Saturday, September 24, 2011

Evidentialism, Illuminated

To analyze the world in which we find ourselves, it is necessary to have an interrogatory starting point: a foundational principle upon which we, brick by brick, can build the knowledge we think, with some confidence, that we possess about this world. Much like how I, when I get my vision checked every few years, look through a variety of lenses to see which one gives each eye the sharpest, most in-focus image, the process of choosing an interrogatory starting point—a First Principle—is one in which less compelling principles are rejected in order to embrace the single one most able to serve as an enduring foundation. The First Principle upon which I have settled, that being evidentialism, can be summed, at least in my case, as follows: Evidence is the best, most reliable way for humans to approximate truth as we interrogate the world of experience. All of my reasoning—which is to say, all conclusions I draw that are not obvious, manifest facts of the world—is driven by this principle.

Given the centrality of the evidentialist principle to my reasoning, it is worthwhile to parse the actual statement a bit. What is “evidence,” first of all? According to the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, “evidence” is anything that helps to prove that something is or is not true. Typically, when I am asked to define the word, I say something along the lines of, “Evidence refers to the relevant facts pertaining to any matter of controversy, uncertainty or dispute.” Thus, following my First Principle, if there is a dispute about a matter for which an actual answer exists—for example, either Harry did kill Sally, or Harry did not—weighing relevant facts is the most reliable method to approximate the correct answer. The word “approximate” also appears in my statement of evidentialism, and this is because, even though recourse to evidence has proven repeatedly to be our best tool for discovering truth (i.e., in the legal/judicial world, in medical settings, in day-to-day life, etc.), it is not an infallible tool; we, as mere evolved creatures with large and advanced brains, cannot hope to possess absolute certainty. We are forced to settle for provisional truths in which our level of confidence is commensurate with the available evidence.

The last part of my statement of evidentialism refers to “the world of experience,” as distinct from a hypothetical “world of actuality” to which, for whatever reason, I might not have access. Think of it this way: For Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the main character in “The Cosby Show,” the world of that show was his actual world. Dr. Cliff Huxtable does not live in our world; rather, he is a character who exists only in the world of the television program. In an analogous way, consider the possibility that, in actuality, I am a brain in a vat; some kind of super-intelligence has merely created the illusion that I exist as a free-roaming primate when, in fact, I am just a brain soaking in a vat. Because this fact, presumably, is inaccessible to me in the illusion in which I live, I could gather no evidence of this “actual world” to which I have no access. By the same token, though, an “actual world” from which my consciousness is permanently isolated and of which I have no evidence might as well not exist at all; its existence is indistinguishable from its non-existence and, thus, inconsequential. The only world about which I care—the only world consequential to me and, thus, worthy of interrogation—is the one in which I find myself: that being, the world of experience.

What, then, is so persuasive about evidentialism as a First Principle, anyway? Why, to use the eyeglass-lens analogy, is my vision so much better with evidentialism than with, say, a First Principle centered on biblical Christianity? As hinted at earlier, evidence can easily be adduced in support of evidence's pervasive utility in approximating truth, thus making evidentialism a self-subsisting, rather than self-annihilating, First Principle. Criminal justice systems that are driven by evidence gathering and examination are clearly much more likely to zero-in on criminals than are systems in which evidence is shunted aside when trying to determine guilt. In the medical field, those doctors who ascertain what symptoms a patient manifests (gather symptomatic evidence) before reaching conclusions about what afflicts that patient are clearly much more likely to diagnose the illness correctly than are doctors who gather no symptomatic evidence. And, inarguably, in nearly every person's everyday life, he or she constantly gathers, and acts upon, evidence. For example, when, upon seeing brake lights illuminate in front of us, we apply our own brakes, having realized that the evidence of the brake lights indicates the car in front of us is slowing. Stated simply: Evidence works.

There are some who mischaracterize me as a doctrinaire materialist or a committed and unshakeable atheist or physicalist. In fact, though, the only commitment I make—the only notion to which I have presuppositionally wedded myself—is to the validity of evidentialism as First Principle. I am, in ascending order of importance, an atheist, a naturalist and a nihilist, and I am all of these things as a result of my evidentialism; theoretically, all three of those descriptors could change—indeed, could be negated entirely—if the evidence were contrary. That is why the oft-heard charge that, through my presuppositions, I have ruled out biblical Christianity rings utterly hollow. Biblical Christianity is, in principle, fully compatible with evidentialism. This is demonstrated even within the bible—in 1 Kings 18, for example—leading Jaco Gericke, in his contribution to the book The End of Christianity, to note that, presumably, Christians have confected their own reasons “why these things no longer happen and why no philosopher of religion will agree to a contest on Mount Carmel.”

