Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Empiricist Strikes Back.

I recently got into a discussion where the case for my correspondent’s particular flavour of God was framed as rationalist against my empiricist atheism. Implicit in this are a whole lot of assumptions and accusations; that empiricism is somehow irrational is the most obvious one. This was quite odd, as I was using the word “rational” in its less strict sense, to refer to any form of valid reasoning, deductive or otherwise; my correspondent decided, and later insisted (which is something you never do), that I was using it in its narrow sense, to refer only to reasoning that is mathematically provable, despite the fact that this definition would have rendered my points meaningless.

The scientific method is rational under the former definition, and not under the latter. Yet it is widely accepted as a knowledge-generating technique. We can take from this that just because something is not mathematically certain, doesn’t mean it can’t be certain enough to be assumed, unless to do so would be question-begging, and unless and until a later development casts doubt on it. In the case of the scientific method, neither of these conditions are in play.

The usual problem with what might be termed hard or deductivist rationalism is that it tends to lead to solipsism, which basically means that you accept Descartes’ proposition I think therefore I am and nothing else, or at least nothing which you cannot derive with mathematical certainty from this proposition. This usually entails hard atheism, moral relativism (or its less paradoxical functional equivalent, moral nihilism) and theoretical, if not practical, selfishness — traits commonly associated with the stereotyped perception of atheism, but atypical in actual fact.

As mentioned, my solipsist correspondent is unusual in this regard in that he is not an atheist, but he defines God as existing outside the Universe, which is a common trick among theologians when they’re up against empiricism.  Now, if you define Universe as referring to everything that exists, then the notion of something existing outside it is paradoxical. So instead he uses the cosmological sense of Universe, which refers to everything we can observe (or infer from observation). Unfortunately, as far as we know, the second definition is functionally identical to the first, as it’s a principle both of science and of deductivism that what cannot be observed or inferred/deduced from observation cannot be claimed to exist.

I wonder if anyone’s thought of claiming that God follows a form of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle — that he exists, but you can’t detect him if you’re looking for him. They’d still have to back up why they thought he did, and even then it would mean that as far as we or anything else is concerned, he may as well not exist; but it’s the only way I can think of that he could both exist and be undetectable. Practically, I think, it would be as much a dead-end as the existing-outside-the-Universe trick, but it just struck me curious as to whether it had been tried.

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