Saturday, March 04, 2006

The knowledgeable world view

I haven't blogged any atheist thoughts for a while, so I thought I'd dredge up a board post that I wrote last October.

Christians like to frame things in terms of "world views", saying that being a Christian changes the way that you think about everything, which is why they have such specific views on "moral" issues like abortion and homosexuality and so on. Of course, many liberal Christians don't align with those views, but that's okay; fundamentalist Christians just write them off as not True ChristiansTM who are duped by worldliness.

I kind of believe in "world views", but I don't believe they are caused by religion. I think a major component of your world view, INCLUDING how seriously you take your religion, is influenced by the way in which you regard the concept of knowledge.

Whether there is a god or not, human knowledge is imperfect. Everybody realizes that, or ought to. Theists generally believe that there is a god, and their god knows everything. Therefore, True Knowledge is obtained by listening to what God says.

The problem with that is that, even if their god is real, he isn't down here issuing public statements on the issues that we deal with right now. Take abortion, for instance. Anti-choice Christians will point to portions of the Bible which they say clearly prohibits abortion. But on the other hand, pro-choice Christians will just as easily point out passages in the Bible that supports THEIR position as well. I suppose the god could have clearly said in the Bible "don't commit abortion" or "abortion is a-OK with me!" But it probably wasn't known in those exact terms back then, and it's been a while (2000 years) since he supposedly communicated with us.

So even if you personally know an omnipotent being, that doesn't really do you much good unless he tells you clearly what he thinks. And the Bible sure ain't it. Hence we have the concept of "faith", which is believing things sincerely without evidence, just because it makes you feel better.

Now, "faith" may well be an excellent way to become personally fulfilled and at peace, but historically it has proved to be a notoriously bad way to actually know things. Even accepting the idea that there is a particular kind of faith which is right, and which will reveal the absolute truth, that still leaves open the sticky question of what to have faith in.

There are thousands of religions in the world now, as well as thousands more historical religions that are now defunct. It's hard to be objectively certain that you're not simply participating in a religion that will, hundreds of years from now, be studied with the same kind of bemused curiosity with which we currently regard the ancient Greeks. Furthermore, these religions can't all be right, because many of them hold as a fundamental tenet that the other religions must be wrong.

The fact that there have been a lot of false religions doesn't PROVE that any particular religion is wrong. But it does illustrate that people put their faith in an awful lot of things that turn out to be false. If you were an educated person born in ancient Greece, chances are good that you'd probably believe in Zeus. Being born in 21st century America, chances are almost nil that you'll believe in Zeus.

What changed? Did Zeus once exist and then disappear to make room for Jesus? No. We know for pretty certain that Zeus doesn't exist and never did. But as an ancient Greek, you wouldn't KNOW you were wrong, because you wouldn't have the perspective that hundreds of years later, everybody would "know" that Zeus is a silly idea. Whereas the idea of a man who was born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead is a far more sophisticated idea that represents the real truth.

In short: really, truly BELIEVING something is a bad yardstick for verifying what's actually true.

So if faith isn't the way to go, then how do we go about the business of actually finding things out and being pretty sure you know the things that are true? I think that at some point, clearly the answer has to be that you come up with unemotionally applied tests that can be repeated by everyone. You have to be able to admit that you don't know what you don't know, and apply what you do know to form an overall informed opinion of the world.

Unfortunately, sometimes even your most informed opinions will be wrong. There's no way to escape this because, as I said before, all human knowledge is imperfect. But the ability to recognize and admit when you're wrong is actually a strength, not a weakness. Because every time you understand that you have been wrong, it allows you to switch to a position that is (more likely to be) right. And there's a word for the process of investigating things and trying to weed out wrong ideas. It's science.

I think that even the most die hard young earth creationists understand the value of science in principle, because that's what religious apologetics are all about. At their best, apologetics are meant to be logically sound arguments that persuade the listener to objectively accept their opinion as true. If faith were enough to really know truth, then apologetics would be a waste of time, because logic would be irrelevant.

And I know that the promoters of Intelligent Design (or "stealth creationism" as some prefer to call it) recognize the value of science as a way of understanding the world, because that is after all what ID is theoretically about. It is an effort to meld a belief in God with the respectable objectivity of the scientific method. Again, if faith were enough to go on, there would be no need to make scientific arguments, and ID would not have come to be in the first place.

In a sense, I applaud the concept of ID. Although I happen to not believe in any sort of intelligent designer, I understand that many people believe it very seriously. And if there is one, I want to know about it. I would like nothing better than to see the question settled once and for all from a scientific perspective.

