July 31, 2013

"On reflection, then, I’m inclined to say that an atheistic denial of Zeus is ungrounded."

"There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption...."

I don't know. It's getting late. There's an overwhelming sleepiness here. 



jaed said...

"Ungrounded"? Is that a sneaky way of referring to Zeus's thunderbolts?

Carl said...

So this part here is where I knew I was reading someone with absolutely zero understanding of empirical science:

This response has force only if we assume that there is very little likelihood of a world that contains supernatural forces. But we have no a priori basis for such an assumption. We may well think that our world contains little or no evidence of the supernatural. But that is no reason to think the same was true of the Greek world.

Any student of freshman physics will understand that change costs energy, and the greater the change, the greater the energy and the very much less likely such a change is. That is why 100-foot rogue waves are far rarer, compared to 10-foot waves, than 10-foot waves are compared to 1-foot waves. That is why the ratio of 8-foot humans to 7-foot humans is much smaller than the ratio of 7-foot humans to 6-foot, why the Richter scale for earthquakes is logarithmic, and much else besides.

Put it another way, the probability of a fluctuation of size X is generally speaking, in the broadest possible sense, proportional to 1/sqrt(X). This is so general a law that it requires no theories of physics at all, it follows straight from statistics and extremely plain assumptions about causality and locality.

So of course we have direct empirical evidence that the Greek world wasn't supernatural, based only on what we observe now. What we observe now is that things that would qualify as supernatural represent incredibly large fluctuations away from the way we have observed the world to work over the past 200 years. Therefore, the a priori probability of such a fluctuation a mere 2500 years ago is extremely small. It's like sitting in the bathtub for half an hour, observing only 1cm ripples, and then wondering whether if, three hours before we came into the bathroom, there was a 6-foot wave. No, that's not likely. And we don't need to assume anything about how well we understand the natural world. We just need to more or less assume it obeys plausible basic conditions of continuity and causality.

Actually, I think anyone with common sense understands this naturally already. It takes a professional philosopher to talk himself into a position which is logically sound but empirically ludicrous.

Terry said...

"What decisive reason do we have for thinking that for them divinity was not a widely and deeply experienced fact of life? If we cannot eliminate this as a real possibility, shouldn’t we hold a merely agnostic position on Zeus and the other Greek gods, taking seriously the possibility that they existed but holding that we have good reason neither to assert nor deny their existence?"

Things that are real and things that are not real are both just things that we think about.
This Gutting fellow is on the right track. I can't help but think that he's using "Zeus" as a stand in for Jehovah.

Michael said...

"So this part here is where I knew I was reading someone with absolutely zero understanding of empirical science:"

No, you're just reading a typical atheist smartass.

What do you call an atheist who accepts that religion matters to some people and no one wants to hear your clever arguments? A grownup.

C Stanley said...

What Terry said. It seems as though the author is halfway there. It's just as likely that the supernatural exists now but many people aren't attuned to the phenomena.

Terry said...

Carl wrote:
Therefore, the a priori probability of such a fluctuation a mere 2500 years ago is extremely small.

But we can only ever observe the world now, Carl. Thinking and talking about the past is words and language. This the realm of philosophers.

Henry said...

Inspired by reference to one of your own blog posts I'm currently reading William James' Varieties of Religious Experience.

Over and over James points out that expressions of religious experience are, to the person experiencing them, entirely real. They involve real mental and physical sensation and may trigger real changes to the individual's being.

In his chapter on the spiritual healing James cites numerous personal reports of spiritual cures. Some of his correspondents freely admit that their maladies were nervous in nature, but others claim spiritual salvation from sprained ankles and infectious diseases.

James is interested in psychological states. His empirical claim is exactly what his title says it is: here is a variety of religious experiences. They are indubitably real to those who experience them.

So far and good. What a person's personal experience doesn't tell us (an observer) is anything about the secondary objects of their devotions.

Here James makes a wonderfully astute distinction between the miracles of the Christian Saints whose cures derive from an external party (God), and the mind-cure spiritualists who assert that the cure is released by the self (new age isn't new).

Gary Gutting's argument claims the truth of the primary experience to prove the non-falsity of a secondary object. Invoking the personal religious experiences of a bunch of long-dead people allows him to assert the non-non-existence of an external god invoked by those people. He leaps the bounds of psychology to indulge in a kind of solipsism by proxy. The mind is all that is real; the belief of multiple minds must be even more real! As solipsism this is self-contradictory. As philosophy it's kind of boring. Turning Zeus into a unfalsifiable logical construct makes Zeus boring too.

