John Loftus’s recent book on the Outsider Test for Faith

November 21, 2014 • 11:11 am

I’ve finally finished reading theology, though I suspect I’ll dip into it now and again when my stomach feels strong enough. Now I can cleanse my brain by reading some heathen literature, and have just finished John Loftus’s book, The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion is Really True (Prometheus, published March, 2013).  I recommend it to readers, particularly those who haven’t followed John’s scattered writings about this idea:

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I’ve written about the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF) before, and you can read an early version of John’s idea here. It’s a simple idea, but one that nobody had formally proposed as a way to gauge whether one’s religious beliefs are “correct.” In this book, John present the theory in extenso and discusses (and rebuts) some of the criticisms offered by religionists like Alvin Plantinga.

As Thomas Henry Huxley remarked when hearing about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the idea of natural selection, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that.” That’s the way I felt when I heard about the OTF. Loftus first notes that the vast majority of believers get their religion from their geographic location, for that’s where one’s parents, peers, and clerics are. If you’re born in Saudi Arabia, chances are high you’ll be a Sunni Muslim; if you’re born in Brazil, in all likelihood you’ll be a Catholic (see the map below).

That means that virtually no people choose their religion after weighing all possible religions or even more than one religion (in fact, in some Muslim countries you can be killed for choosing anything but Islam). Rather, people assume a faith by simply inheriting their beliefs, largely through indoctrination.  Is that any way to choose something that people consider of the greatest import? After all, if you choose wrongly, many religions say you’ll be consigned to the pit of Hell. Other religions maintain that only their adherents (and not all of them) will go to Paradise, while others simply vanish into nothingness after death. Very few religions claim that they’re no truer than any other religion.

So isn’t it the rational thing to do to scrutinize existing faiths before you choose one? That’s the basis for John’s OTF, which is summarized below, from pp. 16-17 of his book:

It is highly likely that any given religious faith is false and quite possibly that they could all be false. At best there can only be one religious faith that is true. At worst they could all be false.

. . . So I propose that: . . . The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use to examine the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

Of course, if you do that properly, you’re going to wind up an atheist, for every believer dismisses all other faiths as lacking evidence. If you take that attitude towards your own faith, you should abandon that, too. And that is the point. The beliefs most important to people are, as we know, not only irrational in content, but irrational in how they were chosen.

A lot of the book is occupied by John’s discussion of challenges from believers, including those who think the OTF shows that their religion really is best (Plantinga is one of these) and those who claim that there should be an “outsider test for atheism” (that’s ridiculous given that atheism is based on the view that one requires evidence for belief).

The book ends with two cute maps, showing the difference between disparate and divisive religious beliefs and the unifying nature of scientific inquiry. The colored maps below come from John’s website, Debunking Christianity:

Modern Distribution of World Religions

World Distribution of Modern Science

 

 

 

199 thoughts on “John Loftus’s recent book on the Outsider Test for Faith

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. The OTF is an excellent work.

    His newest anthology, “Christianity is not Great. How Faith Fails” is also an extraordinary work. He has brought together some of the strongest voices ever to demolish the notion that x-tianity has been anything more than a scourge to humankind.

    I highly recommend it too.

  2. Wow! Thanks so much for mentioning this and promoting my book. Hopefully it will arm non-believers as they discuss the issues with believers, and also help disabuse believers of their faith.

    1. Thanks for writing it! I am looking forward to reading it. Your book does pose me with a sticky dilemma, however: to buy it right now, or ask for it for Christmas. 🙂

        1. I wouldn’t do that unless you asked first. Most would be highly insulted. But the same would go if they gave you a book on questioning your point-of-view then YES tit-for-tat good for the gander.

      1. Oh, ask for it for Christmas!

        I once asked for and got Smith’s Atheism: The Case Against God from Santa Claus. In the stocking, iirc. I enjoyed the irony, and the loving spirit of the Secularization of Christmas spread its warm good cheer throughout the house.

          1. Actually they are intelligent pseudo-spiders from the Vega system. They mean well, but Santa is one huge arachnophobe. So for 364 days a year he is waging a secret war against the “Santa Spiders” which are more akin to mammals than arachnids. Yes he is one psycho concerning them.

      1. The problem I see with the science map is that it’s not reflecting the acceptance of science in the world’s population as the religious map does with religious beliefs (we may need a third map to show the religion/atheism ratio though).

        Showing the share of scientific conclusions among “most scientifically minded people” is like showing the distribution of islamic beliefs among most muslims.

        In other words, regarding the distribution among the world’s entire population the map of religions shows the “is” and the science map shows the “ought”.

        I would like to see a map showing the acceptance of the listed scientific conclusions amoung *all* people, as depressing I think this would be.

        1. In any case, the first map doesn’t reflect the most popular life stance in each country. For instance, in the UK “no religion” may be more common than all religions combined or just larger than CoE (depending on which poll you trust most). In either case, colouring the UK as (predominantly) protestant is misleading.

          /@ / San Diego

              1. Ah…too bad.

                Vegas is actually one vertex of an equilateral triangle formed with San Diego and Phoenix…you’re going the same distance, but northeast rather than east.

                Enjoy the trip, and remember to leave in Vegas whatever it is that’s supposed to stay there….

                b&

  3. those who claim that there should be an “outsider test for atheism” (that’s ridiculous since atheism is simply the view that one requires evidence for belief).

    The OTF for atheism would simply eliminate the strawman version of it: the “7ers” on the Dawkins scale that believers often claim atheists are, but which (AFAIK) no atheists actually are.

    1. Actually, lots of us are.

      I’ve yet to encounter a coherent definition of the word, “god.” As such, I’m quite certain that no such beasties exist.

      How much doubt do you personally entertain that there might be married bachelors living death in spartan luxury north of the North Pole?

      The unquestionable confidence you have that none of those entities exist, without need for any sort of theoretical qualification, is a perfect match for my own confidence that there are no gods.

      Now, is it possible that we could be subroutines in the Matrix, or that there could be hyperintelligent aliens controlling our thoughts with their mind rays, or whatever? Of course. But it’s also possible that those super-beings themselves are but parts of Alice’s Red King’s dream, and they themselves are no more capable of ruling out that hypothesis than we are. And if even such “gods” are incapable of knowing the ultimate nature of reality, let alone their own role in it, of what sense could it possibly make to grant them the label, “god”?

      b&

      1. So no possible evidence could convince you of the existence of god or gods? Your believe is not tentative and not subject to revision should new evidence arise? Your rejection of the existence of gods is not inductive or empirical, but rather based on some deductive logic that is beyond all doubt both sound and valid?

        That’s a 7. 7 means absolute philosophical certainty. Any inductive or empirical rejection, no matter how certain, is less than a 7.

        1. As I wrote, I still have no more of an idea what a god is supposed to be than I do what a married bachelor is supposed to be. Philosophy is as irrelevant as any other form of theology in this.

          You seem to have in mind some hypothetical god that could actually exist. Perhaps you could define what that entity would be…?

          b&

          1. A deistic one will suffice for this debate. Are you atheistic towards deism (i.e., the proposition that this universe had a non-intervening but intelligent creator or creators), or not?

            So with that in mind, can you answer my questions: so no possible evidence could convince you of the existence of such a god or gods? Your rejection of them is not tentative and not subject to revision should new evidence arise? Your rejection of such concepts is not inductive or empirical, but rather based on some deductive logic that is beyond all doubt both sound and valid?

            1. You’ll have to further qualify the definition of a new term you just introduced: “universe.”

              If you mean our Hubble Volume, sure, I could conceive of the impossible-in-practice possibility of that being the product of some intelligent design, but so what?

              Because that just pushes the question back. What about this expanded universe that encompasses not just our Hubble Volume but your deist gods and whatever they magicked our Hubble Volume from? Am I to just assume that they magicked themselves into existence as well? If so, I can only assume that they are, once again, married bachelors living death in spartan luxury north of the North Pole.

              If your gods are “only” the gods of our Hubble Volume, again, so what? If they’re gods to us, then James Randi could make himself a comparable god to some back-bush tribe. You yourself, armed with but a cellphone, would be a god to the world of the nineteenth century. “Oooh, you are so big!” denotes tyranny, not divinity — though, to be sure, the two have a long popular tradition of inseparability.

              b&

              1. If I understand what you are saying Ben, the only thing you would consider worthy of the label “God” would come with all the self-contradictory omnis presumed by today’s monotheists. So therefore you are absolutely philosophically certain that no God exists because you are going to reject the label “God” for any being which is not omni everything, and omni everything beings are logically impossible. Is that a fair description of your position?

                That seems a bit a bit of a limited, constrained, even timid atheism to me. I’m perfectly willing to say I’m atheistic about all sorts of possible non-omni Gods that you would reject the label “god” for. Universe-forming hyper aliens. Deistic first causes. The alien-to-humans-what-Randy-is-to-tribe Gods. Heck, Oberon and Titania living in my garden. Because there’s no evidence for any such beings. I don’t need to point out logical contradictions or posit that entities without the logical contradictions don’t qualify as gods. There’s no evidence for any of ’em, and that’s a sufficient reason to be atheist about them.

              2. If I understand what you are saying Ben, the only thing you would consider worthy of the label “God” would come with all the self-contradictory omnis presumed by today’s monotheists.

                It’s not just the omni-properties of today’s ultra-gods. The whole point of gods in the first place is that they can do the impossible. Not just the merely difficult, but the actually impossible; that’s their literary role.

                Of course, that means that, in reality, the gods are simply literary devices that couldn’t in principle even exist. Even if you did have an alleged deity perform some impossible magic trick to demonstrate his divinity…well, as soon as he does the trick, he demonstrates that it’s not actually impossible, after all, and he’s just a variation on the Randi-to-the-tribespeople theme. Figure out the trick and you become a god, yourself.

                And, no, I’m not just making this up or pulling it out of thin air; it’s a common theme in religion itself for as long as we have records. It’s the Prometheus story…Prometheus, a mere man, dares to steal the magic of fire from the gods. In so doing, he becomes a god, himself — but, of course, in his case, he also suffers eternal torment for having the temerity to challenge the gods. But he also gave us the gift of the magic of fire, and we thereby became more godlike.

                That’s an alternate way of expressing my position that may help you understand it better. The only definitions of the word, “god,” that actually do function and make sense are of fictional plot devices that are explicitly constructed in ways that they couldn’t exist in the real world, their impossibility being the principle reason for the invention of the character in the first place.

