Judge Posner on Faith Based Morality and Public Policy

December 27, 2004 | 60 comments
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Judge Richard Posner — one of the most influential judges of the past several decades — is guest blogging on professor Brian Leiter’s blog. His first post deals with faith-based morality and how this affects public policy. (A topic that T & S readers will recognize as familiar — we discuss it a lot around here). Judge Posner suggests that:

“If the population is religious, religion will influence morality, which in turn will influence law, subject to constitutional limitations narrowly interpreted to protect the handful of rights that ought not to be at the mercy of the majority.”

Instead of giving further snippets, I’ll commend for reading the entirety of Judge Posner’s fine post.

60 Responses to Judge Posner on Faith Based Morality and Public Policy

  1. David King Landrith on December 27, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    I just have to nitpick here, because I get really tired of the pseudo-philosophical way in which people bandy the word atheism as though it reflected a religious position.

    Posner says when atheist is taken to refer to a “person who adheres to the doctrine that there is no God,” that this is “a metaphysical proposition,” and he is incorrect. We can conceive of the denial of God existence as the assertion that the function x is a God is never satisfied. It can fail to be satisfied for the following two reasons:

    1. God might have the ontological status of a unicorn. This would mean that there is no necessary reason why there isn’t a God, it just happens to be the case that there isn’t. This is as very lazy form of atheism, and is usually taken up by agnostics with indigestion.

    2. God might have the ontological status of a round square. This means that x is a God is impossible to satisfy, because the term God is defined in such a way that it couldn’t possibly obtain a referent. (This is a particularly effective form of atheism when used against orthodox religionists, but even attempts to make God intelligible generally deprive him of the kinds of qualities we deem worthy of worship, and presumably worthiness of worship is an essential characteristic of God.)

    Position #2 is not a metaphysical position. Nor is it a religious position. It is is a semantic position with metaphysical and religious consequences.

    Aside from this, Posner, like most judges, makes the elementary mistake of failing to realize that most of political science is not about what decisions get made, but about who makes them.

  2. Charles on December 28, 2004 at 10:37 am

    I’ll first say that I have not read the original post yet, but the argument of atheism as a religious belief is valid.

    The existence of God is a neither here nor there argument. There are equal arguments for God’s existence as there are against. It is a matter of faith.

    As I understand faith, faith is the essence of things hoped for but not seen. Hope is taken in this context as trusted in. Faith is a choice and is an excercise of my testimony or my hope (trust) in things that cannot be proven.

    This also extends to a person’s faith or hope in things when they face facts contrairy to that faith. Continuing to believe in something even when evidence has been provided that it is false is a kind of faith.

    The athiest belives in no God. But no evidence has been provided that there is no God only a lack of evidence that God exists. This constitutes faith, which is what religion is based on. In that sense atheism meets the same critera for religion and is therfore a valid argument.

  3. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 10:49 am

    Your statement that “no evidence has been provided that there is no God” only addresses the form of atheism I identify in #1 in my comment above, not #2.

    My point in #2 is that if the term God is, in fact, defined in such a matter that he cannot possibly obtain a referent, pointing this fact out is not a religious exercise. I don’t think you’ve addressed this in your comment.

  4. Charles on December 28, 2004 at 11:10 am

    I’ll do my best to discuss position 2 as I understand it.
    If God has an ontilogical status of a round square. This begins with a shared assumption of the god we have in question. In this case a metaphysical status where God is in fact a round square. These are two contradictory things. It sounds like your argument is having us assume that God is contradictory to himself. If this were true then it would be dificult to provide a referent.

    However, I believe most religious groups would not accept the basic premis of this argument because they would not recognize God as contradictory. Specific contradictions could be explained as necessary exceptions at specific times, but God’s doctrine is essentially the same now as it ever was. God is unchanging in that sense.

    If we use a Platonic paradigm to view the essence of God we see something far more fitting. Plato’s use of forms would say that all things have an inherrent perfect form. The closer these things in our world resemble the perfect form the more true or perfect they are. God would possibly be an example of a perfect form for humanity.

    Many religions as I know them accept God as perfect. This perfection would certainly fit the criteria for worthiness of worship.

    Attempts to make God intelligible do not necessarily deprive him of that perfection. But it does remind us that in our imperfect state we are not always able to interperet him perfectly.

  5. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 11:27 am

    I think that most religions quite explicitly claim that God’s nature is such that man simply cannot grasp him. In doing so, they basically concede the argument (as William of Okham noted, if God is unintelligible, then everything we say about him is either false or unintelligible). At any rate, it is fairly easily deduced from the fact that man cannot grasp him that man cannot denote him. Thus, the term God cannot obtain a referent. Thus, the function x is God is never satisfied.

  6. Charles on December 28, 2004 at 1:02 pm

    That may be true IF God were uninteligible. There is a big difference in knowing, or having faith of knowing, that God exists and what the basic concept or nature of God is and knowing the details of God. This doesn’t even account for the things we know of God due to revelation given to man directly.

    Imagine the scientist and the mice they work with. The scientist is very inteligent and well spoken, but because of the levels of maturity in the mice and the man the mice don’t comprehend him. They do understand that he sets up mazes and provides bits of cheese but they do not have a perfect understanding of what man is. But they have a general idea based on thier experiences.

    Its not the man’s fault that when he says push the left button the mice don’t understand. But the man scientist can devise ways of pursuading the mice to do as he wants, then it becomes thier choice to follow.

  7. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 2:43 pm

    Whatever the limits of man’s vocabulary, if the proposition x is a God can never be satisfied, the question of believing that x is a God (or even thinking about that God in anything but metaphorical terms) never arises. This rules out belief in God even if there is some platonic sense in which God exists that cannot be expressed in human vocabulary.

    You may be different, but I’ve never found anyone that could make the notion of God intelligible without basically sacrificing what makes Him worthy of worship. I’ve ended up settling for the Jewish notion that God is vaguely intelligible. And I think that most Mormons adhere to this position whether they realize it or not.

  8. clark on December 28, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    “At any rate, it is fairly easily deduced from the fact that man cannot grasp him that man cannot denote him. Thus, the term God cannot obtain a referent.”

    I don’t think I’d agree with that in the least. I think we can refer to the unintelligible. Indeed I think most reference does do this. But such philosophical discussions are neither here nor there. I’d simply point out that many don’t share David’s views on these matters.

    Regarding the judge’s comments, I’d also point people to two other discussions of it. The first is at the blog Left2Right. It is a blog that attempts to engage the right wing in terms of some sort of shared values. I think it largely fails as most of the bloggers talk down to the right wing or just don’t even try to understand them. However in this case the comments to the thread offer a lot of interesting commentary for those of us not familiar with the judge’s writings.

    The second is at the blog Fake Barn Country. His criticism is similar to the comments made at Left2Right – mainly the assumption that reasons are rationalizations and not true reasons. i.e. should we accept Posner’s moral skepticism. I think some of the comments at Left2Right address this line of thought.

  9. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 3:39 pm

    clark: I don’t think I’d agree with that in the least. I think we can refer to the unintelligible.

    And how exactly does one literally refer to specific unintelligible things? It’s a bit like pointing to something that isn’t there.

    clark: I’d simply point out that many don’t share David’s views on these matters.

