“The Cocoon of Unfalsifiability” by Daniel Bastian [GUEST POST]

stone-light-hallway-cave(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)


I thoroughly enjoyed reading your most recent piece. It’s the best one yet in the series. You actually (finally) lay down some things we can really sink our teeth into. Something tells me you should have started with this one…

However, after the opening paragraphs my hopes were dashed as I found that much of the rhetoric here is beset by the same pitfalls that have been addressed time and again. Most importantly, (and what I will focus on in my response), is that the above piece suffers from what I will call the doctrine of unfalsifiability.

In the flashpoint conflicts between science and religion, we observe a long, dense history of science holding forth some new discovery about the nature of the universe and those discoveries being resisted or considered in some way conflicting or out of sync with the religious beliefs of the day. Heliocentrism, evolution, the Big Bang, the germ theory of disease, the non-efficacy of prayer, etc. all represent findings that have both challenged and undermined traditional, orthodox beliefs in some way.

Each time this happens, more nuanced, more labyrinthine and less parsimonious theologies had to be constructed in response. If such findings didn’t pose a challenge to faith, we wouldn’t see the longstanding debates or the polarizing resistance, and there wouldn’t be the need for periodic reassessment. The reason should be clear: In no way can it be dismissed that theology and faith were a lot simpler and easier to affirm when it was believed that we were the center of the cosmos, that we were specially created distinct from other animals, and that it didn’t take billions of years of brutal death and violence to be here. Taking the long view of life-that is, looking reality square in the eye-clearly requires deeper reserves of theological provisions to maintain faith coordinate to that of our ancestors.

In the intervening years, theology has tried very heartily to keep pace. Faced with the mounting dissonance of reality as we excavate more about our past and present, and the apparent lack of intervention in this reality, religion has inserted ad hoc explanation after ad hoc explanation to maintain sync. Of course, one can do this all day long, no matter how the universe appears. One can always simply say, “God could have done it this way because X” or “God might have good reasons for doing it this way”. But the problem with this is that none of these provisional musings can be authenticated over against any other, from the simple on up to the abstruse, and thus these post hoc, postliminary compromises are not useful as a way of determining truth or as a route to knowledge. After all, if any ad hoc explanation will work, then NONE CAN BE WRONG.

That is, if anything is true, then nothing is wrong. If anything can satisfy a preconditioned belief, and nothing can count as evidence against it, then how rational is the belief in the first place? We MUST have a way of weighting the strength of our beliefs in any one direction. And this was the purpose of my note. It was intended as a collaborative exercise to articulate some criteria, expectations and predictors for religious beliefs that, if true, would weight my beliefs toward theism. The invitation was to theists to list out some criteria, etc. that they would weigh in favor of atheism (or to simply point out why my criteria are misplaced). Some questions raised:

  • Do naturally occurring disasters, like the 2004 tsunami referenced in the OP, count as evidence for or against a god?
  • Do mass extinctions count as evidence for or against a god?
  • Does the fact we very nearly went extinct ourselves count as evidence for or against a god?
  • Does the null hypothesis for prayer experiments count as evidence for or against a god?
  • What would strengthen your belief in a god more: a religious text that contains numerous contradictions and errors, or one that contains no contradictions or errors?
  • Would the scenario in which two or more independent civilizations have matching revelations strengthen or weaken your evidence of god?
  • Do such phenomena tilt your belief away or toward theistic belief?

Et cetera. (Note: By ‘god’, I mean one who intervenes in creation and cares about how humans and how creation plays out, just as I described in my OP, which would discount maltheistic conceptions, even though the evidence seems to support such conceptions much more strongly.)

Instead, what you have expressed in your most recent piece is that no evidence, no matter how significant or compelling, can permeate the bubble of your safely sequestered beliefs. All you have done is sealed your beliefs inside a cocoon of unfalsifiability and hoped no one would notice.

A quick analogy is in order.

Suppose you and a friend were to stumble across a dead deer in the woods. Based on what you know about food chains indigenous to the region, you assume wolves were the source of the deer’s demise. Your friend then spots a bullet hole and exit wound on the carcass and suggests hunters are the better explanation. You proceed to attach to this robust line of evidence an explanation that still involves a wolf. Your friend then finds the bullet casing nearby. You, unwilling to concede such a “reductionist” perspective, make up another explanation that is consistent with the involvement of wolves. Shortly thereafter, the two of you cross paths with a hunter, who says he indeed shot a buck a ways back, describing it in detail and the location of where he shot it, which matches both the profile and location of the one you observed. Still unsatisfied that this is the full explanation, you concoct an even more byzantine scheme in which a wolf is still a part of the narrative and had some meaningful role to play.

You see where I’m going with this of course. The practice is but a step removed from the young earth creationists who twist their logic into pretzels trying to reconcile their beliefs with reality. Yes, it’s possible a wolf could have been in some way involved with the deer incident, just as, yes, an invisible entity could have planted fossils on earth to give the facade of age. Likewise, another invisible entity could have intervened selectively in the evolutionary process leading to humans. Or he could have intervened at the point of every single gene mutation that has ever arisen on earth. Or, better yet, it could have been a maltheistic dictator god who thought it pleasant to fudge with the process and bedevil the existence of sentient beings. Or perhaps multiple ethereal creatures, one in charge of selecting mutations and one in charge of natural disasters. The permutations are endless.

