Monthly Archives: December 2011

Jesus and the Batman Gospels

What is it with Christians and the gospels? Don’t they get that they are fiction wrapped around a myth? One argument often used to support the case for the gospels being a representation of historically truthful events is their claimed consistency. How could these independent writers all tell what is basically the same story? It must be based on truth, right? Well, no.

I visited the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art yesterday, on Broadway, New York. That is, Suite 401, 549 Broadway, a nondescript entrance between two stores (as opposed to the more glamorous ‘appearing on Broadway’). This isn’t a big show; and to call it a museum is stretching it a bit. Still, comic life is an exaggeration of real life – as are the Christian gospels.

I found that one of the notes accompanying some of the Batman strips struck a chord with me, and prompted me to make this comparison. It’s a presentation of Batman in a way I’m familiar with hearing from Christians, regarding the Christian gospels. I thought it worth quoting here. When you read it, try replacing references to Batman with Jesus, and the various Batman artists with the Christian gospel authors.

Batman is the most protean of the great comic book characters: From Bob Kane’s original cartoon icon, to Dick Sprang’s broad-chested guardian of Gotham, comfortable as parade marshal; from Neal Adams’ cloaked figure in the shadows of the night, to Frank Miller’s aged and cranky crusader; each talented artist has brought a very personal vision to this hero.

And the impossible thing, they all feel right … definitive … even with all their inherent contradictions. Unlike lesser legends, which need to follow model sheets from generation to generation, Batman gives his chroniclers the power to transcend them, and in so many cases, do the most important work of their careers. No other hero would give us the ability to simultaneously showcase so many of the legendary talents of the comics field; and no other would be the character to greater acclaim than any other.

Walk along MoCCA’a walls, and stroll the streets of Gotham in daylight and darkness, enjoying the protection of the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight … the one and only Batman.

– Paul Levitz is a comic book fan (The Comic Reader), writer (Legion of Super-Heroes), editor (Batman), Executive President & Publisher (DC Comics, 2002-2010), and historian (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Myth Making)

Of course there have been other contributors to the Batman story; but then there are other Christian gospels too.

Many ‘sophisticated’ and ‘liberal’ theologians like to emphasise the ‘story’ of Jesus, as an allegory, a story that represents life to them, but not necessarily literal. That is until you witness them talk among themselves, or to more literal believers, when it’s pretty damned hard to interpret their stories as anything but literal. The blurring of the line between fact and fiction seems to be a convenience that allows them to switch modes, being sophisticated in the company of rational atheists, and yet literal to literalist believers.

The evolution of the Batman myth, as represented by the various artists that have imposed their belief in Batman on the story, echoes that of Jesus as presented in the gospels. There’s no more reason to suppose there’s any more truth in the gospels than there is in the Batman stories. The Batman stories have varied over time, but maintain a consistency; but that doesn’t make them any more true.

Okay, I’ll allow some particular truths to the Christian gospels: they may contain mentions of real place names, and real people. Gotham City isn’t real, after all. But let’s not pretend that having a story contain real locations means it’s not fiction. While in NYC I also saw Mission Impossible, with real locations.

McGrath on Science and Religion

The Alister McGrath piece was brought to my attention by the Jerry Coyne blog post. As usual with pieces like McGrath’s there’s so much to go at that a simple comment on another blog that’s critical of it isn’t enough. Nearly every paragraph is hopelessly vague, when not outright wrong. The religious bullshit language isn’t as heavy from McGrath as from some other theologians, but it’s bad enough.

On with my rant then…

“Why talk of Christmas when any idea of God is misguided?” – Christmas and God are only related by the name given to a festival by one particular religion. As an atheist I’m quite comfortable with Christmas – even with the mythical stories about Jesus, just as I am with the ones about Santa. Christmas fairy tales.

“Science, we are confidently told, has buried God. But has it?” – If there was no God to bury, then this misses the point. What it specifically hasn’t buried is belief in God. Quite different issues. What it has buried is the intellectual case for belief in God (in terms of most religions, though it does not refute the many god hypotheses).

McGrath turns to what he thinks are questions for religion rather than science…

“Where did everything come from?” – Still a science question.

“What’s it all about?” – A very vague question that summarises our inquisitiveness and our desire to find our place in the universe. Still basically a science question, though put within some human emotional context.