    Thanks for clarifying that I don’t speak for the world.

    None of this changes the fact that the way that orthodox religion defines God is such as to preclude its obtaining a referent.

  10. John Mansfield on December 28, 2004 at 3:59 pm

    And how exactly does one literally refer to specific unintelligible things?

    My experience learning real number theory relates to this. Having worked out definitions of rational numbers, our class set out defining irrational numbers in terms of rational numbers. The definition that I had the best grasp on was a class of sequences of rational numbers that have the same limit. It was an interesting process because we were “pointing at” objects that we couldn’t “hold” because we were creating their definitions. This example has its limits since irrational numbers are not unintelligible.

  11. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    You’re exactly right about irrational numbers being intelligible. But irrational means something different in this context. They are simply numbers that cannot be expressed in ratios.

    At any rate, my point is that the second form of atheism is a semantic point of view. Clark’s assertion that not everyone agrees with this form of atheism is entirely beside the point.

  12. Clark on December 28, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    David, all we need say is “that which causes X.” I can’t intelligibly deal with this “that which” in its fulness. I can make descriptions, but must acknowledge that the descriptions are incomplete in such a way that they are inherently untrustworthy. (i.e. not mere fallibilism but the recognition that they include things not appropriate and exclude things that are)

    Of course now we get into the discussion of what is or isn’t intelligible.

  13. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 4:38 pm

    Not so fast, Clark. The point is that X has been defined such that it cannot possibly obtain a referent. If we’re talking, for example, about a round-square, then describing it as “that which causes X” doesn’t do the trick.

    Besides, insofar as something is understood as a necessary or sufficient condition for something (or even a cause, for that matter), it is at least intelligible in that one respect.

  14. Clark on December 28, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    David, I don’t think most theologians subscribe to the totally unintelligible sense that you suggest. Even Anselm makes positive statements about God. So I think you are pushing unintelligible in a fashion that no one is claiming.

  15. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    Even so, form #2 of atheism is a semantic viewpoint.

  16. Eric James Stone on December 28, 2004 at 6:05 pm

    A square is something with four sides of equal length and four right angles.
    Circles are round.
    Rings are circles.
    A boxing ring has four sides of equal length and four right angles.
    Therefore a boxing ring is a round square.

    Any other philosophical problems I can clear up?

  17. Clark on December 28, 2004 at 9:42 pm

    David, I confess I still don’t see how an ontological difference is semantic. Further if some element is intelligible, I don’t see how it avoids the problem, as you suggest. For instance if instead of square circle I say big square circle I don’t see how the intelligibility of “big” entails the intelligibility of the object at hand.

    Indeed this whole issue is a large part of the so-called theological turn in French philosophy. Precisely because what is address as the “transcendent” is now consider to not be a thing and thus not intelligible. Of course Russell and most in the positivist tradition will reject this whole turn. However it isn’t clear to me that they have a reasonable argument for it, other than demanding philosophy be done as they wish.

  18. David King Landrith on December 28, 2004 at 11:22 pm

    French philosophy? I thought that was an oxymoron.

    Although its evident from what you’ve said that I give position #2 more credence that you do, you’re mistaken if you think that I’m actually arguing for atheism. In fact, I’m puzzled as to what position you think I’m actually espousing, because I find most of what you’ve said to be irrelevant.

    Furthermore, this “whole issue” simply is not large part of French philosophy. Position #2 above represents a valid argument: If it is linguistically impossible for the term God to obtain a referent, then the function x is God is never satisfied. French philosophers may find this argument to be unsound, but so do I. And at any rate, soundness is not validity.

    And the only sense in which I’m willing to allow for a semantic argument to be considered ontological is in the positivistic sense used by Quine or Carnap. Even so, it is neither a metaphysical nor a religious position. And this is my beef with Posner and so many other people that bandy the term atheism in pseudo-philosophical contexts, mistakenly saying that it is a metaphysical or religious position, as though they had anything interesting to say about it.

    So, in sum, I’m making two points:

    First, that regardless whether position #2 is valid or sound, it is not (as formulated) a religious position (I express this in my first comment). And though you have observantly noted that—whatever my pretensions—I do not speak for the world, there is not a lot of room for disagreement on this matter.

    Second, that position #2 is valid, though not sound (I express this in my further posts that wander farther afield).

    It’s tempting for me to add something like, “I might also say that I think that if you attach the argument to the assumptions of orthodox theology, then you get a sound argument, but we needn’t argue this here,” but I’m afraid you might latch onto it and neglect to address the preceding points.

  19. Eric James Stone on December 29, 2004 at 11:58 am

    David,

    In your original comment and your last comment, you seem to be denying that atheism can be a religious or metaphysical position.

    An atheist I know just posted a blog entry about how his atheism is based on faith. He starts off saying, “I am about to confess something that will drive my fellow atheists crazy: I am an atheist by faith,” and concludes with “And, if God can be embraced purely by faith alone, why can’t atheism also be a purely faith-based choice? You can believe in faith without believing in God. At least, I believe you can.”

    I’m not up on my metaphysics, but that sure sounds like a religious position to me.

  20. Eric James Stone on December 29, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    Here’s another (very long) blog entry by atheist Stephen Den Beste, saying that belief in atheism is a religious position. A quote: “Within mechanistic atheism, you have people who think that atheism is somehow scientific and actually can be proved, and others who understand that atheism is a religious belief which is no more susceptible to actual proof than any other religious belief. I am among the latter group; The Raving Atheist clearly states his opinion that atheism is provable and stands with the former.”

  21. David King Landrith on December 29, 2004 at 1:45 pm

    Eric, I enjoyed your boxing ring comment, btw. Very clever.

    In my first post, I identify two atheist positions. Position #1 may very well be taken to be a position of faith and a religious position. Since I don’t think that it’s a terribly serious outlook, I don’t believe that this form of atheism deserves very much discussion.

    Moreover, I’m not denying that atheism can be a religious or metaphysical position. I’m saying emphatically that position #2 is not a religious or metaphysical position. This makes the unqualified statement that atheism is a religious or metaphysical statement is false.

    There are, unfortunately, a great many people that adhere to position #1, in spite of the fact that it is a very muddled headed position. Alas, even so-called experts on atheism don’t know a whole heck about how it works as a cogent intellectual position. Most of them have never had to argue their point with anyone remotely equipped to shred their arguments.

    Even Bertrand Russell adhered to position #1 (and this is why he did not with his debate with Father Copleston over the matter), so there are definitely some very serious minds who have endorsed it. This, however, does not make it a serious position. And Russell himself, in the more than 70 books published during his lifetime, wrote not a single serious essay on the topic. What he wrote about religion was confined to popular works. It’s generally very clever, and definitely worth reading, but not what one would call serious philosophy (nor would Russell have called it that).

  22. clark on December 29, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    David, the only real point I disagreed with was the claim about reference. I believe we can reference things you believe we can’t. I made a similar point over in the discussion at my blog with you. The question is really about the totally other. And it is here that many in the Continental tradition and analytic tradition strongly differ. The reason I objected to claim #2 is that this clearly has a place in the history of Christian theology under the term “negative theology.” Further the same strategies of negative theology have many parallels to certain philosophical approaches. Negative theology is also common in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Indeed the notion of the en-sof from Judaism is largely where Levinas brings in the notion of totally other.

