Saturday, 18 June 2011

Life, the Universe and that sort of stuff

Light Echo

I was listening in on a conversation between my wife and my brother-in-law about the existence of God the other day. I can't remember how the debate started but it finished with him professing open mindedness on the subject. There might be Something, he thought. Who was he to say?
He tends toward the atheist and the sceptic generally but he didn't want to be dogmatic about it, and neither do I. I feel no need to gratuitously trash other people's belief systems. Belief in some sort of Almighty has a venerable history and here in the UK at least it seems harmless enough and if it means that ordinary people are more likely to get organised and do Good than they might otherwise I'm all for it. And I love old churches, choral music and renaissance paintings.
There is something odd about the whole Existence of God debate though. It's strange to me that there even is a debate. My Bro-in-Law's point as I understand it was that there are so many holes in the science (origins of the universe, evolution, consciousness) - so much we don't know, that, well, why not? Maybe there is a God. Who knows?
It sounds generous and broad-minded. And he's right - Science doesn't know Everything - not by a long way, and probably never will. Anybody who keeps up with the Popular Science media will know that there's a big question about all the matter that is supposed to have formed in The Big Bang. The sums just don't add up, apparently. They call the missing stuff Dark Matter but they know that doesn't explain anything. And then there's all the Anti-Matter. Supposedly there should have been equal quantities of Matter and Anti-matter in The Beginning, but nobody knows where the Anti-Matter's gone.
And anyway, how did the universe big-bang itself out of nothingness to begin with?
Maybe there's a God.

I've been watching the Faithful and The Atheists butt heads on this since I was a teenager, and I've joined in as a sort of Agnostico-atheist. (ie. It's impossible to prove that God doesn't exist, but it seems unlikely and way too convenient.) I personally have a background in ecology so I tend to get embroiled in the Evolution debate rather than the Physics, and I've had some memorable arguments with Evolution Deniers, trying laboriously to explain to them how an eye could possibly happen without being Designed by some sort of Intelligence. I found myself having to go back and back, trying to explain about the function of the lense and then the chemistry of the retina and then nerve function half remembered from my first year Biology. I'd have had to go on to explain about Evo-Devo and Precambrian ecology, in none of which am I an expert. Half the problem was that they just didn't have enough Biology to be able to imagine how it might happen (and yet they expected their opinions to be taken seriously). I don't know the details but I can sort of imagine. The evolution of an eyeball is just not that outlandish to me.
But in any case there was a better argument that only occurred to me later. (Don't they always?)

What I should have said was 'Ok, so you can't imagine how an eyeball could possibly evolve by natural selection. What is your alternative hypothesis?'
They'd look at me like I was an idiot and go 'The Intelligent Designer/Creator is the alternative hypothesis. Have you not been listening?'
And I'd go 'But what do you know about this Intelligent Designer/Creator? Where is it? How does it work? What's it made of? What does it want? How big is it?' And I'd guess they'd say... Well I don't know what they'd say. If they were coming from a religious point of view I guess they might say something mystical about 'The Unknowable'. If they were trying to be more scientific about it they might reiterate the point about the gaps in our scientific knowledge of the universe, which I concede are huge, but that doesn't mean we know nothing.

Going back to the Big Bang conundrum, there are huge gaps in our knowledge but we do know things. We know a fair bit about energy and matter and gravity and how they work. We know a bit about stars and subatomic particles. We have the Hubble Space Telescope and the LHC. We can do the maths and we can form hypotheses and we can test them. To be sure, it's quite a leap to take the physics of objects here on earth and to apply it to objects that existed billions of years ago at the dawn of time. The point though is, even if we had almost no evidence and practically no theories to go on, our knowledge would still be infinitely greater than our knowledge of The Creator, because on that, we have absolutely nothing.
So this is my question. Why is it that Atheists even enter into a conversation with Theists as if there is something to be discussed, as if they are in some sort of equivalent position? The very attempt at an Atheist response gives Theism a status that it does not have.
In fact even if we knew absolutely nothing of the science of the Origins of the Universe that would still not justify the assumption that some Unknown Being was involved.
Our relative ignorance of the science is not comparable to our absolute ignorance of the Creator. They are not comparable hypotheses. There's simply nothing to discuss.