This gets us absolutely nowhere. It’s little more than an interesting thought experiment and is useless as a way of knowing anything. There is no reason whatsoever to suppose any of it is true or even where to draw the line: i.e., how do we distinguish divine intervention from natural processes, since to the neutral observer, the two look mighty indistinguishable. Combined with the criteria and arguments outlined in my note, there is even less reason to suppose behind the sum of all of these innumerable micro- and macro-interventions lies a loving god who cares about how events down here play out.

How much are you simply covering for an entity who simply isn’t there?

This fatal problem subsumes much of your note. You said:

“But surely the fact that we don’t know which one it will be doesn’t mean that there’s not an active agent flipping the coin in the first place, right? The unpredictability of a process simply cannot speak to that.”

Of course our current understanding of reality cannot speak to that. Just as it cannot speak to a cohort of maltheistic, phantasmal Kim Jong Il’s deciding the fate of each and every coin flip. Or invisible leprechauns fine-tuning the rotation of each toss. And guess what? Neither can you. I have just as wild an imagination as you do, I can assure you. But it doesn’t mean I mistake it for reality.

“To think that merely explaining a process (even completely) removes God, is skipping a few logical jumps ahead.”

It doesn’t “remove” God in the same way it doesn’t remove the putative role of Santa Claus, garden fairies or Thor. The idea was never needed in the first place, and we have no good reason to suppose it is true. The point is this: If the brand of god you’re selling actually is out there, then he has made himself impossible to detect, and has crafted a universe by using processes indistinguishable from nature itself. What he has done, in fact, is create precisely the world we would expect if there were no a benevolent watchman.

Once again, the absence of justification for something does not mean that we simply latch onto any fanciful notion that comes our way. The idea is to withhold judgment until justifying reasons are found.

“But that’s why, though yes, it’s most certainly a circular argument, I stand by it: the fact that we humans beat every statistical chance that we would survive and arrive to where we are today is, I think, a sign for Providence working in the midst of the process, rather than against.”

The bigger problem is not that this argument is circular, but that it’s useless. Yes, we are here, but the odds were stacked heavily against us, just as with the 99.99% of species who didn’t make it. If you want to call an under 10000 population of sapien primates culled by genetic glitches and horrific disease “Divine Providence” be my guest, but don’t be surprised when I look at you askance for siding with delusion over reality. This is no different from the religious faithful who thank god in every situation, no matter the outcome. (Whether the relative survives the car accident or not, credit is due where credit is due, right?) If any excuse will work, then, well you can probably finish my sentence at this point.

(As an aside, unlike gene inheritance, statistics is a rather difficult concept to map onto the future emergence of any one species, as we simply don’t know the full population of mutations that can arise, nor their fitness potential in the full range of environments, nor the probabilities of disasters, epidemics and other variables that could eliminate any one specie’s chance of emerging. Stochasticity, rather, governs natural selection, the primary mechanism of organismic evolution and is not correlated with statistical modeling. The point is: how likely were we to arise? Not very.)

Even more curious is that some of your post voices concepts far outside any mainline theology I am familiar with.

“When Jesus shows up on the scene, because he is an evolved homo sapien male whose evolutionary line goes all the way back to those very stars, he carries the entire history of the cosmos leading to him in his physical body. And so, when he physically dies, and rises, he is actually raising the entire universe’s history within himself.”

This just sounds like grasping at straws and, as another commenter noted, you seem to be creating an entirely new brand of theology in the process (scientology book in the making, perhaps?). Look, it’s easy to make things up. It’s even harder to apply skepticism judiciously, full-tilt, and in an unbiased, non-tendentious manner across the board.

“What would be the alternative for those that agree with the Facebook post, I wonder? Would they have any less skepticism if the account of our evolution was so sure and fully explained by natural processes? If there were absolutely no “messiness” in how we came about? Would they not then say that a god was altogether unnecessary, and that Occam’s Razor demanded we got rid of the unnecessary agent?”

I’m not sure what you’re getting at above, as it is phrased ambiguously (and I think is misphrased).

1. We have no reason to believe our origin is not fully (or cannot be fully) explained with recourse to natural processes. If non-natural processes were to be identified, they would be incorporated into our broader understanding of reality, and I personally would find this evidence in favor of a deity, depending on the particulars of these non-natural process(es).

2. Evolution is intrinsically a messy and unguided process, to which death is integral. If this process were not the prevailing theory of our origins, or a guided process were to take its place, I would find theistic persuasions easier to come by.

3. Occam’s Razor is precisely what can be appealed to in dismissal of the god hypothesis. No known component of reality requires, or is aided by, the attachment of disembodied deities.

I answered these things clearly in my OP and have never suggested otherwise.

I still think the best counter to the whole God question was by Laplace when he replied to Napoleon, “We have no need of that hypothesis, sir. It works without it.”

