Battleground God and the Loch Ness Monster

Battleground God is doing the rounds on Facebook. It’s a quiz on God-belief. It doesn’t try to argue for theism or atheism, but rather, checks whether your beliefs about God are consistent. I think I did the quiz a few years ago, but I did it again, and found I’m still a logically consistent atheist (at least as far as a quiz which asks a few True/False questions can tell), which was nice.

You’ll never find a Nessie in a zoo

There was some debate over these two questions:

Q10: If, despite years of trying, no strong evidence or argument has been presented to show that there is a Loch Ness monster, it is rational to believe that such a monster does not exist.

Q14: As long as there are no compelling arguments or evidence that show that God does not exist, atheism is a matter of faith, not rationality.

If you answer True to both, you get “hit” (which is bad, because you’re on a philosophical battlefield, remember). The site says:

Earlier you agreed that it is rational to believe that the Loch Ness monster does not exist if there is an absence of strong evidence or argument that it does. No strong evidence or argument was required to show that the monster does not exist – absence of evidence or argument was enough. But now you claim that the atheist needs to be able to provide strong arguments or evidence if their belief in the non-existence of God is to be rational rather than a matter of faith.

The contradiction is that on the first ocassion (sic) (Loch Ness monster) you agreed that the absence of evidence or argument is enough to rationally justify belief in the non-existence of the Loch Ness monster, but on this occasion (God), you do not.

On Facebook, AH (and perhaps RH) said that the cases were different because of the “years of trying” part: Nessie is supposed to live in Loch Ness, so a thorough search might be enough to convince us that she’s not there. If we cannot find God, however, maybe we just haven’t looked everywhere yet.

I think the “years of trying” thing is a red herring here, so the question is badly phrased. The FAQ for the Nessie question explains that in both cases, you’re presented with a lack of positive evidence that something does exist, rather than a positive evidence that it does not (edit: as I said below, on some definitions of evidence, this is a distinction that makes no difference, but it’s one the site seems to make, so we’ll run with it). If you propose using sonar to search Loch Ness, a true Nessian will not be moved: didn’t they mention that Nessie is undectable to sonar? You might find it suspicious that the Nessian knows in advance what experimental results they’ll need to excuse, but that’s merely a demonstration that the Nessian doesn’t believe in Nessie but rather believes in belief in Nessie. It’s not an argument that there’s no Nessie.

The FAQ adds that the Q14, the God question, doesn’t actually specify our current knowledge level about the universe: if we found explanations for the universe’s existence which did not involve God, this would not show that God does not exist, in the same way that the sonar survey wouldn’t show that Nessie didn’t exist, but the question is whether it’s rational to conclude that Nessie and God do not exist merely because of a lack of evidence that they do. Again, I think the “years of trying” in the Nessie question confuses things here, because it puts us in mind of the current state of affairs.

PH objects that the empiricists who wrote the quiz have assumed that God is the same sort of thing as Nessie. But the FAQ points out that the Nessian could say that, while of course Nessie and God are very different, they still assert that Nessie has the ability to evade detection. The atheist could then legitimately wonder why the theist gets to make the “you can’t disprove God” move while the Nessiant can’t make a similar move.

Edited: simont makes the point that we pretty definitely know what we mean by “Nessie”, and there aren’t in fact Nessians making clever claims that Nessie just isn’t the sort of thing that can be detected, whereas this isn’t the case for “God”. The fact that the FAQ has to go into it that particular “hit” in such detail means they could have done it better. A more obviously supernatural belief which doesn’t entail theism or atheism would prevent some of the arguments about those two questions. So, I’ve now concluded that it is fair to object based on the usual meaning of “Nessie”, and that Q10 should probably be about the existence of ghosts.

Bayesian homily

This talk of absence of evidence and evidence of absence reminded me of the appropriate Less Wrong article. I think the FAQ has confused evidence and proof. Absence of evidence for Nessie is evidence of absence of Nessie if that evidence would even slightly make us believe more strongly in Nessie (assuming the evidence is the sort where you either see it or you don’t, rather than having several possible outcomes: I’ve not worked out what happens in that case). This is just the same as the healing prayer case we mentioned before. Many Christians claim that their God’s existence is so obvious that anyone who doesn’t accept it is culpably deceiving themselves. I think this must mean that they would agree that we should expect to find evidence of the Christian God, in which case, if we don’t, that weighs against his existence.

