I had an… interesting visit from what I assume was a creationist about a week ago. I like it when theists show up here. It gives me a chance to practice diplomacy as opposed to my usual unrestrained polemic, which I like to alternate with dismissive mockery when the occasion requires. At first he showed up in the comments of a post that had absolutely nothing to do with anything, so I redirected him to a more appropriate post.
When I was offered the chance to “go first” (a really really bad idea) as to why I thought there were no gods, I expressed my conclusion that, given the available evidence, I could not see anything in the universe that looked like design only explainable through an intelligent agent. Since any theistic belief is predicated on supernatural intervention, I can’t accept any of the downstream conclusions of theism.
I also asked him to agree to abide by some simple rules: don’t skip off when your arguments are refuted, don’t expect me to accept scripture as a reliable source of information, and finally don’t use articles of faith in place of reasoned argument. He agreed to abide by those rules (and I have the folks at The Atheist Experience to thank for that list), which was probably another tactical mistake for him, but he does get kudos from me for being plucky.
After quickly tiring of even pretending to respond to my argument, he quickly pivoted to what I’m sure he thought was a blockbuster question: “do you think you know even 1% of everything?” Now, in the interest of humility, I’m supposed to be self-deprecating about my intelligence, but I will state simply that I’m a pretty smart guy, and I could immediately see the trajectory of this leading question. Kevin (the commenter), was trying to make the following points:
- There are an infinite number of things that could possibly be known; therefore,
- No human being can know anything; therefore,
- Evidence based on observation is invalid, and
- There must be a supernatural agent that imparts knowledge, such as it is, to humans
It is an incredibly flimsy ‘god of the gaps’ argument (infinity is a really big number… and therefore God), and while #4 was an innovative spin, it’s still completely invalid.
I tried my best to explain why the argument was flawed, but of course it’s the comments section and it was round 9 of a boxing match between a heavyweight and a Bobo doll, so I was starting to get tired of swinging. I feel like I didn’t give my refutation the words it deserved. Shortly thereafter, Kevin did what theists do: he rattled off a long list of his personal beliefs and then ran away. I was going to let it drop until I read this piece on Pharyngula:
You are a contingent product of many chance events, but so what? So is everything else in the universe. That number doesn’t make you any more special than a grain of sand on a beach, which also arrived at its precise shape, composition, and location by a series of chance events.
And it brought my adventure with Kevin back.
The problem with the kind of reasoning that follows from considering the mathematics of infinity when it comes to human affairs is that it measures things against an entirely lopsided standard. If we measured all distances in Astronomical Units, then human beings would all be of identical height. So would, incidentally, every animal on the planet from bacteria to whales.
In order for this argument to have any kind of clarity, the units of measurement have to be useful in describing differences. It’s why we don’t, for example, commonly express weight in tonnes unless we are talking about shipping containers or elephants, and why we don’t commonly measure atomic weight in kilograms unless we are performing large-scale industrial chemical manufacturing. The standard of measurement should be scaled to the object or concept under consideration.
All the things that could possibly ever be known is not a useful or reasonable metric against which to measure human knowledge. All of the possible permutations of events since the beginning of the universe is not a reasonable metric against which to measure the likelihood of a given event. The comparison drawn is completely meaningless, for the reasons described above, which is what I attempted to convey to my theist visitor.
Even if there was some kind of validity to this line of ‘reasoning’, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. This morning I drank a cup of coffee with breakfast. The likelihood that the particular mix of beans that made up that beverage just happened to be shipped to the Starbucks near my office, that that particular bag just happened to be opened first, that the people coming in before me just happened to order the size and type of drinks that they did – the odds against this are astronomical. Does it therefore follow that Howard Shultz is a dark wizard who directs the course of my life?
Of course not, and just as this argument fails, there is no reason to suppose the existence of a supernatural creator simply because something that seems impossible (when you zoom so far out that looking becomes absurd) happened to occur. Every possible thing that has ever happened or will ever happen is impossible, when viewed through the same lens. Every possible thing that could ever be known is similarly unattainable if we were to foolishly measure human knowledge with the yardstick of the infinite.
I have, over time, lost my zeal for the god debate. One side of the argument shows a dogged insistence on using the most dishonest debate tactics and rampant special pleading – in this case monkeying around with numbers that have nothing to do with the concepts under discussion. If deputized into the service of any other argument in the world, the theist standards for evidence would be found howlingly inadequate, and yet we are admonished at every turn to consider it an important question that we may never have an answer to. My feeling is that it is quite the opposite: the answer is abundantly clear, and we just have to wait until theists finish counting down from infinity.
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