I would be foolish, indeed, to reject supernaturalism entirely if the world looked fundamentally different from how it actually looks. For instance, suppose that true, pious Christian believers were able to resuscitate the dead, a feat that nobody of any other religion—and no impious, casual Christian—could ever do. Surely, if such a thing were actually the case, it would be meaningful, and it would be difficult to maintain a purely naturalistic stance. Consider also a hypothetical possibility raised by Richard Carrier, who, in his extended essay on why he is not a Christian, envisages true Christian bibles that are all indestructible, unalterable and self-translating. It might be a bit primitive for one to shout, “Lo, a miracle!” in response to such a phenomenon—surely, a natural explanation might exist, however unlikely—but any evidentialist would have no choice but to reweigh the odds of the supernatural existing. I am a naturalist because, in interrogating the world of experience, I find no compelling evidence for the supernatural, and no need for recourse to it. In the same way, I am an atheist because I have discovered no persuasive evidence for gods, and no need to appeal to them. Finally, and most importantly, I am a nihilist because, given the current evidence, the cosmos, and everything in it, seems to be ultimately meaningless, purposeless and lacking objective value.

Although, as noted, “nihilist” is the most important appellation that I apply to myself, it is worthwhile to explain, especially given my relentless criticism of the religion, exactly why I reject biblical Christianity and embrace atheism. The reasons are numerous and include the flood—the word just seems right—of absurd claims contained within the bible's pages (not absurd in the sense of being self-contradictory but, rather, in the sense of failing utterly to comport with the world of experience as we all collectively know it), the text's seeming incompatibility with Darwinian evolution and a 13.7 billion-year-old universe, prayer's uselessness in actually effecting desired results, people's pronounced tendency to embrace the religion of their parents and peers, and the problem of statistical improbability regarding a hugely complex being—god—simply existing without a satisfactory explanation of origins. There are, however, three principal reasons I reject Christianity, each of which is probably sufficient to falsify the faith and that, when taken collectively, ring its unmistakable death knell for all but the most presuppositionally committed.

Why, then, am I not a Christian? First, because god is absent or, at the least, silent. In essence, those of the Christian faith proclaim that our universe, and all that is part of it, is in the hands of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent creator deity who takes a personal interest in human affairs. It is completely inexplicable, then, that this creator deity would be entirely undetectable and utterly absent from day-to-day life. If one reads the bible, one finds an active, present, immediate god; moreover, one finds copious miracles and prodigies that are unlike anything with which we are familiar.

The reliably perceptive David Hume, in Of Miracles, writes:

It forms a strong presumption against all supernatural and miraculous relations, that they are observed chiefly to abound among ignorant and barbarous nations ... When we peruse the first histories of all nations, we are apt to imagine ourselves transported into some new world; where the whole frame of nature is disjointed, and every element performs its operations in a different manner, from what it does at present. Battles, revolutions, pestilence, famine and death, are never the effect of those natural causes, which we experience. Prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements, quite obscure the few natural events, that are intermingled with them. But as the former grow thinner every page, in proportion as we advance nearer the enlightened ages, we soon learn, that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural in the case, but that all proceeds from the usual propensity of mankind towards the marvelous ...

Hume rightly adds, "It is strange, a judicious reader is apt to say, upon the perusal of these wonderful historians, that such prodigious events never happen in our days."

Why would a god who, in barbarous and ignorant times, was so clear, present and active suddenly, upon the emergence of a scientific understanding of the natural order, become a silent, inert sluggard whose presence could only be discerned in the most obscure, skepticism-baiting ways? Where are the miracles and prodigies for our scientific age? Because god, if existent, would be a do-nothing layabout, Christianity is falsified.

Second, the bible, despite the fact it is purported to be inspired by god himself, wallows in pitiable prescientific primitivism and yawn-inducing mundanity. Certainly, considering its alleged divine inspiration, one might expect the bible to be full of dazzlingly specific information of which no one had been previously aware. In light of its purported inspiration, one might expect the pinnacle of all intellectual achievement. This is not so. Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, writes, “[The bible] does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.” There is nothing about the actual age or size of our universe. There is nothing about the germ theory of disease, heliocentric theory of the solar system or atomic theory of matter. Earth's vast geography is shrunk down to claustrophobically local levels. It is not even clear from the bible whether the creator of our universe is aware of Australia. The bible is not a product of divine inspiration but, rather, lamentable ancient ignorance.