                It’s the same thing with magic. Either it’s really magic and it doesn’t really exist, or it really is real, but it’s just a natural phenomenon we don’t understand it very well. But it was never meant to actually be really real in the first place — quite the opposite.

                Cheers,

                b&

            2. I’ll admit there’s a non-zero chance that god exists but that non-zero chance is so small that for all practical purposes it might as well not exist.

              Any sufficient evidence would have to be impossible to explain away scientifically – and that means the evidence would also have to rule out the possibility I was suffering a psychotic breakdown.

              1. It would also have to rule out the possibility that the proposed god is itself but a pawn in some much larger game — something that’s impossible even in principle to do.

                b&

              2. I’ll admit there’s a non-zero chance that god exists but that non-zero chance is so small that for all practical purposes it might as well not exist.

                Sure, and that’s a 6-with-decimal on the Dawkins scale – Dawkins pegs himself as being a 6.9. Here’s the description of a 6: “De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”” Does that sound about right?

        2. 7 means absolute philosophical certainty. Any inductive or empirical rejection, no matter how certain, is less than a 7.

          You got your, or Dawkins’s, problem right there. The scale is supposed to be about probabilities:

          “Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty. The spectrum is continuous, but it can be represented by the following seven milestones along the way. …

          6 Very Low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’

          7 Strong atheist. ‘I know there is no God, with the same conviction that Junk “knows” there is one.’

          [p73, “The God Delusion”, 2007 ed; my bold]

          Dawkins has confused operational probabilities with philosophical ideas, while claiming that he was taking probabilities “seriously”. To recast with probabilities:

          6-7 Probability less than 1 %, possibly inseparable from 0 %*. Empirical atheist. ‘I know for certain that “gods” do not exist, with the same quality of evidence that spin 3 particles do not exist. Physics live with the fact that these things are not there.’

          *I inserted that because there seem to be some confusion about 0 % probabilities re empiricism. Single points have zero probability mass, so of course empirical probability has to be able to observe and handle that too, as well as limit processes.

          Say, this is interesting. If something happened, is it not 0 % probability it does not have happened with a frequentist probability? The set of “it has not happened” is empty, for all practical purposes. Maybe the difference between measuring distributions of events and observing a (possibly) stochastic process is rearing its head again. (Say, in the latter case single events are informative while they say nothing in the former case.)

          1. Aren’t you being a little fussy here Torbjörn?

            Dawkins’ scale is designed to give the lay reader/listener a general idea of what level of confidence one might have. I think it works wonderfully for that purpose.

        3. I’ll join Ben Goren as a 7. To me, what this means is the following:

          I have not encountered a coherent definition of “god”. Consequently, there is no evidence conceivable that would support the existence of a god. I do not know what that term means in the first place and do not know what kind of evidence would argue one way or the other.

          You can look at this in terms of logical contradiction, as Ben apparently does, but it doesn’t require even that–the term only has to be -undefined-, not necessarily self-contradictory. You may as well ask whether I can imagine any evidence for the existence of flurblick. Until you define “flurblick” in a way that makes it amenable to -any- empirical test, the answer is: “I don’t know what that means and I don’t know what kind of evidence could be in favor of it.” After millenia of religion, we are still in that position when it comes to god.

          This is a problem at the deepest heart of religion. Ultimately, religious concepts mean whatever the proponent of a particular religious viewpoint -wants- them to mean. There is no tie to external evidence on which to ground anything, so it’s all up in the air. So, on one hand, I’ve never heard any coherent definition of “god” and, on the other hand, I’ve heard dozens of incoherent definitions. Either way, the god concept fails. We can’t agree on what the word means and none of the candidates are viable.

          1. I on the other hand know what the word means in most of its uses, and claim that all such things do not exist or are using the label for something else. (You can call the lint in your bathrobe “god”, but so what?)

        4. So no possible evidence could convince you of the existence of god or gods?

          To be honest, if I were to try defining a categorisation like the “Dawkins Scale”, then at either end of the scale I’d extend the categories to cover cases of the form “I am fully convinced that there is not (or is) a god, though I remain open to evidence to the contrary ; however I cannot think of any realistic piece of evidence that would convince to the contrary.”
          To just “know” is to deny the pre-eminence of evidence, and I cannot conceive of a rational being who could take such a position. (Does this exclude the religious from the class of “rational beings”? Yes.)
          Am I a “7”? Well, because I do accept the importance of evidence, I don’t think I could go much higher than claiming a 6.99999999999 or so. What evidence would it take me to be convinced of the reality of gods? Well, a night or many with Aphrodite, a few mega-years of watching the world erode with my new-delivered immortality-and-eternal-30-something-ness (never let those concepts get separated when talking with the omnipotent), and possibly making my own universe would convince me of the reality of gods. But I hardly think it is evidence that would be likely to occur.
          Oh – another piece of evidence that might convince me of the reality of gods is being given the ability to genuinely convince a rabid YEC of the reality of deep time and evolution. I think the night with Aphrodite is more likely.

          1. I agree with the gravel inspector as a Dawkins 6.999999+. Excellent characterization. I, too, think I’m open to considering evidence that there might be a god, but I know of no evidence that even nudges me that direction.

          2. I’d happily believe in [anything you say] if I scored a night with Aphrodite. I just Googled the young lady, she wasn’t in the habit of over-dressing, was she?

            Re your eternal 30-something-ness, I tried that. That is, when I passed 30 I just stopped counting because, well, I still _felt_ like 30 inside. If asked my age I’d just say “30” with a grin. I eventually gave up when it reached 100% inaccurate and advancing decrepitude meant I couldn’t even pretend to be 30 to myself. 🙁

          3. But that type of god is simply an entity that’s much more impressive than you are now. James Randi, were he to develop a mischievous bent and pay a visit to a back-bush tribe deep in the Amazon, could establish himself to them as exactly the same type of god. Does that make Randi divine? If not, in what sense would you be a god in your scenario?

            Also, where would you put yourself on the Dawkins Scale with respect to married bachelors?

            b&

            1. You’ll note that I established a number of tests such as the few mega-years of life (with undiminished youth and … vigour. Cm’ere, Aphrodite!) with which I can test things on a geological time scale. That’s looking for some pretty serious proof that the laws of physics really have been broken.
              OK – on an ACC basis of technologies sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic, then I could be setting myself up for a pratfall. But the evidence would have to be pretty damned good.
              Oh dear, I’m not taking philosophy seriously again, aren’t I? If you met a group of entities that could give you a life time on a geologically interesting time scale, with powers to start or stop the rotation of planets and produce eclipses on demand, then you really are looking at pretty damned godly powers. Walking, quacking and defaecating like a godly duck.

              1. You’ve seen Total Recall, right? Ahnuld gets his ass to Mars?

                What makes you think those memories of you and Aphrodite are actually your own memories, and not something cooked up in a lab somewhere?

                b&

              2. Actually, I’ve only seen bits of Total Recall.
                If I’m a cog in the Matrix (*), it’s just as well I’ve got a sock in my pocket. We’ve had this conversation about the existence of an external physical reality before, haven’t we?
                (*) Another film I’ve seen (more) bits of, but certainly never watched all the way through.

              3. Oh, I’m the first to disavow conspiracy theories.

                But, be honest, now. Which do you really think is more likely: that Aphrodite has personally selected you to spend the next several dozen millennia with as her sex toy, or that somebody else has already applied a sock rock to you and the painkillers are just now kicking in at full strength?

                b&

              4. Hmmm, this is why I specified the multi-mega-year opportunity to do some extended geological field work. It would take some pretty miraculously strong painkillers to make me dream landscape evolution.

              5. You sure ’bout that? Cuz I’ve read more than one novel / etc. in which the author imagined exactly such a thing. Some of the better novels I’ve read, too….

                And, remember: you live in the present. That’s the whole point of stories like Total Recall. Sure, you remember having experienced all sorts of stuff, but how do you know that you actually did experience it and that the memories aren’t forged? You might feel like you’re several thousand years old, but you really could have been born just yesterday….

                b&

              6. I watched Total Recall the other night. Memorable for giving one of the supporting cast (rather than Ahnuld) the Most Memorable One-Liner of the movie. “That was your wife? What a bitch!”

              7. [Matrix planning guy voice] “We’ve got to get some more imaginative scriptwriters!”

              8. @Ben
                This ‘is it a dream’ scenario is quite popular in sci-fi.

                Red Dwarf did it not once but twice, in Better Than Life and in Back to Reality

                I seem to recall The Prisoner did it too.

              9. The “what is reality” theme has been popular for a long time. It was explored in literature as well. I think it is something that really bothers humans because we are so aware of how easily we are fooled when it comes to shared reality.

              10. Ayup. The oldest example I’m aware of is Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly, which dates to the third or fourth century BCE. But I’m certain he wasn’t the first.

                b&

              11. I think that Dallas parodied the Simpsons “Who Shot Montgomery Burns” episode too. Or did I just dream that?

              12. The “What is Reality” sctick is also a wonderful screen for those with a penchant for wild speculation you simply can’t deny.

            2. Married bachelors – just a contradiction in terms. On the other hand, I’m a Bachelor of Science, and I’m married ; doesn’t that count? Most of the time that I was unmarried, I wasn’t a virgin (using a more biblical set of meanings).
              I don’t think that Dawkins had worked his comments through as carefully as his science arguments, because popular language is problematically more slippery than scientific terminology.

      2. If I suddenly became god, I would believe it, well at least I would believe I was a god. Ruler of infinite universes, master of all existence. But anything less would be unconvincing.

        1. But how would you know that you weren’t just tripping on acid?

          That’s the point. No matter how many powers you might magic out of pure philosophy, you’re not going to be able to magic the power to know whether or not you’re just hallucinating or being deceived or a subroutine in the Matrix or what-not.

          b&

          1. I wouldn’t, but it would be a great trip.

            I think it’s a conceivability issue vs. a reality issue. It is conceivable decoherence can stop just long enough for my whole body to tunnel through a wall, but that is not physically possible. So it is with god.

            1. The problem is that the whole point of the gods is that they’re supposed to be the guardians of reality. It’s not enough to just think you’re a god but instead be a raving lunatic in an asylum somewhere; you have to actually have all the powers you think you have.

              …but even the gods can’t know wether or not they’re really gods or raving lunatics, any more than you nor I can…so why call them gods?

              b&

        2. If I suddenly became god, I would believe it, well at least I would believe I was a god. Ruler of infinite universes, master of all existence. But anything less would be unconvincing.