Where I have a beef with Intelligent Design is not their goal to marry science with God; it's their unfortunate tendency to repeatedly declare victory before they've actually accomplished anything at all. If you really want to put science and religion in harmony, then I say throw money at research. But you have to be sure that your money is actually funding RESEARCH, and not a PR campaign. Not lawsuits. Not politicians. Not school boards. Tell them to stop trying to buy respectability by getting museums to show designer-friendly movies.

Really, I think everyone who truly cares about ID should be DEMANDING that the Discovery Institute start spending their donations on hiring brilliant minds to do genuinely original research, instead of more lawyers. I think it would be a great day for science if that happened.

6 comments:

  1. Well and cogently put. You write as well as Sam Harris, but without even the appearance of a chip on your shoulder.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Kazim,

    Just thought I would append something to your Blog. I bought Prince of Persia for my Grandson but my preference is for the Elder Scrolls, that goes on quite a way and allows great freedom of direction.

    On the UK site we have discussed God/No God and it it seems a bit pointless saying the bible says so and so. Fine for those that believe but why would it impress atheists. I would start from a different perspective, I'm not saying that it is the correct one but it should have more resonance with yourselves.

    Science (e.g, the discovery of what is) cannot prove that God exists, but it may prove that all else is impossible. Consider, scientists have proved that the universe had a beginning and that before it began nothing else existed, not matter, not dimension, not time. That is a fundamentally important discovery and has come in my lifetime. Scientists tell us that before something can happen there must be a cause, we all know the cause and effect thing pretty well by now and it is the basis of scientific discovery. If you do something, the result will always be the same. We do not have a belief that if you wait long enough something will happen randomly.

    If you examine this "cause and effect" you will see that it is sequential. Time is involved in that you cannot have a sequence without time being involved. If no time exists then you cannot have a sequence and therefore we do not exist because there was no time before the big bang.

    This has been realised by no lesser a person than Hawkings, and he has come up with a thought that you could have imaginery time. Thank God, now we can all exist, phew. The problem is that if no time existed and that this imaginery time was at right angles to real time, it still would not have existed before the big bang and being at right angles would not allow for sequence. OK, he says that he has shown it exists mathmaticaly. The problem with this is that we can show the existence of things mathmatically which factually do not exist. Take infinity, maths, 1/0 = inf.

    The problem with infinity is that if you take it to be reality, you are allowing for everything to have happened an infinite number of times, and therefore we would be able to see this. Even all the most elementary particles in the universe do not add up to infinity.

    So we have a problem, where did the universe come from? You tell me!

    Youngfod

    ReplyDelete
  3. Youngfod,

    I'm quite taken with "Ultimate Spider-Man" these days. It is a fun game that allows an enormous amount of freedom, and gives very clear indications about where the objectives are. I recommend it and will most likely review it in the near future.

    Science (e.g, the discovery of what is) cannot prove that God exists, but it may prove that all else is impossible.

    Actually, no it cannot. To "prove that all else is impossible" would require the sort of omniscience that theists always rightfully point out we haven't got.

    Consider, scientists have proved that the universe had a beginning and that before it began nothing else existed, not matter, not dimension, not time. That is a fundamentally important discovery and has come in my lifetime.

    Apparently you haven't understood what has been proven at all. Cosmologists have made enormous strides in understanding the early, post-big bang universe, back to the first 10^-43 seconds. But before that point, they haven't "proved that nothing existed". Only that the universe, matter, and time as we know them were fundamentally different.

    Is there enough wiggle room to pretend that a god may be hiding in there? Sure. Anything is "possible." But have they found evidence that any such thing, with all the associated properties (i.e., omnipotence, absolute moral authority, etc) actually WAS there? No. You are always assuming, via faith, that "God" is a likely default hypothesis, and I don't see any compelling reason to think that you're right.

    Scientists tell us that before something can happen there must be a cause, we all know the cause and effect thing pretty well by now and it is the basis of scientific discovery. If you do something, the result will always be the same. We do not have a belief that if you wait long enough something will happen randomly.

    Here we go again. And what caused God?

    So we have a problem, where did the universe come from? You tell me!

    Well, there are two possibilities:

    1. "Something" exists which doesn't require a cause. If that is the case, then I see no reason to identify that "something" as "God", rather than some random inanimate particle existing before the 10^-43rd second of the big bang.

    2. Everything really does require a cause, in which case some other stuff happened before the big bang, involving, for example, other universes.

    You clearly assume that (1) is the case. Let's pretend you're right. Why on earth would I think that the uncaused cause is intelligent, or in any other way resembles Yahweh?

    Getting back to the theme of the original post, there's an enormous difference between completely dismissing the things we DO know, pretending that contrary evidence doesn't actually exist when it does; and honestly accepting that we don't know the things we actually don't know.

