The end of democracy

Lately I’ve been reading Plato’s The Republic. Part of this is an analysis of different types of government. Here are three points Plato made on democracy:

– In a democracy freedom is paramount, and the people will want greater and greater freedom. Any constraint on freedom becomes unbearable to them.

– In a democracy people will not accept that some pleasures should be encouraged while others are bad and should be subdued – instead they say that all pleasures are equal.

– An excess of freedom brings about the end of the democracy and the beginning of tyranny.

That second point. Am I describing Plato or todays newspaper?

So why is it that people in a democracy would see all pleasures as equal?

Here are a few thoughts amounting to a partial explanation. In the beginning of Western democracy, a number of groups had their own ideas about what was true. They all agreed there was such a thing as objective reality, that there was an order in nature that we ought to submit to, and an objective morality based on this, but they couldn’t agree on the details. Because of this they decided that the government would be neutral on this point. There would be no official ideology. (Separation of church and state.)

But in some strange way, people take their cues on how to think about the order of things partly from the system of government that surrounds them. So if you live in a monarchy, most likely you will conceive of the world as objectively real, and authority as objectively real, and all representing an order in nature that ought to be respected and submitted to.

In a democracy, people think differently. If the government is neutral between different ideas about the natural order of things, decisions are made without reference to any natural order of things. From there, “there is no such thing as a natural order of things” follows, and from this, to no truly objective morality – there are only individual wants and preferences.

But since the idea of objective reality is tied to the idea of a natural order of things, and the idea of a natural order is tied to the idea of objective morality, the rejection of an objective morality and a natural order of things upholding it will naturally lead to a rejection of objective reality itself. All is subjective, all that matters is my wants and needs and desires.

But if all is subjective and all that matters is my own desires and wants and needs, anyone who says that there truly is an objective order of things, and we ought to submit to it – that person becomes an enemy.

The end of democracy

Now, how might democracy end in tyranny? Western decay is advanced enough I think we can make some educated guesses here. Here are some dangers to our democracy:

1. Propaganda 

Imagine you are a media mogul with a large reach over the population. Now, imagine you and the other moguls want a certain policy changed. If your reach is large enough you can control:

– That your topic is discussed 

– What options are discussed

– How each side is framed

– How people should feel about each side 

The methods of emotional manipulation are well understood. So if you hit the right buttons for long enough, your side will win with certainty, as humans have almost no defences against propaganda.

Who will stop you, given that we have freedom of the press?

In a democracy, people will agitate for changes that they think are right. With the right propaganda, you can brainwash the public, and they will campaign as if it was their idea all along.

Democracy requires open debate. Freedom of speech is useless without freedom from propaganda.

2. The Maverick

Let’s say our media mogul from point 1 gets power-drunk. Instead of asking what the people need to happen, he drenches public debate with his own ideas, one after the other.

Although the mogul’s ideas win support, the people become resentful that their own needs are being ignored. But they can’t elect any ordinary politician to meet their needs – such politicians are too busy servicing the mogul.

So they elect a complete outsider.

The competence and sanity of the outsider is a roll of the dice.

(Helloooo Donald Trump.)

3. An Official Ideology

If the mogul and his successors go far enough, they may be able to install an official ideology – by that I mean a way of thinking installed into the system so that it is difficult or impossible to change by democratic means. Using their media access, they persuade the population that rights must be restricted against their opponents, whom they have presented as evil.

At this point, the democracy has changed to some sort of ideological quasi-democratic nation-state, with many important questions off-limits.

Since the mogul’s propaganda is now official, and freedom of speech restricted, even to think against the ideology becomes difficult. The mogul’s successors become more convinced of their righteousness in their self-made echo chamber. They introduce more and more rules to reinforce the ideology and restrict the remaining opposition.

(Helloooo Soviet Union.)

4. New Management 

Alternatively, someone wins power who sees the mogul for what he is and determines to bring him down.

By nationalising the press.

Now the state controls the press. 