          I have a friend who knows that feeling. Haloperidol is his normal medication, but sometimes the dosage required changes faster than he realises and … off to the locked ward for a few weeks.
          When he’s sane he understands and agrees with my plan to use his deluded certainty as a marketing ploy to out-Hubbard Hubbard. Sadly, when he’s god … he’s not interested in trivial mortal things like lining our pockets with the money of idiots.

      3. Ben wrote:

        I’ve yet to encounter a coherent definition of the word, “god.” As such, I’m quite certain that no such beasties exist.

        God: a pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

        I suggest that this is coherent (enough), but false (enough) not on logical, but empirical grounds. And although most versions of god have more descriptive detail, few if any versions actually have less.

        1. I think we’ve had this discussion before. The “pure mental agency” itself still has no way of determining whether or not it really is some magical pure mentalism or a subroutine in the Matrix. We’d therefore be a subroutine of a subroutine that didn’t itself realize it was a subroutine.

          If the requirement is that the mentality be somehow “pure” and free of physicalism, it’s instantly logically incoherent; that would, first, be absolute confirmation that the physical can emerge from the mental, which means we couldn’t a priori rule out the possibility that the super-mental itself didn’t arise from the physical. Again, if the Uber-Mind itself doesn’t Know what It Is, what makes it so special?

          If the requirement is that the entity be “mental” without concern for its purity, then we’re right back to the Matrix qualifying as the god in question — something that I think most Spiritualists would reject as a valid definition, themselves.

          b&

          1. I think we’ve had this discussion before.

            Yuppers, several times I think — but what the hell.

            The “pure mental agency” itself still has no way of determining whether or not it really is some magical pure mentalism or a subroutine in the Matrix.

            No more relevant than our own inability. That sort of extreme technical skepticism is pointless if we’re looking for what is reasonably likely as opposed to what is absolutely certain.

            If the requirement is that the mentality be somehow “pure” and free of physicalism, it’s instantly logically incoherent;

            ?? No.

            that would, first, be absolute confirmation that the physical can emerge from the mental, which means we couldn’t a priori rule out the possibility that the super-mental itself didn’t arise from the physical.

            That is not logical incoherency, it’s just radical skepticism again.

            1. The logical incoherence comes from all these god-proposals ultimately being variations on Turing’s Halting Problem.

              The short version is that you can have local maxima, but global maxima are married bachelors that don’t even make sense enough to be able to say they don’t exist.

              But if we grant one particular local maximum as being noteworthy, then we have to grant all other local maxima as being similarly noteworthy — it’s James Randi in the Amazon again.

              Wikipedia is as good a place to start as any with the Halting Problem:

              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halting_problem

              b&

              1. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that if it’s impossible to determine something then it’s logically incoherent (or a logical contradiction like “married bachelors” or “square circle.”)

                No. That’s not what logical incoherence or logical contradiction means. S and not S. S and bloogle fleep. Show either in my definition.

              2. A much older variation on the theme might help here.

                Millennia ago, Euclid proved that there is no such thing as “the largest prime number.” It’s not just that you can’t find it; it’s that it not only doesn’t exist but the idea itself doesn’t even make sense.

                It’s almost guaranteed that anything that contains within itself the sense of “ultimate” anything suffers from a similar type of incoherence.

                Just as there’s no “largest prime number,” there’s no “most powerful power,” “most knowing knower,” “most foundational foundation,” and so on.

                You may well be able to identify “the largest double-digit prime (97),” but that’s clearly an artificial distinction. Similarly, you can identify “the fastest human in the world” (Usain Bolt for many definitions, or likely one of the Apollo astronauts for certain other definitions) or “the last universal common ancestor” (an organism we know lived about four billion years ago but which certainly doesn’t exist in the fossil record) or other variations on the theme…but none of those are relevant to the question of deities.

                Even if there exists some hyperintelligent shade of the color blue somewhere, if we are to call it a god, so, too, must we call James Randi a god if he ever visits the Amazon, else the one is a case of special pleading.

                And if it’s not simply some hyperintelligent shade of the color blue we’re discussing, but some ultimately-intelligent shade of the color blue…well, that’s the married bachelor who tells you the value of the largest prime number as he lives death in spartan luxury north of the North Pole.

                b&

              3. It’s almost guaranteed that anything that contains within itself the sense of “ultimate” anything suffers from a similar type of incoherence.

                Okay: now find the word “ultimate” in my definition. Or even the concept. Here:

                God: a pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

              4. It’s that “pure” bit that’s the kicker.

                How do you know that the mentality of the agency is “pure”?

                The same way that you know that 2**57,885,161 − 1 is the largest prime number: you haven’t found anything larger, and you haven’t found any impurity in the mentality (a mentality, of course, you haven’t even found hints of evidence for).

                In other words, “purity” isn’t something that can have a coherent meaning outside of a non-ultimate limited context.

                b&

              5. Not relevant to the issue.

                You had asked for a “coherent” definition of God. I gave one: there are no logical contradictions or problems with conceivability in my definition. You then changed topic to whether anyone could ever be certain it really is what it thinks it is, or we think it is, etc. But even if you’re right that’s a different problem.

              6. Honestly, I don’t see how it could be.

                Isn’t the whole point of a mind to know stuff?

                And if a mind can’t know certain fundamental facts about its existence, how can said mind actually have anything to do with said existence and fundamental facts?

                Your thesis is that “Being” is pure mentality, and this pure mentality is the foundation of all the rest of existence. But “Being” has no clue about its own foundation for existence, so in what way are its own thoughts relevant to anything?

                Take it out of the mental to the physical for a moment. “Glerp” is the ultimate constituent of all matter. Break apart matter enough, and you’re left with glerp. But, on closer examination, it turns out that a fundamental property of glerp is that, when you make glerp by putting the familiar subatomic particles in an accelerator, the glerp behaves exactly like the familiar subatomic particles, even though it’s really glerp.

                Would you call “glerp” coherent? Or would you acknowledge that that’s a demonstration of its incoherence even though we’re talking about the consequences of how glerp behaves rather than its essential substance?

                b&

              7. Sorry, problem with threading. The above is a response to your last:

                But the problem is that even this Being is in no better a position to even guess at the truth of that assertion than we are.

                You moved the goalpost there.

              8. But the problem is that even this Being is in no better a position to even guess at the truth of that assertion than we are.

                You moved the goalpost there.

                No, I’m trying to show you the special pleading you’re engaging in.

                “Being” is the supreme knowledge that’s the foundation of our existence, but is ignorant of its own foundation of existence. It’s a sky-castle, a foundation built on nothing.

                The only way out is to insist that one mustn’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain, to acknowledge that “Being” really is foundational somehow…because special pleading.

                b&

              9. Ben wrote:

                Honestly, I don’t see how it could be (off-topic.) Isn’t the whole point of a mind to know stuff?

                Please look again at my definition. You are not allowed to go out of my definition.

                God: a pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

                It says nothing about perfection, all-knowing, being ultimate or having a clue as to the meaning of its own existence. Nor is there anything in there which states that God is knowable in any particular way or even knowable at all.

                Please stick to the definition I give you and find a LOGICAL violation. That was the challenge. I am not giving you a theory you can grapple with down the road, I’m giving you a definition which is both conceivable and without internal contradictions.

                Take it out of the mental to the physical for a moment. “Glerp” is the ultimate constituent of all matter. Break apart matter enough, and you’re left with glerp. But, on closer examination, it turns out that a fundamental property of glerp is that, when you make glerp by putting the familiar subatomic particles in an accelerator…

                Now you are being incoherent: if “glerp” (mind) creates or sustains matter, then you cannot make glerp (mind) out of matter.

                But wait! you say. According to our best understanding of biology, neurology, and the evolution of both we CAN make mind-glerp out of matter! Isn’t that a logical contradiction or incoherency in the definition?

                What a good question! The answer is: no. No, that is not a logical contradiction or incoherency in the definition. That is an empirical argument against the existence of primal glerp-mind — using science! You make it, I can make it, everybody and their cat can make it only after we have agreed to accept this particular definition as logically sound and conceivable. Not philosophically sound or scientifically sound: we just need a fair enough definition to go out and hang it.

              10. Please look again at my definition. You are not allowed to go out of my definition.

                God: a pure mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

                We’re going in circles again.

                It’s that “pure mental agency” that is logically incoherent, by virtue of the insistence upon purity.

                I’ve demonstrated ways by which we can know that “pure mental agency” is no more coherent than “a solution to the Halting Problem,” but you’re objecting that I must accept “pure mental agency” as a given and I’m not allowed to use the standard proof-by-contradiction techniques to demonstrate its incoherency. That’s the same sort of special pleading that we get from L<<<<<<<<<<<.'[;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;/ (sorry…Baihu chipping in his two cents)…that we get from religionists insisting we mustn’t ask who Created the Creator, and what Super-Duper Creator Created the Creator’s Creator.

                So let me try once more, at which point there might not be much more worth banging away at this round.

                You have elsewhere explicitly rejected the Matrix as a candidate for your pure mental agency. That means that there must be something to distinguish the two — some way for some hypothetical entity to identify which mental agency is pure and Matrix-free and which mental agency is impure and embedded within the Matrix.

                And, for reasons that should be obvious, this means of distinguishing pure from impure must be available at the very least to the entity itself; else, we’re right back to Sagan’s invisible insubstantial heatless dragon in his garage.

                At this point, I must again urge you to familiarize yourself with Turing’s Halting Problem. For a mental agency to be able to distinguish itself from a pure Matrix-free nature and an impure Matrix-embedded nature…well, that is the Halting Problem, and the solution to the Halting Problem is a married bachelor.

                So, if you wish to convince me, you really don’t have many options ahead of you. You could solve the Halting Problem, of course, but, if you could, you could also present married bachelors. You could demonstrate why your pure mental essence isn’t a re-statement of the Halting Problem, but I just don’t see that happening.

                Or, you could accept the Matrix as being a valid contender for something that fits your “god” definition…but I think we’d both agree that that would itself reduce to James Randi in the Amazon.

                I suppose you could also surprise me with something completely out of left field, but you’d have pulled that ace out of your sleeve a while ago if you had it.

                To give you a better idea of what you’re up against…let me re-tell my favorite story, which is mine, that re-casts the Halting Problem in terms of Christian theology.

                One day, Satan approaches Jesus to tell him that he’s seen the light, that he renounces his former evil self, and he now embraces all that’s good and holy and Jesusy.

                Jesus, of course, knows that Satan is the Prince of Lies and will say and do anything to his own advantage. So, Jesus decides upon a test. Jesus will use his all-powerfulness to create an alternate universe, only he’ll place Satan in that universe in Jesus’s own position as its Creator and Supreme Power. If Satan rules that alternate universe with honor and justice, Satan passes the test and can join Jesus as best buddies.

