Does the absence of evidence mean evidence of absence?

Deutsche Version: Ist das Fehlen von Beweisen der Beweis des Fehlens?

Let us consider the problem of the existence of God.

There are basically three possibilities which might be nuanced by probabilities:

  1. I know God exists (Theism)
  2. I know God does not exist (Atheism)
  3. I don’t know if God exists or not (Agnosticism)

For many people today, if we have neither evidence for nor against God’s existence, we should not only reject 1), but also 3) and be atheists.

Quite a few folks would justify that by saying that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence (a principle which will be referred to as PA).

Flying spaghetti monsters and invisible pink unicorns

They often illustrate that by quoting the infamous pink invisible unicorn (which might be lying on the ground besides you!)

Image

Although it is very seldom well articulated, the reasoning seems to look as follows:

  1. it is certain that the pink invisible unicorn doesn’t exist
  2. if it is certain, it has to have a justification
  3. PA is the only possible justification
  4. therefore PA must be true.

This is the only way I can make sense of the manner Skeptics use such kinds of prowling monsters in public debates.

The first thing which strikes me is that it is completely absurd and hopelessly circular.

We don’t know if PA is true and want to prove it. Now we want to base our proof of PA on our certainty that there is no pink invisible unicorn. But we can only know there is no such beast if PA is true!

But PA faces a far more serious problem: in many situations it leads to quite absurd results…

Let us consider for example that I’ve invented a time-travel machine and fly with it to the ancient Greece.

I meet there an Epicurean philosopher who fervently believes in PA. During the course of our discussion, I explain to him in great details how a kangaroo looks like.

Image

Amused, he glances at me and tells me: “since I have no evidence such a creature exists, I can be almost certain it is not real.“

Would he be justified to hold this belief?

Back to the present time: I have no evidence there is a bear-like intelligent being scratching his head at the boundary of the milky way, can I conclude there is no such being?

The absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if one would expect such evidence to be out there.

But once we’ve rejected PA, what are we to do with our best invisible friend and her single pink horn?

Image

The ground for our disbelief shouldn’t be PA, but the self-contradictory nature of the proposition.

I’m completely open to the existence of a pink unicorn somewhere in the multiverse, or of a creature invisible for our eyes, but not of a being having both features.

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Design Detection and Endless Space

Deutsche Version: Designdetektierung und endloser Raum

Design Detection and Endless Space

Intelligent Design is a controversial theory methodology aiming at identifying features of the universe bearing marks of an agency.  According to Bill Dembski and his fellow design theorists, two conditions must be present before detecting design:

a)      Complexity

b)      Specificity

Complexity is never enough for identifying a designed system: a heap of rocks randomly arranged near a mountain can have an extremely complex shape, yet it is a fully natural feature of nature.

ComplexRock

Specificity alone is also not sufficient:  if I randomly select four letters among four hundreds and find the word “h-a-n-d” on my palm, the information is specific, but not complex enough for being the product of design.

But if I choose out forty letters and read “The son of Lothar is of divine origin”, I have good grounds for supposing it is either true, or that someone is playing a trick on me.

For establishing the validity of criterion a),  IDists  try to prove there is no way such a structure could have emerged by chance in our universe.  One obvious problem concerns the well-known ability of natural selection to give birth to extremely complex systems displaying elegant functions.

Here, I shall shove this difficulty aside and take the infinity of the universe into consideration. According to numerous models of the multiverse or the Big Crunch, many cosmologists think there are no boundaries to the space we live in.

And if this is so, each event physically possible is going to happen somewhere due to Chaos Theory and the law of the great numbers.

Frightening examples are the famous Boltzmann’s brains, which are brains which pop into existence without having first evolved.

BoltBraINS

Even if the mechanism of natural selection were very weak, as extreme proponents of Intelligent Design assert, the most complex biological structures they worship would irremediably come into being within an infinite Cosmos, without any help from an intelligent designer.

 

 

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Ockham’s razor, the Origin of the Universe and the Search for an Airtight Argument

I’m really grateful to Jonathan Pierce for the time he took to read my essay and criticize it.

From his writing, it wasn’t clear, however, if he was defending the Methodological Razor (MR) or the Epistemological Razor (ER), as I’ve defined the terms in my initial post.

https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/deconstructing-the-popular-use-of-occams-razor/

Instead he chose to use the general term (OR).

At the end of his response, he wrote

This methodological approach is all that is necessary

but there would be no issue here since I’ve nothing against MR, which cannot be used as an argument showing God’s existence to be unlikely.

Therefore, I’m going to suppose Jon refers to EM henceforth since this is relevant for our disagreement concerning theism, atheism and agnosticism.

First Jonathan is right that I wasn’t careful enough concerning the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA):

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause

  2. the universe began to exist

  3. therefore the universe has a cause

It is obviously true that many cosmologists believing in Loop Quantum Cosmology, some forms of Multiverses, Big Crunch and so on and so forth are going to deny the truth of premise 2).

I wholeheartedly agree that Evangelical apologists like William Lane Craig pick and choose the data they wish, but the same can be said of atheist apologists.