“What’s the point of life?” – Whatever we make it, apparently. Other than that there’s no indication from anything we know that there need be any ‘cosmic’ point.

“Its [science’s] interim reports are always important and interesting, but they are also provisional.” – Yes. But then all our reports are provisional. Simply inventing religious stories and sticking to them (as much as that is the case, since even religions change) doesn’t give them any more lasting credability or make them any less provisional; and since religious stories are pure invention they don’t even warrant the adjective ‘provisional’.

“Some atheist scientists ridicule Christians for believing in a God whose existence cannot be proved. Yet science regularly posits the existence of things whose existence cannot be proved to make sense of our observations.” – Well, not really. They ridicule them because their God cannot be evidenced. There are no observations. The objection to ‘proofs’ of God are only raised in response to claims for proof, not because there was ever any credibility to the proofs of God’s existence.

“Thus we infer the existence of dark matter from observations that would otherwise be puzzling. We can’t see it, and we can’t prove it’s there. Yet this doesn’t stop most leading astronomers from accepting its existence.” – Again, the mistaken presumption that (logical) ‘proof’ is significant.

“We can’t see it; we can’t touch it; we can’t smell it; and we can’t hear it. Yet many scientists argue that it’s the only meaningful explanation of observed gravitational effects. Where the naive demand proof, the wise realise that this is limited to logic and mathematics.” – So, with no proof on hand, and no evidence, what has religion got going for it? Why believe?

“Christians have always held that their faith makes sense of the enigmas and riddles of our experience. It’s not about running away from reality, or refusing to think about things (to mention two shallow popular stereotypes of faith).” – Oh yes it is (about refusing to think). The point here is that many different ‘theories’ or explanations can fit the same data. The problem with religion is that it is pure fantasy invented precisely to explain as much as possible, but without any requirement that it account for anomolies. Declare that prayer works, but ignore cases that don’t fit this hypothesis and proclaim the success of prayer when any instance happens to fit.

“For Christians, faith is not a blind leap into the dark, but a joyful discovery of a bigger and clearer picture of things, of which we are part.” – And how exactly does that discovery proceed? What methodologies does it use, other than the employment of ‘feel good’ imaginative assertions.

“You judge the power of a torch, she remarked, by its ability to illuminate the world’s shadows.” – Well, taking the metaphor literally, you can do that by measuring the incident and reflective light, measuring the frequency distribution of the light source (sodium street light, for example, doesn’t illuminate too well). And, you’re illuminating what’s in shadow (that which was not illuminated), not the shadow itself. This metaphor is a prime example of the vague and incoherent nature of religious language. Most religious language puts into shadow that which would otherwise be illuminated. The shadow of mystery is highly prized ignorance, in religion.

“If Christ is indeed the ‘light of the world'” – But he isn’t. There’s no reason to think he fits this metaphor. As a humanist he perhaps contributed to some enlightenment. If indeed any of his words were in fact his – which isn’t at all clear. His actual words, instead, remain in the shadow of history and evolving religious doctrine. Religious invention is bright in its imaginitave power, but casts a shadow over historical truth.

“So how does the Christian faith light up the shadowlands of life? … This does not detract from the wonder of the universe; if anything, it adds to its beauty and grandeur.” – Yes, as any fantasy story does. That’s the point of imaginative fiction, novels, the movies. They extend our imaginative experience beyond our real experience. But it’s still finction.

“…science takes things apart to see how they work. But religion puts them back together again to see what they mean.” – Science is also used to put them back together again, which then allows all humans, not just the religious, to impart meaning in the human context. Religion is really superfluous here; or, at best, just one more fantasy interpretation of our experienced life.

“If science is about explanation, religion is thus about meaning.” – Again, religion is not the only way of imparting human contextual meaning; and for many of us it’s not only far from the best, it’s one of the worst.

“…religion [helps us] to see, however dimly, the ‘big picture’ of which they are part.” – But only in the way that Star Wars helps us to see another possible big picture of human potential. Fantasy.

“God, according to the Christian tradition, is the heart’s true desire, the goal of our longings, and the fulfiller of our deepest aspirations.” – My emphasis. It’s odd, that for one who is supposed to be ineffable, most religious people are quite content to tell us what God is. This statement is just plain old religious language abuse.

