Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Two Babies and the existence of God

Recently I came across a cute little story that appears to be doing the rounds on the internet at the moment. It is about two babies who are in their mother's womb, having a conversation about "life after delivery". The point of the story is clear. It uses analogy to argue for the existence of an afterlife, and for the existence of God.

Firstly, I have to say that arguments from analogy are rarely convincing because at any stage, one possible explanation could always be that the analogy is flawed. Analogies are useful as a tool to help explain difficult concepts, but cannot be used as evidence or proof, for the reason already stated.

However, I find this story rather interesting because it highlights some of the common reasoning flaws used to justify belief in God and belief in an afterlife. The fact that the flaws are evident in the analogy itself should be a cause for concern for its author and anyone who agreed with its conclusions.


The story is here:
In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?”
The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”
The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”
Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
- Útmutató a Léleknek

It's a cute story, with strong emotional underpinnings, so it's easy to get carried away and miss the subtle errors it makes.

Let's set the scene more clearly. The womb is an analogy for our universe. "Delivery" is intended as an analogy for "death". The two babies are intended to represent a Christian theist, and an atheist. I think the author misrepresented the views of most atheists, and it's clear that the author is a theist so I'd have to assume they represented their own views accurately. Given the popularity of the story, it seems that many believers agree with the line of reasoning presented, and feel that this story validates their beliefs somewhat.

The point of the story is to justify belief in God and an afterlife, and to show that unbelief is unreasonable. To the believer, that appears to hold sway. The irony is that to the unbeliever, it shows exactly the same flaws in reasoning as other theistic arguments for the existence of God, and only serves to further highlight the believer's lack of critical thinking and their tendency to jump to conclusions prematurely.

I aim to show you why this is the case. Let's analyse the arguments.
"There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later."
Note the highlighted words. No justification is given for why there "has to be" an after-delivery. All that is presented is a suggestion. It's a hypothesis that contains within it the assumed conclusion that there is a "later".
“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The author has the atheist confidently stating that there is no life after delivery. Few atheists talk this way. Remember that this story was written by a theist. Their attempt to portray the other side as arrogant and closed-minded should ring some alarm bells. Most atheists are well aware that proving a negative is impossible. As for the question, "what kind of life would that be?", I think that is a valid question to ask, especially in our context, but it is irrelevant to the question of whether an afterlife exists.
“I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
Another bold assertion, without justification. How does this baby know there will be more light? For that matter, how does the baby know what light is?

Please Note:
For the purpose of the analogy, I will freely grant that the babies can reason and communicate. However, in order to maintain the analogy with respect to our experience, the babies are not permitted to know anything about the outside world, just as we know nothing about what might lie outside our natural universe. They must infer everything via their current experience, just the same as it is for us now.

The baby uses the word "maybe" a lot. The story is clever in that it uses details that we are aware of from our existence, and it inserts them into the baby's communication. We know from our experience that what the baby is saying is accurate, but to preserve the analogy, the baby has no way of knowing that. The baby is simply making wild guesses without providing sufficient justification. How did the baby know these things?

Suppose the baby is a chimpanzee. Do those assumptions and guesses still hold true? I hope you can see that guesses, even those based on intuition, are not a reliable method for discovering truth about reality.

The theist baby might be justified in thinking that there might be some use of their limbs outside the womb, based on the observation that there seemed to be no use for them at the time, and the intuition that they should serve some purpose. That does not seem to carry over to our experience. If you're aware of a human limb or feature that has no function now, but that might have a function in an afterlife, please let me know. Otherwise, the analogy fails and we can safely ignore this argument so far.
“That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
Again, the atheist baby makes unprovable assertions. If atheists were to make equivalent claims about an afterlife, anyone would be justified in questioning those claims. I would question them myself. How do they know that these things are impossible? There's no way to test it, and thus no way to know. The atheist baby is out of line here.

The atheist baby does at least provide empirical evidence to show that if there is an after-delivery, there are some things that can be ruled out, such as attachment to the umbilical cord.

I think the better response for the atheist baby at this point would simply be: "Why do you think that?". The theist baby is making claims about an afterlife. Naturally, the burden of proof rests on that baby to provide evidence for those claims. Otherwise the atheist would be justified in saying "Maybe you're right, maybe you're not. We have no way to tell. Why should I believe you?" Remember that you cannot use information that neither baby has access to in order to justify the claims being made.
 “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The second sentence is actually a sensible response to the earlier observation about the umbilical cord. It's still "what if" scenarios and more 'maybe's though. Whilst not having a cord might make the after-delivery hypothetically possible, the theist baby provides no evidence for why belief in an after-delivery is likely to be true, let alone justified.
 “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
Unfortunately, some atheists do tend to make these sorts of comments, and I don't think they hold much water. Whilst there is reasonable evidence to conclude that death is the end of consciousness and thus the end of life as we know it, there is no way to rule out the existence of an afterlife. That is, we may have no good reason to believe in it, but that doesn't mean it is impossible.

There are reasons to think that if there is an afterlife it at least requires something other than the body we now have. Mortal bodies grow old and decay, and those bodies don't suddenly disappear at death. This indicates they are not in use after that point. As for no one coming back from the afterlife, this is not a good argument against the existence of an afterlife. Perhaps beings in an afterlife either cannot interact with us, or are not detectable by us.

