Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Adventures With Jesus #3: False Prophets

Nine years ago, probably almost to the day, I attended a lecture with the stated goal of discussing whether or not science and religion could exist side by side. I don't remember the specifics, but I do recall that it wasn't nearly as objectionable and wrong-headed as I had been fearing (the one line from it that has stayed with me is "Science is how, God is why"). So, when a very similar talk title sprang up for today, I thought it would be interesting to go along and see what, if anything, has changed in the last decade.

What has changed, apparently, is that Richard Dawkins has personally murdered the entire family of every Christian alive, and they are pissed.

I didn't think to start a tally, but I'm relatively sure Dawkins' name came up in the talk more times than Jesus did, which must be pretty unusual for a DICCU-sponsored event. I don't want to turn this into an extended rant on the man (especially given my problems with the lecture, as I'll get to in a moment), but it continues to be a source of almost endless irritation that Dawkins has put himself in a position to become Christianity's poster boy for unreasonableness and seems perfectly happy with it. It allows too many corners to be cut, and too many straw men to be easily assembled (the speaker was happy to acknowledge that Dawkins was a particularly easy target). The sooner he gives up trying to shout the faithful down, the better.

I guess it's probably not surprising so much of the talk revolved around Dawkins, though. Even if he were mild-mannered and inoffensive, he still wrote The Blind Watchmaker (which is a truly wonderful book) and The God Delusion (which I haven't read, partially because of the man's increasingly shrill TV appearances, but mainly because an evolutionary biologist's thoughts on evolutionary biology are of somewhat more interest to me than his thoughts on religion are), and both of those are bestselling books with the common argument that science and religion cannot coexist because science disproves God.

The discussion as to the veracity of that conclusion is a bit out of the way of the topic at hand. My real objection to today's talk isn't that it overused Dawkins as a symbol of arrogant atheistic thought, it's that it did so whilst simultaneously ignoring his arguments.

A very common objection to the idea of natural selection is the point that it is easy to think of examples for which a gradual evolution of tiny improvements just doesn't seem to cut it as an explanation. Eyes, for example, would have just been nothing more than pains in the arse (not literally the arse, obviously) for millenia before anyone got to see out of them. How then could they have evolved? The analogy given today, which is quite common, is that of a mousetrap. Unless you have the cheese and the spring and the blade, what you have is essentially worthless, and certainly not something you want stuck to the side of your face until random mutations finish it off so you can have decapitated rodent for dinner.

Of course, anyone who has studied the basics of evolution will know that these examples exhibit what is termed "irreducible complexity". More specifically, anyone who has read The Blind Watchmaker, in order to quote it to serve one's own purpose, will already know that the problem can be solved by the consideration of "scaffolding"; biological systems that hold early mutations in place like the structures that stop a half-built bridge from falling into the river.

I mention this because our speaker was perfectly happy to quote from The Blind Watchmaker, quite happy to portray Dawkins as insufferably arrogant and wilfully blinkered, but somehow was also happy to point to irreducible complexity as a reason to doubt the absence of a Creator without going on to mention scaffolding.

I've said already that Monday's talk wasn't particularly persuasive, and that yesterday's wasn't particularly good. Today we hit a new low, in that apparently the speakers can no longer even rustle up the ability to be particularly honest. At best it could be argued that the speaker had simply failed to read that particular passage, but that simply means that he is decrying a work as inocorrect and biased despite not having read it, which hardly helps matters.

There is a temptation sometimes upon reaching this point to simply declare victory. Once you expose one instance of such shenanigans, there is no reason to assume any other point made was put forward in good faith, and discourse becomes very difficult. On the other hand, it occurs to me that just tossing away the rest of the talk because the speaker pissed me off wouldn’t be too far away from those who refuse to listen to Dawkins (how lucky Christians are that they’ve never had to separate message from messenger), though of course being arrogant and being disingenuous are hardly equal sins.

Having said all that, though, even if everything else suggested was honestly meant, it is still breathtaking to see a talk on the interaction between science and faith that manages to misrepresent both terms.

We’ll start with the universe, I guess. These days it’s a pretty well-known fact that as far as we can tell, the universe displays a truly suspicious degree of fine-tuning. One explanation for this is that there is a Creator. Believing this is faith, in that the idea is held to be true without sufficient evidence. Another explanation is that our universe is just one of a multitude (either because many exist simultaneously or because there is in some sense a chain of universes, one after the other, to the extent that such concepts can be considered relevant when we’re talking about the nature of reality), and that sooner or later one of them was bound to hit the jackpot (or draw the short straw, depending on how you look at it). Contra to today’s speaker, suggesting this idea as an alternative to God is not faith. Faith requires belief. This is a hypothesis, which simply requires there not be enough evidence to make it a theory, and not enough counter-evidence to make it a fallacy. Moreover, the multiverse may not (for now) be any more observable than God, but the former at least forms a complete explanation. As anyone with any experience with these types of discussion will well be aware, once you say “The universe is so finely-tuned God must have designed it”, you then immediately need to explain where God came from (this is another one of Dawkins points carefully sidestepped in favour of mocking the man for proposing theories no more provable than those he seeks to ridicule). I’m not for a moment suggesting that the only reason anyone believes in God is because it offers an explanation for reality, but if you want to use God as an explanation, you need to be aware that it’s a pretty crappy one.

