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glennonymous comments on Welcome to Less Wrong! (2012) - Less Wrong

25 Post author: orthonormal 26 December 2011 10:57PM

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Comment author: glennonymous 31 December 2011 12:33:35PM 8 points [-]

Hi all,

My name is Glenn Thomas Davis. I am a 48-year old male living in Warren, NJ with my wife and 5-year old daughter. I was born and raised in Ketchikan, Alaska. I am a creative director for a pharmaceutical marketing agency. I have been interested in science and skepticism since reading Godel, Escher, Bach in my 20's, but became a really serious skeptic and atheist after I started listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast in 2005ish. I beacame a fan of Eliezer and the Singularity Institute after seeing him speak on Bloggingheads 3 years ago, and I recently subscribed to the Overcoming Bias NYC listserve.

Most of my online friends are from the San Francisco Bay Area where I lived for many years. Not exactly the world's most rational bunch, and they don't often appreciate my atheist rants. I have been delaying introducing myself here because I am resistant to putting in the effort and time to become a known presence from the ground up, or even to write a proper introductory post. However, it recently occurred to me I could just share pieces of writing I've already done for other, less like-minded groups. Here's one:


(In response to an otherwise rational person who trotted out the following canard in a post about religion)

None of this proves there is no soul (you can't prove a negative).

The statement "you can't prove a negative" is meaningless. Or you could say that it is true in a technical, superficial way, but useless.

This is because your statement applies equally well to ALL nonsensical claims. After all, I can't prove Santa Claus doesn't exist. True, we could fly to the North Pole right now and demonstrate there is no Santa Claus there, but you could always argue that his workshop is invisible. Or that Santa Claus is real, but his workshop is in an undisclosed chicken coop in Jamaica. Or... ?

Saying "you can't prove a negative" perpetuates a pernicious distortion, which is that science is about the black-and-white notion of proving and disproving things. As you know, that is NOT what science is about. Science is about reducing our level of uncertainty about how well our beliefs map onto reality. Looking at it this way gives us a useful way to address the question of whether Santa Claus exists.

To reduce our uncertainty about the existence of Santa Claus, we can try to find alternative explanations for the phenomena that are supposed to be explained by the existence of Santa Claus. Which of these claims is more likely to be true?

  1. There is a real Santa Claus who travels on a flying sled and delivers presents to children everywhere each Christmas Eve.

  2. Santa Claus is a fictional character. Children who receive Christmas presents usually receive them from their parents and relatives, who find it useful to lie to them sometimes about the existence of Santa Claus.

I can't completely prove or disprove either of these claims any more than I can prove or disprove the existence of any other supernatural character, but lines of evidence could be marshaled that would establish that 2 is more likely to be true than 1, beyond a reasonable doubt.

This applies equally well to the question of the existence of gods and ghosts:

  1. Human consciousness resides in a disembodied energy field, called a 'soul', that persists after death.

  2. Human consciousness resides in human brains, and perishes when a person's brain stops working, i.e. at death. The idea of a 'soul' is a myth left over from the days when humans lacked a detailed understanding of the way mental processes work.

The same thing I said WRT to the existence of Santa Claus applies to these two claims. I cannot prove or disprove either claim, but I can marshal a great deal of evidence for scenario 2, and little or no good evidence for scenario 1. Hence 2 is correct beyond a reasonable doubt, by which I mean beyond the doubt of a person who applies the same rules of evidence and logic to this question he applies to any question in which he has no investment in the outcome.

The existence of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny is thus on EXACTLY the same footing as the existence of gods or ghosts of any variety. A person who takes action on the premise that there are invisible ghosts that will help or hinder them is in the same position as the person who doesn't buy any presents for their children, on the basis that their children have been good this year, surely Santa Claus will arrive to deliver presents under the tree on Christmas morning...

I respectfully urge you to therefore stop saying "you can't prove a negative," as if this somehow puts the existence of gods and ghosts in a special category where it isn't subject to the same rules of evidence to which we all subject all the other claims people make, every day.


Nice to meet you all --Glenn Thomas Davis

Comment author: Ezekiel 01 January 2012 10:29:19AM 0 points [-]

Well-put. Although, strictly speaking, you can prove a negative. Given the basic axioms of number theory, the statement ~0=S0 (zero does not equal one) is provable.

Comment author: glennonymous 01 January 2012 12:22:50PM 0 points [-]

Great point, Ezekiel, thanks.