How, Christopher Hitchens asks in god is not Great, can Genesis be proven the mundane work of ignorant humans in merely a paragraph? He writes:

Because man is given “dominion” over all beasts, fowl and fish. But no dinosaurs or plesiosaurs or pterodactyls are specified, because the authors did not know of their existence, let alone of their supposedly special and immediate creation. Nor are any marsupials mentioned, because Australia—the next candidate after Mesoamerica for a new “Eden”—was not on any known map. Most important, in Genesis man is not awarded dominion over germs and bacteria because the existence of these necessary yet dangerous fellow creatures was not known or understood. And if it had been known or understood, it would at once have become apparent that these forms of life had “dominion” over us, and would continue to enjoy it uncontested until the priests had been elbowed aside and medical research at last given an opportunity.

The bible's mundanity belies the claim of divine inspiration, thus proving Christianity false.

Third, I am not a Christian because worship of Yahweh as the singular creator deity did not arise independently among numerous geographically isolated populations. Any delusional belief system, if designed with sufficient cleverness, has the potential to “catch fire,” as it were, and spread pervasively throughout our species. Much less easily explained, however, would be for the same delusional belief system to arise independently—as though through universal identical revelation—in many different places. Imagine if, around 2000 BCE, worship of Yahweh had arisen, nearly simultaneously, in the Middle East, China, the Americas and central Africa. What would the odds have been of an identical god character—with distinctive quirks, commandments, preferences and fetishes—having been invented by completely different populations? They seem infinitesimal. There is, however, no evidence of Yahweh-worship arising independently among geographically isolated groups. However spiritual they might previously have been, primitive populations began to worship Yahweh specifically when believers in Yahweh arrived at their shores: The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity's message, therefore, is spread by the veritable Pony Express method of human beings.

Christopher Hitchens, in god is not Great, writes, “One recalls the question that was asked by the Chinese when the first Christian missionaries made their appearance. If god has revealed himself, how is it that he has allowed so many centuries to elapse before informing the Chinese?” Whatever deities might have haunted Chinese history, none was distinguishably Yahweh. The failure of god to reveal himself independently to several geographically isolated populations, then, also falsifies Christianity.

As noted earlier, though, I am not principally defined as an atheist or a non-Christian but, rather, as a nihilist, particularly a moral nihilist and an existential nihilist. As explained on Wikipedia, moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is moral or immoral. Indeed, moral nihilists reject the very concepts of objective good and evil...right and wrong...righteous and wicked as pertains to the actual, existent world. Wikipedia defines existential nihilism as the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Broadened a bit, existential nihilism refers to the belief that the universe is meaningless and purposeless, as is its every component. On this view, humanity, for instance, is to the universe as a single grain of sand on a beach is to the Earth. The entire species could go extinct in an enormous nuclear blast—indeed, the Sun could incinerate the entire solar system, or the Milky Way could vanish—and the universe would not take the slightest notice, nor would the event have the faintest objective meaning. And, as previously explained, my nihilism, both moral and existential, directly results from my evidentialist First Principle.

The natural starting point is with existential nihilism, because, in my view, moral nihilism follows quite directly therefrom. The foundational background knowledge with which I approach the issue includes, but is not limited to, the fact of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, the fact of an old universe (about 13.7 billion years) and an old Earth (following some 9 billion years later), and the utter absence of compelling evidence for the veracity of religious revelation, including that of Christianity. The cumulative discoveries of science over the past two centuries have confirmed that all living creatures on this planet share common ancestry. That is, there is a single Darwinian tree of life, of which every species, including human beings, is part. Although different species possess different traits—some have eight legs and some have large brains, some have antennae and some can fly—every variety of creature is fundamentally connected through common Darwinian ancestry.

With respect to the cosmos, we live in a universe whose size and age exceeds man's ability to imagine adequately. The Milky Way, our home galaxy, is a hugely vast cluster of stars and their planetary systems. The Milky Way contains roughly 300 billion stars, of which our Sun—inside which 1 million Earths could fit—is merely an ordinary one. Our solar system is only a speck as a component of the Milky Way, which is but one insignificant galaxy among perhaps 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe. The Big Bang is estimated to have occurred 13.7 billion years ago, with Earth's formation following long after (again, 4.54 billion years ago). Perspective can be gained by putting this in the context of a calendar year: Imagine that the instant of the Big Bang equates to the stroke of midnight on January 1, and the present day equates to precisely midnight on the following January 1. On this imagining, Homo sapiens sapiens would appear on the scene seven-and-a-half minutes to midnight on December 31. It is surprising that man, according to Christianity, is made in the image of god and is the object of god's special attention and love, but then does not appear for aeons and aeons in a universe in which humans are confined to the tiniest conceivable speck of available space.

