Science and the evangelical tribe

RJS at Jesus Creed reports on the recent Theology of Celebration Workshop hosted by the Biologos Foundation, reported on by Christianity Today as a gathering of “evangelical evolutionists.” As RJS notes, that’s an unsatisfying label, but I suppose it works as a reminder that there are, in fact, evangelical theologians who do not deny evolution.

RJS writes:

[CT’s Tim] Stafford suggests that the most sobering point in the meeting was the report by David Kinnaman of Barna Research that  more than half of Protestant pastors in the US support young-earth creationism or lean strongly toward that position. The poll includes the entire range of Protestants, so we can safely assume that well over half of evangelical pastors lean toward the young earth view.

The most sobering point for me though, was not this particular finding (which was not unexpected), but the realization that the vast majority of this “more than half” of evangelical pastors, more than three-quarters of them, believe that they understand both the theological issues and the scientific issues involved in the creation/evolution discussion very well.

RJS goes on to discuss the enormous challenge of explaining even basic science to a large category of people who: A) don’t understand or want to understand it; and B) think they already understand it just fine. I don’t share all of the suggestions RJS makes for meeting this challenge, but many of them are good and necessary, if daunting.

My biggest reservation is with this part of the post:

We need scientists; those who can explain the science carefully and clearly for a lay audience. Here I find Dennis Venema’s articles on the BioLogos site to be excellent examples and provide a valuable resource.

My response to this suggestion is “What do you mean ‘we,’ kemosabe?”

For a scientist to be able to “explain the science carefully and clearly for a lay audience” is a rare gift, but it’s a big world and there are a lot of excellent science writers.

The problem isn’t that we lack scientists, the problem is that we are defining “we” in a way that excludes everyone who isn’t already a member of our evangelical tribe.

Whenever the subject of careful and clear science writing for a lay audience comes up, I leap at the chance to recommend one of my favorite books — David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. It’s fascinating, absorbing and utterly accessible to those of us who haven’t spent years studying biology. Quammen offers a lively tour of the insights of Darwin and Wallace and all that we’ve learned since, all while also introducing the reader to some of the strangest and most intriguing places and creatures on the planet. It’s a terrific book.

But if “we” decide that “we” can only read books written by “us,” then Quammen’s book doesn’t count. Nor can we read anything by Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Janna Levin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jared Diamond, Mary Roach, Stephen Jay Gould, Steve Jones, Phil Plait …

Maybe Annie Dillard counts, but it’s a bit of a stretch to claim her as one of us.

It’s no good saying “we need scientists … who can explain the science carefully and clearly for a lay audience” and then to turn around and exclude nearly all of the best writers who can do just that because we cannot claim them as members of our tribe.

That leaves us with precious little to draw from except the sort of books the BioLogos Foundation recommends. Many of the books on that page may be excellent (I’ve not read most of them), but many are also one step removed from actual science writing. They’re about science, but not necessarily on science. I appreciate the need for books intended specifically for evangelical readers — books that can serve to give those readers permission, in a sense, to learn about science. But the universe of good, popular science writing is much bigger than this small bookshelf.

And ultimately it has to include not just books reassuring evangelicals that faith and science aren’t in conflict, but also the books that such reassurance enables one to go on to read. I’m a big fan of Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, but if we convinced every American evangelical to read Noll’s book without them going on to read all the vast universe of books he laments that they’re not reading, then we wouldn’t have really accomplished anything. We might have raised awareness of the scandal, but we wouldn’t have corrected it.

If evangelicals are refusing to learn from Quammen and Sagan and the other writers mentioned above, then the solution is not to seek out or create a new, evangelical Quammen or Sagan. That’s the approach that gave us the wretched “contemporary Christian music” industry. CCS would like prove just as awful as most CCM.

That analogy helps point us to a better way forward. The problem with CCM isn’t just that the artists creating this parochial music for the rest of the tribe need to be better at their craft. The problem is that they’re creating parochial music for the tribe and that the members of that tribe regard themselves primarily as members of that tribe, refusing to listen (or pretending not to listen) to the wider universe of good music made by and for the “outsiders” of the rest of the world. American evangelicals don’t need better tribal music. We need to stop approaching music through the lens of tribalism.

Likewise, American evangelicals don’t need better tribal scientists. We need to stop approaching science through the lens of tribalism.

So to every one of those half-of-all evangelical pastors now trapped by the confusion of young-earth creationism, my suggestion is simply this: Go read The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. You’ll thank me later. It’s a terrific book.

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  • We Must Dissent

    I have no idea how to get there from here, but the US needs a mainstream culture that refuses to describe science in terms of belief, one where science (and other) teachers can call bullshit on nonscience like “intelligent design” as swiftly and with the same repercussions as they can on heliocentrism or math teachers could if students were to declare that pi equals 3.

  • http://mpzrd.blogspot.com/ mud man

    Also works the other way. “They” need theologians who can explain Evangelicalism in a way that doesn’t look obviously stupid to a scientist qua scientist. (Personally, I was raised liberal near-atheist, but I made the journey because faith explained my own experience of myself better than non-faith.) (There are some … NT Wright and Peter Enns come to mind…)

  • ako

    I’m an atheist and not eager to be preached at, but as long as people are going to be trying to explain their theology to others, it’d be nice if they actually understood the people they were talking to and could avoid explanations that were based on obviously false premises (whether we’re talking about “The Book of Genesis is a literal and factual account of the creation of the world” or “Everyone really believes my religion is true, and people only ever deny it in a deliberate effort to spite God”). 

    While I’m wishing, I’d also like it if there was more “If you want information about these religious beliefs, read this (watch this/come to this group/ask me about this point/etc.)” and less shoving it at everyone.

  • http://twitter.com/Jenk3 Jen K

    To quote Dorothy Sayers, “The only Christian work is good work well done.” 
    http://www.faith-at-work.net/Docs/WhyWork.pdf

  • Mary Kaye

    The thing that frustrates me the very most about this, as a working scientist, is the attempts to shoehorn science into the tribal-conflict mindset.  “Evolutionists” forsooth.  It’s not a political nor a theological position.  I am not a “follower of Darwin” or a “follower of Mendel”.  From within the actual practice of science this way of looking at it *doesn’t make any sense* and is deeply irritating.

    Various branches of science have, on occasion, fallen victim to tribalism; but in my view evolutionary biology hasn’t been a big offender in this regard.  Major challenges such as the neutral theory (the idea that most evolutionary diversity is not due to natural selection but is essentially random) and the discovery of widespread horizontal transfer of genes among unrelated species have been handled quite reasonably, as have unsuccessful challenges such as the apparent discovery of directed mutations (mutations which occur at a higher rate when they are needed than when they are not) by Cairns.

    But I don’t know how to get this across to people trapped in seeing everything as Us Versus Them.  And frankly it makes me sick.  I see my fellow scientists, especially climatologists and evolutionary biologists, constantly being spoken of as if we have neither curiosity nor concern for the truth nor personal integrity, but are just spouting lies because…why?  Because we’re on Team Liars, I guess.  I don’t know how to talk to people who have pre-judged me as caring nothing for what are, in fact, central pillars of my life.  It seems hopeless.  As long as all they see is the team jersey they themselves have slapped on me, they can’t see me at all.

    It must be even worse for the Christians among my colleagues (my lab is incredibly ecumenical, with Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Pagan and atheist members).

  • Cathy W

    I see my fellow scientists, especially climatologists and evolutionary biologists, constantly being spoken of as if we have neither curiosity nor concern for the truth nor personal integrity, but are just spouting lies because…why? 

    The answer that seems to go along with a bad case of Fox Geezer Syndrome seems to be that you’re spouting lies to keep the government money flowing into your lab. Please don’t ask me how that makes sense.

  • http://twitter.com/carolinedyeMISC Caroline Dye Chapel

    Well, if it’s good enough for the “abstinence only” folks….

  • Tricksterson

    Problem is that to people like this everything is ideological.  Science, music, literature, you name it.  And because of this they assume everyone else thinks the same way.  They’re basically the right  wing version of doctrinaire Stalinists.  The idea of something being ideolgically neutral, or even trying to be makes as much sense as a football bat.

  • Mary Kaye

    Just as an aside to my last post:

     Many years ago Francis Crick stuck the name “central dogma of molecular biology” onto the statement that information in cells flows from DNA to RNA to protein, and never backwards.  I have heard people make much of this (unfortunate, in my opinion) name as evidence that science is really a kind of ideology or theology.

    In fact the central dogma is false, and this is well accepted in the field since the discovery of reverse transcriptase, which copies RNA into DNA.  No one went to war over this.  Reverse transcriptase was rather a shocking discovery and required careful testing, but there was no lack of people wanting to test it, and in fact it was fairly quickly accepted.

    Crick was (as he himself acknowledges) something of an idiot to use the word “dogma”–but gosh, it sure hasn’t behaved like a dogma.

  • Tricksterson

    You think that’s bad try explaining the idea that because it’s called the “theory of evolution” that doesn’t mean that it’s unproven.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    I blame all those TV cop shows where every time the bumbling local cops announce a Theory, you know the hero will have proven it false by the end of the show.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    I find it hard to imagine a scientist who follows an Abrahamic religion, or at least one who believes in the story of Genesis as it is written while also believing that the Earth is billions of years old and that life evolved from single-celled organisms which may have had their carbon origins from space debris which crashed into the primordial soup. A true scientist must adhere to the scientific method, the steps of which vary from person to person who relates them, but all involve rigorous testing and the gathering of data. More importantly than that, however, the scientific method is very clear on the point that there is no such thing as a definitive conclusion. No matter how much empirical data you collect, you can only report the trends you have observed. A consensus is nothing more than the data a large part of the scientific community has observed enough times to note has little unexpected variation and has agreed follows a core set of predictable behaviors — predictable enough that they don’t need to be constantly reaffirmed in order to demonstrate that the data is still falling within the same margins. This is not the same thing as establishing a fact and calling it the unerring truth. In theory, it can always be proven wrong.

    And in my mind, that’s the principle which separates a scientist from someone who believes in the Bible as the Divine Truth, authored by God Himself, wherein “God enjoys the smell of burning flesh” and “God shall not harbor a sacrifice of animal flesh” is not accepted to be a contradiction. Someone who accepts that the Bible cannot possibly be flawed has already drawn a conclusion and is unwilling to accept that data might disprove it. To them, there is no disproving data, only human error. If the Bible wrote “And if thou dost drop a stone, by THE LORD’s grace, the stone shalt fall upward to the heaven,” the believer would have to reconcile gravity with the Bible and would conclude that the stone does fall upward — by God’s perspective, not their own fragile, flimsy, flawed human perspective. That is not compatible with the scientific method. It is completely at odds with science. At best, the Christian scientist would have to phrase it, “It is accepted that the stone appears to fall downward until such a time as it can be proven that it does, in fact, fall to the heavens above.”

    So I have a hard time picturing a Christian scientist. Having to juggle empirical data and faith that has to be arbitrarily inserted into said data in order to reconcile it with their believes seems like too much of a task for a real scientist, as opposed to someone who isn’t a scientist at all and is merely looking for data to support their conclusion — a complete inversion of the scientific method. Or to put it in a context that is less controversial, what about a cryptozoologist, someone who believes in sasquatch, bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or extraterrestrials? No matter what fancy gadgets they wave around, can they really be called scientists when they’ve already irreversibly made up their mind that these creatures exist and are among us in the present day, despite never having found conclusive evidence to indicate this is true?

  • Makabit

    I believe in an Abrahamic religion.

    I am not a Biblical literalist. Nor is the tradition in which I was raised a literalist tradition, nor has it ever been.

    I am not a scientist, because I’m one of those liberal arts types, but I tend to assume that what scientists come up with is probably literally true.

    My synagogue is full of doctors and computer geeks and even a few research scientists of different sorts. They seem to be able to daven and reason with the same brain.

    I think you’re basing too much emphasis on the idea of some all-encompassing Biblical literalism as being the touchstone of faith. As, indeed, do certain religious persons.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira


    So I have a hard time picturing a Christian scientist.

    You haven’t met any? I have. They make a heck of a lot more sense to me as Christians than Rick Santorum. Follow the golden rule, environmental activism, human rights for every person, economic justice, caring for the world and all the creatures in it. Those things are all completely compatible with being a scientist. 

    Faith for the scientists who are Christian whom I know just means they believe in God as interpreted by Jesus Christ, and they believe in heaven. They think the fact that we can discover so many things about our universe is a wondrous gift that God has given us. They don’t believe everything the Bible says. No one actually believes everything the Bible says. Like every other person who sees the Bible as a holy book, scientists who are Christian pick and choose. They’re just more conscious of picking and choosing than certain right-wingers.

    My father (who is Christian, though not a scientist) and I watched a show on evolution-deniers a few years ago. He said something that I think is very apt: if your faith cannot survive in the face of truth, your faith was weak and pathetic in the first place. Faith isn’t about proof, as God can be neither proven nor disproven. Believing in God, for every Christian I’ve known well, means believing we cannot know all of God’s mysteries, but that science can illuminate some of them. For all of the Christians I’ve been close to, evolution, mathematics, all of science — those are things which God had a hand in.

    One thing: no scientist who is Christian whom I have ever known believes in hell. My mom, dad and I went to (Lutheran) church when I was a kid. In Sunday school, the teacher brought up hell. I was five or six-ish. I was worried, and I asked my mom about it. She said, in the same kind of tone she’d use if someone claimed women weren’t as smart as men, “there is no such thing as hell.” I have known there is no hell ever since, thanks to my mother, who is a Christian and a scientist. 

  • Tonio

    It doesn’t make sense to me that even scientists would fail to recognize that “do gods exist or not?” is simply another question of fact. If we were talking about whether life exists on Mars, we would verly likely never hear scientists saying they have faith that it exists. It’s as though they see the unanswerable nature of the gods question as making it fair game for belief, a concept that properly belongs to questions of value. If a question of fact is unanswerable, there is still a fact beyond our reach. These scientists would probably acknowledge that they don’t know if gods exist, but by believing that gods exist, they’re deeming that existence to be true anyway.

  • hapax

     It doesn’t make sense to me that even scientists would fail to recognize
    that “do gods exist or not?” is simply another question of fact.