Now we have a “managed democracy”. 

But if this is skilfully done, the new leader will learn from the mogul’s mistakes and won’t overplay his hand.

(Helloooo Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.)

5. Game Over

But a sufficiently ruthless leader will learn a different lesson from the mogul’s demise. The mogul’s mistake? He didn’t eliminate elections. He didn’t shoot anyone. By manipulating the system this ruthless leader will slowly but surely remove the constraints that remain. 

Finally, a democratic change of power will be impossible and we will have a tyranny.

(Helloooo Josef Stalin.)

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Cosmological Argument and stuff

The famous cosmological or first cause argument for God’s existence is well known, at least in the basics: it purports that the world around us requires a cause and that cause is God. The argument is associated with Plato, Aristotle , Aquinas and many other thinkers. Consider this post a half-arsed reconstruction of the argument.

It is built on a few basic ideas about causation.

Firstly: There is no such thing as something that could have a cause but doesn’t. So everything either requires a cause and must have one, or could not possibly have a cause and doesn’t.

Secondly: What does have a cause?

– Anything with a beginning

– Anything with parts (as something had to join the parts together)

– Anything that has changed (as something had to make it like it is now)

– Anything that could possibly not exist (as something had to make it exist)

Now, since anything with one or more of these qualities must have a cause, one of two results follows: either an infinity of stuff, as cause follows cause follows cause follows cause etc, or we arrive at a first cause that could not possibly have a cause itself.

Let’s assume for the moment that the universe does have a beginning. (I’ll deal with an eternal universe later.) Of course it might not, but it does look like it. Is it true that it therefore requires a cause?

Certainly that would be a commonsensical conclusion. If you were eating dinner, minding your own business, when an apple seemingly popped out of nowhere, you would ask yourself: where did that come from? In other words, assuming a cause.

But some argue here that if the Big Bang is the beginning of time as well as space, it can’t have a cause since causes must happen before their effects and there is no time before. So the rule becomes: anything with a beginning has a cause, except if there is no time before the beginning. Does this make sense?

I’m not sure that it does. Let’s go back to the apple example. Naturally you assume that an apple that appears seemingly out of nowhere has a cause, even if you don’t know what the cause is. Now, what if someone told you that the apple is Just There for no reason, because it is in its own spacetime continuum running parallel to this one, and in that spacetime continuum it is the First Apple and there was nothing before it?

Why can the first physical thing appear causelessly but not the second or third? Since they are all physical things, there must be a physical property that allows the first thing to appear without a cause but not the others. But what could such a property be? Why was this property only there once? Why doesn’t science know about it? The whole idea seems absurd.

To my mind, a universe that is just there for no reason is no better than an apple that is just there for no reason – it doesn’t make sense to talk about physical things in this way.

It seems to me that the atheist cannot accept a beginning for the universe; their position locks them in to an eternal universe.

An eternal universe

Now, presently all the evidence points to the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe, but this could change. So now I will consider the possibility of an eternal universe.

There is a second type of cosmological argument that operates here and now. This argument questions an assumption that is very rarely questioned – the assumption that the physical world keeps going or could keep going by itself. 

Look at your arm – it is made of muscles (among other things) – these are made of cells, which are made of molecules, which are made of proteins, and atoms, and quarks etc. Whatever the bottom level of physical stuff is, does that require something else beneath it holding it together?

The things that must have a cause in point 2: only one of them mentions time.Can they apply here and now, as well as in the past?

Some more detail may be required to make sense of this. It’s most well-known proponent, Aquinas, had no less than three here-and-now cosmological arguments. The first of these was based on this principle: Anything that changes is changed by something else, which is based on Aristotle’s metaphysics of change. 

In brief, Aristotle makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality. Your coffee is hot, but potentially cold. Your dog is potentially on fire, but right now it isn’t. Change, then, is movement from potential to actual. Since something that is potential cannot do anything, any agent of change must be actual, and nothing can change itself.

