that's salient and mind-blowing"


    "produced by an intelligent mind."

  19. @Aife. I agree anytime you hear the words 'quantum' come out of someone's mouth you've just entered the realm of quackery. I have a friend who uses 'quantum' for everything that is unproven or unknown..pretty standard practice.

  20. What's the name of those experiments in superpositions that suggests time travel predicting the future and things 'outside time'?
    I've heard a little about that before, but I can't remember what it was.

    And, like most arguments from quantum, aren't these things on such small scales that they're of little relevance to the progress of time as we generally understand it (merely suggesting 'now' is fuzzy rather than predicting the future more than 0.000000000000000000001 seconds into it)?

  21. While the delayed choice quantum eraser is an important experiment and there is little reason to suspect the results of the experiment, those results are not any kind of demonstration of retrocausality.

    Michael's assertion that it does is a result of unsupported assumptions that he neglected to mention.

  22. Hang on a second: if logic trumps empiricism, then how can an experiment which defies the basic logical construct of 'A therefore B' be used to support a supposedly logical argument?

  23. Doesn't the rationalist caller's logic employ deductive reasoning, the success of which is derived by inductive reasoning? Does that not make logic empirical?

  24. Tracie made a very good point during this discussion. Even if, hypothetically, one agreed to all of the steps in the logical progression and conceded, "yes, therefore a first cause must exist", that syllogism has no connection to observable reality.

    Christians are enamored of aristotelean logic because it does not require empiricism; armchair ratiocination predates the scientific method and the enlightenment. They like the coercive nature of syllogisms: if a and b, then you MUST accept c. They ignore 2000 years of progress in critical thinking and science.

  25. Of course, I should add that aristotelean logic continues to have its uses. Just not in arguing a deity into existence.

  26. Regarding Tracie's letter, if that guy knows about quantum gravity, maybe he should write it down and set aside a week for a vacation in Stockholm.

  27. Tracie made a very good point during this discussion. Even if, hypothetically, one agreed to all of the steps in the logical progression and conceded, "yes, therefore a first cause must exist", that syllogism has no connection to observable reality.

    Absolutely. The idea that logic trumps empiricism is insane.

    A: All cats are green.
    B: I am a cat.
    C: Therefore I am green.

    That is a logically valid syllogism. It is also false. But the only way to confirm that is with empirical observation.

    I was also baffled by the guy's fiddle-faddle about causes coming after effects -- even assuming that's true (like Matt, I don't have nearly the necessary amount of information to say I accept it), he didn't seem to realize that it utterly invalidates the "first cause" Kalam argument he's trying to put forward. If a cause can come after an effect then there DOESN'T have to be a first mover -- maybe the universe's future existence caused it to start existing, or whatever. If the "first" cause can actually be the second or tenth or millionth cause, then he's sunk without the hosts having to do anything except perhaps point that out to him.

  28. Something I hope I never see in the chat room during the show again:

    "Matt, just yell 'No, no, no, no, no, you're done!' and hang up!"

    It can be amusing as a one-off clip to shut somebody down like that, but as a reoccurring catch phrase it would completely suck.

    Guys, you may take delight in fantasies of just telling every theist to shut up and go away, but that's really not what our show is about. That guy may have been long-winded but he was respectful and did offer a discussion that was a grade above what we often get (i.e., "Durrrr, look at the trees.") We are not about to create some kind of across the board policy to yell at people and hang up on them every time they identify as believers. That does not look like winning a debate, no matter what the chat room thinks; it would make us look like cranky, short-tempered, insecure cranks.

  29. The caller that was talking about his girlfriend being a believer and him being an atheist is the same situation I'm going through. My wife and I have been fighting about me being an atheist for over 3 years. Were now separated because she can't accept me as an atheist.

  30. "I don't believe in the supernatural. At all.

    Theists like to equate the supernatural with things that are as yet unknown and unexplained. At the risk of sounding trite, when and if these things become know and explained, then they will be natural."


  31. @dave

    That really sucks. As a 3rd person observer, it's easy to just say "to hell with her then", but that's what she's doing to you.

    Not surprising that the theist is the closed minded one.

