Defeating Religion in One Easy Step, part 2
Part 2 — The Principle of Conservation of Belief
Luke Muehlhauser, the proprietor of Common Sense Atheism, has proposed that we can defeat religions in one easy step. To do so, he takes a broad look at different arguments for God and notices what they all have in common: They all posit God as the best explanation for something.
Luke identifies the following four criteria for a good explanation:
- It’s testable and it passes the tests we give it.
- It’s consistent with our background knowledge and experience. (What philosopher Tom Morris called The Principle of Belief Conservation).
- It’s simpler than the alternatives.
- It has good explanatory scope — in other words, it explains a wide variety of data.
Yesterday, I argued that God creates a testable hypothesis and that this hypothesis passes that test. Today, we are going to move on to what philosopher Tom Morris calls “The Principle of Belief Conservation,” which he sums as follows:
What about the second criterion? Is the God hypothesis consistent with our background knowledge? Not at all. God is an extreme violation of our background knowledge about how things work. God is a person but he doesn’t have a body. God thinks, but without the passage of time. He knows everything, but he doesn’t have a brain. God is a terrible violation of our background knowledge in many serious ways.
There are three specific examples given as to why God violates the Principle of Belief Conservation: he is a person without a body, he thinks without a passage of time, and he knows everything without a brain. This only begs the question, however, by packaging concepts with no good explanations. Let’s unpack those background assumptions:
The objection inextricably ties personhood to a physical body. What is the core of personhood? It can’t solely be a physical body, since that ignores the question of the persistence of an individual. The materials within our body are recycled. So every couple of months, you have a totally new set of cells that comprise you. Yet, your thoughts and memories and demeanor all remain constant (to a certain extent; I’m much less sarcastic toward dissenters now than when I started this blog in 2006).
Whatever makes you you and me me is retained despite the physical container changing constantly. The philosophical question of personhood is much more complex. We question whether things with a physical body (such as chimpanzees or rocks) could ever be considered people. We also ask if nonphysical entities could be people; for example, would a sufficiently intelligent computer ever be called a person?
The abortion debate centers on personhood of the fetus, and there certainly is no question as to whether the fetus has a physical body or not.
The objection inextricably ties thought to time. This confuses me since there’s no consensus I know of on what constitutes or creates an original thought. I can’t recall a single discussion tying thought to the passage of time. Therefore, there’s no reason to suppose that thinking necessarily requires a passage of time.
There’s a more charitable way to look at Luke’s argument, however. Perhaps he meant that thoughts imply at least the possibility of change, implying a cause-and-effect chain. In a timeless reality, cause-and-effect is meaningless since there is no passage of time (duration). That means there is no such thing as a “prior” moment that effects a subsequent moment and continues in a logical progression from the past into the present. It’s all happening at once.
The objection inextricably ties possession of knowledge to a physical brain. Is knowledge the pure information itself, or the dendrite that grows in response to learning a tidbit of information? I would submit that knowledge is the pure information, and that is something that can’t be reduced to a physical entity (such as a branch of a neuron in the human brain). This means that God need not possess a physical brain to have knowledge.
What all of this boils down to is a presumption of materialism. But if one rejects materialism (as most Christian theists do), then this plank is question-begging.