The most obvious retort here is that animals can change themselves, but that would be a misunderstanding, for the animal has many parts working together. Think of how a cell in your body is changed by another cell, and how each part of that cell changes as its atoms are changed by its subatomic particles and so on. So for example, if the quarks or quantum fields – whatever the bottom level of physicality turns out to be – if they also change, there must be something else changing them. To avoid an infinite regress, they require a first cause here and now. A first cause that can change other things but is itself incapable of change. Even in an eternal universe.

But what does this cause look like? What could we compare it to? It is not like the first domino that topples the others. Rather, it’d be like holding a pile of sand in your hands. If ever you stop holding it, it will fall to the floor and fall apart. In other words, a sustaining cause.

Back to the beginning

What is a first cause at the beginning of the universe like?

Here is my MS Paint style rendering of what we think when we think of the First Cause argument:

cause1

The red is the physical world and the blue is the first cause doing it’s thing.

Does this picture work? Since this cause is not itself in time, the mode of causation here is not that of something kicking off the universe, like the first domino in a row of dominoes. The first cause, whatever it is, caused the first physical thing. But the first cause is outside of time. From the position of something outside of time, does it matter if one thing comes later in time than another? The answer must be: no it doesn’t. To an atemporal cause, time is of no importance. Similarly, since the first cause is not in space, spacial differences do not affect it.

From the perspective of the first cause, the picture must look a little like this:

cause3

Given that the first cause is not separate from the first physical thing in time and space, it will not be separate from the others either. Also, things of the same type will have the same types of causal relations, unless we have some reason to suppose otherwise. So if the first physical thing requires an atemporal cause, doesn’t this show that other physical things do also?

This leads us to a model like the following:

cause2
MS Paint proves God exists
We see that regardless of whether the universe has a beginning or not, we are led to the same place – that the universe has a sustaining cause, not just a cause at the beginning.

Next question: is the first cause intelligent? Since we know that the first cause causes everything else, we can answer this question from it’s effects. Is the universe stable and orderly? Do its parts work together? Or is it a chaotic disorderly mess? The answer is clear: it is stable and orderly. Therefore the first cause is intelligent.

So now we come to a conclusion: The universe has a first cause. It does not have a beginning. It is not divisible into parts. It cannot change. It could not possibly not exist. It is not physical. It is intelligent. It holds everything else in existence from moment to moment. I think it is clear why many conclude that the first cause is God.

The demise of modern morality

The most influential moral philosophies to emerge in modern times are Kant’s deontological ethics and consequentialism. Both moral philosophies have been greatly influential not only in the academy but in society at large. But what are they and how well do they work?

Consequentialism

This is probably the most popular way of looking at morality in Western society. But although it has a surface plausibility to it, a consequences-only view of morality quickly leads to absurdities.

Consider the following variant on the trolley problem: a child is tied to the railway tracks. On a branch line is an expensive Ferrari. Should I pull the lever, diverting the train onto the branch line, thus saving the child? No doubt most of us would. But hang on a minute: if we refuse to pull the lever and let the child die, we could sell the Ferrari and save the lives of many children in Africa. So according to consequentialism, that’s what we should do.

Or how about this: at a hospital are three patients. One needs a heart transplant, one a lung transplant and one a liver transplant. All are life and death situations. A healthy young woman comes in for a checkup. Should we kill this woman and save the lives of the three? According to consequentialism, absolutely we should.

Let’s leave aside the contrived thought experiments for a moment, for this is not the only problem with consequentialism. For a decision of any complexity, the consequences will be difficult if not impossible to predict, thus rendering consequentialism useless in practice; arguably this is consequentialism’s biggest problem.

In my view, consequentialism is by far the worst basis for morality of the major options available. Unfortunately, it is the one most influential in wider Western society.