Yes, this layer you are so intent on superimposing is unnecessary, but if it could be demonstrated that it was not unnecessary in understanding the phenomena you lay out in your post, then we can talk.

“I will confess, the reason why I think we should include this God is because it is more compelling.”

I fully understand you find it compelling, but the authenticity of truth claims does not depend on how compelling we find them. (If that were the case, I have a few movies and comic books to recommend you.) The emotional connection and resonance we find in certain ideas says nothing whatsoever on whether those ideas are true. I feel like a broken record at this point, but your continued repetition of the sentiment above is fully irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Muslims, etc. find their faith compelling for not dissimilar reasons.

“I freely admit: if this material world is all there is, then Atheism is indeed the truest, most logical response. And that’s because “evidence” belongs to the realm of this material world. For things beyond it, material “evidence” is not the criteria by which it is judged.”

One can only sigh with exasperation at this stage. How many times must I point this crucial distinction out to you? We do not presume the world is material, it’s simply the best conclusion based on all of the available data. Moreover, there is no data whatsoever for “things beyond the material world”, so how can you even begin to make claims about which kinds of methods and evidence are suited to studying them? Such a statement is laughably unfounded. Did you read the Sean Carroll piece I linked? I don’t post links just for the hell of it. They really do underline the points I make, I promise.

“As I tried to explain yesterday in the Facebook comments, this whole discussion of God is something that transcends the realm of reason and evidence. That is simply not the plane on which this can be proven.”

But of course. Of course it’s outside the bounds of reason and rational inquiry. Of course it’s not open to active investigation. This indeed MUST be the case to form the foundation of the empire you’re trying to build. I simply maintain that the foundations are shaky and I’d think twice before building an empire on faulty foundations.

Pursuing my thesis, I actually think this is a testament to the epistemological corners theists have progressively been backed into, as their inevitably provisional assumptions about reality have been gradually sliced away by the unremorseful blade forged by science and skeptical inquiry. Faced with a dearth of tenable evidence for their beliefs, one of the last remaining redoubts of religion today are the vague refrains of “something else out there” and imprecise mutterings of “otherness”. While I find such musings empty, I understand the psychological utility of religious and other similar belief systems. I would never deny this.

“Daniel says that Andromeda is the “appointed destroyer” of our universe. Actually, from what I understand, the slowly increasing brightness of the sun would destroy all life a few billion years before Andromeda ever came our way. Boo-yah.”

Right on. Yes, eventually we (along with all other life) will be reduced to cosmic cinders as the sun’s core is depleted of its hydrogen reserves and moves into its second stage of nuclear fusion. The heat death of the earth will occur long before the impending collision with Andromeda, so there will most likely be no life extant to observe it. Not such a cheery scenario, is it? This only bolsters the argument in question of course, and it was a simple matter of preference in choosing which to include.

“There is indeed a view of the world in which Atheism is the most compelling option out there. But this view of the world, as I’ve been repeating over and over again, is one that doesn’t explain our intuitions, isn’t beautiful, doesn’t offer a story that makes sense of our existential realities, and does not inspire and give strength for life to be lived as we believe it is the most fulfilling to live it.”

Seriously? How many times…For the zillionth time, atheism is not an ideology or belief system. It is the absence of such things. My atheism, in fact, makes no claims whatsoever (i.e., negative atheism). As such, it cannot explain anything, it isn’t beautiful and doesn’t offer any kind of inspiration or overarching narrative for life’s journey. That’s the point. This is as nonsensical as saying your non-belief in Santa Claus or garden fairies doesn’t offer a compelling narrative to organize your life around. “But Paul, if you don’t believe in the Final Enlightenment of Buddha then how can you justify beauty?”

Skepticism is the tool. Atheism is the conclusion. Truth is the goal. Atheism doesn’t assert to account for these things and never has. Just as afairyism doesn’t account for such things.

But what can account for these things?

Well, emotional connection and resonance, and you also mention intuition, originates in the brain. The brain is a product of evolution. We, by the transitive property, are also a product of evolution, and are thus not exempt from its processes. As such, it is useful as a starting point and there are no good reasons for removing its seat from the table.

In fact, an extremely solid evolutionary foundation can be offered for our cognitive identification with aesthetics and for the subjective experiences they supply. One can think of perfectly valid reasons why neurochemistry which favors esoterica like beauty, art, taste, love, meaning, etc. would be selected for and makes perfect sense within an evolutionary context. These not easily categorized arcana can and do supply inspiration and motivation and thus aid survival, thereby increasing chances of reproduction, etc. After all, what is life without these things but a bloodless, desiccated existence? These quantities do not fall outside, but fit right in line with, contemporary evolutionary theory.

Evolutionary psychology is a burgeoning field right now, replete with all kinds of fascinating implications for our aesthetic proclivities. For example, some recent work by Pinker, Hofstadter, Scott Atran and others builds upon the ideas of Gould, Eldredge and Mayr, showing that the most universal quanta of human cognition-viz, religion, science, aesthetics-emerged as “spandrels” (an architectural term reprovisioned for evolutionary theory), or traits whose functionality is distinct from its original purpose(s).