    Now I definitely don’t mind you disagreeing. I just am not sure, given that pedegree, that we ought say that #2 isn’t a religious claim.

  23. clark on December 29, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Just to add, the whole problem of atheism is inherently problematic due to the problem between the God of the philosophers and the personal God of most religions. There is a strong tension between the two. But consider Buddhism. Is it, especially in its more limited forms such as Zen Buddhism, atheistic? Consider some of the philosophical movements such as Plato or Aristotle or even Plotinus. Is their God religious? Or are they atheists? What about Spinoza? At what point does an uninvolved impersonal “start” or ontological “source” for existence cease to be God?

    It seems that many debates about atheism simply are discussing the Christian God and only make sense in that context. The beliefs about the universe by many atheists I’ve discussed things with end up adopting a kind of entity that many call God. So I think there is an inherent ambiguity over the meaning of God that needs to be noted.

  24. Eric James Stone on December 29, 2004 at 2:47 pm

    Well, I think I must disagree with your characterization of #1 (“This is as very lazy form of atheism, and is usually taken up by agnostics with indigestion” and “This, however, does not make it a serious position”) unless there is a #3.

    If you look at Den Beste’s “Theory of Fred” example, you’ll see that he is definitely not taking position #2, as he says it is possible (but not necessary) for there to be a non-interfering God who initially set the universe in motion.

    But I fail to see how it is a lazy or non-serious position to believe that:
    1. All phenomena can be explained by the operation of physical laws,
    2. The existence of such laws does not require the existence of God, and
    3. If the existence of God is not necessary to explain phenomena, then (by Occam’s Razor) it is most likely that God does not exist.

    (Please note that I am not arguing that God does not exist, only that disbelief in God’s existence can be a serious and well-thought-out position.)

  25. Nate Oman on December 29, 2004 at 8:53 pm

    There is an oft repeated story that Posner once argued that religions should be taxed or subsidized based on whether they produced positive or negative externalities. Hence, he claimed that the government ought to tax Rostaferianism and subsidize Mormonism. I don’t know if this is (a) a myth, (b) a comment made in the presence of a Mormon student at Chicago law school that has been making the rounds; or, (c) something that he has written. I have never seen it in his writing, but Posner is so prolific that I doubt that anyone has read everything that he has written. I certainly have not.

    (BTW, the fact that Posner assumes that Pigouvian taxation is the proper response to “bad” and “good” religions elides over the possiblity that one can solve the problem through the creation of property rights, which is one of the main insights of Coase’s Theorem and contemporary law and economics, and goes to my pet theory regarding Posner, namely that he is a faux-libertarian. The man has the mind of a central planner if ever there was one ;-> )

  26. Nate Oman on December 29, 2004 at 9:15 pm

    BTW, I once met Richard Posner’s niece at a Mormon party in DC. (True story.) My friend Tuan Samahon was the only other law student/lawyer at the gathering. We were enthralled by the idea that she was Posner’s niece and everyone else at the party had no idea what the big deal was. Apparently, her family all converted to the Church, hence Posner has either a sibling or a sibling in-law who is Mormon. I remember the woman discussing her difficulty in fufilling her mother’s dream that she marry someone who is both Mormon and Jewish. Appparently she would try to set her daughter up with any male, Jewish convert to Mormonism of marriagable age, regardless of geographic location.

  27. David King Landrith on December 31, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    It’s taken me a while to respond here, because I’m now in the D.C. area visiting my extended family and I’m not spending a whole heck of a lot of time online.

    Eric James Stone:

    But I fail to see how it is a lazy or non-serious position to believe that:

    1. All phenomena can be explained by the operation of physical laws,

    2. The existence of such laws does not require the existence of God, and

    3. If the existence of God is not necessary to explain phenomena, then (by Occam’s Razor) it is most likely that God does not exist.

    What you describe here is exactly the type of position that I classify as position #1 in my first post, and it fails to reflect a very serious or substantial position for two reasons:

    First, it is blindingly obvious that physical laws have never been able to explain all phenomena, and there are now accepted principles (like chaos) that outline exactly why physical laws will probably never be able to explain all phenomena.

    Second, it’s nonsense to talk about whether our explanations “require” or “do not require” a God. On the one hand, there are God-driven explanations, and these can explain everything (although such explanations are often of little value; e.g., Poseidon caused the tsunami, because he was angry). On the other hand, there are non-God-driven explanations (some of which we are pleased to call scientific), and these cannot explain everything (and probably never will). And there is no sense in which either type of explanation is necessary or unnecessary. Thus, there is also no sense in which God is necessary or unnecessary by virtue of the existence or feasibility of such explanations.

    The question that the serious thinker must ask is, “What reasonable basis do have to reject all God-driven explanations out of hand?” And no evidentiary support can justify the wholesale positive rejection of all possible God-driven explanations. The most that it can really justify is agnosticism. This is why I call the position #1 type of atheism “agnosticism with indigestion.”

    And all of this barely scratches the surface. For example, the assumption that God serves a purely explanatory purpose is dubious at best.

    But from a semantic point of view, one can demonstrate that the function x is a God can never be satisfied. And contrary to what Clark has said, this is not part of negative theology, and all the talk in the world about this otherness mumbo-jumbo doesn’t change that. Even so, Clark wrongly confuses what he calls a position’s “pedigree” with a position’s content. The two are logically independent; indeed, the classification of an argument based on its origin rather its content is usually considered an informal fallacy (e.g., ad hominom and argumentum ad verecundiam). Pavlov was a physiologist, but his behaviorism is psychology. The pythagoreans were a number cult/religion, but the eponymous theorem is geometry.

  28. Adam Greenwood on December 31, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    I’m interested in your property rights approach solution, Nate.

    I’m assuming the positive externalities of Mormonism are things like, what, we have lots of kids that we train to be law-abiding citizens who serve in the military, work hard, pay taxes, and don’t frequently contribute to alcoholism, drug addiction, or other social ills?

    So how would we make this a property right? The church has some degree of ‘ownership’ of the children so raised, so they or their employers have to buy their way free. That’s a thought, though the 13th Amendment would be pesky.

    Or else non-Mormons have to pay a dowry before marrying Mormons? :)

  29. Nate Oman on December 31, 2004 at 6:41 pm

    Adam: The problem is the first amendment. Imagine that didn’t exist. Here is one way you could do it. No one can practice their religion without a liscense, call it a religious rights liscense. The religious rights liscense is fully negotiable and can be purchased on the religious rights market. These liscenses are fully negotiable and are religion specific. Hence, to be a Mormon, for example, you must purchase a Mormon specific religious rights liscense.

    Those who suffer from the externalities of “bad” religions would have an incentive to purchase the liscnese for those religionists and hold them. The result would be that the cost of being a member of a “bad” religion would increase. Without this added pressure on price, being a member of a good religion would be comparatively cheaper. Indeed, if there really are positive externalities to being Mormon, for example, Mormons could threaten not to practice their religion unless paid a small premium by their neighbors ;->.

