That thing is not really a thing

There's a scene in the movie Contact when Ellie, who's an atheist, asks her Christian-philosopher boyfriend Palmer if he can prove God exists. Palmer responds, "Prove you loved your father."

Checkmate, atheists!

This sentiment was recently echoed by Rabbi Alan Lurie over at Huffpo, who asks whether God's existence can ever be proven.
The attempt to prove the existence of God through the scientific method of hypothesis, controlled experimentation, observation and documentable repeatable results is somewhat akin to trying to discover the cause of a person's response to a deeply moving work of art. We can examine the painting, analyze the composition of the canvas and pigment, study the arrangement of shapes and colors, discover the historical context of the work and the biography of the artists, or even conduct psychological experiments and CT scans, but none of this will do anything to explain, understand and share in the person's aesthetic experience. This person may try to explain her experience, but she will ultimately fail to convince someone who only sees pigment on canvas, and who may conclude that her experience is delusional, and that the study of aesthetics is a waste of time. To the person who was so deeply impacted by the painting, though, such an assertion completely misses the point, and does nothing to convince her that her experience is not real, and that she was not touched and expanded by her encounter.
Similar arguments from theists rear their heads all too often – "How do you explain creativity? How do you explain love? How do you explain moral values? How do you explain art, music and poetry?" Presumably, since these things can't be scientifically quantified, therefor they are by implication evidence of the supernatural.

The mistake all these arguments have in common is that they are use-mention errors. They're confusing the use of the word with what it actually means. Daniel Dennett talked about this in some depth during his lecture at AAI 2009, and it's an important point to grasp: there is a difference between things and concepts. We can categorize things as stuff that actually exists; concepts are abstractions that give us useful categories of information. In other words, the concept of a thing is not a thing.

The reason creativity and love cannot be quantified is because they do not exist independently of human thought. They are not actual things – they are concepts that relate to quantifiable states of mind. We can, for example, show differences in the neurological and hormonal activity of someone who is "in love" compared to someone who is not. This doesn't mean their body is being permeated by some mysterious ethereal force; "love" is just the name we use to conceptualize and categorize a certain range of quantifiable emotional responses.

Moral values, too are not actual things that exist independently of human thought – they are conceptualizations of categorical information that relate to quantifiable human states. This is the thrust of Sam Harris' book The Moral Landscape – that to be useful, moral values must relate to objective facts about human suffering. Philosphers can fuss all day about how exactly we ought to ideally define moral values, and indeed science cannot tell us how to arbitrarily define concepts. It can, however, tell us what concepts are useful, beneficial, or detrimental.

Sometimes believers attempt to circumvent this conundrum by using the word "real". Oh, they might say, so you don't think things like love, creativity and morals are real? This is a fallacy of equivocation – we first have to determine what we mean by the word "real". In the sense of existing objectively, no, these things are not "real". But in the sense of being meaningful concepts that help us describe, identify and communicate thoughts, experiences and beliefs, they are very much "real".

Palmer's mistake was to conflate a concept with an objective thing. If a god or gods exist, they exist objectively and independently of human though – not as human abstractions like love, creativity, or moral values. In the movie, Ellie is humbled by the retort. If Ellie had been a bit more like Dan Dennett, she might not have let him get away with it.


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