    There are a fair number of folks, Tonio, who do not believe that the word “exist” applies quite the same way for Divine Beings as it does for created ones.

    (In a strict sense, I would argue that “existence” for created beings is merely an imitation of real existence )

    I know that you have difficulty accepting metaphysical concepts, but if the category “gods” is such that even our language is a inadequate tool for analysis, why is prima facie obvious that our scientific tools, let alone such labels as “fact” and “belief”, will be any more useful?

  • Tonio

    I didn’t suggest that we should use scientific tools to determine whether gods exist. And I do not suggest that such tools are the only alternative to belief. I’m merely arguing against belief in questions of fact.

    Why would the word “exist” apply differently to divine beings? The notion of “created beings” sounds too much like intelligent design, although I doubt that’s your intention. And I don’t understand your point that the concept of “gods” exceeds the capacity of language to analyze it. I’ve often said that if I grew up not even knowing that other people believed that gods exist, the concept of gods would probably never have occurred to me.

  • hapax

     

    And I don’t understand your point that the concept of “gods” exceeds the capacity of language to analyze it.

    Invisible Neutrino answered that better than I ever could, in his comment on “ mutually agreed upon ways to communicate observations about … shared-solipsistic-realities.”  (Apologies if I am misunderstanding the point, Invisible Neutrino)

    The problem is that all of those mutually intelligible communications depend upon certain assumptions, categories, and patterns that language (all languages) were designed to express.  If there exists something outside of those assumptions, etc.;  if there exists something or somethings that the human intellect is simply not capable of comprehending or even fully perceiving — (and please note that I am not stating that this is necessarily true, I am pointing out that this is a claim that certain theists including myself make) — it is only logical to accept that the tools derived from human intellect for other purposes are going to be inadequate for the task of fully and adequately describing and discussing them. 

    It would b rather like using the language of “color” to fully and adequately discuss the various performances of the Brandenburg Concertos — especially if most of the people in the room had only heard one or two performances, a good number had heard none of them, several thought they were talking about Metallica’s latest album instead, and a couple of them were not convinced that there was any real distinction between “music” and “sound”.

    So you might shrug your shoulders and say “Why bother?”  and I for one have no problem with that response.  Except I personally care passionately about whether  Concerto No 3 is better expressed on the turquoise-ish rather than the lavender side of blue, and there are enough people sufficiently interested in the same question to make it worth it to us to spend a lot of time arguing about it. 

    :-)

     

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I don’t really know what you’re getting at. Maybe it’s the painkillers, maybe I’m just dim. So I’ll write a response to what I think is closest to what you meant, and please forgive me if I’m totally off-base.

    There are different kinds of “beliefs”. One is in facts: 2+2 = 4 (in base 10). Pi = 3.14159 and lots of numbers after it. Evolution happens. The earth revolves around the sun. These are facts, things we know that can be proven.

    Another kind of belief is more complicated. The belief that your (generic “you”) spouse will be faithful, for example. While you can extrapolate from your spouse’s past actions, you can never know that someone will be faithful. Things change, stuff happens, peoples is peoples. If you need constant proof — well, you’re not gonna get it, because it’s the kind of thing that’s not provable. You have to take a leap of faith.  

    Belief in god/s is the second kind of belief. The leap is larger — or maybe, sometimes, shorter — than believing in your spouse’s faithfulness, but it’s in the same group. Scientists are as capable as anyone else of having faith in their spouses, believing others love them, and other unprovable hypotheses. The cold movie scientist who must have every single thing proven to them is a myth.

    My mother would be having fits at all this “scientists this, scientists that” stuff, btw. She is a scientist, and one of her things is that everyone is a scientist. Some people just do it professionally. 

  • swbarnes2

    “Another kind of belief is more complicated. The belief that your (generic “yospouse will be faithful, for example. While you can extrapolate from your spouse’s past actions, you can never know that someone will be faithful.”

    I don’t think that the difference between a scientific conclusion and a predictions of a person’s behavior is all that different, and I think you are drawing the scientific categories so broadly that they don’t properly compare.  Evolution is true, but that doesn’t mean that I can predict exactly how a population of bacteria inside a person will react when they start taking antibiotics, and a single person’s behavior is more like that scenario than the global “gene frequencies in populations change over time”.

    The more sensible distinction to draw is between beliefs which are adequately supported by evidence, and those which are not.  Evolution, yes.  For most people, the conclusion that their spouse will not cheat is well supported by the evidence of their actions.

    Heaven…sorry, no evidentiary support.  That humans are all going to hell unless they have a personal relationship with Jesus?  Not supported.   God?  Sorry, not supported.  The universe looks exactly like we would expect if no God were doing anything.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The more sensible distinction to draw is between beliefs which are adequately supported by evidence, and those which are not.

    There becomes an issue of how one defines “adequate” in terms of the strength of evidence. The level of uncertainty we are happy to accept is, ultimately, a judgement call. As my stats prof used to say, there’s nothing magical about p=0.05. There might be broad consensus on the degree of uncertainty we’ll live with in making a scientific claim, but that’s not the same as unimpeachable evidence.

  • Dan Audy

    The universe looks exactly like we would expect if no God were doing anything.

    I’m personally of the opinion that the underlying structure of the universe is compelling evidence that some guiding force (God for lack of a better term) exists.  The physical constants that govern the structure of matter and energy are precisely aligned in a manner that permits life to exist.  A universe without God would likely be an undifferentiated clump of matter or a diffuse cloud of gasses unable to coalesce into larger blocks that form stars and planets.  In order for life to exist matter needs to draw together (but not too much) and also repel (but not too much), form multiple bonds in a stable manner, retain their atomic structure under normal circumstances, fuse under extreme circumstances, and on and on.  If any one of these physical constants were slightly different then no life could emerge and at this point we don’t have any evidence that there is an underlying structure that causes them to have the precise values they do but rather is a fluke of the first picoseconds of the big bang that infused them into the fabric of the universe.

    The obvious counter-argument is that only in a universe with this statistically improbable structure could an observer arise to note the improbability of their existence thus ensuring that any observed universe would contain these features.  It may not be logical (but then again I’m not a Vulcan) but it seems more rational to assume that someone is fixing the game rather than humanity being lucky enough to win the lottery 50 times in a row purely by luck.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    You can vastly constrain the probabilities if you consider that the “rules” of chemistry restrict the potential combinations of atoms to a more manageable number than the existence of 92 elements on Earth* in primordial times would suggest.

    Effectively, 4.5 billion years ago, the entire Earth was “rolling dice” every second with energy supplied to the chemicals on Earth which permitted them to react with one another. And one thing can be said for rolling dice: given a long enough time, you will hit the winning combination.

    Earth had a billion years to do it. (the first organic life appeared around 3.5 billion years ago)

    * It is safe to say that given that there was more uranium back then, that the decay chains would give rise to a higher amount of the daughters than exist today.

  • P J Evans

    The physical constants that govern the structure of matter and energy
    are precisely aligned in a manner that permits life to exist.

    So you’re assuming that because life exists, those constants were designed to allow it?
    We don’t have evidence that life would not exist if they were different, and we can’t have that evidence. And I’d bet that those other universes, with different constants, have people making the same argument.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    I actually had almost this exact argument with a pen-pal recently. Here’s an excerpt of what he said to me in response:

    It may be that the rise of life is all but guaranteed, given the right conditions.  Or it may be that even in ideal conditions, the chemical processes that lead to life are exceedingly fragile and fall apart at the slightest deviation.  Or it may be somewhere in between.  The fact that conditions here were right for life doesn’t really tell us anything on its own either.  Perhaps life arose on Earth because that’s what it does – pops up anywhere the water is good, so to speak.  Or perhaps it arose on Earth because after several hundred million years of failed trials, it finally hit the one-in-a-trillion home run through nothing more than the power of statistics.  Or, once again, perhaps the reality is somewhere in the middle.  The truth is, nobody knows for sure.  It’s difficult to extrapolate from a data set of one.

    In other words, while humanity has hit it lucky, the question is, how would we know if it hadn’t? Yes, the conditions for our existence all seem to have been met, but if anyone one of them had not, then we wouldn’t have made it far enough to care. That’s why we can’t look anywhere else and see this to be the case. We have a data set of one, not having any other examples of planets where abiogenesis took root.

    On the other hand, the fact that there appear to be millions and millions of planets with no life at all beyond a few potential bacterial candidates (i.e., planets with what might be water) is indicative of it being pure trial and error. If God created us, why did he create so much empty space? So many heavenly bodies whose only apparent purpose is to be decorative? Why isn’t it just the Earth, the moon and the sun? For our one success, there seem to be an infinite number of failures. Why, if there was a divine hand guiding the entire process?

    I can’t prove it one way or another, but I had to concede to his logic. Much as I want to believe that the universe has a higher purpose, there’s no way of knowing.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    If God created us, why did he create so much empty space? So many
    heavenly bodies whose only apparent purpose is to be decorative?

    Because he likes decorations?

  • P J Evans

     She’s very fond of beetles. (And other things with pretty colors.)

  • Tricksterson

    Because It’s insane?

  • Anton_Mates

    A universe without God would likely be an undifferentiated clump of matter or a diffuse cloud of gasses unable to coalesce into larger blocks that form stars and planets.

    There is no way to know that, because we have no sample of known-to-be-Godless universes to work with.  For all we know, a universe without God has a 99.99% probability of producing material structures just like ours.  Or maybe it’s a .000000001% probability.  Or anything in between.  Or no meaningful number at all.

    When a scientist computes the probability of a physical constant ending up in some range of values, they’re working from a particular model of the universe with a particular hypothetical probability distribution.  E.g., when Roger Penrose says “The chance of a universe having parameters like ours is only one in 10^200!,” what he means is that, in his cosmological model, the total probability measure of the set of universes with such parameters is 10^-200.  The problem is, his model might be wrong.  Or it might be right for our corner of the multiverse and not for other regions.  It’s not possible–it’s not even mathematically meaningful–to work out how likely his model is to be correct for all possible universes, Godless or otherwise.

    Conversely, we don’t know what a universe with God ought to look like.  What if God likes universes with life packed into every cubic centimeter, unlike our own?  What if God likes nice clean universes with no life?  You may reply that your particular hypothetical God is very likely to prefer universes like our own, but how do you predict the probability that the real God acts like your version?  You don’t, really.

    In order for life to exist matter needs to draw together (but not too much) and also repel (but not too much), form multiple bonds in a stable manner, retain their atomic structure under normal circumstances, fuse under extreme circumstances, and on and on.

     

    Well, this certainly can’t be true if God exists!  Many (most?) theists believe in intelligent life forms that aren’t even made of matter in the first place: angels & demons, souls of the departed, etc..  Whether or not you do as well, an omni-God would definitely have the power to create and sustain such life forms, or to sustain human life in a completely hostile universe.  (Jonah in the fish’s belly?  Shadrach & company in the furnace?)

    If any one of these physical constants were slightly different then no life could emerge and at this point we don’t have any evidence that there is an underlying structure that causes them to have the precise values they do but rather is a fluke of the first picoseconds of the big bang that infused them into the fabric of the universe.

    But you yourself are arguing for an underlying structure and cause of these values: namely, God.  If you can do that, then it’s equally legitimate for someone else to argue that a Godless law of nature that determined these values, or a random fluke.  All these options are equally consistent with the evidence.

    The obvious counter-argument is that only in a universe with this statistically improbable structure could an observer arise to note the improbability of their existence thus ensuring that any observed universe would contain these features.

    Correct, if that’s true–but again, we don’t really know which universes could produce an intelligent observer.  If God’s lending a hand, probably all of them could.

    It may not be logical (but then again I’m not a Vulcan) but it seems more rational to assume that someone is fixing the game rather than humanity being lucky enough to win the lottery 50 times in a row purely by luck.

    Depends on the rules of the game.  You and your ancestors won the genetic lottery billions of times in a row, in order for you to be here with your exact genetic code.  So did everyone else on the planet.  Sometimes these things happen.

  • hapax

     

    The universe looks exactly
    like we would expect if no God were doing anything.

    Please remove me from your “we”. 

    It may look exactly like you would expect, etc.

    But I suspect that we “look” at the universe differently.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira


    For most people, the conclusion that their spouse will not cheat is well supported by the evidence of their actions.

    I disagree.

    I don’t understand anyone who goes by “evidence” in this regard, because it is impossible to prove a negative. There’s no way you can ever have enough evidence. Most people who cheat are not obvious about it. And way more people cheat than you might realize.

    You can’t know your spouse won’t cheat. It’s not possible. No more than you can know for a fact that someone else loves you. You can look at their actions and decide what to believe or not believe, but that’s what it comes down to: belief. Not knowledge of facts. 

  • swbarnes2

    “I don’t understand anyone who goes by “evidence” in this regard, because it is impossible to prove a negative. There’s no way you can ever have enough evidence. Most people who cheat are not obvious about it. And way more people cheat than you might realize.”

    I think by any sensible definition of cheating, Mike Schiavo was as close to 100% as one can get that his vegatative wife was not going to cheat.  The evidence of her medical condition very strongly supported that conclusion.

    This “proving a negative” is a dodge anyway.  There are no significant number of theists whose sole belief about their deity is that it exists.  No, theists posit that this being exists, and they posit that it has all kinds of attibrutes, but they have no more evidence about the accuracy of that description than they do about the existance of the deity they are trying to describe. 

    If we give a vaccine to a child, we can’t be absolutely sure that it will generate the desired immune response, but that doesn’t mean that we are just as unsure of that as we are about the existance of Thor, and it doesn’t mean that we are wrong to conclude giving the kid the vaccine is smarter than not doing that.

    I understand the desire of religious people to draw the line at “stuff which axiomatically provable” and “everything else”, so that believing in God falls on the same side of the spectrum as believing that vaccines save lives, but that’s just a dumb way to draw the line.  It’s not about “proving” things.  It’s about drawing conclusions that are held in proportion to how adequately supported they are.  The evidence that vaccines protect children…pretty darn good.  Not platonically perfect, but nothing in this world is.  The belief that a spouse won’t cheat? Pretty good for many people, less good for others.  Not platonically perfect, but how could it be?  The evidence of a person’s mental state must be indirect.  But at least with a spouse, the evidence is extremely good that your spouse exists.   Any conclusion you would draw from the behavior of a spouse has to be stronger than a conclusion you draw about a being whose existance is empirically undetectable.

