Monday, September 6, 2010

A Well-Written Mistake

Image courtesy of Google Images.

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."

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