Brian Blais: Bayes vs Apologetics

Atheism, Authors, Critique of Apologetics, Philosophy, Podcast, Thought Experiments
Brian Blais
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My guest this week is Brian Blais, professor at Bryant University and IBNS, Brown University. He is the author of A Measure of Faith – Probability in Religious Thought and Statistical Inference For Everyone. Brian is an expert in Bayes’ Theorem and how it applies to philosophy, theology and apologetics.

I am a Scientist, Skeptic, and Professor at Bryant University and the IBNS, Brown University. My goal is to make technical subject matters widely accessible and to use my analytical and computational skills to assist anyone with their science-related problems.

In this episode, I take the restraints off myself and express the reasons why I think apologetics is faulty. Brian is the perfect guest for this. We bounce ideas off one another to articulate good epistemology. We discuss how mathematics and Bayes can be abused by injecting unstated information which changes the probabilities and ultimately the conclusions one comes to.

We also discuss how beliefs have consequences. The current rash of conspiracy theories have had real-world effects. Brian explains how decision theory can be used to make difficult choices.

Links

Brian’s website
https://bblais.github.io/

Twitter
https://twitter.com/bblais

Statistical Inference For Everyone (Free Version)
https://bblais.github.io/posts/2019/Jan/14/stats-for-everyone/
Amazon Version
https://amzn.to/2O2onzQ

A Measure of Faith: Probability in Religious Thought
https://amzn.to/37QzEKt

Bayes’ Theorem
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayes%27_theorem

The Monty Hall Problem
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Hall_problem

Very Bad Wizards episode with Agnes Callard
https://www.verybadwizards.com/203

David Deutsch

Interact

Deconversion How To
https://gracefulatheist.com/2017/12/03/deconversion-how-to/

Critique of Apologetics
https://gracefulatheist.com/critique-of-apologetics/

Apologetics Epistemology and Moving On
https://gracefulatheist.com/2017/10/02/apologetics-epistemology-and-moving-on/

Previous episodes referred to in this episode
https://gracefulatheist.com/2020/10/04/randal-rauser-conversation-with-my-inner-atheist/
https://gracefulatheist.com/2020/11/01/ian-mills-new-testament-review/
https://gracefulatheist.com/2020/11/15/barrett-evans-the-contemplative-skeptic/

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Attribution

John Monson and the Brothers Galaxy: Dawg Biscuits on the Moon

“Waves” track written and produced by Makaih Beats

Alice and Bob Make a Wager

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

Alice and Bob believe in contradictory theistic gods, Theo and Uja respectively. Both faiths require belief in their mutually exclusive gods or dire consequences are at stake.

Carol does not believe in a god, but she is an open and honest seeker of truth. Carol has separate conversations with both Alice and Bob in which the believers try to convince the non-believer why she should believe.

Independently, Alice and Bob both use variations on Pascal’s Wager to try and convince Carol to believe. However, Alice wants Carol to believe in Theo but Bob wants Carol to believe in Uja.

Alice and Bob’s argument goes something like this:

If you are right about the nonexistence of God and I am wrong,

I lose nothing.

If I am right about the existence of God and you are wrong,

you lose everything.

Questions

  • Why might Carol not be convinced by either?
  • What happens when Alice and Bob talk to each other?

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Shazam Cosmological Argument

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

Alice and Bob believe the universe was created by the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy (GUCT). According to Alice and Bob’s faith GUCT is ineffable and cannot be described nor understood. The GUCT is eternal and beyond time and space. It is powerful and wicked smart. Also the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy is blue.

Alice and Bob use the famous, unassailable and air tight Shazam Cosmological Argument to prove the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy created the universe.

1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2) The universe appears to have begun to exist;

Therefore:

3) The universe has a cause.

1) The universe has a cause;
2) If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, ineffable Creator … um Thingy of the universe exists that sans the universe is outside of time and space, powerful and wicked smart. It would also help if it were blue;

Shazam!

3) An uncaused, ineffable Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy exists, that sans the universe is outside of time and space, powerful and wicked smart. Also clearly blue in color.

Questions

  • Are you convinced by this argument that the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy created the universe?
  • What flaws do you see in this argument?
  • Does the blueness of the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy seem arbitrary?
  • How is the Great-Universe-Creating-Thingy different than your tradition’s explanation for the beginning of the universe?

