Sunday, September 26, 2010

Don't Place All Your Eggs in The Easter Bunny's Basket

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Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
– Marcus Aurelius

I imagine I could never summarize so eloquently and succinctly as Aurelius did long before Pascal’s time and his famous wager, which itself is written much more professionally and eloquently than I can paraphrase here:

If you believe in God and turn out to be wrong, you’ve lost nothing. But if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong, you’ve got everything to lose. So you may as well choose to believe in God, just in case.

It is incredible how many people accept this wager as logical and wise, and how many encourage unbelievers such as me to accept it also. It is contrary to my philosophy and beliefs in so many ways.

Firstly, the very notion that one can choose what to believe is foolhardy and childish. Even if I wanted to take the wager, how could I possibly choose to believe in god? I may spend the rest of my days pretending to believe, but deep inside know that it is not real, which would still be a form of unbelief. I can no more choose to believe in god than I can choose to believe in any fantasy including the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus. That Christians very often become offended and even upset when I make that comparison only illustrates the immaturity of missing the point. To compare Christianity to other fantasies is only to explain how an unbeliever views the religion. If you are a Christian, could you choose, as an educated adult, to believe in the Easter Bunny? Could you really, even if you thought your eternal fate depended on it, set aside all the rational thought and evidence that the chocolate eggs are actually placed there by loving and playful parents and instead believe that they are truly placed there magically by a fantastic leporine? Could you really believe that? That is akin to what Christians ask when they think a non-believer can choose to believe in their god. If you were asked to learn to believe in the Easter Bunny, what you would really be asked to do is to set aside all the rational thought processes and logic you have acquired thus far in life, and accept fantasy that is outside the realm of the world you live in and witness on a daily basis.

Secondly, the wager is pure folly because it assumes that the only possibility is that either the Christian god Yahweh exists or not. And if he does, then he is exactly the god that you can define, presumably for Christians, through the Bible. In short, what happens if you accept Pascal’s wager, die, and then find out that Thor was actually the one true god after all? You’re equally doomed (perhaps more so?) as if you’d never taken the foolish wager in the first place. There are thousands of potential gods that have been defined in human history. Why should the one that your culture defines happen to be the right one on which to wager? That Christians, in our Western culture, make this assumption only illustrates their inability to see outside their narrow window of having already accepted the wager by being Christian in the first place.

There are several other problems with Pascal’s Wager with which I could continue, but why bother? To continue discussing it after the first two (really even only the first one) points completely destroy it would only validate a foolish proposition.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Well-Written Mistake

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Below is a small review of Stephen Hawking’s latest book The Grand Design. It was written by Jonathan Sacks. Sacks (I refuse to call him Lord Sacks – such titles are pure bunk in a world where we should recognize merit and achievement rather than title) is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – he is the spiritual head of the largest synagogue body in the United Kingdom. He studied at both Cambridge (MA) and Oxford (PhD) and is clearly a very well educated, intelligent man who can string together words with some skill and eloquence. What he appears unable to do, however, is avoid making the standard fundamental error that so often trips up the religious as they attempt to debate their point or critique someone else’s (the someone in this case being probably the most intelligent man alive). Read through his article pasted below. It is very well written, and at first you might find yourself walking away thinking, yes he has a point. Perhaps Hawking should have thought things through a bit more before he published his book. But, read it again carefully. The fundamental error Sacks makes is to put the cart before the horse as so often happens in the mind of the religious. His assumption all along is that there is a god, and then he bases all his arguments on that assumption. His argument that science and religion are separate entities, that science cannot explain religion and that religion answers questions that science cannot is based on this primary assumption. Anyone who assumes to begin with that there is a god (before looking at the scientific evidence) of course assumes that their god has answers to questions that science cannot answer. Sacks writes: “The Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science. It is interested in other questions entirely. Who are we? Why are we here? How then shall we live? It is to answer those questions, not scientific ones, that we seek to know the mind of God.” Other questions entirely? How are the questions Who are we and why are we here not scientific ones? That is a neat trick Mr. Sacks, to produce a question such as “Why are we here?” and then proclaim that it is outside the realm of science. Why are humans here? Perhaps there is no answer to that question. Perhaps we are just here. Or, perhaps there is an answer to that question and it goes something along the lines explosive beginnings to a universe followed by condensation of a planet and then millions of years of evolution. Mr. Sacks would, of course, protest that the explanation of the mechanics of how we are here does not answer the question of why we are here. But that is the whole point. That is why we are here as well as how we are here. In other words, people who put the cart before the horse and start with the assumption that there is a god assume that the answer to the question of why we are here actually have a different answer than the question of how we are here. Science has likely shown us that (so far as our knowledge allows) there is no difference to these questions. Therefore science can answer all the questions and religion does not hold some sacred trump on certain questions.

