Thursday, June 01, 2006

Evaluating Non-Falsifiable Propositions

The following is one of my comments in a debate at Tom Gilson's Thinking Christian blog about the Problem of Evil.

To give you a sense of context, it has been argued up to this point in the debate that there is confirmation of God's goodness in certain events (e.g., people who come out of adversity stronger than they went in), but that perceived injustices (e.g., the Holocaust) should not be regarded as falsifying the claim that God is good because we simply lack the ability (omniscience) to know that such injustices aren't for the best.

In my response, I show that consistency and logic demand we evaluate such questions using a scientific method of local testing and prediction.
Assume good and evil refer to our standard intuitions on morality, from our limited, local perspective. For example, we all agree that the Holocaust was evil, and that emergency rescue services are good. This is analogous to our ability to measure conservation of energy, locally. The meaning of good and evil are the relatively clear and familiar ones.

We can then propose that there are global rules about these concepts. For a physics example, I might propose that the apparent increase in energy of my space probe as it slingshots around Jupiter is exactly balanced by a corresponding loss of Jupiter's orbital energy. If I widen my consideration of experimental observations to incorporate Jupiter and the Sun, I can verify that energy is conserved.

By analogy, we might suppose that there is universal justice, and though (like the energy of the space probe) we see an imbalance of justice in the world, we can theorize that, if we could widen our consideration of the facts, there would be global (universal) justice.

Unfortunately, we could do the same with conservation of ice cream. We could propose that an ice cream cone eaten on Earth is balanced by an ice cream cone popping into existence on the other side of the universe.

So what gives us confidence in conservation of energy, but no confidence in conservation of ice cream?

Our ability to test the proposition locally. If conservation of energy were false, it could have been recognized as such in numerous experiments. We have tested the proposition locally, and that gives us our confidence. BTW, notice that a prediction is required for there to be a test.

In contrast, propositions about God's goodness, universal justice and universally conserved ice cream cones are not locally testable as stated. (In fact, the same would even be true of the claim that energy is conserved everywhere in the universe if we did not limit our claim to observable parts of the universe.)

So, if we are to be consistent, we either have to (Type 1) reject the claims of universal justice or the goodness of God if there are no local tests of such claims, or (Type 2) admit all sorts of similar claims about conservation of ice cream cones and the like.

Alas (er, I mean fortunately) Type 2 evaluations have an even deeper flaw.

Under Type 2 rules, you can describe what experiences constitute validation of your proposition, but you cannot describe what experiences would constitute falsification. For example, you point to Solzhenitzin as a confirming case where an evil was redeemed somehow. If I point to some nameless Holocaust victim, you will answer that my example is not falsification because I just don't have all the facts. Initially, you rest assured that your proposition cannot ever be found to be false.

However, if we stick to these evaluative rules, the negation of the proposition ("there is no universal justice" or "God is not good") is as persuasive as the original proposition. We can find confirmations of the claim in observed injustices, and we can reject local justices as anomalies caused by our limited perspective. So, by Type 2 rules, the negation of your proposition cannot be found false either.

We must conclude that if we are going to accept the confirmation but not the falsification of a proposition, then that proposition has no truth value at all, because neither the proposition nor its negation can be false.

This is why local testing and prediction (aka Science) are necessary for knowledge.


Colin Caret said...

Forget the local/global distinction, here is the real problem of evil...

1) If God exists, then there exists an all-good, all-powerful creator being.

2) If there exists an all-good, all-powerful creator being, then such a being would (a) want to create a world that is all-good, and (b) be able to do so.

3) If an all-good, all-powerful creator wanted to create a world that is all-good, and would be able to do so, then the actual world would be all good.

4) The actual world is not all-good.

5) Therefore, God does not exist.

Holopupenko said...

