Superatheism? (poll)*

In light of discussion at other blogs (which I've glanced at but not read)...

Are you an atheist, a superatheist, or not an atheist? A superatheist (I made up the term 15 seconds ago) is someone who wouldn't be budged from atheism by any type of empirical evidence. Nothing you could observe would move a superatheist in the direction of agnosticism, let alone theism.* (see poll, top right)

Suppose this morning you found out that every token of "Woody Allen" in every book and magazine, worldwide, had turned green. This pattern of events is physically inexplicable (too spread out, too fast, to be physically explained), but coherent, meaning-wise. In other words, it's the sort of thing a Someone might wish for (if they happened to have a thing about Woody Allen).

If that actually happened, it would be reasonable to think a Mind must have willed it, thereby making it so. An immaterial mind that makes things happen through sheer willing is...maybe God.

Of course, I'd have to be on standby to find out more about the Mind behind the greening. Good, bad, obsessed with Woody Allen? What's the deal? Losing confidence in atheism is not the same thing as becoming a full throttle theist.  But a Divine Will would start to seem like a real possibility, given the greening of "Woody Allen".

What else could I think? That the whole thing was just a big accident--like a cloud that looks like a dog--fully explained by physical law, only odd in our eyes because of our power to see squiggly lines as meaningful? I don't think the Super Accident story would be any more reasonable than the Divine Will explanation.

* I edited this post after reading comments (see here).


Aeolus said...

Is one a superatheist if one rejects the fine-tuning argument? Is the fact that the physical constants of the universe are just right for life any less gob-smacking than green "Woody Allen"s? Couldn't space aliens, or perhaps some precocious teenage computer geek in Korea, have figured out how to "paint" all instances of "Woody Allen" in a way analogous to how yellow first-down lines are painted on TV images of football games? (And don't ask me how they do that. It defies common sense.)

My point is that one can always say, "There must be some natural explanation for that, even if we haven't a clue what it might be" -- and it's not clear to me why that response is less reasonable in one case than in another.

Jean Kazez said...

Skeptics have various responses to the fine-tuning argument, I think--the multiverse response, for example.

With the greening of all the "Woody Allen" tokens (universally, all in one night), I don't see how any natural technology at all could get the job done. The tokens are too numerous, too spread out (that's the point of it). I mean, the aliens would have to both find them all and turn them all green, without being detected. Methinks this sounds very, very difficult, even for yer really advanced alien. Nay, I think it sounds impossible.

So either it's all a giant fluke, like a cloud looking like a dog...and there's no explanation. Or the Divine Will has been messin' with the "Woody Allen" tokens.

By the way, my point is just to challenge Superatheism with the most irrefutable example I can think of, not to say only something this crazy and unlikely would convince me of God's existence.

Alan Cooper said...

Just because there's no current technology that could do it doesn't mean that it is impossible. In fact, if it happens it must have been possible and certainly would appear to be the work of some intentional entity. But why call that entity a "god"? And more generally, if one defines the "natural" as including everything that exists or happens then how can any thing or event be "supernatural"?

Tea said...

"An immaterial mind that makes things happen through sheer willing is...God."

This makes it sound like the proof of any supernatural event would automatically convince you that it was caused by a god. Wouldn't it be in fact more parsimonious to think that it was caused by a finite human being with a single supernatural ability, like affecting the color of printed words with sheer power of will? Or, if this really sounds too random, why not assume it was caused by some sort of a supernatural being (like a fairy) that is not necessarily god?

If you see a reason to believe in *something* supernatural, I don't see why you should jump to god immediately. There are many possible entities between "mere human" on one end and "omnipotent, omniscient, immortal, etc." on the other.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the "superatheists" are saying no empirical evidence would ever convince them of the reality of anything supernatural. The Woody Allen example seems to show that attitude is unreasonable. So if "the greening" occurred, you'd known there is a non-natural (supernatural) force -- apparently a mind that makes things happen just by willing them.

There's a point in Aquinas's 5 proofs where he says "and this everyone understands to be God"...and the reader groans. Hold on, at most you proved there was a being like so, but not that the being does and is all the things associated with "God."

