The other day in our discussion of burdens of proof Robert recalled the time when he “asked Luke Muehlhauser why we should exclude supernatural agents from our worldview.” Luke replied like this:
“If someone is going to add something with such high Kolmogorov complexity as non-physical minds to their ontology, they’d better have a really good reason for doing so.”
From this Robert concluded: “Which is, in a nut shell, saying that theists have a burden of proof.”
The Rhetorical Power of Unfamiliar, Impressive Sounding Terms
Before turning to the main issue I’d like to pause here to consider the rhetorical power of appealing to sophisticated sounding concepts like “Kolmogorov complexity”. Even if good ole’ complexity will suffice for your argument, appealing to strange sounding concepts lends an air of authority to an argument that grants it persuasive force. This is illustrated later in the thread when The Atheist Missionary comments:
I’m not sure if Randal is familiar with the concept of Kolmogorov complexity referred to by Robert above (I wasn’t) but I commend a review of the Wikipedia article. In layman’s terms it means “really freakin unlikely”.
This reminds me of an Archie comic that I read in my youth where Betty was lying sick in bed. In fact, (as I recall the story) her parents surmised that she was really love sick for Archie. So they sent Archie over with a bottle of “medicine” labelled “H2O”. And lo and behold, almost immediately Betty was feeling better. Apparently the scientifically illiterate citizens of Riverdale weren’t aware that H2O was plain old water.
I’m not claiming that Komolgorov complexity is merely a technical term for complexity simpliciter in the way that H2O is a technical term for water. Rather, I’m pointing out that invoking technical concepts yields benefits of rhetorical persuasion that exceed any specific merits unique to the concepts. As we’ll see below as the conversation with Robert continues, appeal to the concept of Kolmogorov complexity drops into the background thereby suggesting to me that the concept wasn’t pulling any real weight in the argument that wasn’t being borne by an appeal to complexity simpliciter.
Now on to conjunction rules, atheists, theists, and burdens of proof
I responded to Robert as follows:
Let me get this straight. Are you claiming that you ought to rate the “Kolmogorov complexity” of something in order to include it in their ontology? If so, what’s the Kolmogorov complexity of a universe springing into existence out of nothing uncaused? What’s the Kolmogorov complexity of a brain producing a non-physical mind? What’s the Kolmogorov complexity of universals being exemplified in matter?
Assuming you do go through the effort of charting the Kolmogorov complexity for all entities prior to admitting them into your ontology, why do you think that Kolmogorov complexity is the most effective gate-keeper of truth?
At this point Robert replied by invoking not a reified appeal to Kolmogorov complexity but rather a rule of conjunction:
Occam’s Razor says more complicated propositions require more evidence to believe. The conjunction rule of probability theory states that a conjunction (A and B) is necessarily less probable than one of the conjuncts alone (A).
When Christians propose an ontological mind more complicated than the entire universe to explain “first cause”, they are necessarily adding burdensome details to their epistemology.
I don’t take issue with the rule of conjunction, but I do take issue with Robert’s application of it to this case. Indeed, by doing so I believe he has subtlely but critically misrepresented the point at issue. Let’s first begin with a summary of his claim. Robert seems to be arguing like this:
Atheist scenario: The universe exists.
Theist scenario: The universe exists and God exists.
And he concludes that the theist is merely adding “God” to “universe”, thereby proposing something inherently less probable and thus in need of defense over-against the mere affirmation of the universe. But that’s a serious misreading of what’s going on. Here’s an illustration in begrudging honor of Mitt Romney’s stellar performance at the debate last night in Denver.
Imagine that after the debate Mitt decides to celebrate by scaling Longs Peak (just north-west of Denver). So he slips off under cover of night with nobody aware that he has left. He reaches the summit at 6 AM and to his amazement he discovers a sign made out of Popsicle sticks that reads “Congratulations on your performance Mitt”. Mitt now has two possible scenarios:
Chance scenario: The sign exists.
Design scenario: The sign exists and a mind that intentionally placed the sign there exists.
If Robert’s application of the conjunction rule were correct then it would be necessarily more unlikely to explain the Popsicle sign by appealing to design rather than mere chance. But of course this is absurd. As unlikely as it may be to encounter a sign like that on Longs Peak, it is surely even more implausible to attribute it merely to chance, even if the alternative requires the postulation of some heretofore unknown mind or intelligent mechanism that could place the sign there.
What’s going on here? The problem is that our description was misleading. The chance postulation is not simply “The sign exists” but rather “The sign exists by chance” or “A chance sign exists.” (Indeed, it wouldn’t really be correct to call this a sign at all.) Obviously the design scenario doesn’t believe that a chance sign exists. As a result, it is incorrect to say that chance involves positing A while design involves positing A+B. Instead, chance postulates A while design postulates B+C.
Needless to say, the same applies to the universe. Let’s redo our atheist/theist contrast with this in mind. (I will do so with one representative atheist position and one representative theist position.)
Atheist scenario: A universe exists as a result of springing into existence uncaused out of nothing.
Theist scenario: A universe exists as a result of an agent that produced that universe.
Here too we’re not contrasting A to A+B. Instead, we’re contrasting A to B+C. These are two very different understandings of “universe” and postulating the existence of an uncaused universe is not inherently easier to swallow than postulating the existence of a caused universe and a necessarily existent agent that caused it.
(Footnote: somebody’s going to say “Well why can’t I postulate the existence of a necessarily existent universe?” You can, if you have a reason to do so apart from the ad hoc desperation to avoid appealing to an agent.)