My point was that many honest atheists (like Jeffrey Jay Lowder) who are quite open to the truth of 2) find that 1) is fallacious due to reasons very relevant for the present discussion.

Jonathan mentioned philosopher Kevin.T Kelly who doesn’t only prove OR to be mathematically true, but also emphasized that OR can ONLY be used as a tool for ensuring convergence towards truth (MR).

If theories A and B account equally well for the same data, and A is simpler than B, we cannot say that it’s more probable that A is true, but JUST that it is better to methodologically ASSUME that A is true to converge towards the TRUE theory X, which might be much more complex than B itself.

Professor Kelly says that assuming that (all other things being equal) the simpler theory is always the most likely “smacks of wishful thinking.”

Jon wrote that:

The problem is, OR seems to be an inductive argument used pragmatically, and so extending it in the way in which LS does to “ALWAYS” be the case appears to be extrapolating an inductive conclusion to a deductive premise.

The problem is that you need an ER to argue against the truth of theism, a MR won’t do the job. And the inductive justification of OR is only valid for a limited space, as I’m going to explain below.

In fact, ironically, this is a move which the KCA does with both opening premises of its arguments! –

Actually, popular versions of the KCA do the very same mistake as proponents of ER by assuming certain premises are true far beyond the domain where they can be empirically, inductively justified.

The main thrust of the argument appears to be that to justify OR one needs an independent, non circular way of doing it.  But this is similar to the critique of reason. One cannot justify reason without appealing to reason. True, but we do all the time, and we use it because reason works. On balance, if we can show OR to be pragmatically useful and successful, then it is at least a good rule of thumb.

This is very revealing and interesting. Jonathan is apparently ready to accept the existence of basic beliefs which are pragmatically justified. He would certainly have no problem accepting the existence of intuitive moral truths. But what about the existence of feelings and thoughts DIFFERENT from the material world they are about?

That said, I’m skeptic about the fact we ought to believe in OR (or even MR) to live consistently, there are other postulated principles which do the job quite well.

In fact, to draw further analogies with the KCA, this is precisely the move done with ex nihilo nihil fit, out of nothing nothing comes. This is something people like Craig claim is one of the most basic philosophical truths or intuitions. Yet it is merely an inductive observation (an erroneous one at that). One must differentiate between such approaches, between intrinsic, analytic conclusions, and inductively derived synthetic truths.

I largely agree with that, as Jeffrey Jay Lowder pointed out, such a belief is only valid within the realm it has been inductively arrived at. But ER faces the very same problem.

Next, it must be clear I didn’t mention the existence of multiverses as something violating the Epistemological or even Methodological Razor.

I used multiverses to show one cannot prove ER inductively with its absolute claims due to the fact all our observations are limited to our present universe.

Finally, Jon wrote:

This methodological approach is all that is necessary, in my view. I am not sure of the application of the epistemological approach. I think it IS an inductive, scientific tool which is more probably right given past successes and so can be applied to anything concerning the natural sciences and philosophy. It is not necessarily true, I would agree (intuitively, without having studied OR too much).

Like the principle “from nothing, nothing comes”, I see no reason to think OR can be applied to

completely unknown situations, like simulated realities.

Furthermore, as other users have pointed out, it’s true I poorly expressed myself. I meant that all things being equal, history has vindicated more complex theories.

Maybe I was wrong, and the examples of continental drift and ball lightning weren’t directly applicable to OR, but to the claim “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” as I’m going to explain in a future post.

To put it in a nutshell, if Jonathan thinks he can use ER (or even OR in general) to undermine theism, he ought to prove it is always valid. If he denies this universality, he has to explain what the exceptions are, and why some metaphysical questions could not be such exceptions.

That said, there exist other arguments against theism (like the problem of evil, religious confusion, physical confusion and so on.), but they aren’t very popular among non-philosophers.

 

 

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Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor

Deconstructing the Popular Use of Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor (OR) seems to lie at the very core of the worldviews of naturalism and materialism. It demands only few imagination to realize the pair would completely collapse if the razor were cut off.

Also called principle of parsimony, it exists in two forms: a methodological form and an epistemological form.

Methodological Razor: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, it is preferable to use the simplest theory for the next investigations.

Epistemological Razor: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, the simplest theory is ALWAYS more likely.

Here, I won’t address the validity of the Methodological Razor (MR) which might be an useful tool in many situations.

I am much more interested in evaluating the Epistemological razor (ER), since it is under this form it most always plays an overwhelming role in philosophy, theology and the study of anomalous phenomena.

Nowadays, the most popular argument for atheism looks like this:

  1. It is possible (at least a priori) to explain all facts of the Cosmos as satisfactorily with nature alone as with God

  2. ER: if theory A and theory B do the same job of describing all known facts C, the simplest theory is ALWAYS more likely

  3. God is much more complex than nature

  4. Nature alone is much more likely to be responsible for reality than God

Of course, since neither God nor nature can explain their own existence, ER stipulates that the existence of nature as a brute fact is much more probable than the existence of God as a brute fact.