                So, Satan wakes up one fine morning and discovers that he’s the all-knowing all-powerful Creator of Life, the Universe and Everything. We know that he’s just in an alternate universe controlled by Jesus, but Satan doesn’t know that.

                Satan, of course, is no dummy. In fact, he’s gotta be all-knowing, else the test can’t be fair; Jesus would be withholding vital information from Satan. And one of the most obvious questions that must occur to Satan in this situation is the same one that’s plagued mankind since the dawn of history: Who am I, and where did I come from?

                This is the point where it all breaks down.

                When Satan uses his copy of Jesus’s magic all-knowing secret decoder ring to ask that question, either the ring will lie to him and tell him what Jesus wants him to know, or it’ll tell him the truth and he’ll know that Jesus is just messing with him. But if it lies to him, then it’s not a perfect copy of Jesus’s magic all-knowing secret decoder ring, because it turns out that it’s not actually all-knowing, so it’s got to tell the truth. But if it tells the truth, Jesus’s cover is blown and Satan knows to keep lying to Jesus. In short, the magic all-knowing secret decoder ring can’t actually exist, because it has to both lie and tell the truth at the same time…

                …and that, in turn, means that Jesus himself doesn’t have a magic all-knowing secret decoder ring of his own, or at least not one he can trust. His, after all, could well be telling him what the Invisible Pink Unicorn (about whom Jesus knows nothing) wants him to know, instead of the truth that Jesus and Satan both are nothing more than characters in Her son’s smartphone game app.

                I hope that helps you understand why any notion of “purity” when it comes to the subject of the nature of existence simply doesn’t mean anything.

                Cheers,

                b&

              11. Ben wrote:

                It’s that “pure mental agency” that is logically incoherent, by virtue of the insistence upon purity.

                Pure mental agency or essence = purely mental agency or essence (ie not mental AND physical.)

                The definition is not LOGICALLY INCOHERENT if an agent or essence (purely mental or not purely mental) cannot be sure it’s purely mental. Nor is it LOGICALLY INCOHERENT if such an agency or essence can’t be known at all or distinguished from other things. In fact, there is nothing in my definition which eliminates the possibility that we are dealing with an essence like “Goodness” or “Love” which does not think at all. It “knows” nothing! And it’s unknowable! And yet it still fits my definition.

                It seem to me that your arguments are all about yeah, but if that were true how can we figure out it’s like that? How can God be certain it’s like that? If “a pure(ly) mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality” exists — then it’s going to be impossible to tell it apart from things which aren’t purely mental!!1!1!

                So? I don’t care…. because recognizing God is God is a different problem than what you set out: give me a logically coherent, logically consistent definition. My definition says nothing concerning how we or it can be sure it’s God. A logical disproof of God from a definition would involve an internal contradiction. “S and not-S.” Like “it’s both mental and non-mental.”

                There is simply not enough there — in my definition — to derive an internal contradiction. And it’s not gibberish or you wouldn’t be able to work on it and go into what we might expect and what we would run into and so forth.

                I’m not special pleading. You are shifting the goalpost.

              12. In fact, there is nothing in my definition which eliminates the possibility that we are dealing with an essence like “Goodness” or “Love” which does not think at all. It “knows” nothing!

                I must be missing something, here.

                How can a mind not know anything and still be a mind?

                It would seem to me that a mind is something that thinks, no? And how can thought be devoid of knowledge?

                Worse, if this mind is the ultimate foundation of reality, that of which everything else is made of…wouldn’t it therefore, of necessity, know everything…?

                The more we bang against this, the more your super-mind reminds me of nothing so much as the archetypal all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving Christian creator god. Save for the name, it would seem to have all the same properties…

                …or, at least it did, until you started suggesting that the mind can be perfectly ignorant and still be a mind.

                And…how could “love” not know anything about that which it loves?

                Maybe that would be a good place to backtrack to. What, exactly, is it that you mean by, “mind”? What are some of its essential properties? How are you and I to know mind from not-mind, at least for the purposes of this discussion?

                b&

              13. Please see response at #26.

                I was going to let you have the last word, but you asked new questions re clarifying my terms. So…

            2. It’s that “pure” bit that’s the kicker.

              Not if you’re still kicking at your logical incoherence/contradiction claim. You’re still complaining about how we could KNOW something and comparing an empirical claim to mathematics.

              How do you know that the mentality of the agency is “pure”?

              “Pure mental agency or essence” isn’t some reference to Perfection, it’s describing a mental agency or essence (consciousness, intention, emotions, goals, goodness, and the like alone or in combinations) which isn’t dependent on or somehow inextricably mixed with the physical/material. In other words, if before any atoms formed there was a Being (or “Being” itself) which somehow thinks (or does something which sounds suspiciously like thinking), then this Being (or “Being”) would be purely mental, as opposed to both mental and material (or reducible to the material.)

              It may be wrong, but it’s conceivable and it’s not LOGICALLY impossible unless you sneak in a premise or definition which states something like “mental things must depend on physical things.”

              1. “Pure mental agency or essence” isn’t some reference to Perfection, it’s describing a mental agency or essence (consciousness, intention, emotions, goals, goodness, and the like alone or in combinations) which isn’t dependent on or somehow inextricably mixed with the physical/material. In other words, if before any atoms formed there was a Being (or “Being” itself) which somehow thinks (or does something which sounds suspiciously like thinking), then this Being (or “Being”) would be purely mental, as opposed to both mental and material (or reducible to the material.)

                Yes, that’s the assertion.

                But the problem is that even this Being is in no better a position to even guess at the truth of that assertion than we are.

                Worse, in this situation, the Being knows that it’s participating in an extreme conspiracy theory; it’s conspiring to hide the truth of reality from us. In such a situation, the Being would have to be inconceivably naïve and / or stupid to not even suspect that it’s a pawn in an even larger conspiracy just as it knows that you and I are pawns in its own conspiracy.

                So, if the Being itself most reasonably suspects it might be but a subroutine of the Matrix and has no way of ruling out the possibility…of what sense does it make for mere humans to blindly assert that the Being is pure mental energy? If the Being is perfectly ignorant of the ultimate nature of reality, how can we assert knowledge of said reality?

                At this point, it should be obvious that there simply isn’t any “ultimate nature of reality,” any more than there’s a “largest prime number.” And if there’s isn’t any “ultimate nature of reality” (and there clearly isn’t), then in what way can we even coherently speak of the possibility of “pure mental agency” being the ultimate nature of reality?

                b&

        2. But “creates and/or sustain” means action (energy exchange, if integrated). I’ll stick with the thermodynamic definition, it is observable.

            1. Torbjörn is discussing a different line of argument, so please don’t confuse my chiming in here in his defense with my separate arguments elsewhere in the thread.

              If the supernatural interacts with the natural world, then, by definition, the consequences of that interaction are observable from within the natural world. And science is superlative at sussing out even the slightest influences upon the natural world.

              Specifically, we know with at least as much certainty as we do that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning that the Standard Model of Physics is complete over a domain that more than encompasses humans and our everyday worlds. Yes, there’s much still to discover about physics in the world, but it’s on the order of creating a millimeter-scale real-time map of the Earth. We know all the continents and all the islands and other land masses and we know how fast plate tectonics are shuffling them around and all the rest. We might not know whether or not a boulder with particular dimensions lies at such-and-such coordinates at the bottom of the ocean, but we certainly know that there’s no Atlantis. And, of course, we don’t even know whether or not most of the stars in the sky have planets, let alone what their maps might look like, but we do know that those planets, if any, aren’t made of green cheese.

              So, in Torbjörn’s context, the question about the supernatural comes down to whether or not you’d be willing to express absolute certainty that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning. Most of us, I think, would feel no compulsion to attach caveats to such a statement, even though it’s conceivable that we could be trapped on somebody’s holodeck and it’s only an illusion that the Sun is in the sky at all.

              Of course if the supernatural is really real but never actually interacts on the natural world we observe, including humans…well, at that point, it not only doesn’t at all resemble the supernatural most people talk about, it doesn’t have any relevance, either. It might as well be the politics of the tentacled grafmunkles living on the sixth planet of Sirius.

              Cheers,

              b&

      4. “God” means “to summon a deity.” It doesn’t mean deity. But no one will change that use of it.

    2. I’ll chime in and say that I’m one that has no problem that I have no reason in believing in god/gods. I suppose one can call a smudge of bacteria under a rock on Zeta Reticuli IV a “god” but it doesn’t even remotely fulfill the sparse definitions we have.

      1. No it has to do something or over time the stories say so-in-so did miraculous things only someone with high tech could do. Like make fire or fly. You gotta have a light show, bring someone back from the dead. That kind of show stopper display.

        People will have to have an emotional reason to tie their lives to it. Your example fails on all counts. Try again—-this time do a bit more research.

    3. The general problem I see is people who think atheism is the “absolute certainty God doesn’t exist”, and then work from there. Which is quite strange given the predominance of fallibilism in the scientific enterprise (and hence “worldview”).

      You’d think that if people were basing their belief that God doesn’t exist on a scientific understanding (the same people are often accused of scientism), then it would follow that God’s non-existence is a defeasible judgement based off the best evidence and reason available.

      It’s funny, once you get past the straw-man version, the theists don’t want to play any more. They keep their assertion that atheism is irrational, however…

      1. I like to say that their deity hides in all the shadows of knowledge, where things are still mostly or totally unknown since in the light or Science no deity is found.

        They have to prove a positive, we don’t have to prove it isn’t there. Otherwise we would have failed long ago and Science would be wrapped up with superstition already. Some of the hardliners work to do just that.

        1. I agree with you if one is only claiming weak atheism, though I was referring to strong atheism – the kind of atheism that even some atheists tend to get riled up about when their thinking faculties abandon them. Somehow we can say “unicorns are fairy tales”, but when it comes to God, they concede to the theists that yes atheists cannot disprove God – somehow adopting one set of language for everyday accounts of nonsense and one for religious belief.

          While weak atheists stay out of the discussion, the strong claim is defensible once one gets out of the language of certainty and towards the everyday use of words that serve us in other similar areas of inquiry. My experience is that atheists are too quick to concede to theists the unreasonableness of strong atheism while neglecting how absurd that same move would be if it were applied to any of the other branches of nonsense that we deal with.