I think we can safely say that if there is an afterlife, it must be in some way different to our current life. It might even require a more flexible definition of "life". But to claim it is impossible would require evidence, and I'm not sure what such evidence would look like. We've already discussed the impossibility of proving a negative, so atheists should not make such claims.

Regardless, I would still argue that belief in an afterlife is unjustified based on the complete lack of evidence provided in support of it. An inability to prove a thing false does not automatically make it true. If it did, we would be compelled to accept the existence of unicorns, fairies, leprechauns, and cosmic teapots.
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
Mother? Isn't this one of the very things the story is supposed to prove? And yet here is the theist baby asserting that a Mother exists, when in reality neither baby would have any way of knowing. You cannot use one unproven idea as evidence for another. Thus, if the existence of an afterlife rests on the existence of God, then the existence of God must first be demonstrated.

Further, how did the baby come up with the term 'Mother'? Why not 'Father'? Having never experienced a birth before, the babies have no way to know that only mothers give birth. In fact, they have no way to know that animals only give birth to their own kind. They even have no way to know that only animals (including humans) give birth. For all they know they could be inside a seed, or an artificial womb.

This is a classic case of Christians using deistic arguments in an attempt to prove theism. It doesn't follow. The baby has not yet provided any justification for believing in any mother (benevolent or otherwise), let alone a specific 'Mother'. If we're talking about Yahweh, the god in the Bible, then the analogy would be like the baby claiming to know its mother's name, along with a bunch of other attributes about her. Otherwise, even if we grant the entire argument it only leads to deism. "Mother" could in fact be the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Where does that get you?

In any case, we haven't even seen any evidence nor justification for deism yet.
 “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”
More assertions without any evidence to back them up. What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

The analogy completely ignores epistemology. This does not look good for the theist author. Knowledge about reality is not obtained by simply pulling random ideas from the imagination. It requires sound methodology, for example the Scientific Method. What methodology would lead you to the claims mentioned above? In other words, how does the theist baby know?

The analogy also equates the universe with God. Unless you're a pantheist, I doubt you'd agree. It's not great when the analogy breaks down even for the theist who came up with it.
“Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
The author felt the need to put another weak argument in the mouth of the atheist baby. Atheists accept the existence of atoms, gravity, magnetic fields, for example, all of which are invisible to the naked eye.

Meanwhile, it is true that there is no empirical evidence of any kind for God's existence. Even if God was undetectable, Christians still claim that God physically intervenes in the world, and such interventions should be detectable, in principle. Yet no such intervention has ever been observed or measured under scientific conditions. However, even this is not evidence that God does not exist. The best we can say is that if God does exist, (s)he or it either cannot be detected by us, or does not want to be detected by us.

Proving that God does not exist is impossible - yet another case of trying to prove a negative. However, we can rule out the existence of gods with certain attributes. For example, God cannot be omnipotent (all-powerful) because it is logically contradictory. Can God create a rock so heavy he cannot lift it? Also, if God is omniscient (all-knowing), he could not have free will and vice versa. There is a lot more we could look at here but it's outside the scope of this article.

In any case, our inability to prove the non-existence of God does not make the existence of God certain, or even likely. The existence of God must stand on its own evidence.
“Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
I found this conclusion to the story really disappointing, and I think it undermines the theist's position. Finally the theist had the opportunity to declare to all atheists the very evidence we have been missing all this time. Instead of doing that, the author has the baby provide actual empirical, scientifically measurable, testable, evidence. That is, the very thing we do not have for the existence of God.

The need to provide empirical evidence at least demonstrates the author's awareness of the burden of proof. The theist baby is effectively saying "You may not be able to see Mother, but you can hear her". This does not carry over into our experience. In our universe, it would seem that God cannot be detected by any of our senses. Believers are instructed to use faith, not the physical senses, to determine God's existence (see Heb 11:6).

As for perceiving God's presence, this has never been empirically verified under scientific conditions, and until theists can reliably establish what such a presence is supposed to feel like, this will remain the case.

So hopefully you can see the major flaws in the analogy by now.

False dichotomy

There's one last thing I want to point out and that relates to the portrayal of atheists as arrogant and illogical. The atheist in the analogy makes ridiculous claims that contain obvious flaws. (S)he is painted as someone with a closed mind. What the author is attempting to do is set up a dichotomy between atheist and theist, and by ruling out the atheist arguments, leave the theist as the only rational choice left standing.

This is a false dichotomy.

The theist argument needs to stand on its own merits, and provide its own evidence to back it up. It failed to do either.

The story itself posed no concern for me as an atheist. Its flaws were obvious to me.
What did trouble me is the fact that some theists seemed to think the analogy was a good one, and that the arguments provided validation for their beliefs. It would be unfair to say all theists approved of the story. I give them more credit than that.

If you are one of the theists who thinks the story is thought-provoking, perhaps this article might have shown you another perspective.

I'm not closed minded. I'm just not aware of any good evidence for the claims being made.

Without sufficient evidence, belief is not warranted. Instead, all you have is wishful thinking.