“Some see life as a random and meaningless process of meandering, in which we search endlessly for a purpose that eludes us, if it exists at all.” – Who do? Christians? It was, after all, part of the paragraph telling us what Christians think. But I guess he really intended this second statement to mean atheists? I’m not sure who it really applies to, if anyone. As an atheist I’m not assuming there is a purpose, so I’m not particularly looking for one, endlessly or otherwise. I might choose (in as much as I can) to give my life a purpose, or maybe many purposes that come and go as the feelin suits me. At one point I had the purpose of raising a family: job done. At another time I had the purpose of achieving specific educational goals: job done. I have other purposes now. Should some natural disaster strike my neighborhood, no doubt I’ll have a temporary change of purpose which might be, basically, staying alive. Of course the religious don’t like to be too specific, because that allows them to be pinned down. Far batter the vague wishy-washy ‘purpose’, as in ‘the meaning of life and everything’.

“The Christian vision, enacted and proclaimed in the Christmas story, is that of a God whose tender affection for humanity led him to enter our history as one of us.” – The Christian fantasy; until supportive evidence is available.

Deleted Comment On Robert Lanza Nonsense

Posted the following on Psychology Today’s Robert Lanza article. The comment seems to have been accepted, in that another comment appeared that said something critical too, and acknowledged my comment. Both comments have been deleted. A favourable comment has been left on.

I commented on another Robert Lanza post earlier in the week (see my post). That vanished too, although at first I wondered if I’d actually posted the comment, or if, you know, the captcha bit had screwed up or something. I’m used to seeing unfavourable comments being deleted from the blogs of crazies. Does Psychology Today have any credibility? Who’s doing the deleting? I wouldn’t want to think it was Robert Lanza himself – unless of course it is.

I’ve not been following Psychology Today for long. My current impression of it is it’s a woo site geared very specifically to looking credible so that it can sell its crazier stuff to unsuspecting readers. Anyone else got any views on Psychology Today?

Anyway, this is what I wrote…


What incoherent nonsense. And such a misleading title. No evidence is offered.

“A string of new scientific experiments helps answer this ancient spiritual question.”…”As I sit here in my office surrounded by piles of scientific books, I can’t find a single reference to the soul”

Which experiments? Not any that are explained in science books, apparently. Certainly not any that are mentioned in this article (two-slit experiment).

“Recently, biocentrism and other scientific theories have also started to challenge the old physical-chemical paradigm…”

Which other scientific theories?

“This [two-slit experiment] and other experiments [which other, I ask again?] tell us that unobserved particles exist only as ‘waves of probability’…” – Okay, some experiments tell us this much. But that’s not really telling us the soul exists. Failed.

“They’re statistical predictions – nothing but a likely outcome. Until observed, they have no real existence; only when the mind sets the scaffolding in place, can they be thought of as having duration or a position in space.”

Depends what you mean by ‘observe’. It doesn’t require human consciousness, just any interaction. Human consciousness observes, after all, only after intermediate events have occurred: light emitted from observed object, reaction on the retina, transmission of chemical-electrical impulses along neurons,…

“Experiments make it increasingly clear that even mere knowledge in the experimenter’s mind is sufficient to convert possibility to reality.”

Which experiments?

“…showed that quantum weirdness also occurs in the human-scale world. They studied huge compounds composed of up to 430 atoms, and confirmed that this strange quantum behavior extends into the larger world we live in.”

Yes. But nothing to do with consciousness.

“Importantly, this has a direct bearing on the question of whether humans and other living creatures have souls.”

Really? well then it also has a bearing on whether a rock has a soul, because the quantum nature of matter applies to all matter, not just conscious humans.

Consider this. If consciousness is related to quantum nature of matter, then my consciousness has bits of consciousness of every living creature in the past that has shared the atoms that make up my conscious brain. And when I die and I’m buried, I will decay and contribute my atoms to bacteria, and then to plants, and then to insects, to mammals, to other humans, throughout the food chain – from my death to the end of human civilization. If I’m cremated and I go up in smoke the feedback of my consciousness will be breathed in pretty quickly and shared among many plants and animals and no doubt some humans.

If you want to detach the soul from this material quantum connection and insist it is something separate from matter, something spiritual, then all this quantum nonsense is totally irrelevant.

Get a grip man. Get a life. It would be generous to call this pseudo-science. But there’s no science whatsoever that applies to biocentrism. What there is is the massaging of current science that is still on the edge of human understanding to cherry pick the bits that are little understood but that sound spooky enough.

Where’s the science? Where’s the evidence?