32 thoughts on “Battleground God and the Loch Ness Monster”

  1. My immediate thought about the Nessie vs God parallel is that – at least until the Nessieists start positing unusual properties like sonar-invisibility – we have a clear idea in advance of what sort of thing Nessie is (if it is at all) and what it would take to find it. It’s a big animal, inhabiting a known location of limited size; given the unlimited funding we have in our imaginations, we just search its habitat thoroughly, taking precautions to make sure it doesn’t double back and get round the searchers. At the very worst, just pull the plug out of the bottom of the loch and go over the uncovered ground inch by inch 🙂

    But God is a far more slippery beast – again, even before people start excusing negative results in advance by inventing theologies that say He might be actively hiding from us or for other reasons necessarily indistinguishable from absent. There are just too many things a universe-creating being might be like, and no clear reasons to prefer one over another. From first principles, would you expect a creator god to be detectable by large physical manifestations? I’ve no idea; depends whether He’s into that sort of thing. To be detectable as a small silent voice in the soul, with or without the preparation of being in an appropriate mental state? Who knows. Perhaps He would be detectable through a bias in the observed phenomena of the Universe towards the sort of thing He wanted to create; what might that bias be? Well, could be anything really, and in any case (what with the anthropic principle, the fine-tuning question etc) it’s fairly hard to even come up with a baseline for comparison – you’d have to have a clear idea of what the expected probability distribution of universe-phenomena was in the absence of a god, just so we knew what we were looking for systematic divergence from. So it’s much harder than it is for Nessie to devise an experiment that even I’d be confident would detect any reasonable God if one were present. The closest I can think of is to call the (evidential) problem of evil an instance of the ‘look for bias’ option, and if that’s the least controversial idea I can think of then it doesn’t bode well for the rest!

    1. That’s exactly what I meant.

      Here’s another angle: suppose the scheme those mice set up was to have us evolve into divine beings, like the mice, but no-one has done yet though there have been some close calls. Then statements about God are about a logical possibility which doesn’t exist, but are nevertheless capable of being true. And atheism is then just the doubt that we’ll ever get there or that it’s possible to get there, it’s a matter of faith either way.

      real name: Patrick Herring

    2. I think there’s a very big difference between the questions

      1. Was the world created by some sort of supreme being?

      2. Was the world created by some being that adherents of the major theistic religions would recognize as the sort of being they’ve been worshipping?

      3. Was the world created by a being any reasonable and informed person would recognize as the god of (say) Christianity?

      For #1, indeed it’s entirely unclear what sort of evidence one might hope to see. For #2, it seems much clearer. For #3, much clearer again.

      I think it’s plainly possible for the evidence to justify being atheist, rather than agnostic, about #3, and almost certainly about #2. (I would add that the evidence *does* seem to me to justify that position — but that’s a separate question.) Not so for #1, though it might be reasonable to be atheist-rather-than-agnostic on #1 on Ockhamist grounds. (As, so it happens, I am, with a few caveats.)

      I’m pretty sure that most theists would answer yes not only to #1 but to something more like #2 or even #3, and that their reasons for being theists (such as they are) are closely tied up with the more-specific beliefs that shift them from #1 to #2 or #3. So I think the real live issue is more like #2 or #3 than like #1.

      The point, of course: if “God” is taken to mean the sort of being described in #2, which I think is a reasonable way to take it, then the analogy between God and Nessie isn’t so bad.

    3. They’re now Nessians, a bit like hessian. Anyway…

      I suppose when they talked about God, I thought of classical theist God (omnimax, creator, interacts with the world, so not deist) or even Christian God (classical + Jesus). We do have a reasonably clear idea of what he’s supposed to be like.

      Other things that we might call “God” are harder to pin down, I agree.

      Edit: Gareth has beaten me to it. What he said.

    4. That said, I think they could have chosen something other than Nessie as an example, which was closer to being like God because it is supposed to be supernatural and hard to detect. Maybe ghosts, for example.

