Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: The God Thing

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  • Neil Morrison,

    The New Scientist podcast link - link

    There's also 2 discussions with E O Wilson on his latest book - Creation

    Since Nov 2006 • 932 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    It seems to me that agnosticism is the only strictly rational position on spirituality. Unfortunately, many athiests prefer not to accept that their own religious belief (the unprovable assertion that there is no god) is open to serious critique.

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster, while clever and entertaining, is not a compelling analogy. The question of whether our universe has a reason to be, or a cause, cannot be answered with a well designed rhetorical trick. In any case, the question of who bears the onus of proof - theists or athiests - seems to me to be a distraction. Both sides have the same evidential constraints.

    In my experience, many athiests wrongly consider that their views on this quintessential philosophical question are supported by "science", or that somehow "science" has negated the views of the other side. It is a mistake Richard Dawkins makes frequently.

    The last thing I would query (this not being the forum for a point by point) is Dawkins' claim to be both an athiest and in awe of his apparently meaningless universe. The athiest existentialists described a arbitrary existence - the term often used to describe the tension between that existence, free will, and a profoundly pointless universe is "the absurd". (A view, incidentally, that can be traced back at least as far as "all is vanity".) And despite its obvious practical merit, the humanists' meta-ethical position lacks a compelling theoretical justification.

    None of which is to say the athiests are wrong. Its just that the implications aren't nearly as pretty as they like to make out, and the evidence in support of their primary assertion is no stronger than the evidence favouring their adversaries.

    Since Nov 2006 • 602 posts Report Reply

  • Clarke,

    As it turns out, most religions makes claims about their beleif being the right one. So you can't just shrug your shoulders, and say, "Each to their own", or "Doesn't everyone have their own set of beliefs and we should respect that."

    Deborah's point is well made. The problem with religion is not that there are enormous logical holes in its view of the world, it's the claim that despite these, it's still right.

    I'd be quite happy if religions weren't so absolutist. I could look at the Satanists or the Harvey Krishnas or the Misogynists (oops, sorry, I meant Catholics) and think "each to their own." Of course, I'd probably mark them down about 30 points in IQ, but there you go.

    It's when they show up at my front door and claim - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that their particular brand of interpretation of some bronze-age creation myths is completely and utterly correct. Just bizarre.

    Religions are fine. But absolutism of any kind - nazism, totalitariansim, religious fundamentalism - should be treated as the mental illness it so clearly is.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • Don Christie,

    "What is he afraid of? Someone might come up with an answer he hasn't? It isn't about answers, it is about understanding."

    No, I think you and others profoundly misunderstand Dawkins' positision. He would rather ignore religion. He would rather continue to write great books like the Selfish Gene, Blind Watchmaker, Ancestors Tale andcarry out his research into evolution without having to bother with religion at all.

    The problem is that alot of influential religious figures (the Pope, and people who until recently had a hotline to Bush) would rather he did not do this. The seem to believe that Darwinnism is a herasy that should not be taught at our schools. They try to influence scientific research and debate with mock science. I read an interesting article the other day about how many applications for research funding mentioned "God". Also interesting and scary to see how much state funding in various western countries is being shoveled into "faith based" schools.

    So, Dawkins is pissed off, and it shows. This kind of attack on science should have stopped with Galeleo and the renaissence, its resurgence is scary and I am glad that someone of Dawkins stature is willing to stand up to those kind of attacks. If religion in general is exposed to soe ridicule on the way, all well and good. I am sure it will survive. Scientists and science, in the past, have not been so lucky.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1616 posts Report Reply

  • Damian White,

    It seems to me that agnosticism is the only strictly rational position on spirituality. Unfortunately, many athiests prefer not to accept that their own religious belief (the unprovable assertion that there is no god) is open to serious critique.

    True, but surely this is solely due to the infinite space/time paradox that all such debates are limited to - atheism, as a belief, lacks the quantifiable parameters that empirical, scientific rigour needs to work with . . . thus, no atheistic stance can ever be scientifically proven. In comparision Agnosticism, the great sitting-on-the-fence, doesn't make a claim that requires any burden of proof, neatly side-stepping this whole issue.

    And it is that burden of proof that the various Flying Spaghetti Monster-esque metaphors address, by demonstrating the folly of applying such to what is essentially an 'infinite' null-hypothesis.

    Douglas Adams adds a lot of ammunition to this whole debate in this interview on his own stringent atheism.

    And amen to that.

