Sunday, February 12, 2017

Stephen Colbert and Ricky Garvis debate about atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

Does a recent article in the conservative online news and commentary website PJ Media titled What atheist Ricky Garvis got wrong debating God with Stephen Colbert succeed in demonstrating that Ricky Garvis is mistaken?  Few people will be surprised that an atheist such as myself concludes the aforementioned commentary for theism fails to defeat atheism.  Yet few people will understand how it fails.

The commentary for theism begins by characterizing teleology as "one of atheism's blind spots".  As shown in the video of the Colbert versus Garvis debate,  Colbert's first challenge for Garvis is the question "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Gervais dismisses the question, retorting that the better question is "How is there something?" Is Garvis wrong to scoff at the relevancy of the notion of "why"? 

The theistic notion adopted by this commentary - that there is a why question with an answer that is distinct from the how question answer - assumes more than is necessary and therefore assumes too much.  An explanation that answers the how question can suffice.  This is because the how answer satisfies the why question this way: Given that this is how that happened, that did happen.  Why did it happen?  Because of its happening being possible as demonstrated by the how it happened explanation.   In other words, in this context, an origin that can happen did happen because it could and that is the whole story.  There is literally no need to provide a separate answer addressing why it happened to have the complete explanation.

But even if a how answer does not suffice to provide a complete explanation, we then have no viable option of inventing a why answer and declaring that additional explanation to also be true to fill the gap.  This is because we know from human history that we lack the capability to correctly guess the true answer to such questions. Any true answer will be so counter-intuitive to humans that we have zero chance of guessing the correct answer merely by applying reason and logic that is not fully anchored and directed by empirical evidence. Without the empirical evidence we are ignorant.  Full stop.  Garvis emphasized our condition of being ignorant.  The author of this commentary fails to address, let alone counter, that argument.

There is another dubious assumption in Colbert's question, one that Garvis did not dispute.  The commentary puts it this way "The incontrovertible truth is that something exists and something cannot come from nothing."  This notion that absolute nothingness must be the initial starting point also assumes too much.  This is a common assumption behind theism and as such it is a weakness of theism.  We have no good reason to think absolute nothingness is anything other than a fiction originating from human intuition.  While we do not know what preceded the Big Bang, the empirical evidence that we do have favors the conclusion that absolute nothingness is not possible because nothingness appears to be an intrinsically unstable condition.  Absolutes are sometimes counter-evidenced by modern physics.  There is no absolute cold, absolute hot, absolute soft, absolute hard, absolute light, absolute dark, etc.  This may be true even when there are absolute boundaries that cannot be crossed.  For example, there is a boundary line for absolute coldness but it may not be reachable.  An object cannot travel faster than 186,282 miles per second which is far slower than one million miles per second which is a lot slower than absolute fastness (whatever that means).

The commentary then cites "the Five Ways of Aquinas" as being the basis for Colbert's next challenge to Garvis that there is a need for a prime mover.  Citing a 13th century thinker is a very weak approach to debating how the universe operates.  This is because our knowledge of how the universe operates is substantially better now than it was in the 13th century.  Aquinas did not know that objects in motion continue to move unless they are slowed down or stopped by friction or collisions because this explanation was discovered after he died.  In quantum mechanics there is no prime mover, there are events which spontaneously occur stochastically with a consistent probability frequency.   Aquinas could not imagine quantum mechanics because even after it was discovered centuries later it remains counter-intuitive.  There are forces that repel and attract which cause objects to move.  Aquinas could not imagine these forces because they are counter-intuitive and were discovered after he died.  

While it is true that naturalism imposes substantial constraints on what is possible, the constraints it imposes are not as debilitating as many theists assume.  Theists tend to rely too much on human intuition to anchor their arguments.  When we discipline ourselves with the additional constraint of depending on the available empirical evidence to direct and dictate our conclusions we discover how capable and productive naturalism is and how incapable and unproductive human intuition without the naturalism constraint is.