Thought v Experience

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

So, where are we, and how did we get this far. This is a short history as I see it, laid out in the order of discovery rather than the chronology of events.

The Dawn (The Preparation)…

Man acquires self awareness and reasoning capacity through evolution. Maybe other members of the 2.4 million year old Homo genus had it too. Details unimportant.

Man’s Journey…

1) Man sees himself think for the first time. At this point he figures: I think therefore I am – thinking starts to dominate. Even though we did have to wait for Descartes to spell that out. Man isn’t aware of The Dawn at this time, and remains ignorant for most of his existence so far. But he soon begins to ponder origins, truth, reality.

2) Millennia of philosophical and theological musings emphasise the primacy of this purist thinking over the rough and gruesome experienced life, to the point that some speculate on the possibility of solipsism and many variations on the theme of idealism, pure spiritual existence. Philosophical logical thought develops and searches for absolute truths. Plato proposes his forms, as perfections distinct from the messiness of bodily earthly life. The simple, the pure, the perfect, become the object of our investigations, whether divine or natural. The divine thoughts invent many origin myths over time – all in the heads of the believers. These myths are expanded upon to produce complete narratives up to some important point, and ideas are refined into a monotheism, the variations of which dominate thinking. A simple but effective story that not only explains origins but is also recruited to the unexplainable of one’s personal life and times.

3) Natural philosophy bumbles along trying to figure out what’s happening in the practical world. Some progress and much nonsense. The difference here is that nonsense becomes evident as such when it turns out not to work. The still primary thinking process doesn’t suffer this setback, since, if you can think it, it must be true, or at least possible. Some start to question the balance of pure reason against a material empiricism, but without any clear headway on the empirical front we find thinking still dominates.

4) Big jump forward. Evolution discovered. It appears we evolved, not only from creatures that have less thinking capacity and self awareness than ourselves, but also from life forms that didn’t have any nervous system as we know it at all. We came from truly experience-only, non-thinking beginnings, which existed long before The Dawn. Experience is our primary means of discovery and had precedence after all – though this was hidden from our enquiring minds. And the supposed superior thinking, it turns out, is an add-on, an upgrade – a new and valuable tool when it appeared, but not the primary route to knowledge acquisition. It’s early use, as fine as that appeared to be, to the brains doing the thinking, was no better than the wobbly child on a bike for the first time, making some progress, but with little control.

5) The Enlightenment starts to show the benefits of empiricism. But there is over confidence. Dogmatic science emerges. Science has a short affair with modernist dogmatism in the 20th century, where it is believed by some that science is infallible. But this is because they too misunderstand what science is and how it is limited in the hands of humans – they are still not thinking straight. Despite the principles that are being developed many scientists and science proponents fall into the same pattern of behaviour that has plagued religion – the truth of authority, the certainty of knowledge. Our child has become a teenager, a boy racer, overconfident for lack of drastic failure, impervious to the effect on others.

6) Roll on the later 20th and the 21st centuries. The science wars break out and expose the fallibility of science, as a very human enterprise. We’re seeing more and more how flawed our individual thinking and experiential capabilities are. But they are all we have. Further revolutions in communication spread dissension against the dogmatic authority of science; with no small help from the feminist backlash to the male domination (and not just in science).

7) Science grows up, recognises its fallibility and the fallibility of it’s methods and the fallibility of its scientists. There’s a real democracy of science: open to all comers, no matter what gender, race, culture, religion; but at the same time the science itself is a democracy of data, not of people – the data speaks, not the people (in theory). Despite all the problems, this is the best route to take to knowledge. It’s not perfect. It will make mistakes. Some philosophers are listening to science, and some scientists are taking on philosophy. Science has to think about how it does science. Sadly, not everyone sees it this way. There are still philosophers in their ivory towers ridiculing science because of its flaws; and theists are still locked into ways of thinking that are being dictated by myths from the pre-scientific times. They mistake ‘ways of thinking’ for ‘ways of knowing’. They don’t see the failures of their own ‘ways of thinking’ (e.g. that faith is a good idea). They are not different ‘ways of knowing’ – since humans have only one way of knowing: experiencing the world and thinking about the experiences. Many point to the emotions, and feelings. But these are no more than internal experiences, to be experienced and reasoned about – they form part of the same one ‘way of knowing’.

