Lately, I've debated a lot of people here about the validity of saying that a particular model of reality is superior to another. Many of you are wont to claim that religious ideas are non-sense or at least less sense than non-religious ideas, or scientific ideas (I distinguish the two because atheists are not always scientists). The reason I bother to debate this point at all is not even to assert a model of my own, but to illustrate that no idea should really be considered more or less realistic than another until we are certain that we have a model that accurately represents reality. Completely accurately. To me, anything less than complete accuracy is equivalent to complete inaccuracy. But a lot of you seem to disagree with that concept, so I wanted to explain it as a seperate post than the ones in which it has come up.


In several of my attempts to explain this, I have used an analogy of infinite numbers, saying that claiming something is almost correct is akin to saying a number is almost infinite. Anyone who has enough experience in math to have encountered infinite numbers knows that it is ludicrous to claim that a finite number is close to infinity. Any finite number, no matter how large, is still infinitely far from infinity. But using that analogy has not always made my point clear (or maybe it has and people still just disagree with me, lol).


I have also tried explaining by pointing to ideas like chaos theory, which enables computers to simulate complex models with billions or even trillions of interracting parts. Things like galaxy formations, baclkhole simulations, and models of the Big Bang are made using chaos theory. I use it as an example because the math of chaos theory illustrates that very tiny, seemingly insignificant differences in the input algorithms can produce vast differences in the output model because of the number of parts involved and the number of interractions occuring. I recently watched an attempt at simulating the beginnings of the universe, and the programmers were having trouble finding parameters that would actually produce a universe like our own. With only very minor adjustments to parameters like the number of protons, neutrons and electrons in the universe, hugely different sequences would be produced by the computers. Most of them simply did not create anything like the universe we observe until the programmers tweaked it to within very small margins, at which point galaxies began to emerge from the simulation that were similar to what we see when we look through a telescope. Yet, if you used the math from any of their failed attempts to try to measure something on the human scale, you would have gotten results accurate to degrees far exceeding anything that most of us ever need to measure. Just like Newtonian mechanics produces very accurate measurements (enough to launch a shuttle to the moon and bring it back), and is thus still taught in classrooms all the way up to college-level physics. And yet, scientists abandoned Newtonian mechanics over a century ago, in favor of relativistic and quantum mechanics. And in the future, the models we use today will likely be abandoned for some model that has even more accurate predictions.


The differences will seem tiny: right now, scientific models can predict the results of experiments to within tens-of-thousandths of degrees of accuracy. And the next model might only increase that to hundreds-of-thousandth of degrees. Newtonian mechanics was is accurate to within thousandths of degrees, a difference of just a few decimal places, yet the overall picture that it paints of reality is staggeringly different than the picture painted by relativistic and quantum mechanics. So, it cannot be said that Newton came "close" to describing reality. If you plugged Newtonian math into the simulators trying to produce models of the Big Bang, you would get results that were so totally alien that you wouldn't even recognize it as a universe. There would be no galaxies, no stars or planets, and certainly no humans. And because our current models do not produce 100% accurate results in experiments, they cannot be said to be close to describing reality either. Until the results are perfect, they are all still infinitely far away.


This is why I frequently challenge my fellow atheists here for saying that the ideas of theists are inferior to our own, or that they are deserving of ridicule and mockery. They are no further from the truth than our models, and for all we know, they may be just a small tweak away from being correct. When you are driving down a road that's a million miles long, a tiny turn of the wheel in your first mile will put you waaaaaaaay off track by the end. Perhaps that is what has happened to the ideas of theists. Many religions are thousands of years old. Perhaps in the beginning, they only took that one, small wrong turn away from accurately describing reality, but have now gone so far off course that the mistake seems huge to all of us looking at them today. But perhaps our theories have also taken a wrong turn here or there, and we only do not see it because the road is younger under our feet.


So unless you have a model of reality, be it science or your own unique model, that predicts everything that happens perfectly all the time, your ideas are just as far off as every other person who has ever walked the Earth. Your ideas may seem pretty close most of the time, but if you could extend your predictions far enough into the future, you would very likely find yourself way off course. I implore you all to keep this in mind the next time you want to ridicule a theist for believing something that you don't. We should not become the new oppressors of ideas, just because our ideas are newer. We should not now become the group that is so certain of itself that we disregard the opinions of others, or we are just as bad as those who do it in the name of God, or Allah, or Xenu.


Am I making sense to anyone?

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Comment by Jared Lardo on May 29, 2011 at 3:11pm

99 isn't equal to 0.  "Not perfectly right" isn't the same thing as "perfectly wrong".  On the same note, they aren't of equal value either.  An abstract, theist-like "value" that lacks definition--sure, maybe in terms of whatever that is, they might have the same value, but in terms of any measurable quantity to be called "value", they aren't: that's just math, which is true a priori--by definitions.  (I'm assuming that your use of "equivalent" was carefully picked.)


