I Am Fundamentalist, And So Can You.

This started out as a post about a recently-reported negative correlation between IQ and religious belief (thanks to Craig McGill for the link). It was going to be relatively restrained by local standards; while it’s hard to resist the temptation to rub one’s hands at yet more evidence that only Stupid People Have Imaginary Friends, I’d have voiced reservations over the unwarranted conflation of “academics” with “smart people” (believe me, there are as many dumb folks in those hallowed halls as there are anywhere else except maybe Fox News); the use of a single score to measure that multifaceted bag of traits we call “intelligence”; even the sloppiness of some of the third-party coverage (this headline, for example, gets the study’s findings completely ass-backwards).

In the end, though, I decided to leave those poor bastards alone and come out of the closet myself.

I use the word “fundamentalist” in the sense promoted by Jonathan Rauch: anyone who cannot seriously entertain the possibility that they are wrong about their basic beliefs. It applies pretty obviously to Biblical literalists and their ilk, but the term is not limited to them. It extends to me. I suspect it even extends to the likes of Richard Dawkins, even though he has stated publicly that he would be willing to change his mind on the subject of God. All it would take, he says, is “evidence”.

Which is a laudable attitude, and one that reflects the basic difference between science and religion. The question that’s been occurring to me lately, though, is, what kind of evidence would it take to turn me into a believer? How much would be enough? God is such an outrageous proposition from so many angles that almost any alternative explanation would be more parsimonious. Mass hallucination. Brain tumors. The Matrix. Aliens with a propensity for juvenile practical jokes.

Imagine a scenario in which the heavens literally opened up, and a Big White Dude with a Mighty Beard and a flotilla of cherubim stroking His Divine Genitalia stared down at me through the clouds and proclaimed in a mighty voice,

I, God, exist! Take your photographs! Run your tricorder!
BELIEVE IN ME!

Would I believe? Fuck no. This has to be some kind of trick. And no matter how much evidence piles up — a smiley face embedded in pi at the thirteen-trillionth decimal place; a cosmological consensus that yes, there’s really only one universe, and it really just does happen to be configured with all its physical constants tuned precisely to permit our existence; the literal appearance of the Four Horsemen — all of that, appearing in the face of such astronomically-massive odds, would still have to be weighed against the likelihood of the alternative.

What are the odds that I’m a brain in a tank or a computer simulation, and some bored undergrad is fucking with my sensory inputs? Pretty damn low. What are the odds that an entire physical multiverse was created by means unknown by an omnipotent omniscient sentient entity that exists eternally, without any cause or creator of its own?

Lower. Way lower. (Or at least, that model raises far more numerous and substantive questions than it pretends to answer.)

The bottleneck here is my own mental processes, my own ability to parse input from the outside world, to trust that said input even reflects an objective outside world. The limits are always in me; the brain contains too many tricks and shortcuts to trust implicitly, especially if it serves up something I consider impossible. Whatever input is thrust into my face, hack will always be a more parsimonious explanation than god.

Which leaves me unconvertible, and reduces me to the status of fundamentalist— and Dawkins’ grand pronouncement about “evidence” to empty sophistry.

Sucks to introspect.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday June 17 2008at 09:06 am , filed under ass-hamsters, just putting it out there... . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

21 Responses to “I Am Fundamentalist, And So Can You.”

  1. Thanks for putting into words what I had thought about for a while now: Every kind of revelation is bound to be a prank.

    My father has a funny story about this:
    An Indian family moved above his friend’s apartment. They used mortar and pestle to prepare food. He asked them to stop doing that because it makes a lot of noise, but they refused.
    He then asked an electrician friend to build him a transmitter that will operate on TVs. He then pointed it at his superstitious neighbors’ TV and said he’s God and that they shouldn’t be mean to their neighbors.
    The noise stopped.

  2. Interesting take. I don’t know how i would react, i think there could be evidence that would erode my rock steady atheism.

    Why? Well, It’s God. It can do what It likes, because Its infinitely intelligent and infinitely powerful. Indeed, to entertain this thought you MUST acknowledge that It is all powerful, because that is a qualification of being God, and God is being assumed.

    The point is, if God wanted you to know there was a God, you would. By virtue of being God, It could find a way around all of your explanations–in order for It to be all-powerful, it must be number one in all capacities and therefore able to supersede any other event or parameter that exists, yes? Of course, assuming the nature of the evidence It might provide is pretty presumptuous, but we can assume It would know the evidence was there and, if making a believer out of you was the goal of the evidence, you would be a believer. It’s God. It doesn’t even need to out think you, what It wants simply is.

    Anyway, that’s my reasoning for not being a fundamentalist. God could prove Itself to me if It so desired. The absence of God can not prove itself to religious fundamentalists, though. It’s my silly, flimsy high ground.