So, let’s be careful about how we use the word “faith”, yes? While we’re on the subject, can we get on the same page about what “science” means, too? Science takes a combination of observed events and logical progression and uses them to make sense of the world. If God exists beyond logic, and beyond observation (and that would certainly seem to be the case from the perspective of most religions), then science cannot reach him. It does not follow that refusing to accept “God did it” as a scientific argument means we are deliberately hobbling science, or introducing bias, or what have you. Science cannot function if we are allowed to pin anything we don’t immediately understand on God. If you really want to, you can list everything we can‘t yet fully understand as “God‘s work“ until we get round to solving the problem, but as I‘ve argued before the God of the Gaps is a sad and lonely deity, definable only by those things we can’t prove He didn’t do. I’m not sure any Supreme Being capable of shaping reality itself would be particularly flattered by the comparison.

In fairness, there was one part of the lecture that I found very interesting, namely the suggestion that without a creator science might be entirely meaningless. There were two reasons given in support of this argument. The first, and least plausible, is that scientists originally studied nature in an attempt to uncover God’s laws, and thus without God there would be no reason to have made the attempt. The counters to this, of course, are many and varied [1]. The second point is much more interesting, and goes like this: if we are simply the products of natural selection, designed by nothing and no-one, then how can we now anything we observe is the truth? What if everything we believe about science is wrong, and we just can’t tell because of some perceptual flaw inside our brains.

This reminds me of the (surely apocryphal) tale of the philosophy student who found her final exam consisted of a single question: “Prove the universe is not contained within a giant chair leg,” and who received an A by writing down “I can’t”. It almost certainly is impossible to demonstrate that the things we see with our puny squish-balls are even remotely close to how the universe actually is. The immediate counter, though, is so what?

If atheists are right, and we really are just grubbing around in a dark and uncaring universe, the possibility that everything we experience isn’t the truth isn’t something that should particularly concern us. Within what we see as the world, we have determined rules that this far have worked perfectly well. I can drive myself home to see my parents. I can eat an apple and not worry about it poisoning me. A dear friend of mine can have an operation to remove a mass in her throat that was pressing against her trachea. If all of these are based on faulty perceptions, I don’t see why I should care. You’d be hard pressed to find someone deaf from birth who will tell you they are particularly bothered about not being able to hear. I don’t lay awake at night wishing I could hear rainbows. Asking “What if we’re misunderstanding everything?” would be a poor reason to abandon the search for a cure to cancer.

Plus, it’s worth noting that if there is a God, he may have deliberately inserted our brains in backwards so every aspect of science as we understand it is bullshit on toast. One would hope that’s not the sort of thing a divine creator would do, but since He apparently came up with worms that eat their way through children’s eyeballs, it doesn’t appear our hopes are worth that much.

[1] My own personal favourite would be that history has repeatedly demonstrated that many cultures used God or Gods to explain natural phenomena, which suggests the need to explain and understand is actually earlier in the chain of human thought than the need to believe in a deity. If you want you could throw in the point that quite a lot of science revolved around, or that plenty of scientists are atheists and don‘t seem to have any problem dealing with the fact that chance rules the cosmos, nor make the obvious mistake that a random universe is an unpredictable one. Feel free to come up with your own. It’s like shooting fish in a gun barrel.


Gooder said...

Of course many scientists are also people of faith. I really don't understand why it is claimed that science disproves god.

If it is a case of the multi verse , then were did the mutli verse come from? There are rules in physics, but what set these rueles?

I'm not claiming to have any great answer (apart from Dawkins is dick!, obviously) but I'm quite happy to put forward the idea that you can have faith and believe in science. One does not have to preclude the other (whichever way you look at it)

Kim said...

I think most sciences are compatible with faith, mostly by merely ignoring one another. (Science is how, God is why etc etc). The problems really start when you get into probabilities and the really heavy physics, where you actually have to make the statement, 'there is no-one else involved in this' or make logical statements about your ability to 'see' something or declare something truly random. Which are totally not in my area of knowledge so I can't elaborate.

Ultimately science is not naive enough to try and disprove God. Good science always accepts there are errors in description and room for improvement and discussion. The same cannot be said of many religions.

Oh and I like Dawkins. All the other religions have their more-harm-than-good spokesmen , it would be weird if Atheism didn't have one too.

Gooder said...

Maybe we should have all the silly overbearing spokesmen fight in a gladiator style combat (roman or pugil stick style, you choose) to sort it out!

I'd pay to watch!

And the word verification just asked me to type, 'pingu' how cool is that?