  • hapax

     

      It’s not about “proving” things.  It’s about drawing conclusions that
    are held in proportion to how adequately supported they are.

    I agree that it’s not about “proving” things — arguments about whether or not god(s) “exist” tend to be boring, pointless, and usually degenerate into more-or-polite versions of namecalling (“willfully blind” vs “willfully delusional” being the general tenor of the favored insults).

    I disagree strongly about the deciding factor in accepting conclusions being “how adequately supported they are.”  There are many theists — including me — who cannot under any reasonable circumstances conceive of evidence or arguments that would cause them to abandon their worldview.   I have had more than one atheist tell me personally that there are very few potential kinds of evidence that would cause them to accept the existence of supernatural entities. 

    And even more people, who *can* suggest evidence sufficient for them to change their “beliefs”, either imply or state outright that such a change of opinion would not cause them to change the behavior supposedly based upon those beliefs (e.g., both the “If such a God could prove His existence to me, I’d prefer to go to Hell than worship Him” *and* “Even if there is no Narnia, I am going to continue to live as a Narnian” positions).

    This leads me to think that the definitive factor is not the weight of the evidence, but that other factors — the social utility of this worldview, the emotional appeal of this worldview, the psychological benefits of this worldview, the aesthetic appeal of this worldview, fill in your own blank — are of far greater importance.

    Which is in line with how human beings generally make decisions on all other matters, large and small.  I know very few people who usually make choices about anything, from what to have for lunch to whom to become romantically involved with to what career to pursue, primarily by logically examining the adequacy of the support for each option — although many indeed try to so justify their choices after the fact.

  • ako

      And even more people, who *can* suggest evidence sufficient for them to
    change their “beliefs”, either imply or state outright that such a
    change of opinion would not cause them to change the behavior
    supposedly based upon those beliefs (e.g., both the “If such a God could
    prove His existence to me, I’d prefer to go to Hell than worship Him”
    *and* “Even if there is no Narnia, I am going to continue to live as a
    Narnian” positions).

    Hmm.  I would  change certain aspects of my behavior if I concluded that one or more gods existed, but how I’d change my behavior would depend on what kind of god(s) existed.  There are versions of God that I’ve heard described which I would have a moral objection to worshiping (and would probably be looking for ways to actively oppose), and versions where I wouldn’t object to worshiping them.  Emotions are definitely a factor, though.  Any god that I would consider it morally acceptable to worship would also be a god that didn’t try to coerce people into worshiping it, which means that it would come down to whether I wanted to worship it.  And it’s hard to picture myself wanting to worship a god, because I don’t know what it’s like to believe that a god exists (except in a hazy childhood “Many adults say this is a real thing so it must be somehow” way), or to have an emotional attachment to one.

    (These are general musings, not an argument or anything.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    This leads me to think that the definitive factor is not the weight of the evidence, but that other factors — the social utility of this worldview, the emotional appeal of this worldview, the psychological benefits of this worldview, the aesthetic appeal of this worldview, fill in your own blank — are of far greater importance.

    Yes, this.

    I believe in God, and I believe that various attributes (love, justice, solidarity) can be ascribed to God. I accept that this God I believe in may not exist, and that the things I treat as evidence in favour of this God’s existence are merely functions of my psyche.

    However, I try to live as though the God I believe in is real. Not just because the balance of probabilities suggests to me that this is the case, but because I’ve found that I don’t work very well in the framework of “God as a construct of my mind”.  The latter may be true, but for the stuff that matters in my life to work I need to take the leap of faith. It’s more important to me that my worldview works than that it is correct. I *hope* it is true, and I have to settle for that hope.

  • AnonymousSam

    What is it in your life that wouldn’t work if God weren’t real? I mean, unless you’re actively sacrificing lambs on an altar in hopes of currying divine favor, I can’t picture any religious-oriented activity without at least nominally important secondary benefits.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    What is it in your life that wouldn’t work if God weren’t real? I mean, unless you’re actively sacrificing lambs on an altar in hopes of currying divine favor, I can’t picture any religious-oriented activity without at least nominally important secondary benefits.

    It’s not “what wouldn’t work if God weren’t real” but “what wouldn’t work if I took the attitude that God weren’t real”.

    The answer is prayer, mostly, and its consequences. I don’t believe in the model of prayer that has us submitting a wish list to Santa Claus. For me, it’s about an intimate connection with the divine, and an openness to being changed, and participating in a communal lament.

    Prayer changes me in a very good way. It’s possible that prayer and meditation are channels through which my psyche can work itself out, but if I approach it from that point of view rather than as an intimate connection with my creator it just doesn’t work. I can’t plug in properly.

    I should say that this isn’t a hypothetical situation–what do I imagine it *would* be like? There have been times, including one quite extended period, where my Christianity was functionally a philosophy, not a spirituality. It didn’t work. In Ignatian terms it was desolation.

    Does that make any sense?

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m trying to understand it. The way it is sounding to me, it’s not whether or not God exists at all that matters, but whether or not you believe he does. In believing so, a part of yourself relaxes and allows conscious or unconscious burdens to be eased, thereby enhancing your feeling of well-being. This would make perfect sense to me. Some of us need certain mental triggers–a nudge if you will–to embrace serenity, change, and self-improvement. If one of those triggers is the belief that God exists, then the rest falls into place.

    I would want to probe into why that was the case, though. Why is God important enough to make a part of you want to change, to relax, to be happy? For my pantheist-leaning self, I understand that we’re all in this together, so I struggle to improve myself so that I can better see and utilize opportunities to improve life for others. Success in this area is both a relative and subjective thing, and obviously (as my first post in this thread shows) it’s not perfect. No one is. However, I feel compelled to do my best for the benefit of others, and in so doing, believe that the reverse will be true as well. My “nudge” is the fact that people need me to change, and so I strive to do so.

    I’m not going to try and talk you out of or into believing in God, because as far as I’m concerned, believing in God and believing in the divinity of existence are two sides of a sphere, thus rendering that matter completely moot. The only thing that would concern me about it is whether believing yourself dependent on God to change for the better causes you any psychological harm. However, to posit this, even in the hypothetical, is incredibly presumptuous of me and I apologize if you find it offensive. If you say it works for you, then I must accept that. I just don’t like the idea that your happiness is held hostage in any way.

    (Caveat: God and religion are two different beasts to me, but as this line of dialogue opened with a question of the former and not the latter, I’m making no reference to the other.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’ll be back in a while to answer this properly, but I’ll just quickly point out an assumption you’ve made:

    Why is God important enough to make a part of you want to change, to relax, to be happy?

    I didn’t say my belief in God makes me relaxed and happy. I said it helps to change me in (what I consider to be) a very good way. That’s not relaxed and happy, though. When I’m hooked into God through prayer I find myself becoming more loving, more compassionate–but that tends to involve pretty intense grief and emotional pain on my part because the more loving I become the more I tap into other people’s suffering in solidarity. I referred to desolation earlier in the context of absence of the prayer relationship, but desolation is not the same as unhappiness, nor is consolation the same as happiness.

  • AnonymousSam

    *Nods* I’m not referring to a conscious “I feel happy and cheerful” sort of happiness. I mean the willingness of some part of your being to allow you to feel that way. As the prayer goes, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” These are all internal traits, but in communing with God, some people become better able to embrace them. That’s what I’m referring to by happiness, because in embracing these ideals, one can better shrug off the stress of everyday life and be happy.

    I accept your reasoning, however. As I said, my understanding of the divine is that it takes many forms, and I in no way want to judge you for how it has come to you. My only concern is in moving past the temporal stages of belief and acceptance to internalizing those ideals so that they’re always a part of you. If God exists and God grants you strength, then God must also want that strength to be yours in all ways, at all times, not just after you’ve prayed for guidance. It’s the next logical step in a relationship with your personal source of strength — going from being a man who believes in God to a Godly man, as it were.

    *Headscratches* There’s some irony in this. I have antisocial personality disorder. I’m simultaneously trying to explain why I have an automatic concern for your welfare, while simultaneously struggling to comprehend why empathy would bring you such suffering. For me, wanting people to be happy goes hand in hand with wanting to make sure society doesn’t collapse — we’re all in this together, so it’s only logical that we work to support each other and mutually improve our lives.

  • http://gleomstapa.wordpress.com/ gleomstapa

    Would it be overstepping for me to suggest that if your worldview works, then it must be correct on some level? Like, we now know that Newton’s laws aren’t fundamentally true but at the macroscopic level they do sum things up quite well. I’m not going to mess around with general relativity if I just want to calculate how far my trebuchet can throw.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Would it be overstepping for me to suggest that if your worldview works, then it must be correct on some level? Like, we now know that Newton’s laws aren’t fundamentally true but at the macroscopic level they do sum things up quite well. I’m not going to mess around with general relativity if I just want to calculate how far my trebuchet can throw.

    Suggest away; no fears of overstepping necessary. I’m not touchy on this or anything, but it all gets a bit meta at this point.

    My tradition says we are all oriented towards truth, which I like, even though I can’t grok how that works with people having apparently different orientations towards the same apparently objective reality. But anyway.

  • http://gleomstapa.wordpress.com/ gleomstapa

    “My tradition says we are all oriented towards truth”

    I like this idea too. I have no idea how it works either, but I like it.

  • swbarnes2

    “This leads me to think that the definitive factor is not the weight of the evidence, but that other factors — the social utility of this worldview, the emotional appeal of this worldview, the psychological benefits of this worldview, the aesthetic appeal of this worldview, fill in your own blank — are of far greater importance.”

    Empirically, yes, people work that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.  The parents of Kara Neuman watched their daughter die of untreated diabetes because they sincerely believed that God did not want them to take her for treatment.   They were among the theists who could not conceive of any evidence which would cause them to abandon their worldview.  And I’m sure the social utility of carrying out the beliefs of their faith community influenced them, and the emotional appeal of believing that God might perform a miracle, the psychological benefits of thinking that God would handle everything contributed. 

    Wouldn’t things have been better for Kara Neuman if her parents had drawn their conclusions about how to treat their daughter solely based on what the evidence told them would happen if they didn’t?

  • malpollyon

    I don’t understand anyone who goes by “evidence” in this regard, because it is impossible to prove a negative. There’s no way you can ever have enough evidence. Most people who cheat are not obvious about it. And way more people cheat than you might realize.
    You can’t know your spouse won’t cheat. It’s not possible. No more than you can know for a fact that someone else loves you. You can look at their actions and decide what to believe or not believe, but that’s what it comes down to: belief. Not knowledge of facts.

    I find that a tremendously unhelpful way to think about belief, certainty, and evidence. Sure there is a sense in which 100% certainty is unobtainable*. On the other hand it’s very possible to compare two beliefs and find you believe one much more strongly than the other, sufficiently strongly that you are willing to discount the truth of the latter in all but the most contrived situations. Restricting the words “knowledge” and “facts” to claims of 100% certainty, rather than merely extremely strong beliefs/evidence, constrains them to point of uselessness in all but he most contrived of conversations.
    When I say that I “know” my partner won’t cheat, what I mean by it is that given various things I have observed about hir (ze is an unconvincing liar, ze has told me in the past when ze had a crush, etc.) That’s “enough” evidence for me, in that it’s sufficient for me to discount the possibility in most situations. Just as I find the existence of a link between vaccines and autism sufficiently unlikely to discount (after all, just because multiple independent studies showed no link doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to be wrong).
    I don’t call that “deciding” what to believe, I don’t experience it as a free choice. I couldn’t look at the same evidence and honestly believe that it’s likely my partner is cheating and vaccines call autism. Just because it’s possible I’m wrong doesn’t make it rational for me to believe that I am wrong.
    * Except, under some philosophies of mathematics for mathematical truths and a priori beliefs. However philosophers such as Lakatos and Quine have mounted strong arguments against the certainty of mathematical proof and existence of a priori knowledge.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    That humans are all going to hell unless they have a personal relationship with Jesus?  Not supported.

    Did anyone here ever make that claim? EVER?

    The universe looks exactly like we would expect if no God were doing anything.

    Hate to break it to you, but the universe looks to me exactly like I’d expect if my God was busily doing stuff.

  • Anton_Mates

     

    The universe looks exactly like we would expect if no God were doing anything.Hate to break it to you, but the universe looks to me exactly like I’d expect if my God was busily doing stuff.

    And I have no idea what to expect from the universe in the first place.  When I try to expect things it usually fails to oblige me.

  • malpollyon

    Hate to break it to you, but the universe looks to me exactly like I’d expect if my God was busily doing stuff.
    How would the world look if your God wasn’t doing stuff? If your God had a day off, stopped completely, or hadn’t been around for many years?

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    I’m really curious as to what specific differences you think your God makes to the day to day world.

    malpollyon, the only real answer I can give you is a Terry Pratchett quote:

    “Now … tell me …”
    What would have happened if you hadn’t saved him.
    “Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
    No.
    “Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
    The sun would not have risen.
    “It’s been a long night, Grandfather! I’m tired and I need a bath! I don’t need silliness!”
    The sun would not have risen.
    “Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
    A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.

  • swbarnes2

    Are you claiming that you can detect the difference between a “sun”, and a “mere” ball of flaming gas? Can you give us a ballpark on your false positive and false negative rate at that determination, and how you determined those stats? For instance, people used to think that epilepsy came from the gods.  More recently, many Christians argued that AIDS was the pointed handiwork of God. I imagine you wish to argue that the methods used in making those classifications suffer from a distressingly high false positive rate, right? What makes your assesments more accurate, and how did you determine that? Perhaps your evidence will include 1000 years of God protecting children from infectious diseases like measles and pertussis?  Or the grand pile of glass eyes and artifical limbs at Lourdes? 

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Want to tone down on the sarcasm a little?

  • Tricksterson

    I’m betting he’s not being sarcastic.

  • Tonio

     That could be interpreted as the old argument often used by creationists, which is “If there is no god, then life would have no meaning.” Which assumes that humans cannot create meaning.

    Or it could be interpreted as “God” being a metaphor for talking about events in terms of meaning.

