Question about Boghossian book (Manual on Creating Atheists) - falsifiability
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04-06-2015, 11:50 AM (This post was last modified: 04-06-2015 12:00 PM by Learner.)
Question about Boghossian book (Manual on Creating Atheists) - falsifiability
I’ve recently been reading through Peter Boghossian’s book “A Manual for Creating Atheists,” and I think I understand one of the concepts in one of the early chapters, but I wanted to pass it by those on the forum to see if I’m understanding right and if anyone has any additional thoughts on the topic.

Dr Boghossian had an interesting example conversation regarding falsifiability. He asked a Christian professor what would cause him to doubt his faith, and the professor said “the bones of Christ.” Dr B asked him that if bones were found and claimed to be the bones of Christ, how he’d actually know this claim was true, to which the professor was probably taken aback and had no response and got frustrated why Dr B kept asking the how-would-you-know question probably because I think he was missing Dr B’s point. Dr B said the professor’s faith wasn’t based on evidence if it wasn’t falsifiable (when the professor was initially claiming his faith was based on evidence).

At first, I was a little confused about Dr B's point, but I think I understand know. If I understand right, the example the professor gave to Dr B (that the "bones of Christ" would make him doubt his faith) wasn’t truly falsifiable since there’s no way the bones could be proven to be Jesus of Nazareth's bones, so this is just showing that the professor’s faith appeared to not be based on considering all the evidence at all since he couldn’t even conceive of some actual testable way the evidence could actually be against his faith, since his faith wasn’t based on evidence in the first place. (Granted, the conversation was limited to a short, assuming-casual encounter and conversation.) Am I understanding right? Hope that was clear enough or that others can chime in who've read the book.

For me personally, the whole idea of falsifiability is a big part of what led to my deconversion from Christianity. I started with the idea that things in the Bible either happened or they didn’t happen, in reference to major historical events that would assuredly leave evidence. I started with the idea that there needs to be objective evidence to support a belief system, with all the competing faith systems in the world competing only on the basis of differing authorities. The story of Noah’s Ark is what led me away from fundamentalism, initially. That story ranks up there with the most absolutely implausible stories ever, and not just “implausible,” but it never actually happened per the geological record, etc. And I believe that's a good example of a falsifiable claim (if the story actually happened), since the claims of the story can easily be tested via scientific means. I love the tool of falsifiability as part of critical thinking.

EDIT: please don't let this thread get derailed on the topic of if Jesus was a myth or not.
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04-06-2015, 11:58 AM
RE: Question about Boghossian book (Manual on Creating Atheists) - falsifiability
Well, assuming that jesus was who people claim he is, the bones should not have a Y chromosome in principle. That would be a way there you could actually demonstrate that there was a person who existed who had no father but only a mother. But also any religion's claim that a mortal was fathered by a god could also be explained in this fashion. However, since we don't know, therefore god.

"If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality.
The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination."
- Paul Dirac
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04-06-2015, 12:17 PM
RE: Question about Boghossian book (Manual on Creating Atheists) - falsifiability
(04-06-2015 11:50 AM)Learner Wrote:  I’ve recently been reading through Peter Boghossian’s book “A Manual for Creating Atheists,” and I think I understand one of the concepts in one of the early chapters, but I wanted to pass it by those on the forum to see if I’m understanding right and if anyone has any additional thoughts on the topic.

Dr Boghossian had an interesting example conversation regarding falsifiability. He asked a Christian professor what would cause him to doubt his faith, and the professor said “the bones of Christ.” Dr B asked him that if bones were found and claimed to be the bones of Christ, how he’d actually know this claim was true, to which the professor was probably taken aback and had no response and got frustrated why Dr B kept asking the how-would-you-know question probably because I think he was missing Dr B’s point. Dr B said the professor’s faith wasn’t based on evidence if it wasn’t falsifiable (when the professor was initially claiming his faith was based on evidence).

At first, I was a little confused about Dr B's point, but I think I understand know. If I understand right, the example the professor gave to Dr B (that the "bones of Christ" would make him doubt his faith) wasn’t truly falsifiable since there’s no way the bones could be proven to be Jesus of Nazareth's bones, so this is just showing that the professor’s faith appeared to not be based on considering all the evidence at all since he couldn’t even conceive of some actual testable way the evidence could actually be against his faith, since his faith wasn’t based on evidence in the first place. (Granted, the conversation was limited to a short, assuming-casual encounter and conversation.) Am I understanding right? Hope that was clear enough or that others can chime in who've read the book.

For me personally, the whole idea of falsifiability is a big part of what led to my deconversion from Christianity. I started with the idea that things in the Bible either happened or they didn’t happen, in reference to major historical events that would assuredly leave evidence. I started with the idea that there needs to be objective evidence to support a belief system, with all the competing faith systems in the world competing only on the basis of differing authorities. The story of Noah’s Ark is what led me away from fundamentalism, initially. That story ranks up there with the most absolutely implausible stories ever, and not just “implausible,” but it never actually happened per the geological record, etc. And I believe that's a good example of a falsifiable claim (if the story actually happened), since the claims of the story can easily be tested via scientific means. I love the tool of falsifiability as part of critical thinking.

That's a pretty close analysis of that scene. Some minor quibbles:

It's possible to have a position (as was the case with this professor, whatever he claimed) that is NOT based on evidence yet is still (as was not the case here) falsifiable BY evidence. Prof B asserted the opposite, that any evidence-based belief is falsifiable, which isn't exactly true but which is close enough for casual conversation. This is still better than having a position not based on evidence that is also not falsifiable by evidence. The key to falsifiability is to have some mechanism that informs you that your present views are in error, so as to require their modification or rejection. Prof B's point wasn't that OM, as he refers to the other party in the book, hadn't considered all evidence. His point was that OM wasn't open to contradictory evidence AT ALL.

It would be better to describe this scene as Prof B. demonstrating that the proposed method of falsification (the bones of Christ) was not actually a method of falsification, since in no scenario would this type of evidence (a presented skeleton) be accepted as falsifying the belief. The mechanism to discover the error doesn't work. That's what keeps it from being a good falsification criteria.

Not that Prof B. deserves fault for following up on the questions of proper identification as he did instead of other routes (you can only pick one in the moment, after all), but additional criticisms of the proposed falsification method include: It does not address the possibility that Jesus was entirely legendary (in which case there would be no bones). It does not address the possibility that the bones were damaged or destroyed by natural causes, such as an earthquake or cave-in. It does not address the possibility that the bones left the world through a supernatural mechanism, and yet did so without Jesus being the son of any god or having no salvation to offer for any sort of sin. In all of these cases, the proposed falsification standard -- the bones of Christ -- could never be produced even should the belief they are supposed to falsify be false.

But overall, you're interpreting that part just about right. The important thing to remember is that Prof. B. isn't just attempting to make a point about falsifiability, but to do so in a way as to move his subject from a dogmatic state into a state of questioning or wonder. Underlying all of this is a two-pronged question that Prof. B. is trying to get OM to ponder: "Is there any sort of evidence that you would be open to as challenging your beliefs? If so, exactly what would that evidence look like and would you really accept it as a challenge? If not, can you really say your position is evidence-based?" The point here is to get OM brainstorming ways he could be wrong, moving him from a dogmatic state to a state of wonder. In the context of street epistemology, the most important observation to be made about OM's claim of the bones of Christ as a falsification method is not the claim itself, not whether it qualifies as a falsification method, but the fact that OM provided that answer instantly AND WITHOUT THINKING. Prof B isn't so much trying to knock down the argument, as to move OM into a state of thinking and questioning.
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