“Similarly, many universal features of human cognition—the primary data of evolutionary psychology—probably arise as spandrels of a general consciousness evolved for other reasons (almost surely adaptive). Freud argued that our fear of death acts as a key inspiration for the universal human institution of religion…According to the most popular view in the field, many other important human activities are spandrels, including art, music, religion, science, reading, and dreams.” (source)

I’d strongly encourage you to pick up a few works or white papers in the field if this is an area you are interested in.

Now, a bit about what this does not mean. This does not mean we all share the same subjective experiences or there is a mathematical formula by which we can all converge upon the superiority of certain aesthetic quanta after critical reflection, only that the biological (i.e., neurobiological) substrates which give rise to these appreciations resides in all of us and that we are all capable of subjective experience and the more contemplative aspects of human nature (which may not be unique to humans; such “spandrels” may radiate into non-human animals as well).

Now, whatever additional layers or theological context you’d like to build on top of that foundation is fine, but that doesn’t make it true (though it certainly may inspire you in some way). Nor should you pretend that there aren’t alternative perspectives or “lenses” by which non-Christians can identify with meaning and aesthetics. My thoughts below comport directly with Matt Killmon’s comment yesterday on the self-generated nature of meaning and its non-dependence on supernatural externalities.

Perhaps there is no overarching narrative to which we can tie and ground every state and action here on earth. Perhaps life is but one protracted oscillation between varying intensities of pleasure and pain, and any higher meaning is illusory. Surely an absence of objective meaning does not in the least require a denial of subjective meaning. We all navigate this cosmic journey via different streams, mesas and corridors, each visiting upon us new experiences, awakenings and inspirations. Finding and embracing with untapped zeal that which we identify as significant is one of the most irreplaceable ecstasies we encounter along the way. The pure opposite of inhibitive, the realization that our lives only have the meaning we give them is animating and enlarges our circle of freedom by impelling us to structure our pursuits and hew our conduct in consonance with that meaning.

Since you closed with a quote by a Hitchens kin, I’ll follow suit.

“Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” [C. Hitchens, The Portable Atheist]

Perhaps this is sufficient, and anything tacked on to the end of it, while potentially compelling and inspiring, is just a superfluous add-on.


In the end, this latest piece barely makes it beneath the surface of the arguments made in my piece, nor does it debunk or call them into question. I believe my conclusions are transparently rational and well-justified. Conversely, surely there are phenomena that would tilt your perspective toward atheism, the entire point of my original note. If not, then we clearly do not occupy the same epistemic playing field and are a mismatch destined to end in irresolution.

– Daniel


31 thoughts on ““The Cocoon of Unfalsifiability” by Daniel Bastian [GUEST POST]

  1. “And this was the purpose of my note”

    Obviously, which apparently went over Paul’s head, and which has landed us in this banal “series”. Out of which it must be noted, Paul has introduced a brand new theologic fiction which is quite amusing. Just wait until the mainstream gets ahold of it!


      • Whit,

        I sure wish you would actually engage with the posts/comments rather than simply antagonizing.the participants. I promise both you and future visitors will benefit from it more.

        – Daniel


        • and i like what paul and eric g. have said (and you) – no real need for me to add anything

          plus, i prefer to make my points satirically (see: stephen colbert)


        • but in all seriousness – for the most part, i just prefer to have these types of discussions and interactions face to face with people, over a beer. i’ve never been a big fan of online dialogue, hence why i don’t have a blog – just too much room in my opinion for misunderstanding, miscommunication, and a general propensity to say things that one wouldn’t necessarily say in person.

          that’s not to say i haven’t enjoyed the dialogue here. i have. but for me personally, this just isn’t the best forum.

          but i just couldn’t resist giving mr. meat a little taste of his own antagonizing medicine.


  2. Daniel, I know you’re really proud of this post, and have a lot of personal investment in it, but I don’t find much of this very convincing.

    The point I (and Eric) have been trying to get across to you is that your basic presupposition is just as circular and “unfalsifiable” as Christianity. You said: “We do not presume the world is material, it’s simply the best conclusion based on all of the available data. Moreover, there is no data whatsoever for “things beyond the material world”, so how can you even begin to make claims about which kinds of methods and evidence are suited to studying them? Such a statement is laughably unfounded.”

    The irony in that last sentence is shocking. I’m surprised you don’t see this. You say, “We don’t presume the world is material, it’s simply the best conclusion based on all of the available data.” What data, you ask? MATERIAL data. And so, you’re trying to laugh US away because we use a philosophical a priori to justify our belief in that same a priori? You’re using materialism to come to the conclusion of materialism and then saying there’s no material “evidence” of anything that’s not material. If the only mental tool in your toolbox is a hammer, then your world will be quite limited to nails.

