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October 25, 2006

Holt vs. Dawkins -- 3: God and Other Minds

Here is the heart of Jim Holt's critique of Richard Dawkins' new (and have I mentioned "best-selling") book attacking belief in God:

As long as there are no decisive arguments for or against the existence of God, a certain number of smart people will go on believing in him, just as smart people reflexively believe in other things for which they have no knock-down philosophical arguments, like free will, or objective values, or the existence of other minds.

The argument about free will would seem to come down to whether this feeling we have that our decisions are freely made has any meaning given the fact that the biological mechanism we are is composed of particles whose behavior is, presumably, predictable. Many also feel that some grand puppeteer in the sky is manipulating our decisions and their consequences. However, to jump from free will to God's will would seem, at the very least, to be adding an additional level of mystification.

Objective values, without something in the heavens to attach them to, pretty clearly ain't; and "smart people" who have thought the matter through probably ought to realize that. The consequences of values not being objective are, of course, complex and leave plenty of room for such "smart people" to disagree -- as do the consequences of God's not being.

But Dawkins, in my view, really goes off the rails in his analogy (for a fellow intent on critiquing misleading analogies he uses quite a few of them himself) between belief in God and belief in other minds. The evidence for the existence of other minds, while it may not be "knock-down" to a committed skeptic, does tend to present itself with some regularity -- more or less every time we converse, read or hear a ring tone. The evidence for God's existence, on the other hand, has been a little thin -- at least over the past couple of millennia.

To disbelieve in other minds you have to assume that you are victim of some sort of vast delusion. To disbelieve in God all you have to do is assume that the world and universe function, more or less, the way they appear to function. Shouldn't "smart people" be able to notice the difference between these two varieties of disbelief?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at October 25, 2006 11:19 PM


It does seem to be the most far fetched idea--the existence of other minds being improvable--but it is not.

It SEEMs that way because we depend on powerful innate social bonds; we are pack animals and our existence cannot allow the most anti-social of thoughts to SEEM possible--that nothing in this self constructed world we call consciousness is possible to verify--that IS the mystery and the root of religion. Believing in this world is the original sin, the pre-conscious leap of faith.

The corollary to "I think therefore I exist." is
"My existence is my thinking."
Thoughts of the world are not the world.
Existence is a bubble, a lonely prison we arrange in ways to keep out the cold and let in the love.

Posted by: Jay Saul at October 26, 2006 11:06 AM

The curious thing about all the talk of Darwinism is how little attention seems to be on where we are going; always looking back and down from the top of the (self-perceived) life-form heep.
We are not the end of evolution and these BIG questions may not even be of interest to the next guys. Sha la la la la la

Posted by: Jay Saul at October 26, 2006 11:12 AM

The thing here is getting caught up in absolutes.

I can not absolutely know if god exists or not. I can not absolutely know if other minds exists. I can not absolutely know if an objective reality exits.

If I deal only as absolutes I am forced to take all three questions as having the same merits.

But if I take them as hypothesis and how well they stand up to experience then they clearly do not have the same standing.

In the questions of other minds, most of us deal with these other minds intensively every day from family, co-workers to public figures. The "other mind" hypothesis repeatedly provides results that are consistent and predictive.

Likewise for objective reality. The model that such a reality exists is consistent with a lifetime of history and is predictive of what will happen.

God on the other hand neither adds to our understanding of how things came to be or how they will unfold. It doesn't matter if you praise him or curse him, believe in him or deny him, there is no evidence that it has any impact on what will happen.

I live my life with the assumption that god does not exist. There is no dissidence that might be expected when laboring under false assumptions.

Posted by: Boelf at October 26, 2006 1:11 PM

But that is my point, it all starts with assumptions, how do you determine which are the creation of your mind when they all are the creation of your mind?

Just because they SEEM to work means nothing. The earth once seemed to be flat and the sun went around the earth based on the experiences and facts of the time.

Not believing in God should make the mystery more awesome and magic, not more absolute and static. Stop making sense. When you do mystery overwhelms you. Anomie or ecstasy--they are the same thing.

Posted by: Jay Saul at October 26, 2006 2:16 PM

... how do you determine which are the creation of your mind when they all are the creation of your mind? - Jay Saul

Of course my perceptions and conclusions from those perceptions are mine as your perceptions are yours. But those perceptions don't exist in a vacuum. You undoubtedly held perceptions that you had to abandon because they were inconsistent with subsequent experience.

Some ancient scholars held that the earth was flat and that the sun circled the earth. Current scholars hold that the earth is round and circles the Sun. But there is a reality that is the same for both groups of scholars. Just as there is an objective reality that is the same for you and me and me. Either there is a god or there isn't. Whichever is correct is true for both of us.

How do I know? This assumptions is very consistent with events spread over a life time. Its also predictive. It enables me to get and keep a job I enjoy for instance.

Its also self correcting. I can't know everything, even from that subset that is known by someone. Many of these errors lead to consequences that highlight my mistake.

So while objective reality cannot be proved absolutely the qualities of this hypothesis are so compelling as to be a certainty.

Posted by: Boelf at October 26, 2006 7:18 PM

Certainty is the crux of the matter for sure.
The emotional allure and belief in certainty were my closely held perceptions that I had to abandon because they were inconsistent with my subsequent experience. Paradox.

Posted by: Jay Saul at October 26, 2006 11:30 PM

The problem I have with solipsism is that it doesn't accomplish anything or change anything, whereas belief that other people and objects exist, that the earth is round, that there is a hole in the ozone layer, etc., have immediate and concrete applications (even if I am only imagining them).

It's tempting to say that belief in god doesn't accomplish anything either, because it doesn't have any effect on, say, a coin toss. Faith does, however, motivate an awful lot of people to do a lot of things, quite a few of them awful.

Posted by: Christopher Cuttone at November 2, 2006 3:31 PM

Maybe by "other minds" problem Dawkins' means not only the question of whether your boss or your dog is a conscious agent, but whether it's true ever to we know what another is thinking? For that problem the evidence is very thin on the ground, and we're highly biased collectors of evidence. A lot of people believe they know and understand their pets a lot better than they do. A lot of people fall in love with others they don't understand as well as they think they do. We seem to be aggressive interpreters of anything that looks like agency, and we see agency where there isn't any--e.g. weather changes and the motion of the sun and moon. What's more, we look to what interpretations other people are using and tend to go with what's popular. I think that's partly why in the U.S. we talk to dogs and in Fiji they throw rocks at them. Or why we feel for a stray dogs and eat stray cattle. Or how 100,000 Greeks could be wrong about why the sun moves across the sky (there is no Apollo). Are dogs other minds? Yes. But how we read them depends on what theory we lean to, which depends on what's popular among the bipeds around us.

Posted by: MT at November 15, 2006 12:27 PM

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