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Stirling Newberry

The most basic requirement of doing science is the willingness to say "there is insufficient data". Therefore agnosticism is the only scientific stance, because it is the only one that recognizes that there is insufficient data to prove or disprove with any certainty the "god" hypothesis.

We can dispose of many particular versions of the god hypothesis - for example the biblical literalist version is untenable.

An agnostic isn't someone who hasn't thought seriously about the God hypothesis, but, instead, some one who has.

vfwh

Hi there,
Stirling, when you say what you say above, what exactly do you mean by 'God'?

As far as the three major brands of monotheism are concerned, 'God' is the thing that did all the stuff they tell in the Bible. So, as far as the monotheistic religions are concerned, you're an atheist.

If your definition of God is not that particular thing, then can you please explain exactly what entity we have insufficient data to know whether it exists or not, and what effect it is supposed to have, or have had, on the universe as we know it? I suppose I'm asking you to define a little better the 'particular versions of the god hypothesis' that we are unable to disprove.

In order to avoid going back and forth in these comments, let me tell you where I'm going here:
1- either this god actually has an impact on our universe and on our lives, in which case it should make it within reach to prove or disprove, and we should have a least a couple of verified observations that should have formed the basis for a scientific practice to look for a god in the universe. We don't.

2- either it is a totally abstract entity that cannot have any discernable effect on our lives or anything we are in a position to observe or be affected by, in which case:
a) what's the point?
b) it's one drop in an infinite ocean of similar unprovable hypotheses, so why bother?

As a final point for now: science is only concerned with things that can be observed, replicated, demonstrated, proven or disproven. This is not the case here, so talking about a 'scientific' approach to the question of god is unassailably 'hors-sujet'.

I'll welcome your views on the above.

darms

I guess you could call me an indifferentist as I don't care enough about religion to waste my time thinking about it or discussing it as I have more interesting things to do. Part of the reason I ended up where I am is my revulsion at atheists who blather on and on about the wonders of their athiesm just like some loud-mouthed evangelical. Each to their own and don't mess with your neighbor unless he is causing physical harm to another, and physical harm is different from choosing to marry someone somebody else disapproves of. For starters.

vfwh

Hi darms.
It doesn't seem to me right now in the world that atheists are doing the blathering-on-and-on, and are imposing upon others their beliefs. A lot of the reasons for atheists' verve is annoyment at crazy mystical bullshit serving as justification for the perpetration of injustice and the reining-in of freedoms. Even more annoying, is how well this same mystical crap plays in winning over the mass of people to the agenda of opportunistic adventurers (political or otherwise) involved in nothing but the pursuit of private ambitions and interests.

At the end of the day, the problem is about gullibility and deferrence to undefined forces as the model way of life: it's not good for a healthy and free society.

Zenji

The problem is, the existence of *something* transcendent, 'The Divine', *can* be proved. The proof is in religious experience.

Of course, my religious experience is not proof for you. Only your own religious experience will serve as proof for you. Such experiences are available to anyone, although not always easy to come by. The scientific thing to do would be to try the experiment, and practice the practices that the Mystics of virtually every religion advocate as a means to experience the divine.

Of course, the atheist argument goes like this:

There is no God. If there were a God, you could have an experience of God. People claim to experience God, but they are crazy. You can't experience God, because there is no God. If there were one, you could have an experience of God....

Look, the effort to "prove" God's existence without reference to experience is doomed to failure. I would be very hard pressed to prove that I had soup for dinner last night without reference to experience, and that is trivial. To prove something exists without reference to experience requires that it is somewhow logically necessary that the thing exist. Which requires you to accept some premise that makes such a thing necessary. Well, such premises have been offered, for 1000's of years, and have always been rejected, and I think rightly so. It is useless to say you must prove God exists by pure logic. I can't prove my dog exists by pure logic, and she is obvious to anyone who takes the time to look.

However, *countless* people have claimed mystical experience, and *countless* people have offered systems of thought and action that lead to religious, mystical experiences, and *countless* people have tried the systems and verified their utility. Although the mystical strains have been muted in western religion (they are present, though, just muted), Zen Buddhism has been offering transcendent experience to all comers for almost 2500 years, and *countless* people have vouched for the fact that yes, you can come to have a transcendent, mystical experience through the practices taught in the traditions.

If you chose to poo-poo all those people and all those years and all those teachings, that is your business and you are free to do so. But i want you to be aware that your reason for doing so is circular...you don't believe because you don't believe because you don't believe.

jack*

Thanks for dropping by, Stirling. I don't think agnosticism is a common scientific stance. No matter how confident scientists may be about a theory it never rises above being "provisionally true." It's possible, however unlikely, that there are processes which violate the laws of thermodynamics, for example, which would require us to revise that most basic theory. Some theories, on the other hand, are "absolutely false" if they are found to contradict the evidence. The theory that the moon is made of cheese, for example.

A hypothesis that has no supporting evidence but does not contradict anything that is provisionally true, is held to be, I would argue, as "provisionally false." Unless a scientist is actually working to confirm or disprove the hypothesis itself, they will never include it in their computations or models. A physicist may use thermodynamics in his model of particle interactions, but he will not use string theory unless he is actively working on string theory itself. Methodologically, a hypothesis which has no supporting evidence is treated exactly the same way as a hypothesis which is known to be false.

Of course the God hypothesis is, for the agnostic, a question for which no evidence is ever possible. This takes it out of the realm of science altogether, but if the agnostic stays true to the methods of science, they will treat the God hypothesis as provisionally false. Provisional or not, false is false. The scientific agnostic is an atheist.

jack*

There most certianly are mystical and religious experiences, Zengi, the only question is what causes them. Many believe that they are the result of direct experience of some otherwise unknown aspect of reality. Nice hypothesis, but how do we go about demonstrating it's true? What you need is at least one other independent line of evidence in order to confirm it, which is where everything breaks down. All the different religious models of this spiritual realm have the same ability to find "evidence" which backs up their contradictory claims. There's also the issue that this theory requires something like metaphysical dualism, which has a host of known problems.

Fortunately there is a completely material explanation which can be scientifically tested. Religious experiences can be generated by experiments that electrically stimulate subject's brains. This is confirmed by the profound religious feeling experienced by some patients with certain types of brain injury. This could be further confirmed by determining if brain activity in monks matched that seen in the other cases (assuming you can reach nirvana with your head in a MRI machine).

So religious experience does tell us something about reality, but it's about how our brains work rather than any external divine agency. It can also explain why people in different religious traditions have experiences that match the expectations of their tradition. That's consistent with what we know about how expectations shape our interpretations of experience. Given the multiple convergent lines of evidence, this seems like a far more plausible explanation than the dualistic one.

Zenji

There most certianly are mystical and religious experiences, Zengi, the only question is what causes them. Many believe that they are the result of direct experience of some otherwise unknown aspect of reality. Nice hypothesis, but how do we go about demonstrating it's true?

If i told you that "tuna fish sandwhiches are delicious, you would like them if you tried them" (assume for the moment that you haven't)...how would you go about proving that i was right, or that i was wrong?

What you need is at least one other independent line of evidence in order to confirm it, which is where everything breaks down.

I imagine that you could start talking to people who had eaten tuna fish sandwhiches, and see how they felt about them. You might compile statistics as to how many were favorably inclined towards tuna fish, and how many weren't, and what the method was that they had for making tuna fish sandwhiches...


All the different religious models of this spiritual realm have the same ability to find "evidence" which backs up their contradictory claims.

But it seems to me, the only *evidence* that means anything is your own experience. You would simply have to *try* a tuna fish sandwhich, or maybe several different ones, and see how you felt about them. Everything else is really just BS.

Fortunately there is a completely material explanation which can be scientifically tested. Religious experiences can be generated by experiments that electrically stimulate subject's brains.

I have read that they can make you see a butterfly in your mind by stimulating your brain in the right way. Since what it is like to eat a tuna fish sandwhich is something that happens in the mind, and therefore, in the brain, i am in no way surprised that they can fiddle with the brain and create 'religious' states of mind. I am sure that they could fiddle with the brain and create the taste of tuna fish in your mouth...unless you had never eaten it, of course...although they might even be able to stimulate you in the same way tuna fish does on the tongue, and produce the actual taste! Who knows? My point, is, for *every* state of mind there is a corresponding state of brain. Possibly more than one, but the point is, that is a known fact. It is no surprise, and no disproof of the existence of tuna fish.

This is confirmed by the profound religious feeling experienced by some patients with certain types of brain injury. This could be further confirmed by determining if brain activity in monks matched that seen in the other cases (assuming you can reach nirvana with your head in a MRI machine).

Studies of monks' brain wave activity are fascinating, and have been done. This public radio link
is an audio story i have not actually listened to discussing a U of Wisc study, for example.


So religious experience does tell us something about reality, but it's about how our brains work rather than any external divine agency.

You are right about this, but you miss how profound it is. The divine agency is actually *internal*. Well, to be fair, it is external as well, and i will go so far as to say that it erases the boundary between internal and external, in the process of subsuming part into Whole. The mental experiences of Enlightenment entail profound understanding of certain elemental facts about our *Experience* of the universe.

Once you experience Zen, you will see the world differently. At least, that is the promise, and as i say, countless people have confirmed it in the only way possible: they have investigated its claims personally, and found them to be true. Or false, there are people who have investigated and not found, as well. At least, i assume there are. But the key thing is, you have to actually eat the sandwhich before you know what tuna really tastes like.


this is too long already, much as i'd like to continue at tedious length =o)

gmanedit

If it ain't falsifiable, it ain't science.
I've had those transcendant experiences. Drugs are great.

Hi Zenji,
About soup last night.
I would be very hard pressed to prove that I had soup for dinner last night without reference to experience, and that is trivial.

I'm sorry to say that if you had soup last night, it would be very easy to prove. A rifle through your rubbish bin, if you had it at home. We could tell whether it was tinned, boxed, dehydrated, freshly home made, from the contents. We could also check your store receipts for the stuff you brought, that could confirm that you indeed had acquired the required stuff to have soup. If you'd gone to a restaurant, there would be the bill, there could also be the waiter there who could confirm it. I won't go on, because there are so many ways that you having soup last night can be proven. That's the sort of thing the police does all the time, and they're not scientists, they just exercice rigorous observation of the facts.

About proof through experience
Look, the effort to "prove" God's existence without reference to experience is doomed to failure.

That's precisely the point: something that has no other trace of existence in the universe than individual interpretations of personal experience is very likely to be as false as all the other things that fall in this category and are known to be false, for example:
- Mr. Smith in a mental institution is not Napoleon, and his neighbor is not George Washington.
- Father Christmas doesn't exist, although hundreds of millions of small people would stake their life on its existence. They know, they've seen him, and the proof is that they actually got the presents for being good. What more evidence can one want? How can you disprove the existence of Father Christmas? Because an individual living somewhere unknown and flying on a sled with deer is not physically possible? Actually, er, yes, that's how you can disprove it. Unless you accept that there are sentient intelligent beings who can, without any scientific detection, contravene otherwise well-established laws of physics.
- The same goes for the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

About Zen
Once you experience Zen, you will see the world differently.

Precisely, Zen is not about a god, it's about personal experience. There is no claim with respect to the existence of a god in Zen. We are not arguing about the ability of men to put themselves in states of trance, even without the assistance of drugs. Or about whether these mental states should be pursued or shunned.

About Tuna Fish
If i told you that "tuna fish sandwhiches are delicious, you would like them if you tried them" (assume for the moment that you haven't)...how would you go about proving that i was right, or that i was wrong?

The term Delicious's very nature relates to personal experience. Some people like tuna others hate it. There is no universal truth about whether tuna fish sandwiches are delicious or not. However, there is documented universal truth about the fact that tuna fish has taste, and how. Also that it tastes nothing like apricot pie or chocolate brownies.
Reasoning by analogies is a best dubious, and at worst fallacious, because one either spends more time arguing about the validity of the analogy or forgets the topic altogether. The question is not about whether religious experiences are good or not, it is about whether there is such a thing as one undetected sentient intelligent being able to perform deliberate actions in our world. This is to me the lowest common denominator of the concept of god. Any less detailed definition of god is not, as far as I can tell, covered by the particular contentions made by jack* or the atheist arguments generally.
By all civilised standards of determining what is true or not, this being does not exist.

