Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Theistic Causation: Abbreviated Reasoning

Theists have a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) that explains why everything exists and how everything works at the most fundamental level:  "God did it."  That doesn't mean they completely reject science and scientific methods.  It just means that when they reach the limits of their understanding through scientific means, they resort to the GUT.  Think of it like the interaction between an inquisitive child and her parent.  The child asks "Why?".  The parent responds with a brief explanation.  Probing further, the child again asks why, and the conversation proceeds in this manner until the exasperated parent no longer has an explanation, at which point he responds with a simple "Because."  That really doesn't answer the question, but at least it provides a stopping point, at which the child understands that no further explanations will be forthcoming, even if she isn't happy with the answer she got.  Likewise, the theists will happily cite scientific explanations until the limit of their scientific understanding is reached (or until the scientific explanation disagrees with their theistic beliefs), and they finally respond with "God did it."  At this point, the search for answers comes to an end.  No further explanation can be expected, even though there may still be many questions.

But "God did it" does not satisfy intellectual curiosity.  When we discuss cosmogony, the theist will maintain that everything in our universe is caused by something that came before it.  As for the universe itself, "God did it."  Don't bother to ask them to explain the physical mechanism by which God creates matter and space.  They have no answer for that.  When we discuss the nature of consciousness, their answer is "God did it", possibly with the aid of some ghostly entity they call a soul, which derives from God.  Don't ask them how this soul physically interacts with the brain to cause human behavior.  They have no answer for that.  And so we see that the standard theistic answer is vapid.  Their GUT explanation for everything lacks any meaningful explanatory power at all.  But at least it puts a stop to those pesky questions about "Why?"  And it relieves them from any further responsibility to provide meaningful answers.

Some time ago, I criticized the theistic explanation given by Joe Hinman for the cause of positive outcomes in the lives of people who have "mystical experiences".
A major assumption made by Hinman is that mystical experiences are transformative.  Although many studies show a positive correlation between the experience and psychological well-being, it would be a mistake to assume that the experience causes an improvement in well-being.  In fact, many psychologists believe that people with a higher level of well-being are more prone to have peak experiences.  A common theory is that the peak experience follows an instance of mental clarity or insight, and serves as a kind of reward for having accomplished a cognitive feat.  If that's true, then Hinman has the cause and effect backwards, which weakens rather than strengthens his argument. - im-skeptical
Of course, Joe never responded to that post, but when I raised the same issue later, he finally wrote a post of his own, which was unknown to me until now.  In this post, he attempts to take me to school on the nature of causality.  In his own arguments, Joe infers causation from correlation without any causal mechanism.  So now he's trying to establish that the postulation of a causal mechanism is not necessary to infer causation, and he uses a couple examples from the history of science to make his case (because Joe once took a course in History of Science, and he thinks that makes him an expert in science).  He starts with the example of smoking as the cause of cancer.
The assumption of cause is based upon tight correlation and the assumptive of mechanism which basically involves a correlation there as well. In fact the assumption of smoking as a cause of cancer was made iwth no idea of a mechanism 40 years before a mechanism was nailed down. What we see in science quite often is theory accepted as fact based upon explanatory power rather than any direct observational data. - Hinman
No idea of a mechanism?  That's not what happened.  What Joe should have said is "no proof of a mechanism".  You see, there is a BIG difference between an unproven scientific hypothesis and a theistic non-explanation.  Scientists don't just make a statement like "smoking causes cancer" without having some idea of what the causal mechanism might be.  Otherwise, they would be likely to head down the wrong path altogether, or get it backwards, the way Joe has in his own argument.  They certainly don't just postulate "God did it", because that doesn't explain anything at all.  The initial hypothesis was that smoking causes some chemical changes in the body that make it more susceptible to cancer.  They didn't know exactly what those changes were at first, but scientific investigation eventually bore out that hypothesis, and the physical mechanism became better understood.  But even if the original hypothesis proved to be wrong, the process of scientific investigation is likely to reveal a better explanation eventually.  The point here is that they did have a hypothesis of a causal mechanism, even if it wasn't fully understood at first.  But science doesn't simply resort to the theistic GUT, because "God did it" isn't an acceptable answer, since it would put an end to any further investigation without really explaining anything.