Kant’s Deolontological Ethics

According to Kant, the only intrinsically good thing is a good will. Other things such as money and intelligence can be used for evil and therefore are only good when used with a good will. Consequences are explicitly denied here: if you save someone’s life because you want money or fame, that is not a moral action because of your bad motive. A good will acts only out of moral duty and not out of any other motive.

To act morally is to act freely. If we act according to our animal instincts is to be a slave to those instincts; to act rationally and thus morally is to be free, even though we have a duty to act morally. So paradoxically, being free and having moral duties go together.

Kant’s morality is a law-based morality, but law requires authority. Who or what is the authority? According to Kant, each individual is autonomous and therefore a self-legislator.

But how to make moral decisions? According to the Categorical Imperative: to act only according to maxims by which you could rationally will a universal law.

Example: Promise keeping. Should I break a promise? The maxim I am following is “I should break promises if it benefits me”. But if this became a universal law, no one would be able to trust promises at all. Contracts would be impossible. No one would be able to trust anyone else, and since society needs people to work together, after a time the system would collapse. We would all live in ruins, and carry clubs to fend off bears. Therefore I have a duty to keep my promises.

The demise of modern moral philosophy

Kant’s position does have its strengths, but it has been the target of a number of criticisms. Elizabeth Anscombe called the “self-legislator” idea “absurd on its face” – a legislator without authority makes no sense, and since no law-based system of morality can survive the death of its legislator, Kant’s system crumbles.

In 1958, Elizabeth Anscombe published the essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” which demolished both consequentialism and Kantian ethics. After this Alisdair Macintyre’s “After Virtue” precipitated a revival within academia of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

According to Macintyre, there are only two ways to ground morality. One of these is an Aristotelian conception of “the good”. The other is divine law. Since modern moral thinking has rejected both of these, it floats in midair, being not based on anything else. Therefore thinking about morality has degenerated into a shallow emotionalism; something is wrong if it feels wrong. Moral discourse has thus become shrill and incoherent.

Free Will (or: Are You A Meat Robot?)

Free will has been confidently declared an illusion by some; a relic from a dusty age of lord and serf, monk and priest. But is this really so? Do we have free will and does it matter?

It would seem we don’t have free will, given the predictable nature of the world around us. Pick up a ball and set it on top of a slope. The ball rolls down. Put it back on top. Down it goes again. Drop a cat off the Eiffel Tower. It lands on its feet. Etc.

If the physical world is so set in its ways, why not us? Aren’t our choices an illusion? Case closed?

Let’s look at what no free will would mean.

Morality: If no free will, no morality, as we are not truly responsible for choices we aren’t making. Seems obvious. Let’s move on.

Daily Life: That annoying punk that bumped into you while crossing the street had no choice. The kind man who held open the door for you is a meat robot. You are at an ice-cream stand with no control over what flavour you will buy. You feel like you have a choice – but you don’t. It’s like God has your mind in a vice, as you point at the vanilla or the caramel.

If what you are doing right now is inevitable, how long ago did it become inevitable? An hour ago? At the Big Bang?

While there are any number of self-declared free will sceptics, all of them act as though their own choices matter. Like meat robots agonising over their algorithms. There are no true free will sceptics.

Rationality: If we never truly make choices, we never choose to believe anything, for good reasons or bad. We never choose to follow the evidence. We never choose to reach a conclusion; we are just following a script. Our lives are like a movie being played back; we no more make intelligent decisions than the frames of a movie make “decisions” for the actors. If no free will, no rationality and no intelligence – the scientist is no more rational than the sea slug or the tree stump. Thus, to claim that science says we have no free will is to cut the legs from under science itself, and all human knowledge with it.

I don’t think free will can be denied; indeed, it would be a catastrophe if we had to deny it. No free will? No human agency; all human experience would be nonsense. No free will has such far-reaching consequences, it is like arguing that everything is illusory and The Matrix is real. Worse, there is no red pill. 

Surely we must have free will in some sense, even if we can’t understand it. 