    4. I am happy so be a 7 on that scale. I have never encountered a definition of a god that made any sense so I am happy to say that I am sure they don’t exist. The whole point about gods is that they defy the laws of physics, and just as I am sure Superman doesn’t exist, I am sure gods don’t exist. In the face of reality some people have felt it necessary to water their gods down to the “ground of being”, but this doesn’t make their god more probable, just more pointless.

    5. I’d also call myself a 7 on that scale, as I am 100% certain there are no gods. I cannot conceive of any evidence that would convince me otherwise.

      That doesn’t mean I can’t be wrong, or that I couldn’t be convinced of that fact by new evidence. It just means I have no idea what that evidence would look like. I’ve seen many propositions for phenomena that, if present, would be evidence in favor of the existence of a deity. But none of them would be. They would all have infinitely better explanations.

      To take a specific example that’s commonly associated with a deity, consider a disembodied intelligence. Many people, philosophers included, have stated that it’s possible to conceive of such a thing – indeed, they consider the matter trivial. But that’s simply not the case. Putting two words together does not a concept make. Intelligence is an emergent property of organized physical objects (e.g. networks of neurons firing in response to stimuli). There is no coherent concept of intelligence not produced by a series of physical events.

      That fact alone is enough to sink every near-definition of deity that has ever been proposed. And it is a good indicator of the heavy lifting required of any phenomenon that is purported to be evidence of a deity.

      1. I know it is off-topic, but I can’t resist. Your statements regarding intelligence sound very much like what I have been saying about free will: Free will is an emergent property of organized physical objects (e.g. networks of neurons firing in response to stimuli). There is no coherent concept of free will not produced by a series of physical events. I have been unable to get incompatibilists here to explain why it is that “intelligence” or “thought” are somehow coherent concepts, but compatibilist free will isn’t.

        Incompatibilists (I don’t know into which camp, if either, you fall), at least when they’re not discussing the topic of free will, seem to believe that people really “think” and people, by virtue of their ability to think, are intelligent. But the process of thinking is nothing more than a consequence of brain chemistry. If the debate in this thread was about free will, I am told that because decisions are consequences of brain chemistry, the idea that we really make decisions is an illusion. I have responded that consistency would then require that all thinking is therefore an illusion and hence intelligence is an illusion.

      2. Some definitions I created concerning deity believers.

        Atheist – no benefit of the doubt.

        Agnostic – benefit of the doubt.

        Religious – no doubt at all.

        1. The most common usage in circles such as this one that trace their heritage back to USENET use the two terms on different axes. As such, you get:

          Gnostic theist (not to be confused with the early flavors of Christianity): I know that my redeemer liveth.

          Agnostic theist: Doesn’t know if the gods really are real, but lives life as if they are.

          Agnostic atheist: Doesn’t know if there are any gods, but can’t think up any reason to act as if there might be.

          Gnostic atheist: Knows the gods are no more real than the gnomes at the foot of the garden. Oftentimes can’t even figure out what is supposed to be meant by the word.

          Cheers,

          b&

    1. Possibly accurate, but TxDOT does design bridges that do not fall down…they may not believe it, but they use F=ma wether they like it or not.

      1. That is a perfectly good logical point. As long as there is one scientifically minded person hiding in a cellar somewhere in Mississippi the red color is valid. If the area turns black** we’ll know the faithful have caught him.

        **Oops, sorry, this is Mississippi isn’t it. Make that ‘white’.

    1. But, it strikes me (having grown up in the Protestant hotbed of East Tennessee) that, in the first map, it ought to have been pretty obvious to the mapmaker that that there should be wide swaths of Protestant pink in the United States portion, particularly east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, with the possible exception of Florida.

      Cheers!

        1. That makes reasonable sense. But then, its like a map of the U.S. showing U.S. presidential “electoral college” results – a state is either blue or red, as opposed to one of various shades/tints of purple and violet.

          1. It would probably be easier to read if, say, they just went by county (at least in the east where counties are small).

            Actually I think for a lot of states you might find the big cities/university towns blue (MI–Detroit, Ann Arbor) and all the rest of the state red. (With maybe small blue dots at some of the other college towns.)

              1. Yes, I think I’ve seen that map before. 🙂 Maps like these are fascinating to contemplate. Look at diverse Kansas. 😀

        2. As the mapmaker, yes, I used country-level data (see here, for example). But unless I’m misunderstanding, the US (and Canada) are identified as mixed denomination Christianity (i.e., Catholic and Protestant mixes) rather than Catholic-dominated.

            1. You make beautiful maps. I’ve always enjoyed gazing at wonderfully made maps. I go into a trance that would make Sam Harris jealous.

          1. That sounds right to me. The largest Christian denomination in Canada is Catholic, followed closely by Protestant.

          2. With Pew results showing 51.3% Protestant, 23.9% Catholic for the US, who could disagree? I’m betting that, at first glance, Filippo mistook the “mixed denominations” color for the Catholic color.

            And BTW, thanks for the cool maps, Adam!

            1. “I’m betting that, at first glance, Filippo mistook the “mixed denominations” color for the Catholic color.”

              At second glance, I confess that I must agree with you. Though, of course, other subsequent maps more accurately reflect the Protestant concentration of the southeastern U.S.

              1. 🙂

                I did the same thing, Filippo. Went back for that second glance after thinking the first one didn’t seem right.

  4. this looks like a grand book. I keep asking Christians to do the altar test of their faith, or even just them doing miracles as it says at the end of Gospel of mark and they never take me up on it.

    people seem to get their faith because they had reason to actually trust people and that mistakenly got transferred to believing in the bogeyman.

  5. The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use to examine the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith (OTF).

    Elegant.

    But given my background and environment I immediately try to apply it to squishy-feely Armstrong-style High Spirituality to see what happens. This is the version where the emphasis is placed on everyone being “right” and all religions being “true” because they are simply different paths to the same God, which is Love. Details don’t matter. In fact, even atheism is a way to eventually make one’s way to God.

    Their argument would be that they can’t do this test because they don’t qualify. They don’t reject any religious faiths, so there are no standards to apply to theirs. No standards, that is, except for love and acceptance. (awwww.)

    Countering this is I think an interesting exercise because we know there’s a lot wrong here but the trick is to figure out where to start. One way is to immediately go after the vulnerable claim that it’s possible for wildly varying religions to all be “true.” Also, for most believers, details matter a lot (but not for them, haha so that doesn’t apply!)And, of course, you can always default to the demand that they defend the existence of God — but that one rather seems like ducking the challenge to me.

    Maybe we can say that okay, for them the OTF would be going outside of the belief that faith itself is a good thing and thus their test is requires them to test “faith” using the same criteria they used against “no faith.” Or we can point out that the “details-don’t-matter” viewpoint takes the position that the people who think “details-DO-matter” are WRONG. They haven’t somehow figured out some loving way to abstain from judgment. Insisting that all paths lead to “What-I-believe” is in its own way just as rejecting of other views as fundamentalism. In some ways, it is a form of fundamentalism. In the Land of the Blind Men, how does the storyteller know for sure that it’s an elephant and the guy who said it was a snake wasn’t right? You’re all making it up, all appealing to “knowledge” that can’t be defended, no matter how many times you bring up that it’s all about being loving.

    I don’t know. Does that work as a proper application of OTF against Many-Paths-Nobody-Wrong Spirituality? Maybe. Any other ideas?

    1. Their argument would be that they can’t do this test because they don’t qualify.

      Then they would be misunderstanding the test. You’re an alien visiting the earth and you have no predilection one way or the other about metaphysics. What makes objective or independent sense to you about the humans claim ‘everyone is right and all religions are true’? They cetainly don’t look like they can all be true or right at the same time, because many of them say contradictory things.

      Thus, stuff like unitarianism also fails the OTF.

    2. But given my background and environment I immediately try to apply it to squishy-feely Armstrong-style High Spirituality to see what happens. This is the version where the emphasis is placed on everyone being “right” and all religions being “true” because they are simply different paths to the same God, which is Love. Details don’t matter. In fact, even atheism is a way to eventually make one’s way to God.

      That’s pretty easy to address rationally; the only real question is whether the Spiritualists are open to reason.

      The Christian Fundamentalist god named, “God,” will roast you for eternity if you don’t accept his only begotten son, Jesus, as your personal savior, with a special extra-hot roasting if you accept Muhammad as the ultimate prophet; the Islamic god named, “Allah,” will roast you for eternity if you do accept Jesus as your personal savior, with a special extra-hot roasting if you fail to accept Muhammad as the ultimate prophet.

      And those are unquestionable tenets of both religions.

      So, either you have to declare that the sincere adherents of these faiths have gotten their foundational principles exactly incorrect and are so confused about their religions that they think left is right and up is down, or you have to accept that they’re two different religions.

      And, in neither instance is “roast you for eternity” exactly all that loving.

      Yes, of course, you can find rare exceptions of ecumenicalism in Fundamentalist Christianity and Islam that superficially agree with the Spiritualists, but you’re still left with the millions or billions who (literally) violently disagree with the ecumenicists — which brings you right back to the problem of telling them that they’ve got it all worng.

      Now, the Spiritualists may well insist at this point that they’re the only ones with the True Truth of Love and Beauty and Butterflies and Kittens and Rainbows…but now they’ve just painted themselves into the OTF corner: they themselves have now declared that their hugs-n-kisses god is the One True God and all the rest are false gods, but everybody else is telling them that their hugs-n-kisses god is false, and their own individual god is One and True.

      b&

      1. “the only real question is whether the Spiritualists are open to reason.”

        “You can’t reason with religious people, otherwise there would be no religious people.” Gregory House.

        The Spiritualists I know insist that nobody really believes all that stuff. Everybody believes exactly as they do (except silly atheists) and all the fighting is for other reasons. It’s just a form of solipsism. They are people who have totally abjured reason and evidence in favour of believing what makes them happy.

        1. Then I’d tell them, “if you need a crutch, fine’ as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else; but you can go so much faster without a crutch.”

          (But that has nothing to do with OTF, I realize.)

  6. I’d rather see books like this as one of those short e-books, like Harris’ “Lying” or “Free Will”. As a member of the choir, I’m not likely to devote the time to 300 pages of someone singing to me.

    If you have something new and interesting to say, you can almost always say it in fewer than 100 pages.

  7. It’s funny because the book’s central thesis is indeed so obvious but of course believers most likely silence their questioning thoughts. As a non-believer, although I was brought up in an atheist household, I certainly did question my atheism. Part of this was because I wanted to belong somewhere. The other kids all went to churches & I didn’t know how to answer when someone asked me what religion I was. I celebrated Xmas & Easter but I wasn’t a Christian & I’m sure this seemed weird to people.

