The Raving Theist

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Asymmetry

April 3, 2006 | 15 Comments

[UPDATE: Aaron Kinney responds.]

The recent release of the failed prayer-healing study has inspired Aaron Kinney to critique what he calls the “asymmetry of immaterialism.” Specifically, he notes that while the supernatural-minded are quick to dismiss such scientific studies on the ground that immaterial entities are a priori untestable and undetectable by material means, they nevertheless insist that immaterial objects can test and observe material ones. He concludes that “[i]t is simply not logical to claim that there is a one-way street in regards to the interaction of immaterial and material entities.” To illustrate the point, he provides four statements which he claims “are not logically correct because they are asymmetrical”:

(1) For you to be in my line of sight, I need not be in your line of sight.

(2) To hold up this 10 pound object, I need not exert any force.

(3) It is wrong for me to murder you, but it is not wrong for you to murder me.

(4) I am your Son, but you are not my Father.

I think this analysis is flawed for a number of reasons. Some of the statements may be false because they involve contradictions, but this has nothing to do with their symmetry or asymmetry.

First, the “asymmetry” of a proposition does not prove its falsity. AK seems to be asserting that the converse of every true statement must also be true, but that’s not simply not the case. It may sometimes be the case, but that can only be determined by examining the nature of the proposition.

Example (1) is false simply because we know, empirically, that light travels in a straight line (mostly) and that two objects on the same line must thus be in the same line of sight. But if we preserve the “asymmetry” and change the statement just a little, we can form a true statement such as “for you to be looking at me, I need not be looking at you.”

Example (2) is false because we know, empirically, in a gravitational field, force must be applied to keep an object from falling. But again, a slight modification — changing the weight term to one of mass — could convert it into an asymmetrical but nonetheless true statement: “To hold up this 10 kilogram object, I need not exert any force.” Astronauts do that all the time in zero-gravity situations.

Example (3) is false (to the extent moral statements have a truth value) only because “murder” implies a wrong, or at least a legal wrong. But the symmetry of the “who kills who” aspect of it is irrelevant. There are plenty of situations in which it would be right for one person to kill another, but not vice versa — a police officer would be justified in killing a sniper or suicide bomber. And statements of the “it is wrong for me to X you, but it is not wrong for you to X me” are true in countless situations despite the asymmetry. It’s fine for a small child to sit on its parent’s lap, but the adult doesn’t have the same privilege.

Example (4), as a commentor pointed out, may be true as it stands because the “you” may be the son’s mother (I thought everyone knew this riddle). Furthermore, the effect of the symmetry in relationships between people is very fact-sensitive. “I am your sibling, but you are not my sibling” is always false, whereas “I am your brother, but you are not my brother” is only sometimes true (where there’s a sister). And returning to the actual example given, we can see that “I am your son, and you are my father” is less symmetric than “I am your son, and you are my son,” but experience teaches us that the first is true and the second is not.

Which bring us to the question of whether, as AK insists, there is a necessary symmetry between the ability of material and immaterial things to observe and test one another. I don’t see why this would be so. This supposed rule doesn’t even hold between material entities. I can observe and test a rock, but that doesn’t mean the rock can observe and test me. And as the religious are fond of pointing out, people can see ants — but ants can’t even conceive of people. (Although they use this fact to argue that things beyond the comprehension of people might exist, as I point out here, that argument is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God).

AK also talks more broadly about interaction between material and immaterial things, again reasoning that if somethingness can’t affect nothingness, nothingness shouldn’t be able to affect somethingness. If I can’t pick up a ghost, a ghost can’t pick up me. The problem with this logic, is logic itself. Logic is immaterial, and yet AK insists that it governs the possibility of interaction between all things in all situations. And all of science is premised upon the existence of invisible “laws” which somehow infallibly direct the workings of all matter. Numbers, too, are immaterial, but play a large role in our interactions with the universe. I can’t interact with the number 2, change the laws of gravity or violate laws of logic, but they still affect me quite profoundly (even if they’re not omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent or even conscious).

Ultimately, then, flaw in the religious criticism of the prayer studies doesn’thave to do with asymmetry or the impossibility of the interaction of nothing with something. The flaw is in claiming that prayer effects are a priori undetectable. They’re not — it’s just that a posteriori, there are no effects.

Comments

15 Responses to “Asymmetry”

  1. "Q" the Enchanter
    April 4th, 2006 @ 12:50 am

    Interesting post, but whaddya mean “failed prayer-healing study”? From my perspective, it was a total success.

  2. "Q" the Enchanter
    April 4th, 2006 @ 12:50 am

    Interesting post, but whaddya mean “failed prayer-healing study”? From my perspective, it was a total success.

  3. "Q" the Enchanter
    April 4th, 2006 @ 12:50 am

    Interesting post, but whaddya mean “failed prayer-healing study”? From my perspective, it was a total success.

  4. a different tim
    April 4th, 2006 @ 6:27 am

    Isn’t that what AK is arguing? He seems to be trying to show that the religious criticism – that prayer effects are a priori undetectable – can’t be true, and that therefore your conclusion – that there are no actual effects – is therefore right.

