Posts Tagged ‘science’

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On Theism and Anti-Theism, Fact and Anti-Fact

2010.March.31

A good friend (who just happens to hold nearly polar opposite beliefs to me politically and theologically) forwarded me the following story (posted verbatim):

‘Let me explain the problem science has with religion.’

The atheist professor of philosophy pauses before his class and then asks one of his new students to stand. ‘You’re a Christian, aren’t you, son?’

‘Yes sir,’ the student says.

‘So you believe in God?’

‘Absolutely. ‘

‘Is God good?’

‘Sure! God’s good.’

‘Is God all-powerful? Can God do anything?’

‘Yes’

‘Are you good or evil?’

‘The Bible says I’m evil.’

The professor grins knowingly. ‘Aha! The Bible! He considers for a moment. ‘Here’s one for you. Let’s say there’s a sick person over here and you can cure him. You can do it. Would you help him? Would you try?’

‘Yes sir, I would.’

‘So you’re good…!’

‘I wouldn’t say that.’

‘But why not say that? You’d help a sick and maimed person if you could. Most of us would if we could. But God doesn’t.’

The student does not answer, so the professor continues. ‘He doesn’t, does he? My brother was a Christian who died of cancer, even though he prayed to Jesus to heal him. How is this Jesus good? Can you answer that one?’

The student remains silent. ‘No, you can’t, can you?’ the professor says. He takes a sip of water from a glass on his desk to give the student time to relax ‘Let’s start again, young fella. Is God good?’

‘Er..yes,’ the student says.

‘Is Satan good?’

The student doesn’t hesitate on this one. ‘No.’
‘Then where does Satan come from?’

The student falters. ‘From God’

‘That’s right. God made Satan, didn’t he? Tell me, son. Is there evil in this world?’

‘Yes, sir..’

‘Evil’s everywhere, isn’t it? And God did make everything, correct?’

‘Yes’

‘So who created evil?’ The professor continued, ‘If God created everything, then God created evil, since evil exists, and according to the principle that our works define who we are, then God is evil.’

Again, the student has no answer. ‘Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things, do they exist in this world?’

The student squirms on his feet. ‘Yes.’

‘So who created them?’

The student does not answer again, so the professor repeats his question. ‘Who created them?’ There is still no answer. Suddenly the lecturer breaks away to pace in front of the classroom. The class is mesmerized. ‘Tell me,’ he continues onto another student. ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ, son?’

The student’s voice betrays him and cracks. ‘Yes, professor, I do.’

The old man stops pacing. ‘Science says you have five senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Have you ever seen Jesus?’

‘No sir. I’ve never seen Him.’

‘Then tell us if you’ve ever heard your Jesus?’

‘No, sir, I have not..’

‘Have you ever felt your Jesus, tasted your Jesus or smelt your Jesus? Have you ever had any sensory perception of Jesus Christ, or God for that matter?’

‘No, sir, I’m afraid I haven’t.’

‘Yet you still believe in him?’

‘Yes’

‘According to the rules of empirical, testable, demonstrable protocol, science says your God doesn’t exist… What do you say to that, son?’

‘Nothing,’ the student replies.. ‘I only have my faith.’

‘Yes, faith,’ the professor repeats. ‘And that is the problem science has with God. There is no evidence, only faith.’

The student stands quietly for a moment, before asking a question of His own. ‘Professor, is there such thing as heat? ‘

‘ Yes.

‘And is there such a thing as cold?’

‘Yes, son, there’s cold too.’

‘No sir, there isn’t.’

The professor turns to face the student, obviously interested. The room suddenly becomes very quiet. The student begins to explain. ‘You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, unlimited heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat, but we don’t have anything called ‘cold’. We can hit down to 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold; otherwise we would be able to go colder than the lowest -458 degrees. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-458 F) is the total absence of heat. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.’

Silence across the room. A pen drops somewhere in the classroom, sounding like a hammer.

‘What about darkness, professor. Is there such a thing as darkness?’

‘Yes,’ the professor replies without hesitation.. ‘What is night if it isn’t darkness?’

‘You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is not something; it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light, but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it’s called darkness, isn’t it? That’s the meaning we use to define the word. In reality, darkness isn’t. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?’

The professor begins to smile at the student in front of him. This will be a good semester. ‘So what point are you making, young man?’

‘Yes, professor. My point is, your philosophical premise is flawed to start with, and so your conclusion must also be flawed.’