Arrival?…

So, here we are. This scientific view might not seem as perfect and as pure an outcome as it was anticipated ‘pure thought’ would produce – but the primacy of pure thought was always an illusion anyway. We only thought our thinking was our primary means of discovery. It was not, is not. It is an add-on, an upgrade that we can use to make sense of our senses. But without our senses it’s just a mental machine running on nothing but internal feedback from its own noise, destined to wonder everywhere and anywhere and to take sense and nonsense as indistinguishable justified beliefs.

In fact we can say more than that. Thinking is sensing. The neurons of the senses and the brain are pretty much the same thing. They are ion driven pulse carriers, with internal chemical systems and chemical interfaces to other cells. Brain cells ‘sense’ and ‘activate’ each other much as sense neurons sense and motor neurons activate. It’s a far more complex and incestuous relationship within the brain, but we have no evidence that our experience of thinking consists of anything other than this neuron interaction. We feel thinking is something special, and even feel we have the experience of a free thinking mind in some other realm, the mind realm. But if we consider how inefficient it would be for a thinking system to have to sense its own thinking process in great detail – an infinite regress avoidance system, a filter of internal unnecessary experience – then it seems quite reasonable that a thinking brain cannot detect the actual mechanism by which it thinks. The result is we feel we have minds free of this physical home.

But as far as we can tell we are entirely evolved empirical systems, in which thinking is just one more complex physical component process.

So, is this it? Is this the end of the line. Has science reached its pinnacle?

No, only the start…

Understanding and prediction of nature are still some of the main businesses of science and philosophy – to know how things are and to predict how things will behave. This includes all the mysteries of human nature – though the prospect of demystifying some of this seems to frighten some people – they cry ‘Scientism!’

It’s hard to say where this will lead. We have no more reliable a conception of what science, human knowledge acquisition, will be like a millennium from now, than did those living a millennium ago have of what today’s science would become.

Perhaps we need another mental add-on or upgrade. What’s the next model up from our current emotional but rational feeling mind? What extra mental tricks will we be able to perform? Given our current pace of technological change it looks most likely that it will be an artificial upgrade rather than a biological evolutionary one.

Given our remaining commitment to the primacy of thinking it seems to me like we’ll need an upgrade to progress through this bottleneck of a brain that still sees thought as the primary means of acquiring knowledge. Science seems the best, the only route to success in moving forward. The track record for religion is stagnation in past millennia; and philosophy is hard to shift out of an obsession with long discredited or unevidenced ideas.

Happy Christmas Santa; Bah Humbug Jesus

The Skeptical Teacher has a post on Santa.

In it he refers to Barbara Drescher’s post on An Argument for Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and (gasp!) Even Jesus.

I’d agree with Barbara Drescher’s positive view on Santa, as echoed in one of the comments, where the Lahurongirl’s son realised there was no Santa, but still wanted to maintain the story for his younger sister. I’ve seen the same insight and intention from children I know – which is just spoiler avoidance. There’s the implicit assumption that their younger siblings will get to the end of the Santa ‘novel’ too, one day, so why spoil it for them now.

But Barbara seems to take the point too far. Does Richard Dawkins really not like fiction for children? This seems more like Barbara is jumping on a journalistic bandwagon picking up on a simple quote, attributed to Dawkins:

Guardian:
[http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/oct/27/richard-dawkins-childrens-literature]
Quotes Dawkins: “…looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”
And the author, Jean Hannah Edelstein, goes on to say, “Dawkins sounds to me not unlike the fundamentalist Christian mums who tried to get Roald Dahl’s The Witches banned from my primary school for fear that it would undermine what their kids had learned at Sunday school rather than acknowledging that sometimes, stories are just stories.”

Telegraph:
[http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3255972/Harry-Potter-fails-to-cast-spell-over-Professor-Richard-Dawkins.html]
“I think it is anti-scientific – whether that has a pernicious effect, I don’t know,” he told More4 News. (a reporting of a reporting then)

Double Think Online
[http://americasfuture.org/conventionalfolly/2008/10/27/richard-dawkins-scourge-of-fun/]
“Looking back to my own childhood, the fact that so many of the stories I read allowed the possibility of frogs turning into princes, whether that has a sort of insidious affect on rationality, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s something for research.”

All sadly similar. Seems like some quote mining has been going on.