    I have to say I agree with his general tenor – that if something is having a systematic material effect, that should mean it is testable. The relationship of abstractions such as maths and logic to the universe is contentious in philosophy I think, but I don’t think it’s a causal relationship in the way that supernatural entites are supposed to cause natural events in theistic world views, so I don’t think the analogy is valid.

    We had a related argument on the forums here http://ravingatheist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=3289 which starts to become relevant around page 3.

  5. tarkovsky
    April 4th, 2006 @ 12:03 pm

    69 is a nice number that still affects me quite profoundly.

  6. Aaron Kinney
    April 4th, 2006 @ 4:00 pm

    Hey RA!

    Thanks for the critique. I hope you enjoy my response. And I invite all RA readers to check out my response as well and put in their two cents, critiques, questions, or whatever else comes to mind:

    http://killtheafterlife.blogspot.com/2006/04/raving-atheist-critiques-aaron-kinneys.html

  7. Jeff Guinn
    April 4th, 2006 @ 4:43 pm

    RA:

    Full points for an excellent analysis.

  8. ocmpoma
    April 4th, 2006 @ 5:43 pm

    I have to disagree with the final part of RA’s post:
    “Logic is immaterial, and yet AK insists that it governs the possibility of interaction between all things in all situations. And all of science is premised upon the existence of invisible “laws” which somehow infallibly direct the workings of all matter.”

    Logic doesn’t actually affect things – in fact, saying that it governs is very apt in this situation, since a government itself doesn’t interact with people in the same way as, say, a baseball and bat do. Governments don’t create and enforce laws, actual (physical) people do. To say that reality is ‘governed by logic’ does not mean that, somewhere out there, Logic goes around checking on everything and physically putting things right if they’ve gone askew. It’s very nature – usually accepted as immaterial* – means this. The same can be said for such things as the law of gravity.
    Scientific laws are a description of actual phenomena. The “law of gravity” isn’t what keeps us all on the surface of Earth, gravity itself is what keeps us here. Whether the laws of nature might or might not be non-physical concepts is irrelevant, since the laws don’t actually do anything.

    *There’s a thread on the forums which is tending towards a discussion of the material or immaterial nature of concepts such as logic and number:
    http://ravingatheist.com/forum/viewtopic.php?id=3534

  9. Aaron Kinney
    April 4th, 2006 @ 6:32 pm

    Jeff Guinn:

    How many points do I get for my response?

  10. Viole
    April 4th, 2006 @ 8:29 pm

    It seems that I just keep insulting you these days, RA, but your critique is terrible. I’m pretty sure you’re not stupid, so quit acting like it. You manage to make a few points about poor wording in the first part, but little else.

    Then you go on to make some silly claims about logic being immaterial, but governing the universe. Which is absurd.

    I seem to remember a time when you actually made decent arguments, RA, but I’m beginning to think I imagined it.

  11. Eva, Mod.
    April 4th, 2006 @ 8:57 pm

    the point a different tim, ocmpoma and viole mean to say- but surprisingly found no adequate words for- is that you have to show up in the forums every one in a while, TRA. and maybe even comment too.
    maybe.

  12. a different tim
    April 5th, 2006 @ 2:57 am

    AK makes an intersting point about the abstract (or otherwise) nature of logic, which I should have noticed myself.

    Maths and other computing operations do not exist in a vacuum. There is always a substrate, and I would argue (and I think AK would?) that any computing being done is a property of that substrate. This fact in itself has interesting consequences for mathematicians’ assessments of what is computable, theories of emergence etc.

    http://www.newscientist.com/channel/fundamentals/mg18524891.000.html (sorry, it’s one of those subscriber only things but if anyone is a subscriber it’s interesting).

    Yeah, come on the forums sometime!

  13. gravitybear
    April 5th, 2006 @ 8:11 am

    Not to nitpick, but…
    “Example (2) is false because we know, empirically, in a gravitational field, force must be applied to keep an object from falling. But again, a slight modification — changing the weight term to one of mass — could convert it into an asymmetrical but nonetheless true statement: “To hold up this 10 kilogram object, I need not exert any force.” Astronauts do that all the time in zero-gravity situations. ”

    In the absence of a gravitational field, there is no ‘up’. And changing it to a mass term does nothing. You still have to exert a force on a mass to get it to do what you want, even in zero-g. If the hypothetical astronaut and mass are not moving (wrt each other), then the mass is not being held. If the mass is moving and the astronaut wants to keep it close (hold it) then a force must be exerted.

    A better way to state the assymetry I think AK was getting at is to say. “I exert force on this object, but it exerts no force on me.”

  14. Viole
    April 5th, 2006 @ 9:02 am

    Don’t misrepresent me, oh Blasphemous Eva. I was insulting my host. We all know he’s much too busy making bad logical arguments to participate in the forum.

  15. Jeff Guinn
    April 6th, 2006 @ 6:20 pm

    Aaron:

    You too. I know that makes it sound as if I feel strongly both ways.

    More precisely, I was very impressed by the articulate and analytical positions you both expressed.

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