    See, if one asserts that a god causes events to happen, such as a the falling of a tree or a rock, then the assertion deserves the same type of critical examination just as if one asserted that the tree or rock were felled by a natural force. This holds even if the assertion is that the god was behind the natural force. Otherwise, it would seem like the thinking Tim Murphy used in his boneheaded lambasting of Kathleen Sebelius over contraception, where religious belief alone can determine what causes events to happen.

  • hf

    Hate to break it to you, but the universe looks to me exactly like I’d expect if my God was busily doing stuff.

    So you really would consider the Babel fish evidence against your God’s existence? Or do such miracles seem neutral with regard to your theory, so that that if they happened you wouldn’t call them evidence either way?

    The epistemological framework that you implicitly endorsed here (correctly, I think) leaves you with no third option but to change your mind.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    So you really would consider the Babel fish evidence against your God’s existence?

    Huh? No. My reaction to the Babel fish would be “COOL!!!” followed by lots of scientific geekery.

  • Tonio

    Your point about spouses seems to be more about trust and predicting future behavior. That’s not the same as the existence of an object like a being. Imagine you were single but some people kept insisting that you had a spouse, and you had nothing but their word for it. In that case, the real question of faith would be in their credibility.

    And facts aren’t limited to things that can be proven. Suppose one had a box that could not be opened or even moved, so that its contents could never be determined. Whatever the box contains constitutes a fact, one that is out of our reach, and the unknowable nature of the contents doesn’t change their factual nature. Belief that one is loved by others isn’t in the same category as a belief that a god being exists, since love itself is a subjective experience. Love may not even exist if humans didn’t exist.

  • http://gleomstapa.wordpress.com/ gleomstapa

    I believe, personally, that the divine actually is a subjective experience just like love is a subjective experience – that G(g)od(s) exist in exactly the same way that joy and beauty and love do. Are these things real? Well, you can measure the experience of them in terms of hormones and neurons firing and stuff, and the experience also informs my actions, but good luck picking up and measuring them they way you would, for instance, a rock. (Or in the words of JK Rowling: Of course it’s all in your head, but why should that mean it isn’t real?)

    So I tend to see the divine as a sort of emergent property of a universe with conscious beings in it which happens when the conscious bits of the universe contemplate their relation to the whole and imperfectly try to share their experiences of it with other. And there is absolutely no way I can coherantly communicate the magnificence – my mind can’t even wrap around the whole, and I don’t have the vocabulary – and there’s no guarantee that any words I’m saying mean quite same thing to me as they do to you.

    Running with Hapax’s color analogy above, which is actually more than an analogy for me because I occasionally see colors with music and numbers: I can say that a moment of Rachmaninoff’s Vigil is overall velvety blue and heavy, with spikes/sparkles/polka dots of bright yellow bursting through and spreading, and that is a marginally accurate description of how I experienced that piece of music (even it it doesn’t at all encompass everything that’s going on), but what on earth is that going to mean to you? Even if you have synesthesia, I would be surprised if your correspondences matched up with mine.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Synesthesia is one of the more intriguing adaptions of the brain. How I’d love to pick your brain a little…

    Have you ever looked into pantheism before? What you describe reminds me of dualism pantheism, a view of the universe which holds that there are both physical and mental/spiritual interactions, with varying degrees of divinity afforded to such.

  • http://gleomstapa.wordpress.com/ gleomstapa

    Ha, I’m afraid that picking my brain wouldn’t get you very far; my synesthesia’s weaker than my imagination, so as soon as people start asking me to describe things it’s hard for me to believe that I’m not just making stuff up.

    I have looked into pantheism, and tend to consider myself a pantheist when I’m not feeling atheist or whatever else I may be – note that my fundamental beliefs don’t actually change, only what I think they mean for the world. I don’t think I’d separate the physical and the spiritual like that, though – I think there’s ultimately only the physical, but when you put all of the physical together it does some pretty darned cool things. This understanding of the divine is in no way incompatible with science, though I find personally often find metaphors to be a more effective way of approaching it.

    I literally cannot grok the understanding of God* which a lot of religious or spiritual people worldwide seem subscribe to; I can’t seem to wrap my head around the way God apparently has to be simultaneously in and not in the world.  I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something.  I would love to understand this, with it being such an important part of people’s lives, and I just can’t. (I once met a physicist who believed in miracles. He acknowledged that God could and might mess with his experiments and … didn’t have any problem with this and still believed he was doing meaningful work. I don’t get it at all.)

    *I am not sure what I mean by God.  I am even less sure of what you mean by God.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m in the same boat when it comes to wandering to-and-fro pantheism and atheism. I don’t think either is quite right, but an identifier is useful when summarizing one’s perspective (the whole story could take all day and, as you noted, we tend to lack the language to adequately describe it).

  • Tonio

     Whatever constitutes “the divine,” that would seem to be a separate matter from actual god beings. From my limited knowledge about religions, some of them see these as the same thing and some do not. And I’ve never heard of deists talk about “the divine” since their concepts of gods generally seem to be intellectual ones. I have no experience that resembles a relation to a whole, a concept that sounds very nebulous.

    And it’s very confusing when some people use the name “God” as if it referred to something other than a being, or as if it was obvious that one was the only possible number of gods. Even the name itself implies that Jewish-Christian-Muslim theological ideas are the defaults. Our culture generally assumes that “God” means “an intelligent being with immense power that created the universe and everything in it and that may or may not interfere in the workings of the universe.” Imagine a theology that postulated a being that did not create the universe, sort of like a singular version of the Norse or Greek gods.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

     Or to put it in a context that is less controversial, what about a cryptozoologist, someone who believes in sasquatch, bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or extraterrestrials? No matter what fancy gadgets they wave around, can they really be called scientists when they’ve already irreversibly made up their mind that these creatures exist and are among us in the present day, despite never having found conclusive evidence to indicate this is true?
    In a word: Yes.Science isn’t about what you believe.  It never has been and never will be.  The scientific method works independently of your beliefs.Certainly people may be tempted to force evidence to fit their preconceived notions, but that is true of almost anyone.  And it’s also always going to be true that many things are looked into by people who believe that looking into them will yield valuable results.

    So, in the case of a cryptozoologist, does ze have bias?  Yes.  Does that mean ze isn’t truly a scientist?  It depends.  It depends not on what ze believes, but on what ze does.  If ze gathers evidence via scientific means, evaluates it by a reasonable standard, and has zir inquiry guided by the scientific method then (assuming appropriate rigor) ze is a scientist.

    Probably a frequently disappointed one because the conclusion is generally going to be, “Aliens/Bigfoot/Nessie/Sasquatch/Yeti didn’t do this.”

  • histrogeek

     The disappointed crypto-zoologist thing sort of is explained by a man with very similar experiences. Paul Davies’ The Eerie Silence talks about the history of SETI (he is on the chair of the Post-Contact Taskforce) along with how and why SETI research has been unsuccessful to date.
    It’s an unconventional mix of wild speculation mixed with very legitimate hard science. And Davies doesn’t confuse the two, but his speculations lead to potential lines of inquiry. It also shows that even if how to scientifically explore a literally alien field with no empirical evidence. Plus he has a great sense of wonder and fun that explains why he would continue with SETI research in the face of so little success.

  • Tricksterson

    Except that not all Christians take the Bible literally.  The Catholic Church doesn’t (which is why it has no problem with evolution) AFAIK most or all mainline Protestant religions don’t or at least their liberal wings don’t.  Fred obviously doesn’t.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    On the subject of Christian scientists, I tend to think that the words of Galileo Galilei are particularly appropriate:

    I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     People rarely mention that Galileo was a deacon.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    People rarely mention that Galieo was a deacon.

    I do not believe that is the case, though I do recall that his father urged him toward the priesthood, which he seriously considered.  He had two daughters that went on to become nuns, though that may have had more to do with them being born out of wedlock (and thus complicate their hypothetical marriage prospects) than anything else. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    You don’t believe that Galileo was a deacon, or you don’t believe that people rarely mention it?

  • hapax

     

    So I have a hard time picturing a Christian scientist. Having to juggle
    empirical data and faith that has to be arbitrarily inserted into said
    data in order to reconcile it with their believes seems like too much of
    a task for a real scientist, as opposed to someone who isn’t a
    scientist at all and is merely looking for data to support their
    conclusion — a complete inversion of the scientific method.

    You’re having a hard time picturing it because your caricature of “Christian” is as much a straw-man as the false concoction called an “evolutionist.”

    If you’d like an actual picture, I suppose I could mail you a photo of my spouse…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I find it hard to imagine a scientist who follows an Abrahamic religion, or at least one who believes in the story of Genesis as it is written …

    You know that outside the US the latter is a very small proportion of the former, right? So much so that the former sentence fragment is beyond overly reductive.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I find it hard to imagine a scientist who follows an Abrahamic religion,
    or at least one who believes in the story of Genesis as it is written
    while also believing that the Earth is billions of years old and that
    life evolved from single-celled organisms which may have had their
    carbon origins from space debris which crashed into the primordial soup.

    Read Gerald Schroeder’s The Science of God Schroeder goes to considerable length to explain how Genesis 1, if taken not-quite-literally, is a factual account of the Big Bang et al.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    I find it hard to imagine a scientist who follows an Abrahamic religion, or at least one who believes in the story of Genesis as it is written

    Chiming in to say this is not an identity set.If you look at the full-size version of the picture of Stanford Memorial Church on wikipedia, you’ll see several – that’s my choir setting up. We’re Catholic and we’ve got molecular biologists, physicists, assorted engineers, students, and professors. We may have sung about the Genesis creation story last Saturday but nobody expected us to take it literally.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    Yeah, I admit I had a soap box I wanted to preach from and it was fueled by having read something so stunningly stupid that I lost sight of the forest for the trees. My impulsivity translates into the occasional rant. Hopefully people learn to take it with a grain of salt and know that I’m never out to purposefully insult someone unless I’m specifically addressing them, and if not, I’ll always be willing to apologize if someone lets me know I stepped on their toes. Part of being human.

    If you missed it, I linked that article on my last post- 101 signs that Young Earth Creationalism is real. Most of them don’t prove that at all (in fact, some of them prove that the Earth is far older, and one even proves that the Earth is at least 2.5 billion years old!) and the whole article can basically be summarized as an attempt to sow doubt by incredulity. “If your instruments and processes tell you this, then what else could you be wrong about, hmm?” In other words, it doesn’t matter what each of the 101 examples actually proves or even whether it contradicts the message the Young Earthers are trying to prove, as long as it’s something other than what scientists are saying. “If you’re wrong about this, then I must be right.”

  • Graeme from BC

    Nothing against Song of the Dodo (I haven’t read it but I’m sure it’s terrific if Fred is recommending it) but the single best book I’ve ever read for explaining evolution to laypeople (i.e. non-scientists) is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (note: this was written in the 70s back when dawkins was a scientist who happened to be an atheist rather than the world’s most famous atheist who happened to be a scientist, religion or atheism is barely if ever mentioned in the book)

  • Magic_Cracker

    (note: this was written in the 70s back when dawkins was a scientist who happened to be an atheist rather than the world’s most famous atheist who happened to be a scientist, religion or atheism is barely if ever mentioned in the book)

    FWIW, Douglas Adams credits The Selfish Gene for his atheism. Prior to reading it he was agnostic.

    Another accessible book on evolution is The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution In Our Time.

  • Graeme from BC

    lol really? I actually didn’t know that. Might I suggest that this is a credit to how well the selfish gene shows how vibrance and complexity exists in the world in the absence of any outside influence?

  • Mary Kaye

    Anonymous-Sam, it’s far from the case that all Christians are bible-literalists.  The three Christians in my lab are good scientists and the issues you raise simply don’t come up for them, any more than they come up for the Jewish or Pagan members of the lab.  In general my Jewish and Christian colleagues (and I have a lot of them) see their holy books as sources of moral and spiritual knowledge not scientific knowledge, and have no problem with that.  And they would doubtless be annoyed to hear you claiming that they do not exist.

  • histrogeek

     Really it seems that what the evangelical tribe needs is not scientists to explain evolution but teachers and, dare I say it, ministers (in the broad meaning) to explain what evolution is, what it means, what the Bible is, and what the Bible means. Use small words and insist that everyone there keeps their traps shut until you’re done. And close with the line from someone around Galileo’s time (I’ve seen it attributed to GG himself), “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.”

  • swbarnes2

    “Really it seems that what the evangelical tribe needs is not scientists to explain evolution but teachers and, dare I say it, ministers (in the broad meaning) to explain what evolution is, what it means, what the Bible is, and what the Bible means.”

    Oh, just explain what the Bible means.  Do you honestly think that fundamentalist and evangelical pastors haven’t been doing this all along?

    When you say “teach what the Bible means”, you mean “teach what you personally think the bible means”, right?  Because evangelical and fundamentalist ministers explain what they think the Bible means to people all the time, yet you don’t think that counts?  I presume because you don’t agree with their teaching?

    If you call yourself a Christian, and you believe that evolution is accurate, Creationists think that they need to sit you down, and explain what the Bible is, and what it means to you.  Is that lecture going to change your mind?  If not, why do you suppose yours will be more effective?

    You can not talk anyone out of irrationality.  You can’t not change a person’s mind unless they value accurate understanding over feeling good about themselves, not without a bribe, and “ignore science, and go to heaven” is a much better bribe than anything science can offer.

  • hapax

     

    You can’t not change a person’s mind unless they value accurate
    understanding over feeling good about themselves, not without a bribe,
    and “ignore science, and go to heaven” is a much better bribe than
    anything science can offer.

    I dunno. 

    The heavens declare the glory of God;
       the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

     Day after day they pour forth speech;
       night after night they reveal knowledge.

     They have no speech, they use no words;
       no sound is heard from them.
     Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
       their words to the ends of the world.

    “Wanna find out what the stars are saying?”  always worked for me.

  • swbarnes2

    Forget looking at the stars.  Start reseraching parasites, and their impacts on their hosts.  Viruses that make their caterpiller hosts explode.  Protists that infect the brains of human children, that kind of thing.

    If you are going to draw lessons about what God is like from the evidence of nature, you have to look at all of it, not just the pretty stuff. 