So yes--the greening of all the "Woody Allen"s would JUST show there's a mind that makes things happen by willing them. That's a central feature of God, as usually understood, but as you say, it could be that some human being has supernatural powers. Maybe Mia Farrow is responsible for the greening...maybe her brain has non-natural powers.

To know more about the Will behind the greening, I'd have to wait and see. What would happen next? Maybe it would put on an impressive show, like the 10 plagues in Exodus, but suited to a modern audience. Maybe Christopher Hitchens and every other cancer patient would suddenly get a clean bill of health. Maybe these things would keep happening, generation after generation (so no human could be responsible). With the right string of follow-up acts, I'd become progressively more convinced.

Obviously this is all outlandish, but I think the fantasy refutes the superatheist who says no imaginable string of events would make it reasonable to believe in God.

Faust said...

Doesn't even Coyne give conditions in his original article where he suggests that certain events might convince one of "supernatural" causes?

Jean Kazez said...

Just glanced, but yes, I think he's an atheist, not a superatheist.

Spencer said...

I guess I'd consider myself a "superatheist." In your example, we could imagine beings much more powerful than us capable of the feat you describe, but would still fall short of Godhood.

Take the resurrection, for instance: *IF* Jesus really did rise from the dead, why couldn't that be better explained by super-advanced alien tech? Same with the Woody Allen scenario.

Jean Kazez said...

Spencer, The point of the weird example is that the tokens are so spread out. I just don't see how any natural technology could be used to detect every single one of them, all over the world, all in one night, without anybody noticing, and then cause the color change. The resurrection seems like an easy feat for aliens, by comparison!

Spencer said...

And let me explain why the non-God theory would always trump the God-theory. Suppose there is some fantastical scenario which can only be explained by a Mind/being much more powerful than us. That Mind/being is either omniponent or non-omniponent (but still very powerful). If the non-omniponent being can explain the fantastical scenario, then all the extra powers of the omniponent being would be unnecessary. Hence the non-omniponent being would still a better explanation than God.

Spencer said...

In your Woody Allen example, you say the pattern of events is "physically inexplicable," and that it would be reasonable to think that an (immaterial) Mind must have willed it. Maybe. Let's suppose an immaterial Mind did will the event: isn't it possible that a very very powerful Mind willed it, as opposed to an infinitely powerful Mind? If so, then why suppose that it's more probably that the Mind is infinitely powerful than merely superpowerful? Occam's Razor would seem to favor the latter possibility.

Jean Kazez said...

Spencer, All that makes sense, but makes me think I should have defined "superatheism" a bit differently. Superatheists are people who won't be budged from atheism by any amount of empirical evidence. They think no pattern of natural events justifies a supernatural explanation.

I think even most theists would deny that empirical evidence suffices to establish the existence of a god with all the usual properties--omnipotence, etc. It doesn't make you a special, super-strength kind of atheist if you agree with that. It does make you super-strength if there's no empirical evidence at all that would bump you even from atheism to agnosticism.

Revising what I've said a bit--the greening of all the "Woody Allen"s would push me at least from atheism to believing in the supernatural, and believing in an entity with some of the usual attributes (God is said to accomplish things just by willing them). At that point it would depend what further empirical evidence came in. But really--I don't think the total package of God attributes gets established empirically by anyone's estimation--even in the view of theists.

Spencer said...

I think I may even be guilty of what you're now defining as superatheism: the position that no pattern of natural events justifies a supernatural explanation. Presumably, a "supernatural explanation" is one that is irreconcilable with the (actual) laws of physics. If some phenomenon is thought to have a supernatural explanation, then it could *never* be naturally explained no matter how far science progresses. But when could we ever be justified in thinking that?

Suppose there is some event E that is *currently* contrary to our understanding of the laws of physics. If we say that E has a supernatural explanation, then we're saying that in 500 million years, our understanding of the laws of physics would still rule out E. But isn't that just sheer speculation on our part? We'd be assuming (claiming) that our understanding of the "impossible" will forever stand the test of time.

Aeolus said...

Making all instances of "Woody Allen" green is easy with advanced technology, at least in principle. On your super alien Matter Transformer you go to "Find and Replace". Under Find, type "Woody Allen" and under Replace All, type "*green*Woody Allen". Hit Enter. Voila! (This sort of thing can lead to some nasty revert wars.) In practice, the fact that the power required for transformations rises exponentially with the area of application means that this technology is just too expensive for most people to use.

