Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Theists, Atheists, and Pattern Recognition

I see a red pen sitting on my desk, between my keyboard and my computer. How do I do it?

The answer cannot be as simple as "my eyes send me the information." What is incoming from my retina is not a description of the world, with pens and keyboards, but a pattern of colors, the contents of my visual field. Figuring out that the reason part of that pattern is red and part brown is that I am seeing a red object of particular shape and size sitting on a brown surface requires my brain to analyze that pattern and deduce from it what I am seeing. As A.I. researchers discovered when they tried to program computers to make such deductions, it isn't easy. We are able to do it only because evolution has provided our brains with very sophisticated pattern recognition software, probably incorporating a good deal of information about the nature of the world around us, hence the likely meaning of the patterns we see.

An analogous process occurs when we use all of the information available to us to form a picture of the world--not merely what is where in the visual field but what the universe is like and why. We are trying to construct a pattern, a picture of reality, which makes a reasonably good fit to the available facts. The fit is unlikely to be perfect, both because we may not get the pattern quite right and because some of the "facts" we are fitting may be wrong. And the process of constructing the pattern involves nothing as simple as formal logic. Just as in seeing, we are using pattern recognition software created by evolution and incorporating beliefs about the nature of reality—true or false—that led our ancestors to reproductive success.

Pattern recognition need not give an unambiguous result. In one familiar example, the same black and white picture can be seen either as a vase or as two faces. In another familiar example, a paranoid may have a picture of the world that fits all of the data available to him, with apparent inconsistencies explained by the plots of his enemies.

Which gets me back to the discussion of religion in my earlier post. Some people, trying to make sense of the world around them, construct a pattern that includes some sort of god. Others construct a pattern that doesn't. Neither pattern is the result of rigorous deduction from the data or anything close, so it isn't surprising that atheists cannot prove theists wrong, nor theists prove atheists wrong.

That does not mean that logic can tell us nothing at all about the subject. Some patterns are inconsistent with enough data to make it very unlikely that they are correct, or close to correct; one can climb Mount Olympus and observe the absence of the Olympians. But I think it is clear from a very large number of arguments conducted by many people over many centuries that one cannot, on that basis, reject either all versions of a universe with a god or gods, or all versions of a universe without.


coba said...

Are you suggesting that the only criterion to test our theories is consistency (with each other and with the facts), without any regard for complexity, with no Occam's razor at all?

That's an interesting position, and a perfectly good one if consistency is really all you're after. But it seems to me that the essence of the scientific method, as well as of most decent philosophy and everyday reasoning, is not simply to come up with consistent hypotheses but indeed with hypotheses that have the most explanatory power, that can explain the most facts with the fewest assumptions. The metaphysical justification for preferring simple over complex theories may be shaky, and a pedant could require every theoretical statement in the Physical Review to be prefaced by "to the best of our knowledge, the simplest theory consistent with the facts is...," but usually this is understood.

Note that I do realize that sometimes you can have multiple explanations of the same phenomena that are different without one being obviously more far-fetched than the other. I can understand arguments to the effect that atheism and some sort of deism are two such explanations. But I wouldn't accept arguments to the effect that atheism and—say—orthodox catholicism, with all its detailed doctrines about transsubstantiation of crackers, are on equal footing, simply because both accounts are strictly speaking consistent with the facts.

Anonymous said...

Your argument applies similarly to the flying spaghetti monster, the celestial teapot or the invisible pink unicorn. This is a very weak defense of theism, no theist will admit that his belief is on par with those. It seems to me you're deliberately taking out any form of a priori which is inconsistent with the way we are able to think and understand the world.

John Kindley said...

Man, I have engaged in some long blog comment threads along these lines, and hesitate to rehash them here.

I think we can "know" (more or less imperfectly) or intuit or "sense" (and my use of the word "sense" should not be interpreted pejoratively -- isn't "seeing" believing?) the existence of God through an immediate apperception of the intellect. I'm much more skeptical of the idea that we can know that God exists through traditional proofs for the existence of God, however well-refined. The reason for my skepticism has a lot to do with the insight of Thomist epistemology that our reasoning faculty grows from engagement with -- and is most at home when engaged with -- the material world, and that metaphysical reasoning (while not impossible) is a real stretch for our minds. On the other hand, such proofs can for certain people be the occasion for such immediate apperceptions of God's existence, but such ratiocinating is by its very nature less stable and certain than immediate "knowledge." The same skepticism I have towards arguments for the existence of God applies with equal force -- and for the same reasons -- to arguments against the existence of God.