    ReplyDelete
  4. 1. "Something" exists which doesn't require a cause. If that is the case, then I see no reason to identify that "something" as "God", rather than some random inanimate particle existing before the 10^-43rd second of the big bang.



    As you have said in the past it was a purple dragon, an invisable purple dragon that lives in your garage. And as I said there are things we "know" such as infinity which we have no way of understanding. So "God" could be any of these things.

    However, being more serious about it, if what you posit is correct and that thing existed before time started then we have an connumdrum
    since time started with matter and your thing would have triggured time and dimension. Then what would have been there before that? Since it had to come from somewhere unless it always existed and that cannot be.
    2. Everything really does require a cause, in which case some other stuff happened before the big bang, involving, for example, other universes.


    The problem with that line of reasoning is where does it stop or start, did it go back for ever. In which case you have infinity and that is definitely not on.

    You clearly assume that (1) is the case. Let's pretend you're right. Why on earth would I think that the uncaused cause is intelligent, or in any other way resembles Yahweh?


    What I assume is not the question here dear friend. It is rather how can you hold to your views?

    Getting back to the theme of the original post, there's an enormous difference between completely dismissing the things we DO know, pretending that contrary evidence doesn't actually exist when it does; and honestly accepting that we don't know the things we actually don't know.



    One thing we certainly do know and that is you should not mention my name because I will pop up. :-) Things aren't as simple as you might like to portray, atheism is a belief system and that is all. It is not cleverer than any other belief system and like all belief systems it has gaping holes.

    Youngfod

    ReplyDelete
  5. As you have said in the past it was a purple dragon, an invisable purple dragon that lives in your garage. And as I said there are things we "know" such as infinity which we have no way of understanding. So "God" could be any of these things.

    Yes indeed. God COULD be the turkey sandwich I ate for lunch. But what is a god, what are its properties, and what reason have I to think that you're right? Unless you specify what YOU mean by "God", then I have no reason to take any interest in it.

    However, being more serious about it, if what you posit is correct and that thing existed before time started then we have an connumdrum
    since time started with matter and your thing would have triggured time and dimension. Then what would have been there before that? Since it had to come from somewhere unless it always existed and that cannot be.


    I didn't posit anything, youngfod. All I did was count the possibilities. Either there exists something without a cause, or there doesn't. That's all I said. In neither case do I see a compelling indication of a divine intelligence. How about you?

    Things aren't as simple as you might like to portray, atheism is a belief system and that is all. It is not cleverer than any other belief system and like all belief systems it has gaping holes.

    The difference between your approach and mine is, when I don't know something then I just agree that I don't know it. Your response is "I can't stand gaping holes, so I will make up a giant purple dragon and stick it in there. There, now I know everything."

    ReplyDelete
  6. Anonymous8:58 AM

    I love how athiests say that since there is no God, then our worldviews are based on how we interpret information. according to an atheistic worldview, every sinlge person is able to decide what the meaning of their own life is, but it just seems to bother atheists so much that millions of people decide to believe in the Christian God, and billions of people believe in God in another form, and it's up the the atheists of the world to let us know how delusional we all are......it's hilarious i mean isn't that the same thing that Christians get crap for when they tell sinners that they are lost? the only problem with logical positivism (the belief that only things which can be empirically verified are true) is that it doesn't meet it's own requirment. No propostition like this can be scientifically proven... but atheists and naturalists will continually try to make it seem like it is so.....according to your own worldview any of our thoughts and interpretations are random processes of our minds, which should completely disqualify them from being able to explain how they work, ontology precedes empiricism, there had to be reason before there was matter, there had to be some way of explaining something before there was something to explain, nothing can explain it's own existence without running the risk of absurdity, and according to an atheistic worldview I'm right, because there are no absolutes so the individual decides what is right and wrong and i decide that I'm right and atheists are wrong, and playing by the atheists rules, this makes me correct.....you see how this can continue to go, someone who graduated with a degree in computer engineering should understand that you can't just randomly insert information into a syatem and get a working program!! you have to design the program to do what you want it to do, someone who is as educated as that should be able to clearly see that working, functional programs dont just pop into existence because of an influx of information, People don't believe in God for one reason, and that reason is not because there is a lack of evidence (though that is the common excuse) and even if you feel there is not enough evidence, what makes you so special that you deserve more evidence that someone who believes with the existing evidence (oh that's right because they are delusional and you're not) but the real reason people don't believe in God....is because it makes them accountable, it holds them responsible for their own actions and thoughts and behaviors, this scares us...taking responsibility for something we've done, it's a lot easier to point out things that others have done or bring up things that others (God) haven't done for us.....

    www.jknizzle.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete