Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God and Reason part 8: "The Next Step"

I attended the 8th, and last lecture of the God and Reason course. This one was focussed on "The Next Step". Prof. John North spoke again, and his talk was very easy to listen to, very engaging.

The talk was really a bunch of stories tied together with a few concepts. That's a great way to get a message across... I really want to learn from these. But the appropriateness of that style depends, perhaps, on what your message is. If your goal is to outline a sequence of facts in the derivation of a proof, then the stories -- while entertaining -- will slow you down too much. But if your goal is to convey a more intuitive message, stories are the way to go.

And that leads me to my overall impression of this lecture series.

It seems obvious now that the series was not meant as a scientific or critical appraisal of Christianity, but rather as an exercise in persuasion. The talks tended to be short statements of opinion interleaved with emotionally-charged stories, sprinkled with scant cherry-picked facts thrown in for good measure. This is not how we discover truth, but rather an effective way to sway opinion. In many respects, they might as well have been up there extolling the virtues of Coca Cola over Pepsi. Really! Just swap out any reference to the Bible or God, and replace each with something about secret recipes and personal taste.

Here is an example of the persuasive argument. Prof. North started to push our guilt button in this talk. He made everyone feel guilty for having so much opportunity (yes, we are lucky to live in Canada). He told a story about Ethiopian Christians trying to escape through Sudan, some being caught in Egypt and sent to be tortured. He said that we are all guilty of sin and that without forgiveness guilt will destroy us. He offered no evidence for that assertion, but merely stated it as incontrovertible fact. The solution, according to Prof. North, is to give yourself to Jesus, since the only punishment big enough for our sins is Jesus' death on the cross.

The Ethiopian story is very scary, true. But what does it have to do with the question of God's existence? If anything, that story tells me that we need to stop people from seeing the world through the lens of their own religion. We all share a common humanity. We do NOT all share the same religion.

It is my understanding that a public university like Waterloo should exercise critical thinking in all of its sanctioned activities. This course did not achieve that standard. Instead, it was an exercise in persuasion, promoting a single ideology. This is a course I'd happily fail.


  1. I recall my second year symbolic logic professor pointing out that we cannot logically prove that the basic principles of logical deduction are true without using those principles in our proof, which would be a circular fallacy. It also seems that we cannot prove that the axioms of mathematics are mathematically valid without using those axioms in our proof; which is also invalid. My thought is that there are some possibilities where logic and reasoning to a conclusion fails, yet those principles seem to be foundational to reality. If God is even more fundamental than the axioms of mathematics, logic, justice and the origin of beauty, music, and other good things, (or the origin of those things) then how do we reason ‘to’ such a being when it seems that we must reason ‘from’ such an ultimate reference frame? This isn’t an argument, or even a suggestion that we cannot use reason in discussing God; it is merely the idea that there may be some things where logic and reasoning is insufficient or even invalid and where an appeal to that part of us that perceives the axioms, the basic principles, the beauty, may require an appeal to our emotional or intuitive perceptions.If we dismiss all things that are not logical or mathematical conclusions, then we have a problem with the axioms and other foundational knowledge. Again, not an argument, just a thought.

    1. And we can't deny solipsism, or the invisible teapot orbiting Mars. The world is full of falsifiable claims. My take on it is that all we can do is try to infer a consistent set of principles from observation.

  2. It also seems that we cannot prove that the axioms of mathematics are mathematically valid without using those axioms in our proof; which is also invalid.

    What does it mean for an axiom to be "mathematically valid"? I ask because lately I've been reading a lot of mathematical logic for my research; yet someone nobody seems to use this term.

    There are, by the way, some mathemtatical systems that can prove their own consistency.

  3. Jeff: Very few people seem to have an intuitive feeling that there is a teapot orbiting Mars, or that solipsism is true, yet many people feel that they are more than just a bag of meat ..... that they have a soul or some immaterial aspect to themselves. This suggests that the feeling that one has a soul is quite different from the feeling that there is a teapot orbiting Mars. One philosopher I was reading last week suggested that we should contemplate what the cause of that intuition is. I think it is a good question to ask. One possible explanation is that we actually have one. If so, to try and convince ourselves that we don't could be a form of insanity. (I say 'could', not 'is', as I don't mean this to be taken in a perforative sense, but as an interesting possibility for contemplation.)

    Jeffrey: In the coherence theory of truth, one can have a set of propositions that are all mutually consistent, but do not correspond to anything in reality. Indeed, they may contradict reality. Thus, they can be 'true' under the coherence theory of truth and 'false' under the correspondence theory of truth. Thus, internal consistency of a system is not sufficient to prove something is true .... but I was not using a mathematical system as my illustration. I was using the axioms as examples. I can see where one can logically show that two or more axioms are mutually consistent, in that they are not mutually contradictory, but that is not the same thing as a mathematical proof that an axiom is true.

  4. Hi Kirk,

    Thanks for taking the time to read my blog post.

    You said that perhaps we should contemplate the cause of our intuition that we have a soul. We (the scientific enterprise) DO. It's in the field of psychology. People feel all sorts of things, many of which are irrational and yet predictable. Having the feeling that we're special is no surprise at all. But science is uncovering, bit by bit, that we are not the centre of the universe. Believing that we are the centre is becoming progressively indefensible (except that it can be stated in a way that is unfalsifiable).

  5. I suppose you are right about psychology looking for the cause of our feeling that we have a soul. I have a couple of concerns about the project, however. First, using science to search for something that is not composed of space-time, matter and energy, nor governed by the laws of physics, does raise the question of the appropriateness of the tool. Second, psychology is something I know little about, but my limited interactions with those who do, leads me to believe that for many it is a foregone, a priori conclusion that there is no such thing as an immaterial soul/mind. Holding foregone conclusions before the science has been done is a bad way to practice science. I don’t see a problem with not believing a particular hypothesis in science. Rather, it is the hostility against such an hypothesis that concerns me. The response to Nagel’s recent Mind and Cosmos is an illustration of that. Some are outraged at what he suggests yet, if we are honest about it, the science has not yet been completed. It seems to me that strong bias or hostility against a particular hypothesis before the science has actually been done, can easily lead to bad science in trying to make science fit the foregone conclusion. Agnosticism is fine, perhaps desirable, but not the a priori, almost passionate bias against an hypothesis that at the very least seems self-evident to many people.

    I’m not sure the feeling that we have a soul has anything to do with a belief that we are/are not the centre of the universe. I suspect that most people know full well that we are not the centre of the universe and lack any intuition whatsoever that we are the centre of the universe, yet feel that we have a non-material consciousness about ourselves that does not end at death. I’m unsure of how to test for the existence of a soul (other than dying and finding out for ourselves), but I do think it is a valid scientific endeavor to see if we can come up with a testable, verifiable/falsifiable scientific explanation, although I can see it is a challenging project …. especially the bit where we have to test whether part of us survives death.

    Getting back to John North’s lecture. In my many conversations with him, I think he sees the awareness of our soul as self-evident and something that we reason ‘from’, not ‘to’. The acceptance of the soul has great explanatory power and how we speak to the soul is not likely to be in the form of syllogisms and equations but in ways that will be more emotive (we might, for example, have to learn how to ‘speak’ the language of beauty or justice but what sort of bizarre language would that be?). This does raise the very real danger of false perceptions, imaginations and beliefs. Reality might be enormously more complex than what we simplistically believe. If this is the case, science may be highly useful in some areas of separating truth from falsity, but utterly the wrong tool in other areas where we have to test for something not composed of space-time, matter and energy and not controlled by the laws of physics.

  6. Science doesn't exclude the supernatural as a matter of preference. Supernatural explanations are excluded because they lack objective falsifiability. It is impossible to do an experiment to generate evidence to support or refute an unfalsifiable claim. So it's useless to try to argue for such a claim. Intuition is just a state of mind, so that can't be trusted. And logic is also useless in this context. Supernatural explanations, while they may feel appealing, don't serve us in our pursuit of truth.

  7. Lots of words, Kirk, but you still don't say what it means for an axiom to be "mathematically valid". As far as I can see, this is just babble.

    I pointed out that one of your claims is false. The intellectually honest thing to do would be to acknowledge this.

  8. Jeff, I tend to agree with most of what you say, with the exception of the last sentence. If the supernatural does exist, and has causal properties, then at least some aspects of truth will only be found in the supernatural. The trick, as you point out, is to figure out a prediction based on the supernatural claim, that is falsifiable. I don't think supernatural claims are unfalsifiable, they are just unfalsifiable using the scientific method. In other words, the correspondence theory of truth still holds for supernatural claims.