About circular reasoning
If you chose to poo-poo all those people and all those years and all those teachings, that is your business and you are free to do so. But i want you to be aware that your reason for doing so is circular...you don't believe because you don't believe because you don't believe.

No, it's the other way round: you believe because you decide to believe in this particular story, despite zero evidence to that effect. The only things we know with respect to religious experiences are these:
- trances and other peculiar mental states are found to exist in mankind,
- they can be reproduced by chemical or electrical stimulation,
- some people claim, from no other source than personal conviction, that it is in fact induced by some supernatural intelligent being that has no other discernible effect on the universe,
- from there spring countless and conflicting versions and stories of how this particular being works and what it does.

I on the other hand, do not believe in such a supernatural intelligent being, because there is absolutely no reason to.

vfwh

For the sake of traceability: The previous comment is mine, for some reason my id got lost in the editing process.

Zenji

About soup last night.
I would be very hard pressed to prove that I had soup for dinner last night without reference to experience, and that is trivial.

I'm sorry to say that if you had soup last night, it would be very easy to prove. A rifle through your rubbish bin, if you had it at home. We could tell whether it was tinned, boxed, dehydrated, freshly home made, from the contents

you missed the part where i said, "Without reference to experience". Rifling through my rubbish bin is experience, it is physical evidence. People are asking the religious to prove God's existence *by pure logic*, without reference to experience.

That's precisely the point: something that has no other trace of existence in the universe than individual interpretations of personal experience is very likely to be as false as all the other things that fall in this category and are known to be false, for example:

for example, pain, pleasure, the color blue, and love. None of these things, and countless more, exist outside of personal experience.

When a man says he is napoleon, it is easy to disprove him. When a man says he has had a transcendant experience that has caused him to believe in God, well, not so easy to disprove. Similarly, not easy to prove, i readily acknowledge.

No, it's the other way round: you believe because you decide to believe in this particular story, despite zero evidence to that effect

You don't know what stories i do or do not believe in. What i believe in is the validity of my personal religious experiences. I consider my experience to be evidence, and for me, it is. I recognize that it is not evidence for you, however, my only point is, that if you were to have a similar experience, it would be evidence for you. Or could be.

I admit, most people who are not 'mystics' in the religious sense, believe in God because they believe because they believe, and they have no evidence. That does not make it any less true that you don't believe in God because you don't believe in God because you don't believe. Saying a religious experience is *necessarily* of the same character as a belief that one is napoleon is *founded* in the belief that God does not exist. You *know* i am nuts because you believe a priori that God does not exist, so i *must* be nuts.

Rifling through my rubbish bin is experience, it is physical evidence.

Personal, individual experience, is distinct from fact. Individual experience cannot be universalised. What actually is in your rubbish bin is something that anyone else can verify.
Unless you are of the creed that in any case, a fact and a personal feeling are on the same level, and that after all there is no proof that the universe and ourselves in fact exist at all the way we think we do (which indeed cannot be proven, just like millions of other statements), then there is no point in arguing further, because there is no way for either of us to make any progress towards one another.

for example, pain, pleasure, the color blue, and love. None of these things, and countless more, exist outside of personal experience.
I think you'll find that pain, pleasure, the color blue and even love have very well documented modi operandi(?), involving nerves, hormones, sticks and cones, wavelengths and what not, that interact consistently with other elements of observable evidence. What is within the realm of personal experience is how you feel about blue, what kind of person you love, and how tolerant you are to pain. It's not the same as saying that blue only exists in one's mind. A machine can tell blue from red.
As I said above, and as the Raving Atheist has pointed out, if you say that god is the same thing as a feeling of love in my heart, then we're not talking about the same thing. I said that when I discuss the question of god, I am explicitly talking about an actual being that features a will, intelligence, and has a handle on what actually goes on in our world. I say that this being does not exist by any standards of established actuality of phenomena that mankind has developed.
The idea that mankind has the ability to feel deep love for others, responsibility to the world, moral accountability for our actions, etc., and even to experience great feelings of oneness with the universe, of belonging, etc., is not a problem for me. These things however, do not require a god to be experienced.

