Thursday, May 1, 2008

More (Cough Cough) Brilliant Arguments from Religious Scientists

It continues to astonish me how low the bar for smart, sensible, brilliant, and profound is set by some when applied to religious statements. First up, William D. Phillips, participating in a Templeton Foundation survey, and answering the question: Does science make belief in God obsolete?

"[A] scientist can believe in God because such belief is not a scientific matter. Scientific statements must be 'falsifiable.' That is, there must be some outcome that at least in principle could show that the statement is false. I might say, 'Einstein's theory of relativity correctly describes the behavior of visible objects in our solar system.' So far, extremely careful measurements have failed to prove that statement false, but they could (and some people have invested careers in trying to see if they will). By contrast, religious statements are not necessarily falsifiable. I might say, 'God loves us and wants us to love one another.' I cannot think of anything that could prove that statement false. Some might argue that if I were more explicit about what I mean by God and the other concepts in my statement, it would become falsifiable. But such an argument misses the point. It is an attempt to turn a religious statement into a scientific one. There is no requirement that every statement be a scientific statement. Nor are non-scientific statements worthless or irrational simply because they are not scientific. 'She sings beautifully.' 'He is a good man.' 'I love you.' These are all non-scientific statements that can be of great value. Science is not the only useful way of looking at life."

His argument is just warmed over NOMA at its core, which is laughable (you can't be an alternate source of knowledge when you produce no knowledge), and his examples of "non-scientific statements" seem like the sort of things children and idiots say. Beauty, love, and goodness might be subjective human experiences, but they are still demonstrably real, and coherent. The same cannot be said for a disembodied consciousness that supposedly created the universe. And some wonder why the Courtier's Reply is trotted out so much.

Believe it or not, offline I'm one of those people you'd never know was an atheist unless you asked me, or noticed the lack of religious knick knacks around the house. I find the subject of God's existence boring, and avoid debates on it like the plague. I'm just amazed by the consistency with which brilliant people say things that strike me as idiotic on this one, and only, subject.

Here's another example, this time from Francisco Ayala:

"'Science and religion concern nonoverlapping realms of knowledge,' he writes in the new book. 'It is only when assertions are made beyond their legitimate boundaries that evolutionary theory and religious belief appear to be antithetical.'

Well that sounds nice and sweet and conciliatory, until one wonders just what knowledge religion claims, and what exactly are it's boundaries. Those promoting this pie-in-the-sky view are always rather negligent in fleshing out this part of the argument, and for good reason. There isn't anything in religion that can claim the mantle of "knowledge". Oh, there's lots of speculation about a wide range of issues, such as what happens when we die, what is moral, etc. But without any evidenciary backing, it deserves only the label we give to all other claims with the same traits: guesses, or worse, fiction.

I just do not understand that driving force so many intelligent people have to justify baseless, downright silly beliefs. So you have a little irrational, comfy idea you hold in your head that helps you not have nightmares about death, or gives your clear moral structure, or feeds your need for some overarching power and justice in the world, or WTF ever it does for you. So what? I can relate to a lot of that. Sure science makes that sort of thing obsolete, but who of us is scientific all the time? I'm afraid of heights, but I don't tie myself into semantic knots trying to justify it with idiotic comparisons to the taste of my sandwich or how much I love my mother. I just admit my weakness and move on. Why don't you? Martin Gardner nailed this one a long time ago, and I paraphrase from memory:

"I believe, by a completely irrational leap of faith, that there is a god I'll meet when I die"

Is that really so damned hard?


James F. McGrath said...

I think you are failing to distinguish between the way fundamentalists use religious language, as claims to certain knowledge about realities they do not in fact have certain knowledge about, and the way moderate and liberal religious believers use such language, as a way of pointing to those aspects of life that are not subjectible to scientific investigation, but seem necessary to do justice to our experience of life in the universe.

Some atheists and philosophers recommend silence over metaphor at this point. Some of us find we need to use words, even though they are inadequate and symbolic rather than literal. We experience the universe as beautiful, and as meaningful, and are simply looking for language that will give expression to those aspects of existence as we perceive it.

Let me share a discussion with an atheist and a guest post by an atheist who really understands where I am coming from on this subject, in case you are interested.

Ian said...

"I believe, by a completely irrational leap of faith, that there is a god I'll meet when I die"

Is that really so damned hard?

Personally, I don't believe in an afterlife. I have no evidence that any sort of a "God" exists outside of human experience, so I don't make that assumption either. But I'm still a Christian and an active member of my church.

Of course, in my opinion it's silly to speak about religion in terms of "knowledge". It's far more useful to speak of religion (and art, beauty, etc.) in terms of "experience".

ScienceAvenger said...


I'm having a hard time wrapping my mind around a Christian who doesn't believe in any gods, unless by Christian you mean "one who attempts to live a Christ-like life".


I am a big fan of those subjective, difficult-to-pin-down aspects of experience. Music, and its effect on the listerner, to name just one, is a minor obsession. But it seemed to me that it was Phillips who, by conflating talk of god (the former category) with talk of song and moral goodness (the latter) was failing to make the distinction you note.

I'll check out the links you provided, thanks. Perhaps they will add clarity.

Ian said...

It isn't that I disbelieve in a God or Gods - it's that I'm agnostic with regards to the idea that God exists outside of human experience.

I believe that there is such a thing as an experience of "God". That experience is the basis of my decision to re-label myself as a non-atheist. Whether it's an old man sitting on a cloud or random firings on neurons is beside the point (I strongly doubt the former).

The fact that I disbelieve in the divinity of Jesus does not put me outside of the norm in liberal Christianity. My position on God certainly leaves me outside of the norm, but I really don't think that I am that far away from someone like John Spong. Based on conversations I have had with people at my church, I'm not alone in my perception of God either.

Luke H. said...

Lighten up a bit and allow that some people's subjective experience of and approach to the universe might be a bit different than yours. The sentiments expressed by Phillips and Ayala do not demand that you embrace their beliefs, only that you accept that they have them.
There are plenty of folks out there who make a few deliberately irrational leaps of faith in ways that are not particularly important to a strict rationalist, but who are on the same side when it comes to real issues (e.g. teaching real science in the schools). It is OK to admit you don't understand it, or that you don't agree with it, but do try to do so respectfully.
It really doesn't serve much purpose to alienate potential allies because of trivial disagreements.

ScienceAvenger said...

You are tilting at straw Luke. I suggest you read my last paragraph above again, and consider that you and I agree. These men are making irrational leaps of faith, as you say. But instead of admitting it, they play semantic games, and make patently absurd arguments, trying to justify those leaps logically.

That is my beef with them, not that they hold these beliefs. Holding irrational beliefs while pretending they are scientifically or philosophically sound is exactly what our political enemies do. Every time people like Ayala and Phillips make these silly statements, they are doing worse than alienating allies: they are giving ammunition to our enemies.

Anonymous said...

"I believe, by a completely irrational leap of faith, that there is a god I'll meet when I die" -- Gardner.

Not a bad quote. Here's another:

"[To an atheist] the universe is the most exquisite masterpiece ever constructed by nobody." -- from G. K. Chesterton, is one of Gardner's favorite quotes. (wiki)