    The reason why I keep refusing to (as you say) “go past the surface” of whatever level of profundity you believe is behind your own words in your original post, is because I’m trying to show the bigger picture that BOTH of our worldviews/assumptions/reasonings/perspectives/conclusions–WHATEVER the hell you want to call it this time–are logicallly circular. Indeed, every perspective on reality is. God is not the house built upon the foundation of reason. He IS the foundation, and you’re like a man enjoying that house and using it’s comforts all while trying to deny there’s a foundation underneath it. God is not the end of a rational discourse, he is the beginning. He is not subject to reason; he is the grounds of it.

    Asking me what my “reason” is for saying this is an exercise in profoundly missing the point and simply proving mine–that you are stalled on a mental treadmill of unproven materialism.

    You have still not offered ANY grounds for your “method”–which is either reason/skepticism/rationality/the scientific method/materialism/evidentiary inquisitveness (I can’t keep track). If I say that Truth is not simplistically derived from Reason alone, all you seem to say is either (a) “give me evidence for that” (which is still stuck in your intellectual cul-de-sac), or (b) “well what alternative would you offer?” (which still isn’t a logical or rational ground for the presupposition you bring to this), or (c) “the burden isn’t on me to offer that” (which is itself a baseless, merely asserted statement).

    And then you kept appealing to this gem: “What makes science (broadly construed as empirical investigation) special is that it is the unique way of learning about the contingent truths that separate our actual world from all the other worlds we might have imagined.”

    One huge thing you (and your favorite article) seem to be missing in this entire conversation (and in your frequent red herring references to Santa Claus, fairies, and unicorns) is the Christian doctrine of the SELF-REVELATION of God. Christians do not believe that a proper view of God is merely derived from material evidence or an “other world we might have imagined”. And (as you could beautifully point out, I’m sure), people have had a whole lot more sensical, wish-fulfilling things spring from their imagination than Christianity, which is just about as counter-intuitive to the human imagination as you could get.

    There is no group that (seriously, and especially in a way that gives them ultimate meaning) claims that a unicorn or Santa Claus disclosed themselves and lived among them and accomplished things in history and among huge groups of people. Perhaps there have been a primitive tribe or people here or there that want to make certain claims, but none that overtook the world with such force, speed, influence, and power as Christianity did. As organic, human, and developmental as I believe the origins of Yahwism were, I still think that it was borne from people communing with the self-revelation of the True God and interpreting that revelation through the cultural memes of the day.

    There is a profound difference between the way one believes in God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and the way one believes in Santa Claus, or even other historical deities. (Yes, I’m sure that the Straw-Religion and Straw-Epistemology you keep insisting we have will make it so you can’t resist copying and pasting that sentence and vehemently defending how Jesus-faith is just like Vishnu-faith, but historically, philosophically, and logically, it’s an absurd assertion. The Christian ways of deriving knowledge are entirely different than the sources of those other ideas.)

    What I tried to point out in my first post (the one you thought was SO unnecessary) is that the entire direction of spirituality and Christianity is not from humans on up, it is from God to us. WE’RE NOT TRYING TO SAY THAT GOD IS THE LOGICAL ASSUMPTION DERIVED FROM THE FACTS OF THE MATERIAL WORLD. WE’RE NOT TRYING TO IMPOSE A GRAND UNNECESSARY UPON THE NATURAL ORDER.

    This is why Christianity has (at least in theory) a humble epistemology. It’s based on our finitude and the fact that we cannot muse about or rationally derive ideas about the Infinite without It making ITSELF known in a comprehensible way, which I believe he has done most clearly in the words and work of Jesus.

    You keep wanting to complain about us “adding” some sort unnecessary being without evidence.

    Firstly, Christianity is not based upon some “awesome idea” someone just imagined to “add” to the world one day. It is is based on the disclosure of God in history. Your worldview/conclusion/perspective (whatever) is based on actively “removing” that, and not merely neutrally saying “I see no need for this.” You’ve given no justification for this–merely tried to shift who needs to prove their belief.

    Secondly, Christianity believes that God did a pretty damn good job creating the world, and so it’s natural, material laws work without the NECESSITY of God. God and Nature do not exist in some sort of codependency. God is imminent among it, but transcendent above its means and laws–the very means and laws by which you insist on proving him.

    NECESSITY is simply not a pre-condition for existence. You will ask for my evidence for saying that. And I will say (AGAIN) that Christianity has not tried to ever say that the world NECESSARILY evidences God. That is a requirement you have (baselessly) imposed upon the system.

    Here’s something else you don’t seem to get. Christians can absolutely grant you every historical, scientific, and rational fact. You’re entire worldview can be encapsulated within Christianity. I LOVE reason, rationality, and evidence. It’s INCREDIBLY important to how I live my life and interpret the world around me. But (referencing my earlier metaphor), it is but hammer, very good at taking care of nails. And God is not a nail to be addressed by this particular tool. I guess (to push the metaphor maybe to the breaking point), he’s more like the toolbox in which both the nails and your Hammer of Materialism are contained.

    When you simplify reality the way you have, I can agree with EVERY positive statement and assertion you make. I’m with you! The natural world does not contain objective, verifiable, testable, repeatable proof and evidences for God. It’s when you start deriving negative statements and denials of things that I think you’re overstepping your logical bounds.