But what about the science experiments that show we don’t have free will? Most famously, the Libet experiments found activity in the brain before the choice was registered in the consciousness. But the decisions made in those experiments were extremely simple reflex actions and what (if anything) they say about free will is heavily disputed. Crucially, it was found that there was still an opportunity to veto the decision after the conscious awareness of it. Libet himself didn’t think his experiments undermined free will.

Some appeal to quantum physics as a way out. Quantum physics is famously not deterministic, but it is hard to see how random choices would be any more free than deterministic ones.

Some would say that questions of our notions of will and human agency are just different types of questions to the mathematical models found in science. Our notions of voluntary and involuntary and willpower are not scientific concepts, so it makes no sense to treat them as though they were; they are simply ways to talk about how we act. While there is much truth to this, many would consider it an evasion rather than an answer.

Or this: free will should be understood as a capacity with limitations that has nothing to do with determinism, just like our other capacities. You wouldn’t ask if our arms can “really” throw if determinism is true. 

We must consider what the will actually is. When you decide something, what is it that decides? Is the will a body part? When you kick, is it your foot kicking or do you kick using your foot? In the same way, when you choose to do something it is you choosing to do it rather than your brain choosing. This might seem pedantic, but the point is that you as a person are not reducible to your body parts. While you hopefully do use your brain to make decisions, you are more than just the sum of your parts. 

How to make sense of you (as a whole) deciding and not one body part or another? One possibility: by rethinking causation along Aristotelian lines. 

What would this entail? Recall that for Aristotle, as well as efficient causation (what most think of as “causation”), there were three other types of causation. One of these is formal causation, which describes the way something behaves because of what it is. You could think of this as a type of top-down causation.

Now, in doing this we place “you” as a whole at the top of the causal chain of your actions. So the will reigns supreme. But is the will here free, in any sense? Will top-down causation in a wholly physical entity will be just as predetermined as any other model of causation? If so, to make sense of free will, perhaps we should adjust not only our model of causation, but also our metaphysics.

Again, Aristotle comes to the rescue here. Aristotle had a radically different philosophy of nature from us moderns – everything you see around you is not just matter, but matter organised according to a form, which can be considered as a blueprint of sorts and is explanatorily prior to matter. According to Aristotle, the will and intellect of a human being reside in its form, rather than in matter, and thus the problem of determinism is avoided – giving us a free will worth having.

In conclusion, we can be confident that we truly do have free will, but to understand how we must revisit our modern Western assumptions about the mind and perhaps about reality itself.

Should we doubt our instincts?

All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system.

When should we doubt something?

According to Wittgenstein in “On Certainty”, at some point doubt has to stop. To doubt a claim, we need a background context in which to ground it. This context must provide an understanding of the claim being doubted, a clear fallback position if the doubt succeeds and some way of making the decision.

An example: You believe that Saturn has 62 moons, but your friend says 61. The alternatives are clear. The nature of the dilemma is understood. You can make the decision on whether to doubt.

But what if your friend says Saturn has no moons because moons don’t exist? You need more information. What is the context? Why would anyone claim that moons don’t exist? Unless some shared background can be provided, the claim cannot be a reasonable basis of doubt.

With this in mind I will ask: should we doubt the instincts that evolution has given us? These instincts are like factory settings; we believe them by default solely because we are human, unless something convinces us otherwise. What would it mean to doubt these instincts?

The following is a short, non-exhaustive list:

The world is real. You hold an apple in your hand and eat it. Both your hand and the apple are real. Could you doubt this? Some have argued that the world is a simulation. Others hold that the material world is an illusion. But how do you cash that cheque? Those who believe it walk and run and eat their lunch just like everyone else. Since this is not grounded in anything else and there is no alternative, we have no basis to doubt this.

The human mind is adequate. On this is built all mathematics, philosophy, science. But can we know the human mind is adequate? If goldfish did science it would be limited and wrong, but they would never know it. Why? Because they are goldfish. What would squirrel science be like? Horrible. Dog science? Just no. Would you consult a Chimp Socrates? Of course not. But we are animals too. With this dim view of all other animals, why do we trust ourselves? We pay lip service to the idea that we are animals, but we act as though we are gods. Meat gods. Our level of self-confidence is absurd.

