Monday, September 06, 2010

The Trouble With Science: Line-by-Line

Sarah Sands this morning in The Independent on Sunday explains how "Scientists have physics licked, but they can't grasp the divine". Really, do explain. I'm sure one short newspaper column will clear the matter up once and for all. So here it is, line-by-line:

"The revelation that God did not, after all, create the universe went largely unnoticed last week."

No, that wasn't the news. The news was that Stephen Hawking had said he thinks that. Many of us have thought this for years. If anything the news should have been "Stephen Hawkings well behind the curve on atheism"

"I clocked the cover of The Times's science magazine: "The End of the Universe by Stephen Hawking". But the kettle was boiling and I didn't want to be late for work, so I thought, perhaps later."

So why am I reading your opinion on it? Lets hear from someone who thinks the origins of THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE is more important than tea.

"Hawking's book solves the mystery of the universe."

That should help it sell. Is the answer 42? Or is it in fact just a book about his theories on some aspects of the universe?

"In Twitterverse essence, he concludes that the world was created from nothing. So there was no need for a designer. There is no God."

Firstly since when were designers able to build worlds from nothing? Even Ty Pennington isn't that good! Secondly the argument that the universe must have had a designer is poppycock because it begs the question "Who designed the designer - or did they just spring from nothing?" which leads to an infinite list of questions and a headache. And anyway if you ask religious fundamentalists they actually have a whole stack of flimsy piffle arguments - not just the intelligent design one...

"Other newspapers did not altogether ignore this turn of events, but it was eclipsed by the Newer Testament of Tony Blair and by the rights or wrong of sharing a hotel room with your boss."

Right. Newspaper are rubbish. I agree. By the way Sarah - remind me what you do ... aren't you the Deputy Editor of the Evening Standard?

"In some ways "No God" fulfilled the criteria of a news story. It was controversial and there were plenty of experts ready to be quoted. God is a short word, so handy for tabloid headlines."

Actually the real problem with the "No God" story is that it's been around for a very long time. The first atheist is widely considered to be Diagoras of Melos in the 5th century BC. This may come as a shock to you but some journalists, and even editors in fact, do research (look it up...).

"Maybe what stopped it getting the full William Hague treatment was that it was tricky for news editors to establish veracity."

Which is hilarious because the truth about what William Hague and Chris Myers got up to in that hotel room we will never know. But the God question is over, solved, years ago. The answer is "no". Next.

"They may be clear-minded and cocksure as a breed, but even they know when they are out of their depth."

You know, Sarah, that you ARE a news editor. If you're out of your depth on a story that starts "Stephen Hawkings says..." you should consider moving in to window cleaning. Careful with those ladders though, always ask a friend to hold the bottom.

"By contrast, scientists such as Hawking or Richard Dawkins believe that their knowledge is absolute."

No they don't. They're scientists. They evaluate theories, they look at evidence, they are always ready to change their minds if new information comes to light.

"There may be a few known unknowns to tie up with a bit of string theory, but these are quite unlike those laughably unknown unknowns that constitute faith."

Faith is not an "unknown unknown" - it's the deliberate and wilful refusal to examine theories and evidence and the insistence on believing the most impossible things based on no evidence at all.

"Somehow, different races, or cultures, or sensibilities or economic theories may legitimately co-exist, yet atheist scientists refuse any freedom of conscience to people of faith."

On the contrary what atheist scientists reject is the notion that religion should not be subjected to the same scrutiny as other ideas. Scrutiny which it never ever manages to stand up to. Because it's false.

"The scientists are the evangelists now, and everyone must be forcibly converted."

No - an evangelist tells you to believe something without evidence. A scientist asks you to examine the evidence. And to be honest many scientists couldn't care less if you don't want to examine your religious beliefs until you start using them to uphold unfair arcane laws, to discriminate against others and to justify helping yourself to large sums of public money with which to disseminate to others the thrill of randomly believing rubbish without engaging brain.

"As Dawkins said to The Times's religion correspondent: "Either there is a God or there isn't. You really can't use "what feels right for me" as an argument. Why not?"

Well if "it feels right for me" is an argument we should listen to then I have to say that what feels right for me is an all-powerful baby-eating goddess who says it's my right to tazer corporate lawyers, climate change deniers and Deputy Editors of the Evening Standard who you find excruciatingly annoying. Hey hands off my "freedom of conscience" ... oh hang on ... DZZZZZZZ!!!!

"The blazing champion of atheism, Christopher Hitchens, gave a television interview, posted on YouTube, about his steadfast rejection of faith, even in the shadow of savage cancer."

Yes how amazing that he doesn't believe in God even after he gets cancer. Did no-one say to him "How can you fail to believe that a God who loves you deliberately gave you that cancer?". Ooops.

"He is courageous and witty but also compassionate."

He also wrote a horrid article about how women aren't funny and the only ones who are are "bull dykes". That didn't strike me as courageous, compassionate or indeed witty.