The late Jacques Maritain, a highly-regarded and influential Thomist philosopher, put it pretty well, so I'll just quote him:

"When St. Paul affirmed that 'that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; His eternal power also, and divinity . . .' he was thinking not only of scientifically elaborated or specifically philosophical ways of establishing the existence of God. He had in mind also and above all the natural knowledge of the existence of God to which the vision of created things leads the reason of every man, philosopher or not. It is this doubly natural knowledge of God I wish to take up here. It is natural not only in the sense that it belongs to the rational order rather than to the supernatural order of faith, but also in the sense that it is prephilosophic and proceeds by the natural or, so to speak, instinctive manner proper to the first apperceptions of the intellect prior to every philosophical or scientifically rationalized elaboration. Before entering into the sphere of completely formed and articulated knowledge, in particular the sphere of metaphysical knowledge, the human mind is indeed capable of a prephilosophical knowledge which is virtually metaphysical. Therein is found the first, the primordial way of approach through which men became aware of the existence of God. Here everything depends on the natural intuition of being -- on the intuition of that act of existing which is the act of every act and the perfection of every perfection, in which all the intelligible structures of reality have their definitive actuation, and which overflows in activity in every being and in the intercommunication of all beings. Let us rouse ourselves, let us stop living in dreams or in the magic of images and formulas, of words, of signs and practical symbols. Once a man has been awakened to the reality of existence and of his own existence, when he has really perceived that formidable, sometimes elating, sometimes sickening or maddening fact 'I exist,' he is henceforth possessed by the intuition of being and the implications it bears with it."

Anonymous said...

If we know less than we think about the world, shouldn't we be more skeptical about fantastic claims?

This post seems to say that because we cannot absolutely accept or reject whether god exists, therefore--at least in the broadest sense--claims for or against god are equally likely. You do not say this directly, but your post strikes a middle-of-the-road, maybe god exists, maybe not, tone.

Why does a claim as fantastic as god so often receive this 'middle-of-the-road' brand of respect?

Anonymous said...

Just as the greek mythos has be disproven by checking it's empirical claims, so to has the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, etc mythos been disproven via their falsified empirical claims. One might be able to cook up a new deity and mythos that doesn't make any as yet falsafiable claims, but the existing ones most certainly do and that is at least one reason why belief in them is unreasonable.

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed that the atheists keep attacking their weakest opponents.

Of course ideas of God as some kind of super-intelligent and powerful entity are unsatisfactory and lacking. But that is the most impoverished definition of what the word "God" might represent.

In fact, Buddhists and neuroscientists understand and have demonstrated that we are not ourselves "entities". The ego, self, personal will and the "I" are simply powerful concepts that are implicitly believed in, starting around age 2, but when examined closely fall apart as woefully incomplete models of what we actually are. So obviously ideas of the entity "God" are non-starters.

What the "God" debate is, at core, is a debate about the nature of the universe and ourselves. The atheist position boils down to believing that perception, experiences, and our lives are essentially meaningless, random accidents created by dead, unconscious matter.

The non-atheist position essentially gives primacy to the conceptual, purposeful, experiential universe we actually experience and argues that materiality is a property of experience and not its generator. And there is a great deal of intriguing evidence pointing in this direction. . .

Given the utter lack of a materialist explanation for subjectivity, the non-atheist position. Of course, promissory materialism claims that "someday soon" we will have a convincing materialist explanation for subjectivity. But then again, promissory Christian fundamentalism claims that someday soon the elect will ascend into the clouds with the second coming of Jesus. I put little stock in either faith-position.

Anonymous said...

Just as in seeing, we are using pattern recognition software created by evolution and incorporating beliefs about the nature of reality—true or false—that led our ancestors to reproductive success.

This makes me wonder why instead of claiming that the belief in a supernatural God is a "dangerous meme", Dawkins doesn't instead consider that it once had - and might continue to have - a supportive role in reproductive success. Wouldn't that be something.

Anonymous said...

Sorry a bit of text got snipped.

It should read:

Given the utter lack of a materialist explanation for subjectivity, the non-atheist position deserves consideration.

Will McLean said...

Often Atheists argue that Atheism is a more elegant, probably and parsimonious explanation of the universe we live in and how we live our lives than religion, but I’m not sure that’s the case. To begin with, not all religions believe in a personal God of the sort that responds to prayers.