Spencer said...

I want to make clear that my superatheism/anti-supernaturalism position is a purely epistemological one: I’m not ruling out the possibility that some extraordinary event E does have a supernatural explanation. Maybe it does, but we can’t ever be justified in adopting it, because we would have to assume (unjustifiably) that E can never be consistent with the laws of physics no matter how far science progresses. Who knows what science could discover to be possible in 500 million years? Hardcore superatheism seems to me the most rational position.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm--I just can't imagine a "global search and replace" that works on every book, magazine, movie, computer, etc., everywhere in the universe. Don't we already know, at this time, that such a thing is physically impossible? So if the sudden greening occurred, wouldn't we know for sure it had a supernatural cause?

Spencer said...

"Physically impossible" is a relative term: "impossible" according to our current understanding of what's possible, maybe, but not necessarily "impossible" according to what science says in a thousand + years.

We've been wrong about what's "impossible" before.

Wayne said...

Sounds like Spencer is a superatheist.

The problem behind attacking superatheism (That they're wrong) is that they can always hide behind the insufficiency of X as a proof for God.

But at the same time, it also seems like that might be the biggest problem for the superatheist, since if they hide behind insufficiency of X, then they make their theory into something indefeasible.

I think the evidence quotient would have to be awfully high for a diety. But then again, if a diety were to exist, it would be infinitely easier for it to meet our evidence standards. I'm not sure Greening Woody Allen would be sufficient, but it would definitely a step in the right direction.

Maybe a couple more expressions of such inscrutability would be enough for me.

Jean Kazez said...

I think there are really two issues, which I've blurred in my post (wrote it too fast, I think)--

(1) Is there any imaginable observable event that ought to make reasonable people believe in a supernatural force with some of the properties of God? (For example--a very powerful Mind that makes things happen just by willing them...)

Superatheists, as I understand them, say no to (1). Whatever happens, they say the more reasonable explanation will always be a force conforming to physical laws. For example, they think it would be more reasonable to think aliens somehow accomplished the greening of the WAs, than to believe in a supernatural force simply willing it.

(2) Is there any imaginable observable event that ought to make any reasonable person believe in God, as classically defined--omnipotent, all-good, infinite, eternal, etc?

Superatheists also say No to (2), but I don't think that should be seen as their defining characteristic. Practically everyone says No to (2)--I think lots of theists would say no. It's not generally thought that the existence of the classic God, with all the heavy-duty properties, is established by empirical evidence.

So the way I see it, (1) is really what superatheists and atheists ought to be disagreeing about.

As to Spencer's last comment--my gut feeling is that we know a great deal about the laws of nature now, and so we know enough to rule out that any natrual technology could instantly detect all the WAs, without itself being detected, and turn them all green. It strikes me as hand-waving to say that aliens could have some way of doing it. But that just leaves us at a stalemate, since Spencer thinks we can't rule it out.

Anyhow, I think (1) is really the issue.

p.s. Last night I asked 3 13-year olds about the greening, and whether it would be more likely to have been caused by aliens or a supernatural being. Their answer was (of course)... "are you completely insane?"

Spencer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Spencer said...

Just an observation: (1) appears to make a distinction between non-omnipotent (supernatural) beings and non-omnipotent (natural) beings. I accept that if an Omnipotent Being causes some event E, then E was caused by a supernatural force. And according to (1), if E were caused by a non-omnipotent Being, E could still have been caused by a supernatural force. But it seems to me that a non-omnipotent being, no matter how powerful, would still be constrained by physical laws (or else it would be omnipotent), so wouldn't it necessarily be natural?

Wayne said...

Jean -- Lets focus on 1. I think even if WA greens then that still wouldn't be enough. In fact, I'm not sure there is a single event that can occur that would give us sufficient justification for God's existence.

If we had multiple events that are like WA greening, then perhaps we could get sufficient evidence.