    Just like so much else (qualia and consciousness come to mind), this whole discourse is bound at the edges by the immutable iron wall of perspective.

  3. Relevant to this discussion: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/09/how-to-convince.html
    tl;dr: good Bayesians aren’t fundamentalists. Of course, I don’t know that you’ve ever claimed to be a good Bayesian.

  4. There are some things that are simply unbelievable. I cannot believe in a sleeping green idea. I cannot believe in an omnipotent being. Both beliefs are incoherent. They make as much sense as a square circle.

    In the bible I have a different sort of doubt. I read the book, I thought about it, and decided that there was no way it was true. Not even a little. I could have gone the other way, had the book impressed me.

    But the physical existence of god, gods, divinities, spirits, ghosts, elves, and fairies? I do not pretend to know. Anything that exerts no force and transfers no energy or information probably doesn’t exist, but a couple possibilities come to mind. “Miracles” that might give me some funny ideas. But so far every time I’ve thought that way it turned out I’m made a dumb mistake somewhere… or that some grad student was pranking me.

    I think there are some beliefs I cannot reconsider. But I’m not sure what they might be. How to find out?

  5. The thing I find amusing is that even if God did exist, I still don’t think I’d be a Christian. Fine… the universe was created blah blah, but I’m still not going to WORSHIP the guy who did it as though I’m some kind of PVC-clad, piss-drinking submissive.

  6. So assume this cosmological argument isn’t total garbage for a second.

    For all we know our benevolent creator really is a grad student who did the universe thing because he was bored, drunk, or horny. For that matter, what if it was an accident, or a side effect?

    Creators don’t have to be divine and it is my impression that anything that wants worshiping can’t possibly deserve it. So is such a thing a god? Sure, kinda, sorta. Maybe the gnostics got it right – maybe the “Creator” is explicitly evil.

    But wait! The cosmological argument isn’t solid, is it?

    Also, revelation = mushrooms, usually. Bits of brain hacking other bits of brain. We are right to doubt such things. UFOs are made of bread, after all.

  7. You’ve long argued we’re all animals, Mr. Watts, and that consciousness — the ‘you’ that ‘believes’ — is really only solipsism anyway. So isn’t its inability to alter its fundamental beliefs in the face of something so paltry as 5-senses evidence more evidence of its own origins in the non-conscious mind than anything else?

  8. Well, I guess I’m a ‘fundamentalist’ about a spherical earth and a heliocentric solar system. Given my line of work (tossing stuff from one planet to another) I honestly can’t think of anything that would convince me that the earth is the center of the solar system. Yeah, I’m open to evidence and all, but at some point you just have to go with science and leave the myths behind. A person who dismisses an earth centered solar system based on evidence and observation is not the same as a strongly believing geocentrist.

    So, one side has fuzzy facts, old stories and feelings. The other side has observations and the scientific method. Both sides are firm and won’t change. Equivalent? Hardly.

  9. I don’t consider myself an atheist.

    I’m an apathetic agnostic – don’t know; don’t care.

    It wouldn’t change anything, either way, as I see it…

    Ultimately, I suppose I am only interested in questions that are amenable to methodological naturalism.

    The other stuff might be fun to speculate about, but pending DATA we don’t really *KNOW*, do we?

    Maybe I AM living in a simulation. But so far, the simulation does appear to be amenable to methodological naturalism. I’m gonna keep going with that for as long as it appears to be working…

  10. I do agree that us atheists can probably call ourselves fundamentalists. But I would disagree that we are fundamentalists in the same way that religious fundamentalists are fundamentalists.

    As mentioned by Julie, I have a fundamental believe that the earth is round, that the sun is the centre of the solar system, that sex is enjoyable and that too much alcohol will make me throw-up. The difference between this and a fundamental belief in a higher power is that my beliefs are based on experience and evidence, not on something written in a single book.

    One of the biggest problems is science’s resistance to declare something a fact. For example, if you jump out of a building, you will be hurt. Does anyone think that this will not happen simply because the gravitational theory is a theory.

    Religious fundamentalists are always using the argument that evolution is just a theory and, therefore, is in doubt. But I hate to break it to these mouth breathers, evolution is a fact. Theories come into play in trying to explain the mechanisms of evolution.

  11. A bunch of you said a bunch of things, including

    chesh, who said…

    good Bayesians aren’t fundamentalists….

    Julie K, who said…

    Well, I guess I’m a ‘fundamentalist’ about a spherical earth and a heliocentric solar system. Given my line of work (tossing stuff from one planet to another) I honestly can’t think of anything that would convince me that the earth is the center of the solar system. Yeah, I’m open to evidence and all, but at some point you just have to go with science and leave the myths behind. A person who dismisses an earth centered solar system based on evidence and observation is not the same as a strongly believing geocentrist.