One possible truth is that there is no God, as any religion understands the term. God is a delusion created by our pattern-recognizing highly evolved ape brain. So is moral goodness. This theory is not elegant, because many if not most humans experience moral intuition that tells us that goodness, in the moral sense, is real. If we respond that moral intuition is also a delusion, then we fall into recursiveness. Should we disbelieve in a false heaven that gives us comfort because we should not believe in lies that give us comfort? If so, where does that come from but the moral intuition we reject as delusion? Also, most Atheists that I know or have read don’t act as if this is true. Dawkins certainly behaves and argues as though goodness is not a delusion, and believing the truth is morally superior to believing a comfortable lie.

Another possible truth is that God is a delusion but goodness is not. Why should we accept moral intuition as true but direct religious experience as false? How do we decide how to act based on pure reason and moral intuition, while our highly evolved ape brain is trying to trick us into whatever will give it an immediate hedonic kick? This is not a simple task. Ayn Rand tried to derive a code of moral behavior from pure reason, but I don’t find it more persuasive than the Ontological Proof of the Existence of God, which is to say not very.

The man called Jesus of Nazareth persuaded thousands, and indirectly millions, to follow a new way of life. The Atheistic explanation is that he was deluded or a charlatan, or misrepresented in the surviving records of his life, and the supernatural acts attributed to him were tricks or the inventions of his followers. That could be true. An alternative theory is that he had some actual interaction with true divinity. Should we set the probability of this at zero? Similarly for Buddha and Mohammed. The Atheist explanation may or may not be the simplest or most elegantly predictive

A third possibility is that God, as one or more religions understands the concept, exists. And given the limitations of human language and knowledge, more than one religious description of God and how to live according to his will is as true as human language can describe.

That said, I think the Aztecs, the Thugs and the worshippers of Odin had at best some serious problems with transmission error.

Charles T. Wolverton said...

"Some people, trying to make sense of the world around them, construct a pattern that includes some sort of god. Others construct a pattern that doesn't."

I might express it somewhat differently, but IMO this pretty much sums up the essence of the divide. And to the extent that "God" is a creation of one's mind just as is "red", they are equally real.

Which is why I don't think "atheism" as commonly used ("belief that there is no god" as opposed to simply "not-theist") is meaningful. To quote a luminary, it depends on the meaning of "is".

Of course, if a person starts describing their god in detail and making claims about it's relationship with the material world, as Prof F suggests one can justifiably point to inconsistencies - and justifiably object if people insist that their god should be "real" for you as well.

- Charles

Charles T. Wolverton said...

"The atheist position boils down to believing that perception, experiences, and our lives are essentially meaningless, random accidents created by dead, unconscious matter."

I'm not sure any thoughtful person is really an atheist in the sense of "there is no god however defined". So I think that meaning can be ignored.

The "a-theist" position is simply not being a theist. A psychological profile constructed from that may say something about the profiler, but with respect to an a-theist it's necessarily fiction.

Eg, it's my impression that in the case of theists, a key component of their "pattern" for the world is that one can't have a satisfactory life without "meaning" in some cosmic sense; hence, inclusion of "meaningless in the fictitious profile. The evidence is overwhelming that this part of their pattern misrepresents the world.

- Charles

Anonymous said...

We don't deduce theories from data.

Rather we occasionally use data to help decide between our old theories and our newly conjectured theories. (This is the characteristic method of science.)

Interestingly, neither theories nor data can be transmitted directly into our minds. All theories must be conjectured fresh. And all observations depend on theories of interpretation.

Hat tip: Karl Popper

Apart from the fixed theories embodied by the genes which build our sensory cells and nerves, only a few of our early ideas are biological.

Babies have to work hard at learning to see objects.

Anonymous said...


You are correct about the technical meaning of the term atheist.

However I believe my description of the worldview of atheists vs. non-atheists is pretty accurate in the large majority of cases. The word "atheist" usually indicates an entire body of beliefs based on a supposed physicalist / objective ontology, which contrasts with an ontology based on subjectivity, whether we call it "God" or not.

I think Jacques Monod nailed the physicalist belief system pretty accurately when he wrote:

man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes.

Atheists tend, ultimately, to agree with Monod about the nature of the universe, while non-atheists tend to disagree with his assertions.

Anonymous said...

The issue as i see it: i dont think there is anyone here with whom to debate the factual claims made by whatever religions. They are either true or false from a materialistic perspective. I dont think there is any one religion that only makes materialisticly true claims, but even in this best case, it would merely be redundant.

