The MU SASHA Blog

The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results

Hello all! Dave here.

This article is a response to Alex Papulis’s guest post called “The Problem of Induction – A Response,” which is itself a response to an earlier post of mine.

The title of today’s post refers to a disclaimer often found in investment literature—stock recommendations, investor prospectus documents, and so on.

I think this about sums up the problem of induction. I have previously claimed, paraphrasing Michael Shermer, that science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works. To be more precise, it’s the best tool for understanding how the world seems to have worked so far. There’s an important distinction: If Hume is correct, we really have no solid reason to believe that we can extrapolate what seems to have happened in the past into future predictions. Or even look at the past and have certainty about what happened then.

For example, Stephen Hawking has said with regard to the Big Bang, “We observe that distant galaxies are moving away from us. They must have been closer together in the past.”

The Big Bang (click to enlarge)

Oh really? While it’s tempting to say that this is true, really all we can say is that, unless nature is inconsistent, it makes sense that distant galaxies were once closer together.

But what basis do we really have for saying nature is consistent? It’s an assumption we have to make in order to do science, sure. And generally speaking—as far as we know—the fewer assumptions you have to make, the more likely you are to be right. So why assume that nature is consistent? Just because it usually seems to be… except when it doesn’t? Maybe that is what a miracle is: An inconsistency in nature. As good skeptics, we must admit the possibility. Although, if miracles can be, at least in theory, understood by natural science, then I think it’s just a semantic error to call them miracle. They’re more correctly things we can’t yet explain.

So what should we do? Abandon science and metaphysical naturalism in favor of global skepticism?

From a purely epistemological perspective, I think we have no other option. Global skepticism (with the single exception of self-existence a lá Descartes) seems to be the only bulletproof epistemic position. But here’s where Alex and I disagree: If the only defensible position is global skepticism, then it takes just as much faith to believe that evidence leads to truth as it does to believe in a deistic creator – or at least, both positions require faith (belief without real [non-circular] evidence). I think it takes more faith to believe in a deistic creator than it does to believe the that something came from nothing, merely because belief in a deistic creator begs the question, and the latter theory does not.

The only entity in a position to have 100% certainty of God’s existence is God. That actually goes for anyone. I am 100% certain that I exist: Not 95% confident, not 99% confident, not 99.9999% confident—I am certain. I know this because I could not be pondering such things if I didn’t exist.

That makes us all agnostics. (If you are certain a god exists, please let me know how you know this in the comments. Remember, to be certain about something, it means that it’s logically impossible that you’re wrong.) But what about belief? Which is more reasonable?

Occam’s Razor itself is an assumption, so it is circular to say “The belief with the fewest assumptions.” I would say that the default position, therefore, is to just say “I don’t believe.” There are an infinite number of things we could believe in but don’t, and the way that we have come to decide what’s believable and what’s not is based on what’s supported by evidence.

Is this wrong? Perhaps.

Does it work? Every day, in every field of scientific inquiry, throughout history, with the single exception of unsolved (I prefer to say not-yet-solved) miracle claims. It works in medicine, in agriculture, in cosmology, in every science you could care to name. And from where I stand, that’s really all I care about—what works. Considering the only entity I’m certain exists is me, what works in my favor seems to be something I’d be in favor of, right?

Epistemically, I think the jury is still out. I’m an agnostic atheist, but I’m dangerously close to believing in a deistic creator. I really don’t have any good reason for preferring not to believe other than that it seems to me to be more economical in its assumptions, and I prefer that. But is it true? I have no way of knowing. Do you?

Curious for your thoughts,

Until next time!

Dave

P.S. In a future post, I’ll tackle the ethical implications of such hardcore skepticism. Should be fun—stay tuned!

Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard.

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About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is http://www.DanielleMuscato.com. Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at www.youtube.com/davemuscato

8 comments on “Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results

  1. Jeremy
    October 14, 2012

    That kind of hard agnosticism is actually my background, essentially. Some of you know that I was at one point a devout Christian– I didn’t simply convert to atheism, but to strict skepticism. I don’t share that merely as a personal anecdote, but because it’s germane to my reasons for eventually identifying as an atheist and more generally a belief in science.