  • histrogeek

     I am well aware that fundamentalist and evangelical pastors have their view, the scriptures are the inerrant Word of God, factual in every particular. That other Christian might have another view, one that may well be more consistent with its authors, can help break that strangle-hold of denialism.
    Maybe it won’t. Probably it won’t in most cases, but this is a marathon not a sprint. Bad theology doesn’t disappear overnight, and the science denialists have erected to formidable walls. But we can’t just accept that these people are ignorant bigots (however aptly that might apply), we need to see what will reach them. Otherwise we do nothing and wait for the inevitable explosion when either science or fundamentalism is pushed too far.
    If someone tries to lecture me on why evolution is the devil’s work and no Christian can believe it, I’ll dispute them. If they want a dialogue, I may give them one, up to my personal tolerance for head-butting. (I’ve done it before; how productive it was I can’t tell.) If they want to berate me for my heresy, I’ll turn the other cheek (the butt cheek that is) and walk off.

  • histrogeek

     I did want to respond to the afterlife bribe. Explain another way of understanding the Bible, one more compatible with science (such has Galileo’s quote of Cardinal Baronio), can (once again it won’t be successful at least not at first) help remove that bribe. Also I’ve met more than a few fundies who were at least curious enough about the world to value understanding. At the very least they are curious that a Christian could “believe” that people came from apes. Some were polite enough to listen, but I wasn’t part of evangelical tribe so I don’t know if they just dismissed me as some Christian in name only or what.

  • Porlockjr

    The clever saying about how to go th Heaven versus how the heavens go was used by Galileo, but he was quoting Cardinal Cesare Baronio (or Baronius, the name under which he’s in Wikipedia). It’s always fun to give due credit to some person who doesn’t get much, when things attach themselve to the Big Names.

    And all the more fun to get some smart saying like this from a high Church official of that time: they were not all fools and obscurantists, and we supposedly know that, but a reminder is good. BTW, Galileo gave proper credit when he quoted it, so the misattribution isn’t his fault.

  • Jay

    As a former Christian, I found it  very difficult to reconcile Christianity and evolution.  Christianity, as I learned it, posits that scarcity, struggle, and death are temporary aberrations; man was made to be immortal and can be redeemed to that state.  Evolution posits that scarcity, struggle, and death are the furnace in which we were forged, and that any temporary interruption in scarcity will result in a population explosion sufficient to bring scarcity back.  It’s hard to reconcile the two.

  • LMM22

    Christianity, as I learned it, posits that scarcity, struggle, and death are temporary aberrations…. Evolution posits that scarcity, struggle, and death are the furnace in which we were forged, and that any temporary interruption in scarcity will result in a population explosion sufficient to bring scarcity back.  It’s hard to reconcile the two.

    One way to reconcile these two approaches is a sort of Gnosticism: the flesh is separate from the spiritual realm. (The other way, of course, is to point out that life in the past was *not* nasty, brutish, and short — that, in fact, there’s a lot of evidence that pre-agrarian societies were far better off than anyone until very recent times. So, no, misery is not intrinsic to nature. Death may be, selection may be, but that has little to do with quality of life.)

  • Jay

     in response to LMM22:

    The Gnostic approach isn’t consistent with what we know of the brain.  For example, if a person’s corpus callosum is severed, the two hemispheres of the brain can’t directly communicate, and each hemisphere is conscious individually (each crippled by the lack of the other, of course). 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split-brain 

    The anthropological approach forgets that pre-20th century societies had infant mortality of around 50%.  Pre-agrarian societies are characterized by a violent death rate around 15%, which is over 1000x the rate in modern America.  Typical life expectancy is about 17, although it rises to 35 if you ignore infant mortality. 

    Having said that, you can get used to anything.  There were probably a few happy moments in Auschwitz.  I’m not saying that people in the past were always unhappy.  I’m saying that their natural instinct to reproduce coupled with the limitations on available resources resulted in sporadic war and famine, and that generally they probably would have preferred to be peaceful and well-fed.  Also, I’m saying that a God who creates life using war and famine over millions of years is probably not a God who is greatly concerned about human suffering.

  • LMM22

    You know, I was going to try to address some of your (rather one-sided) scientific data, but why bother? This:

    There were probably a few happy moments in Auschwitz.

    Proves that you’re not even *remotely* arguing in good faith. You have a quite firm agenda and you’re trying to assert it.

    I’m not saying that people in the past were always unhappy.

    But we are far happier today than they ever were? Jesus freaking Christ.

    Let me just point out what I seem to be pointing out a lot lately: You judge cultures based upon your own priorities — and what you deem to be morally superior about your own culture. Yes, people would probably prefer to have been well-fed. (Although, again, hunter-gatherers seem to have been quite well fed on the whole.) And people in our society would almost certainly prefer to have a greater degree of social interconnectedness, decreased social stratification, and greater access to fulfilling, meaningful work at all stages of life.

    tl;dr: You’re not pointing out evidence. What you’re doing is actively trying to de-convert people. Why, I have no idea. It’s not particularly productive under these conditions, especially since you neither seem to have a good grasp of the true data nor a good grasp of the theological arguments.

  • Jay

     Hey LMM22,

    Looks like I touched a nerve.  Let’s calm down a bit.

    My first point in my last post is that it’s not human nature to maintain one emotion over years and years, and that emotions have a natural variance.  Would it have worked better for you if I’d said people sometimes get depressed at Disneyland?

    BTW, I’m part gypsy.  I’m sure I had cousins in the Holocaust, even if I don’t know their names.  I should have just not brought that up.

    As for the other bit, in a thread about the impact of religious tribalism on acceptance of evolution, is it crazy for me to point out that 1) the idea that Christianity and evolution are consistent is itself a tribal marker, and 2) it is not obvious that evolution is actually consistent with Christianity, when you think it through?

    BTW, I am well aware that, overall, hunter-gatherers are healthier than subsistence farmers, although not as healthy as modern Westerners.  But the statistics I cited earlier are roughly accurate, and come from studies of “stone age” populations that survived into the modern era.

  • LMM22

    No, you didn’t “touch a nerve”. What you did was prove beyond reasonable doubt that you were not arguing in good faith by Godwinizing the argument.

    I’m an atheist, and I think your behavior was beyond the pale. End of story.

  • Jay

     Dear LMM22:

    I apologize. 

    Please understand that, to me, the Holocaust seems as long ago and far away as the Spanish Inquisition.  Apparently to you it has more emotional salience.  I did not mean to push your buttons with that comment, or this one.  So I apologize.

  • guest

    Bear in mind that ”stone age’ populations that survived into the modern era’ are living on marginal, often depleted and sometimes polluted land, and are constrained by political boundaries from moving into regions that would better suit their lives.

  • Jay

     Bear in mind that ”stone age’ populations that survived into the modern
    era’ are living on marginal, often depleted and sometimes polluted
    land, and are constrained by political boundaries from moving into
    regions that would better suit their lives.

    Well, sure, but that was also sometimes true of “stone age” populations in antiquity, and it’s also true of certain modern populations.  I used to live in Idaho.  It was extremely marginal land, and the local nuclear lab probably didn’t help, but infant mortality was rather low.

  • Jay

     My purpose, though, was not to say that the past was awful.  I personally happen to be part Gypsy, part Irish, part Creek, and part Bantu, so the atrocities do all seem to run together, but that wasn’t my point.

    My points were that:

    -Evolution requires variances.  Mutants, as well as odd combinations of preexisting genes.

    – Variances (and especially mutations) are by definition random changes in complex systems.  Most mutations are not noticeable; of the rest most are crippling, and a very small fraction are useful.  For every favored mutant, there are thousands of unfavored mutants (usually called “birth defects”).  Similarly, for every “golden boy” with just the right genes (e.g. Brad Pitt), there are thousands of less favored combinations (e.g. the rest of us).

    – Evolution works by competition among organisms (economic, violent, and social) that kills unfavored variants before they can reproduce.  This is essential; if it didn’t happen, random mutation would scramble the genome.

    – The claim that this system was set up by the same God who said “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.” is more than a little puzzling. 

  • http://willbikeforchange.wordpress.com/ Storiteller

     That’s a really interesting point and one that I as an ecologist definitely get.  I’ll have to put some more thought into that as a Christian.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I would suggest that people living inside “the bubble” need to be forced into objective education on science and sociology.  Do not let them seperate themselves from worldly learning.  Yeah, I know, “cramming down their throats” and whatnot, but it is like insisting that a child cram vegatables down their throats.  They may not like it, but it is essential that they do so, lest their growth progress in an unhealthy manner. 

    Hell, this is not even just about “what’s best for them,” but about what is best for the country.  The more tribalistic they get, the more that they can isolate themselves, the more dysfunctional our “family” becomes.  When they are operating on a completely different basis than the rest of the world, interface and cooperation become impossible. 

  • Matri

    When they are operating on a completely different basis than the rest of the world, interface and cooperation become impossible.

    Different basis? Heck, they’re living in an entirely different reality!

  • ako

    What do you mean by forced?  Because you’ve expressed some really creepy ideas about forcing people into things in the past, and based on those past suggestions, I’m inclined to disagree with you when you suggest coercing people for the benefit of society.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    First of all, very strict oversight of public education to ensure the cirriculum is robust and objective.  Ensure that any private institution that is accredited for high school education must meet those same standards.  Anyone who is home schooled must meet rigorous testing requirements to ensure that that their home education has been likewise objective.  Sufficient failure on those tests will result in mandatory remedial courses that will be taken until they can pass. 

    Willful ignorance in our education system should not be tolerated. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Can you put together a running sheet on all the things that will not be tolerated? I find it hard to keep track.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I’m wondering how the “objective” part of the criteria will be met. Especially in the social sciences and arts.

  • Tricksterson

    Well played sir, well played.

  • QXZ

     That would be “Well played madam,” IIRC.

  • Tricksterson

    If that’s the case then my apologies to her.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    No skin off my nose but thanks :)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Or Sarge :)

    But, yeah, YRC re my gender.

  • ako

    Well, I do support strong educational standards in science that are based on objective facts and don’t treat unsupported religious assertions as science, but the “repeat it until they can pass” thing needs to have reasonable limits.  People who fail science for ideological reasons should experience the ordinary consequences for failing a course, not some sort of special Perpetual Pro-Evolution Re-Education Program.  Among other things, coming down too harshly would give them the illusion of legitimacy, while it’s much harder to take them seriously if they’ve got nothing worse to show for their ‘oppression’ than poor grades. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Also? The first steps toward an understanding of genetics came from Mendel, a priest.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    I stand corrected. Not everyone is a Bible literalist, but whenever I hear the phrase “Christian scientist,” it’s often in the context of someone trying to use scientific concepts (but not much science) to explain how the Bible is, in fact, a 100% accurate portrayal as written of the origin of life. I suppose I could say I place a distinction between “Christian scientist” and “scientist who is Christian,” but I’d still be largely wrong, so I’ll take my refutation as gracefully as I know how and concede.

    Incidentally, I had been reading this at the time of posting and it likely didn’t help my attitude. I apologize if I have offended anyone.

  • Tricksterson

    That does explain a lot.  I didn’t make it past the second sentence.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I go back and forth on the notion of an objective reality.

    The problem is that the perception of the world by any being with sense organs is inherently solipsistic. To that extent, reality is inherently subjective.

    However, given that there are mutually agreed upon ways to communicate observations about what is around us, humans, at least, can derive concepts of shared-solipsistic-realities that behave largely the same way regardless of the individual observer.

    Thus a quasi-objective reality begins to emerge, as long as we’re talking about phenomena for which one does not need to invoke particularly credibility-straining rationales for such (i.e. trying to claim that God causes lightning, when the principles are now fairly well-understood). When we start trying to discuss aspects of quasi-objective reality for which there is no reliable way to reproduce the phenomenon, that is where science must stop and other forms of world-analysis/world-description* come into play.

    An example is the term “religious/conversion/faith experience”. Such are not objectively reproducible**, and no consistent method of doing so yet exists as far as I know.

    On the other hand, there are aspects of interactions between objects we don’t fully understand, yet there are subsets of those interactions which can be understood and reproduced no matter the observer. An example is the strong interaction. Under conditions of high energy, it behaves in a tractable way, but under conditions of low energy, it behaves differently in a way our mathematical methods as yet find hard going***.

    Anyone who tried to seriously claim (as I once saw) that this lack of knowledge about the strong interaction proves that God is running the show behind the scenes would be looked at quite askance. That is the classic case of trying for a credibility-straining interpretation when a simpler one will do: our mathematical systems need to be refined to understand what our experiments are telling us.

    The point is, any reasonable scientist depends on:

    1. Invoking physical explanations for physical phenomena, and
    2. Being prepared to prove that certain assumptions that go into the physical explanation are wrong.

    An example of 1 and 2 was the idea that you needed two sets of transformation laws, the Galilean and the Lorentz, because of the luminiferous aether that required electromagnetism to be handled using the Lorentz transformations.

    The example of 2 is that the assumption of an aether was wrong.

    The result was that it could be shown that in fact that Galilean transformations are a subset of the Lorentz transformations and that in reality, you only need one set of transformation laws.

    People who try to pooh-pooh science usually de-emphasize #2 in favor of claiming #1 indicates that scientists want to destroy faith, religious or spiritual – and that is just not true.

    —–

    * I particularly like these Germanic word-constructs in English. I think I will use them in preference to “religion” or “faith”.

    ** Anybody who disputes this with me is welcome to refuse to accept my
    plain statement that I never experienced one no matter how I fervently
    wished to be converted from being a sinner, and prayed as such. I
    certainly fulfilled all the preconditions for obtaining one, and if
    anyone dares tell me my “faith was insufficient”, we will be having a
    strongly worded discussion in which I will discuss my exact feelings
    upon this selective perception and dismissive treatment of what happened
    to me.

    *** It has to do, loosely speaking, with the energy dependence of the coupling constant and the fact that it’s bigger than one on room temperature scales.

  • MTW

    For the last two years, Cornerstone Festival has hosted a seminar series with Stephen Matheson on just this topic.  The one thing that I’ve taken from it is that I don’t know jack-all enough about the science to even hold an informed opinion.