We could even make this argument:

  1. Of the 5 million animal species that exist, every one that has been observed is stupid.
  2. But we are animals!
  3. Almost certainly, we too are stupid.

But what is the fallback position? If we doubted that the human mind can think properly – what then? We cannot imagine an alternative, therefore we have no basis to doubt this.

Free will. Do my choices matter? Hmm. Is it not hubris to assume that animals like us can make choices and that these choices matter? Do you think chickens and sea snakes have free will? If “no”, extrapolate to yourself; you’re an animal too. Yet those who deny free will agonise over their choices just like the rest of us. Therefore free will should not be doubted, assuming we have a choice in the matter.

God. This is an interesting one. Do you understand what it would mean for there to be an everlasting, all-powerful, all-knowing being that controls everything and yet is not visible to our senses? That is so near, and yet so far beyond anything we have ever seen or could see? Of course you don’t. How could you? But how can you doubt something you don’t understand in the first place? Do you also doubt the finer points of constitutional law? This instinct is so extravagant it is not possible to get any grounding for it, whether to doubt, to confirm or to deny.

Objective morality. If something is wrong it’s wrong, right? (Wrong?)  The curious thing: even a murderer will not deny that murder is wrong while murdering. Rather, he will say that what he is doing is not really murder, or that it is self-defense, etc. If you found out that in New Zealand they have “murder parties” where people kill babies and play Scrabble, on what basis is that wrong? On a Golden Right And Wrong Book? On your instinct, that isn’t grounded in anything else and therefore is not doubtable.

What to say about these instincts? A few things.

They are all base-level. The reason they cannot be doubted is that they are not grounded in anything else.

Our instincts are vague. Being instinctual, they do not come with precise definitions. There is a lot of room to move within them. “God” in the above list could be rephrased as “God and/or gods and/or a spirit world”, for example. Free will, morality, a world outside the mind, the adequacy of the mind – all of these can be understood in a variety of ways.

Our instincts are extravagant. Arguably, only the first one – the reality of the physical world – makes a minimal claim. The other four discussed make very large claims.

The vagueness, the inability to find a ground on which to stand in order to doubt or confirm or deny – this makes arguments for or against our instincts futile; it is why debates on these topics are so unsatisfying, why they feel like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

Refuting extreme scepticism

None of our instincts can be verified. All human knowledge is thus based on unverifiable instinct.

But isn’t “based on unverifiable instinct” like saying “based on nothing”? Is all human knowledge just fantasy? 

Indeed, “based on unverifiable instinct” if anything understates the case. Under normal circumstances, a claim that is ungrounded, vague, and unable to be confirmed or denied is considered terrible and tossed out without a second thought. Consider this claim: In a faraway galaxy, parts of a blue cube are happy. That is what a vague, ungrounded, unverifiable claim looks like.

Yet, to say that all human knowledge is based on instinct is to say it’s based on claims like that. It’s hard to imagine a worse basis on which to ground knowledge.

Everyone should gaze into this abyss at least once. Everyone should stare into the void with horror.

Is there a way out? A bridge with which to span the abyss? A way to extract something from the rubble?

Our instincts evolved because they are useful, not because they are true. The exact pathways of how and why are unknown to us.

Since our instincts are all unverifiable, unfalsifiable and ungrounded in anything else, and since they all evolved and thus have the same origin, we have no basis for privileging one over another.

It makes no sense to use one unverifiable instinct to reject another as being unverifiable. If you do, you call all the instincts into question. The abyss beckons.

If you pick and choose, you must place the instincts within a context first; a context from which to make that decision. If the above is correct this cannot be done.

There are only two consistent options available to us: reject all our instincts and all human knowledge, or assume all of them.