The earth is just barely not flat, so flat is a good approximation.  That the earth is a large sphere (of small curvature) is an even better approximation.  That the earth is an oblate spheroid with diameter greater across the equator than between the poles is even better.  That the earth has a slightly greater concentration of mass and volume on the south-pole side of the equator than on the north-pole side is better still.  Furthermore, incorporating the facts of its atmosphere, tectonic plates, continents, oceans, mountains, rivers, weather, and vegetation produce an even better model.


However, though each of these is inaccurate to an extent greater than 0, they're not each as wrong as each other.  Indeed, they couldn't be.  One of them says that the sun and moon must be magic, and the others allow for orbit and rotation.  We can only be said to be equally something in having any one incorrect belief if you talk in terms of a quantity similar to possibility which is either 0 or 1--impossible or possible.  However, correctness is a thing that can be measured--indeed, empirically.  You can just set up the circumstances (far away from Earth, under high magnetic or electric fields, high or low pressure, temperature, or species concentration, or whatever other variables, take measurements, and compare with theory.  Take the average--hell, take the mean squared error--and see how each so-called improvement brings the error closer to zero.  Having a nipple slip and being a nudist are completely different things.

Comment by John Camilli on May 29, 2011 at 2:51pm

Grace, you hit the nail right on the head. That's all I was saying, is live and let live. It's people convinced they are right who try to change the minds of others. Whether a theist, atheist, agnostic, scientist or whatever, anyone who is certain they are right and that other people are wrong is the oppressor. And isn't that what we all hated about theists growing up? Isn't that a big reason that we are all atheists here? Because we didn't like being told 'you're wrong and you're going to hell if you don't belive the way I do.' It's that mind set that should be avoided, IMO. Rock girl mentioned that if theists have the right to ridicule us, then we have the right to ridicule them, but we all also have the right to NOT ridicule each other. And how would we be worse off for choosing that option instead? John D? How?


Btw, John D, I wasnt asking you if you think we are all equally ignorant. Take a look, there is no question mark there. It is my belief that we are all equally ignorant, and you have not said anything that has changed my mind about that. I've also read the books you recommended. All three of them, and my opinion is what it is. At least I recognize that it's an opinion. You seem to think your thoughts inspired or something, and that they absolutely must be right. Sam's right, you sound exactly like a dogmatic theist.


Also, nobody said anything about universal goodness. I don't even believe the concept of "good" is valid. And like you, I don't believe "sin" is a valid concept either. I can't prove it, so I'm fine with other people using those ideas to make sense of their lives, but I don't use them myself.

Comment by samhita on May 29, 2011 at 2:39pm

He who thinks he knows the most, knows the least, John D.


I have read the latter two of those books already, though I will certainly check out the first. And, no, I'm not new to this. I have a degree in philosophy, with an empahsis on epistemology, thank you. However, I shouldn't need to invoke a piece of paper to be qualified to have my own opinion. My opinion does not claim to be superior to yours, but it is not inferior either, and no attempted insults of yours will ever convince me otherwise. And, I'm curious, if you don't care, why are you here?


Now, if you're done yacking and are willing to listen, consider this as a hypothetical. Let's say I invent a religion that's based totally on science. My religion is science, plus the statement that 'god made the universe that way.' Now how is your model of reality better than mine? You can't prove my additional statement wrong, and you already agree with all of my other tenets, so tell me why you think I'm still an idiot, if that's what I believe.

Comment by Grace Fitzpatrick on May 29, 2011 at 12:48pm

I do see your point, John C.  I don't go around trying to debase religious types (even Scientologists and they are so tempting to make fun of).  As many religious types often tell me themselves they would be amoral and horrible without god.  Considering how immoral some theistic types are with god, I am not about to deprive a person the one thing standing between being  a relatively safe individual and a serial killer. 


Personally, I could care less what religion someone is as long as they don't force it on me.  Therein lies the problem. 

Comment by Grace Fitzpatrick on May 29, 2011 at 12:48pm

I do see your point, John C.  I don't go around trying to debase religious types (even Scientologists and they are so tempting to make fun of).  As many religious types often tell me themselves they would be amoral and horrible without god.  Considering how immoral some theistic types are with god, I am not about to deprive a person the one thing standing between being  a relatively safe individual and a serial killer. 


Personally, I could care less what religion someone is as long as they don't force it on me.  Therein lies the problem. 

Comment by samhita on May 29, 2011 at 12:03pm

If reality could be fitted into finite parameters, then you might be able to compare estimating a model of reality to taking a test and getting a finite number out of a finite number, which would yield a valid statistic. However, since we do not know the overall parameters of the universe, there is no upper limit yet to the number that could be achieved on such a test, and therefore no valid statistic can be made about the degree of accuracy of an idea.