    However, when I investigated religions, they all seemed weird & many were anti-science, which even as a kid I thought made no sense at all.

    It wasn’t until I went to university & found more atheists that I realized I wasn’t weird (well not in that way anyway).

        1. That’s one way of looking at it.

          Much like somebody in London who’s pointing to Paris and calls that direction, “West,” might be said to have an innate sense of direction that others lack….

          b&

          1. I’ll spring to Diana’s defence. It is quite normal to have a strong sense of correct TPO (toilet paper orientation). Mine happens to be diametrically opposed to Diana’s but I can respect her commitment to the cause.

            That’s no call for derision from toilet paper atheists like Ben.

              1. And the empirical evidence is that, if one WETS the paper, that is – in Colin (not Colon) Powell’s words – a “force multiplier.”

            1. What puzzles me is that in Diana’s reply to HaggisForBrains, her icon has turned purple. And in her later reply it’s reverted to its usual yellow. This is definitely odd.

              1. Yeah, I sometimes have to fill in my username etc. on the site and I mistyped my email so WordPress thought I was another person.

    1. “Yes, calling atheist a religion is as they say, like calling bald a hair color.”

      I’m actually a bit sympathetic to this argument or question.

      We would argue that the lack of belief in something is the most rational default position, but why should this be so?

      Couldn’t we, with equal justification, say that everything should be presumed to be caused by a supernatural being, unless proven otherwise?

      1. Perhaps. The difference, though, is that the naturalistic hypotheses has the advantage of consistency with the available evidence, supernaturalism does not. If we had no evidence at all, maybe your point would be something to consider. It’s too late, now: that sacred cow has exited the barn.

          1. Er…depending on how you want to define the term, either it’s imaginary or the single phenomenon which is most powerfully refuted by evidence. Aside from the most blatant of conspiracy theories, I can’t imagine a single context in which it’s compatible with evidence.

            b&

          2. That’s exactly the problem: it simply isn’t possible to provide proof against the supernatural, so it is both philosophically and empirically useless to use the presumption of the supernatural as a starting point. This is a very basic difference between faith-based reasoning and empirical reasoning: the former employs the supernatural as an all-encompassing axiom and works its way down from the top, while the latter employs as few tightly limited axioms as necessary with which to reason, and then works its way up from the bottom.

            On a side note, a close friend of mine, who (I’m fairly certain) is agnostic something-or-other, has noted that an omniscient, omnipotent deity could surely hide Its existence from us if It so chose. The obvious question is why It would want to do that. (I think Dawkins once answered a similar proposition, but the context eludes me.)

            1. Surely it could, but that makes it as irrelevant to us as any “just creating” deity of deism or any other unprovable hypothesis – and likewise (im)probable.

      2. You might as well say, in the absence of evidence, why not just assume I am a brain in a bottle and the external world is an illusion. Maybe we’re in the Matrix. Maybe I am god and I’m suffering amnesia. You can make up any old crap.

  8. Looks like a terrific book, can’t wait to pick it up. Thanks Jerry and Mr. Loftus! I appreciate you sifting through all the Sophisticated Theology BS.

  9. I don’t think until I started reading about religion in America that I really encountered the term Protestant. I did look it up once and it seemed to pretty much be Christianity that wasn’t Catholic. Just amusing because I know I didn’t come from a particularly religious family but to see my country (South Africa) marked as Protestant when living there I’d basically never heard the term is quite strange. The groups there were far more specific I guess, Anglican, Catholic, Dutch Reformed. Those are major ones I can remember anyway.

    1. Yeah, the Protestants have splintered like crazy. That’s one reason though that I think calling Catholicism the largest religion in the west is not quite accurate, not if you lump Protestants together.

  10. Reblogged this on High Plains Skeptic and commented:
    I’d never heard of the Outsider Test of Faith (OFT) before today, though components of the idea had occurred to me in my numerous reflections on theology. Indeed, I suspect the same is true of most people who take a critical stance on religious belief. Anyway, Jerry Coyne has a nice summary of the idea, as expressed by John W. Loftus in a new book. It is an extraordinarily simple idea, but also extremely powerful as analytical tool for scrutinizing religious faith and subsequently reducing it balanced skepticism (if equitably applied).

  11. Reminds me of this quote:

    The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. – Mark Twain

  12. It’s great someone has put this in a book. Well done Mr Loftus! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people mocking others (although never to their face of course!) For believing such stupid things, but not recognizing they believe stuff that’s just as stupid. It’s:
    Many believers = a religion
    Few believers = a cult
    One believer = a delusion.

    When I was about 14 my Economics teacher presented the theory whereby plagues, major wars etc come about naturally as a way to control the population. My immediate reaction to him was that didn’t make sense because it meant “Mother Nature” would have to have an intelligence. He then questioned me further, challenging my belief in a god, although at the time I didn’t realize what he was doing. My response was that it was different because there was an intelligence there. Because of my upbringing I wasn’t yet able to see how stupid my beliefs were.

    I hope this book helps people examine their beliefs.

    1. That brings to mind the following circular definition:

      Cult: small, unpopular religion

      Religion: large, popular cult

      1. Yes! But try telling a member of a major religion theirs is a cult, then stand back and watch them explode! (Which can be quite fun when you do it on Twi**er.) The mere suggestion they’re a cult is seen as an attack.

        1. I’d say especially with the sect of my childhood, the Southern Baptist Church, which produced a long list of what it identified as “cults.” The SBC is second to known in the (perceived) rectitude of its claims and opinions.

          (It took me several years before I started contemplating the reason for “Southern” being in its name.)

    2. “Many believers = a religion
      Few believers = a cult
      One believer = a delusion.”
      I’ve come to find this kind of saying somewhat problematic given the social nature of our beliefs. Any idea that falls outside of an accepted way of thinking is going to seem delusion-like, and that goes just as much for true beliefs as it does false ones. Same goes for small groups of people with that shared belief against the background of a different belief set.

      Ideally-speaking, the notion of tying religious beliefs to delusions shouldn’t be with any reference to numbers, but to how the particular beliefs are incongruous with other background beliefs that are widely held. The delusion-part is pretty much irrelevant without the background beliefs.

      I think the OTF highlights that certain apologetic strategies of having an article of faith trump the background beliefs is that it highlights the arbitrariness of those apologetic strategies because those strategies can be and are used by believers in a different tradition.

  13. Part of the problem (I’ve found at least) with believers is they treat atheism as a rival religion. The flip-side is that atheists tend to treat God as a bad idea. So the way theists engage atheists and atheists engage theists is quite different. So I can understand why a theist might think an atheist ought to be subject to the outsider test for faith, though it would be missing the point of what the atheist believes and the atheist is claiming.

    Because atheism doesn’t try to be an overarching worldview (and those who think atheism is anything more than a position on theology are muddying the waters), the outsider’s test for faith doesn’t apply. This might seem like a cop-out to theists, who, after-all, correctly ascertain that atheists still have beliefs and that those beliefs ought to be subject to scrutiny.

    The difference is (generally-speaking) is what makes someone an atheist tends to be background beliefs about the world, or direct reasoning on the nature of God. It’s not a worldview that one must cling to at all costs, but (generally-speaking) a conclusion based on an understanding of the world. Theists might think that atheists are thereby presenting something that only scrutinises theistic beliefs while exempting their own, but it’s worth recognising that the atheistic position is still subject to scrutiny, though the theist is doing a disservice to that process by fundamentally mistaking the nature of atheism.

  14. I’ve had a similar idea in other contexts. For example, William Lane Craigs claims in his writings and debates that there is a great deal of evidence that Christ rose from the dead and says of the atheists that debate him that they have a bias against believing it. But 100% of Jewish and Muslim religious scholars also doubt it despite believing in God and miracles ( they also believe Christ is buring in Hell for blasmany but never mention that in polite company) So much for an atheisitic bias

  15. My five sociological explanations (OTF) as to why someone is a Christian:

    1)Your parents are Christian

    2)Your grandparents are Christian

    3)You live in a Christian dominated society

    4)You are white (person of European ancestry)

    5)Your ancestors were either conquered by or enslaved by whites (people of European ancestry)

  16. The idea that you have to take a step back from your own religion when investigating its truth claims is not all that new. Please meet David Strauß (1808-1874):

    “Such is the general notion expressed in the theological position: that which distinguishes Christianity from the heathen religions is this, they are mythical, it is historical.

    But this position, thus stated without further definition and proof, is merely the product of the limitation of the individual to that form of belief in which he has been educated, which renders the mind incapable of embracing any but the affirmative view in relation to its own creed, any but the negative in reference to every other—a prejudice devoid of real worth, and which cannot exist in conjunction with an extensive knowledge of history. For let us transplant ourselves among other religious communities; the believing Mohammedan is of opinion that truth is contained in the Koran alone, and that the greater portion of our Bible is fabulous; the Jew of the present day, whilst admitting the truth and divine origin of the Old Testament, rejects the New; […] But which community is right? Not all, for this is impossible, since the assertion of each excludes the others. But which particular one? Each claims for itself the True faith. The pretensions are equal; what shall decide?”

    http://books.google.de/books?id=RmdLqnfw1OgC&pg=PA52&focus=viewport&hl=de&output=text

    1. Oh, that’s easy. “Free will,” for starters.

      Many other things have been debated as long, but the debates have been recently settled. The nature and origins of life, for example. We’ve also got a damned good handle on what “stuff” is made of and how all that works and came to be, though the distant edges are still a bit fuzzy.

      For that matter, it’s only been about the last century or so that we’ve known what comets actually are. That one’s been hotly debated — indeed, even into the 60s TV science fiction shows had comets as blazing fireballs rather than dirty iceballs with the most tenuous (and still quite cold) of outgassing for the tails and coma.

      Wouldn’t at all be hard to keep adding to the list….

      b&

      1. Right, but for comets, and the other things you mention, at least we’ve got some evidence about them, even if it’s a bit fuzzy for things like “free will”. For gods, as far as I know, there’s no evidence at all. Thus I’m a Dawkins 6.9999999+ atheist.

  17. I’m going to nit pick a tiny bit. That teeny bit of Jewish purple in the sea of green? About 80% of Jewish Israelis are totally secular, and their Jewishness is traditional, not theistic. Jewish holidays are very malleable that way, and accommodate an atheist viewpoint pretty easily. I’ve found.