You *know* i am nuts because you believe a priori that God does not exist, so i *must* be nuts.
You are absolutely right: I belive a priori that something that leaves no objectively observable trace in our universe does not exist. I have to add that the fact that a lot of people say 'It does, I'm telling you, I've felt it !!' does not count as an objectively observable trace.
I believe things based on rationality *and* on philosophical grounds. I am aware of the tricks that the mind can play, that our various longings and subconscious drives can cause us to experience things in many ways and make us believe many things. And that's just as true for me as for anyone else, naturally.
So I decided at some point that my take on trying to be at one with the world I live in would be to base my judgements and my ideas of truth on rational observation of the world, and skepticism of irrational claims about the way the world works that cannot be substantiated by anything other than 'I know it!! I can feel it!! I'm telling you!!'. There is really and absolutely no collectively and rationally observable evidence that there is a supernatural intelligent being exercising actions in our universe. There is, on the other hand tremendously believable documented evidence and bodies of work that hint at such a thing not being possible.

My choice is therefore determined by this position, which, admittedly, is a philosophical one, and one that I chose to endorse. In that sense, yes, I believe what I believe because I chose to take that philosophical stance about facts, reason and the inherently universal nature of knowledge.

vfwh

Me again up there. There seems to be somekind of problem with ID retention at the time of posting when doing multiple previews and edits.

Zenji

Rifling through my rubbish bin is experience, it is physical evidence.

Personal, individual experience, is distinct from fact. Individual experience cannot be universalised. What actually is in your rubbish bin is something that anyone else can verify

you're missing my point. I'm not saying that rifling through my rubbish bin is personal, individual experience. I'm saying that people who ask for proof of God's existence expect that proof to be provided *without* any sort of rifling through any rubbish bins, ie: by pure logic. I think we both agree that such a proof is unlikely to be found.

So...what rubbish bins can we rifle through when we're looking for evidence of God's existence? Well, the physical world, as you say, doesn't *seem* to offer any proof of God's existence, although mystics, myself included, would say that it does (it has to me). Importantly though, and i know you'll bring this up, there is no documented evidence of such interference, it has only happened 'off the record' as it were. Oh well.

The only rubbish bin you're likely to find any evidence of God in is your own internal experience. (I don't mean to put you down by calling it a rubbish bin, i'm just continuing the analogy. Your mind is obviously quite sound.)

I think you'll find that pain, pleasure, the color blue and even love have very well documented modi operandi(?), involving nerves, hormones, sticks and cones, wavelengths and what not, that interact consistently with other elements of observable evidence

Well, you yourself pointed out that certain nerves and presumably other chemicals are involved with religious experience, so i don't see why that is different from pain or pleasure. Similarly, you can provoke pain or pleasure by stimulating the brain, but that doesn't prove that they don't exist.

As to the rest of what you have to say, i can totally respect where you are coming from, and even agree with you. If i had no personal evidence, i would not believe either. No amount of nattering from the faithful could make me stop doubting the evidence of my senses. It took a change to the evidence of my senses to provoke a change in my worldview, and my original point, to all of this, is that such a change is 1) available to all, 2) the only real way to settle the dispute, in my mind.

vfwh

Importantly though, and i know you'll bring this up, there is no documented evidence of such interference, it has only happened 'off the record' as it were. Oh well.

The only rubbish bin you're likely to find any evidence of God in is your own internal experience.

This is really the crux of the argument, and I guess we now understand each other. The thing is, you take the view, if I understand correctly, that this god's only actions in the universe are to interact with individuals on an individual basis. Of course, you say that since you've experienced it in your own mind, you're convinced that it exists, and I say that there are other far more plausible explanations for experiencing such events that do not require the intervention of supernatural forces.

It took a change to the evidence of my senses to provoke a change in my worldview, and my original point, to all of this, is that such a change is 1) available to all, 2) the only real way to settle the dispute, in my mind.