ER is employed in a huge variety by proponents with diverse worldviews. This is the main reason why most scientists believe that UFO cannot be something otherworldly.

Despite the voluminous literature related to ER, it comes as a surprise that only a few publications deal with its justification. And unlike the expectations of its most enthusiastic proponents, such a demonstration proves a formidable task due to its universal claim to always hold true.

In this entry, I’ll show why I’m under the impression that nobody has been able to prove ER without begging the question in one way or the other.

One common way to argue is by using a reductio ad adsurbum.

Let us consider the following realistic conservation I could have with a UFO denier.

Skeptical Manitoo: „I was really shocked as I learned you believe all this non-senses about flying saucers!“

Lothar’s son: „Actually, this isn’t quite true. I do believe most of them can be traced back to natural or human causes. I’m just undecided about a small minority of them. I consider it possible that something otherworldly might be going on…“

Skeptical Manitoo:„What??? How dare you utter such lunacy before having drunk your third beer? The UFO hypothesis is the most complex one, therefore it is also the most unlikely one!“

Lothar’s son: „And how the hell do you know that, all other things being equal, simpler explanations are always more probable?“

Skeptical Manitoo: „And how do you know otherwise that the traces on the field stem from some wild living things rather than from elves?“ he replied bitterly.

At the point, the skeptics expects me to recognize this is silly indeed, AND that the only way to avoid this madness is by believing ER, so that I’ll end up agreeing with him.

But this is only a pragmatic argument, it has no bearing on the truth of ER whatsoever.

What if I stay stubborn:

Lothar’s son: „I believe your elfic intervention is also within the realm of possibilities, even if it is more complex.“

Skeptical Manitoo: „What? And would you also tolerate the presence of a Flying Spaguetti Monster which has caused the rain shower which fell on us previously?“

Lothar’s son: „„Of course!“

Skeptical Manitoo: „What? And do you also believe in a flying Dick Cheney who threw bombs upon the civilian population in Iraq?“

Reaching this level of insanity, I might very well be tempted to nod in order to escape the ordeal.

But it is important to realize that this whole discussion only shows, at best, a pragmatic MR to be valid.

If there is no INDEPENDENT ground for rejecting the crazy situations my imaginative friend has mentioned, anti-realism seems to be true, which means we can never have any kind of knowledge.

To justify the Epistemological Razor, one clearly needs non-circular arguments which might come from pure philosophical considerations or experimental inferences.

A very commonly used one is the alleged inexorable progress of science towards the simplest explanations.

There are many problems with this argument. The history of science is full of examples of complex theories who were wrongly dismissed because of their lack of parsimony, tough the future vindicated them in the most triumphant way. Continental drift and the reality of ball lightnings are only two examples on a long list.

But let us suppose for the sake of the argument that during OUR ENTIRE history, the simplest theories always proved to be the most likely.

Would this show that ER, as I’ve defined it above, is true? Not at all.

All this would prove is that we live in an universe (or perhaps even ONLY a region of an universe) where things are as simple as possible.

But modern science seems to indicate there exist a gigantic (perhaps even an infinite) number of parallel universes out there. And as Max Tegmark pointed out, these are not only limited to those resulting from chaotic cosmic inflation and string theory, but include as well quantum universes (Everett’s theory) and perhaps even mathematical universes. Simulated universes can certainly be added to this list.

So ultimately the justification of Occam’s razor would look like that:

  1. in our universe, simplest explanations are always the most likely to be true
  2. if it is true in our universe, it is also probably true in the other 10000000000000000000000000000000000…… universes we know very little of
  3. therefore, in the entire reality, simplest explanations are always the most likely to be true.

I hope that most of my readers will realize that premise 2) is an extraordinary claim, an interpolation based on nothing more than wishful thinking.

I know there have been many elegant attempts to ground ER on bayesian considerations. Like philosopher of mathematics Kelly I believe all are hopelessly circular because they smuggle simplicity into their definition of reality.

I’d be glad to learn from my reader if they know ways to justify ER which don’t presuppose the existence of a simple multiverse in the first place.

Finally, I want to point out a further problem one should have using ER against the existence of

God.

The Kalham’s cosmological argument (named after a great Muslim theologian) tries to establish the existence of a transcendence as follows:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. the universe began to exist
  3. therefore the universe has a cause

Due to the overwhelming experimental and theoretical success of the Big Bang theory, atheist apologists can no longer deny premise 2)

Consequently, they typically deny premise 1), arguing like Jeffrey Jay Lowder that it is not always true.
Lowder agrees it would be absurd to believe something in our universe could pop into existence, and this is the case because all our experience allows us to INDUCTIVELY conclude this is never going to occur. But he also emphasizes that this inference is only valid for things taking place WITHIN our universe, and not outside.
Since the grounds for believing in 1) are limited to our experience in this universe, we’ve no warrant to assert it is generally true.

But this is exactly my point about Occam’s razor or the principle of parsimony.

It might (or not) be true it holds in our universe, but this gives us absolutely no justification for believing it can be applied to transcendental realities (or to rule them out).

So, this was admittedly a very long post, and I hope to receive lots of positive and negative feedbacks!

 

 

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