    The problem with this regime is that ultimately it to requires central decision making in that one must make an ex ante decision about the maximum amount of any one religion one is willing to tolerate. It has the advantage over Pigouvian taxation, however, of not requiring the central planner to make precise calculations about the costs of the negative externalities. The availability of the rights would also seem to place an upper limit on the number of people who could practice any given religion. One might get around this by simply creating ex ante a huge number of rights, far in excess of what could be consumed. There would still be the same incentive to purchase the rights of “bad” religions and get them off the market as it were, but the property right system wouldn’t necessarily limit the number of “good” religionists. Finally, you would need some sort of enforcement mechanism to see that people were not practicing a religion that they did not have any property rights in practicing as it were.

  30. Clark on December 31, 2004 at 6:59 pm

    But from a semantic point of view, one can demonstrate that the function x is a God can never be satisfied. And contrary to what Clark has said, this is not part of negative theology, and all the talk in the world about this otherness mumbo-jumbo doesn’t change that.

    What exactly do you think negative theology is?

    Even so, Clark wrongly confuses what he calls a position’s “pedigree� with a position’s content.

    I never used such a term nor do I recall taking such a position.

  31. Eric James Stone on December 31, 2004 at 7:03 pm

    First, it is blindingly obvious that physical laws have never been able to explain all phenomena, and there are now accepted principles (like chaos) that outline exactly why physical laws will probably never be able to explain all phenomena.

    I’m sorry, but to me this explanation does not hold water.

    For example, let’s look at something like the orbits of planets around the sun. Simple Newtonian gravity accounts for almost all of their motion. Einstein’s General Relativity appears to account for just about all of the rest of it. Some other forces acting over the long term (solar wind, electromagnetism, dark energy, whatever is causing the Pioneer anomaly, etc.) can also have an effect. Because the interactions of all these forces defy our ability to predict their precise effects, and because it is impossible under quantum mechanics to know precisely the initial conditions of every particle that makes up the solar system, the orbits of the planets are ultimately chaotic: we cannot accurately predict where all the planets will be five billion years from now. But that does not mean that the motions of the planets are due to anything other that the natural effects of natural forces. It’s all mechanical (quantum or otherwise.)

    Second, it’s nonsense to talk about whether our explanations “require� or “do not require� a God.

    It’s not nonsense at all — it’s near the heart of the dispute. If it’s possible for the universe as we know it to come into being and continue along the course it has taken without the act of a Creator, then the question of whether there was a Creator is open. If it’s not possible, then a Creator is required. (Note that, as Stephen Den Beste admitted, if the universe could have existed without a creator, that does not mean there wasn’t one.)

    The question that the serious thinker must ask is, “What reasonable basis do have to reject all God-driven explanations out of hand?� And no evidentiary support can justify the wholesale positive rejection of all possible God-driven explanations.

    The honest atheist will admit that it is a matter of faith to believe that God does not exist. But that does not mean their position is not arrived at through rational and serious thought. Since the progress of science tends to find natural-law-based explanations for everything that was once attributed to acts of God without proving anything to be an actual act of God, one might reasonably induce that all actions still attributed to God are really just the operation of natural laws with which we are as yet unfamiliar.

    Let me make it clear that I am not saying the atheists are correct. I just think that your casual and disdainful dismissal of position #1 is unwarranted.

  32. Adam Greenwood on December 31, 2004 at 7:42 pm

    A delightful response, Nate. I ask you, though, who is to do the purchasing? I doubt that the various positive externalities we are ascribing to Mormonism benefit anyone in particular in such a way that the person feels their own utility will be enhanced if they go out and donate money to make Mormon licenses easier to purchase.

    Would non-belief also be licensed in your scheme?

    One attraction of your scheme is that it would reward financially disciplined and tithed faiths like ours. I can see it now, General Conference in 35 A. N. (After Nate), during the statistical report: ” . . . 875 stakes in six continents, 300 missions, and 100,000 Southern Baptist and Jehovah’s Witness licenses bought up, . . . “

  33. Jeremiah J. on December 31, 2004 at 9:08 pm

    Nate: I’ll have to think about your intruiging suggestion. But to follow up on Adam’s remark: It is clear that those who suffer externalities from bad religions would have an *interest* in seeing the price of the licenses for those religions go up. But they would not have a net incentive to purchase these licenses themselves unless the cost of the license was less than the resulting decrease in the externality they suffer. This is very unlikely (e.g. I hate the loud singing by Pentacostals across the street from me Other people do too. But my small purchase would only raise the market value impercepibly, and everyone else can free ride, anyway. It’s a losing bargain unless all of the discontented are forced to buy. But the discontented are much harder to identify than say, mill workers or farmers) The observation here is similar to that in social organization theory, where even those who have an interest in seeing a group formed typically have no net incentive to organize one themselves given free-riding and initial costs of founding the group.

    Here the problem is even worse since it is hard to imagine an “anti-religious entrepreneur” who would buy up massive amounts of licenses and derive some special benefit from doing so, unless he or she could somehow get those who suffer the externalities to pony up and give him or her a special premium from carrying the big load. I guess if you imagine churches themselves buying licenses then it becomes plausible. But when churches now have to worry about giving benefits to non-members as well as to members, it seems that their ability to check free riding will decrease–not because the non-members are free riders but because the churches have less resources to use giving members in good standing exclusive benefits.

    Besides all this you have Tocqueville’s well-confirmed hypothesis that religions suffer when, instead of serving cosmic, universal purposes, they get yoked to the projects of moral educator, insurer of public order, and peacemaker between the classes in a particular society. This “civilizational” kind of church is one which politicians and moralists love to praise but to which few people want to consecrate their time, talents, and everything they possess.

  34. Nate Oman on December 31, 2004 at 9:45 pm

    Jeremiah and Adam: The collective action problem is a doozy, I agree. You may be able to get around some of these things by finding ways of fragmenting the property right in the religious liscense. I don’t have to purchase the whole bundle of rights, just the ones that annoy me. This doesn’t eliminate the collective action problem by any means but it might mitigate it. You would then be faced with the classic property law problems of balancing alienability and fragmentation. The more that you allow the fracturing of property rights, the greater the uncertainty about title, increased costs of transfers (title searches, insurance, etc.) and the like. This is why the common law, for example, has devices like the Rule Against Perpetuities, adverse posession, The Rule in Shelly’s Case, etc. that limit the ability to fragment property rights by conveyance. I suppose that one might get around these nevertheless with long term lease agreements, etc. but at some point I suspect that functionalist minded judges (like Posner) would be forced to treat such contractual devices as the functional equivalent of property fragmentation and “see through” the transaction to the substance of the deal.

    Of course you could also solve some of these problems by sharply limiting the availability of religious rights’ liscenses. Indeed, to the extent that we want to get at an efficient (in a Kaldor-Hicks sense) allocation of resources with respect to religion, limiting the availability of the rights is probably best since it would increase the sensitivity of the price to people’s preferences. Of course this where all of these property rights style regimes — e.g. pollution rights — get tricky. At the end of the day, you have to determine ex ante how much of the stuff that you want.