     There’s a fundamental assumption that you’ve snuck in unstated in your syllogism that tilts the playing field in your own favor: what precisely to YOU mean by “then the actual world would be all-good”? Doesn’t that beg the question of what the ultimate good is… or even what proximate goods are? What if I don’t accept your understanding of what good is? If I don’t, your argument is meaningless to me. Seems to me you’ve got to settle that issue before proceeding.
     Point 2: Do you think it could be possible that you, as a finite creature, may not see or understand what “good” means to an infinite being? I’m not suggesting you don’t have any idea, I’m merely suggesting you may not have the overall picture. It seems to me that’s a very reasonable assumption that should also be fleshed out before proceeding.
     (Weak analogy that may, nonetheless, provides some insight: a three year old suffering from cancer will NOT understand the pain he suffers as part of the medical treatment that his father “imposed” on him. After a while the child will understand, but for the time being he’s left with trust in his father. But if the child demanded instant, intellectual, sound-byte gratification of the pain without considering the love of the father, do you think the child would understand it or accept it? Be honest.)
     Finally, I recommend to you an even stronger case than your's against the existence of God wrt to evil as posed by St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, 2 “The Existence of God,” 3 “Does God Exist?,” Objection 1. ( Be careful not to take Thomas’s response to the challenge in isolation: you may be surprised at his take on evil as having or not having an essence or nature.

Colin Caret said...


Of course, you are right. I didn't mean that to be a hidden premise or anything, I just figured it was obvious that I was working with a particular conception of 'goodness'. I mean, in general, when we discuss moral issues aren't we all doing that?

Anyway, to answer you...

what precisely to YOU mean by “then the actual world would be all-good”?

...I don't have a precise definition to provide, but I think it at least involves such things as everyone being happy, lack of suffering, lack of tangible evils such as anger, hatred, frustration, pain, torture, etc... since the world is obviously not all-good because it obiously contains a great many of these things, it seems safe to proceed in my line of argument.

Now, could I be wrong about what goodness is? Could I be limited in my grasp of the notion? Is it possible that only God really understands morality? Sure, these are possibilities. But I don't have any good reason to think that I am terribly misguided or mistaken, or that I simply cannot grasp the nature of goodness due to my finite human intellect. Can you give me any good reason to believe such things?

Holopupenko said...

     No, you are not "terribly wrong or misguided," and your questions are fair.
     Breaking my own rule (but only to initiate thought), the sound-byte response to your question is to consider the possibility that (1) there are greater goods and lesser goods; (2) there may be a ordering relationship among those goods (example: the good of a father providing for his family supercedes the proximate good of him needing to relax and take a day off); and (3) there may be a (to use crude, unphilosophical language) "direction" pointed to by the proximate goods that posits an ultimate good (summum bonum).
     This particular blog is hostile to any idea (such as the one I just proposed) that is not "verifiable" or "falsifiable" by the modern empirical sciences, and therefore declares any such attempts as "meaningless." But that's really begging the question, isn't it? Afterall, doesn't it have to be demonstrated that the modern empirical sciences (their instruments of observation and their methodologies) define the limit of ALL human knowledge? Can employing the modern empirical sciences to validate such a notion ever be viable? Of course not, for it's a circular argument.
     The modern empirical sciences DO work exceedingly well when they employ verification and falsifiabiliy on material entities and physical phenomena. But one cannot sneak in the supposition that the modern empirical sciences work on, say, issues of morality and value. There are other ways (philosophical) to verify the truths obtained by investigations and inquiries of subject matter outside the realm of the modern empirical sciences. Can one employ a material-only description in order to make a moral decision? Of course not. Is that such a heretical or incorrect proposition to assert? Only to those who have self-imposed limitations on their world views.

Colin Caret said...


Well, I don't want to be scientistic about these things. I for one am a modern philosopher and, as such, find it perfectly comfortable to discuss such seemingly unfalsifiable areas of discourse as metaphysics and ethics. So, let's leave that concern aside...

My question to you, at the end of my last comment, was whether you could give me any reason to be agnostic about moral truth. You had offered the idea that perhaps the reason the Argument from Evil seems persuasive is that we humans have some limited grasp of morality. Perhaps, you seemed to imply, we would see the Argument from Evil is misguided if only we could understand (which, I suppose, we can't) the glory of God's master plan.

Now, I said that I was not aware of any good reason to be sufficiently skeptical about moral inquiry such that it might force me into this agnostic position, one where I would simply suspend my confidence in human capability to understand morality at all. I asked if you could give me any reasons to entertain such agnosticism to which you replied (effectively) that there might be a `summum bonum'. I guess I am missing the relevance of this comment, after all Mill believed such a thing (he thought the summum bonum was human pleasure in all its varieties), but he didn't take this to be a reason to be agnostic about human ability to understand morality. What I missing?