Monday, August 01, 2011

The Universe is not intuitive.

By Mathew Goldstein.

When atheists assert that evidence for god is missing, theists tend to react with complaints that atheists are disregarding or stereotyping the sophisticated and compelling arguments of theologians, or with complaints that atheists have a faith/belief in materialism that skews their perspective. What characterizes these arguments defending theism is a tendency to favor intuition over empirical evidence, and/or to characterize intuition as providing supporting evidence that is at least on par with empirical evidence. I won't dispute that theism is more intuitive than atheism. So to answer the question 'who is right here?' we need to tackle the question of whether or not appeals to intuition are a proper and compelling basis for reaching conclusions about how the world works.

Intuitions are intellectual seemings that something is necessarily the case. They are directed towards statements that make some kind of necessity claim. Intuitions can be distinguished from beliefs more generally, since we can believe that propositions which are non-intuitive are true, and our intuition can favor propositions which we believe to be false. So the question here becomes this: Should our beliefs about how the world works follow our intuitions or disregard our intuitions?

One way to answer this question is to look at history for the intuitive answers that humans relied on to answer the big questions about how the world works. For example, what are the intuitive explanation for drought, flood, illness, earthquakes, wind storms, and similar calamities? What are the intuitive explanations for mental illness?

In Chaldean mythology the seven evil deities were known as shedu, meaning storm-demons. Hebrew demons were workers of harm. To them were ascribed the various diseases. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus casts out many demons, or evil spirits, from those who are afflicted with various ailments. The exorcists of the Catholic Church teach that demons attack humans continually but that afflicted persons can be effectively healed and protected either by the formal rite of exorcism, authorized to be performed only by bishops and those they designate, or by prayers of deliverance which any Christian can offer for themselves or others.

In Islam, some thought mental disorder could be caused by possession by a djin (genie), which could be either good or demon-like. There were sometimes beatings to exorcise djin. Christian Europe often considered Madness to be a moral issue, either a punishment for sin or a test of faith and character. Ancient Hindu scriptures attribute mental disorders to supernatural agents, sorcery or witchcraft. Disrespect towards the gods, teachers or others were blamed. The Chinese blamed an imbalance between Yin and yang. In Judaism, mental disorders are caused by problems in the relationship between the individual and God. Plato argued that there were "divinely inspired" mental illness that gave the person prophetic powers. Playwrights such as Homer, Sophocles and Euripides described madmen driven insane by the Gods.

For most of human history, almost all people have thought that the Earth was in the center of a giant sphere (or ball, called the "celestial sphere") with the stars stuck to the inside of the sphere. The planets, Sun, and Moon were thought to move between the sphere of stars and the Earth, and to be different from both the Earth and the stars. This was correct intuitively - and factually wrong.

Now lets briefly look at this question of the ability of intuition to give us knowledge from the other direction. This time we will look to examples of our strongly evidenced knowledge to see if they are intuitive.

Humans have a common ancestor with all other primates, who have a common ancestor with all other mammals, who have a common ancestor with all other vertebrates. This defies our intuitions, which is why no human ever proposed this to be true on the basis of intuition. Solid matter consists mostly of empty space. There is a maximum velocity that information can travel. All particles exhibit both wave and particle properties. No one reached these conclusions from intuition. Over and over again, our knowledge about the world, including much that today we take for granted, is non-intuitive, and arguably counter-intuitive.

Time and time again, through out history, the intuitive explanations for how the world worked, the explanations that originated in human imagination, were wrong. They were much more often wrong than right. The pattern is clear, as is the explanation: Human intuition is not up to the task of explaining the world. On its own, human intuition lacks the capability to understand our world.

Yet theists continue to rely heavily on intuition in their arguments for theism. They continue to argue intuitively along the lines that something cannot come from nothing, therefore god exists. There must a first cause for everything, therefore god exists. Beauty and order characterize our universe, therefore god exists. Humans have conscious minds with capabilities that go beyond what purely material brains can achieve, therefore god exists. Free will exists, therefore god exists. Etc. Granted, the full arguments can get considerably more nuanced and sophisticated than this, but given that the premises are assuming certainties that go beyond, or even contrary, to what we obtain from empirical evidence, the additional sophistication doesn't diminish the dependency on human intuition.

Theists think they have wonderful arguments, so they conclude that atheists are blinded by a bias. The theists are overestimating their arguments and simultaneously underestimating what is possible within a purely materialistic framework. We don't have sufficient reason to think that nothing is the stable starting condition ("nothingness" exhibits an intrinsic small scale instability), that there is an ultimate first cause for everything (QED arguably allows some acausality), that beauty and order prevail (there is plenty of the opposites), that human minds exhibit capabilities that cannot be realized by material mechanisms (our minds have properties consistent with being entirely material), that free will exists (some evidence suggests free will may be an illusion), etc. Those are all human intuitions, like the intuition that time is unrelated to velocity and gravity, and as such they are most likely false. We even have some modern evidence that hints that some of these long standing intuitions cited by theologians, are, or at least may, be incorrect, as parenthetically stated above.

1 comment:

Mike Reid said...

Great article! I have yet to hear the "sophisticated and compelling arguments of theologians" for the existence of God. The arguments that I've heard from theologians are neither sophisticated nor compelling. Under scrutiny, they always distill down to just wishful thinking or pseudo-intellectual nonsense.