I always find it easiest to go back to a belief that is fictional to everyone to explore and understand these sorts of arguments. Suppose someone named Mr. Skcas had argued that some things cannot be explained by science. For example, science cannot explain why Santa Claus is motivated to deliver all those presents children every Christmas. No matter how advanced science becomes, it will never be able to answer that question. Therefore, there are some questions that are outside of the realm of science. Of course science shows us that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and that his annual delivery of toys is physically impossible. So it is preposterous to say: “Yes, yes, but still it doesn’t answer the question of why Santa Claus does it.” Equally preposterous is Mr. Sacks position of pretending that science and religion do not overlap and that religion answers some questions that science cannot. Completely preposterous.

Another classic mistake, which I don’t intend to get into detail here, but which is worth mentioning is the fallacy of arguing that the chances of the universe occurring in such a manner that life could exist are too small to be realistic. It is not feasible that everything would align just right for us to exist (the classic 6 constants argument). What a ludicrous concept that completely ignores the fact that we do exist in the first place. I call this attitude the lottery complex. Imagine a person wins a multi-million dollar lottery in which they only had a 1 in 20 million chance of winning. They cash in their ticket but then they start doubting whether they could have won because the chances were so small. They ignore the fact that they have already won, so to be in the position of examining the very small odds of winning, they have to have already won. No matter how small the chances of a universe existing with the proper nature to allow us to exist, we do exist. Therefore, the universe must have those properties. That is not, however, evidence that it couldn’t have happened without interference anymore than the lucky lottery winner having the winning ticket couldn’t have done so unless the system was rigged.

For all his education and intellect, Mr. Sacks article reads with the underlying logic of an elementary school student. At every turn his whiny insistence on trying to prove that god exists and that religion matters shines through any façade of well-written grammar and prose. Mr. Sacks isn’t even in the same ballpark as Professor Hawking. While Hawking likely left behind his attempts to prove that his underlying assumptions are right back in kindergarten and moved on to examining the evidence around him, Mr. Sacks continues to cling to his religion in the hopes that he can manipulate it through whatever evidence science uncovers next.

Sacks article:

The Times, Thursday 2nd September 2010

Even great science tells us nothing about God Jonathan Sacks
“Stephen Hawking is wrong about the existence of God. He has simply refuted his own earlier mistaken theology What would we do for entertainment without scientists telling us, with breathless excitement, that “God did not create the Universe,” as if they were the first to discover this astonishing proposition? Stephen Hawking is the latest, but certainly not the first. When Napoleon asked Laplace, two hundred years ago, where was God in his scientific system, the mathematician replied, Je n’ais besoin de cette hypothèse. “I do not need God to explain the Universe.” We never did. That is what scientists do not understand. There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. They are different intellectual enterprises. They even occupy different hemispheres of the brain. Science — linear, atomistic, analytical — is a typical left-brain activity. Religion — integrative, holistic, relational — is supremely a work of the right brain. It is important for us to understand the misinterpretation Professor Hawking has made, because the mutual hostility between religion and science is one of the curses of our age, and is damaging to religion and science in equal measure. The best way of approaching it is through the autobiography of Charles Darwin. Darwin tells us that as a young man he had been impressed with the case for God as set out by William Paley in his Natural Theology of 1802. Paley updated the classic “argument from design” to the state of scientific knowledge as it existed in his day. Find a stone on a heath, says Paley, and you won’t ask who designed it. It doesn’t look as if it was designed. But find a watch and you will think differently. A watch looks as if it was designed. Therefore it had a designer. The Universe looks more like a watch than a stone. It is intricate, interlocking, complex. Therefore, it too had a designer, whose name is God. Darwin, in a simple yet world-transforming idea, showed how the appearance of design does not require a designer at all. It can emerge over a long period of time by, as we would put it today, an iterated process of genetic mutation and natural selection. So the Universe is not like a watch, or if it is, the watchmaker was blind. QED. But whoever thought the Universe was like a watch in the first place? The scientists and philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries: Newton, Leibniz, Laplace, Auguste Comte. What was wrong about Paley’s argument was not the theology but the science on which it was based. Good science refutes bad science. It tells us nothing at all about God. Professor Hawking has done something very similar, except that this time he plays both parts. He is both Paley and Darwin and, with great legerdemain and panache, Hawking II, the good scientist, has brilliantly refuted Hawking I, the poor theologian. Hawking I was the person who wrote, at the end of A Brief History of Time, that if we found science’s holy grail, a theory-of-everything, we would know “why it is that we and the Universe exist”. We would “know the mind of God”. This is so elementary a fallacy that it is hard to believe that Professor Hawking meant it. We would know how we and the Universe came into being — not why. Nor, in any but the most trivial sense, would we “know the mind of God”. The Bible is relatively uninterested in how the Universe came into being. It devotes a mere 34 verses to the subject. It takes 15 times as much space to describe how the Israelites constructed a sanctuary in the desert. The Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science. It is interested in other questions entirely. Who are we? Why are we here? How then shall we live? It is to answer those questions, not scientific ones, that we seek to know the mind of God. Hawking II has now refuted Hawking I. The Universe, according to the new theory, created itself. (This reminds me of a joke I heard as an undergraduate about a smug business tycoon: “He is a self-made man, thereby relieving God of a grave responsibility.”) Should you reply that the Universe must be astonishingly intelligent to have fine-tuned itself so precisely for the emergence of stars, planets, life and us, all of which are massively improbable, then the answer is that there is an infinity of universes in which all the possibilities and permutations are played out. We struck lucky. We found the universe that contained us. I first heard this theory from that brilliant and wise scientist, Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society. He too, as he explains in his book Just Six Numbers, was puzzled by the precision of the six mathematical constants that define the shape of the Universe. So unlikely is it that the Universe just happened by chance to fit those parameters that he, too, was forced to suggest the parallel universes hypothesis. If you hold an infinity of lottery tickets, one of them is going to win. That is true, but not elegant. The principle of Occam’s razor says don’t multiply unnecessary entities. Given a choice between a single intelligent creator and an infinity of self-creating universes, the former wins hands down. But let us hail a scientific genius. Professor Hawking is one of the truly great minds of our time. Two thousand years ago the rabbis coined a blessing — you can find it in any Jewish prayer book — on seeing a great scientist, regardless of his or her religious beliefs. That seems to me the right attitude of religion to science: admiration and thankfulness. But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science. I will continue to believe that God who created one or an infinity of universes in love and forgiveness continues to ask us to create, to love and to forgive.”

