Sunday, February 6, 2011

God and induction

Speaking of Stephen Colbert, Brian Leiter links to this clip of Colbert 'refuting' Bill O'Reilly's 'proof' of God's existence. I'm not a huge fan of O'Reilly, but I think there is more to his point than Colbert (and most of his audience) realizes.

O'Reilly says that he believes in God because the tides, the moon, the Earth, etc. move regularly. Colbert (who believes in God, in case that seems relevant) responds that the tides are regular because of the moon, and its movements are regular because of the laws of physics (e.g. gravity), and so there is no mystery to solve by positing God.

Positing God will not solve any mystery because God is mysterious. And the existence of a mystery does not prove the existence of a mysterious Being. But I imagine O'Reilly has been influenced (directly or otherwise) by GK Chesterton here. Chesterton does not offer an argument for the existence of God but does explain in his spiritual autobiography Orthodoxy that one reason he believes in God is because he was struck by the regularity of the universe. It won't do to respond that the laws of physics explain this regularity, because it's equally possible to be struck by the existence (or possibility) of these laws. In a nutshell: why should the universe behave regularly (i.e. in such a way that it is possible for us to identify laws of physics)? And why should they be such desirable laws, allowing (e.g.) for life on Earth?

Internalizing these laws as mental operations (as in some forms of idealism) just relocates the mystery in the mind instead of 'out there.' Perhaps there are other forms of explanation that might take away the sense of mystery, but it is something that has struck many people, including non-believers. If you're like Hume you can shrug it off as a curiosity and go to play backgammon with your friends. But this might seem a little shallow. If you're like Sartre you can be sickened by the experience of having to rely on a universe that there is no reason to trust. But that seems a little melodramatic, not to mention unpleasant. If you're like Chesterton you can express your amazement and gratitude by living a religious life. But that might seem superstitious or sentimental to some. (Wittgenstein expresses some concerns along these lines.)

So it isn't obvious what to do with this mystery, and O'Reilly's (perhaps rather too confident or even self-satisfied) response is not necessarily the best one. But wheeling on a physicist to talk about gravity doesn't really address it at all. Except to encourage laughter in place of amazement. Which beats nausea at least.


  1. I believe Colbert addresses this:

    "In a nutshell: why should the universe behave regularly (i.e. in such a way that it is possible for us to identify laws of physics)? And why should they be such desirable laws, allowing (e.g.) for life on Earth?"

    He (in character) says that if there is a mystery, then God must have done it. He also points out how this (absurd) principle applies to God himself, and ends up almost killing himself.

    In regards to this:

    "But wheeling on a physicist to talk about gravity doesn't really address it at all."

    Well, yes it does, in regards to the point that O'Reilly made (about the tides and the sun, which was a particularly stupid point). O'Reilly moved the argument on further, by pointing out that the mystery can be moved back to 'how did the moon get there?' (a more ludicrous version of your own question, "Why should the universe behave regularly" ), to which Colbert gave the responses I outline above.

  2. Well, yes, "I don't understand, therefore God exists" is a stupid argument. And maybe O'Reilly just is that stupid. But I think he might be trying to articulate a more interesting idea than that (with or without realizing it). Colbert's response to O'Reilly was fine as far as it went, but an intelligent version of Fox News might now wheel on a philosopher to talk about Hume or Mill or early Wittgenstein. That wouldn't win the debate for that side, but it could be the start of an interesting discussion.

    Maybe I'm being influenced by the experience of trying to get students to understand the riddle of induction and having them respond with ideas along the lines of "science shows that Hume is wrong."

  3. Edit: I don't think Mill belongs in that list.

  4. I love this post.

    I'm not sure if I can articulate exactly what our host wants to say, (any better than he has already, that is), but since I identify and appreciate the approach he's taken, let me add my two cents:

    Bill O'Reilly seems to have a very naive (in a bad way) understanding of what counts as evidence for a proposition. Is anyone here surprised? No. But, it seems like the popular backlash for mistakes like O'Reilly made usually goes further than that.

    The backlash can be summarized, "What an idiot! Clearly, the question is solved by gravity!"

    We can't allow O'Reilly's answer, but we can't allow the popular backlash for a similar reason. See if the regular behavior of the universe is mysterious, then neither God nor gravity clears up the mystery. God is a mystery piled on top of a mystery, and gravity is another name for the original mystery (in other words, is a name that picks out a description for at least part of the regularity that some found mysterious in the first place).

    O'Reilly has, in order to explain a mystery, simply invoked an entity that, if real, is mysterious. That *obviously* doesn't clear up any mystery. We might, offering a dismissive answer, accuse people that are mystified by the fundamental behavior of the universe of idle "navel gazing," pat ourselves on the back, and then ignore them. That wouldn't satisfy me, but at least it would get to the heart of the matter.

    What won't work is to act as if there was once a legitimate mystery that has since been solved by the modern discovery of the "laws" of nature.

  5. Come to think of it, maybe that's just whipping a dead horse, repeating what's already been said.. I just couldn't resist.

  6. No need to apologize! Thanks for your comments.

    I suppose gravity is a phenomenon like any other, and you can be amazed by or indifferent to it with equal justification. But if you aren't amazed by anything then that's a shame. And a certain kind of science, or science done in a certain kind of way, does seem to put amazement to sleep. Maybe it's a matter of taste, but I prefer the kind that raises philosophical questions to the kind that claims to be able to solve or dismiss philosophical problems (see Hawking, for instance). Einstein and Faraday don't seem to have lost their sense of wonder. With Faraday you feel as though you are learning all sorts of stuff without once removing any mystery from the world. On the contrary. He talks about things being wonderful all the time, which I can see might not be to everyone's taste, but I think he pulls it off. You can read his Chemical History of a Candle here:

    None of this has anything directly to do with religion, though, except in the loosest possible sense.

  7. 6.372 Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages.

    And in fact both are right and both wrong: though the view of the ancients is clearer in so far as they have a clear and acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained.

  8. Exactly, yes. Or at least, this is what I had in mind. Especially the last bit about how "the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained." O'Reilly might (well) be the embodiment of the wrong aspect of the ancient view. But it's not as if reference to one or more laws of nature simply explains everything. Thanks. It's good to see you again.