Friday, October 31, 2008

Logic in philosophy is meaningless without scientific data

When I wrote my book Christian No More, I only occasionally stepped into the realm of philosophy to briefly describe why an idea doesn't work. But for the most part, I stayed away from philosophy. The reason is all too often people resort to wordplay to make a logical conclusion, and then claim it's fact -- when it isn't.

Consider this example:

(a) It's impossible to cover an infinite amount of distance in a finite time.
(b) There is an infinite amount of numbers between any two real numbers. (If you don't buy this, see below where I explain it.)
(c) Therefore, the distance between me and the television across the room makes up an infinite number of steps, and thus I can never reach the TV set no matter how long I walk.

I would hope that most people would agree that that's a bunch of nonsense. But logically it makes sense. How can you cover an infinite number of steps that exist between me and the TV? Yet we seem to do it every time we move so much as an inch or less. And, in fact, I *can* walk to the TV.

The problem here is that I'm using just wordplay disguised as "philosophy" and not bringing in any actual measurable scientific facts and data. And that's the problem I see with a lot of philosophical arguments. People can make all the philosophical arguments they want either for or against the existence of God. But in the end, if there's no correlation to real, live scientific data, then it's meaningless.

For example, one can say that everything must have a cause, and then use this throughout a "first-cause" argument. But that's not even true. In Quantum Mechanics (which we have scientific data to know is real), pure randomness is real. Quantum mechanics tells us that there is a tiny, tiny, tiny possibility that I could suddenly find myself on the other side of a brick wall, having transported instantly for no reason whatsoever. The likelihood of this happening is so low that we probably would have to wait longer than the lifetime of the universe to see it happen, if ever. But at the subatomic level, such strange things happen quite regularly, and this, in fact, is how radioactive decay happens. The particles suddenly move to a place where it seems it would be physically impossible for them to do so as they are projected outside of the atom, resulting in radioactivity. This is measurable, testable fact, not just wild speculation.

In other words, radiation takes place without a prior cause. It just happens. It seems to defy logic. But in the scientific world, especially at tiny levels (quantum mechanics) and huge levels (relativity), things don't always happen the way our minds expect them to. Things seem to defy logic. Yes, we could give a pure logical argument of why Quantum Mechanics isn't real (e.g. "one object can't occupy two spots the same time" -- yet it happens when studying waves; logic fails).

That's why, without any connection to real, live scientific data, the philosophical debates about the existence of God are meaningless. Show me some actual scientific data and I'll listen. But explain to me through just wordplay why God exists or doesn't exist, and I see little reason to listen. Sphere: Related Content


Like a Mustard Seed said...

I'm a little confused by the quantum physics example...

If the scientific data found in quantum physics defies logic, wouldn't that suggest that the universe in indeed illogical? If so, then what is the use of logic at all? It seems to become rather worthless...

Could it be that the conclusions we come to when studying things like quantum physics are in fact logical, but at this point we are still incapable of understanding how such mechanisms of the universe function? Do we think that we have it all figured out already?

If not, and the reality is that the universe is in fact illogical, umpredictable, and without meaning, than how can we pretend to know anything at all about it?

I'm not trying to use word-play to make some kind of contrived point, but I'm really wondering about that. I'm no philosopher, and wouldn't even know how to use philosophical jargon to sound smart if I wanted to...


Jeffrey Mark said...

Hi Daniel,

You're good -- when I wrote the part about Quantum Physics defying logic, I thought to myself, "There's a flaw here, and I wonder if anyone will spot it." And you spotted it.

Many times I've thought to myself, "The notion of God is just too illogical to be real." And then right here I'm suggesting that there are plenty of things in nature that defy logic. So therefore, why can't God be real?

To me, though, that question alone is pushing too far into the realm of philosophy.

