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A comparison of two non-empirical hypotheses

A comparison of two non-empirical hypotheses

by David Veksler

“Mais où est Dieu dans tout cela?”
“[Sire,] je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothèse.”
– Pierre-Simon Laplace


If you ask a pre-modern, pre-scientific person why he believes in God, he would probably mention the need to explain some natural phenomena, living or geological, or perhaps offer some ontological justification. If you ask a modern person, you are likely to get an explanation in terms of social goals – the need to justify or discourage various kinds of actions and attitudes.

If you ask a pre-modern, pre-democratic person why there needs to be a State, he would probably mention some specific purpose such as the need for defense against foreign threats. If you ask a modern person about the need for a government, he would probably first mention the need to enforce certain socially desirable activities and prohibit undesirable ones.

It seems to be that the justifications offered for religion and the State today are essentially the same. People believe that (1) an agent is needed to create and enforce the desired “natural” order and (2) that this agent is immune or excluded from the conditions giving rise to this need.

For example, it is believed that all entities require a creator, but the creator is excluded from this requirement. Likewise it is believed that people cannot peacefully coexist without a monopoly on the use of force, but that the States themselves can coexist without a single ruler over themselves.

If you offer a religious person a naturalistic basis for ethical behavior, or a natural explanation of the universe they will usually not try to disprove your argument on an empirical basis, but ask you to refute their arbitrary claims. For example, they will say that life itself is not a valid basis for a moral theory because it does not include a justification for their ethical doctrine (sacrifice, altruism, etc). Likewise, the instability of empty space due to vacuum energy cannot be a justification for the universe because it does not explain their version of “theological nothingness.” Arbitrary claims like this are impossible to disprove by empirical evidence. What argument can be given to someone who dismisses what we know to be true because it conflicts with what he wants to be true?

If you explain to someone who supports the State how a non-monopolistic, private agency could better accomplish some state-run function, they will usually not refute the argument directly, but ask you to refute their arbitrary assumption that only a coercive, monopolistic agency can full-fill that role. For example, if you explain why a private education would function better, they would not address the evidence directly, but ask how those who have neither funds nor charitable support could obtain an education – as if the State-run system is funded by magic, without either funds or electoral support. Their basic assumption is that voluntary cooperation is not possible to human beings in meeting certain kinds of values – but that the State is exempt from that same requirements.

The purpose of the above is not to convert the uninitiated but simply to point out how two popular memes have adapted to the Age of Reason by evolving from empirical to non-empirical, non-testable justifications.

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