So then Joe continues to build his case using another example from the history of science - the accptance of neutrinos as a scientific fact.
The model is this: phenomena offers a very strong correlation between two observed variables, assumed to be cause and effect, The explanation of the mechanism is the only  hypothesis standing after all others are eliminated and it explains the phenomena while fitting into a valid place in a larger accepted theoretical framework. We see this model in the history of the neutrino - Hinman
But this is really disingenuous, because in this case, correlation doesn't even play a role.  What two variables is he referring to?  The history tells us that scientists making measurements of the energy of particles in the process of radioactive decay noticed a discrepancy between the measured energy and theoretical values predicted by conservation of energy.  They postulated that the cause of this discrepancy was the existence of another particle (as yet unobserved) that would account for the missing energy.  Further scientific investigation has confirmed this hypothesis.  So this example does nothing at all to enhance Joe's case.  But it does confirm once again that "God did it" doesn't suffice as an answer.  In fact, this is an excellent example of how scientific process works to establish causal mechanisms without any need to resort to the theistic GUT.

Now we can see how dishonest Joe's article really is.  He starts out with a case that involves inferring causation from correlation, and then he pivots to another case that doesn't involve correlation, but he pretends that it does, and compares it to his own argument that infers God as the ultimate cause (through the mystical experience) of positive effects in the lives of people.  The real reason Joe wants to use this example is that neutrinos were not observed at first, just like God that he postulates.  His unstated reasoning seems to be If we can infer the existence of neutrinos without observing them, then we can similarly infer God without observing any God.  But the existence of neutrinos was  an actual scientific hypothesis that has since been confirmed.  And neutrinos have been observed.  Joe's hypothesis is not scientific.  Despite the correlations that he cites, he still has no causal mechanism between God and anything that is observed in our world.  It is just the theistic GUT, and it can never be confirmed by any scientific investigation.

There is one thing that Joe demonstrates with his examples: that he pretends to be some kind of expert in matters of science, who can take an ignorant atheist like me to school by citing some science article he found on the internet, but in reality he doesn't understand the science he cites, nor does he understand scientific process.  The truth is that science, when used properly, does not support Joe's theistic arguments.  But in the hands of a scientific ignoramus, it can easily be abused, and become pseudoscience.


  1. The 'unmoved mover', the 'uncaused cause', and Anselm's "that than which nothing greater can be conceived", are the theists' 'because' stopping point.

    "Then who made God?"
    "Nobody because." [choose one of the above.]

    1. And Joe tries to make "because" look like a scientific answer.

  2. A note for all readers:

    I welcome open discussion. In my exchanges with Joe, I have often been subjected to his abusive ad hominem attacks, but I usually ignore that. I am more interested in expressing my ideas and hearing what others have to say. Joe has recently demanded that I enter into a formal debate with him. Before committing to it, I wanted to wait to see how this debate would be framed. It was set up with strict rules, including only three opportunities to make any statement, despite the fact that the subject matter he proposed was far too broad to properly address in such a restricted manner. I declined to participate. Naturally, Joe called me a coward.

    In my last comment on the Introduction to the debate, I said that I prefer open discussion, and that anybody who is not afraid to hear ideas that may challenge their beliefs, but is interested in a real give-and-take discussion, is welcome here. Joe apparently didn't like that comment, and he deleted it. Joe is still welcome to come here, but he is usually unwilling to engage in such open discussion. He likes to be in a position of calling the shots. Here. he can't censor what I say. But I won't censor his opinions, or anyone else's. I only ask for a measure of civility.