Anything less would be a hasty conclusion. So is there one event? No. But I don't think I'm a superatheist because of that. I'd say the same thing about science experiments. The soul weighs 21 grams according to one measurement, but all of MacDougal's other weighings of souls didn't come out nearly as good as his selective one. One example will always be insufficient.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, It sounds to me like you're collapsing questions 1 and 2.

Spencer, Why should every non-omnipotent being be constrained by physical laws? There are things they can't do, but I take it not because of physical laws. It's just not in the their job description...or something! The god of the bible is not omnipotent, but a big breaker of natural law.

Spencer said...

hmmm...It's always been my understanding that Christians believe the god of the bible to be omnipotent -- the most powerful being conceivable.

Regarding your question, there must be some explanation for why non-omnipotent beings can't do certain things. The answer for most beings is that doing those things are physically impossible -- they're simply not within our physical capability. If I understand your suggestion, this explanation wouldn't apply to some non-omnipotent beings; their inability to do X is explained not by the physical impossibility of doing X, but by some *other* reason. But would such beings really be non-omnipotent in the relevant sense?

Recall the view that the Christian god can't lie because lying is prohibited by his "moral nature." Is he still omnipotent despite not being able to lie? I think most people would say 'yes,' since his inability is not relevantly related to his physical power.

Jean Kazez said...

The bible doesn't portray God as omnipotent--just as very powerful. Philosophers later developed the concept of God as having all the "omnis," but now that's the common conception.

"Supernatural therefore omnipotent" ... So the notion of a ghost is completely incoherent?

I have to leave it there and get stuff done....but that's an interesting question.

Anonymous said...

A few questions.

How am I to know that every instance of Woody Allen has turned green over night, in "every book, magazine, movie, computer, etc., everywhere in the universe"?

Wouldn't I need a very sophisticated sort of technology in order to have this Who-or-What-Is-Behind-problem in the first place? If so, then a supernatural explanation is perhaps not the first explanation one would try.

But if "such a thing [as this technology] is physically impossible", where am I suppose to imagine that the surprising information comes from?

Jean Kazez said...

Alright...good question. Let's just say that all of one morning, the greening becomes evident. Reports come in from all four corners of the globe. Granted, 100% of tokens are not inspected, but hundreds of thousands have clearly gone green. Even that much greening seems like enough to suggest a supernatural cause.

The reason for this example, by the way, is that it's easy for a mind to think "I will that all things meaning Woody Allen turn green." (I'm thinking it right now--but it's not working.) However, those various things meaning Woody Allen have very different physical properties. So it would be hard to find them all (super-duper alien metal detectors, and the like, won't work), and harder still to find them without being detected. Then there's the problem of how to make them all green, considering the different physical properties...

All that was the thought behind the madness.

Wayne said...

mmm yeah you're right I did collapse the two didn't I?

So What would I be? If I say no to 1, but yes to 2, I wouldn't be a superatheist. But I suppose saying yes or no to 2 isn't identity defining.

But in saying no to 1, I don't share the justifications for saying no to 1 as the superatheists as you portray them. (my justification is the insufficiency of any one example)

Anonymous said...

Well, if all his films turned shades of green, that would be an aesthetic tragedy, esp re purple rose of cairo.

So I would suspect a gnostic sort of demiurge at work rather than any god that embodies moral and aesthetic perfection.

-- anna

Anonymous said...

The question was what would be an reasonable assumption if all Woody Allen’s in the world turned green one night. ”If that actually happened, it would be reasonable to think a Mind must have willed it, thereby making it so.” Well, I’m not so sure.

If such a thing really happened, I think we would be quite uncertain what to call a reasonable explanation. This isn’t just because we are dealing with a hypothetical case here, and that we can’t know how we would react, what we would call what, before it became a reality (though, that’s part of my reason), but because I think the story we’re asked to contemplate is too short on information to say which explanations we would call reasonable and which not.

With your latest comments the narrative now begins to look a lot like the opening chapter of a certain sort of science fiction novel. I’m thinking of ’Invasion from Space’ and the likes.

Reports of mysterious incidents comes from around the globe. At first people are amused, but as the numbers of strange reports rise, they grow increasingly nervous. Tension builds.

The tension comes, of course, comes from the state of uncertainty. The people (and the readers) don’t know what’s happening. The reported events are enirely new to them. They don’t know how to interpret the facts (that every known WA is turning green, say) nor how to react. Should they be alarmed? Should they take action? If so, what?