In the absence of compelling evidence for a god, and lacking persuasive evidence to support any religion, I have provisionally concluded that we are alone in the universe: not alone in the sense of there being no extraterrestrial life but, instead, in the sense of being unsupervised and uncared for. Sure, we, as human beings, care for one another, particularly for family members, friends and others for whom we have developed feelings. But, in a quite literal sense, we—and all creatures—are composed of the same dumb “stuff” that also composes inanimate objects, like rocks and concrete. The molecules of which we are constructed are made of atoms whose origins trace to the crucibles that were the cores of high-mass stars, whose chemical contents exploded into the galaxy aeons ago. We are the universe become conscious, a thought that, while exhilarating, is also humbling. We, like rocks, are a mere atomic assemblage—albeit, yes, a conscious one—whose existence is accidental and, thus, objectively purposeless. We certainly can imbue our lives with personal, subjective meaning, and we can assign personal, subjective value to those we love, but none of those things can be considered an actual fact: not in the same way the speed of light in vacuum can be so considered.

“Value” is a concept that requires an assigner or assessor. As noted, one atomic assemblage can assign value to another one, but, inasmuch as any living creature is destined to die—and, in the grand cosmic scope, to do so almost immediately—any value assignment is ephemeral: not enduring...factual...objective. On the universal scale, none of us matters and none of us is significant, thus undercutting the consequentiality of any value assessment any of us might assign. Essentially, all of this is to say that if one meaningless, insignificant thing declares another meaningless, insignificant thing important to it, that importance, itself, is meaningless and insignificant by extension, since importance cannot come from unimportance, nor the meaningful from the meaningless.

It is with all of this in mind that I proffer moral nihilism. To call an action—any action—righteous or wicked is to imply that the action is a significant one and, moreover, either comports with or transgresses an established moral code. Again, though, there is no reason to believe that significance can arise from insignificance, making it quite difficult to say that any action undertaken by any human has a moral dimension. To whom might human actions matter? To other humans? That is to suggest, to other accidental atomic assemblages whose vanishingly brief existence will ultimately come to nothing? Well, on the scale of the universe, so what? The question also arises of against whose moral code human behavior might transgress. In the absence of god, there is no moral code handed down from on high. Those who subscribe to the superstition of actual, objective morality must be appealing to some source of right and wrong....

There is, of course, the natural moral framework inculcated by Darwinian evolution, which essentially is a utilitarian code intended to permit survival and, most importantly, gene propagation. Richard Dawkins, in The Greatest Show on Earth, gives an illuminating explication of natural selection, writing, “It is all about the survival of self-replicating instructions for self-replication.” He continues, “Viruses and tigers are both built by coded instructions whose ultimate message is, like a computer virus, ‘Duplicate me.’ In the case of the cold virus, the instruction is executed rather directly. A tiger’s DNA is also a ‘duplicate me’ program, but it contains an almost fantastically large digression as an essential part of the efficient execution of its fundamental message. That digression is a tiger, complete with fangs, claws, running muscles, stalking and pouncing instincts. The tiger’s DNA says, ‘Duplicate me by the round-about route of building a tiger first.’” This is whence objective, prescriptive morality is meant to come? The whole purpose of Darwinian evolution, as Dawkins writes, is gene propagation. There is no right or virtue or wickedness...just cool, unfeeling, ruthless efficiency. A human being is no less a fantastically large digression than a tiger is; we just like to enchant our existence with delusions of meaningfulness.

The evidence is unmistakable: There are no gods, no revealed religion comports with reality, human existence is wholly accidental, no human being—either singularly or as a collective—has any enduring meaning or value, and morality is but a useful illusion inculcated into us by Darwinian means in order that our genes might be more effectively propagated. This is simultaneously diminishing and liberating, much as the realization that we are organic products of the universe—stardust from long-dead worlds—is at once humbling and exhilarating. We live in a world with no “shoulds” and no “oughts” “shouldn'ts” and no “ought nots.” None of it matters, and none shall be remembered. One might as well have fun—if one chooses, that is—because, in the last analysis, one is only answerable to oneself.