  32. Kazim, some of us did not want the caller to be shut down; rather, encouraged to condense his arguments.

    Matt did try, valiantly, but the caller kept dragging the conversation into quantum physics, cosmology, and general rambling. To this listener, it seemed that Matt was being overly generous in allowing the caller to meander.

    I would suggest that there isn't a binary solution: be a jerk or let the caller ramble, but ideally a middle ground of keeping the caller on point, which Matt and the other hosts typically do exceptionally well.

    We are rabid fans; this is only intended as feedback - constructive criticism - that you may want to consider as your show gains in popularity. We want you to succeed.

  33. I thought the last caller was reasonably handled, yeah Matt and Tracie might have been a little too generous, but the conversation was kind of interesting.(Although I don't think the caller really made any legitimate points to support his views). So maybe they could have cut to the chase a little sooner and got some more callers on. It did seem when Matt kind of shut his argument down, the caller just said.."Well okay, I kind of see your point,... But..."

    And he did this a few times during the conversation when he really had no ground left to do so. It was a little interesting to listen to I guess at first, but after ten minutes or so I started getting bored.

    This just goes to show that we need the hour and half format back. It usually always takes at least 7 or 8 minutes for Matt to get through all the announcements which are usually the same every time. Then another ten to fifteen minutes for the co-host to talk about their subject. At this point there is little more than 30 minutes left in the show. Then they just plow through calls in which most of the time are just atheists telling them how great their show is and seek advice for some personal problem of theirs. Then some theist calls and presents some argument we've heard a million times and it drones on for ten or fifteen minutes and all of a sudden there is two minutes left in the show, in which they plow through another couple calls. It's always nice to hear the "Mark" callers, but I wish there was more time to talk about current events and news and how they may relate to atheism in general.

  34. I agree, Mamba24, the shortened time period makes the rambling calls seem longer, and they crowd out other callers. Can you imagine a TAG debate in the hour format? It would take 30 mins to define conceptual!!!

  35. Rambling callers are a tough thing to deal with, especially with the truncated show.

    Matt did say that he could short-circuit the argument but wanted to give the guy a chance.

    It seemed to me that the concept that he was trying get across was not best served by a being explained in a time constrained phone conversation.
    Advising the caller to write his thoughts down and emailing to the show for future discussion may have been the way to go.
    I know it has been suggested to other callers in the past and can potentially looks as though you running away from an discussion

  36. Maybe The AE could partner with the RD Foundation. RD could provide some funding and visibility on his site, and AE could have an RDF advertisement as a banner or in a prominent place on the main ACA site.

    Perhaps the additional funding and visibility would allow the show to reman in Austin but go completely Internet (thus 90 minutes) with state-of-the-art equipment. And then RD and other of the Horsemen could appear on shows from time to time.

    Just some ideas, which I'm sure the AE hosts have considered.

  37. did you guys see that a penguin is posting on this thread??? looks like evolution is out the window!!!

    Wish there had been more callers on the show. I am constantly disappointed when the first thing a caller says is "love you guys, love your show" since there is a big chance the next 10-20 minutes is going to suck. The first caller took up so much time and it's not something that couldn't have been asked by e-mail instead.

    I know the show doesn't pick it's callers. With the shorter time format, hopefully the hosts won't give quite as much time to atheist fans who are used to posting comments on youtube videos filled with nonesense and now want to hear themselves talk.

  38. Just to clarify, I don’t know how this has been overlooked, but I did address his statement that logic trumps empiricism.

    I repeated what he’d said “logic trumps empiricism.” Then I asked him, if I accept a logical conclusion that seems logically iron clad to me, and then am confronted by someone demonstrating empirically to me, unambiguously, that the conclusion I accepted is in opposition to empirical reality, are you saying I should maintain the aforementioned accepted logical conclusion is correct?

    He answered no, and agreed that in such a case a person would have to go with empiricism.

    In my book, when logic points to X, and empiricism points to not-X, and we agree empiricism wins—that’s empiricism trumping logic, not the other way around. So, he clarified what he meant, but in the end, he did admit that when it comes to a choice between empirically demonstrated reality vs. logical conclusion, you have to go with empirical reality.

  39. So, he clarified what he meant, but in the end, he did admit that when it comes to a choice between empirically demonstrated reality vs. logical conclusion, you have to go with empirical reality.