    For another metaphor, It’s like I’m trying to do Geometry and you keep trying to yell at me that 2+2=4, and that has nothing to do with shapes or geometric forms, and so I need to leave that absurdity and come back to where you are! But I can tell you, I heartily embrace 2+2=4! It’s fully integrated into my study of Geometry. I appreciate the Beauty and simplicity of 2+2=4, even as I don’t think that’s the end of the story.

    Everything we believe, we believe on the basis of authority and trust. You trust the authority of your own reason and the Scientific Method. You have entire theorems that try to prove why this is the most trustworthy authority for believing things. I trust the authority of a self-disclosing God who came, died, and was raised, and then, generations later, moved towards me in love, changing the way I perceive even truth itself–making it bigger and grander and more beautiful.

    And rather than simply sitting in the weight of the intention of that statement of such ultimate importance to me, my guess is your brain immediately went to all your words about how theology changes and shifts, and so how can I possibly know anything about what that God disclosed about himself when I can just assert whatever the hell I want and change the goal posts to try and stay in my beliefs.

    First off, surely you understand that there are taxonomies of Christian belief, with some things being primary and essential, others things begin secondary, and others tertiary. Though some may try to make some things essential that I would not, those that are Christians still affirm the same minimal essentials, no matter the CRAZY freedom liberties they take with much of the other stuff. The exceptions are few and notable enough to prove the rule.

    These essentials are Biblically encapsulated by Paul in a few places, most extensively in 1 Cor 15, and historically in the Apostle’s Creed. No matter ow crazy I get in my integration of evolution into Christology or how much of the Bible I think is ahistorical, I am still bounded at the core to the most ardent fundamentalist by those statements and Creeds. We are different “accents” of the same language. Different branches (some more gnarly than others) of the same family tree.

    For the non-essentials, there is great freedom to disagree and further our ideas as time goes on. And this is no more a weakness of Christianity as it is a weakness of Music that Jazz wouldn’t have been considered beautiful in Mozart’s time, or of Poetry that Eliott would have been laughed off by Donne. Things progress and grow and these are not the conflicting voices of inner-contradictory self-negation and simply the whims of the day, but rather the growing, diverse and ultimately (eventually) harmonious singing in the chorus of humanity.

    Even the Scriptures speak of an on-going necessity for the Church (not simply individual Christians in their own lifetimes) to “grow into maturity in Christ”.

    And so, fundamentally, the problem you’re going to have to overcome is that I can absolutely affirm everything you affirm. Every fact, every notion, every idea about what the world speaks to and what’s contained therein. But I simply cannot follow you in denying what you deny based on those assertions. Christianity is big enough to contain your entire worldview, and then some. And this is why I’ve been writing these posts about the over-simplicity of all you’re saying.

    And in addition to this comment, I would heartily agree with everything Eric Gregory said on Facebook. And I will also say that you haven’t really overcome his objections. Thanks for writing.


    • Oh, and PLEASE, no more of the quote by quote come back. Please think through my points, as I have yours, to the point that you can simply speak to what you see as my main foundational points.

      On a side note, I see this as such a perfect picture of our fundamental differences. You see this as a competition between individual statements and assertions, I see it as competing bigger principles of knowing and understanding reality.


      • “I see it as competing bigger principles of knowing and understanding reality.”

        Which is what it really is, it is ignorant people that think their perceptions grand vs. people that know something (usually very little though gigantically more than those in the first category) that know that the other people’s perceptions are garbage.


      • “And I will say (AGAIN) that Christianity has not tried to ever say that the world NECESSARILY evidences God.”

        Just to be clear Paul, as a matter of fact, they do that all the time. Watch some debates on the youtube, you’ll hear all about it.


      • Paul,

        Thanks for the lengthy, thoughtful comment. I read it through once to try to organize the points in my head, and then I read it through a few times more to see if I could illumine the fundamental disconnects we keep failing to bridge. I continue to detect very severely confused philosophical content which undermines the meat of what you’re attempting to convey.

        The biggest issue I see that you’re continuing to conflate a negative state of belief with a positive claim of disbelief. This distinction is so basic and important that I fear any further exchange between us is destined to plunge into a kind of rhetorical staccato unless we converge upon a resolution.

        Absence of belief is a spectrum’s length away from positive disaffirmation. As the argument runs, those who adopt the materialist position do not go around making positive claims that non-natural substances don’t exist, just as you don’t (I hope) go around claiming that things you don’t believe in don’t exist.

        “The irony in that last sentence is shocking. I’m surprised you don’t see this. You say, “We don’t presume the world is material, it’s simply the best conclusion based on all of the available data.” What data, you ask? MATERIAL data. And so, you’re trying to laugh US away because we use a philosophical a priori to justify our belief in that same a priori?”

        In case I have not made it clear in the past, I do concede very strongly that for human reason, and its facility for successful expression through the pursuits of science, to be a “first-stage” ontology is an article of “faith”. You have to doorstop the regression at some point. And I harbor no illusions to the contrary. But it is only a matter of “faith” to the extent that we escape the swift slide into solipsism. Science WORKS. More specifically, our application of reason and inquiry WORKS. Which is what the materialist view is premised upon. And thus unless we are willing to deny this reality, reason and its familial cognates seem to be a perfectly justifiable ground zero (and, wait for it, is AT LEAST as justified as the nebulous god entity you are positing). At least.