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Alice and Bob’s Historical Evidence

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

Alice and Bob worship Theo, a theistic god. Their revered book, “The Revelation of Theo,” was written and compiled 1919 years ago by Theo’s early followers and has many amazing accounts of the miracles performed in Theo’s name. This includes the wonderful story of Theo’s representative on Earth, Jose, who swam up what is now called Victoria Falls, in order to demonstrate the great power of Theo to release the people from the net of transgressions that bind them.

Alice and Bob are well aware that there are many religious writings from other faiths with equally amazing accounts. These writings come before, during and after the time of the writing of “The Revelation of Theo.” They are also aware that other believers point to their respective writings as evidence for their own faiths. However, these writings are in direct opposition to their own sacred book, “The Revelation of Theo,” and cannot be harmonized.

Alice and Bob are smart and well educated in history, ancient writings and languages. They want to apply an accurate and principled historical standard to review the sacred writings of others and crucially, to use the same standard on their sacred book to show that Theo is the one true God.

Questions

  • What would the historical standard look like?
  • What standard do you use when evaluating religious claims?
  • Does the standard rule out the miracle stories of other faiths?
  • Do you apply the standard equally to your own sacred writings?
  • How would you use this standard to disprove the miracle of Jose swimming up Victoria Falls, while simultaneously proving the miracles from your preferred ancient text?

Use the following statements to complete the question:

Would you be more or less inclined to believe in Theo … 

  • If the story of Jose included 707 eye witnesses testimonies?
  • If the story of Jose indicated there was no water at Victoria Falls before this miracle and now there demonstratively is?
  • If the early followers of Theo were persecuted even to death by their neighbors and yet kept the faith?
  • If we currently had tens of thousands of partial pieces of copies of “The Revelation of Theo” from two to three hundred years after its initial writing?
  • If the first independent historical reference to Jose was written 103 years later?
  • If there were 3.1 billion followers of Theo today?

Final Question

  • Is it wise, even in principle, to use ancient texts as evidence for supernatural miracles?

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Two Smart Believers Disagree

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

Alice and Bob are bible believing Christians and they go to your church. They both also happen to have an education in interpreting the bible. One day, you ask them both a question about a particular interpretation on a significant passage (or doctrine) that has been troubling you.

Alice and Bob both give compelling, well thought out and equally biblically supported answers which just so happen to be mutually exclusive.

Questions

  • How do you as a person of faith determine which is true and which is false (or neither is true)?
  • Is revelation an effective method to discover truth?

This post is part of the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Two Islanders Thought Experiment

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

Thought Experiment

Setup

There are two isolated islands which have no contact with the outside world or each other. In a twist of fate, Alice and Bob find themselves alone on these separated islands just as they have reached the age of reason.

After a short time Theo, a theistic god, reveals itself to Alice and Bob independently. The revelation is the same in both cases. Theo miraculously provides writing utensils and parchment for both of them.

Ten years go by, in which, Alice and Bob on their respective islands independently worship Theo and write down the revelation they received including how to properly worship Theo. Remember they don’t know about each other and have no contact with anyone else.

After ten years Alice and Bob are rescued from their islands and tell their stories to the world.

Questions

Do you believe Alice’s and Bob’s written accounts of the revelation of Theo and how to properly worship Theo will be the same?

From the perspective of Theo, is revelation an effective way to transmit truth?

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.

Thought Experiments for Believers

Critique of Apologetics, Thought Experiments

I am creating a new series of blog posts called “Thought Experiments for Believers.”

Unlike my typical verbose 1000+ word posts, these will be short setups with one or more probing questions. And that’s it. I am not going to answer them myself. The purpose of the questions is for the reader to decide for themselves. In many of the thought experiments, we will have three characters: Alice and Bob, of mathematics and encryption fame, and Theo, our generic theistic god.

Ironically, the thought experiments will take very seriously the premise of the existence of a theistic god. They will be predicated on the assumption that such a god exists and then ask the reader to consider the implications if that were true. My argument has always been that it is not that believers take god too seriously it is that they do not take the implications of a theistic god seriously enough.

There are a couple of hurdles the believer will have to overcome in order for the thought experiments to be useful. One, I am not suggesting that there will not be explanations for these thought experiments. Apologists will always have an answer. What I am asking of you is to seriously consider if it is the right answer. Do these explanations satisfy you? Two, many times apologists and believers will outright reject hypotheticals on principle. They can say to themselves, “well, this isn’t real so it doesn’t matter.” My challenge to you is to overcome this hesitation and take the questions seriously.

These are the types of questions I wish someone would have asked me early on in my faith. Even if you are convinced of the answers you have and are more confident in your faith after having asked yourself these questions, it will have been worth while.