But the thing about quantum physics is that scientists can actually measure the effects of the particles in an atom and what they see matches up with the predictions from the mathematical formulas. So we know that the Quantum reality is real. And so I'd say that you're absolutely correct when you say:

Could it be that the conclusions we come to when studying things like quantum physics are in fact logical, but at this point we are still incapable of understanding how such mechanisms of the universe function?

I think that this just shows the disconnect from what our brains can handle to what is going on in the universe. We have trouble comprehending what goes on with atoms at the quantum level; yet what goes on there is real.

Of course, I'll beat you to the punch and just say it: Then if there's more out there than meets the eye, why write off the possibility of there being a God?

My answer is that I don't know! But I haven't seen enough evidence to suggest that the Christian idea of God is correct. But I'm also not one of the people who says unequivocally, "There is no God." Instead, I'd rather wait until I see more, clear evidence.

(And tomorrow when I re-think this, I'll probably post a followup, because I'm not sure what I just typed makes sense!)

Like a Mustard Seed said...

What you wrote made sense to me...

And yes, you did beat me to the punch, how unfair...

I'm looking forward to a follow-up post, but I wanted to grab onto something real quick first. Your comment:

"To me, though, that question alone is pushing too far into the realm of philosophy."

Now, I totally understand the point you made about using lame, semantic arguments to make a "philosophical" point, and I'm just as turned off by that myself. But, at some point, we have to recognize that we are in fact human beings, and not machines like the Borg or something, and so we have to take into account lots of things from our human experience that just won't fit into some stark, scientific framework. So, it seems to me that eventually we can't avoid delving into questions that are academically classified as "philosophical", but that's okay. It is possible to talk about these kinds of things in our lives, (and we all experience them...) without resorting to using dry, academic hypothesese and worthless straw-man arguments....

What other kinds of evidence might there be?......


Anonymous said...


In your example of distance covered to the TV, the problem isn't in the truthfulness of the facts stated but rather in the manner the conclusion was made (or more specifically, the manner in which the conclusion is interpreted).

You say there are an infinate number of steps to the TV, and that we cover them every time we walk to the TV. I would challenge you to mark out every one of those infinate steps and tell me when you have taken every one individually. Hopefully your computer will be in hand and not at the TV.

The play on words was done in the paragraph after the 3 facts. You were right to say that the conclusion made sense logically. But you were wrong in your application, because your application used a different set of facts for a different conclusion.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Obviously I can't mark off an infinite number of steps.

But I realize I never explained my thinking about why I claim there's an infinite number of steps over any distance.

You can show this numerically (which is separate from physically, so we're back to playing with words). Numerically, any time you pick two numbers, you can always find a number in between. If the TV is 10 feet from me, then the number 5 feet is in between me and the TV. Between 5 feet and 10 feet is 7.5 feet. Between 7.5 and 10 is 8.75. Between 8.75 and 10 is 9.375. Between 9.375 and 10 is 9.6875. And so on... There's an infinite amount of *numbers* between 0 and 10.

Are there an infinite number of *positions* over the 10 foot range, though? It seems hard to accept. Instead, is it possible at the quantum level of physics to have two positions the size, of example, of two electrons sitting side by side where there is no such thing as a smaller distance? In other words, is there a smallest discreet step that cannot be divided? Who knows. Physicists don't yet know the answer to that.

But that's exactly my point: On one hand people can play with words (like this number play where I can use mathematics to supposedly show I'm covering an infinite distance over 10 feet), versus reality where I stick to physical facts.

So you're correct, I cannot mark off an infinite number of steps (quite obviously). And that's exactly my point: I put together three sentences that seem to make *logical* sense, but come together to make something that is *physically* impossible.

Riley said...

So, in other words, the universe has no meaning. We can't even predict where we will be in one milisecond, and there is no use in me typing this post because you might just take my words to mean the exact opposite from what I now intend. Now that is a rational worldview, one that undoes all use of reason. Thankfully I have a better, more rational alternative. It's called Christianity. The universe has meaning because God made it for His glory. Logic exists because He cannot lie, and all his works display a unified wisdom throughout. Thanks for playing.