    I don't think he realized that's what he admitted, though. I think he came away thinking he'd explained to you how logic trumps empiricism and gotten you to agree. That's me presuming to read his mind somewhat, but given that he then attempted to proceed to argue for God on the basis of logic alone, I don't think the point got through to him -- though it's certainly fair to say you did address it.

  40. Next watch me pull a rabbit from my hat by reason alone!

    Never mind the evidence, this is reason.

  41. I agree he admitted empiricism trumped logic, but I also agree with Dorkman that he continued on after that as if he hadn't agreed to it.

    With any luck he'll email in and you can post a back and forth chain here, or he'll call again (and be more concise).

    I like the long, rambling guys. They're more intelligent, they've put more thought into their beliefs, and they can be shown the flaws in their arguments just as easily. It's nice to mix it up - all short & sweet and bagging out armchair theologians gets boring. You've gotta have the occasional combo breaker.

  42. I don't understand the attitude of dumping theists or rushing through them. Once we get one on the air, we should cling to them as long as possible.

    Occasionally, an atheist calls with something interesting to say, which is fine, but we seem to want to get them off the phones too.

    .. so is the goal to see how many calls we can get on the air? We can maximize that if we give them 2 seconds each.

    Theistic calls should end when we've stopped making progress (not entered any infinite loops, etc).

  43. We need one theist in particular to call back: the "you are inane philistines, postmodern relativist atheists" guy. He would be worth an entire hour.

  44. I would much rather have the hosts go back and forth with one theist for the whole hour, than turn the show into a game where we see how many theists Matt can tell to shut up and hang up on in the time alloted. Any asshat with a switchboard can do that. I can't speak for the other fans, but I like the show because Matt and the other hosts listen to the questions, and then make good points and put forward strong arguments. It helps me think about how I'd answer the same question -- I've even started pausing the podcast before the hosts give their responses,think about how I'd respond if the question or argument was posed to me, then start the show again to see where we differed in our approaches. Sometimes it forces me to rethink my own positions. Sometimes I think my way was better, and the hosts are available here and via email to discuss it.*

    If "no no no you're done" is what you want the show to be, that clip exists on YouTube. Go put that on a loop on Sunday afternoons and let them do the show the way they (and many of us, the fans) like.

    *(Which is a privilege I've come to appreciate even more now that I've gone back to work my way through the show archives. It's REALLY frustrating to watch a seven-year-old show and want to respond. I just watched an episode where Ashley went on about Mithra and Osiris and I was tearing my hair out.)

  45. Clearly the caller isn't available for me to ask, but I took him to be saying that when logic and empiricism conflict, empiricism wins hands down.

    His clarification was that in areas where we lack empirical evidence, we can reasonably speculate about what might be.

    We agreed even to that point. Where we ended up at odds was whether there was any reasonable bridge between "seems there must be a cause" and "god exists." I don't think he ever made that crossing.

  46. "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."
    Richard Feynman, in The Character of Physical Law (1965)

  47. So...if this guy is arguing that future events can cause past events (retro-causality) and this may be a natural features of the universe. Why couldn't the universe have made itself via a backwards time arrow? I fail to see how that helps a God argument at all.

  48. Also apparently science-blogs is getting repeated DOSAs. Not that I think it *IS* Christian nutters, but I don't think it isn't either. Anyone have thoughts?

  49. @tracieh - fair enough. I listened to it again, after he agrees that empirical evidence backed logic trumps pure logic he doesn't go back on it. For some reason I felt like he did.

    Has he emailed in? I'm not expecting live email to email coverage or anything, but just knowing he'd got in contact would be satisfying.

    @Ing - yeah, if anything his introduction of future events causing past events gives an extra reason for not assuming a supernatural cause, since it adds another way nature can do it. So that was just weird.

  50. Arguementum ad Timeywimey?

  51. @tracieh I just listened to your talk at the beginning of this episode. Very, very good. One thing that occurred to me that I don't know if anyone brought up: if we did suddenly uncover evidence of dragons existing, dragons would no longer be in the supernatural bin--they'd be in the natural bin like any other animal. This is true of every supernatural 'cause'. If we had evidence of gods or ghosts, they wouldn't be supernatural or paranormal, they'd be natural and normal.


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