Most Theists of course are coming at the question from a position of Faith.
Simply believing in something even though you have absolutely nothing that could count as evidence in a rational scientific debate is a venerable position and I have nothing to say about that (or not here anyway).
Most people of faith however are not so rigorous. Most do, sooner or later want to claim that they also have some kind of material evidence of His existence. (They may also claim that the Scientists have their own faith - in reason, materialism or some such - something I could refute, but not right now. Another time perhaps.)
Usually though their argument boils down to something like 'Well how else do you explain it?'

This is the problem with My Bro-in-Law's Open-Mindedness, because you could explain it any way you like. You could advocate any of the myriad creation myths that exist and have existed around the world throughout history. You could claim that the stars were sprinkled from the Breasts of the Sky Goddess. You could claim that the universe hatched from an egg. You could say that the universe was sneezed from the nose of the Great Green Arkleseisure. They're all at least as plausible as the idea that there is some unknown being out there, that, for unknown reasons and by unknown means, brought the universe into being out of nothing. Calling It God or The Intelligent Designer simply gives our ignorance a name. It does not even begin to explain anything.

31 comments:

Vincent said...
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paulgrand said...

Vincent;"Religion establishes equality amongst all"
Have you seen the bigots that head most churches?
Where is the inclusion of gays etc?

No, religion merely propagates the outdated dogma
from the times where humans needed feeling safe from the unknown.

Nice one Steve!:-)

Vincent said...
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paulgrand said...

"I don't follow any religion, but nor am I bigoted against those who do"

I'm pleased to hear it, but what I wont do, is stand back whilst people coolly smooth over the never ending injustices of organized religion.

To answer the question, some people still feel a need for religion to fill that 'existential hole' in their lives. Wither it be through a family tradition or a new found thing.

Steve Law said...

Sorry I'm late chaps
I didn't get an alert to tell me you'd responded.
First up Vincent - I think this notion of the 'supremacy' of reason and science is a big misunderstanding.
I see science and reason simply as Useful – not transcendent or all-encompassing. I value them over faith and ignorance for precisely the same reason I value a mechanic who knows his stuff over a well-meaning friend when it comes to getting the car fixed. If I was concerned about The Meaning Of Life though... actually I don't know who I'd go to. I’ve never really seen why people think there might be such a thing, but anyway...

I think the problem here is that you see reason/science as in some way equivalent to faith/spirituality - contenders for the same realm of truth and meaning. A lot of people make this mistake.
Science is not like that. Science is something much more humble. Science is only about discovering what we can know using reason and material evidence. It may be that not everything is open to that sort of investigation. If so it’s not the realm of science.

(I have had a go at faith incidentally. I do know what it’s like - Christianity, Buddhism and Paganism and some ill defined New-Ageism but ultimately I've never been able to kid myself that my 'beliefs' were anything other than comforting stories. Maybe I just haven't suffered enough.)

Paul - I think the problem with your view is the mirror image of Vincent's. We shouldn't get side-tracked by the horrible things people do in the name of their organisations - whether it be science, religion, business or politics. There are arrogant and cynical, brutal and bigoted people in every area of life. People can corrupt anything. It doesn't necessarily make the underlying idea a bad one.

paulgrand said...
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Steve Law said...

I think this has missed the point completely.
Firstly, nobody - least of all me, is trying to say that the Christian church doesn't have an appalling human rights record. We all know that. I could point out similar atrocities perpetrated in the name of any other religion, but also by commercial, nationalist and political groups - capped off by 'atheist' Nazis and Stalinists. We all know this.
Christianity has no monopoly on brutality.
Secondly I hoped we could get beyond a simplistic 'Religion is evil' vs 'Science is evil' slanging match. It's not PC to say that the truth is more complicated than that and it's not what the posting was about.
Did either of you even read it?

Vincent said...
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Steve Law said...

Obviously you can write what you like. I'm just extremely bored with the old atheist vs religious argument. There's endless stuff already written about that. I was trying to make a different point here - one I don't hear elsewhere.

Incidentally - one pertinent point you make - the religious do regularly offer material evidence in the form of miracles and other 'inexplicable' phenomena - the amazingness of nature, the mystery of consciousness etc. That's what the post is about.

For example Thought For The Day this morning used our 'universal impulse for freedom' as evidence (with reference to Aung San Suu Kyi doing the Reith Lectures). How could this be explained? Not Darwin or neurology. It must be God.

paulgrand said...