"Asked about the people who are praying for him, he does not denounce them in the Dawkins manner. He says that he hopes it helps them."

But isn't Christopher Hitchens one of these dreadful atheists who you claim therefore wants to evangelist about it? How can it be that he's not grabbed anyone by the throat and started shouting about the fossil record? You'll note however he doesn't say he believes prayer will help him. He suggests - sort of - that if it has any effect at all prayer may "work" on the mind of the praying person only - not because God is listening but because it's similar to meditating on a subject. Like mulling something over in your brain while listening to classical music or sitting in a nice quiet garden with a can of cold lager. That doesn't mean if he had a choice between prayers and modern medicine he'd waste too much time deciding which to go for.

"To Hawking and Dawkins, people of faith are cowardly and stupid. They are the flat-earthers."

The idea that the earth is flat is a lot more reasonable than the notion that a magic toga-wearing zombie lives in the sky and watches everything you do especially checking for bad language, signs of jealousy and sexual thoughts. Or maybe you're a scientologist Sarah?

"I wonder if it is possible to be blinded by science. Can you be so transfixed by physical laws that you miss the meaning of them?"

I wonder if it's possible to be so blinded by faith that you unquestioningly assume that physical laws must have meanings? Oh no I don't, thanks for answering that one Sarah.

"I was not so shocked by Hawking's claims that science is God, creator of all things. But I baulked at his dismissal of philosophy. I wish I knew as much as men of science about why we live. But it is hard of Hawking to forbid human understanding of what life means."

"Men of science"? Remind me to flush my degree away later... But to get to Hawking's dismissal of philosophy - that's the whole point. If the universe came into existence from nothing then the only meaning life can have is what we choose to give it - there is nothing to go back and figure out.

"Like many in the Church of England, I have a very diffident faith. I am moved by churches, especially country ones, I love hymns, and I feel that Christianity is part of the ancient fabric of Britain."

I also love history, choral music and great architecture. And I have the privilege of enjoying them without worrying that I might burn for all eternity in hell.

"My strength of belief comes and goes like digital radio reception..."

So even YOU have some doubts about this religion business? Why not allow your self the freedom to question them?

"...but I have experienced the profound peace and beauty of something that feels like truth."

Good for you - cos I've experienced the profound peace and beauty of being able to unravel more and more truth and understanding of the universe and not waste my time dreaming about sky-fairies.

"The final scene in the BBC's brilliant exposition of contemporary faith, Rev, shows the urban vicar, played by Tom Hollander, jolted from his crazed doubts to a quiet seriousness as he beholds the mystery of a dying woman."

Fiction, Sarah, fiction. Bit like your religion.

"Quiet contemplation of divine mystery."

This divine mystery is in your head. And it's only there because you refuse to examine it. Grow up, solve the mystery (clue: the answer's "no") and get on with life. Read a book, spend time with loved ones, y'know, edit a newspaper...

"It is too strong a human impulse, even for the gigantic brain of Hawking."

Firstly you think intelligent people don't have human impulses? Based on what? But more importantly Hawking has considered the idea of God and he's come to the conclusion: NO. If you accept his brain is so much bigger than yours, why not accept his point too?


James Knight said...

I'm afraid Kate you've picked a very bad article and used it as a strawman attack on theism. If you really want to give your neurons a bit of a philosophical warm-up stretch and debate this with someone who can easily show any argument you have against Christianity to be flawed and ill-conceived then do say won't you, and I'll be happy to oblige!

Best wishes


Cruella said...

Actually James I think you've misunderstood - my piece is not in any way intended to be a full and clear explanation of the flaws in theism. It was a criticism of that article and the decision of the Independent on Sunday to publish it.

You're welcome to post up your comments and views here, I will respond if I have time.

James Knight said...

Posit your three best flaws with theism, Kate, and we'll have a look. I promise I will give you a decent response.


Cruella said...

Ha ha ha. Very drole. I said I might respond to your points if I have time. I don't need to find flaws in theism because there is no evidence for it. If you have some evidence for theism share it with us all please but if not there is nothing for me to refute...

James Knight said...

Thanks for the reply Kate. You wrote the article saying "But the God question is over, solved, years ago. The answer is "no". Next." - so I was just enquiring why you think this when clearly the question is far from solved. But ok, I'll work with the few crumbs you gave me - namely...

"I don't need to find flaws in theism because there is no evidence for it."

The most I can really say about this is that it is a proprietary statement based only on the immediacy of your own perceptions. I say there is plenty of evidence for God - so from a philosophical starting point you can't simply universalise the 'no evidence' claim when much of the world disagrees with you.

The main flaw in such a claim is this. Our abilities for assessing whether or not God exists and is active in people’s lives are much less competent than we think, so when someone says there is no evidence for God all they really mean is that they have never experienced Him. They have shown that they do not understand how the majority of our views and knowledge of that kind is formed. The only thing they can really say with a strong conviction is that their experiences have forced them to lower the probability of their believing in God - we can’t say there is no evidence or there is certain evidence because the entire gamut of evidential acquisition through the vast space of the historical and the socio-personal is about accumulating ideas and concepts through probability.