I’ll continue to add broad topics here with links to the specific questions. If you happen to have a particularly good question you would like added here please contact me. If you are a believer and want to respond, please either comment or contact me.

Apologetic Arguments

Is revelation an effective method for communicating truth?

Does your theistic god intervene in the world?

Review: Hell Is The Absence of God

Atheism, Book Review, Humanism, Thought Experiments

Permit me to geek out a bit.

This past year, the movie Arrival hit theaters. I am an admitted geek with a particular weakness for time travel, linguistics and alien science fiction. So this movie was like crack cocaine for me. After watching the movie, I wanted more. I discovered the source material is a short story called “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It can be found in his book titled “Stories of Your Life and Others” which is a collection of short stories.

The short story did not disappoint. Like all great science fiction, the subject is not actually aliens or technology but humanity and what it means to be human. In fact, this is a poignant story about a mother and her daughter. Because of the mother’s exposure to the alien language, she is able to “remember” the future. She knows the toddler bumps on the head and the teenage temper tantrums that will occur *before* her daughter is born. Ultimately the mother decides to have her daughter even after gaining foreknowledge of her daughter’s death at age 25. In the same way that many of us, given the chance to do life all over again, would say “I would do it the same way because it led to my significant other and my children” the mother chooses to do it the “same” way for the first time.

There is a humanist message here. Human relationships are what give us meaning in life even though human lifetimes are finite. The joy and love are worth any pain and heartache we may experience.

Hell on Earth

As good as “Story of Your Life” is, another of Chiang’s short stories stood out as more significant for an atheist humanist such as myself. In his short story, “Hell Is The Absence of God,” the excellent​ premise is that a (generic) theistic god exists. One which, crucially, actually intervenes in the lives of modern humans in the form of angelic visitations that have both miraculous and disastrous effects. In short, no one in this world doubts the existence of god because there is physical evidence of his interventions.

There are still decisions to be made about this god. During the visitations, for example, one person may receive miraculous healing while another may be severely injured by the debris from a building destroyed by the divine presence. The devout in this world see the miraculous after effects of the visitations as proof of this god’s goodness and downplay the destructive elements, while others see the negative consequences as either negating the benefit of the miraculous or down right outweighing it. Sound familiar?

When this short story first came out, this was the main theme that caused controversy. Christians felt it was a direct attack on Christianity and a rehashing of the problem of suffering. Though the story never identifies a specific religion as its target, there are vague Jewish and Catholic overtones. Chiang did an excellent job of making it as generic as possible and not, in fact, specific to any extant religion.

For a critique from a theist along these lines see John C Wright. For a critique of that critique see this. Also check out a recent episode of Very Bad Wizards where David and Tamler take on the purposefulness/purposelessness of suffering in the short story which according to Ted Chiang’s notes on the story is much closer to Ted Chiang’s intention than what you find here.

Although there is much to unpack regarding the problem of suffering, that is not the most damning point of the story. I want to focus on the more obvious point: that this God actively intervenes in the world of the story. The subtle, or not so subtle, subversiveness of this story is an attack on divine hiddeness in the real world. In particular, this god continued to intervene in the world even in the modern scientific age. In the story, the visitations were studied scientifically, statistics were gathered and evaluations were made about those who benefited and those who suffered. In our world, where are the emperor’s new clothes?

Any straight forward reading of the bible (insert the usual apologies for focusing on Christianity) suggests a god who interacts with his creation, and yet that is not the world we find ourselves in. This highlights, as I have pointed out before, not that theists take religion too seriously but that they don’t take it seriously enough. If they really believed what the bible describes, they would be in sack cloth and ashes every day crying out for god to *DO* something … anything.

In the notes on the story Chiang quotes Anne Dillard as saying:

If people had more belief they would wear crash helmets when attending church and lash themselves to the pews.


For more see critique of apologetics from an honest seeker or check out the podcast


Thought Experiment

Like the premise of this story we can run the thought experiment:

If God is real what would we expect to observe in the universe?

We would expect to see evidence that god created the universe. Instead we see a universe that behaves according to the laws of physics. And we can model the evolution of the universe from near the Big Bang until now. There is also a common theory among liberal theists that god guided evolution of life on Earth. Yet we see no evidence of tampering in the DNA record. Asserting that a god created the universe is not the same as evidence.

We would expect to see that believers experience statistically significant better quality of life from non-believers. But we see that believers and non-believers experience about the same positive and negative life experiences. The divorce rate is not significantly different. Cancer rates are the same.