    Do we ever really know one way or the other? Even as an atheist I still agree with Dave’s assessment that, in a strictly epistemological sense, we must embrace global skepticism. And as he rightly concludes, the value in science is its practicality. Our talents for pattern recognition and extrapolation are, after all, what make us intelligent creatures. We don’t know that the floor will catch us when we hop out of bed, and that we won’t fall to the center of the earth. But we feel comfortable concluding as much, because it’s consistent with our observations throughout life. We can’t be 100% sure in anything, especially including the nature of the universe. But we can be 99.999999% sure of many things. And when the question is merely, “How many 9’s fall to the right of that decimal point?” there’s rarely any practical difference.

    The physiology of our brains does not afford us the luxury to not make decisions. We’re always making them. And we’re always trying to make the best ones. And so when we’re more than 90% sure, there’s not a lot to think about. But just because you’re 99.999% sure that a particular god from a particular religion isn’t real, doesn’t mean you’re just as sure that there is no god at all. As Dave points out, the more assumptions you have to make, the less likely you are to reject the hypothesis. Likewise, the more specific a claim, the more likely it is to have telling inaccuracies, internal inconsistencies, and unlikely assertions… putting most established religions under pretty heavy scrutiny. But a vague, poorly-defined deity doesn’t suffer from these epistemological weaknesses.

    But as I’m quick to point out when an argument evolves to this, the question becomes, “So what?” What practical value does a generic god offer? None. And like other considerations with no practical value, it’s foolish to become invested in the answer. One might as well contemplate any other question with no meaning to them. What’s the ideal % of zinc in a paperclip for the average stack of papers? But science doesn’t generally have this problem of epistemological value, because science isn’t an attempt to answer a single question. Rather, it aims to address many separate questions which HAVE value. Through scientific assumptions, we can solve many problems. Through deistic assumptions, none. Simply put, not all questions are worth asking, even if they seem important.

    As an interjection, circular reasoning gets a bad rap, but is actually an important quality of a good claim. As an informational system, all information must be interconnected, as in a circle. Dead ends are problematic for explanation. So any system of explanation, whether a programming schematic or a conspiracy theory, has to be self-sustainable within a system. It’s loose ends that you don’t want. The question is not, “Is the argument circular?” but “How big and how stable is the circle?” When the system loses integrity by adding elements, as in small systems, its falsifiability is increased.

    Finally, deism is not simply the other side of the coin… to think that deism and scientific inquiry are at odds is a false dichotomy to end all. Maybe the universe was built by aliens. Maybe it has always existed. That’s just two possible explanations for the existence of the universe that I pulled out of my ass, and there are many more, all as equally unfalsifiable as deism or contemporary scientific theories. Deism doesn’t take a 50% chance… it simply takes a small slice of the epistemologically inedible pie.

    • Dylan
      October 19, 2012

      Intriguing response Jeremy. I’d be interested in hearing more about your departure from Christianity and subsequent belief in science, especially in light of the statement in your final paragraph regarding the false dichotomy of deism and scientific inquiry (which I would agree with you as being a crucial determination).

      “As an interjection, circular reasoning gets a bad rap, but is actually an important quality of a good claim. As an informational system, all information must be interconnected, as in a circle. Dead ends are problematic for explanation.”

      I think you may be failing to make a distinction here between two different things: 1) reasoning and 2) organizing information for purely illustrative purposes. For example, one could produce a flow chart that happens to be arranged in cyclic form to illustrate the principle of “what goes around comes around”. This is all good and well for organizing facts when, in reality, they actually interrelate that way. Claims (propositions more specifically), however, occur (as you pointed out) within the realm of reasoning. And propositions usually involve more than simply organizing facts. They involve forming one or more premises in attempts to draw conclusions. This process within reasoning is never intended to show that “what goes around comes around”. Instead, it seems to me that the only sense in which reasoning could be said to be circular is in the traditional sense where either the conclusion is a restatement of the premise or the premise relies upon the stated conclusion in order to be considered true.

      So for explanation purposes, circular arrangement of facts that represent a cyclic process is effective. But I don’t see how you can conclude that circular reason has any real explanatory merit. Perhaps I just have failed to comprehend what you actually mean by “informational system”.