So sorry, I feel i've been sent to the headmasters office and have been given the lines;
"You will answer the question given, not your own"!
Which is precisely why I was academically crap at school.
Also, sorry to remove my last post, as I've just signed a contract with a very famous US based international company, so I cant afford to leave anything online that could bite me in future.:-(

Steve Law said...

Wow - seriously? I hope they're worth it. Are you afraid the CIA will be after you?

Well you both come over as pretty irate. I think it's in the nature of the subject matter that it gets people going.

Rest assured no comment on your academic credentials was intended.

paulgrand said...

Actually, I'm fairly laid back about the subject,
but it felt good to purge!

I just re-read your wittering above, and cant actually see what the question was? And so perhaps shouldn't have entered into it in the first place.

As for being scared of the CIA, where did that come from? o_O

Vincent said...
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Steve Law said...

I think I'm saying something more radical than The God Of The Gaps argument, but in any case, I do hear supposedly intelligent theists and atheists both arguing as if they've never heard of it.
At any rate the point is not made as often as it should be.
I try to keep up with current debates, but, as I admit at the top of the page (see Why Do I Bother?) I'm no expert.
Sorry if I've wasted your time.

Vincent said...
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Steve Law said...

No but the God of the Gaps argument is pretty basic. Even I've heard of it.

paulgrand said...

I'd never heard of God of the Gaps before yesterday, I googled it but I still cant get my head around what they are on about.
The search took me to a German priest who was hung with piano wire just 2 weeks before his concentration camp was liberated during WW2. He's called Bonhoeffer. There's even a German movie of the same name.
Fascinating but dangerous stuff....

Steve Law said...

I think, as i understand it (and it's a long time ago I did this stuff) it's very simply the idea that when religious people find things they can't explain rationally or scientifically (ie a gap in our knowledge) instead of doing more research or accepting that they don't know they simply say God did it. God conveniently fills the gaps.
Vincent?

paulgrand said...

Lol, got it now, thanks!:-)

Vincent said...
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Vincent said...
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Steve Law said...

Vincent - you seem determined to counter a point i never made. (I ask again - did you read the original post or did you just assume you knew what i'd have to say in advance?
"Religion - Atheists? Aha - I know what this one will be about")
I explicitly said "Simply believing in something even though you have absolutely nothing that could count as evidence in a rational scientific debate is a venerable position and I have nothing to say about that (or not here anyway)."
And in a later comment "you see reason/science as in some way equivalent to faith/spirituality - contenders for the same realm of truth and meaning... Science is something much more humble. Science is only about discovering what we can know using reason and material evidence. It may be that not everything is open to that sort of investigation. If so it’s not the realm of science."

Finally you say "The sun and moon are just as awesome as they were when Stonehenge was built. Astronomy has just added an extra dimension to the mystery. Evolution doesn’t diminish the sense of wonder at Nature’s creations."
Absolutely - And so say all of us scientists. We don't do science because we think nature is a bit boring and ordinary. We do it because we think it's wonderful.
So... what exactly were we arguing about?

Vincent said...
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Steve Law said...

Of course, but I feel the need to keep it relevant. Since i've gone to the trouble of raising a specific point it seems only polite...
(Quite possibly my original point was not explained well enough, but I'm always happy to clarify.)

Anyway I don't want my Blog to become just another forum for other people's bonnet-bees. I have enough of my own.
Perhaps you could promote your 'Reason Is Evil' campaign on your own blog - see what they make of it?

Vincent said...
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Vincent said...
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Vincent said...

Hi Steve, I've stopped sulking now & decided to take your advice & let the bees out of my bonnet to swarm in a new post over at my hive. (forthcoming)

Thanks for the advice, I owe you a pint of your favourite tipple.

Steve Law said...

Well it's heady stuff, and it can feel hurtful. It's difficult to find the balance between being forthright in tackling the issues raised (and indeed 'chairing the meeting') and trying to stay friends.

Ian Van Groove said...

"I may be agnostic but I just don't know", "Thank God for atheism" & "Thank Christ for Darwin" to coin but three fave phrases!

(Sorry, haven't got anything useful to add to this 'meaningful' debate)

Steve Law said...

Silliness is entirely acceptable.

Vincent said...

In view of John Myste's "sorrow" at the deletion of my comments here, and my reference to this conversation when putting my bees into a new hive on this post, I've taken the liberty to reconstitute, so far as possible, the conversation thread in this special post.

I shall try to be more silly in future, as well as unreasonable.