The professor’s face cannot hide his surprise this time. ‘Flawed? Can you explain how?’

‘You are working on the premise of duality,’ the student explains.. ‘You argue that there is life and then there’s death; a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, science can’t even explain a thought.’ ‘It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, just the absence of it.’ ‘Now tell me, professor.. Do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?’

‘If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, young man, yes, of course I do.’

‘Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?’

The professor begins to shake his head, still smiling, as he realizes where the argument is going. A very good semester, indeed.

‘Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a preacher?’

The class is in uproar. The student remains silent until the commotion has subsided. ‘To continue the point you were making earlier to the other student, let me give you an example of what I mean.’ The student looks around the room. ‘Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the professor’s brain?’ The class breaks out into laughter. ‘Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor’s brain, felt the professor’s brain, touched or smelt the professor’s brain? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science says that you have no brain, with all due respect, sir.’ ‘So if science says you have no brain, how can we trust your lectures, sir?’

Now the room is silent. The professor just stares at the student, his face unreadable. Finally, after what seems an eternity, the old man answers. ‘I Guess you’ll have to take them on faith.’

‘Now, you accept that there is faith, and, in fact, faith exists with life,’ the student continues. ‘Now, sir, is there such a thing as evil?’ Now uncertain, the professor responds, ‘Of course, there is. We see it Everyday. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in The multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.’

To this the student replied, ‘Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.’

The professor sat down.

If you read it all the way through and had a smile on your face when you finished, mail to your friends and family with the title ‘God vs. Science’

PS: the student was Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein wrote a book titled God vs. Science in 1921…

My response to him:

Good read. :) Sounds like one of our old discussions, eh? Of course mentioning Einstein got me even more interested. Mind if I respond to it a bit for old times’ sake?

I did a bit of research; unfortunately, it wasn’t really Einstein who said it. (according to Snopes) I’ve read a lot of his non-physics stuff, and he was a secular Jew, not a Christian. He did seem to believe in a creator, and often referred to it as God–one of his most famous speculations about quantum mechanics was “I am convinced He [God] does not throw dice.” I have scoured the Internet of evidence of a book called “God vs. Science”, but find nothing less than ten or twenty years old and nothing attached to Einstein’s name. Several compilations exist that detail his beliefs on religion, including Einstein on Cosmic Religion, but it is also recent.

I like the dialectic style of this discussion, and there’s a terrific effort to reconcile science and faith. I haven’t found a whole lot of scientists who are any more dedicated to proving or disproving the existence of a divine power than exist with the rest of the population. Those who do are rather loud about it, of course, but I don’t think they’re any closer to positing science against religion than before. I have most respect for those who will not let their devotion to one preclude respect for the other.

That said, any professor of science or philosophy who expected to start a class by disproving the existence of God would find himself out of a job faster than I can type a sentence. Any philosophy instructor worth his mettle should teach questions, not give out answers, so colleagues would rush to denounce him. And despite the reputation for colleges being godless and anti-Christian, they still have to answer to trustees and parents. :)

My thoughts on the matter:

At the peak of my friendship with this person, we were each proto-ideologues with only bike-riding, Dave Matthews Band, and a sister-like mutual friend in common. He was a vocal Jesus-freak, a butt-busting B-student, and a popular/pious jock (in that order), while I was a vocal atheist (a label I no longer embrace on technicality), a lazy-but-talented A-student, and a nerdy/lascivious artist (in no particular order). It has only been in the last couple of weeks that I have found the word to describe our connection. (That word is “fearlessness”, a rather important but tangential topic for another time.)

The debates don’t really happen any longer; I am often as hesitant to give too much detail about my explorations of humanist spirituality as my latest adventures in sexual liberation.

More often, if a tough topic comes up, it is political. And not even policy debate or platform nuances; just who are we voting for, who am I campaigning for, and a grudging good luck for us both. Honestly, my compliance in this is more of a necessity of time and energy than it is a pullback from controversy. I believe (or would like to) that if my friend and I had an afternoon with nothing to do, we could hammer out the similarities and contentions between our philosophies without raising a word.

Neither of us would change our minds, but we would learn and grow, just as we did all through high school. He kept me from becoming one of those anti-theists like the professor in the story, who must not only be right but smugly prove himself to each Christian he meets; I kept him from becoming an anti-sex racist who blames everything wrong in this country on gays and godless government.

Even as neither of us is terribly moderate, we’re more moderate than we could have been, and I for one am grateful for that perspective no one else was ever able to give me.