But I’m not sure what the controversy is here. Dawkins is expressing a good scientific response to the question of the effect of stories on children – i.e. he doesn’t know, and would be interested in any research to that effect. I don’t think he’s claiming there is an effect. Unlike someone like Susan Greenwood, who has been the butt of Ben Goldacre’s ire for some time for her claims, without evidence, about the effects of some modern media, such as computer games.

Much fiction for young children, such as the Santa myth, is expressed as truth, knowing full well that as older children and as adults they will grow out of it, hopefully learn something positive about the susceptibility of humans to gullibility, and, in the mean time, enjoy some magical fantasy for a while. There minds are malleable enough to learn and later unlearn, so what’s the harm? How many adults do we know that still believe in Santa to make that fiction worth worrying about?

The significant difference with religion – and this is where I see Barbara as being wrong – is that these fictions are carried on seriously into adulthood. In a religious family and social environment there is specifically, usually, no opportunity or encouragement to challenge the religious dogma, and indeed the prospect some traumatic ostracism for doing so. In fact the strength of belief instilled in children by adults, and seen by children to be genuine beliefs in adults, is what does the long term damage and causes serious disability when it comes to applying critical thinking to those beliefs.

And, it doesn’t matter that “Religion is not a barrier to science literacy”, as Barbara puts it – Francis Collins and Ben Miller show this; as long as you limit the science that we are being ‘literate’ about. If you do apply the usual requirement for evidence to everything then the only rational conclusion about the source of the universe beyond what current science shows is, we don’t know. Now, that certainly does allow, as metaphysical speculations, some passive ‘natural’ explanation, or even some active ‘agency’ explanation – though the latter then needs explaining too. But none of this speculation is sufficient to warrant the subsequent claims by any of the main religions. So, in that wider scientific sense, deeply instilled religious belief is a barrier to science.

So, if the Jesus story was to become an acknowledged myth, like Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, then that would be fine. But as yet it isn’t. The story of Jesus is a whole other industry, with a drive to capture the child’s mind (and the adult’s) as insidious as any capitalist behemoth advertising to children in order to sell the company’s wears; or, for religion, to buy the childrens souls.

Plantinga, Law, Coyne: Theology, Philosophy, Science

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

Jerry Coyne has moved on to Alvin Plantinga.

His post really picks up a theme from one of his earlier ones: philosophy v science. Here are some additional links that provide further examples of the futility of pure philosophy(and of course theology) – a debate between philosopher Stephen Law and Alvin Plantinga:

1) Stephen Law’s post tackling Plantinga

2) Plantinga’s paper.

3) Stephen Law’s response.

This whole debate goes to the heart of why philosophy alone (i.e. without linking it to empirical observation) is closer to theism than it is to science.

I referenced Jerry Coyne’s earlier post in this one of mine.

As another example, try my take on Stephen Law v Peter Atkins, here.

Part of the problem seems to be that some philosophers, and maybe all theologians, give primacy to the mind as a tool for acquiring knowledge, rather than a tool for analysing information gained empirically, or for suggesting further trains of empirical enquiry. They mistake what they think for what is. They think that epistemology determines ontology, rather than the other way round.

This gap in the understanding of what science is and what mere mortal humans can expect to achieve with their brains is underscored in the comment by Michael on Jerry Coyne’s post.

He attack’s Coyne’s “proof — or, rather, strong empirical evidence” – But this merely clears up the misconception that equates scientific proof (strong evidence) for logical proof (deduction, logic, maths).

In this context (i.e. the criticism of philosophy and theology) the point is that philosophers and theologians think they have logical proofs, because they form valid arguments. But their arguments can always be worked back to unsubstantiated premises, presuppositions, so they never actually achieve sound arguments. But a common tendency seems to be that philosophers and theologians are content with the premises or presuppositions that they find to be ‘obvious’ – and is being so content they mistake their valid arguments for sound arguments. I find it disturbing how many philosophers rely on the ‘obvious’, since that seems to defeat one of the supposed merits of philosophy: challenging the obvious.

I suspect that philosophers and theologians also mistake what scientists call proof, i.e. strong evidence, as a claim to logical deductive proof. They then attack science as having no ultimate logical proof. But that’s the point! None of us do. All our knowledge is empirically acquired, inductively argued and contingent. Scientists know this. Theologians and some philosophers seem to think otherwise.

