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TFBW's Forum • View topic - 5-Sigma

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 Post subject: 5-Sigma
PostPosted: Tue Jul 03, 2012 12:29 pm 
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I don't really have a specific math question. I guess it's just more of an observation that could use some clarification and also some elaboration on what 5-sigma actually means. I just wasn't sure where else to post this.

After seeing some overly enthusiastic science journalists initially reporting expectations that CERN would be making an announcement on Wednesday that the Higgs Boson (God Particle) had been discovered with a 5-sigma degree of certainty, a position they have since backed away from, it got me thinking about the nature of evidence and the militant atheist's usual demand for that same type of empirical evidence for the existence of God.

Carl Sagan once said something along the lines of extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. For me, this gives rise to several questions. Are the claims that a person has committed crimes such that, if found guilty, the perpetrator would be deserving of imprisonment or even death, extraordinary claims? And, if so, do those claims require extraordinary evidence as proof?

The evidence that convicted Charles Manson and has kept him in prison for 40 years was entirely circumstantial and anecdotal in nature. It certainly wasn't derived from repeatable experiments who's data was amenable to statistical analysis.

I wonder if one of those militant atheists have ever sat on a jury and cast a vote to convict based on a preponderance of entirely circumstantial and anecdotal evidence that proved to them, beyond a reasonable doubt, the guilt of the defendant. There's no way to know for sure, but I would find it odd if that has never happened.

Of course, I expect the argument to be that I am comparing apples to oranges. That may be true and I suppose that is another area that could use some clarification and elaboration, but questions remain.

Are matters of life and death less important to the militant atheist than the existence of God? And is circumstantial evidence that happens to be amenable to statistical analysis of data points, by necessity, inherently superior to other types of circumstantial evidence that are perfectly acceptable for critical decision making in other areas of grave importance?

It seems to me there is a mountain of cross corroborating circumstantial evidence, when considered together, for the existence of God even if each piece of evidence, taken individually, could have an alternate plausible explanation constructed.

Am I way off base here?


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 Post subject: Re: 5-Sigma
PostPosted: Thu Jul 05, 2012 7:19 pm 
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 Post subject: Re: 5-Sigma
PostPosted: Sun Jul 08, 2012 5:31 pm 
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"Evidence" is a notoriously tricky subject. I think that the best thing to do with any scientific rationalist who makes strong claims about how "evidence" is the only proper basis for belief is to give them an interrogation on the subject worthy of Socrates. If they're so sure about the nature of evidence, they'd better be pretty damn clear on the details.

You cite the issue of circumstantial evidence, and wonder whether a scientific rationalist would accept such evidence. Let's start there as a subject of inquiry. First up, what is "circumstantial evidence"? According to , the difference between "circumstantial" and "direct" evidence is the need for inference in the former case. In the latter case, the deed itself is seen; in the former case, the evidence can be explained by the deed, but other explanations are also possible. The philosopher in me immediately suspects that this isn't always going to give us a clear-cut distinction between the cases, but even if it's a matter of degree, at least we have some sort of dimension along which to attempt our measurements. In law, testimony can provide either direct or circumstantial evidence: a witness to a crime provides direct evidence; a witness who merely saw the accused at the scene of the crime provides circumstantial evidence. The criminal was certainly at the scene of the crime, but being at the scene of the crime does not necessarily imply that one is the criminal.

Given this clarification, it's pretty obvious that scientific rationalists have no problem at all with circumstantial evidence. The conspicuous example which springs immediately to mind is the evolutionary doctrine of common ancestry. Mainstream evolutionary theory declares that all life on earth is related, having descended from a single original basic organism. The amount of actual ancestry for which we have any direct evidence is miniscule, especially in the context of the claim being made (i.e. all life in the entire history of the planet). Some of the circumstantial evidence is only considered supportive of common ancestry because the alternative explanations are distasteful. The fossil record, for example, is just as compatible (if not more so) with the theory that species were artificially introduced to Earth at different points in history. This explanation is "better" than the evolutionary one in the sense that it does not require us to infer the (unobserved) existence of intermediate forms between organisms with large structural differences. It's obviously unacceptable, however, because it's not a naturalistic explanation.

This suggests some lines of inquiry. First, does the scientific rationalist recognise how much of his evidence is circumstantial? Second, does the scientific rationalist realise that his a priori commitment to naturalistic explanations is playing a leading role in the interpretation of evidence? Third, if I have a commitment to scientific evidence but not to naturalistic explanations (and why should I commit to naturalistic explanations, given that I am literally surrounded by things which are quite properly explained by intelligent intervention), why am I acting improperly in saying that the fossil record is prima facie evidence of Progressive Creation, not Evolution?

It's clear even from this brief analysis that the interpretation of the evidence is more important than the evidence itself. Without the a priori commitment to naturalism, does the evidence lead to naturalistic conclusions? I think it's pretty clear that it does not. Richard Dawkins is always ready and willing to point out that living things have the appearance of design. The appearance of design is good circumstantial evidence for actual design and a designer, but this conclusion is utterly unacceptable to him because of the overriding priority of naturalism.

