Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Show Your Work

Most of us have seen the movie Weekend at Bernie's, right? Two guys going through all sorts of wacky hijinks in order to convince people that their dead boss is still alive, while going to hilariously desperate lengths to deflect any close scrutiny that might reveal the truth?

For some reason, I was reminded of that movie while reading this screed from Anthony McCarthy about religion and science.

Why is anyone paying attention to what Stephen Hawkings or most other scientists say about religion except on the basis of their presumed authority? And it’s the flimsiest kind of authority on the topic, based in a reputation gained in an entirely different field of study. As far as I have been able to see, Stephen Hawking has never published a scholarly paper on the subject in a reviewed journal so it’s not even passed that level of testing. Perhaps if he had tried his ideas in that academic realm he might have avoided limiting himself to one, very crude assumption about religious thinking, believing that all of it is as unaware of the vicissitudes of the study of religious questions as he obviously is.

Anyone who has read even a little of the rigorous, formal literature around various religions, would know that the contemporary critics of religion almost never have the slightest knowledge of what serious people have said on the topic.

Nameless contemporary critics "almost never" know what nameless "serious people" have said about it, eh? Well, that was most certainly, uh, precisely vague! As has been said many times before, it's amusing to see how they don't even bother trying to disguise this ridiculous double standard. The most unsophisticated, uneducated professions of faith are always accepted as valid and genuine; the most simpleminded believer is accepted to have had some meaningful experience of the truth of God's existence. No one would think of scoffing at the faithful for daring to speak of their beliefs without having spent years in seminary first. Yet skeptics are constantly told that they must display intimate familiarity with the most irrelevant nuances of theological reasoning, from Augustine to Niebuhr, in front of a panel of judges who can hardly be said to be impartial, before their objections will be treated as "serious". And you should be ashamed of yourself for suspecting that this is all just an elaborate exercise in keeping the goalposts in constant motion!

But lest you think I'm unsympathetic here, let me hasten to assure you that I know all too well what it is to suffer from this sort of doctrinaire purism. My sophomore-year geometry teacher, mathematical fascist that she was, repeatedly refused to consider the ornate brilliance of my thirty-step proofs, dogmatically insisting that I had failed to establish my given! So I fully appreciate how tiring it must be to have to listen to these philistines nattering on about how you need to provide some evidence that we should even take the idea of an invisible deity seriously to begin with before we can move to discussing all his/her/its glorious attributes.

Okay, seriously though, fine. It's simple, really -- put up or shut up. Devise whatever standardized religious literacy test you want. Name whoever you want as a "serious" source for us to familiarize ourselves with. I guarantee you there won't be any problem finding an atheist who can ace it. Hell, we can start with an agnostic like Bart Ehrman right off the bat. Anything else you want to complain about?

Not a single law of science is anything other than the product of human thought. Not a single one of them has been developed except within a realm which excludes everything but what we can discover of the physical universe. I believe that exclusion is based in our experience and the extension of our logic, which, itself, is a means to address our experience of the physical universe.

...A passage in the Book of Isaiah that often comes to mind when thinking about this topic, is when God is said to have said, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,". Whatever else people have held about God, no matter how much of our limited minds and thoughts and even our crimes and injustices we have attributed to God, even the most anthropomorphic religion holds that God is not a human being. To think that God would be required to follow our laws of science or, indeed, any possible actual mechanisms of a universe created by God, is rather touchingly naive in a way that even the “ignorant goat herders” who are believed by the incredulous to have written the Bible were able to surpass.

Ah, yes, that's the good stuff. Science and our conceptual ability are limited to being able to understand the "physical" universe, which we experience through our senses. God is beyond all that. God is like Emily Dickinson times infinity, hiding in a closed room he/she/it never leaves, slipping cryptic notes out every so often, written in a private language that can only be understood via mystical communion by those already inclined to believe in him/her/it. So how, then, asks the skeptic, are you, a fellow human with a similarly limited brain, capable of perceiving this mysterious "beyond"? What is this God you speak of, if he/she/it is too enormous to be caught in the puny little conceptual nets we humans are limited to using? And even if you claim we can't look directly upon God in all his/her/its mind-shattering majesty, what discernible effects does this God have in the universe we live in, and what do they have to do with our cultural standards of morality? If even that's too much to ask to see, well, could you at least tell me how an incomprehensible, imperceptible God is distinguishable at all from a nonexistent one? Can't you point to some sort of common, shared experience we can use as a foundation for further discussion?

"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe..."

Moving along.

It seems to be an emotional need of the new atheists to believe they have disposed of the question of purpose but most people seem to be unimpressed with that artificial substitute for reason. And that’s only one of the questions that we, mere mortals, have about the universe which we find ourselves in. I am more convinced as I see us destroying ourselves, to a large degree with the products of science and technology, that unless we include questions of purpose, justice, rights, morality and other entirely non-scientific features of human thought and culture, that science is inadequate in itself to ensure our continued existence.

I'm not sure who these nameless people are that think science alone is going to solve all of our problems independent of ethical or practical considerations, but assuming there are some out there somewhere, I'll agree, he sure put them in their place. But once again -- whatever solutions we come up with are going to have to come by way of communication over a shared experience. I'm not interested in what your particular favorite holy book says. I'm not going to take your word on the validity of the supposedly mystical insights you've had if you can't even begin to express them in some form others can understand and relate to. And I don't care how many religious authority figures in history have advocated the Golden Rule as a general ethical principle if I can reason my way there by myself.

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