    0ne might also get at the same set of issues by creating a very expanded set of interests that we will protect through tort law. The tort law, however, has to rest on strict liability and a single remedy — complete injunction. This is probably impossible for administrative reasons and faces knotty theoretical problems, particularlly when you try to figure out how causation is supposed to work. (My theory: negligence rules migrate toward strict liability with the objective reasonable man standard actually defining the scope of protected rights and strict liability rules migrate toward negligence because the judgements required by causation end up looking like negligence. All is mush. It is probably best not to think too much about it.)

  35. David King Landrith on December 31, 2004 at 9:55 pm

    Eric James Stone, you’ve conflated natural laws with natural processes. Natural laws are simplified predictive descriptions of natural processes. The fact of the matter is that there is no adequate way to predictively describe many natural phenomena, and there is good reason to think that there are natural phenomena that will always elude predictive description. Your assertion that everything is a natural process is beside the point. My point that “physical laws have never been able to explain all phenomena” stands, and it remains blindingly obvious.

    You’ve ignored my analysis of God-driven vs non-God-driven explanations. My point is exactly that what you call “the heart of the dispute” is, in fact, nonsense, and my analysis shows that that this is so.

    Howsoever improbable the universe may be, the existence of a creator capable of creating it must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.

    I agree that position #1 is a question of faith, since (as I state):

    no evidentiary support can justify the wholesale positive rejection of all possible God-driven explanations. The most that it can really justify is agnosticism. This is why I call the position #1 type of atheism “agnosticism with indigestion.”

    And this is why I (to use your words—which I like, by the way) casually and disdainfully dismiss position #1.

    My point with position #2 is that it is not a matter of faith. Since it argues (rightly or wrongly) that God is unintelligible, than everything we say about Him is either false or unintelligible; which is to say, all non-false propositions about God are unintelligible. In the absence of an intelligible proposition, the question of belief never even arises. Thus is belief in God presumptively precluded.

  36. Eric James Stone on December 31, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    David King Landrith,

    Well, excuse me for conflating natural laws and natural processes. Please allow me to rephrase.

    I fail to see how it is a lazy or non-serious position to believe that:

    1. All phenomena can be explained by the operation of natural processes,
    2. The existence of such processes does not require the existence of God, and
    3. If the existence of God is not necessary to explain phenomena, then (by Occam’s Razor) it is most likely that God does not exist.

    You’ve ignored my analysis of God-driven vs non-God-driven explanations. My point is exactly that what you call “the heart of the dispute� is, in fact, nonsense, and my analysis shows that that this is so.

    I’m sorry for not mentioning your analysis, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

    I know that some Christian philosophers believe that in order for the universe to exist, there must have been an uncaused first cause, and by definition that first cause is God. There cannot be a situation in which there is an uncaused first cause and there is no God. Thus, any theoretical framework that relies on an uncaused first cause requires that there be a God.

    On the other hand, there are those who believe that there was no uncaused first cause, and that natural processes brought our current universe into existence, from which point it has proceeded by purely natural processes without intervention by any creator. While such a theoretical framework does not require that there be no God, it does not require that there be one, either.

    Then there is your amusing little semantic argument #2, in which God cannot exist because he is defined out of existence. Althought I’m surprised anyone bothers to take that seriously because it is merely a word game, I’ll let you have it as an example of a theoretical system in which there cannot be a God.

    Notice that I’m not claiming that the existence or feasibility of such explanations makes God necessary or unnecessary in fact (which is what you seemed to think I was saying.) I’m just saying that the existence of God may be necessary or unnecessary to any particular theoretical framework.

    Now, if one believes that a theoretical framework in which God is not necessary is the one which corresponds most closely to reality, the question then arises as to whether to believe there is a God or not. Absent any evidence of God’s existence, it is perfectly rational to use Occam’s Razor and believe that there is no God.

    Howsoever improbable the universe may be, the existence of a creator capable of creating it must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.

    This makes no sense, and it doesn’t even support what you’re saying, so I’m going to assume you made a mistake in phrasing it. For extremely improbable universes, the probability of a creator capable of creating such universes is obviously higher than the probability of any particular extremely improbable universe.

  37. David King Landrith on January 1, 2005 at 1:23 am

    Eric James Stone, don’t worry about my mistaking you for an atheist. I started out here defending position #2, which I find to be a very serious position. So I realize that you find yourself in the (somewhat awkward) position of defending a viewpoint that you disagree with. In this regard, you have my sympathies, since I was (earlier in the thread) in a similar position.

    There are two problems with your restatement that “all phenomena can be explained by the operation of natural processes.”

    First, and just to clarify, it is not the case that there are actually natural explanations for all phenomena.

    Second, it begs the question. Once you adopt the viewpoint that “all phenomena can be explained by the operation of natural processes,” your 2nd and 3rd premises become redundant (unless you wish to subsume God beneath natural processes). And it is not an argument for rejecting all God-driven explanations. Rather, it is simply an out-of-hand rejection of all God-driven explanations. This rejection leads us back to the question of justifying the rejection of God-driven explanations, and (as I stated above):

    no evidentiary support can justify the wholesale positive rejection of all possible God-driven explanations. The most that it can really justify is agnosticism. This is why I call the position #1 type of atheism “agnosticism with indigestion.”

    I keep repeating this, because as far as position #1 is concerned, all road lead very quickly back to it. This is why it just isn’t a very serious position (as opposed to position #2, which actually is).

    The prime cause argument is both bogus and irrelevant. It pretends to be a reductio of the notion that everything has a cause. In fact, there is no logical reason why any series at all must have a beginning or an end. Take, for example, the series of negative numbers, it has an end but no beginning. The series of integers has no beginning or end. The series of positive integers has a beginning but no end. If science believes in a starting point, it because of empirical evidence, not because logic requires it.

    I intended my statement concerning probability to be taken exactly as I wrote it. My point is simply that there can be no sense in which a creator is considered necessary for hypotheses that do not explicitly pre-suppose the existence of a God, and that this is a matter of logic and not just a matter of defining non-God-driven hypotheses is such-and-such a way.

    And my point about probability is, after all, correct. In logical probability, for any proposition a and proposition b, the anterior probability of the conjunction of the two can never surpass the anterior probability of either of the two alone. So if we say (a) there is a universe with certain characteristics, and (b) there is a creator of the universe with certain characteristics, (by logic) the conjunction of these two propositions cannot have a higher anterior probably than either taken alone.

    The creator is also less likely than the creator from an empirical probabilistic viewpoint as well, but this isn’t the point that I was making in my previous comment. I’ll be happy to go into that as well, if you’d like clarification.

  38. Eric James Stone on January 1, 2005 at 3:44 am

    > First, and just to clarify, it is not the case that there are actually natural explanations for all phenomena.

    Talk about begging the question. If you work from that premise, then your assumptions are blindingly obvious. But I don’t see that the premise is a self-evident axiom. In fact, many people take it as an premise that there are natural explanations of all phenomena. They might say, for example, that the words you type are the result of natural electrochemical processes in your brain, and that the fact you have a brain is due to natural selection through evolution acting on lifeforms on earth, and that life on earth is the result of random molecular combinations in primordial conditions, and that such conditions were the result of various natural processes going back to the Big Bang and that the Big Bang was nothing more than a random fluctuation of the spacetime continuum.

    And you are just plain wrong about the probability question, as you originally stated it. (And you definitely made a mistake in wording your last paragraph in comment 37.) Let’s look at it again:

    Howsoever improbable the universe may be, the existence of a creator capable of creating it must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.