When I worked in DC, our award program similarly liked to talk to candidates’ surprise allies or respecting opponents. Someone who was or had once been opposed to a nominee’s work could give us as much perspective as any collaborator or employee.

How someone fights can be even more important than what they believe. If a certain amount of civility seems lacking in today’s politics, don’t just look at how fucked up the other side’s rhetoric/platform/policies have gotten. Look at how you and your allies talk about “the other side”. Look at the rhetoric that you yourself use, the unforeseen consequences of policies you have supported in the past, and who is providing your best anecdotes. Are they angry? Accusatory? Frustrated? Hyperbolic?

Ask yourself why you get worked up when something upsets you. Are there buzz-words that you yourself might have trouble defining without expletives? Are you letting an unrelated wedge issue (gay rights, abortion, gun rights, righteous indignation over Wal-Mart) color your opinion of entire swaths of people and their opinions? If so, not only are you not helping to calm the waters, but you will find yourself more vulnerable to misinformation, which does no one any good.

Aside from the unnecessary and inaccurate invocation of one of my personal heroes (’cause dude, Einstein was awesome), I actually liked the forward from my friend. It didn’t make me a person of faith, but it did juxtapose faith with science without really demeaning either. It didn’t need the tag-on about Einstein to be engaging and thought-provoking. I hope my friend and I still have many more conversations ahead.

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What Makes Evolution a Theory?

2008.November.26

[What follows began as an unsolicited response to another blog; the blogger was discussing education in Texas and her openness to creationism being taught in classrooms on the basis that Evolution was a theory. It’s not so much about politics as it is about science, and it may be a bit dry.]

It’s fine to be skeptical of evolution based on the data you have seen, but “theory” as it is used by the scientific community does not mean quite the same thing as a “theory” on prime time cop dramas. A “theory” in science is often a pattern that, no matter how sound, cannot be directly observed within the human experience. In fact, the word’s connotation in science is no weaker or stronger than terms such as “law” or “principle”.

In today’s scientific community, a theory is regarded as a very serious and credible structure, whose scope is beyond our reach for irrefutable proof. Established theories are never so much disproven as they are re-interpreted. For most of human history, light seemed to be instant and straight, but we now believe it simply moves faster than we can notice and bends for great amounts of force (i.e., the gravity of a planet).

Calling something a theory can simply mean that the phenomena described are either too small in scale (such as gravity, which occurs at the sub-atomic level) or too great in scale (such as might occur over eons, like evolution) to be observed first-hand. These types of theories are “proven”* in the sense that they exist as whole and complete systems that feature consistent behaviors and structures as best we can observe – and, yes, theorize; what makes them seem less sound is that their scope usually gives them limited scientific predictability (but improvements in weather prediction over the last few decades imply that with enough data, even the least predictable phenomena could one day become predictable; maybe that is Google’s true goal).

(*Since language itself is only an approximation of our perception of what we define as reality, “proven” science is constantly being honed and modified in its own terms.)

I don’t want to rock your world or anything, but most every scientific discovery since Einstein began with theorization: thought experiments were developed and their answers were tested using observable apparatus. The ones that were found consistent with theory went on to become microwaves and cell phones and laptop computers, but they can never be called “true” because our human senses cannot directly observe the waves that heat water molecules, the radio waves that transmit our voices, or the microprocessors that translate key-punching flurries into wordy and unsolicited scientific lectures.

Think of the Theory of Evolution as a law that cannot be demonstrated before our eyes. The data supporting it might be re-interpreted, explained in a different light, but the logic that exists there is unlikely to ever be entirely disproven.

What I find alternately amusing and frustrating is that fundamentalists on both side of the issue refuse to see the gaping holes in their own beliefs that allow for a distinct possibility of overlap. My best friend, a fairly fundamentalist Christian for as long as I’ve known him, was a whiz at biology in high school and saw potential everywhere for biological phenomena to be the methods God uses to implement His will. He observed that the creation of the Old Testament fairly accurately described the sequence of Earth’s development and life thereupon (especially if, as my friend supposed, those seven days were seven of God’s days, rather than days of men) and he saw potential for evolution to be God’s method of influence.

Coming from the opposite end of the belief spectrum, I have my own theory (as in hypothesis) about how evolutionary study could one day trace all life on Earth back far enough to actually pinpoint a moment of creation (and perhaps, therefor, a creator?).

But in this country, we aren’t really fond of finding common ground with those who question our view of the world.

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