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Sunday, June 24, 2007

What Can't Be Proven?

Matt (aka The Dude) writes in with this question:

"What can't be proven?... I often get into debates, especially religious, where the point gets to someone saying "You can't disprove it, so I'll just keep believing it." My point is this: Lack of evidence, by default, points to non-existence, it does not give rise to limitless possibilities.

I can't disprove unicorns don't fly around Pluto, but it doesn't mean they're there.

I'm usually at a loss for words when people throw that argument forward. How would you deal with that objection?"

I agree such people are using faulty logic, and I have had similar experiences. But I would differ with the questioner on one point. He says, "Lack of evidence, by default, points to non-existence, it does not give rise to limitless possibilities". I would say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Indeed, the lack of disproof does give rise to limitless possibilities. We live in a reality that may ultimately be far more ancient and vast that we can ever know - perhaps infinitely so. Many things are possible - but that isn't the point. The point is, why should someone believe in one specific possibility without any positive proof therein?

The first thing I would note in answering that question is this:
Theism is not the belief that God is possible.
Theism is not the belief that God is likely.
Theism is the belief that God is real - that she/he/it does, in fact, exist.

Given that, we then have to ask ourselves how things would work if we were to have a similar belief about anything and everything that could not be disproved. Clearly, there are many claims and possibilities that, while possible on their own, are contradictory with other equally possible claims that have not been disproved. Therefore, it would be madness to accept every possibility that has not been disproved as real.

On my philosophy site, there is a conversation I held with another person which I've titled "How Do You Determine Truth?". In it, I say that we basically have three options for dealing with claims for which there is no proof or disproof:

1) Believe them all unless or until they are disproved.

2) Believe those things we like believing and disregard the rest.

3) Believe in none of them unless or until they are proven.

I've already noted that #1 would require a person to hold an infinite variety of contradictory claims as true. The most common response seems to be #2, even if only subconscious. Even we skeptical minded folks are guilty of this from time to time about various beliefs we take on in our lives. But only #3 is consistent with genuine reason. Of course, the above simplifies the matter considerably since, in reality, things are rarely either 100% proved or 100% disproved. But the simple delineation of these three options illustrates the essence of the matter.

Therefore, perhaps a more practical way to look at it would be as Carl Sagan suggested: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I like to note the implication of this, that ordinary claims require ordinary evidence - thus, the degree of belief in a claim should be proportionate to the degree of evidence for a claim. And, of course, all positions should be provisional and open to reassessment in the light of new evidence.

But perhaps your conversant is someone of a more romantic approach. In this case, it might be more effective to point out the inherent arrogance of making claims about things for which we have no evidence. More effective that accusations of arrogance would be to speak positively of the humility required to acknowledge our limitations to know when we have not received verifiable evidence. Thus, the lack of that humility is implied with the opposite position. This approach is more fully explored in my essay titled, "The Humanist Contemplative".

Thanks for writing! :)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Better Ways to Express Humanism

It's just occurred to me that an essay I wrote a while back for a club's website in my local Humanist group has never been put on my philosophy site. So, I added it today. It's called "The Humanist Contemplative". In this essay, I outline a particular focus within Humanism that our club is based around. But I think the essay has broader value to me because it shows a way of talking about and presenting Humanism that I think should be more common. Throughout the explanation, I utilize concepts from the following...

- Complex systems theory (science)
- Buddhism or the Buddha (3 general references)
- The Kalama Sutra (Buddhist)
- ‘The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow’ (Buddhist)
- Dalai Lama (Buddhist)
- Stoicism (2 general references)
- Epictetus (Stoic)
- The Christian Bible
- The three pillars of Anglican/Episcopalian faith (Christian)
- Jesus (Christian)
- Chuang-Tsu
- Frederick Edwords (2 references)
- Albert Einstein
- Sam Harris
- Paul Kurtz
- Ayn Rand
- Carl Sagan
- Socrates

To read the article, see my philosophy site or click this link:

The Humanist Contemplative

Friday, June 1, 2007

To Be Appearing on Local Television

I have just returned from the studio of the Houston PBS station, where I was invited to be part of a panel on a local television program called "The Connection". The subject was about whether a good and meaningful life is possible without a belief in God. I was announced as the President of the Humanists of Houston. The other guests on the program included Nancy Fay, a retired teacher and a Freethinker who is a Director at the Houston Church of Freethought (and a friend), a Methodist Pastor named Thaddeus Easland of the Hope Church, and Rabbi Stuart Federow of Congregation Shaar Hashalom. The host (and the woman pictured here) was Doris Childress.

For those capable of viewing Houston local PBS, the program will air at 8:00pm on July 6, 2006, and again on July 8th, at 5:00pm.

After both airings have shown, I will try to find a way to take the VCR tape of the program they gave me and convert it into a video that will be available on this site and on the HOH website.

The program went well I thought. Everyone was cordial and we hit on some good points. The program was only a half hour and it passed quickly, leaving still many things unsaid. The host of the show has communicated to me that they would like to do more shows on similar subjects in the future, and may like to invite me back to be on those, which I said would be fine.

Rabbi Federow informed me before the show that he hosts a radio program on 950AM KPRC called 'A Show of Faith' and might like to invite me or the others to be a guest sometime. I told him I'd be pleased to.

After the show has aired and I get the video up on this site, I'll also include some additional commentary and responses to things in the program which I didn't have time to cover.

Update June 2, 2007: Originally this post had incorrectly said the airing would be June 1st and 3rd. Unfortunately, the assistant producer gave us the wrong dates originally. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Update August 5, 2007: Online video of this program is now available on this site. Click HERE to see it, along with some additional comments at the bottom of the page, on things we didn't have time to get into. These may take a few moments to load.