        Within this system of thinking (which can be well-supported through syllogism), the case for materialism can and has been made. Why? Because materialism is based on KNOWN quantities. YOU are the one positing UNKNOWN quantities. It is YOU who must defend this claim.

        If your starting point is that within the hierarchy of epistemic endeavor reason and rationality are subordinate to other cognates and categories of knowledge, then you do what every philosopher in the world worth the weight of his/her title would do: You construct a syllogism from which we can logically deduce the claim you’re advertising. And its validity will be assessed on its own merits.

        But most important: Paul, my views weren’t forged in a vacuum. I’m not making this up as I go along, or holding forth some groundbreaking idea or formula by which we can approach the universe.

        These well-supported ideas and well-supported arguments have been around for ages. Believe it or not, there are many philosophers, logicians, scientists, ethicists, etc. around the world who hold precisely the same views as I do. That is, who disagree with your beliefs and who can marshal fundamentally sound arguments to rest them on.

        And this is why it’s so depressing to read your comments above, suggesting that I am “missing your point” or that I’m tossing Hail Marys from left field. Your comments tell me quite clearly how little you’ve engaged philosophical worldviews outside your own.

        Here’s something to chew on: 85.4% of philosophers identify as non-theistic (TRANSLATION: do not believe as you do) and occupy large swaths of disciplines, from meta-ethics to moral motivation to moral judgment to normative ethics. And guess what? 85.4% of them do not ground their beliefs or system of thinking in a personal god. There are rigorous, full-bodied disciplines of all sorts of interesting topics without any recourse whatever to religious ontologies or beliefs or supernatural affiliations of any kind.

        This fact alone should give you immediate pause with respect to the certitude of your beliefs. It honestly sounds to me like you should enroll in the trade and wrest these esteemed scholars from their ivory towers forthwith.

        I am willing to concede (as I already have) that there are logically deductible, sound arguments for the existence of god or non-natural being. This, while arguable, is something I concede. There are also, as I’ve pointed out, logically deductible arguments for the reverse position. There really is no debate here and this is a pittance compared with the broader disagreement at play between us. It is a MONUMENTAL LEAP from these basic syllogisms to the proposition of a jingoistic tribal god who incarnated himself in a remote, illiterate desert region of the Middle East to gruesomely sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself. The canyon between these two realms of inquiry is so vast that it can hardly be understated.

        So I think as a resting point we should mutually concede that there are sound philosophical positions on each side of the divide and move on to the more specific project of evaluating the claims of organized religion. This was actually the substance of my OP and what you have yet to seriously engage. I don’t see a continued emphasis on the former to be profitable going forward.

        P.S. If you’d like a sampling of how these silly philosophers who don’t agree with you approach these big picture, ontological types of questions, I encourage you to listen to the below analysis by Ernest Sosa. He’s an epistemologist at Rutgers and, guess what, he advocates a school of philosophy that departs quite significantly from your own.

        (And by the way, no Eric has a far better grasp of philosophy than I can ascertain in these comments of yours.)

        Source on philosophy figure:



        • To make it crystal clear, if you have interest in furthering the conversation, we should choose between philosophical foundationalizing or zeroing in on the claims made under the banner of organized religion.

          The latter was my focus, as I think anyone familiar with philosophy can concede that both philosophical positions are ‘rational’, in the sense that they are based on sound, valid syllogism.

          What do you think, fine sir?

          – Daniel


        • Thanks for the reply. I liked that one. Really. On a side note, I have no illusions that the vast majority of scientists and philosophers are non-theists, by the way. In fact, being in mental health, I’ve had to wrestle with the fact that, of all the sciences, Psychologists and Psychiatrists are the least religious and most atheistic.

          And I really have known that you have been speaking right in line with age-old views. No hail marys here. Heck, I had to go through all this in college ALL THE TIME. I know that none of the stuff either of us is saying is new. And yet, we both know that people are moving in and out of both camps every day, and so there is some hope in continued discourse and even repetition, right? Haha.

          Everyone can read the “criticisms” section on the Wikipedia page of whatever their favored philosophy, and yet people still ascribe to those things. We need heuristics to live life.

          I do think think that spiritual disposition and “posture” is an important factor in determining why we can all be looking at the exact same set of facts and come to different conclusions, and not simply “weighing the evidence differently”. Although that’s certainly a HUGE factor, I don’t know that it can entirely explain the breadth of differences, and how strongly they are often entrenched.

          And lastly, help me out with something. I get that you’re saying that you have a lack of belief rather than positive disaffirmation. But–and correct me if I’m wrong–would you still say that, given the evidence we have, you think it’s more likely that there is no god, though you remain absolutely open to any evidence that would show you otherwise?

          This has been the position I’ve assumed you’ve had. Not that you felt you “knew” there was no god, and not that you thought there was absolute evidence disproving him. Just that, with your current set of beliefs about the universe and epistemology, it was more reasonable to think (for the time being) that there isn’t a god.

