The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth

"Atheism: The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense."

What atheists believe. Apparently.

This image showed up on a co-worker’s Facebook page. I want to take a quick moment to dismantle it before I get to my main point.

Atheism

The belief

Oh man, we’re already off on the wrong foot. Atheism: not a belief. You might be thinking of strong atheism, or antitheism which are beliefs that there are no gods (although that has nothing to do with what you’re about to start blithering on about) but atheism is a lack of belief.

To spell it out in logic speak “I don’t believe in god” (atheism) is \neg B G and “I believe there is no God” (strong atheism/antitheism) is B\neg G (where B is a modal belief operator and G is the proposition “God exists”). The placement of the “not” symbol is extremely important. The first one expresses no belief and the second one expresses a belief that something is not. Additionally, the first does not imply the second, but if your beliefs are consistent, the second implies the first.

that there was nothing

Again, this is not a belief of atheists, but depending on your definition of “nothing” this is the general consensus of cosmologists, whose opinions should bear much more weight than that of a collection of people who just happen to not believe in the same thing. For more on this, I highly reccomend Dr. Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing.

and nothing happened to nothing

Most boring story ever. Except for the part where something happens, which comes up right… about…

and then nothing magically

Y’know, the science-y kind of magic with particles and antiparticles and stuff. Unlike the magic-y kind of magic with talking snakes and Jewish zombies and Harry Potter.

exploded for no reason,

Except for physics.

creating everything and then a bunch of everything

So far so good.

magically

NO!

rearranged itself for no reason what so ever

Arguably correct, but the stochasticity of the system ensures that very unlikely things will happen. In the words of Tim Minchin, to assume that things with a one-in-a-million odds of happening by chance never happen is to vastly underestimate the number of things that happen.

into self-replicating bits

I know, right! Isn’t that fucking awesome! Oh, and if you don’t believe that it’s possible, guess what: we’ve done it in a lab. Stuff that’s not alive can turn into stuff that is alive. That is so cool.

which then turned into dinosaurs.

First off, dinosaurs are awesome. Secondly, it depends on your definition of “turned into” if you mean changed like a fucking Transformer, then, no. Not what scientists believe. If you mean, gradually and incrementally evolved over several billion years of random mutation and natural selection which built upon beneficial traits to increase survivability and the number of offspring who could in turn pass those traits along to their own offspring, ultimately arriving at FUCKING BADASS DINOSAURS, then yeah. That’s about it.

Pictured to the left: Science.
Pictured to the right: Not so much.

Makes perfect sense.

Glad you think so. Scientists agree.

So anyways, the point I want to get to, which brings us to the title of this post and why philosophy doesn’t really help to answer questions is this:

Our brains seem to have very specific intuitions about the world. Unfortunately sometimes those intuitions don’t match up with the actual world. “Something can’t come from nothing” seems like a pretty valid axiom if you inducing it from our common day-to-day experiences: people come from their parents, trees from acorns, planets from the remains of exploded stars. But at the end of the day, our intuitions are not a valid way of knowing something. As I mentioned, Dr. Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing explains how, in fact, something can come from nothing, and in fact we’ve observed it.

There are some really hard-to-grasp concepts out there. Relativity: time doesn’t move at the same rate for all observers. Quantum mechanics: photons may be polarized in two different directions at once. Evolution: tiny changes in individual specimens result in large changes in a population over time.

These concepts are not intuitive: nobody is going to figure them out by sitting there and thinking about them really hard. It takes observation and concrete data. But once we have the data and observations to demonstrate a hypothesis, it’s ridiculous to cling to some point like “something can’t come from nothing” just because the observations are counterintuitive. This is why philosophy is not a method to truth, and fails especially spectacularly when you compare it to something like science. There’s no better way to figure out how the world works than going out and checking it for yourself.

That’s not to say that philosophy doesn’t have it’s uses: it’s great for ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… But when it comes to working out how the world actually is by using metaphysics, ontology, theology, etc… philosophy can’t really hold a candle to science. And when you cling to axioms that you came to from an armchair in the face of  actual scientific discovery, then you’re an idiot.

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Comments

  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM  On August 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    That atheism trope is so funny, since creationism doesn’t suggest mechanisms. In effect they suggest “out of nothing” as well.

    So the image would equally read:

    “Religion

    The belief that there was nothing … which then turned into dinosaurs.

    Makes for perfect nonsense.”

    (The last change comes from suggesting unnecessary “nothings” i.e. gods, making the anthropomorphic et cetera.)

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