  2. I think Q10 is a subtly loaded question, because most people believe the Loch Ness Monster does not exist, and there are arguments in favour of it not existing. What if the question was:

    Q10: If, despite years of trying, no strong evidence or argument has been presented to show that there is an xxxx, it is rational to believe that an xxxx does not exist.

    If there’s no strong evidence either way, why would one believe either way?

    1. It seems its supposed to be loaded. A fairer example might be to ask about something for which there is no evidence which people do generally assume (???), something we don’t generally assume (Nessie) and something people disagree about (God).

        1. There certainly is evidence for the consistency of Peano arithmetic: we have proofs! The most well-known is Gentzen’s, which uses very little machinery: basically primitive recursive arithmetic plus transfinite induction up to Îµ0.

        1. That’s a pretty good example, though I think the trouble with using it as a battleground question is that there are two groups of believers in aliens:

          1. People who believe in aliens because of the Drake equation and similar plausibility arguments.
          2. People who believe in aliens because of UFOs, or ancient astronauts.

          I think we’d like to say that group (1) are basically rational but group (2) are wildly optimistic about the quality of their evidence.

          1. Group 2 believe specifically that intelligent aliens have visited this planet, a much stronger claim.

            There’s an analogy to the God argument, I suppose, in that _specific_ gods are easier to find evidence for/against because it’s easier to test.

  3. The other typical move was in Q14, I just noticed, which subtly implies that faith is essentially irrational, whereas it’s basically just another word for belief, with or without supporting reasons. This is a most Dawkins-inspired quiz, AIUI.

      1. The “reason will get you so far then the leap of faith” line is also needed to entertain the hope the sun will come up tomorrow. It’s basically the problem of induction, I don’t see any epistemological difference. It’s the things Christian have faith in, and the evidential basis, that’s different, rather than the epistemology AIUI. Cf Hume on miracles.

        AFK for a few days…

        1. What you need to believe by leap-of-faith in order to expect the sun to rise is, roughly, the minimum you need to get by at all in the world.

          What you need to believe by leap-of-faith in order to be a Christian seems to be all of that *plus* lots of other things that there’s no particular reason for believing.

          Maybe that’s not a difference of epistemology, as such. So what?

          1. So that progress can be made. I didn’t think we were doing the whole “Why I’m not a Christian” thing but just whether faith-beliefs were necessarily irrational. Sure some people do do that but I don’t think it’s entailed.

            1. I don’t think anyone here has made or implied any claim as strong as “faith-beliefs are necessarily irrational”, and in particular Q14 doesn’t imply that. (It implies that faith is not the same thing as rationality, which surely isn’t unreasonable.) Some people might want to defend the claim — and the authors of “Battleground God” might have been hoping to insinuate, though for what it’s worth I don’t think they were — that *faith-beliefs of the sorts actually held by religious people as part of their religion* are necessarily irrational; the observation that things like “there is at least some regularity to the relationship between what our senses tell us and the state of the world around us” are by some criteria “faith-beliefs” doesn’t seem to me to have any bearing on that issue.

              1. OK “necessarily” is too strong, please delete. Q14 appears to me to say rationality is having conclusive reasons, but there are also strong, good, weak, false & nonsensical reasons. I suppose I want to say that having reasons that are wrong is still being rational, it’s having no reasons at all that’s irrational. This conflicts with the common-parlance meaning of “rational” i.e. having at least a good chance of being true, but I think it’s on the map of possibilities. In case it isn’t obvious I welcome greatly the rationlist challenge to religion to get its act together, and agree there are many things which will fall by the wayside, but the end result will be much clarity.

                1. It says “compelling”, not “conclusive”, and I think the two are importantly different. And … do I need to point out that Q14 is a *question*, a statement that participants in the game can agree or disagree with? Neither the statement itself nor any of the things it may assume in passing should (I think) be taken to be the opinions of the people who made the quiz. Or, for that matter, of Paul or me or any of the other atheists involved in this discussion.

                  I don’t think “rationality” is a binary thing. Perhaps believing something for bad reasons is less irrational than believing it with no reasons at all. But I think just about everyone could give *some* sort of reasons for just about anything they believe, so I am concerned that the way you want to use the word “rational” makes it almost content-free.