Assuming all of them is thus the only option we have for grounding human knowledge. To avoid extreme scepticism, we must do this – despite the absurdities it creates, despite the riddles within riddles.

The advantage? Even though we can only guess as to the truth of our instincts, we know that they are useful – that’s why we have them. Therefore, a system of thought that embraces all of them embraces human flourishing. 

Further reading

Moore’s Proof at the Electric Agora. Discusses Wittgenstein’s “On Certainty”.

Being pedantic about faith

Is it possible to verify that Christianity is true using philosophy?

Aquinas thought that we could prove using philosophy that God exists, that God has all the “omni” attributes normally associated with Him, that God is the first cause of everything, that God keeps everything in existence from moment to moment, that God is conscious and intelligent and designed the world around us, that the human race exists in order to know God and so on. All that using human reason rather than just faith.

However, Aquinas did not think it possible to prove the Christian faith using philosophy. So Christian teaching about the nature of God, about Jesus and the trinity and so on cannot be verified by philosophy.

Is it possible to verify that Christianity is true using evidence?

If by “evidence” we mean scientific evidence, the answer is clearly no, but there are other kinds of evidence.

Is there any other kind of evidence that could satisfy a sceptic? The question calls to mind tedious online arguments we have all witnessed between Christians and atheists. You felt something? Feelings aren’t evidence. You had a dream? Power of suggestion. You had a vision? A hallucination. Your prayer was answered? A coincidence. You were healed? Placebo effect. Your cancer was healed? Cancer goes into remission by itself all the time. You had shrapnel embedded in your knee and it disappeared for no discernible reason, and you have medical documentation for before and after, and the doctor had no idea how it happened? You’re crazy!

There’s a lot that could be said and it’s not as though the sceptics don’t make some good points. Nevertheless I will ask what I believe to be a more interesting and important question: Can a religious claim be empirically verified in principle?

Consider the following scenario: you have been transported back in time and find yourself standing in Jesus’ tomb. Assume you know 100% that this is really happening and that the dead body in front of you is really Jesus. You check and he is, with 100% certainty, dead. Then to your astonishment, he rises from the dead while you are watching. Do you now know with certainty that Christianity is true?

No, you don’t. Why? Because while you know that Jesus just rose from the dead, you don’t know what to do about that. (The early Christians weren’t sure what to do about it either.)

Therefore empirical verification of any religious claim is not possible. There will always be a leap of faith required.

Where’s the evidence?

Evidence. Evidence. Where is the evidence? Show me the evidence or I won’t believe. Such is a typical response of the modern atheist when asked why they don’t believe in God.

By “evidence” they mean empirical evidence; the kind of evidence used by science. Now, empiricism as a starting point to validate truth claims has a long and distinguished history. So how far can empirical evidence get us? Let’s find out what it can’t get us.

The following is a short, non exhaustive list of stuff almost everyone believes in but for which there is no empirical evidence:

Objective reality. When you sit on a chair, you don’t know empirically that the chair exists; all you know is that your mind is giving you the experience of sitting on a chair. To know that the chair has mind-independent reality, you need to go outside your mind to check. Good luck with that.

Causation. Have you ever seen a cause? No. You see things happen after other things, then your mind infers that causation is there. So causation could be illusory, or you might not understand it. Perhaps no one does.

Other minds. You know that you have an inner consciousness. You don’t know that anyone else does. Have you ever seen anyone else’s consciousness? Is it valid to extrapolate from yourself to everyone else in this way? After all, you are a small sample size.

Morality. To say that anything is right or wrong presupposes that there is an objective standard that whoever you are criticising should adhere to. Where is this standard? Can you prove empirically what standard we should use?

Human logic. If the mind evolved, how do you know that this has progressed long enough to produce anything useful? It might take another million years for all you know. Future humanity might consider our science and mathematics a laughing stock.

Abstractions. Abstractions such as “truth”, “knowledge”, “circle”, “hypothesis” and so on do not exist empirically, so how do you know it makes sense to use them? You don’t.