    You make an unwarranted assumption: that a creator is only capable of creating exactly one type of universe. If a creator is capable of creating more than one type of universe, then the probability of that creator’s existence is less than the sum of the probabilities of all the universes he is capable of creating, but may still be greater than the probability of one particular type of universe.

  39. David King Landrith on January 1, 2005 at 10:07 am

    Eric James Stone: many people take it as an premise that there are natural explanations of all phenomena

    And this premise is demonstrably incorrect. Please point to the encyclopedia that contains all the explanations for all phenomena. Examples abound. Just to name two: In classical physics, there is the many body problem, since the law of gravity only applies to two bodies. And quantum physics only works in intances where gravity is not a factor. Regardless of whether many people display a dogged determination to posit unkown natural causes for such events, there remains no predictive natural explanation, and non-predictive natural explanations have no cognitive value beyond that of simply being a placeholder.

    And you’re simply wrong on the logic point. What I have said can be shown to follow directly form Kolmogorov’s probability axioms.

  40. Adam Greenwood on January 1, 2005 at 10:57 am

    “It is probably best not to think too much about it.”

    I am sorry to say that this is the case with a great many legal rules. This is one very good argument against the existence of the legal academy and against appointing intellectually keen judges (or, at least, giving them lighter workloads if appointed).

  41. Eric James Stone on January 1, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    And this premise is demonstrably incorrect. Please point to the encyclopedia that contains all the explanations for all phenomena. Examples abound. Just to name two: In classical physics, there is the many body problem, since the law of gravity only applies to two bodies. And quantum physics only works in intances where gravity is not a factor. Regardless of whether many people display a dogged determination to posit unkown natural causes for such events, there remains no predictive natural explanation, and non-predictive natural explanations have no cognitive value beyond that of simply being a placeholder.

    First, just because we do not currently know a natural explanation for something does not mean there is not a natural explanation. For example, Newtonian physics could not account for the precession in the orbit of Mercury. That did not mean there was no natural explanation — Einstein found one with General Relativity.

    Second, the n-body problem does not mean that natural processes are not the only explanations for the motions of the bodies. Gravity is a natural process. By definition, the only force at work in the n-body problem is gravity. The fact that the solution to the equations becomes chaotic over the long term does not mean that something other than gravity is at work.

    Another example: If we have a certain amount of radioactive isotope, we can predict fairly accurately how long it will take for half the material to decay. However, we cannot predict which individual atoms will decay, nor exactly when those atoms will decay. Our inability to make such predictions does not mean radioactive decay is not a natural process.

    It seems like you are confusing the limits of human ability to predict the result of natural processes with the limits of natural processes themselves. Natural processes are not limited by our ability to predict their results. Just because Einstein hadn’t developed General Relativity yet doesn’t mean God was manually precessing the orbit of Mercury.

    With regard to your probability argument, maybe your original statement wasn’t precise enough or makes unwarranted assumptions, because based on that statement I am correct.

    Maybe what I mean will become clearer with a little example:
    Howsoever improbable the showing of a twelve on these two dice may be, the existence of a roller capable of rolling it must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.
    So the probability of the existence of a roller is 1 in 36 (or less, because maybe there wasn’t a roller), right? Wrong! If a roller is capable of rolling anything from a two to a twelve, the mere fact that a twelve shows on the dice does not make the existence of the roller less probable than if a seven was showing. The probability that there is a roller at all cannot be greater than the sum of the probabilities of all the possible rolls (in this case, 36/36 or 100%), but that probability is not affected by what is showing on the dice.

  42. clark on January 1, 2005 at 2:29 pm

    “Natural laws are simplified predictive descriptions of natural processes.”

    Only if you’re a positivist. (grin) Many think that natural laws are “real” in some sense.

  43. David King Landrith on January 1, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    Eric James Stone, your arguments simply demonstrate a dogged determination to hold out for naturalistic explanations at the cost of all God-driven hypotheses. Which is to say, it amounts to nothing more than an out-of-hand rejection of all God-driven explanations. This rejection leads us back to the question of justifying the rejection of God-driven explanations, and (as I stated above):

    no evidentiary support can justify the wholesale positive rejection of all possible God-driven explanations. The most that it can really justify is agnosticism. This is why I call the position #1 type of atheism “agnosticism with indigestion.”

    And I don’t belive that you’re thinking correctly about the probability issue, because the way you describe it simply isn’t correct. You propose the following two propositions:

    p. The next time these two homogenous dice will be shaken in some manner sufficient to generate random results, they will turn up two 12’s.

    q. The next time these two dice will be shaken, they’ll be shaken by a mortal.

    We can stipulate that the probability of p is 1 in 36. Let’s just say that the probability of q is 1 in 20 (for the sake of simplicity). This means the anterior probability of the proposition p and q can never be higher than the least probable conjunct in the conjunction—in this case p, which is 1 in 36. Thus, my statement is literally correct:

    Howsoever improbable the universe may be, the eistence of a creator capable of creating it must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.

    Clark, actually there is no major school of philosophy of science that believes that natural laws are real. There is a dispute over realism in science concerns whether the entities described are real.

  44. David King Landrith on January 1, 2005 at 6:44 pm

    Eric James Stone, there does seem to be a flaw in my original probability formulation that makes it literally false. It fails to expressly indicate that I’m considering the existence of the creator in conjunction with the existence of the universe. What I should have said is this:

    Howsoever improbable the universe may be, the additional existence of a creator capable of creating it must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.

  45. Eric James Stone on January 1, 2005 at 7:38 pm

    David,

    Since I fail to be convinced of what you claim is blindingly obvious, either I’m stupid or you are incorrect about whether it is obvious. I’ll leave it to the readers to decide which option is correct.

    As for the probabilities issue, it is clear now where you are making your mistake.

    p. The next time these two homogenous dice will be shaken in some manner sufficient to generate random results, they will turn up two 12’s. [I assume you mean two 6’s, which total 12.]

    q. The next time these two dice will be shaken, they’ll be shaken by a mortal.

    We can stipulate that the probability of p is 1 in 36. Let’s just say that the probability of q is 1 in 20 (for the sake of simplicity). This means the anterior probability of the proposition p and q can never be higher than the least probable conjunct in the conjunction—in this case p, which is 1 in 36. Thus, my statement is literally correct:

    Howsoever improbable the universe may be, the eistence of a creator capable of creating it must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.

    If the mortal in q is capable of rolling any number from 2 to 12, then no matter what is rolled the probability that the roller is a mortal is 1 in 20. The probability of the mortality of the roller does not depend on the roll of the dice.

    The problem is that your statement is not about the probability of the proposition p and q. Your statement is parallel to “No matter what q, p cannot be greater than q.” I’m saying that is false: p can be greater than q, because p is not dependent on q. (In fact, in the example p is by definition greater than q.)

    If you want to make a statement about the proposition p and q, you would have to word it differently:

    Howsoever improbable the universe may be, its creation by a creator must be at least as improbable. This is just a matter of probabilistic logic.

    That is a logically true statement, even if it is relatively meaningless as to the probability of the existence of a creator.