    :)

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17 posts Report Reply

  • Nick Melchior,

    quote>It seems to me that agnosticism is the only strictly rational position on spirituality. Unfortunately, many athiests prefer not to accept that their own religious belief (the unprovable assertion that there is no god) is open to serious critique.</quote>

    I'm not sure that the absence of something needs to be proved. Surely the responsibility is on the person asserting the presence of soemthing which there is no measure for?

    Melbourne • Since Nov 2006 • 31 posts Report Reply

  • Hamish,

    I'm not sure that the absence of something needs to be proved.

    It it can't be, which is more or less the point of Agnostism.

    But Agnostism is just I don't know.. it's a pointless system because it means you have to be agnostic about everything that could 'possibly' be true, but you are not sure. The agnostic cannot say that they don't believe anything at all - which is completely meaningless. Agnostics remove themselves from the arguement, but it says nothing about what is, or isn't, true.

    The A.K. • Since Nov 2006 • 152 posts Report Reply

  • Hamish,

    Unfortunately, many athiests prefer not to accept that their own religious belief (the unprovable assertion that there is no god) is open to serious critique.

    That is EXACTLY the kind of poor logic that riles Atheists. Something that is 'unprovable' is not false - there is very little that is 'provable'. You cannot 'prove' that a ball will fall if you drop it, but the overwhelming body of evidence supports the 'unprovable assertion' that gravity will cause the ball to drop.

    It is not about preference - if you look at the overwhelming body of scientific evidence then the natural conclusion is that supernatural beings are highly unlikely.

    Feel free to point us in the direction of serious critique based on sound science that says otherwise.

    The A.K. • Since Nov 2006 • 152 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    I'm very surprised it took until page three of this discussion before some mentioned the Pastafarians.

    In a recent New Scientist podcast (I don't know how to link to it) physicist Paul Davies discusses the problem of how the universe appears to be just right for life. If any of the fundamentals of the universe were just a fraction different then no life could have evolved.

    I love the discussions about the universe being perfectly suited for us and why that is so. I come from a mathematics background and so we often look at pi to answer this.

    Can a universe where pi=3 (or 4 or 1,000,000.987) exist? The answer is: yep. but then everything else changes too. The life that eveloves in that universe may then think "why is it that our universe is so well suited to us?"

    If you catch my meaning, we're looking in the wrong direction. The universe isn't suited to us, we are suited to the universe. Thinking about it the first way makes humans a universal constant.

    I still don't understand how Collins in the original arguement can say that [his biblical] God is outside the system but acts directly upon it? If he was doing experiments with gas in a sealed chamber would he claim any amazing results were caused by something in the other room? It makes no sense.

    Still I'm sure we'll solve it all soon. :)

    ps. don't pick on the Hari Krisnas and the Satanists, they seem to be the only religions that can have fun with non-believers (and the Haris cook a mean feed!)

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2081 posts Report Reply

  • Damian White,

    Something that is 'unprovable' is not false - there is very little that is 'provable'.

    Hear hear . . .

    . . . from the afore-referenced Douglas Adams interview, when asked about 'proof' with respect to his atheism:

    I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view. My view is that the moon is made of rock. If someone says to me “Well, you haven’t been there, have you? You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” - then I can’t even be bothered to argue. There is such a thing as the burden of proof, and in the case of god, as in the case of the composition of the moon, this has shifted radically. God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17 posts Report Reply

  • Clarke,

    I'm not sure that the absence of something needs to be proved. Surely the responsibility is on the person asserting the presence of soemthing which there is no measure for?

    From memory, this is one of Dawkin's points. By saying there is a god, believers are positing a hypothesis which has implications in the real world. It's generally up to the person proposing the theory to gather proof, rather than simply putting it out there and expecting everyone else to disprove it.

    This is the thing about science - it generally has no problem saying "there's lots of stuff we don't know, and some of the stuff we do know may well turn out to be wrong once we learn some more." The alarming thing about many religions is that they claim "everything can be explained by reading this holy book, and everything in the book is 100% true." This just seems ... I dunno ... perverse.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • Josh Addison,

    In the case of the atheist vs. the theist, the burden of proof is on the theist; in the case of the atheist vs. the agnostic, the burden of proof is on the atheist.

    The term "agnostic" has developed a few meanings over time. When it was first coined by T. H. Huxley (a good buddy of Darwin's, incidentally), it was defined as more of an attitude than a specific belief - the idea was just that you shouldn't pretend certainty when it's not justified. Using this definition, you are welcome to believe anything you want about the existence of God, provided you don't claim that your beliefs are immune to possible future revision. So it is possible to be an "agnostic atheist" or an "agnostic theist" or, as is more common these days, and "agnostic doesn't-really-give-a-shit-either-way"...