Roger Sweeny said...

This is, I dearly hope, satire--though I'm not sure whether he's satirizing theists or philosophers.

Terry, you are absolutely right that we only observe the world now. But Noether's theorem tells us that if there is conservation of energy, the laws of physics that apply today also applied 2,500 years ago (or a billion years ago). Noether's theorem also says that if there is conservation of mementum, the laws of physics that apply here also apply everywhere else in the universe--including Greece.

We have never detected a case where energy or momentum is not conserved, so there is a very good chance that the same physical laws that apply today also applied in Zuessian Greece.

Mitch H. said...

Did you see the linked article's reference to a Heine satirical essay? I, like most American college-educated members of my generation, am most erratically informed, and that's the first time I came across that essay, although I strongly suspect that writers of fantastic literature - from Lovecraft to Neil Gaiman - have been mining Heine's conceits for the past hundred and fifty years, and lauded as novel and clever for having done so.

Smilin' Jack said...

"There is no current evidence of his present existence, but to deny that he existed in his Grecian heyday we need to assume that there was no good evidence for his existence available to the ancient Greeks. We have no reason to make this assumption...."

Actually, we do. There is no good evidence that Christ exists today, but Americans believe in his exitence anyway. So we don't need to assume that the Greeks needed good evidence to believe the stupid shit they believed. Unless, of course, you also assume that the Greeks were smarter than Americans.

Terry said...

It is a very odd thing to believe that ancient Greece is something like a place that exists but which we can not visit. 'Past tense' is a feature of language, not the physical universe.
How can the laws of physics be valid in a place that does not physically exist?

Alex said...

All I know is Zeus is a black lab.

Carl said...

Terry, you are working with a Newtonian concept of universal time that was abandoned by physics about a century ago. Only in that concept can you assert that Althouse 2013 "exists" and Athens 450 BC does not "exist." You have to have the idea of this thin moving sliver of "now" into which things are born and then pass into nothingness.

But that's not the way modern physics thinks of time. "Time" is just another coordinate, a "location" of a slightly different type. "450 BC" is at a certain distance from "2013 AD" in the same way as "Athens" is at a certain distance from "Althouse." To be more precise, the "distance" is actually time and space muddled together, and although we can define a unique overall "distance", the separation of that distance into spatial components (so many km away) and temporal components (so many years away) is not unique.

Which brings me to the point that there exist reference frames in which "Althouse 2013" and "Athens 450 BC" are events that take place at the same time (but at considerable distances from each other). So who are you to assert that the first "exists" and the second does not? That is assuming a status of privilege for your viewpoint which disagrees with the observational data that backs up modern physics.

I understand the philosophical point perfectly well: if time were indeed universal, and it were possible to define a unique "now" for the entire universe, so that we could cleanly separate what was "past" from what is "future," we could well doubt the causal connection between "past" and "present," and accept that something truly unknown might have happened in the "past."

But that is a viewpoint that is not consistent with what we observe about the universe, and with the math we use to interpret it. Our observations tell us it is not possible to define a universal "now," and the separation between "past" and "now" and "present" is entirely dependent on your reference frame. From my point of view -- I am a dyed in the wool empiricist -- that simply rules out this entire line of philosophical speculation, puts it on the same level as wondering whether wishing can bring unicorns into existence. Since observational data convinces me of the Principle of Conservation of Mass, the question of whether wishing can bring unicorns into existence is ruled out of order a priori. I don't need to know anything about the nature of wishes or unicorns. In the same sense, observational data convinces me of Einsteinian relativity, so the philosophical speculation in the NYT article -- that the past is in some sense ipso facto undiscoverable country -- is for me ruled out of bounds a priori.

Terry said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response.
I know a bit about physics and how physics treats time.
The question is: 'is the world we experience and observe made of matter and energy or made of thought?'
I think that this is what Gutting is referencing when he writes:

The standard line of thought seems to be that we have no evidence at all for his existence and so have every right to deny it. Perhaps there is no current evidence of his existence — certainly no reports of avenging thunderbolts or of attempted seductions, no sightings around Mount Olympus. But back in the day (say, 500-400 B.C.), there would seem to have been considerable evidence, enough in any case to make his reality unquestioned among most members of a rapidly advancing Greek civilization.

I can't simply ignore the idea that the scientific method was the creation of a British philosopher four centuries ago. Where did it come from? Why should we believe that consistency of observation -- of the acceleration that gravity imparts to an object, for example -- is a feature of the real Universe while Zeus is not?