  • Anton_Mates

    I don’t understand anyone who goes by “evidence” in this regard, because it is impossible to prove a negative. There’s no way you can ever have enough evidence.

    Sure, that’s why we don’t use evidence to prove things.  We use it to make informed guesses.

    Most people who cheat are not obvious about it. And way more people cheat than you might realize.

    See what you’re doing there?  You’re using evidence to refine your prediction of a spouse’s cheating probability. 

    If your spouse frequently sneaks in the back door at 3 AM and immediately runs into the shower, that would be evidence too.  If your spouse seems totally satisfied by your sex life and almost never seems to lie to you about anything, that’s evidence too.

    If you’re worried, you may even run experiments.  Is your spouse way more flirtatious with other people when they’re not aware that you’re in the room?  If you tell your spouse that you’re working late tonight, do they say they’re going to bed early but then leave the house later in a sexy outfit?

    You can’t know your spouse won’t cheat. It’s not possible. No more than you can know for a fact that someone else loves you.

    You can’t know anything empirical for a fact.  Is the moon made of green cheese?  Could be.  Will the earth start spinning the opposite direction tomorrow?  Maybe.  We have evidence that suggests very strongly that the answer to both questions is “no”, but anything’s possible.  And of course many other scientific questions have much less conclusive answers.  There may be a 50% chance of rain tomorrow, and a 50% chance that your spouse will make out with a coworker at the office Christmas party.

  • Anonymous-Sam

     That’d have to be pretty old green cheese. The last sample I got to play with wasn’t edible at all! In fact, if you inhaled the dust, it could kill you!

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    hapax:

    You seem to be implicitly arguing from a perspective which assumes the existence of God.

    The problem is at least for this atheist *points at self* is that every attempt at contact with said God has been met by immense silence, with nothing that could be pointed to as definite action by said God*.

    I’ve talked before (and been nitpicked to death over it) of the fact that convincing proof would be violation of physical law.

    An excellent example in this thread is the notion of the Earth suddenly spinning the other way. To do this you would normally need to transfer a lot of angular momentum from somewhere else, and that’d be pretty obvious. Apparent nonconservation of angular momentum would be a pretty convincing proof.

    So would apparent nonconservation of energy outside the limits of the Uncertainty Principle.

    I’d even take a blatantly obvious slanting of the odds in my favor such that low-probability events seem to occur readily far more than they should**.

    But every person who I say this to insists that I assume God’s existence first – i.e. Just have enough faith.

    I shouldn’t have to assume the conclusion for the evidence to suddenly come out in favor of the notion that supernatural beings exist. That goes against a pretty basic precept of seeing what happens in the world first before the conclusion is drawn.

    Incidentally, in this vein, you seem to be shunting aside the objections to the presupposition of God’s existence by citing “Well, if this WERE God I’d go to hell anyway!” etc – that doesn’t change the point that were God to unambiguously obtrude Him/Her/Itself upon our notice, there would no longer be a question without an answer regarding God’s existence.
     
    —-

    * I really don’t want to go into the details again. I related this over on the old Slacktivist once and it was unpleasant enough–but never mind. I’ll elaborate if asked by anyone reading this, but I’d rather not.

    ** That said, Tebow attributing all his football goals and wins to this phenomenon seems unbelievably petty and self-serving, when a far more worthwhile result might be the sudden conversion of Earth into a living paradise.

  • hapax

     

    hapax:

    You seem to be implicitly arguing from a perspective which assumes the existence of God.

    The problem is at least for this atheist *points at self* is that
    every attempt at contact with said God has been met by immense silence,
    with nothing that could be pointed to as definite action by said God*.

    Well, yes, I know;  and I truly am sorry that I  have evidently implied something hurtful about your experiences.

    It’s pretty hard for me to argue from the opposite perspective — it’s something that I can intellectually understand , but simply can’t grok, if that makes sense.

    So my efforts to cover various perspectives obviously failed. (My original thought actually the Babelfish story from the Hitchhiker series, but I thought that might come off as trivializing and mocking atheists.  I have been told by a self-described anti-theist friend that if she encountered such a violation of physical laws as you suggest, she would assume instrument failure, her own insanity, a massive conspiracy on the part of the rest of humanity to deceive her, and even the brains-inna-jar scenario before she would accept the existence of supernatural entities. On her more strident days, she does approach perilously close to a Chick tract-style strawman on this topic; but I very much doubt whether this is a widespread position, however.  Can anyone suggest a better example? )

    I do know that there are plenty of exceptions to my generalizations, and I tried to acknowledge them with such locutions as “in many cases.”

    Unfortunately, I simply can’t think of ANY meaningful statement that can be made about human attitudes (or lack of them) with regard to the possibilities of the supernatural that are universally applicable.

    (Including that one.)

  • malpollyon

    Part of the problem for many skeptics with conceiving of evidence for the supernatural is that, many skeptics consider supernatural a confused concept that it is difficult for them to ascribe a meaning to.

    I can think of “proofs” that would convince me of the existence of some extremely powerful being(s)* with many of the characteristics ascribed to him/her/them by religious sect(s). In such circumstances I would probably call him/her/them “God(s)”. I would not however then believe in the “supernatural”, I would just consider myself to have been wrong about what was “natural”. Once something has been convincingly demonstrated as real, I can think of no principled reason to exclude it from the category “natural.

    In the same way 20th century scientists didn’t ascribe the ability of “particles” to “be in many places at once” to them having “supernatural” properties, but rather to natural properties we had until that point been unaware of.

    *And also many weaker “proofs” that would cause me to suspect instrument failure, conspiracy, or mass hallucination. Just like very few particle physicists believed that neutrinos were travelling faster than light when that result was reported. We have so many reasons to believe the opposite that one experiment was simply not enough evidence the other way. This isn’t the same thing as being “closed minded”, indeed it would be “closed minded” to have accepted the one experiment whilst rejecting all of our other evidence. Had the result been replicated many times though, then you would have seen a lot of debate and uncertainty (quite possibly the point of a “scientific revolution”, the lightspeed barrier is a big deal).

  • AnonymousSam

    What if it were something unambiguous, such as the spontaneous and instantaneous, lasting and verifiable regeneration of an amputee’s lost limb? That’s the challenge of the website whywontgodhealamputees.com and one I’ve wished to which there was a satisfactory answer. I think if that happened, I would have to accept that there was at least some sort of supernatural force out there.

    Incidentally: AnswersInGenesis has attempted to answer this challenge with a rebuttal that refuses the bait and dismisses the challenge entirely. Their answer, once one strips away the assumption that whatever God does or doesn’t do is moral Because He’s God, is that God is a jerk and so are they.

    If there is no God, why should we care if people have lost limbs? To
    borrow from C. S. Lewis, in a truly godless world, amputations wouldn’t
    be “good” or “bad”; they would simply be, a fact of life no different from a tree shedding leaves.

    This is why AnswersInGenesis and Ken Ham are one of the reasons why I’m prickly about religion.

  • gleomstapa

    If it were something unambiguous, lasting, and verifiable, I would probably conclude that my understanding of the laws of nature was incomplete. I can’t grok a universe* without consistent physical laws. If God in the traditional sense is subject to those laws, then is God actually God? If God is not subject to those laws, then how can God be in the universe? If God is not in the universe, then how can God exist? I’m not sure what supernatural means, really, because if it’s in the universe then it’s natural, and if it’s supernatural it’s not natural and not in the universe and therefore it isn’t. Or something.

    *Universe, here, being “all that is.”

  • AnonymousSam

    Hmm. This posits an interesting idea. If one assumes that everything which occurs within the universe is, by definition, a natural part of that universe, and then it were proven that God exists and has “miraculous” powers, then one would have to conclude that it is part of God’s nature to be able to perform miracles. Despite being utterly unique (presumably), one could still attribute “miraculous powers” to be part of the very taxonomy of God (Homo Deus?)

    I suppose it’s the question of that individuality that I would focus on. Is an entity natural if the entity is the only example of its kind? Is an act natural if it cannot be reproduced in any capacity?

  • Gleomstapa

    Is natural law uniform? I don’t know. I’m not sure if the physicists know.  My default assumption, right now, is yes …

    Even if I could grant the idea of an entity which locally does not obey natural law, what effects can it have outside of its boundaries? Because if it can tinker with the rest of the universe at will, is there any natural law at all? Or if it’s just subject to different laws, does that not mean that “natural law” is more complicated than we predicted?

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    That’s one aspect of physics that could conceivably keep a physicist awake at nights: the question of whether that body of knowledge we call “natural law” is really uniform across the entire universe.

    As far as we know, it is, but our knowledge is backed up only indirectly once we start looking at things far away from the Earth.

    Science depends on this uniformity of natural law to be able to reasonably explain the process by which our universe came to appear as it does today, for example, so any violations of natural law that come from dependence on location would be a pretty bad body blow to the notion that our understanding of physical laws is pretty solid.

    Incidentally, to readers at large, my notes about nonconservation assume the intermediate instrument error/computer-simulated-universe-denizens, etc before finally arriving at the dawning conclusion.

  • arcseconds

     What has to be kept in mind is that science has certain ‘transcendental’  (for want of a better term) presuppositions because of what kind of discipline it is.

    These are the presuppositions that make a rational investigation into nature possible and worthwhile. 

    As an example, one of these presuppositions is that nature has ‘real’ regularities that we can observe and make sense of – and these regularities are not just a delusion or a fluke.    We can’t prove this empirically, as any empirical proof would be assuming this to begin with and would therefore be circular.  Someone who truly believed that the universe was pure random happenstance for moment to moment wouldn’t bother with science, except maybe as a kind of intellectual amusement.

    So I feel the proper response of a scientist to the Earth suddenly reversing its rotation (or any other massive, unexplained phenomenon) would be to assume that there was a natural explanation for this rather than a Deity, and begin searching for that natural explanation.  

    Some might say that a theistic explanation should be avoided because ‘supernaturally’ explanations haven’t worked very well in the past.  That’s a consideration, certainly – we’ve had more success with ‘reductive’ (broadly speaking) explanations than ones involving sui generis/occult ‘forces’ (vitalism and spontaneous generation once had some currency). 

    But the main reason is that to say ‘God did it’ is to give up on science.   By that I don’t mean it’s necessary false or conceptually impossible for God to act in the universe, but to the extent that the Universe contains Acts of God (i.e. volitional acts of a transcendent, omnipotent being, or something like that) we can’t understand it scientifically. 

    (I’ve stated that boldly, but there might be some possibility of some highly curtailed science even here – an empirical study of Divine Psychology or something.  But that would be very much a fall-back position. )

    Also, there’s always the option of leaving something in the  ‘unexplained phenomena’ indefinitely.  Scientific perplexity on its own doesn’t demand theism, no matter how mammoth the unexplained event.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Granted to all your points.

    In the case of the Earth suddenly reversing its rotation, the first thing anyone would wonder is what other object nearby the Earth could transfer that much angular momentum and try to find that object.

    Failing that, there would probably be a search for some new force that could exert that much of a torque, and then keep on with other posisble physical explanations. Once all of those were ruled out, it might well be reluctantly (and very, in some cases) accepted that perhaps there were supernatural interference with the Earth, especially if no technological cause could be found (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) and no life-forms existed in this solar system capable of marshalling something like zero-point energy or some other phenomenon currently assumed to be quantum mechanical flimflam*.

    I would say that the very fact, though, that under conditions of reasonable reassurance of reproducibility, when a particular thing is done, particular results are obtained, and that this happens for a wide range of diverse things being observed, constitutes a wide body of empirical support for the notion that phenomena in nature have physical origin and only physical origin. So even though there is no reason for taking the axiom beforehand that we disregard the idea of supernatural intervention or trickery or otherwise, it ends up being an assumption of reasonable confidence.

    —-

    * Until proven otherwise, anyone who tells you some miracle device exists that uses “zero point energy” is reaching for your wallet, not reaching out to improve your well-being. I should research all the abuses of quantum mechanics used by con artists sometime.

  • Tricksterson

    Maybe that would be the first thing most scientists would think but the first thing you averge person would think would be “Act of God”.  The secoond thing they would think would be “He wants me to kill the Unbeliever!”

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I’m having a certain amount of trouble seeing how this repeated process of “And if that doesn’t work, we’ll try this, and if that doesn’t work we’ll try this, and if everything fails  we still won’t believe it’s supernatural” is different, in practical terms, from the frequent religious argument of “I’ll just keep moving the goalposts until I get the answer I want.”

  • Jay

     to Ross:

    The difference is that scientists judge ideas on the balance of the evidence.  It so happens that there is so much documented evidence for the current models of the universe that tipping the balance would require a remarkable amount of contrary evidence. 

    Seriously, go to a university science library sometime.  They have buildings full of evidence.  Whenever they filled the building up, they had to convert some books to microfiche (later digital).  Thousands of people have worked for hundreds of years to develop science to its current level, taking care to document every step as reliably as possible.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

     Think “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. If I’m to claim I saw nonconservation of mass-energy beyond that allowed by the uncertainty principle, as an example, and I want to claim supernatural origin for it, I’d better damn well rule out all possible purely naturalistic origins (i.e. apparent nonconservation due to communication with another universe, etc) first.

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    Think “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. If I’m to claim I saw nonconservation of mass-energy beyond that allowed by the uncertainty principle, as an example, and I want to claim supernatural origin for it, I’d better damn well rule out all possible purely naturalistic origins (i.e. apparent nonconservation due to communication with another universe, etc) first.

    I think I’ve said this once before, but…

    If my friend dies and I keep telling people that a vampire killed her, then I am making an extraordinary claim and am probably a crazy person.

    If my friend dies in the town of Sunnydale, and I, being a vampire Slayer, keep telling people that a vampire killed her, then I am a well-informed person making an ordinary claim.

    “God did this” is only an extraordinary claim if you are currently in a universe in which God does not tend to do things. Whether we are, in fact, in such a universe is still open to question.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    If […] I, being a vampire
    Slayer, keep telling people that a vampire killed her, then I am a
    well-informed person making an ordinary claim. “God did this” is only an extraordinary claim if you are currently in
    a universe in which God does not tend to do things. Whether we are, in fact, in such a universe is still open to question.