I suppose the validity of what you're saying, John C. depends on whether or not the universe is actually infinite or finite. If it's infinite, then your comparison works. If it's not, then Rock Girl's example of a test would be more accurate than the example of infinite numbers. And since we can't know one way or another, at least at this point in time, we're not really able to say.


I think the term that describes what we're talking about is "infinite regression." It can be represented visually by something like a fractal. However, I think the only way it would be possible to prove whether or not the universe has infinite regression is if we actually found out that it doesn't. If we found a set of fundamental shapes and properties that described all of what happens in the universe, we would then be able to say that the universe DOES NOT have infinite regression. We have not found such a set of fundamanetal particles, so that cannot be said yet, but I think it would never be possible to prove the opposite, even if its true, because even if it seemed like there were no fundamental particles, and that you could just keep looking closer and closer and finding more and more detail, it would always be possible that if you looked just a little closer you would find those fundamental particles.


So unless we actually proved a set of fundamental particles, the debate your having will remain a matter of belief. If you believe the universe has infinite regression, then every incorrect idea is equally far away from reality. However, if you believe the universe is finite in nature, the test analogy becomes accurate, and you will find some ideas to be more or less accurate than others.


That it remains a matter of belief does, I suppose, validate what you are saying though.

Comment by Prog Rock Girl on May 29, 2011 at 10:46am

An idea that's closer to being right is like a number that's closer to infinity? I am not sure that is a fitting analogy. If there is a test and someone gets a 95 and someone else gets a 60, the first person is closer to doing perfectly on the test. I see what you're saying because I don't think human intelligence can know everything about the universe (it can't fit inside one person's brain anyway), but infinity goes forward, backward and in between. Infinity includes the finite as well, and many subjects that are being debated are actually finite.


About the "we have the right to ridicule theists because their ideas are inferior", well, theists also have the right to ridicule atheists, and they exercise this right. It's just that some people want to make religion into a protected class.

Comment by samhita on May 29, 2011 at 10:23am
John D. you sound like a theist, unerringly promoting your own model and comdemning those of others. Have you sampled all other models of reality to know that yours is the best? You sound like a kid who just keeps going "nuughuuuh, nughuuh, nughuuuh, nughuuuh" no matter what anyone says to him. That's not an argument, it's just blind faith.
Comment by John Camilli on May 29, 2011 at 10:12am
Comment by John Camilli just now
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I really do believe either way is possible, but it would be more like rolling a trillion-sided die than flipping a coin, to me. The odds of any one side coming up are infinitesimal, and I think it's likely that we havent accurately guessed which side came up. If you rolled a 6-sided die, and a 1 came up, and you had guessed 5, would you say, but that five is riiiight next to it, so I was close to being right. Any gambling establishment would laugh you out the doors for saying something like that. To me, it's the same as saying that any model comes close to describing reality. There is no "close:" there's reality, and then there's the rest, and the rest is all just unreal. If your model describes everything that's possible in reality except for one thing, then your model is unreal. It is not any closer than a model that describes only one thing that happens in reality and leaves out all the rest.


999,999,999,999,999,999 is not closer to infinity than 1. It is not a more "robust" number. They are both equally far away.

Comment by John Camilli on May 29, 2011 at 9:50am

Glen, you are using a very narrow definition of god. What about religions where god is everything that makes up the universe, but to which believers additionally ascribe awareness? I can't prove or disprove that the universe is aware of itself. Perhaps it is on some level that I could not even comprehend, to be able to test such a theory. And such an idea is not even far-fetched, IMO because the universe has a lot of complex parts, that are all inter-linked through at least several types of forces, that we know of. Who's to say some kind of consciousness couldn't arise out of that? I don't think it's less likely than a consciousness arising our of our little bodies, do you? And if that were the case, oops, those theists would be right, and atheists would be wrong.


Or what about religions where god is just a creator who has since abandoned its creation, or left it alone to observe. Don't you think we humans will try to seed life somewhere at some point? I think we will. Maybe we'll do it in whole, vast regions of otherwise unpopulated space, and maybe our creations will come to think of us as gods. I could totally imagine that happening in the future, so any religion that believes something like that could have it right to, IMO.


The idea of religion tends to evoke ideas of active deities that make miracles happen and who have attributes like omnipotence, but that is not all theists idea of what god is. And even the theist ideas that sound like utter fairytales to us could still have it right. For any of it that seems too wacked out to be true, there's always the argument that we simply could not comprehend the workings of a being so much more capable than ourselves. What if a god existed who was just a cosmic trickster, who really did put fuckin dinosaur bones in the ground a few thousand years ago to fuck with us. Seems far fetched to you and I, but wouldn't you think you'd get bored as a god? I would think so, and if that were me, I might fuck with lesser minds to get my jollies. There's plenty of evidence of that happening amidst humans to make the idea plausible enough.



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