On another topic, the Wikipedia entry for Mr. Sacks is quoted as saying: "Sacks is deeply concerned with what he perceives as the corrosive effects of materialism and secularism in European society, arguing that they undermine the basic values of family life and lead to selfishness. In 2009 Sacks gave an address claiming that Europeans have chosen consumerism over the self-sacrifice of parenting children, and that "the major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians." He argued that Europe is in population decline "because non-believers lack shared values of family and community that religion has."

I much prefer Professor Dawkins' quote: "The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. But it must be a positive attack, for science and reason have so much to give. They are not just useful, they enrich our lives in the same kind of way as the arts do. Promoting science as poetry was one of the things that Carl Sagan did so well, and I aspire to continue his tradition."

Evidence First, Then Conclusions

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There is a fundamental difference between the religious and scientists, atheists, and rationalists in how they approach examination of the natural world, of the question of the existence of god(s), of virtually every philosophical question. The religious (and the superstitious) tend to have a conclusion (or at least a strong pet theory) about some phenomenon for which they then attempt to find evidence to support that conclusion. Scientists, on the other hand, observe the evidence as objectively as possible with the removal of bias as much as possible, and then slowly draw their conclusions from the observed evidence.

Once when I was traveling some back roads in a remote forested area and trying to find a particular location on the map, I realized I was sort of lost. I couldn’t quite figure out how to match the various markings on the map to my observations around me, but I was sure I was generally in the right location. I kept approaching the map from a slightly different point of view, trying to make it match what I saw around me. Eventually, most of it did fit and started to make sense. I realized that what I saw around me could potentially fit the map. A bend in the road on the map seemed a bit out of place, but maybe the map wasn’t drawn perfectly. Another bend did fit well, and the general shape of the area I was standing in did fit the map, if I ignored small parts of it. I must be in the right spot, I concluded. After driving back down the road, I started to question myself as I looked more carefully at the surroundings. Eventually, I realized that the area I had been looking for was actually 2 or 3 km away from the place I had thought it was. When I found the right location, it fit the map perfectly, there was no need to try to make it fit. I had made a classic mistake: drawing my conclusion (I was in the right spot) and then making the evidence fit (if I overlook a few inaccuracies on the map then it seems to fit).