    Is the same true of whether we’re in a universe where vampires kill people? Or is that one settled?

    If it’s settled, how did it get settled, and how would I confirm that if I were genuinely uncertain about it (say, for example, if I were raised in a family that believed in vampires, but had never actually seen one myself, and was aware that many people considered vampires a myth)?

  • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

    If it’s settled, how did it get settled, and how would I confirm that if
    I were genuinely uncertain about it (say, for example, if I were raised in a family that believed in vampires, but had never actually seen one myself, and was aware that many people considered vampires a myth)?

    Depends why you want to confirm it, really.

    If you’re interested in determining the existence (or otherwise) of vampires for scientific reasons, then detailed and widespread study is called for. If, on the other hand, you just want to make sure you don’t get eaten, then take some elementary vampire precautions* and don’t worry about it any further…

    * 1) Don’t invite anyone in after dark.
    2) Eat lots of garlic.
    3) Keep a small mirror on you at all times.

  • arcseconds

    That’s exactly what I meant by my earlier comment.   It’s part and parcel of the scientific enterprise to assume that all phenomena have explanations – and the explanations have to be ‘real’ explanations. Just what counts as a real explanation is a thorny topic in the philosophy of science about which much has been written, but let’s just take two examples, a strong requirement and a weak requirement:

    1) a properly scientific explanation of a phenomenon is one that subsumes that phenomenon under a scientific law.

    2) a properly scientific explanation of a phenomenon is one that correctly predicts the occurrence of that phenomenon (we could add requirements that it predicts the occurrence to within some tolerances (better than chance, at the very least) , or predicts the frequency of the phenomenon for statistical process, and the usual sorts of caveats regarding ad-hocness, etc).

    ‘God made the earth rotate the other way’ fails both of these requirements for a scientific explanation. 

    It doesn’t subsume it under a scientific law – apart from the fact that nothing resembling a law has been given, we could also note that if one had been given it would, in a sense, cease being a supernatural explanation.  If God’s behaviour can be predicted on the basis of laws, then God behaves like a natural object and can be scientifically investigated.

    It also doesn’t help us to predict future occurrences of the phenomenon.  Unless, of course, it is accompanied by a theory that tells us when God is going to act – this would be then similar to the above case, except we’ve relaxed the requirement that the theory needs to involve laws.

    The correct thing for a scientist with unexplained phenomena is to keep trying to explain them scientifically.  You don’t know until you try!  At some point you might, of course, give up, but even then you just leave them on the ‘unexplained’ list, indefinitely if necessary.  What you don’t do is attribute them to omnipotent beings – that’s giving up.

    To put it another way: what good does an explanation like ‘God did it’ do us?  At least leaving it unexplained means that we can continue searching for an explanation that would do us some good.  

    I’d have to confess to a wee bit of disappointment in InvisibleNeutrino here – his possible reluctant acceptance of a supernatural origin for such a phenomenon speaks of (a tiny amount of potential) weak mindedness!  And him with a lot less sympathy  towards theism than I have, too…

    I would accept something resembling a theistic explanation given the right circumstances, but those circumstances would have to involve something more than an unexplained physical phenomenon, no matter how massive.

  • Tricksterson

    So what would the right circumstances be?

  • arcseconds

     Well, as I hinted at in my last post, a theory that entailed the existence of something like God, and specifically predicted the reversal of the Earth’s rotation  (with the God as its cause)  I would take pretty seriously.  That would put us in the familiar position of having a theory which explains a phenomenon which no rival theory does.

    That’s probably a bit unsatisfactory, so I’ll flesh out two possibilities here.

    One possible option is a mathematical physical theory which proceeds from a small number of plausible hypotheses, explains all current physical phenomena (or at least as many as any existing attempt at a grand unified theory), plus entails the existence of a powerful, godlike entity. 

    How would such a theory work out? I don’t really know, but one might imagine a physicist working out the implications of this theory, and proving the existence of an entity that has infinite (or at least incredibly vast) energy, that doesn’t normally interact with regular matter, yet contains a complete representation of all regular matter posited in the theoretical work, and when some rough computer models are made the modelled version of the entity occasionally does reach out and interact with the regular matter in powerful, unexpected, and seemingly arbitrary ways.

    Actually, if someone were to generate such a theory, I’d be mightily impressed even without any weird phenomena occurring, and I’d already have to accord the predicted entity the same level of respect as any other entity posited by a serious physical theory – I’d have to take it at least as seriously as superstrings, and maybe as seriously as the Higgs boson, depending.

    If the Earth also reversed its rotation suddenly, I’d have to consider the theory to have received powerful emprical support – it’s already at least as empirically grounded as any other theory through its recovery of all known physical phenomena, and the unique and strange entity that it posits now also has confirmation.  I wouldn’t even require this theory to specifically predict the particular occurrence of the reversal.

    Apart from the odd entity posited by the theory, this example is really just a scientific theory of a traditional sort.  But note just as in my examples earlier, God is in a sense a natural object now.

    Another possibility would be some kind of bible code thing.  If someone had cryptographically generated an unambiguous prediction of the reversal of the earth’s rotation six months previously from the text of the Bible, then I’d have to take seriously the notion  that there’s an entity out there who, at the very least, can do cryptography, can understand English (if that’s the language the prediction is produced in) and can reverse the rotation of the Earth – in other words, a very intelligent, very powerful entity.  If the same cryptographic algorithm generated other correct predictions of phenomena that similarly flew in the face of known physics, I’d take it progressively more seriously.   Note that this doesn’t prove the entity was responsible for the Bible – it might just have decided to interpret the Bible in such a way that makes these predictions, and then make the predictions come true (perhaps as a joke, or to defraud us).  But other evidence might be mustered to show the entity had indeed made sure the Bible was its work. 

    This still involves a theory of sorts which is subject to empirical confirmation and disconfirmation, even though it’s not a scientific theory in the traditional sense.

    A completely different possibility from these two would involve a hermeneutical relationship ( a personal relationship, possibly) between me and some entity.  If I had already come to be in some form of communication with an entity that i understood to be making a claim of awesome power, and then understood to be undertaking to reverse the rotation of the Earth, and the rotation was indeed reversed, then I’d take that at least to be proof that this entity knows something we don’t – however, I wouldn’t want to be caught out like the ‘savages’ in various boy’s own adventure narratives are with eclipses , so I’d need to have reason to believe the entity was causing rather than predicting such occurrences. If the entity could do this sort of thing on demand, then that would be persuasive.

    Another possibility is that I’ve a relationship of trust with that entity for some reason.  In which case I might just believe it when it says so.  I take it that this last option is something like the position many theists take themselves to be in.

    A hermeneutical relationship isn’t a scientific relationship – we don’t say ‘pass the water’ and expect the water to be passed on the basis of induction, but because we know what the words mean and know our dinner-partners do too.  So I take the hermeneutic option not to be a scientific explanation, but it is nevertheless one I would accept.

    Sorry for the long post, but you did ask.

  • Tonio

    infinite (or at least incredibly vast)

    I think you’re underestimating the distinction between the two. Your Earth rotation scenario and hermeneutical relationship scenarios could just as easily describe alien races with incredibly advanced technologies or evolved physical or mental abilities.  Neither would serve as evidence of a being whose power and knowledge were infinite, which is the subject under discussion.  The infinite definition is simply too convenient, where it could be plugged into any unexplained phenomenon. It would be like getting James Bond out of a tight spot by having him pull a magic want from nowhere. Saying that the existence of such a god cannot be disproven is technically correct, but that’s only because how the definition is structured.

  • arcseconds

    Neither would serve as evidence of a being whose power and knowledge were infinite, which is the subject under discussion.

    Was this actually settled in an earlier part of the discussion? If so, I missed it.  

    I realise of course that omnipotence and omniscience are part of the traditional Christian theological definition of God, but I don’t think anyone’s forced to accept that in order to use the word ‘God’ – and many self-identified theists reject that God has these properties.   Process theologians, for example.  Donald Knuth is on record as saying that God isn’t omnipotent but just mind-bogglingly powerful (he used some very large number to express God’s power, 10^(10^10) or something. 

    Given the leeway here, I was being deliberately vague in what I’d accept as God when discussing evidence that there is a God who sometimes inteferes with planetary motion.

    That is in my view the proper scientific approach – entities in science are not defined once and for all by a list of properties. 

    I am however a little confused that you seem to be insisting that God is omnipotent here, but in a later comment you say this:

    Or the god may indeed care desperately about suffering but be powerless to do anything about it, like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.” Epicurus once wrote, “Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” That wrongly treats the word as though it’s a title of veneration and not a name.

    Which seems to allow that God isn’t omnipotent.

    (Although again it’s not clear to me that ‘God’ clearly isn’t a title of veneration.  There certainly seem to be people who use ‘God’ in this manner, and that’s clearly connected with the main historical use of the word ‘God’ during the Christian era. )

  • Tonio

     Sorry for the confusion. By “the subject under discussion,” I meant in US or Western society in general, not here in this thread. Both of those societies treat the “Christian theological definition of God” as a default. You’re right that many believers in a single god reject that definition while still using the name. I just find that confusing precisely because of the default – it would be far clearer if those other believers used a different name. I can see how it might seem that I’m insisting that “God is omnipotent” – I was merely restating the default while challenging it. The Epicurus quote could be read as “God” constituting not just a title but a job description, as if the cosmic HR department was hiring.

  • arcseconds

    Yes, I agree that it is confusing. 

    As far as I can work out, the views on what kind of entity God is vary greatly within theism, within Christianity, and even within a congregation!

    Just to canvas a few of the options:

    – God is a big man with a white beard in the sky – a kind of super-magician (common amongst children of course, but not necessarily absent amongst adults)
    – God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent entity who is everywhere and nowhere, is eternal and unchanging, absolutely simple but somehow still threefold, and despite all of this is still in some sense a person.  (traditional Christian theology)
    – mix and match any of the options from the above item, along with whether or not God interferes directly in the world, and to what extent.  (Deism etc…)
    – God is some incredibly powerful being but neither infinite nor unchangeable (Knuth seems to believe something of this sort)
    – the universe is coming to know itself and has an unfolding logical structure and a destiny, and God is this process.  (Hegel, process theology seems to adopt a view similar to this too)
    – God is entirely beyond human comprehension.  Maybe the best we can do is some kind of ineffable experience of cosmic unity (mysticism of various kinds – one form of neoplatonism holds that the way to understand God is to deny properties – the via negativa)
    – there’s some kind of power or cosmic spirit to the universe which we can call God  (‘New Age’, for want of a better term)

    (It’s also worth pointing out in passing that it’s not at all uncommon for congregations to house agnostics or even atheists)

    If we picked one of these notions and said “right, that’s God.  Who believes in this?”   we’d probably find that most theists-by-their-own-definition are actually agnostic or atheistic according to the  arcseconds-tonio Official Standard Definition of God.   

    But this doesn’t seem to matter much to churchgoers – occasionally of course we do see splits over theology, but it’s much more common for churches to split over far less abstract and more practical considerations, such as whether or not to ordain women, or over who is permitted to wield authority in the church.

    We could conclude that churchgoers are confused, or hypocritical, or both.  But the message I take home from this is that metaphysics isn’t anywhere near as important as people think it is when it comes to religion.

    Anyway, giving the plethora of views on the topic, and also that the traditional omni-definition of God is pretty darned abstract, and the difficulties of trying to make it compatible with a being that one can have a personal relationship  (so much more important than philosophy for so many Christians)  I do wonder how true it is that the ‘existence of God’ debate in the West or in the USA is really so clearly about the existence of the omni-God.

  • Tonio

     

    metaphysics isn’t anywhere near as important as people think it is when it comes to religion…I do wonder how true it is that the ‘existence of God’ debate in the
    West or in the USA is really so clearly about the existence of the
    omni-God.

    Good point. Although I’m interested in factual accuracy, I also suggest that it’s less important what one believes than in how one treats others. Perhaps the debate you mention is, for many participants, somewhat of a proxy for the issue of Christian privilege.

    ineffable experience of cosmic unity

    I have no idea what that means since I’ve never had any such experience.

  • Tricksterson

    I go with option 6 with a side order of “the evidence suggest He/She/It/They is/are probably sadistic and/or moronic.

    Then there are the “little gs” which are manifestations of mana/chi/TheForce filtered through the mass subconcious

  • Anton_Mates

     

    That would put us in the familiar position of having a theory which explains a phenomenon which no rival theory does.

    That’s hardly a familiar position, though.  In fact, it’s unheard of; there are always rival theories.  The earth reverses its rotation?  A collision with an extremely rare billion-ton flavor of neutrino, or a freak fluctuation in the solar magnetic field that forced the core dynamo into reverse, or a teenager that just developed her mutant reality-warping powers, or Superman trying to resurrect Lois Lane again.  You could come up with a dozen theories before breakfast.  All of which would be obvious bullshit in our world, where the Earth doesn’t ever start spinning the other way.  But if it did, they’d all be on the table and we’d be scrambling to figure out which ones are simplest and most testable.  You’d need a lot more, and more specific, miracles before “a godlike entity did it” started to edge out the other contenders. 

    Such as:

      If I had already come to be in some form of communication with an
    entity that i understood to be making a claim of awesome power, and then
    understood to be undertaking to reverse the rotation of the Earth, and
    the rotation was indeed reversed, then I’d take that at least to be
    proof that this entity knows something we don’t

    That’s definitely the sort of thing I would look for.  If you want to establish that this is a discrete entity with agency and intention, as opposed to just the universe being weird, you need some sort of communication or at least a detailed behavioral study.  Ideally it’ll take you for a Q-style stroll around the universe, chatting with you while working miracles right and left.

    And I don’t think I’d agree that such a relationship is necessarily non-scientific.  Induction is a big part of our social interactions; you don’t say “pass the water” to someone if you have good evidence that they’re deaf/don’t speak English/hate you, after all.

    BTW, I’d be extremely surprised if you could come up with a parsimonious Theory of Everything which mere humans could use to predict a godlike being from first principles.  Or any halfway specific being, for that matter, including Siberian hamsters.  I mean, unless it predicts it in a “there’s gotta be a
    weakly godlike entity somewhere in the multiverse” way, and in that
    case it probably also predicts a billion other weird things that might
    explain the Earth reversal.