                  1. Yes Q14 is a question but I couldn’t fully agree or disagree with it, owing to the underlying lack of sophistication, so taking a hit made me look like some newbie bible-basher. For myself I agree with both the claims of rationality and those of spirituality so phrases like “a matter of faith, not rationality” tend to press my button. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the quiz-writers regard faith & rationality as mutually exclusive.

                    Your “content-free” point is good though. Clearly one would have to regard someone asserting something known to be false as irrational, also invalid inference. And “because I want to” is wilfully lacking in reasoning. Also relying on improbable reasons to support important conclusions is not good though I’m not sure whether it should be called irrational rather than just unwise or silly. Perhaps one may need to get all Aristotelian and have a class of instances which have the form of rationality but not the essence i.e. at least one suppressed false premise. The main class in question here is where you’re relying on practically unprovable or ill-defined premises e.g. about the whereabouts or nature of God. Is it “rational until disproved” or “irrational through avoidance of provability”? I’d go for the former, but then I would wouldn’t I.

                    1. I hardly think “they asked my opinion of something I couldn’t fully agree or disagree with” is evidence of any nefarious intent. It happens all the time. In this instance, the writers of the quiz are simply repeating a claim made frequently by Christian apologists, using the same sort of terms as they do.

                      As for “rationality”, I repeat that it isn’t a binary thing; nor is it monolithic. Basing your opinions on reasons is part of it. Being able and willing to distinguish good reasons from bad is another part.

                      Relying on premises for which one has no evidence is surely not much different, as far as rationality goes, from just saying “because I want to”. I mean, why is “I believe that I will live for ever, because I like believing that” any less rational than “I believe that I will live for ever, because I believe that there is a god who will arrange for me to live for ever; my belief in such a god is simply one of my premises, and of course it can be neither proven nor disproven”?

                      (For the avoidance of doubt, I am not claiming or insinuating that theists are generally motivated by fear of death, or anything of the sort. It’s just an example.)

                    2. Oh I wasn’t claiming nefarious intent, just lack of appreciation. But you’ve reminded me some Christians do the same from the other POV. I’m a bit out of the loop here and had forgotten. Perhaps repeating the misuse of terms by those who do know better is a tad ineffective…

                      A lot of weight is put on “it’s not provable”, “it’s only a theory” etc; perhaps the quiz could be improved by showing how astonishingly little is in fact provable and that this doesn’t give license to make up your own reasons, there are other grades of reason which may apply.

                      With your example I’d say both lines are irrational, they both rely on Proof by Assertion. Of course in a religious context their values would be very different due to the first being obviously an ego-trip, which is anathema, but the second reinforcing the ring-fencing of the faith community. Which is a shame since it’s wrong. But there’s a clue there as to why rationality loses out.

        2. Found the quote I was looking for, from Chris Hallquist

          A better response to Plantinga is just to point out that belief in the Christian God isn’t very much at all like most of the common-sense beliefs commonly cited as threated by Descartes & Hume-style skepticism (like belief in the reliability of our senses), but is an awful lot like beliefs most Christians wouldn’t accept without evidence–namely, the beliefs of other religions. That kind of response is very hard to reject without special pleading on behalf of Christianity, and doesn’t involve commitment to any potentially troublesome epistemic principles.

          I’m not sure this is actually a good response to Plantinga (as the comments left me in some doubt), but it’s certainly a good way of distinguishing faith in our senses or that the sun will rise from religious faith, I think, and effectively dispenses with the “If you like believing in stuff for no reason, why not try Christianity?” apologetic.

          1. Well OK we know religions are a big mix of politics, social norms, metaphysics and the rest. A misdirection by the Dawkins-agenda, IMHO, is to treat them as self-consistent theories just like they were science. Some of religious faith is clearly just loyalty to one’s social group, which does lead to arbitrary special pleading etc. I don’t see any point in getting hung up on that. The thing to do, again IMHO, is to extract the metaphysical claims.

  4. Subject: Battleground God and the Loch Ness Monster
    Surely a fundamental problem with Q14 is that it’s assuming a definition of “atheism” that might not be shared with the person doing the quiz. As far as I know, atheists are people who don’t believe in God, some of whom have a belief in the non-existence of God. While not everyone agrees with this definition of atheism, it’s blessed by the OED and has historical and etymological support.

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