Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Are there more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio?

Is the supernatural beyond reason and evidence, safely protected from human investigation? And is God, a supernatural entity, therefore, off limits for "empiric and rationalist" considerations?

I'm going to begin by answering the first question as it might relate to the alleged healing powers of acupuncture. Then, I'll draw those threads together and show how the same considerations actually apply to God, too.

The idea behind acupuncture is that the pathophysiology of the disorder being treated includes an unhealthy bodily flow of Qi ('Chi') - said to be a type of living or vital energy.   The placement of subcutaneous needles in specific locations is supposed to restore the normal flow of Qi, helping to heal the disorder in a biologically active way.

Qi is an ancient and intuitively appealing concept. There must be some important difference between living organisms and dead ones (or inanimate objects), after all, so why wouldn't it be a mysterious quantity and why not call it a type of energy since, in other circumstances, energy is invisible except for the things it makes happen? But we now know better. Vitalism has been thoroughly and completely discredited by science. Life is driven by the usual types of energy that are all well described - the same kinds of energy that drive all chemical reactions, only in the case of life, those reactions maintain homeostasis for at least enough time for a given species to reproduce. No additional or special type of energy is required to explain life, and no reputable or serious biologist thinks otherwise, anymore.

Nevertheless, millions of people still believe in Qi and acupuncture. "Science just hasn't discovered a way to detect or measure Qi, yet," they tell us. But that is a big, smelly, red herring.

It actually doesn't matter whether we can detect or measure Qi itself, for we are told that Qi and its manipulation has effects in this world that are measurable. We are told that acupuncture has the measurable effect of healing people. Accordingly, we can conduct randomized controlled trials where people are randomly assigned to real or sham acupuncture treatments (where the needles don't actually penetrate the skin and are placed at random locations by non-acupuncture practitioners). If acupuncture works, we can make a prediction: the people getting real acupuncture treatments should improve more quickly and/or more thoroughly than the people getting sham acupuncture treatments. It doesn't matter one iota that we can't measure Qi or it's flow patterns directly. All that matters is that we can predict and measure the alleged effects of Qi here and now, in the natural world.

Well, studies of this kind have been done over and over and I'm afraid that it doesn't look good for acupuncture. The outcomes in the 2 groups are largely indistinguishable. One clearly shouldn't think of acupuncture as doing anything biologically active beyond the power of suggestion. While this doesn't disprove the existence of Qi, it certainly proves that acupuncture as a way of beneficially manipulating Qi is useless. Maybe there are other ways of doing so, but until those are discovered, the idea of Qi adds nothing to our understanding of illness and health, and there's absolutely no reason to believe that it does exist.

It's possible that Qi has nothing to do with anything in the natural world. Perhaps it's purely supernatural. But, if it is, then it's of no consequence here, and should be of no concern to anybody; the whole idea is without meaning. If it does have consequences in the natural world, then those consequences should be measurable or detectable.

And so it is with all supernatural claims, including the existence of the Christian God. Maybe we can't directly detect the Christian God, but we can reason from God's alleged qualities to predictions about the way the world ought to be, and then look for evidence of whether the world is as we'd expect, or not. We would expect a universe where the Christian God exists and is omnipotent, morally perfect, perfectly loving, desirous of a personal relationship with us, etc. to look quite different from a world where no such God exists. For example, if the Christian God exists, we wouldn't expect any gratuitous natural suffering, yet we see a world that appears to be overflowing with it. We wouldn't expect there to be billions of non-believers clustered within borders explained by natural and haphazard factors like politics and conquest. If evidence gathered in the world is better explained by the non-existence of God, then the existence of God should seem much less likely to us. At the very least, it should cause us to become very skeptical of the alleged qualities that those failed predictions are based upon. There are very many predictions made by Christian theism that can be tested here on Earth, and I'm afraid that, like acupuncture, the situation doesn't look good at all.