  18. I think I figured out the outsider test when I was 13 and realized that I was a christian because of an accident of birth and that, if I had been born somewhere else, I would have adopted a different religion. I left religion within the year.

    But the problem I have had when trying to explain this to religious folks is that they will always tell you that it was god’s will that they were born into their particular religion. Hallelujah, ain’t god great!

  19. Ben wrote (a while back):

    How can a mind not know anything and still be a mind?

    My original definition:
    God: a pure(ly) mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

    The phrase “a purely mental agency or essence” is deliberately ambiguous — not to be slippery or sneaky but because conceptions of God are very wide-ranging. To put it mildly.

    There is the god of the fundamentalists, the god of the sophisticated theologians, the god of the Book, the god of the Hindus, the god of the pagans, the god of the neopagans, the god of the transcendentalists, the god which is spiritual-but-not-religious. I wanted a definition which was broad enough to encompass both Kent Hovind’s view and Karen Armstrong’s, Western versions and eastern versions, Deism and — o help us — New Age. None of those religions/spiritualities STOP here, granted — but I think they all pretty much start here.

    The definition is an attempt to focus only on the necessary characteristics of god, the ones which, if they’re not there, then it’s not anyone’s version of god.

    So I’m not saying God necessarily is a Mind or has a mind. I’m saying it’s a “mental agency or essence.” It’s mind-like. It might be a mind, yes — or it might be some reified attribute, property, or product of a mind (such as values, virtues, goals, emotions, morals, creativity, Good, etc.) which exists as an “essence” — a vague term which might mean state, spirit, force, “energy” or, of course, “being.”

    Not all versions of God are seen as capable of “knowing” things, or even being the sort of thing which is aware. Look at the some of the Eastern versions which are an emptying of all knowledge. Look at the Force in Star Wars. It’s not an agent or personal being but it has a “light” side and a “dark” side in a way that something nonmental like gravity doesn’t. Is “an energy field created by all living things, that surrounds and penetrates living beings and binds the galaxy together” a kind of god? I’d say yes. It’s shot with moral values. It could be worshiped, it could involve rituals or theological metaphysics. After all, that’s just vitalism. And some people call “God” a “vital principle.”

    The more we bang against this, the more your super-mind reminds me of nothing so much as the archetypal all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving Christian creator god.

    No it doesn’t; the definition isn’t that limited, there are none of those adjectives. It would apply to that archetype, but it has to apply to a lot of other archetypes too. That’s why you’re not going to find an internal contradiction or logical incoherence. It’s both too simple — and contains multitudes.

    1. So I’m not saying God necessarily is a Mind or has a mind. I’m saying it’s a “mental agency or essence.” It’s mind-like. It might be a mind, yes — or it might be some reified attribute, property, or product of a mind (such as values, virtues, goals, emotions, morals, creativity, Good, etc.) which exists as an “essence” — a vague term which might mean state, spirit, force, “energy” or, of course, “being.”

      Well, as I hope we’ve already established, if it’s a mind, it’s not fundamental by any means other than the special pleading of the First Cause argument.

      But…properties aren’t entities; they’re characteristics of entities. They’re adjectives, not nouns. No entity, no property — that’s a null pointer, in the computer science world. To say that the fundamental nature of reality is a property of something doesn’t even scan as coherent grammar, let alone logic. That was the whole point behind Doug Adams’s joke about the hyperintelligent shade of the color blue. You could say that a god is speed, or softness, or intensity and make exactly as much (non)sense.

      Your specific examples either have very real meanings that have nothing to do with the divine or would again be adjectives, not nouns. “Force” and “energy” are well defined within the realm of physics, and we know exactly what they are, and they’re not at all divine; unless you’re proposing a totem / fetish / idol as a god (and I’ll quickly concede that those objects are real and people worship them but just as quickly deny they have any special properties), they certainly wouldn’t fit any definition of the term I’m familiar with. If this god is a being, that’s at best Randi in the Amazon…but if it’s the property of existing, that’s even more incoherent. And your earlier hint at a mind that knows nothing is a perfect example of a married bachelor.

      So I’m afraid I still have no idea what this proposed god is even supposed to be. Maybe you could explain how it is that one nouns adjectives?

      b&

      1. Well, as I hope we’ve already established, if it’s a mind, it’s not fundamental by any means other than the special pleading of the First Cause argument.

        No, all you’ve argued is that even if Mind IS fundamental, there’s no conceivable way for anyone to know that for sure because there might always be something that is even more fundamental. That doesn’t touch on the conceivable possibility that Mind is, in fact, fundamental anyway.

        A “mind that knows nothing” is not really a self-contradiction because as we discovered through science the “mind” is not an indivisible ghost-in-the-machine, it’s the workings of a brain which requires all sorts of interacting modules and parts to properly harmonize in order to deliver up our normal state of consciousness. Screw around with it though and you can end up with all sorts of permutations and states of consciousness and semi-consciousness and non-consciousness, including that one (or one which seems like it well enough for the practical purposes of spirituality (a notoriously low bar.))

        But…properties aren’t entities; they’re characteristics of entities. They’re adjectives, not nouns.

        Exactly. People who believe that an abstraction like “Love” could be a force, energy, spirit, power, entity, state, essence, being, or “Being” are both confused and wrong. As you might say, they are “nouning adjectives.” They are imagining that abstractions are some vague sort of concrete ‘things’ in some other realm of existence.

        So you seem to me to have a rather good idea of what this proposed God is supposed to be. You can explain why it’s wrong. If the definition was really and truly incoherent you wouldn’t even be able to figure out where to start. But yeah, you’ve got its number.

        1. No, all you’ve argued is that even if Mind IS fundamental, there’s no conceivable way for anyone to know that for sure because there might always be something that is even more fundamental. That doesn’t touch on the conceivable possibility that Mind is, in fact, fundamental anyway.

          Were I to grant you that, I’d also have to grant the possibility that maybe there actually is a largest prime number, after all, and it’s just that we can’t know whether or not any given prime is the largest unless we find one even larger. Or, that there is a solution to the Halting Problem, but that we won’t ever know if any proposed solution we might encounter really is the solution unless it fails to come up with an answer.

          It’s not merely that there’s no imaginable way to figure out the answer, it’s that the answer doesn’t exist.

          The most common way to determine whether or not the answer exists is to pretend that it does and then see whether or not this assumption leads to a contradiction. That’s what I’ve done. Assume a mind is fundamental, okay, but you still wind up with the “turtles all the way down” syndrome anyway. This contradicts the premise that led us there, so the premise is false.

          You can’t just wave away the contradiction or the means by which it was revealed; that’s the very essence of the deductive reasoning method. If I accepted your objection as valid, I’d have to conclude that maybe you could draw a triangle on a flat tabletop whose angles summed to something other than 180°, and the fact that we can’t think of any way of going about it is irrelevant.

          Exactly. People who believe that an abstraction like “Love” could be a force, energy, spirit, power, entity, state, essence, being, or “Being” are both confused and wrong. As you might say, they are “nouning adjectives.” They are imagining that abstractions are some vague sort of concrete ‘things’ in some other realm of existence.

          So you seem to me to have a rather good idea of what this proposed God is supposed to be.

          No, I don’t. You can string words together however you like, but that doesn’t mean that the result has any meaning. You can “noun adjectives” and string the words together in a way that superficially parses, but it still doesn’t make any sense; that’s the point I’m trying to make.

          It might make for pretty poetry to suggest that Usain Bolt is made of Pure Speed, but step outside of the world of poetry…and what the hell is that supposed to mean!? That he’s an animated sculpture of methamphetamine?

          Maybe you could pick one of these reified abstract properties and explain how they’re supposed to be understood in a non-poetic context as an entity rather than a property…?

          b&

          1. The most common way to determine whether or not the answer exists is to pretend that it does and then see whether or not this assumption leads to a contradiction. That’s what I’ve done.

            I don’t agree because it seems to me that you’re illegitimately equating reality with abstract systems like math — but guess what? This is a tempting red herring which I’m not going to address because my definition contains nothing about ultimate foundations. You are allowed to add in all the turtles you want, an infinite amount. Look at it:

            God: a purely mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

            Done. Let us move on.

            Maybe you could pick one of these reified abstract properties and explain how they’re supposed to be understood in a non-poetic context as an entity rather than a property…?

            Sure! Through the application of fuzzy, irrational, confused thinking! But it’s not illogical, which is the specific disagreement we are focused on in this thread. One of us misunderstands what it means for a definition to contain a logical contradiction or be logically incoherent — and I’m going to run with the idea that it’s you.

            I’ll illustrate:

            Storm: “Love is an energy which surrounds and penetrates us and binds the cosmos together.”

            Ben: “No, that’s illogical because (the rest of your argument.)”

            WRONG. It’s not illogical. It’s irrational.

            Now this:

            Storm:”Love is both an energy which binds the cosmos together and it’s not an energy which binds the cosmos together, at the same time and in the same way.”

            Ben:”No, that’s illogical because you’re asserting A and non-A, at the same time and in the same way.”

            RIGHT. Or this:

            Storm: “Love is an energy which binds the cosmos together thus giving us no choice but to believe that.”

            Ben: “No, that’s logically incoherent because there’s no necessary entailment between the first part of the definition and the second.”

            RIGHT again.
            Notice how Storm’s “theory” in those second two examples is shut down without any need to go outside of what she said. No explaining the nature of abstractions or properties or what the term “energy” means. That involves reason. Evidence. Argument. Storm’s first definition of Love — unlike the 2nd and 3rd examples — was both logically consistent and coherent as far as it went. But it’s wrong because of reasons. Good reasons. Not because of form.

            1. his is a tempting red herring which I’m not going to address because my definitioncontains nothing about ultimate foundations. You are allowed to add in all the turtles you want, an infinite amount. Look at it:

              God: a purely mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality.

              If you’ll grant that the Matrix is a valid candidate for “God,” then I’ll grant you your definition. But, if you wish to exclude the Matrix — as I’m all but certain you will — then you’ve admitted that it does have something to do with ultimate foundations and turtles. For all the Matrix is in this context is a turtle, which you on the one hand insist is just fine…but, I’m pretty sure, on the other hand, isn’t.

              That is, even in principle, there can be no distinction between the Matrix and Alice’s Red King’s Dream, at least to those in the Matrix / Dream, up to and including the Matrix itself and the Dreamer himself. But, in the past, your definition has hinged on that very distinction, insisting that the one qualifies but the other does not.

              To further illustrate: what if the Red King Dreams up the Matrix, and the Matrix is what creates and sustains what we can experience of reality? Is it the Matrix or the Red King that fits your definition?