Mathematics. Prove empirically that 2-5=-3. Should be easy. Start with 2 apples, take away 5, for a total of -3 apples. Now pick up one of your -3 apples and eat it. You have successfully proven mathematics empirically. Congratulations.

The past. Your memory is reliable, or is it? Can you go back to check?

History. Was Julius Caesar assassinated? Can you prove it empirically, rather than from dusty old books?

Love. “I love you!” Really? Show me the evidence.

Any empirical fact you can think of will necessarily be based on assumptions such as the above that can’t themselves be proven empirically. For example, to say “I just saw a cat outside my window” assumes a world outside your mind, that you weren’t hallucinating or dreaming, an ability to recognise cats, an ability to construct sentences correctly, the reliability of your memory etc.

Any scientific idea will add on more assumptions, as it must assume that the world is comprehensible both in itself and to us, that scientific concepts such as “hypothesis” and “falsification” make sense, that causation is real and so on. The deeper the level of abstraction, the more ideas must be assumed.

Let’s look at causation for a moment. Science assumes that causation is real but doesn’t tell us how. If for example matter is made of ideas in the mind of God (I am not making this up), then what we think of as physical causation is actually connections between ideas in God’s mind, and all science is theology – and the evidence can’t tell us otherwise. Another example: what if our minds told us that causation works backwards? If they did, no doubt our science would include not evolution, but devolution; not natural selection, but natural unselection – and again, the evidence wouldn’t tell us otherwise.

It follows that there is no such thing as a purely empirical fact. To put it another way, any empirical fact is a non-empirical sundae with an empirical cherry on top. If the non-empirical sundae is wrong, the empirical cherry won’t make it right. Likewise, if the non-empirical sundae is correct, it will still be correct without the empirical cherry.

Looking at examples of empirical evidence only reinforces this point. When I think of empirical evidence, I think of (say) finding fossils in the ground. But it gets a lot more esoteric than that. Consider the following from this paper about the Higgs boson:

Correspondingly, the signal strength relative to the expectation for the standard model Higgs boson is found to be 0.78 ± 0.27 at the Higgs boson mass of 125 GeV. Earlier, the CDF and D0 experiments at the Tevatron reported, for mH = 125 GeV, an observed (expected) 95% CL upper limit of 7.0 (5.7) times the standard model expectation.

Such statistical methods stretch the definition of “empirical” to breaking point.

This means there can be no hard boundary between science and other types of knowledge. Therefore if the success of science gives you confidence in science (and why not), it should also give you confidence in the non-empirical aspects of human thought.

Fine. Now what?

Where to proceed from here?

No one is an acausationist who won’t believe in causation until someone shows them evidence for it, nor does anyone argue for it; it’s just assumed. If the human instincts that evolution has given us about causation, time and space, other minds, objective reality, abstract thought etc should be accepted without argument or evidence, and evolution has given us an instinct to believe in God, you are also fully justified in believing in God without argument or evidence.

What you cannot do is reject anything solely because you believe it has no empirical evidence. If you do, you must also reject the entire above list – objective reality, causation, other minds, the validity of human logic, morality, abstract thought, history, mathematics. 

Clearly that cannot be done. A consistent empiricism is therefore a complete non-starter. The challenge, then, is to find a more balanced approach that takes into account human instinct and logic rather than just empirical evidence.

Introducing Approximatism

I don’t have all the answers, but my own take is this: all the basic human instincts about reality are approximately true. Why all?

Since all human knowledge is ultimately based on unprovable instincts, it makes no sense to use half those instincts to attack the other half as unprovable. Secondly, whatever instincts we have ultimately came from the same source, so there is no basis for privileging one over another. There are only two consistent positions available to us: we assume they are all true and proceed on that basis, or they are all false and all human knowledge is fiction.

So if we are to avoid a scepticism of everything, the role of logic and evidence is to show us exactly how our instincts are true rather than trying to overturn them.