Perhaps the Christian God doesn't exist, but a different God who lives entirely in a theoretical supernatural world does. Perhaps we know nothing about the qualities and capabilities of such a God and he never interferes in this world in any way. This pretty much describes what deists believe. This type of God really is beyond investigation by reason and evidence, but what a useless belief! A universe where this God exists is no different in any way than one where such a God doesn't exist.  It might as well not exist at all.

This reminds me of the parable of the invisible gardener, by John Wisdom:
"Two people return to their long neglected garden and find, among the weeds, that a few of the old plants are surprisingly vigorous. One says to the other, 'It must be that a gardener has been coming and doing something about these weeds.' The other disagrees and an argument ensues. They pitch their tents and set a watch. No gardener is ever seen. The believer wonders if there is an invisible gardener, so they patrol with bloodhounds but the bloodhounds never give a cry. Yet the believer remains unconvinced, and insists that the gardener is invisible, has no scent and gives no sound. The skeptic doesn't agree, and asks how a so-called invisible, intangible, elusive gardener differs from an imaginary gardener, or even no gardener at all."
I'm afraid that existential questions seem to always and only boil down to reason and evidence. When there is reason and evidence, a conversation can be had about their merits and meanings.  When reason and evidence are unavailable in either principle or practice, we have a meaningless claim that terminates the conversation.

Believing despite insufficient reason and evidence - believing on faith - is propped up as being incredibly valuable, but why? What's so great about faith? It seems to me that in every domain of human discourse other than religion, believing on faith is rightly frowned upon. Would you cross a street on faith without looking to see if a bus is coming? Look at what believing in the existence of God on faith gets us: thousands of Gods and traditions most of which are mutually exclusive, and balkanized  doxastic communities with a horrible and ongoing history of intolerance, discrimination, and slaughter in the name of those beliefs. This is supposed to be the Zenith of human understanding and the path to the most important 'truths' in the universe? What could the word 'truth' possibly mean in that sentence without reason and evidence?

There may well be plenty more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamt of by reason and evidence, but without them, I'm afraid it's all just "Words, words, words." (Shakespeare - Hamlet).


  1. From where do we get the idea that seemingly gratuitous suffering is wrong? If we are simply chemicals sloshing around then these moral sensibilities have no basis in anything like a moral or ethical principle. And I don’t think one can take refuge in the culturally-induced view of ethical principles. I mean, how can Westerners credibly condemn the looming execution of that Muslim-born-but-Christian-by-choice African woman? Are our culturally-induced principles better than theirs? I mean, “Who sez?” Neither can one take refuge in the quasi-Darwinist argument that some ethical values promote the species, a sort of ethics natural selection. Natural selection works through individual genes of individuals...and, anyhow, it is better for the species as a whole to eliminate Downs babies, infants with spina bifida and, hell, even those genetically unproductive gays. Hello Germany 1940!

    So who sez that our ideas about protecting the weak and minorities, giving equal opportunity to all, having compassion on others are moral imperatives (note the Iranian proverb: “If you see a blind man, kick him; why should you treat him better than God did?”) if these are just the result of chemicals sloshing around? I don’t see any way out of the dilemma except to say that there is something transcendent, outside the scope of chemistry which mandates this. And I suggest that the idea of a compassionate, loving God WHO SEZ better explains our human yearning for an assertion of justice than does the proposition that there is no such God .

  2. Thanks for your comments, Johnston. My response is in my next blog entry.

  3. A fun twist on Wisdom's parable comes in the form of Carl Sagan's invisible garage dragon:

    "- A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage" Suppose (I'm following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you'd want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
    - Show me," you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle--but no dragon.
    - Where's the dragon?" you ask.
    - Oh, she's right here," I reply, waving vaguely. "I neglected to mention that she's an invisible dragon."
    - You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon's footprints.
    - Good idea," I say, "but this dragon floats in the air."
    - Then you'll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
    - Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless."
    - You'll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.
    - Good idea, but she's an incorporeal dragon and the paint won't stick." And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won't work.
    - Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so"