    Onehunga, Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 297 posts Report Reply

  • Damian White,

    I love the discussions about the universe being perfectly suited for us and why that is so. I come from a mathematics background and so we often look at pi to answer this.

    Hell yeah . . . it's for this reason alone that I can't fathom why some people turn to religion: why do you need to believe in some toga-wearing old dude with a big white beard for a sense of wonder, when you have the near-perfect harmony of evolution to gaze on in awe?

    Even in simply a terrestrial sense, where we are as a species is an amazing example of the beauty of the evolutionary process in and of itself. That feeling of 'the universe being perfectly suited for us' is purely based on 'us' being the continued 'optimal' choice for countless decisions/selections made over the past squazillion years . . .

    . . . so rather than the universe being perfectly suited to us, from a socio-evolutionary background it's more a case of 'us' being the perfect 'product' of a series of selections for the optimal competitor relative to that universe.

    In this sense, we can't not be perfectly suited to it . . . and I personally find that understanding much more satisfying than any thought of being the 'miracle' (sic) of some divine creator, who conveniently exists outside of space, time, and any other parameters that could/would lead to a tangible reference to its existence.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17 posts Report Reply

  • Don Christie,

    Er, is this the view so many are afraid of being imposed on Auckland by the evil Wellington politician Mallard?

    Colour me bemused.

    The idea of a direct ferry from Devonport appeals as well.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1616 posts Report Reply

  • Neil Morrison,

    Hayden, you might like to check out Paul Davies' background before dismissing him as a "Pastafarian".

    That the universe happens to be just right for life and that even an extremely small variation in the fundamental constants would mean no life what so ever - not different life - is a bone fide puzzle in physics circles.

    Since Nov 2006 • 932 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    You haven’t seen it for yourself, so my view that it is made of Norwegian Beaver Cheese is equally valid” - then I can’t even be bothered to argue

    The question of whether the universe has a cause is not like the question of whether the moon is made of cheese.

    The argument is between theism, on its strongest formulation, and atheism, on its strongest formulation. The invocation of bronze age theology, the death of Galileo, or teapots in orbit does not advance this debate.

    It's generally up to the person proposing the theory to gather proof, rather than simply putting it out there and expecting everyone else to disprove it.

    In my view both the theist and the atheist are making claims they need to prove, rather than simply assert. Both views have implications for the real world. Have a look at the difference between Aristotle's virtue ethics and Nietzsche's.

    God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything

    I don't necessarily accept this proposition, and consider that the difference between intelligent design and theistic evolution is not widely understood. Dawkins' account that time and chance alone are solely responsible for both our universe and life is plausible, but no more than that. This is where science, philosophy and religion start to intersect.

    Lastly, I'd like to say that I enjoyed reading all the thoughtful comments on this.

    Since Nov 2006 • 602 posts Report Reply

  • Malcolm 141,

    Okay, lets have a look at the "Universe is just right" argument.

    First, is God amenable to proof or disproof? If you want to regard mysteries in physics as proof, then you need to accept the possibilities of disproofs as well, or your position become incoherent and self-serving.

    Second, why must this coincidence be a property of the physical world? Could it not equally be a property of our number systems? That is, we just happen to measure things in a way that make them seem spookily just right.

    Third, even if you accept an external agent has interefered with the laws of nature, how does this prove "God"? Could it not equally prove Powerful Aliens, Satan, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or anything else? If there were such a being, why should they be interested in us, compared to the other 2 trillion civilisations in the Universe. Maybe they set up the Universe as a Zoo. Or as a cruel computer game? Perhaps our Purpose is to test the theory that no amount of misery will lead to species suicide?

    Even if somebody did design the Universe, there is no reason to think they are *nice* or interested in *us*.

    Since Nov 2006 • 15 posts Report Reply

  • Hamish,

    The invocation of bronze age theology, the death of Galileo, or teapots in orbit does not advance this debate.

    Actually, it does. Bronze age theism was equally 'valid' a world-view for what was known by people at the time. The arguements for Religion have changed to accomodate scientific discoveries down the ages - but the underlying theme remains the same.

    In my view both the theist and the atheist are making claims they need to prove, rather than simply assert.