As far as any claims made that are outside of the real of my experience: ill happily declare my agnosticism. So i agree with david, basically. Yes, maybe god exists, maybe he doesnt: as long as you define him in a way that defies any sort of empirical scrunity, i could not care less either way. The things that might be going on outside the realm of our senses are infinitely many. Claiming any interest in that is rather easily reduced to absurdity.

Eric Rasmusen said...

The post is very sensible. Given a se t of facts, we can sometimes definitively prove Theory X is better than Y, and sometimes we can't. A lot of smart people are atheists, and a lot of them are Christian, suggesting that the set of relevant facts here is insufficient. The same is true for lots of things-- various approaches to child-rearing, for example, or, quite apart from religion, how to live a good life.

I have an argument for why Christianity (and Judaism) should be impossible to prove, even if true. The essence is that the God of the Bible clearly does not want to be obvious, and having the power He does, He can ensure the evidence stays ambiguous. See

Charles T. Wolverton said...

"The word "atheist" usually indicates an entire body of beliefs based on a supposed physicalist / objective ontology"

You are assuming that every atheist is also a philosopher. I can assure you that is not so. All of my close friends are well educated, thoughtful, intelligent people of whom at most one would have any idea what "physicalist ontology" means. (I do, but only because of taking up the study of philosophy as a post-retirement hobby.)

I understand your essential argument to be that a materialist science can't account for subjectivity and therefore the existence of non-material aspects of the world shouldn't be rejected. I doubt both the hypothesis and the conclusion, but even accepting both I don't see why that says anything about atheists (or more accurately, as I just discovered by consulting the Stanford Enc of Phil, non-believers in "process theism", which is what I - and I think my friends - mean by "atheism".) We doubt any concept of god that involves interacting with the "real" world in detectable ways. I am too ignorant to assert that atheism in that sense doesn't imply philosophical materialism, but I can confidently assert that it doesn't imply conscious philosophical materialism because I doubt that those friends have any idea what that means. Of course, it may be that we are atypical, but given how randomly the group was assembled (mother, wife, HS friends, work colleagues), I doubt that.

To cut to the chase, my fundamental objection is to presuming that a label gives one insight into people who may or may not even accept the label. Since I don't do labels, I don't call my self a "liberal". But I think when people castigate "liberals" they have people like me in mind. Yet when they go beyond name calling to specifics, the positions they describe seldom apply to me or to any of my "liberal" friends - most often because the issue in question isn't really of enough interest to us to warrant a position at all. I think that is the case here as well.(To be clear, I didn't interpret your comment as "castigation".)

- Charles

Anonymous said...

But Charles. . .

You're ignoring the very reason that people chose the label atheist for themselves and proudly wear it.

I do not believe in "God" as defined by the religious (an Uber-person, separate from all the rest of us), and yet I would never call myself an atheist.

Labelling oneself as atheist is almost always done for the purposes of looking askance at those religious ignorami who just don't get it.

It's also a label almost always adopted by people who confuse reality with what they call the "real world" -- that is, the world of labels and concepts in their belief system, such as the idea of "objectivity".

All concepts are phenomenally experienced, both the materialist and religious believer swim in a universe of radical subjectivity. Perhaps the notion of "objective reality" is true and correct, but we can never actually apprehend it, because we are purely subjective beings. Our beliefs in "science", in "objectivity" are BELIEFS, hence inherently experienced subjectively. Losing sight of this is the original sin of human beings who are ever-again mistaking their beliefs for reality.

Charles T. Wolverton said...

matthew -

Ahh - the problem is that I am unaccustomed to encountering people who make disparaging remarks about "atheists" who have any idea what they're talking about. But now that I understand your position, I think we actually agree on the philosophy. (I've been reading Simon Blackburn's book "Truth" which addresses the subjectivity issue).)

I am also unaccustomed to dealing on a personal basis with people who label themselves "atheist", for self-aggrandizement or any other reason (despite many close friends who are literally "a-theists"). Perhaps your experience is different. Nonetheless, sweeping accusations warrant convincing evidence beyond just bad personal experiences (sample size and all that). I rather doubt that you have that because I rather doubt it exists. Am I wrong?

- Charles

Anonymous said...

"ab said...

Your argument applies similarly to the flying spaghetti monster, the celestial teapot or the invisible pink unicorn."

No, I'm pretty sure that the pattern most theists think they perceive corresponds far more closely to the God they learned about in Sunday School than to such debating points. And that proves nothing, because our pattern recognition facility is highly trainable. If you let your mind search for patterns in random data, it's far more likely to find the sort of patterns you were trained from early childhood to look for than something new.

David, I think it's an excellent way to describe the psychology of religious belief...