    Jeffrey: It seems that you agree with my original post ..... that it does not make sense for a mathematical axiom to be mathematically valid. The axioms are something we reason from, not to. I thought I had made that clear. Maybe you agree and your worry is that they don't use the term 'mathematically valid' in the literature and so you cannot figure out what I mean. Perhaps if I said 'mathematically true' it would be clearer. I used the word 'mathematically' since I was also talking about the basic principles of logical inference and needed to distinguish between those things that are 'logically' true and 'mathematically' true. Maybe this is not what you mean by asserting that one of my claims is false. Perhaps it is the fact that some systems are internally consistent. This does not falsify my claim, as I explained in my response to your post. To clarify, it does not necessarily follow that because a system is consistent within itself that, therefore, it is true. (I point to the ptolemaic theory as an example.) Good science should follow the correspondence theory of truth, not the coherence theory of truth. I do believe that in mathematics, internally consistent systems are a worthy subject of research, but to say they are 'true' merely because they are internally consistent is appealing to a notion of truth (the coherence theory) that might not be anchored to the real world, or the way the world actually is.

  9. It seems that you agree with my original post ..... that it does not make sense for a mathematical axiom to be mathematically valid

    No, I don't agree with your original post. I was asking you to define your terms. You have not.

    Perhaps if I said 'mathematically true' it would be clearer.

    No, it wouldn't. Take the Peano axioms. "0 is a natural number" is clearly true.

    Your claim "It also seems that we cannot prove that the axioms of mathematics are mathematically valid without using those axioms in our proof; which is also invalid" is false, as I have given the counterexample of self-verifying systems. You have refused to acknowledge being wrong. At this point I cannot spend any more time on it, but I will note that this is a recurring problem with you.

  10. Jeffrey, self-verification is circular. I have said that you cannot prove the axioms to be true without using at least one of them in your proof, which is a circular fallacy. You reply with a self-verifying (i.e., circular) 'counterexample'. Of course I'm not going to acknowledge being 'wrong' when you offer such a bizarre response, which essentially says that we can prove the axioms are true without falling into circularity because we can use the circular approach to prove the axioms are true. How bizarre is that! The next thing I fear you will be saying is that we can prove the Bible is true because it self verifies that it is true!

    Then you assert that 'O is a natural number' is clearly true'. Really? Certainly not by the correspondence theory of truth, which is what science should be using. It doesn't logically follow that something is actually true because you (or Peano) define it to be true. Before you engage further in any conversations about what is true and false, you really do need to familiarize yourself with the correspondence theory of truth and the coherence theory of true. You may not realize it, but you seem to lean toward the coherence theory of truth, which will get you into a world of trouble in science. You have a tendency to self-verify that you are right.

    Jeffrey, you need a vacation ... a good long one somewhere away from your work and the internet. :)

  11. It is true that some axiomatic systems can be verified internally, though they tend to be very weak. Certainly not capable of proving the consistency of the whole of mathematics.

    They are not even capable of verifying the consistency of ZFC - among the weaker set theories - which is usually used as a foundation for basic mathematics. Let alone richer theories like MK, which is able to formalize more of higher mathematics.

  12. Kirk takes his usual approach - instead of simply admitting he was wrong, which would be the intellectually honest thing to do, he blusters.

    Kirk doesn't even seem to understand his own claims. Kirk has not given a definition of "mathematically valid", despite being asked to do so multiple times, and Kirk seems to not understand that axioms of, say, Peano arithmetic are of necessity true in Peano arithmetic; otherwise they wouldn't be axioms.

    If Kirk wants to claim that "0 is a natural number" is false in the "correspondence theory of truth", he should enlighten us with the proof of that claim.

    Certainly not capable of proving the consistency of the whole of mathematics.

    Not really relevant. Kirk claimed a universal impossibility, and I gave a counterexample. But at least you have the intellectual honesty to agree Kirk was wrong, I give you that much.

  13. Oh, and in case Kirk did not understand the counterexample, it was in reference to his claim that this type of proof is a "circular fallacy" and "also invalid".