Some people, certanly, would call these strange happenings the work of aliens or of supernatural forces or of God. Others would invent (more or less sketchy) scientific explanations. Some would shrugg their shoulders and call the event the weirdest coinsidence there ever was, a Super Accident, perhaps.

For the reader of this story, of course, the suspense comes from the fact that we don’t know which of the explanations to trust. That’s why we read on.

And here’s my point: If this – that all WA’s suddenly turned green, which looks inxplicable – is all there is to the story, I’m not sure we could say which of the explanations were reasonable, which seemd the most plausible, or even if we could call any of the explanations reasonable. How are we to judge the different answers? Of course we could SAY that a mind must have willed it. But what would that mean, exactly? In what sense is that different from saying that this just was the strangest coinsidence ever reported?

The most reasonable way to react should every WA turn green one night, might just be not to explain but to say: Let’s wait. Let’s not jump to hasty conclutions. Let’s wait and see what comes next. Let’s see if more unusual things of this kind happens, before we make up our minds.

Some atheists might turn around facing such reports, but I can't see that they reasonably should. I'm quite certain I wouldn't.

I don’t know if this is contributing to the discussion at all. But it seems to me that the initial story is to little to go on.

Jean Kazez said...

Anna, Yes, it would be a crime, maybe more a sign of a bad god...unless he switched them all back for his next miracle. By the way, the font I used in the picture is close to the one used in Woody Allen movie credits.

Anonymous, I'm starting to think "screenplay"! I love the kind of science fiction that starts with a small, innocuous change, which then turns out not to be so innocuous. (e.g. The Incredible Shrinking Man) I agree--the greening alone is not a lot to go on. It seems like evidence of "the supernatural" but what kind of supernatural?

By the way, I especially like the example for its wide distribution. This is not just some miracle in a cave in Mongolia (who knows if it really happened?) Everyone can just go to their bookshelves and open their own Woody Allen books. They can turn on the computer and google "Annie Hall." They can see with their own eyes that this greening really has occurred.

Also, I don't think it much matters if nobody has a chance to check the books lying in garbage dumps, etc. The miracle doesn't stop being a miracle if only 95% of tokens turned green. Maybe the Greener wanted all the WAs that would be discovered to be green--and he knew which that would be.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that’s exactly the kind of science fiction I had in mind.

I’m not convinced, though. Perhaps I miss your point (do let me know), but it seems, to me at least, that the story you tell is unable to do the work it is meant to do.

Perhaps the greening of every WA in the world is evidence of the supernatural. (Supernatural forces may after all be real.) But as far as the story goes, it is unclear what we could do with such evidence; what, if anything, we could prove with it; if, indeed, we could call it evidense at all. I mean, even though it might seem implausible, even unimaginable (at least to many people), it is still a possibility that it was nothing but a big coinsidence. But if nothing strange like this ever happened again, how are we to tell?

If, on the other hand, more crazy stuff did happen, then, of course, we’d have a different narrative on our hands. Then the story wouldn’t just be about inexplicable things happening around us. But, we might perhaps say, it would be about our world is going trough some major changes. In such a case, I would perhaps agree that ”it would be reasonable to think that a Mind must have willed it, thereby making it so.” (To say that it is reasonable to think that a mind MUST be behind, isn’t that in effect to say that all other explanations MUST be wrong, if not unreasonable?) But, then again, what we would say and think and judge as reasonable and not in a another world is, of course, not easy to forsee.


Anonymous said...

The last episode of Elucidations touches some of these issues.



Arthur F Arthursson said...

What kind of incidence could instantly turn a stubborn atheist like myself into a theist?
Certainly not letters in books turning green - I would try to seek a more natural explanation; aliens, extremely powerful weird minds, whatever.

Gods don´t go around painting things green. They´re way to busy.

A true god would listen to people´s prayers and perform miracles accordingly. Put amputated limbs back into place without surgery and make them work again. Heal terminal cancer patients instantly after hearing their prayers. Make blind people see and deaf people hear.

These would be the signs of a true (Christian) god that could convince any non-believer.

Anonymous said...