  • arcseconds

     

    In fact, it’s unheard of; there are always rival theories.  The
    earth reverses its rotation?  A collision with an extremely rare
    billion-ton flavor of neutrino, or a freak fluctuation in the solar
    magnetic field that forced the core dynamo into reverse, or a teenager
    that just developed her mutant reality-warping powers, or Superman
    trying to resurrect Lois Lane again.  You could come up with a dozen
    theories before breakfast.

    I was going to say earlier that I’m a bit worried about what you take a scientific theory to be, and this just confirms it.   A scientific theory worth considering isn’t just any just-so account which happens to mention the phenomena you want an explanation for, it has to be at minimum explanatory and preferrably predictive,  and it should have at least the potential to do this as well as existing theories in the same space.  In the case of physics, this means being mathematically precise.

    Are there always rival theories in this sense? I doubt it.  What was the rival theory of planetary motion to Newtonian mechanics between 1700 and 1905?  The current rival to plate tectonics?  The germ theory of disease?

    Anyway, in my fictional example of a mathematical physics with God in it,  I had in mind ( and I think it’s implicit in what I said) that this theory had already been around for a while.  Prior to the rotation reversal it was as well-supported as any other theory but entailed the existence of a strange entity for which there was no evidence.  After the rotation reversal, it’s the only theory with prior empirical support which is capable of explaining the phenomenon.  Sure, people could and possibly would generate counter-‘theorys’ like your ones, but the way I’m telling the story these don’t have any independent support and aren’t well-worked out theories. 

    (surely you don’t think that there’s always at least two theories around prior to a novel phenomenon capable of explaining it?)

    I’m a bit worried i’m wasting my time here, though, because you’re either not following the story enough to work out that I’m constructing it in a way that parallels actual physical theories, or you genuinely think that comic-book superheros are on a par with mathematical  physical theories for scientific explanation, or you’re toying with me.

    (if the people  already knew that Superman existed then the situation is, of course, different.  )

    As for your surprise – I’m wondering why you feel the need to mention it.  Of course it would be surprising! I’d be surprised if you weren’t surprised!

  • Anton_Mates

     A scientific theory worth considering isn’t just any just-so account which happens to mention the phenomena you want an explanation for, it has to be at minimum explanatory and preferrably predictive,  and it should have at least the potential to do this as well as existing theories in the same space.  In the case of physics, this means being mathematically precise. 
    Are there always rival theories in this sense? I doubt it.  What was the rival theory of planetary motion to Newtonian mechanics between 1700 and 1905?

    Well, several alternatives were suggested to deal with the precession of Mercury.  Slight tweaks to the exponent in the inverse square law of gravity, similar to the MOND theories floated these days; the addition of a velocity-dependent term to gravitational force; and so on.   These rivals, of course, were designed to make significantly different predictions about Mercury’s orbit than Newtonian mechanics does, but for any of them you could reduce the magnitude of their novel terms, so that all their predictions would be functionally indistinguishable from Newtonian ones.

    Similarly, there are rivals to general relativity.  For instance, Kaluza-Klein theory can generate it exactly as a special case. 

    Of course, none of these alternatives have rivaled Newtonian mechanics/GR in a different sense:  they’ve never been as popular within the scientific community.  But that’s not because they aren’t explanatory and predictive.  It’s because they’re not better at explanation and prediction than the leading theories, but merely equally good.  And they are more complex, so parsimony wins, until a way to distinguish them experimentally emerges.

    What I’m arguing is that, if the “godlike entity” theory wasn’t the scientific frontrunner to begin with, then a one-off event like the earth reversal isn’t going to push it that far ahead.  Especially if it doesn’t even predict the timing, speed etc. of this particular reversal.  There are too many other possible modifications to existing theory that would do an equally good job of explaining that event, and are roughly as parsimonious and testable.  And if the “godlike entity” theory was the front-runner to begin with, then you don’t even need the earth reversal, no?

    The current rival to plate tectonics?  The germ theory of disease?

    I can’t think of a remotely parsimonious rival to either, of course.  But you can certainly dream up alien germ-mimicking nanomachines and terraformers and whatnot that would lead to exactly the same predictions.

  • hf

    In theory, you should try to take into account all possible hypotheses and not just those that someone has helpfully formalized for you. In practice, I think this means that we shouldn’t pick one unlikely hypothesis to look at, out of this vast space, without having enough evidence already to justify giving it special treatment. Because we can’t examine all possible claims. (Nobody would test the claim that CERN gets different numbers whenever the people there all wear clown suits.)

    Mind you, I think a correctly predicted reversal of Earth’s rotation would more than justify bringing theistic hypotheses to our attention. But a specifically Christian or Norse deity (well, besides you-know-who) would need more specific evidence to distinguish it from the other formalizable possibilities.

  • Anton_Mates

     …huh, I had tried to post the second half of my reply, but it didn’t seem to get through.  So here!

     

    Anyway, in my fictional example of a mathematical physics with God in it,  I had in mind ( and I think it’s implicit in what I said) that this theory had already been around for a while.  Prior to the rotation reversal it was as well-supported as any other theory but entailed the existence of a strange entity for which there was no evidence. 

    What would it mean for this grand unified theory to be merely “as well-supported as any other theory,” though?  Its only possible rivals could be other unified theories which are equally simple and are also supported by all the same experimental results.  In which case, again, those theories could also be tweaked to allow for a single instance of “unexpected and seemingly arbitrary behavior” like a rotation reversal.  The “godlike being” theory would be slightly favored because no tweakage is necessary, but I don’t think that’s enough of a parsimony edge to be decisive, given the massive amount of evidence that each of these theories already accounts for.

    And see below for why I’m very skeptical that any such theory could be shown to entail the existence of this entity.

    (surely you don’t think that there’s always at least two theories around prior to a novel phenomenon capable of explaining it?)

            
    Nope.  But there were always at least two theories that could be constructed, whether or not anyone bothered to do so.


    or you genuinely think that comic-book superheros are on a par with mathematical  physical theories for scientific explanation, or you’re toying with me.

    Is it the comic book part you find troubling?  You can scrap “Superman” and replace with “any very-powerful-but-less-than-godlike-being imaginable,” if you like.  The problem I was pointing to is that so many possibilities would account for the same data.  
            

    As for your surprise – I’m wondering why you feel the need to mention it.  Of course it would be surprising! I’d be surprised if you weren’t surprised!

            
    Well, the surprise would be for two reasons.  It would be pretty surprising that a unified theory somehow predicted a cosmic being.  It would be impossibly amazing if human researchers could actually arrive at such a prediction.
            
    That’s why I brought up hamsters.  Hamsters do in fact exist, so any unified theory that successfully predicts the entire universe would have to be capable of predicting their existence.  But can you imagine actually starting with some simple set of physical laws and basically simulating the entire history of the universe until you manage to predict the noble hamster?  It’s not possible; you’d need a computer that was itself a god.  We can try to verify that hamsters don’t obviously violate known physical laws, but that’s as much as physics has to say about the issue.  You’re only ever going to learn by hamsters exist by observing them, or the traces they leave behind.
     
    Likewise, how could you deduce the existence of a massive, cosmically powered, intelligent (or at least intentional) entity from first principles?  What sort of model results would even characterize a god that likes to spin planets the other way occasionally, as opposed to a god that doesn’t like that, or a big mindless heap of otherdimensional matter and energy that accidentally exchanges angular momentum with our universe now and then?

  • hapax

     

    To put it another way: what good does an explanation like ‘God did it’
    do us?  At least leaving it unexplained means that we can continue
    searching for an explanation that would do us some good. 

    Well, it’s not a very good explanation in theology, either.

    I mean, if you believe in an omni-omni God, the explanation is ALWAYS “God did it”, in some form or another.

    The interesting, relevant questions are “How?” “Why?” “What am I supposed to do about it?”

    Think about that often-cited “Gospel in Miniature”, John 3:16.  “God gave His only Son” — whether or not you believe it, whatever you think that may mean, exactly — doesn’t really do any more “good” than “God made it rain.”

    But when you add the “why?” (God so loved the world) and the “what does that mean to me?” (whoever believes shall not perish but have eternal life) — well, that opens up whole new cans and kettles and oil drums of worms, but it also has the potential of changing the course of history.

  • Anton_Mates

    I’m having a certain amount of trouble seeing how this repeated process of “And if that doesn’t work, we’ll try this, and if that doesn’t work we’ll try this, and if everything fails  we still won’t believe it’s supernatural” is different, in practical terms, from the frequent religious argument of “I’ll just keep moving the goalposts until I get
    the answer I want.”

    Well, the main difference is that in the scientific process you don’t get to keep the answer you want.  You do get to keep suggesting new answers, but every time they miss the goalposts you have to scrap them.  Also, the scientific process doesn’t demand that you personally reject all the untestable bits.  You’re welcome to add “…thanks to supernatural forces” or “…no thanks to supernatural forces, which don’t exist” to the answer, as far your own beliefs go.  It’s just that there’s no place for them while you’re playing the game.

    BTW, “if everything fails” never happens.  The set of possible natural theories about how the world works is infinite, and it includes theories capable of explaining any conceivable set of observations.  Science tries to stay in one little corner where the simplest and most easily testable hypotheses live, but if those guys fail, we simply move out to the slightly more complicated candidates, and so on ad infinitum. 

    So there’s never actually a reason to try out a supernatural hypothesis, since the corresponding natural hypothesis has one less assumption and makes all the same predictions.

  • arcseconds

     I’m having difficulty making sense of your comment.  

    What do you mean by ‘supernatural’ here?

    If you mean ‘outside current physical theory’ or something like that, then in one sense there can never be supernatural entities in a scientific theory because as soon as they’re introduced they cease been supernatural (they’re now part of a theory), and in another sense new theories constantly introduce supernatural elements as they often introduce new elements that aren’t part of the current understanding.

    If you mean ‘things that are now commonly understood to be supernatural’, then I can’t see why we’d want to avoid them as a matter of fundamental policy.  Given some set of evidence sometimes it will be the simplest explanation. 

    God is a bit difficult because ‘omnipotence’ or anything like it is impossible to proove empirically and difficult to express theoretically (although see my earlier post for a sketch).

    But at some point it would be only scientific to admit the existence of, say,  ghosts.  For example, if there were translucent people who walked through walls and looked and acted like specific dead people and had the same memories and skills as the dead people simply everywhere, then on what basis would one deny their existence? and why?

    (of course, presented with such a phenomenon, we’d immediately want to get out our spectrometers and particle detectors to see whether they could be fitted in some way into existing physics, and if not we’d start modifying our theories, and in the meantime we’d be collecting empirical data on when they appear, who appears, etc etc.  incontrovertible evidence for a ‘supernatural’ entity would be quite exciting for a scientist.)

  • 1derbread

    What do you mean by ‘supernatural’ here

    Capable of flouting the laws of nature, whatever they may turn out to be.

    in one sense there can never be supernatural entities in a scientific theory because as soon as they’re introduced they cease been supernatural

    Exactly.  Rather than positing a supernatural exception to the laws of nature, you can always update the laws so they include that exception.  As you said, a scientifically justified God would be a naturalized God.

    But at some point it would be only scientific to admit the existence of, say,  ghosts. 

    Oh, of course.  Analogously, lightning and communicable disease and psychoactive drugs were all considered supernatural in the past, but we’ve since successfully integrated them into our understanding of nature.

  • Tonio

    “Supernatural” seems to be a variation on my earlier point about “infinite” where the concept purports to explain anything unexplainable.

  • P J Evans

    The most recent example I’ve run into: There’s an observatory in Antarctica that’s looking for neutrinos that theory says are produced in gamma-ray bursts.
    They haven’t seen any.
    So they’re looking first at their theory, to see if their equations are wrong, and then they’re going to see if they need to look more closely at the physics of gamma-ray bursters.

  • Tonio

     Good point. From my view, the problem with “god did it” in the monotheistic form is that the god is defined so broadly as to explain any possible data or observations. It’s like having an RPG character who has the ability to defeat all foes. Or like filling in the missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with putty. I’ve encountered a few creationists who insist that the incomplete nature of scientific knowledge render all of science useless, as if having all the answers was a strict requirement.

  • Jay

    I think part of the confusion here is because science deals with observables.  When theoretical constructs that can’t be directly observed are proposed, the criteria are 1) how much does the construct explain and 2) when two mechanisms are practically equivalent, the simplest one is usually right.

    So, unless God makes himself directly observable (I’m thinking of Omnipresent Man from the webcomic Basic Instructions, but YMMV), no number of observations will get us to God.  No matter what happens, “Random stuff is happening and we don’t know why” is simpler than “An omnipotent entity is making random stuff happen for reasons only it understands”, and the two theories are practically equivalent.  Either explains anything, and thus explains nothing.

  • swbarnes2

    “So, unless God makes himself directly observable (I’m thinking of Omnipresent Man from the webcomic Basic Instructions, but YMMV), no number of observations will get us to God. ”

    But we have all kinds of observations, and they tell us something.

    No God saved Japanese vilagers during the tsunami.  No God even warned them in time to get away in time.  We would have observed that if it had happened.   But we don’t obesrve that.  A nice God would have warned people about the tsunami so that they could save themselves by fleeing in time.  That’s something every one of us would have done had we possessed the knowledge and the means.  If there exists a God capable of doing that, that God did not act.

    Real theists believe more about their God than that it undetectably exists, so it is pointless to argue as if conceeding that kind of God touches anything that real people are actually arguing in favor of.  Real theists claim to know attributes about their God; what he wants, what she expects humans to do.  But if the best one can say about one’s God is that it might undetectably exist, then the rest of those claims must be baseless, and we are left with millenia of observations of nature proceeding unimpeded with no detectable divine tampering.  Those observations add up. 

  • Tonio

    I see no reason to assume that a single god would be “nice.” Or to grant the assumption by Mark Twain that such a god would be a malign thug, even while acknowledging the soundness of Twain’s point. It’s possible that the god may simply be indifferent to suffering or unaware of it. Or the god may indeed care desperately about suffering but be powerless to do anything about it, like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.” Epicurus once wrote, “Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” That wrongly treats the word as though it’s a title of veneration and not a name.