  46. Eric James Stone on January 1, 2005 at 7:45 pm

    I began composing my response before you posted yours, so I didn’t see it until after I had finished. As you’ve reformulated the statement, it is logically true.

  47. David King Landrith on January 1, 2005 at 7:54 pm

    You keep moving from one frame of reference to another. In one framework, we can deal with natural laws, and then argue that all phenomena have natural explanations. In the other framework, we simply presume that all phenomena have natural explanations. Either way, you come to the same problem. When I point out the problem with the one, you take up the other again and again. As a consequence, we continue to go in circles here.

    Regarding the probability issue, you’re still not thinking very clearly. You’ve now moved to considering the probability of the statements separately, when they must be considered as a conjunction to be meaningful. Again, the anterior probability of the conjunction of any two propositions can never be higher than any of its components. This follows from Kolmogorov’s probability axioms, and unless you have a different axiomatic probability logic, I don’t see how to get around this.

  48. Clark on January 1, 2005 at 9:17 pm

    David, regarding scientific laws, you are wrong. Check out this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy among others. The claim that laws are always descriptions simply isn’t the only view.

  49. Clark on January 1, 2005 at 9:19 pm

    Whoops. Hit enter too soon. The relevant paper is by the author of that Stanford article and is “There Are No Antirealists in the Laboratory” in Realism and Anti-Realism in the Philosophy of Science.

  50. Eric James Stone on January 1, 2005 at 11:08 pm

    Regarding the probability issue, you’re still not thinking very clearly. You’ve now moved to considering the probability of the statements separately, when they must be considered as a conjunction to be meaningful. Again, the anterior probability of the conjunction of any two propositions can never be higher than any of its components. This follows from Kolmogorov’s probability axioms, and unless you have a different axiomatic probability logic, I don’t see how to get around this.

    Look, I’ll admit I don’t know a thing about Kolmogorov’s probability axioms, but I am capable of logical thinking. As it turns out, I was right from the beginning that your statement was logically flawed, and after several denials, you have finally admitted that it was. And if you read my comment #45 carefully, you will see that I fully comprehend how if the two propositions are properly considered in conjunction with each other, the probability of both ocurring cannot be higher than the lower of the two individual probabilities. So, if that’s the result of your Kolmogorov’s probability axioms, I’m happy to report that I understand the concept on my own, without Kolmogorov’s aid.

    However, the statement (as rephrased either by you or by me) is relatively useless when it comes to determining the probability that a creator exists. While the statement is a statement about the probability of the conjunction of p and q, it tells us nothing about the base probability of p.

    For example, let’s say that p is the probability that I will finish my novel in the next three months. q is the highly improbable outcome that my novel will reach #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list.

    Now, if the odds against q are 1 in 1,000,000,000, that means the odds of p and q (I finish my novel in the next three months and it reaches #1 on the list) are at best 1 in 1,000,000,000. However, that does not mean the odds that I will finish my novel in the next three months are 1 in 1,000,000,000, because the probability of my finishing this quarter is not dependent on the odds the novel will hit #1 on the list. So the probability of my finishing the novel can be much higher than 1 in 1,000,000,000 — it could be as high as 90% or so. A statement about p and q in conjunction is completely useless in estimating the probability of p alone.

    So that’s one reason why the statement is useless. There’s another: whoever formulated the statement originally is either deliberately trying to portray the probability of there being a creator as low, or else just did not think things through in terms of practical application.

    What is meant by a universe being improbable? It means that, if the properties of the universe were selected by random chance, the probability that it would end up with such properties is low. Many people believe that it is highly improbable that our universe would have (within a very small margin for error) the properties necessary to sustain human life. Some people say that improbability argues in favor of a creator.

    The statement seems designed to counter that by claiming that if the universe is improbable, it would be even more improbable that there was a creator.

    (Interesting that I’m now arguing on the side favorable to a creator.)

    But the improbability of the universe is based on the probability that it obtained its properties through random chance. If, in fact, the choice of properties for the universe was not random, then probability based on random chance has nothing to do with it.

    For example, if I find a die showing a 3, I might say that there was a 1 in 6 chance that someone would roll a 3. If I then find a second die showing a 3, I might say there was a 1 in 36 chance of someone rolling two 3’s. If I find a third die showing 3, I might say there was a 1 in 216 chance of someone rolling three 3’s.

    If I find one hundred dice all showing 3’s, I might say there is a 1 in 6^100 chance of someone rolling a hundred threes. However, it would be more plausible to assume that the dice were not actually rolled randomly, but rather were deliberately placed with the 3 showing. (If you rolled 100 dice every nanosecond for a trillion times the current age of the universe, the odds that at least one time all hundred dice would turn up 3’s would still be about 1 in 1,500,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.)

    Now, of course this example is exaggerated, as the improbability of our universe is far less than that of rolling a hundred dice that are all 3’s. But the point is that the improbability of the universe is based on it being created randomly, which presupposes that there is not a creator (or, at least, not a creator who is able to choose the properties of the universe.)

  51. David King Landrith on January 2, 2005 at 12:53 am

    I think it was reasonably clear that I was talking about conjunctions, since each of my subsequent formulations mentions them—clear enough, at any rate, that any vagueness that the additional word offered shouldn’t have been the least bit surprising.

    You’re right, however, that Kolmogorov’s axioms seldom lead to anything but fairly intuitive results. The nature of axiomatic probability is such that it does not often lead to improbable results.

    You’re wrong, however, about the formulation being “relatively useless.”

    You’re authorship example does not speak to the issue, since your q is (by hypothesis) contingent upon your p. Thus, q and p are not logically independent, and therefore not amenable to the kind of probabilistic analysis that you offer. Nevertheless, the fact that q is contingent upon p means that if q occurs, p has already occurred. Since it has already occurred, the question of probability no longer arises.

    As far as the state of the universe, there is no anterior reason to suppose that it should be one way vs. any other way.

    The purpose of my statement of probability is not to stipulate the anterior probability of a creator. The point is to show that it positing a creator does not increase the anterior probability of the universe being one way as opposed to another. Therefore, positing a creator does not alleviate any perceived probability problems caused by the development of the universe.

    You dice example does not concern anterior probability. It involves an interpretation of axiomatic probability. This is what I refer to earlier as empirical probability, and I suppose this is a fine time to go into that.

    First, you’re stipulated dice example always assumes the existence of a dice roller. So basically, we’re choosing between someone rolling the dice or placing the dice, and in both instances we have a “creator” (if you will).

    Second, you’re not analyzing the probability correctly. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll ignore the fact that dice are created, and simply use them as a proxy for a generic improbable event. It simply is more likely that all the dice end up showing threes than that some molecular structure that is substantially more complex and less probable than the dice results themselves (viz., a human) set dice to all threes. If this does not seem to be the case, it is just because you are taking the existence of humans for granted and while bickering over the probability of dice rolls.

  52. David King Landrith on January 2, 2005 at 1:11 am

    Clark, the fact that Franklin may argue that laws are real in some sense is beside the point. Mainstream realists, instrumentalists, and positivists would all agree on the definition–the primary dispute is, as you know, is over the status of the entities within the theories. But even so, it is not clear to me that Franklin’s realist position is at odds with the notion that laws are simplified predictive descriptions.