This mistake is made over and over by the religious and the superstitious. The underlying assumption is that god exists. That overarching conclusion can never be thrown away if you are religious, no matter how much the observed evidence contradicts or fails to support it, or even seems to support it except for a few major issues that you overlook. Just like my experience in the woods with the map, when you draw your conclusion first, you can often find some evidence that seems to support your conclusion. Imagine for a moment that all religion was removed from the world and we were all starting from scratch with the question of whether a god exists or not. Imagine there is no Bible, there are no stories about Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed. Imagine no one has ever heard of Christianity or Islam. Then we all set out to examine the world and gather evidence about the natural world. Do you really think it would lead us to a the god described in the Bible, to Jesus dying to save everyone from their sins, and to a personal relationship with this god? Surely not. When you actually stop and observe the natural world for evidence, as scientists have done and continue to do on a regular basis, what we get is all the explanations we do have: that the earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the sun, the theory of relativity, gravitational and germ theory, evolution, and so on. All of these things were developed and discovered as the result of observation followed by conclusion. But the concept of god is exactly the opposite. The religious begin with the conclusion that god exists, and go from there to try to support that position.

This is a fundamental difference between most atheists and most religious people. My wish is not to convert others to atheism, but that they start to examine the world rationally and logically and then draw their own conclusions about the truth. Do most religious people share that point of view? How many Christians or Muslims do you know that don’t teach their children to follow their religion, but rather teach their children to think rationally and logically about everything, confident in the knowledge that one day they will find the truth? Think about it. A Christian parent doesn’t say a single word to their child about Christianity, but instead teaches their child to examine the evidence in the world around them because the parent is so confident that their religion is the truth that the child will come to it on their own if they look for the evidence. Have you ever known this to happen? I haven’t. What makes me confident that I am not indoctrinating my own children is that I will never tell them what they should and shouldn’t believe when it comes to religion. Rather, I will simply teach them to examine all things in our world rationally, confident in the knowledge that if they do so they will discover truth.

I submit that all religious beliefs fall into this category of trying to make the observed evidence fit a preconceived conclusion, or a prior belief. This issue is, in my opinion, at the very heart of the reason that religious people so often are negative or even hostile to science and scientists. I have met many Christians who actually claim to believe that scientists are motivated to try to prove that god doesn’t exist and that scientists’ bias of not wanting god to exist causes them to interpret their findings to support that bias. I’ve even met a handful of people who have claimed that all scientists are part of a conspiracy to cover up the evidence and truth of creation. This attitude perfectly reflects this bias I am writing about. The assumption is that scientists must, since they all (or very nearly all) seem to reject the notion of a god, have interpreted the evidence to fit their preconceived notion that there is no god. This is exactly the kind of modus operandi that many religions people take and therefore don’t even notice when they apply it to others. They fail to notice the enormous error in their position. The reality is that the vast majority of scientists do not believe in god because when one examines the world through a scientific point of view, there is simply no evidence to support that belief. (There is a small percentage of scientists who believe in god, but these are typically people who grew up with religion and have simply had a hard time walking away from deep-founded beliefs. The number of bona fide scientists who truly believe in a personal and interfering god is staggeringly small – probably much less than 1%).

Some more open-minded religious people try to meld together their belief in god with their observations of the world around them. Some accept that the Bible cannot be literally true, that much of it must be allegory or should be interpreted figuratively. Perhaps, some claim, we need to simply focus on the message of love and forgiveness that is the dominant theme in the Bible, and that when we do so we find god. I’ve have conversations with well-meaning Christians who are genuinely nice and caring people who are trying their best to make the world a better place, and to treat their fellow humans with respect and love. A common theme amongst these more tolerable brand of Christians is the notion that we must all respect each others’ points of view and not assume that we have all the answers. Setting aside for a moment the fact that most of the Bible has nothing to do with love and forgiveness, this attitude still ignores the issue of evidence. Why should we take this attitude seriously for even a moment? Would you take seriously someone whose position was that we simply don’t know (we can’t know in fact) whether fairies exist, and we shouldn’t claim to know everything. Certainly we should not claim to know everything (most scientists that I know make no such claim), but let’s also be realistic about what we do know. We know, without almost any doubt, that fairies do not exist. We can carry on with our lives secure in that knowledge. We also know, without almost any doubt, that gods do not exist. We should therefore carry on with our lives secure in that knowledge. I try to treat every human with respect and allow them their beliefs. But understand that I respect someone who claims we simply don’t know whether god exists or not in exactly the same way as I respect someone who claims we simply don’t know whether fairies exist or not. That is to say, I respect them as fellow humans, I respect their right to believe whatever they want, but I don’t take them seriously for a moment.

Evidence. For every truth there will be evidence. It may sometimes be hard to find, but the evidence will be there. If god were a truth, then there would be some evidence for him considering men and women have been looking for it for thousands of years. There is none. Claims of personal experience and Bible stories are not evidence any more than the Brothers Grimm writings are evidence that Cinderella is true.