Your conclusion above indeed puts this whole question on the level of personal life choices. The problem is, most theists, and certainly the most vocal, do not stop there. They want to universalise rules applicable to all, based on their own personal life choices and, nowadays, even want to impose their own personal beliefs in schools and in lawmaking.

We touch here another element, which is that whatever philosophical position we take in these matters, how do they inform our actions in society? But that's something else entirely, of course.

jack*

The main point of contention is the status of objective vs subjective evidence. Can subjective experience be used as direct evidence of objective phenomena? I think vfwh and I would agree that the answer must be no. Subjective experience can be the starting point for formulating a hypothesis, but it has to be confirmed by objective evidence -- i.e. observations consistent with the hypothesis which can be independently verified.

My subjective experience may, for example, lead me to conclude that tuna fish sandwiches are the perfect food. If a nutritionist comes along and shows me the breakdown of calories, fat, mercury, etc and then points me to studies that indicate, using verifiable objective evidence, that this combination is not ideal, I may still prefer my experience. I could say, "but unless you have actually experienced tuna fish you can't see what I mean," but I would be wrong. I may find tuna fish to be delicious and I may not want to go a day in my life without it, but this subjective fact does not make tuna fish objectively perfect nutrition.

Zenji

Subjective experience can be the starting point for formulating a hypothesis, but it has to be confirmed by objective evidence -- i.e. observations consistent with the hypothesis which can be independently verified.

Ok, but my point here is this: My hypothesis is that 'If you follow Buddhist or other mystic religious practices, you can come to have a consciousness changing experience.' I formed this hypothesis as a result of subjective experience, as you say.

So what is the possible objective verification for this hypothesis? The hypothesis involves the nature of subjective experience itself, and the only verification that there is, other than interviewing people who have tried the claim, is to try the claim out yourself.

See, the whole reason i started posting on this thread is the following: You started out by saying agnostics were fools, and that you can only reasonably be an aetheist. However, *because of my experiences* i believe that atheists are simply wrong, although trust me, i fully understand and even respect where you are coming from. As i said upstream, it is *only* my experiences which lead me to my conclusion, not 'faith', not the 'stories' of the bible or other religious texts. So, i wanted to point out that there may be reason for agnosticism after all (i am, in fact, what i like to consider a 'gnostic agnostic' -- i *know* certain things, but i recognize that i really don't have the whole story. I have in fact only a tiny sliver of what i think of as 'understanding', and the recognition that reality is WAY larger than my comprehension will ever be.

In my mind, mystical religion, as opposed to standard, mainstream religion, proposes a *scientific* idea which is this: your mind is a laboratory, and the practices are experiments. If you try the experiments, you may get illuminating results.

Buddha himself is said to have taught something along the lines of, "Try what i am teaching you, and if something works for you, then keep it, and if it doesn't work for you, then disregard it." And Christianity teaches that "by thier fruits ye shall know them," them being the actions you take in life, which surely also applies to religious actions, meaning that good practices bear good results, and if you don't get good results, then you know you have bad practices.

jack*

My hypothesis is that 'If you follow Buddhist or other mystic religious practices, you can come to have a consciousness changing experience.'

I have no argument with this, and your other points are well taken. I guess what confused me was your initial claim:

The problem is, the existence of *something* transcendent, 'The Divine', *can* be proved. The proof is in religious experience.

I took "existence" to imply the existence of something external and objective. Since it appears that was not what you meant then there is really nothing to argue about.

Zenji

Here's an example of an excercise that i find very interesting and illuminating.

Take a seat, in a chair, and turn everything that makes sound off. No Tv, no music, etc. Close your eyes, sit upright, take a deep breath, and imagine that the *only* thing that exists is your mind. Bear in mind that this is an excercise. You are a scientist: do not make a judgement about the excercise before you do the experiment. If you don't want to do the experiment, then we'll forget about it.

I am not trying to say that it is literally true that nothing exists but your own mind. I just want you to pretend, to see what that would be like, and what you might learn about your own mind, the only thing that exists for you, for a few moments, as an excercise. Sit for 5 minutes this way, and see what it is like.

If nothing else, it can form the basis for Philosophy.

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