    Claiming that something doesn't exist is not a 'provable' claim. Logically, it is invalid to ask someone to prove that something doesn't exist. It's not a matter of not wanted to, or ignoring facts, or being contrite. If I say I have super-powers, you cannot prove me wrong. But the burden of proof still lies with me to prove a claim that I'm making. If you 'claim' I don't, then it is up to me to settle the claim.

    ...the difference between intelligent design and theistic evolution is not widely understood

    What is 'theistic' evolution?

    The A.K. • Since Nov 2006 • 152 posts Report Reply

  • Clarke,

    In my view both the theist and the atheist are making claims they need to prove, rather than simply assert. Both views have implications for the real world.

    As Dawkins points out, he's not saying that god doesn't exist ... he's just saying that based on the evidence we see in the real world it's incredibly unlikely that god exists. And the chance that a putative "god" looks anything like the Jewish or Christian god is even lower.

    The problem with the theist approach is that god has to be completely binary in their worldview - he/she/it simply has to exist, otherwise the whole philosophic house ofcards collapses. Imagine the Lord's Prayer if there was any doubt about god's existence:

    "Our Father, who may or may not be in heaven (we're not 100% sure on this one and the evidence is getting a bit thin), hallowed be thy name ..."

    Religions use the existence of god as the first principle from which all else is derived. ("In the beginning was the Word ...") There is simply no room for uncertainty. This is why the burden of proof rests with the theists - because if you're 100% certain that something exists, you'd better be able to pony up the evidence.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 78 posts Report Reply

  • Neil Morrison,

    The Goldilocks universe wasn't put forward as an argument for God. I would have thought the challenging thing about Davies' views was that life could somehow retrospectively influence the universe's creation.

    (the numbers represent things like the relative strenghts of the fundamental forces so it's not a querk of any particular number system)

    Since Nov 2006 • 932 posts Report Reply

  • Hamish,

    Could it not equally be a property of our number systems? That is, we just happen to measure things in a way that make them seem spookily just right.

    Not quite - if the gravitational constant (for example) was out by an extremely small amount (I forget how much, but in the order of a millionth of a percent) the universe could not form in the way that it has.

    However, I think it is odd that people so quickly dismiss the possibility of life forming in other universe types. When you consider the sheer complexity of DNA, how can we assume that other types of universes cannot possibly support life. There is no way we could conceive of DNA a priori - then to assume that some kind of equivalent process could not happen in other universes is a huge claim.

    The A.K. • Since Nov 2006 • 152 posts Report Reply

  • Damian White,

    The invocation of bronze age theology, the death of Galileo, or teapots in orbit does not advance this debate.

    . . . but it does. Any debate on atheism vs. agnosticism vs. faith will always come down to the burden of proof; as each side demands that the other provide some sort of back up for their stance. But as Agnosticism inherently doesn't make a claim that needs refuting, and as faith can always rest on it's laurels of being belief-based and thus fundamentally not requiring proof, thus that burden of proof tends to fall on the atheist.

    However, as atheism is inherently the lack of a belief, then theoretically the evidence it would need to provide is evidence that something doesn't exist. By empirical science this is essentially an infinite null-hypothesis . . . and as most people can't actually conceptualize that, thus the metaphorical representation of the sheer foolishness of doing such has come about, firstly by Betrand Russell's teapot, then followed by the Pink Unicorn (I think?) and of course His High And Mighty Noodly-Appendaged One.

    By establishing this infeasibility, the burden of proof is placed squarely back on the shoulders of those that claim a god exists in the first place . . .

    . . which sorta makes sense, as both atheism and agnosticism are essentially relative concepts -- i.e. each referring to a given 'belief', and how one choses to accept it, or not.

    So surely any such call for 'proof' should begin with the initial assumption/claim -- i.e. that such a god exists -- that atheists then disbelieve . . .

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 17 posts Report Reply

  • Sarah Wedde,

    I feel a bit sorry for Dawkins really. Leaving behind a career in something as fascinating as evolutionary biology just to get his panties tied in a knot over religion? He's either addicted to the bitch fight or a true martyr.

    Lower Hutt • Since Nov 2006 • 66 posts Report Reply

  • Matt Taylor,

    I think everyone's missed the most important point in this blog. That "Kiwi" you tube. Just bloody brilliant mate.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 2 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    Hamish,

    As you can tell by the fact I'm referring you to a wiki, I'm no expert, but...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theistic_evolution#Evolutionary_biologists_who_were_also_theists

    Since Nov 2006 • 602 posts Report Reply

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