We would expect to see miracles. Really, this is the big one that this story highlights. The god of most theistic religions is an interventionist yet miracles mysteriously disappeared in the modern scientific age. I have always, even as a Christian, felt the explanations from believers for why miracles ceased were very weak tea. Their explanations would seem to be describing a change in character in their unchanging god. Double blind tests researching the effects of intercessory prayer on healing diagnosed sick people showed no effect beyond the placebo effect.

We would expect to see prophets accurately speaking for god. Today if a person says they are speaking for God we quietly call the authorities to have the person institutionalized. Where are the prophets who predict a god’s intervention before a natural disaster occurs rather than pontificating after the fact?

We would expect to see justice. Returning to the topic of the problem of suffering, we would expect to see the righteous victorious and the unrighteous punished.

This list of reasonable expectations is not even approaching exhaustive. One could go on and on about the expected results of an interventionist god participating in the world vs the deafening silence that we actually experience.

Angelic advise for the real world

In the story we learn that the fallen angels are rather rational creatures who tell the humans to “Make up their own minds.” Hell turns out to be … well … not much different than the world we find ourselves in minus the visitations of angels. This highlights that in reality: Earth is the absence of god. In short, this fictional story allows one to viscerally feel the disparity between what a reasonable person would expect and what actually happens in our world.

Does the character, Neil, experience god’s grace?

Another theme of the story to explore is the very human reaction when others experience miracles but you do not.

Both in the story’s world and in ours there is a tendency to equate success in life with god’s favor. How easy is it for those who are born comfortably ensconced in the middle class to avoid questioning whence their success came from? With a simple answer close at hand, “god loves me,” it takes a very self reflective person to recognize the privileges that are the more likely reasons.

Neil is born with a birth defect that affects his leg. He is ambivalent about his condition but resents that others take it as sign of god’s disfavor. The story highlights our tendency to see those less fortunate than ourselves as “deserving” it somehow.

Even worse, when his wife dies as a result of a visitation, those who experienced miracles push him to become devout. This is a painful reminder of the well intentioned but ultimately destructive pat answers believers give to those suffering (whether those suffering are believers themselves or not).

Neil’s reaction to such attempts at persuasion depended on who was making it. When it was an ordinary witness, he found it merely irritating. When someone who’d received a miracle cure told him to love God, he had to restrain an impulse to strangle the person. But what he found most disquieting of all was hearing the same suggestion from a man named Tony Crane; Tony’s wife had died in the visitation too, and he now projected an air of groveling with his every movement. In hushed, tearful tones he explained how he had accepted his role as one of God’s subjects, and he advised Neil to do likewise.

While Chiang’s one weakness is a tendency toward dues ex machina, in this story it is fitting: a literal shinning of the divine light on his main character, which sets up the last stinging critique. Neil, the main character, has been “blinded by the light” (his goal all along so he could join his devout wife in Heaven) which allows him to “love” God despite his bitterness. And yet when he dies shortly after, God chooses to send him to hell instead. Such that Neil is the one person in hell who actually experiences it as a hell. He loves God (he can’t help it) but will never experience his nearness. This is a stinging critique of the devout in our world who most yearn to experience the closeness of an absent god.

Unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

— Neil

Neil still loves Sarah, and misses her as much as he ever did, and the knowledge that he came so close to rejoining her only makes it worse. He knows his being sent to Hell was not a result of anything he did; he knows there was no reason for it, no higher purpose being served. None of this diminishes his love for God. If there were a possibility that he could be admitted to Heaven and his suffering would end, he would not hope for it; such desires no longer occur to him.

Neil even knows that by being beyond God’s awareness, he is not loved by God in return. This doesn’t affect his feelings either, because unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.

And though it’s been many years that he has been in Hell, beyond the awareness of God, he loves Him still. That is the nature of true devotion.

The point is that Neil having experienced the blinding of the light and finding himself sitting in hell loving a god who neither sees him nor loves him back represents believers in our world on Earth. They are dedicated to a god who, at best, is indifferent and more likely is non-existent.

Is this grace?

My opinion: no. This is the opposite of grace. This is the cruelty of religious claims. The strong implication that if one does not experience god’s graces in one’s life it is somehow the fault of the believer.

When one wakes up and accepts reality on its own terms, one can experience awe, mystery and most important, the powerful loving connection between human beings. This is what actual grace can look like: Secular Grace.

This post is in the series Thought Experiments for Believers.