          If this is even close to what you think, I’ll only say that I’ve been trying to get at the root of that, not only expressing how I think the “unfalsifiability” of your own basic initial assumption about reason undermines it and puts us in the same boat epistemologically, but also that there are other ways of seeing and verifying Christian claims that might be more explanatory to realms of human experience than Reason and/or Science (and thus ends one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve ever written. Did that make sense?).

          But either way, thanks for the comment. And know that you don’t have to keep telling me how your initial post was trying to get Christians to make similar lists. Mine is coming on Friday. And yes, it even has falsifiable facts and claims! 🙂


        • I think I’m gonna do a blog series on why i don’t believe in santa – wait, scratch that, why a belief in santa is simply absent for me


    • The funny thing about all of Paul’s posts is that you can so easily insert “flying spaghetti monster” for “God” and it all works out the same way.


      Take it easy bro, some people do. Because unlike you, they know of the absurdity of presuming God existing from the outset. And they likewise recognize that if they cannot reason to him without being circular then he pretty much has to not exist. Others simply take it on faith, as you do, and that position is precisely what Dan is so critical of. It is not falsifiable by its very nature.

      But you really should be straight up with him and simply tell him that you stand by faith, and it is not falsifiable by design specifically so that you never have to let go of it unless you feel like it. In other words concede that there is no 20 points that would weight against your beliefs because they are incontestable and not falsifiable by definition and design.


    • To be honest Dan, Paul’s dogma appears so watered down that it is impossible to assail precisely because it is so watered down. There’s hardly anything there to not believe in. There’s certainly not enough there for you two to meaningfully disagree on a matter of substance. In other words, any conflict between you is so immaterial to hardly merit discussion. You and Paul are so close together your 20 points are essentially moot. Paul just prefers life with a little spice of a few eccentricities of religious origin and you don’t. The only difference between you is really just personal preference. Preference when choosing a wee bit of delusion to spice life or choosing to simply decline it.

      “You trust the authority of your own reason and the Scientific Method.”

      Actually incredibly false. At least if you mean “scientific reasoning” when you’re talking about Dan’s reasoning. This is a subject that Dawkins et al. has to explain ad infinitum to ignoramuses that were never trained scientifically (his words paraphrased) or never sufficiently trained. In scientific reasoning they’re forever NOT trusting the “authority” of any person’s own reasoning, especially one’s own reasoning. Everyone is free to reason for themselves and everyone is expressly invited and encouraged to do so. At the same time everyone else is invited to critique the same. And eventually consensus emerges.

      Likewise, nobody “trusts” the scientific method, it is something you use, or you do not use. It is not something one “trusts” in the way you mean the word. I frankly think you simply don’t understand what the scientific method is if you have stated that someone “trusts” it. The very statement reveals ignorance. If you stepped into a laboratory for a few years and did a masters in a science I think you’d go ahead and see that ignorance drop away and you’d see your world-view change. But instead, you’re well insulated from gaining this understanding, instead preferring to studying intangible matters of faith etc.

      In any event, I’ll check back in when you make your final post, till then I’m out brosef.


  3. Yay, I think we can call this progress.

    “But–and correct me if I’m wrong–would you still say that, given the evidence we have, you think it’s more likely that there is no god, though you remain absolutely open to any evidence that would show you otherwise?”

    Well, since I think we are all fundamentally Bayesian at heart, whether consciously or subconsciously, it’s so good to see you talking in probabilities! This makes me very happy. I am actually agnostic about a deistic type of immaterial intelligence; that is: I’m 50/50 on that one, no relevant information to push me in either direction. (It’s also irrelevant, so I don’t spend much time on it).

    On the idea of an empathetic interventionist (i.e., theistic) being, I think it is very unlikely indeed. In fact, I would be shocked if it turned out to be true. That said, I am 100% open to its possibility and jump at the chance to evaluate any information that has import for such a proposition. (I think any honest thinking person would affirm this.)

    “Just that, with your current set of beliefs about the universe and epistemology, it was more reasonable to think (for the time being) that there isn’t a god.”

    That’s it. +1

    “If this is even close to what you think, I’ll only say that I’ve been trying to get at the root of that, not only expressing how I think the “unfalsifiability” of your own basic initial assumption about reason undermines it and puts us in the same boat epistemologically, but also that there are other ways of seeing and verifying Christian claims that might be more explanatory to realms of human experience than Reason and/or Science (and thus ends one of the longest run-on sentences I’ve ever written. Did that make sense?).”

    Not in the /same/ boat espistemologically…Our epistemologies are clearly different, and I wouldn’t say that makes them on equal footing necessarily. But I could be persuaded here. Again, for me the deeper issue is not the philosophical bases but the actual claims of organized religion which go against everything we know to date.

    And if you claim that there are “other ways of verifying Christian claims” than the best tools humanity has used since time immemorial, go for it. I can’t wait to hear what you have in mind. You might even articulate something I haven’t come across before.

    And I do look forward to Friday’s post.

    Take care,

    – Daniel


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