  53. Clark on January 2, 2005 at 2:07 am

    I was just responding to your rejoinder regarding my earlier comments. The real issue is whether there are laws operative in the universe which are not merely descriptions but are causes. You claimed that isn’t a position within the philosophy of science. Clearly it is. Indeed it is one of the important positions of C. S. Peirce who still exerts influence in the philosophy of science. Peirce termed this the reality of thirdness.

    The problem is the issue of the representation versus the thing represented. You are saying laws are the representation whereas I claim we can speak of laws as entities. Certainly I don’t have trouble speaking of the representation. But this is the classic debate between the empiricists and the scientific realists – are the representations all we can speak of?

    I think this question rather pertinent to how you are attempting to deal with the God issue as a purely semantic one.

  54. Eric James Stone on January 2, 2005 at 3:05 am

    You’re authorship example does not speak to the issue, since your q is (by hypothesis) contingent upon your p.

    No, it is not. I specifically designed it so that q was not contingent upon p.

    While q is contingent on my finishing the novel, it is not contingent on my finishing the novel within the next three months. I could finish it in six months, and p would be false but q would still be possible.

    So, since my authorship example does not suffer from the logical flaw you diagnosed it as having, perhaps you might try analyzing it again.

    There is no point in going further with anything in this conversation until you understand that the probability of there being a creator is not limited by the improbability of the universe.

  55. Christian on January 2, 2005 at 8:30 am

    Forgive me for wading into this discussion (a) late and (b) with little to no philosophical experience (and probably little to no philosophical acumen either).

    I get the impression that David thinks his 1 is ‘not serious’ because the attempt to prove that God does not exist—while simultaneously recognizing the logical possibility of his existence—is doomed to fail because of a lack of empirical evidence. Is that right?

    I am curious to know in what sense 2 is ‘serious’. It seems to me that proving the proposition “God has the ontological status of a round square” also requires (I speak as a physicist) a wealth of empirical evidence impossible to obtain.

    I am also curious to know David’s judgment of the ‘seriousness’ of theistic inversions (1T and 2T) of what might be called his atheistic 1A and 2A:

    1T: There is no necessary reason why there is a God, it just happens to be the case that there is.

    2T: The existence of some function “x is a God” is always satisfied, because the term God is defined in such a way that it necessarily has a referent.

    To state my initial position up front—a position which has not been rigorously examined, something you might help me with—I think that there is insufficient evidence to establish 1A, 2A, 1T, or 2T, and that they are all equally ‘unserious,’ and that it is emotion that ultimately forces people to a decision on the question of the existence of God.

  56. David King Landrith on January 2, 2005 at 4:42 pm

    Clark, my point is that even if I overstated my case with regard to all possible positions within the philosophy of science, it has no impact on the argument. My argument with you is (as usual) that you’re trading in irrelevancies).

  57. David King Landrith on January 2, 2005 at 4:48 pm

    Eric James Stone, I’ve said over and over that I don’t care much about the probability of a creator alone. My point is that positing a creator does not alleviate the problem of the improbability of the universe. So at this point its a bit silly for you to make your further participation in this conversation contingent on some point about the probability of a creator alone.

    I misread your authorship post. You seem to be saying that the probability of a conjunction of two propositions is derivative of its two component propositions, and not vice versa. Since this also follows from axiomatic probability, I don’t see that there’s any room for disagreement here. I’m puzzled as to what you think I’ve said that indicates I disagree with that.

  58. Eric James Stone on January 2, 2005 at 6:27 pm

    My point is that positing a creator does not alleviate the problem of the improbability of the universe.

    OK, the next thing we have to clear up is what you mean by the improbability of the universe.

    To me, it means the odds that a universe of a particular configuration would exist due to random chance, rather than deliberate action. Is your definition different?

  59. David King Landrith on January 4, 2005 at 12:54 am

    I’m happy to talk about the odds of the universe, but my main point about probability is that stipulating a creator doesn’t make the universe any more likely, no matter how we construe the likelihood of the universe.

    First, let me say that I’m not convinced that probability attaches to facts or objects. I’m inclined to say that they attach to propositions, but this is a matter of some debate.

    Even so, I’m not sure exactly what the universe is. If it is the sum of all states of affairs, then it is no more probable than the least probable of these states of affairs. For example, for some period during the late eighties and early nineties, this probability of the universe correlated roughly with the probability that I could get a date.

    On the other hand, it’s not even clear to me that it’s meaningful to speak of the universe as probable. The probability of any given thing only makes sense relative to other alternatives that are of the same type. Indeed, the practice of assigning probabilities involves distributing them among different alternatives, and each of these alternatives must be of the same logical type.

    To give you an example of what this means, consider the following. Say some man is at a 3 way fork in the road. Say further that 2 roads go down into the valley and 1 road goes up into the mountain. If we are to compute the anterior probability of the different choices, we have two different logical types; viz., choosing based on a vertical direction vs. merely choosing among different roads. We might say that there is a 50%/50% chance that he’ll go up or down. In this case, the probability associated with each road would be 25%/25%/50%. If we ignore considerations of vertical directions, we treat each road as equal. This results in a road probability distribution of 33.3%/33.3%/33.3%. We may choose between these for whatever reasons, but we can’t mix them or we’ll end up with probability distributions like 33%/33%/50%, and this doesn’t add up.

    At any rate, to assess the probability of the universe, we’ve have to understand what kind of logical type of thing it is before we could distribute the appropriate probabilities across its alternatives. Since we can’t really enumerate the alternatives, I don’t see how we can say that any of them are more probable than any other. Thus, we cannot assign a probability to the existence of the universe.

    This is a long answer to your short question, especially since I seem to be arguing that your short question doesn’t even admit of an answer. Just the same, I don’t really know what it means to say that the universe is probable in any sense.

  60. Eric James Stone on January 4, 2005 at 3:44 pm

    > but my main point about probability is that stipulating a creator
    > doesn’t make the universe any more likely, no matter how we construe
    > the likelihood of the universe.

    If that is your main point, it’s easily refuted. I suspect you haven’t stated what you mean clearly.

    Here’s how we’ll construe the likelihood of the universe, for the purposes of my example: There are various fundamental constants of physics. If some of these constants vary by even a small percentage, human life would be impossible in the universe. So, if the values of the fundamental constants were set randomly, one measure of the improbability of our universe would be the odds that the fundamental constants would be such as to allow human life. Let’s call that probability R.

    Since there are more combinations of constants that would make human life impossible than there are ones that would make it possible, R is less than 50%. (Probably far less, but that’s not important.)

    So, as I’ve construed it, the likelihood of the universe is less than 50%.

    Now, we stipulate a creator who:
    1. Wants to have human life in his universe,
    2. Is capable of choosing the values for the fundamental constants of the universe, rather than assigning random values, and
    3. Knows which values are needed in order to allow human life.

    If we stipulate the existence of such a creator, then the probaility that a universe capable of sustaining human life rises to about 100%.

    Which means stipulating a creator does make the universe more likely, at least for certain construals of the likelihood of the universe. That negates your main point, at least as you expressed it in comment #59.

    If we look at how you worded your point in comment #57 (“My point is that positing a creator does not alleviate the problem of the improbability of the universe.”), I guess it depends on how you define the word “alleviate.”