    And the ever-present Anonymous, who said…

    I have a fundamental believe that the earth is round, that the sun is the centre of the solar system, that sex is enjoyable and that too much alcohol will make me throw-up. The difference between this and a fundamental belief in a higher power is that my beliefs are based on experience and evidence, not on something written in a single book…

    But my point is, supposing you wake up one morning and all the empirical scientific evidence you based your previous opinions on has changed? No retrograde planetary motion. Solar trajectory consistent with a body less massive than Earth. All the same techniques, all the same analytical approaches you staked your life on before, are now consistent with the model of a terracentric solar system?

    Now what? Do you believe that things changed over night? That you were hallucinating before? That you’re hallucinating now? Even something as minor as the sudden manifestation of Earth where the sun should be would be enough to have me questioning my own perceptions. The sudden appearance of a deity, able to suspend and reshape the laws of physics at will, is even more outrageous; I’d much rather believe it was some hokey Star Trek alien who’d seen too many Q episodes than that a real god existed. Which raises the question, at what point does the evidence become overwhelming enough to convince me of the existence of God? And I can’t truthfully answer that anything would, because even when all else fails it’s always more parsimonious to conclude that my brain is malfunctioning more than usual, and that I am not perceiving the evidence as it exists. (Which, granted, is not that different from the line Blindsight was toeing all along.)

    You guys are still deriding religious fundamentalists because the evidence doesn’t support them. I know the evidence doesn’t support them. They’re idiots. But my question (and an absurdly hypothetical question it is, thank God) is, what if the evidence did support them? Is there a point at which we change our minds?

    And Julie, you wouldn’t happen to know a lady named Paula Crock, would you?

  12. Oh. That’s different, then. And it makes it easier to tell what my fundamentals are.

    1: The essential things are constant. Laws don’t change, and *everything* is ruled by that eternal law, not capricious whimsy of some old white guy. They leave gravity on all the time, even weekends and holidays.

    2: Reasoned observation will not discover every law, but it’s the only thing that can discover any law.

    If the universe changed tomorrow and my fundamentals stopped working, if a magician levitated me, sawed me in half and put me together again, and Queen Maeve told me I was going to the Eternal Litterbox that is never cleaned, if I found out the world was made 18 hours ago with apparent age…

    I would look for smart-sounding people to explain it to me in a testable and rigorous fashion. Experiment is the judge. Also I’d get really drunk. Jim Beam makes it all make sense.

    It is all I know how to do. No physical law is ever broken by anyone. I will not believe. I’ll never believe.

  13. So, Peter, you would argue that the principle of parsimony can upset our trust in our senses given a sudden influx of highly implausible inputs and that this weighs heavily against any empirical evidence for God that might suddenly appear.

    I’ve been reading arguments for and against religious beliefs ever since my deconversion over 20 years ago and I thought I’d heard them all.

    But I’ve never heard this argument before. And, empiricist though I am, its not a bad one at all. I had never considered it from that perspective before. This is the first time in years I’ve heard an argument for or against theism that I hadnt encountered a thousand times before.

    I wonder if you’re the first to propose it.

  14. You’ll start believing in a god if it ever becomes practical for you to do so.

    I can’t imagine it ever will seeing as you have your own little cult following. Why would someone put in a god-like position ever need to find a religion? You can make you’re own. 😉

  15. But my question (and an absurdly hypothetical question it is, thank God) is, what if the evidence did support them? Is there a point at which we change our minds?


    But my point is, supposing you wake up one morning and all the empirical scientific evidence you based your previous opinions on has changed?

    Are you asking what new evidence would be required or what would happen if our old observations changed?

    The reason I have trouble thinking of what new evidence would convince me is that the old evidence is so overwhelming, so much so that an explanation of extremely powerful aliens is more likely than an all powerful god for just about any sign or portent I can come up with. But as Nicholas stated, an all powerful god would just know what would convince you. Presumably my lack of imagination would not be a hindrance to such a creature.

    Now if our old evidence/observations and theories changed and quit working? That’s a bit different. If I woke up to suddenly find the earth at the center of the solar system, or discover that every single dinosaur fossil was really made of plaster of paris and had little ‘LCF’ stamps, then I’d get myself to a doctor immediately. But at what if everyone saw the same thing? At what point does one go from “I’m hallucinating that everyone is hallucinating” to “It’s happening”?
    At some point I would have to go with what I perceive and then follow the evidence, bizarre as it might seem.


    And Julie, you wouldn’t happen to know a lady named Paula Crock, would you?


    Nope

  16. I suspect that even those of us who would be more inclined at first to suspect we were a brain in a vat would eventually just accept what our senses perceive as true—just as we are inclined to do now.