What we have discovered is that both our reasoning and our empirical observations are inherently flawed. We can’t rely on deductive proof the way theologians and some philosophers like to. We are only biological organisms after all – though we do tend to get ideas above our station, that we have ‘other ways of knowing’ (sensus divinitatis?). But we have no other ways of knowing. And in this respect we have to make do with the flawed tools we have – which is precisely what ‘science’ does: pretty normal human empiricism and critical thinking, along with some constructed methodology to make it as reliable as it can be made, in our hands, and brains. In our very human, very biological, very evolved hands and brains.

For philosophers and theologians to have any chance of convincing science proponents to any other way of knowing they should not only give us good reason to accept their take on how the universe works, but they need to do it in such a substantial way that it refutes all of known physics, chemistry, biology, evolution – which is a pretty big ask. Instead, they resort to the supposed logic of characters like Plantinga, with his fantastic grasp of the application of conditional probabilities to the speculatively metaphysical. Pure bollocks.

A View of Science: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections

[This is part of a set: Thinking]

This is based on the following talk: Lawrence Krauss on Cosmic Connections – A Vimeo video

Over at Stephen Law’s blog I’ve been responding to criticisms of Peter Atkins by Stephen Law, Mary Midgeley, and comments on Stephen’s blog.

In his talk Krauss makes two important points that distinguish science from theology, and some philosophy (the ‘only thinking allowed’ type of philosophy, as opposed by Atkins).

The first is on the nature of the scientific method, in principle. I’m not talking about some of the details: come up with the hypothesis, design experiments to falsify it, run experiments, evaluate results, test a theories predictions, etc. I’m talking about the contingency built into science as a principle.

…The big question is, how did the water get here [on Earth]? And the answer is we don’t know – sort of. Which is, by the way, the best answer in science. ‘Cause the other thing people don’t realise about science which differentiates it from religion, is that the most exciting thing about being a scientist is not knowing. Well, there’s two things. Being wrong is up there too. Because that means there’s a lot left to learn. We have some ideas [about how water came to be on Earth]…

… As wonderful as that

is, it’s wrong. It’s amazing when something works out perfectly and you find out it’s wrong. I’ve had that experience many times, ’cause I’ve been wrong many times. It just looks elegant and beautiful, and it’s wrong. And that’s the other gift that science has for us. I hope all of you have that experience, at least once in your life: that something you deeply and profoundly believe in because it’s beautiful and elegant and wonderful turns out to be wrong. Because then you can open your mind.

Now, sure enough, this isn’t always how science goes. There will, inevitably, be scientists who are a little too strident in pushing their particular ideas. Not that this matters much within their specific field, because their peers will see through any bluff and thunder and criticise the protagonists without mercy.

Obstinacy in holding to the status quo can sometimes stall progress; but then being open to every new idea leads to chaos and can in its own way prevent progress. It may be that sometimes the balance isn’t right – but scientists, the ones doing the science, are only human.

But there is a problem with the wider perception of science, particular when journalists fail to explain the contingent nature of what seems like an absolute assertion, or when an anti-science theist gets hold of an misrepresents the whole of science using one over egged pudding.

What should we expect from our scientists? Perfection? But the whole point about the benefits of science is, as Krauss frames it, it’s endeavour to look for answers, to make mistakes, to look for better answers, to dare to be wrong. And this in the hands of imperfect fallible human beings – yes, again, scientists are human beings.

The other point that came out of this talk by Krauss is on the benefit of science. Science is often compared unfavourably to other human activities, which we could simply call the arts. Krauss puts things in perspective.

I do theoretical physics, and it’s kind of esoteric. And people say why the hell do you do it. What’s it good for. Which amazes me when they say that because I rarely get asked what’s a Picasso painting good for, or what’s a Mozart concerto good for. But somehow science has to do something, and somehow make a better toaster, or something like that. But the biggest and most important thing about science is not that it does anything, but that it enhances our lives with beautiful ideas that change the way we think about ourselves. ‘Cause that’s what all good art and music and literature is all about; it’s changing our perspective of our place in the universe. And that’s what science does.

Well, I’d add to that. Science is just as enlightening to our lives as the arts, if not more so, since there is much art and beauty in science. But not only that, science also does stuff! It does build better toasters. Science has both beauty and practicality.

The beauty available to the arts is available to everyone, as is the added beauty of science, for those prepared to look for it. This is from Richard Feynman on this very point (no apologies for referring to this yet again). Richard Feynman – Ode on a Flower.