  2. rocketkirchner
    October 15, 2012

    dave , glad to see back on the board. That something came from nothing or that something came from a creator are both equally absurd , and the debates between the rational theists and rational atheists these days are just downright circular , going nowhere fast.

    which is more reasonable is a loaded question when it comes to any kind of certitude . the question assumes that reason is the measure by which all things are measured in regard to any epistimic reality . since when did reason become the final arbitrator ? should it be the final act after the Cartesian Cogito ? or should the existential act of self actualization be , no matter how absurd >?

    Every one loves to qoute Occam’s Razor , but no one reminds people that he used it as a Fransican friar . It was his committment to something beyond deism that lazored focused his mind to such a manner. and oif the truth be told , so was Pascal , Kierkgaard , Tolstoy , Bach , Kepler , , Newton , etc… and these men have one thing in commen : being a Christian , and accepting the credo qua absurdum that the deists like Voltaire or Jefferson could never understand becuase they were so locked in pure reason .

  3. Dylan
    October 18, 2012

    Hey Dave, cool post…are you still in the Northwest?

    I wanted to respond to one of your arguments and also get some clarification on your understanding of how science “works”.
    “I think it takes more faith to believe in a deistic creator than it does to believe the that something came from nothing, merely because belief in a deistic creator begs the question, and the latter theory does not.”

    I find it very hard to believe that this is the only argument you have for thinking that it takes more faith to believe in a deistic creator. It is inaccurate to say that a particular belief inherently “begs the question” or does not beg the question. Maybe that is not what you were trying to say. But just in case it is, here’s what I think is wrong with it. What begs the question is how the belief is arrived at or defended. For instance, I can make the statement that I believe in the Big Bang theory. I am thus far not begging any question in the logical sense. However, if I then attempt to defend my belief by saying, “Well, it’s obvious to me that the universe came about on its own from nothing”, now I am begging the question. The same holds true for any alternative beliefs. If I state that I believe in a deistic creator, or even specifically in the God of the Bible, I have not yet begged the question. But if I go a step further and say, “I believe that God exists, because it’s obvious that He has created all things”, now I have begged the question. So in summary, beliefs do not beg the question, you and I do by how we go about arriving at and defending our beliefs.

    “…and the way that we have come to decide what’s believable and what’s not is based on what’s supported by evidence. Is this wrong? Perhaps. Does it work? Every day, in every field of scientific inquiry, throughout history…And from where I stand, that’s really all I care about—what works. Considering the only entity I’m certain exists is me, what works in my favor seems to be something I’d be in favor of, right?”

    Is there an egoist in the building? Just kidding. 🙂 Interestingly, it appears to me that you are hinting at a very important concept regarding the scientific method. It looks like you have articulated at least two distinct, yet related, levels pertaining to its practicality/applicability. On the one hand, you claim that science works at the level of providing evidentiary support for a metaphysical viewpoint (i.e. cosmology). On the other hand, you claim that science works in your personal favor. I assume, by this level, that you are referring to the practice of making daily decisions based on the careful scrutiny of repetitive personal observations. If this assumption is true, would you then also conclude that all of scientific inquiry, even that done exclusively by others, fundamentally works in your favor?

    • Dylan
      October 19, 2012

      By the way, has anyone here come across the idea that Descartes’ argument regarding existence employs circular reasoning? Is it possible that declaring “I think” immediately implies that “I am”, so that what he is saying is actually “I am, therefore I am”?

      • rocketkirchner
        October 21, 2012

        Dylan , good question . in regarding the Cartisian Cogito , once we get past his second meditation the only circularity would be one that is a collective historical reasoning toward the Ex Hypothesi ( the existence of God ) . ..in which Decarte embraces .
        the ”i think” is imperative in Decartes proclamation becuase it presumes that existence proceeds divine essence ( or any kind of essence ). so , to say ”I am , therefore i am ” is redundant.

  4. Annette
    October 18, 2012

    Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Finding the time and actual effort to generate a very good article… but
    what can I say… I procrastinate a lot and never seem to get anything done.

  5. Pingback: When nature burps « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

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