If you have an a priori commitment to naturalism of this sort, you're not going to view anything as evidence for the existence of God. The only possible avenue via which one might come to entertain the possibility of an intervening God that I can see, under those circumstances, is if one's naturalistic premises drive one to a logical conclusion which is patently absurd, prompting one to question the naturalistic premise.

I think that answers your question.

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 Post subject: Re: 5-Sigma
PostPosted: Mon Jul 09, 2012 11:20 pm 
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Thanks. Nicely done, but is it even a rational position to hold an a priori commitment to naturalistic explanations for everything, for now, given that the totality of information presently available is incomplete at best? Hasn't the term, supernatural, throughout history, always been definitially mutable from one discovery to the next?


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 Post subject: Re: 5-Sigma
PostPosted: Thu Jul 19, 2012 6:03 pm 
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 Post subject: Re: 5-Sigma
PostPosted: Sun Jul 22, 2012 5:40 am 
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Reading my explanations above, you might suppose that I think of atheists as deliberately deceptive: that they have an a priori commitment to naturalism and understand it as such, but use sophistry to disguise that premise as a conclusion.

This is not actually the case. I don't think that atheists, generally, (or people, generally, for that matter) are entirely clear about the logical relations between premises and conclusions. Aristotle went out of fashion quite some time ago as a subject for teaching in school, and they threw out the good stuff with the bad, sadly. The trouble with atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, who claim science as their grounds, is that they believe themselves to be particularly rational people, and thus disinclined to doubt the rigorousness of their own arguments. Further, they often think that science itself is the heart and soul of reason, such that being a scientist makes one a member of the class of people most in touch with truth. The upshot of this is that Richard Dawkins frequently talks about the virtues of "critical thinking", and considers himself an expert in the subject because he's a scientist, without realising that he desperately needs some training in the subject himself. He's never likely to obtain it, however, because the teachers are in the philosophy department, which is considered "arts", not "science".

For a slight change of pace, then, without going off-topic, I'd like to explain how naturalistic thinking can come to permeate scientific thought, with the effect that most scientists treat naturalism as a strict requirement of science. This argument is meant to sound reasonable without being rigorously logical, and it's that kind of argument which is most seductive to those who relish in reason without understanding the full difficulties of producing a coherent argument.

Let's start with the idea that supernatural explanations do not explain, which was seen in the quotation from The God Delusion that I cited earlier. Without being too rigorous about the analysis (as rigour would expose flaws), what is the basis of this claim?

One of the key ideas behind this claim is what we might call the "supernatural lameness principle": the idea that supernatural explanations are the sort that simply says, "because God wills it". Clearly, if you can answer every scientific question with "because God wills it", you will have a fairly useless kind of science: all the questions have answers, but none of the answers are useful. A cursory analysis suggests that the problem lies in the fact that "because God wills it" is a teleological explanation: one which explains in terms of purpose and intention. What would be preferable is a mechanistic explanation: one which explains how things are happening, which is an aspect of the problem not addressed by "God wills it". Thus, useful science is necessarily mechanistic in its outlook. It won't do to ascribe God as the mechanism, either, because that would just be allowing the lame explanations back in through a semantic loophole.

With this idea elucidated, one can then see the appeal of another popular doctrine, which we might call the "replacement principle". This is the idea that because mechanistic explanations are better than supernatural ones, the former naturally supersede the latter, and thus science forever encroaches on the territory of religion, always replacing it and never yielding any territory back. Taking a long-term view of this, we see science perpetually on the rise, producing ever-more useful explanations of a broader range of things, and religion on the decline as its lame explanations are superseded.

So, let me now answer your earlier question, while playing Devil's Advocate. "Hasn't the term, supernatural, throughout history, always been definitially mutable from one discovery to the next?" No. The history of (useful) science has been to replace supernatural explanations with natural ones. "Supernatural" is merely a synonym for "not understood". As we come to understand the mechanisms behind the behaviour that we study, we replace lame supernatural explanations with superior mechanistic ones. Granted, it's often the case that the first such explanation is lacking in some regards, but it is still superior to the lame explanation that it displaced, and it may in turn be displaced by a better mechanistic explanation. The only sense in which "supernatural" is mutable is in the sense that our increased understanding of a subject (through mechanistic explanations, i.e. science) typically brings to our attention "new" areas of ignorance. They aren't really new, given that we have always been ignorant of them, but scientific progress makes us newly aware of this ignorance.

So there you have it: an attempt at playing Devil's Advocate. As I've said, I think that this line of reasoning is full of holes due to its lack of rigour, but I hope that I've managed to make the point of view look somewhat reasonable, and say the kind of things that Richard Dawkins would approve of. Nowhere in the argument do I profess an a priori commitment to naturalism -- but you can probably see that the banishment of the supernatural and the dedication to mechanistic explanations (which I have tried to present as necessary) entails a commitment to naturalism.

Not everyone will notice this relationship without it being pointed out to them, and attitudes towards the entailment can vary. That said, many people subscribe to the idea that "science disproves God" without realising that it is the definition of science (as I have presented it), not the products of science, that exclude God. When God is excluded at the root (the definition), it is quite simply inevitable that He will not be found in the fruit (the products). The fact that an inherently Godless science produces no evidence for God should come as a surprise to nobody.

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 Post subject: Re: 5-Sigma
PostPosted: Tue Jul 24, 2012 8:51 am 
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