Thus it stands to reason that one person only ever sparsely samples the network of all possible routes into such knowledge, so to stridently declare that there is no evidence for God is not good thinking because the premium placed on one’s own comparably tiny experiential protocols against the vast search space of all other experiential protocols is both parochial and irrational.

So Kate I can't even take your statement "I don't need to find flaws in theism because there is no evidence for it" because not only does the above undermine your position, but evidence doesn't come in a conceptual vacuum - a lot depends on one's own ability to interpret it and formulate coherent worldviews.

I'm not one of those Christians who equivocates and maintains that we can't be certain God exists, or that we need to live our lives always wondering - I maintain that once we start to get to grips with the complexity of the subject we can know God exists, and that I am as certain that He does exist as I am anything else. I think all the equivocating has led to unnecessary doubts and uncertainties (although as secondary emotions both of these can be useful tools of cognition).

The only caveat I would elicit in your mind is that being sure God exists is a complex mental position and cannot be validated with overly simplistic worldviews - because God is a personality and like all personalities, we are always exploring new aspects of them. So the certainty is bound up in one's whole outlook and ability to assimilate a coherent worldview that takes the narrative-intense structures of God's output into every other subject.


Cruella said...

Oh James... "I say there is plenty of evidence for God"

Great - well do pop some of that evidence up here then. I'm dying to see it. Really. I could use a laugh.

James Knight said...

Judging by your unwillingness to engage with the points I've made, I don't have much confidence in your ability to assess the evidence. I would have thought the evidence that every single atheistic attempt to counter a Christian argument is easily shown to be flawed, ill-conceived or factually wrong would at least make you sit up and take notice, but somehow that fact is easily overlooked.

It's very easy to knock down strawmen, but let's not pretend that that strengthens your case - when atheists come up against smart theists their position is always shown to be weak.

James Knight said...

I hope you don't think I'm being too hard on you Kate - it's just that if you write articles that show an obvious ridicule of theism (which I have no problem with, and understand) but are then encouraged to back up your points against someone who is very bright and educated it doesn't do you any favours to demonstrate an unwillingess to engage, because it rather suggests an underlying lack of confidence in your own position.

Cruella said...

"every single atheistic attempt to counter a Christian argument is easily shown to be flawed, ill-conceived or factually wrong"

I'm afraid I'm not familiar with what exactly you consider to be a "christian argument". I'm very willing to engage but I don't know of any. I suppose the only real"christian" arguments I've ever heard are these:

(1) "But I read it in a book". Which isn't a real argument. I've read Harry Potter but I don't believe in teenage wizzards, cos it's just a book.

(2) "But I have a really strong feeling about it". Well good, I had a really strong feeling about a horse in the Grand National a few years back and the stupid thing fell over on the second jump and had to be shot.

If you have some better arguments than these for the existence of a christian god then let me know. I can't argue with a void.

James Knight said...

Ok Kate, but before I do I just need you to answer one question, so I can infer what you will likely already know/feel....

Regarding Christianity, you will be in one of three positions; you are either a Christian, a non-Christian who has never called herself a Christian, or a non-Christian who once did but has relinquished her faith. Which of the last two is it?


Cruella said...

I've been an atheist for the whole of my adult life James. You may proceed...

James Knight said...

No I'm afraid we are not ready to proceed just yet Kate. In order for me to see where you're going wrong I need to know what emotions might be behind your rationale. Your answer "I've been an atheist for the whole of my ADULT life James" is heavily frontloaded with the admission that you have a Christian background in childhood, and the frontloading suggests that you know it is a factor in your thinking. So I'm going to need a bit more if you'd be so kind.

1) Were your parents Christians?

2) Did you attend church or Sunday school (or both) as a youngster?

3) Did your church background have any negative 'authoritarian' or 'punitive' connotations that impacted your childhood?

4) When did you become an atheist and what changed your mind?

Sorry if that's pressing on open wounds, but we will save an awful lot of time and extraneous dialogue once I get some background info.

Cruella said...

I just don't think that you can assign a religion to a child. Any more than you can have a communist child or a fascist child.

And these things make no difference. Either you can or cannot produce evidence for the existence of a Christian God. So far I'm guessing: not.

James Knight said...

I can, I'm just not convinced that you could process it adequately. Not because you lack the intelligence but because your church background (which you are so furtive about) has obviously created such a huge bias that you wouldn't act on the evidence.

Cruella said...

James you are reading things in to what I write that just are not there. I have never had a bad time at church. I went sometimes to a Sunday School as a child and it was awesome fun. I have also as an adult been to church for carol concerts, classical music and so on and enjoyed it. You clearly want to believe that there is some aspect to my experience of church that has affected me negatively but on the contrary my problem with Christianity is simply the complete lack of evidence for any of it. Aside from the odd dull sermon my experience of church has been very pleasurable. But you are about to provide some so I wait with baited breath.