    For example, if, when we died, all of us skeptics found ourselves in what we perceive to be heaven (lets assume a nicer, universalist god rather than the one christian fundamentalists believe in, its my thought experiment, not theirs, after all).

    We might at first suspect some brain in a vat or matrix scenario but (I very well might). But I think over time we would accept that we were in the afterlife.

    Well, maybe not Peter, he might be off on a quest to find the red pill…..

  17. David B. Ellis said…

    I’ve never heard this argument before. … I wonder if you’re the first to propose it.

    Nope. At least, I’ve seen similar arguments posted in the tubes that predate mine.

    PhillipTwisted said…

    I can’t imagine it ever will seeing as you have your own little cult following. Why would someone put in a god-like position ever need to find a religion?

    Hey, if this is what constitutes a god-like position, I can see why Yahweh was always so pissed-off back in the Old Testament. His publisher was continually screwing him around, the body in the apartment next door had started smelling a lot worse than its BBQ-chicken-gone-off aroma of the previous week, and half his followers delighted in telling him he was full of shit.

    Of that (sadly incomplete) list, that last item is the only one I wouldn’t change.

    Julie K said…

    At some point I would have to go with what I perceive and then follow the evidence, bizarre as it might seem.

    The problem is, the evidence can always be said to support at least two interpretations, even if you decide that you can trust your senses (which is no sure deal):

    1. God exists.
    2. Some vastly powerful-but-not-omnipotent life form is dicking around with me for kicks

    David B. Ellis returned to the fray with …

    Well, maybe not Peter, he might be off on a quest to find the red pill…

    Only if it were coconut flavored. Otherwise I’d probably spend at least some time trying to hack the Matrix into rendering hotter school-teachers.

  18. Good comments on fundamentalism, and an interesting final concession. I see myself as sitting in that same boat of perceptions, though I don’t see myself as a Rauch fundementalist.
    Like most people who’ve read a thing or two about neurobiology, I consider the human animal far more susceptible to suggestion than most people are aware of. The act of suggestion, simply saying with utter conviction “Hey see that ten-foot-tall purple gorilla over there?” plants visual seeds in listeners’ minds. I did this to you just now, in fact.
    The difference, however, is in how people react or overcome the power of suggestion. I’m a skeptic, thus I question my own reasons for starting to believe in King Purple. The vast majority of people out there, however, simply ACCEPT, as a course of action. Even if they don’t initially accept, powerfully ingrained social pressure from people who DO accept often brings the unsure into the fold. Fear of non-acceptance is a brain-smashingly powerful motivation for humans. This is what religion is based upon.
    If I saw the sky open up and a big, bearded guy in flowing white robes told me to take pictures of Him, I would. But since this has never happened to one single human being ever in the history of our species, not even Moses or Jesus (if you believe Jesus actually existed), I simply don’t expect it to happen.
    But tomorrow’s a new day.


  19. Nope. At least, I’ve seen similar arguments posted in the tubes that predate mine.

    I’ve seen the objection that any evidence for God could be interpreted as the person running our computer simulation screwing with our heads before.

    But I’ve only heard it from theists trying to make a desperate case for why we shouldn’t require evidence to be rationally convinced God exists and should believe on faith instead.

    I’d never seen the point reversed to form an actual atheological argument instead.

  20. Some vastly powerful-but-not-omnipotent life form is dicking around with me for kicks.

    Looks like you’re stuck in some weird variation of the Total Perspective Vortex.

    As for your question: you go where the evidence leads you. If the FSM wants you to believe you’re a skeptic, it can you know. Even Neo plugged out because deep down inside he wanted to believe something sneaky was going on.

  21. This is a great rant, PW. I’ve thought about and worked on this a lot–teaching a course on atheism as I do. And I think your conclusion–that you wouldn’t change your mind–is for the most part right. But here’s my two cents. I can’t imagine any ordinary, or even extraordinary miraculous or paranormal events that would be even slightly convincing that the all being, master and creator of the universe was responsible. He just wouldn’t think that small.

    If there were a God–which there’s not–I figure that human existence would be radically transformed from what it is. The puny limitations, empirical demands, and the isolated confines of one’s consciousness would be transcended. In short, if there were a God, then we’d just flat be able to know it because things would be so different than they are and we’d have such a direct line on him. I figure we’d have a direct line on him because an all powerful, all knowing, and all loving being like that wouldn’t leave us in the dark or puzzling over it.

    So in a manner of speaking, I would grant that there are some circumstances, albeit radically alien to our current ones, where it would be reasonable, if that term would still hold up there, to believe in God. In that universe, we be merged with God, I guess, kinda like Bowman in 2001–all would become clear. But I have to say that I hate myself for talking that kind of mushy headed drivel.

    By the way, I’m still planing on using Blindsight as a required text in my philosophy of mind course next semester.

    Matt McCormick