(For some reason my last entry contained an incomplete and rather confusing version of my text. I posted it late last night, that may be why. I don't know how to delete it. But here I go again, with, hopefully, a more comprehensible comment.)

Yes, that’s exactly the kind of science fiction I had in mind.

I’m still not convinced, though. Perhaps I miss your point (please do let me know), but it still seems to me, that the story you tell doesn’t give us an ”imaginable observable event that ought to make reasonable people believe in a supernatural force with some of the properties of God”. In fact I’m not convinced that any one observable event could or should have that force on us.

Perhaps the greening of every WA in the world is some evidence of the supernatural. This might after all be the true explanation. But as far as the story goes, it is unclear, to me at least, what we could do with such reports; what, if anything, we could prove with them; if, indeed, we could call them evidence at all. This, I think, depends upon how the story continues.

We may feel very strongly that such an event must have a cause, and that the real question is what kind of cause we’re talking about. But not even that much is obvious, is it? There could be multiple causes. Perhaps we’re imagening not one event but many (unrelated) events, and that it’s just a big (I freely admit, highly unlikely and to many even unimaginable) coincidence that all these greenings should happen simultaneously. (Initially I was in fact imagining a mystery of that sort.) We may, of course, in face of such unlikely events, have an intense urge to say that this or that MUST be the explanation, that all else would be unreasonable. But, if nothing mysterious like this ever happened again, it seems questionable that we have any reason to interpret these observations as evidence in such a way.

If, on the other hand, more crazy stuff did happen, then, of course, we’d have a different narrative on our hands. The story wouldn’t just be about a few imaginable observable events, but about many such mysterious events happening around us. And soon we might perhaps be tempted to say that we’re no longer imagining strange events at all, but rather that our world is going trough some major changes. In such a narrative, I would perhaps agree that any reasonable person ought to blame a supernatural force who makes things happen just by willing them. But, then again, who knows what we would say and think, and what we would find (un)reasonable in a different world?


Jean Kazez said...

I think the greening would be indicative of a mental cause--a desire, an intention, an act of will. Some mind must have thought "Let the WAs be green."

It's not indicative of a physical cause because the WAs are so spread out, so physically diverse, so hard to find, so hard to search for without detection, so hard to turn green quickly.

A mental cause is what God is...though there's more to what God is. So the greening would turn me at least into a "searching" agnostic. It would increase the probability of there being a god, in my mind.

As I understand it, superatheists don't think any observable evidence would increase the probability of there being a god, so I think the example proves them wrong.

Anonymous said...

I know that to a lot of religious folk, the sheer existence of the universe is indicative of a mental cause, and I can see why they might think this. Does this mean that you have to be a superatheist if the existence of the universe and everything in it isn't enough to convince you of the supernatural? What about the greening all of the WA's makes it a more impressive endeavor than the creation of all that is? You're argument doesn't seem to be anything more than the "argument from design" that apologists use.

And I'm sorry if you've already addressed a similar concern, but I read through the posts and didn't remember it.

Alan Cooper said...

Sorry to bother you again, but in case my earlier comment was so ignorant as to be unworthy of reply, could you just point me to a definition of what is "natural" from the point of view of a professional philosopher? I have always taken the "natural" to include everything that exists or happens (which kind of makes the supernatural, well..., non-existent), but I have no training in philosophy so I may be unaware of the proper definition.

With regard to the greening of all instances of "Woody Allen", I believe that you have fallen into the same trap as the creationist who says of this or that, "I can't imagine how it happenned so God must have done it". In fact it seems to me that that particular effect could quite plausibly be achieved by almost-known technology. In particular by the creation and dissemination of bacteria or nano-machines programmed to permeate the environment recognize and collect on any surface we would recognize as carrying the text "Woody Allen" and then to turn green at a specified time or in response to a specified signal.

What would be more impressive would be a demonstrated ability to perform whatever such miracle I specify - immediately and without time for advance preparation. This would be inconsistent with my present understanding of physics and so would prove to me that nature is completely different from what I had understood and includes entities more powerful than I had ever expected. But it would still be nature that I was interacting with and, in the light of past experience, it would be presumptuous and foolosh of me to find the possibility of my being surprised to be particularly surprising.