              Now, flip it around. What if the Red King is a subroutine of the Matrix, and we’re characters in the Red King’s Dream? Now, which is and isn’t “God”?

              Add another turtle. Re-play each scenario, but now it’s Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly Dreaming up the Matrix that simulates the Red King that Dreams us, or Zhuang Zhou’s Butterfly that Dreams the Red King who in turn Dreams the Matrix of which we’re but sub-subroutines. And add as many more turtles as you wish, in any order. Which one can reasonably lay claim to the title, “God”? Why that one and not any of the others?

              When you understand why no such distinction can be made without resort to special pleading, you’ll understand why the term is either incoherent or, once again, reduces to Randi in the Amazon.

              WRONG. It’s not illogical. It’s irrational.

              The dictionary that comes with the Mac defines irrational as, “not logical or reasonable.” In contexts such as these, the two words to me have always been synonymous. How can something that goes against logic be rational, or something that’s not rational still somehow be logical? I’ve never before encountered anybody who makes a distinction between the two. Indeed, the Mac’s dictionary defines the two words, “logic,” and, “reason,” circularly in reference to each other.

              Even if you do somehow wish to split hairs, I’m sure, to me, it’d be a distinction without a difference — the separation between soaking and all wet, clear and transparent, crazy and insane.

              b&

              1. If you’ll grant that the Matrix is a valid candidate for “God,” then I’ll grant you your definition.

                If the Matrix is a purely mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality, then sure. Someone who called it “God” might then say there were gods above it, but this is the one which matters to them.

                In contexts such as these, the two words to me have always been synonymous. How can something that goes against logic be rational, or something that’s not rational still somehow be logical?

                No, in contexts like these we get precise.

                If God exists, then air exists.
                There is no air.
                Therefore, there is no God.

                That argument is logically correct, but it is not sound.

              2. If the Matrix is a purely mental agency or essence which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality, then sure.

                We’re again dancing around what it means for mental agency to be “pure.”

                For this discussion, I mean the Matrix as described in the movie series: a massive supercomputer into which humans are plugged, and the computer and its mechanisms inject and intercept all of the person’s senses and impulses such that the person’s only experience of reality is that which the Matrix supplies to it.

                Would this Matrix qualify?

                If not, how about the software running on the Matrix?

                And, if still no, how about if Alice’s Red King dreamed up the Matrix, and us within it? Would the Matrix then qualify? And how about the King himself?

                Now, what if the Matrix has a Red King subroutine that dreams up sub-subroutines that include us? Is the Red King “God,” or the Matrix, or neither or both…?

                If God exists, then air exists. There is no air. Therefore, there is no God.

                That argument is logically correct, but it is not sound.

                It’s a valid syllogism, but I would not agree that it is logically correct. Similarly, it would be trivial to program a calculator that output “3” when you entered “1 + 1.” The program would compile and run and everything; it would be a valid program, just like your syllogism is valid. But neither is rational.

                Cheers,

                b&

              3. Ben wrote:

                For this discussion, I mean the Matrix as described in the movie series…

                A “massive supercomputer.” I never watched the entire series. Did this computer turn out to be a manifestation of LOVE??? Sheesh.

                As soon as you get to describing some hypothetical existent which is supposed to be both purely mental (not in any way dependent on, derived from, or entangled with the physical) AND which creates and/or sustains what we can experience of reality, then you can stop and it does not matter if you can then posit a bunch of similar mental agents or essences creating and/or sustaining it. This hypothetical would qualify as god or a god. You asked for a logically coherent definition. I provided one.

                It’s formed through sloppy reasoning and wishful thinking. But all it has to do is be internally logically consistent and conceivable enough for the religious to care about it and the nonreligious to take it away.

              4. A “massive supercomputer.” I never watched the entire series. Did this computer turn out to be a manifestation of LOVE??? Sheesh.

                Actually, yes, amongst other things. Which shouldn’t be too surprising once you know that the film is, in very large part, a Gnostic Christian allegory, with Neo as Jesus.

                As soon as you get to describing some hypothetical existent which is supposed to be both purely mental (not in any way dependent on, derived from, or entangled with the physical)

                Ah — but that parenthetical bit is the rub.

                It is, in fact, exactly as meaningless as, “solution to the Halting Problem,” “largest prime number,” and, “married bachelor.”

                And not because of the word, “physical”! You could substitute any other property rather than, “physical,” and it would remain exactly as incoherent.

                It’s not the specific property that’s a problem. It’s the demand for purity in the chosen property, whichever property you choose.

                Why?

                Because it’s a demand that the inevitable infinite regress must stop exactly at the entity in question.

                You’ve made pretty clear that it’s not good enough for a pure mental agent of love that’s simulated by a computer to be “God” to those it mentalizes. You’ve also made pretty clear that, if a “pure” mental “God” were to instantiate the computer and the computer then simulated us, that still wouldn’t be good enough.

                That’s the exact same insistence from Christians that it must, without possibility for question, be Jesus who Spoke the world into existence, and it doesn’t at all count if the Flying Spaghetti Monster cooked up Jesus in a batch of marinara and then turned Jesus loose to Speak the world into existence.

                Even more directly: what Super-Mind minds the Mind? What Super-Duper-Mind minds the minding of the Mind?

                Those questions don’t even make sense to you, right?

                When you understand how those questions are no different from, “Who created the Creator?” you’ll finally understand why they’re just variations on the same theme.

                There is no Creator. There can’t possibly be. Sure, there could be a local creator of local areas — but that’s just James Randi in the Amazon all over again.

                Same thing with “Mind.” There can’t possibly be any ultimate Mind serving in the role of the Creator any more than there can be an old man with a beard in the role of the Creator. Master of the House? Sure. But it’s no more pure or ultimate or whatever than you or I, even if we are somehow made from its essence.

                Cheers,

                b&

              5. Ben wrote:

                Actually, yes, amongst other things.

                Oh, okay. Then it’s a candidate for God. You’ve been using an example I’m not terribly familiar with (The Matrix.)

                It’s not the specific property that’s a problem. It’s the demand for purity in the chosen property, whichever property you choose.

                No, because the sort of radical skepticism and demand that it needs to be 100% pure and we need to be 100% certain of our conclusion isn’t necessary. Irony of irony, you’re thinking here like a theist.

                Consider this question: do our minds come from matter (our brains) — or does matter (our brains) come out of our minds?

                I’m going to make a guess that you’d be comfortable saying that our minds are a product of our brains, and that it’s not the other way around. A very reasonable evidential argument could be made for that conclusion.

                Do you think you need to be 100% certain that there’s no infinite regress? That the matter and energy which makes up our brains must be perfectly pure matter and energy and how could we ever know that? Purity is the kicker. How can we KNOW that there isn’t some other higher Mind thinking our brains into existence? How can we know that God isn’t needed after all???

                You’d dismiss all that for the same reasons I would.

                I’m saying that if it turns out that matter comes out of mind, introducing the same deep, deep concerns born out of a need for absolute perfection is also unnecessary. Treat each hypothesis with the same standards.

              6. We seem to be converging in our positions…but I see you as moving away from the typical theist position.

                If I read you right…somebody who lovingly crafted a sufficiently sophisticated version of the Sim City computer game could rightly claim to be God to the characters within the game. Or, if necessary, said person could craft a computer program that, somehow through the power of love, in turn created the characters within the game and their entire existences, and that computer program would be God to the characters.

                That the program’s own nature is impure doesn’t matter to the characters; all they’re capable of ever experiencing is the loving mentality of the supervisory program.

                I would grant you that such a definition is entirely plausible, and that it could apply to us as well as it would to the video game characters.

                But I would reject the notion that this entity is worthy of deification…and I don’t think that very many religious people would feel comfortable describing a computer program as divine, either, even if only in relation to its subroutines.

                I’m saying that if it turns out that matter comes out of mind, introducing the same deep, deep concerns born out of a need for absolute perfection is also unnecessary. Treat each hypothesis with the same standards.

                Er…that’s exactly what I’m doing.

                Let’s wave a magic wand and discover that all our matter comes from an immaterial mind. So what? We still haven’t established what that immaterial mind itself comes from. At that point, we’d owe it to ourselves to answer that question. And if we discover that immaterial minds come from glerp, and glerp comes from Invisible Pink Unicorn farts, and Invisible Pink Unicorns are what Alice’s Red King dreams of, and Alice’s Red King is a subroutine of some pimply-faced teenager’s pocket computer game…? (And what if some of them are made of “Love” but others of “Hate”? Do we now need to distinguish between gods and devils? And what of the creatures made of love by a love god who was in turn made by an hate god as some sort of cruel joke?)

                With your definition, we’d have to treat each of those entities as gods and super gods and super-ultra-mega-duper-gods.

                But if we let go of the notion of gods altogether, none of that is even remotely a concern. We’re left right where the naturalist started: observing what we can and from there deducing what likely is.

                Cheers,

                b&

              7. If I read you right…somebody who lovingly crafted a sufficiently sophisticated version of the Sim City computer game could rightly claim to be God to the characters within the game.

                No, you read me wrong. Supernatural beings and forces are neither physical nor material. Computer programs are part of the natural world and not divine; so are programmers (unless you stipulate they’re not, which I thought you were doing.)

                A concept like “God” requires either mind/body substance dualism or idealistic monism. Thus my definition.

                Er…that’s exactly what I’m doing.

                Let’s wave a magic wand and discover that all our matter comes from an immaterial mind. So what? We still haven’t established what that immaterial mind itself comes from. At that point, we’d owe it to ourselves to answer that question.

                No, you are not treating each hypothesis by the same standards. Look:

                “Let’s use science and discover that all mind comes from matter. So what? We still haven’t established what that matter itself comes from. At that point, we’d owe it to ourselves to answer that question.” And keep going and going and never think it’s good enough for all practical purposes.

                Is this what you say? Do you think this is a great criticism of naturalism?

                All theories are tentative. Even a well-established God hypothesis.

              8. Supernatural beings and forces are neither physical nor material.

                Then we’re right back to your purity test, and thus to the incoherence of the archetypal Prime Mover argument.

                For you, pretty clearly, a pure mind could be a god, but a computer simulation of a pure mind couldn’t be a god.

                For the Christian, Jesus is the supreme god if he Spoke His Creation into Existence, but he’s not any kind of god if he’s a character in Alice’s Red King’s Dream, even if the King Dreams of Jesus Speaking Creation into Existence.

                Turtles all the way down in either case, and chelonaphobia continues to rule the day.

                b&

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