Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dear Typical Atheist: Please Stop Embarrassing Us

Someone is Wrong on the Internet (xkcd)I was raised Christian in a private Christian school, my entire extended family has always been Christian, and I didn't know any atheists to speak of until I became one (I love my family and friends tremendously even though I disagree with them, but I do wish I had had someone to share the journey with). Since then, my exposure to other atheists has been limited, split between self-advertised atheists and people who haven't cared enough to dig into the issues or argue the point, but would rather sleep in on Sunday mornings. I've also read a few relevant statistics, but they're notoriously unreliable for all kinds of reasons. As a result, I can't really profile the entire atheist cross-section of society, but almost every atheist or agnostic I've met has a few irritating viewpoints in common, and I'd like to systematically challenge those perspectives. (If anyone can point me towards counterexamples, please please get in touch with me).

Firstly, science does not unequivocally prove your case for atheism. Science, as a collection, is not a mass of truth or facts, but a mass of data. It's messy, it's ambiguous, and most of it is either outright wrong or just an approximation. You don't own Science, it's not your God, and if it happens to be in your favor it's only a matter of probability, not certainty.

Next, you don't sound as smart as you think repeating again and again that you don't believe the Bible because it's full of contradictions, and you look downright stupid making an official list of them. Wikipedia's full of contradictions, and so are you. My favorite example, Proverbs 26:4-5, is a litmus test of small-mindedness:
4 Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you will be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.

These verses are adjacent! Do you really think that this "contradiction" just slipped through the proofreading? Does this really have any bearing whatsoever on whether the Bible is worth believing?

In my opinion, most of the Bible is not very significant because it's not reasonably falsifiable: there are too many "escape clauses" and too few risky predictions. There are a few decent examples of self-contained arguments against the Bible's credibility, but for the most part you're not going to point to a group of passages in the Bible and raise many eyebrows, Christian or atheist.

There's one perspective that's only shared by agnostics and Christians, never atheists, but needs to be called out nonetheless: that it's impossible to be atheist because you can't prove God doesn't exist, and therefore there are only agnostics and believers. This claim is exactly as absurd as the reverse, that you can't be Christian because you can't prove beyond all doubt that God does exist (regardless of which perspective is better supported by evidence).

There's a similar attack stating that you can't really be a relativist because the statement "everything is relative" would have to be absolutely true, but again that perspective confuses two levels of assertion: the assertion itself (P), and the assertion that P is undeniable or absolute. I can easily state that I have no reason to believe anything is absolute. I'll save the relativism debate for another post, though.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Science with a capital S

The term science means many things to many people. One of the worst, in my opinion, is the idea of men in white lab coats in a fancy, expensive lab. The implication I find so frustrating is that science is restricted to certain people at certain times. If anything, most of the science has been squeezed out of the process by the time it gets to a laboratory. Science is not a mechanical process, and often it's the most prestigious people who hijack the process the most.

Growing up, I've been continually shocked how easy it is to be the first to discover something completely new. Kids assume that all the good discoveries have been taken, or put Einstein on a pedestal, but so many monumental ideas have come from unchecked curiosity rather than experience and training. Sure, all the movie stars tell kids that they can be anything they want if they follow their dreams, but it always has a sort of detached "stay in school, don't do drugs, and someday..." feel to it. I like to think that science isn't too good for the rest of us, and I hope that Wikipedia and similar efforts will start to make that a viable perspective.

A similar idea is that science is one of many alternatives, e.g. "Science can't tell us everything". I don't think it's stretching things much to say that just trusting our senses is the foundation of science, and the alternative is insanity. If you can't believe your senses, then miracles don't mean anything, either.

I believe the idea that emotions are an alternative to science is based on two fallacies: that emotions can be separated from "rational" thought, and that such disembodied emotions deserve to be the basis of truth. Marvin Minsky's book "The Emotion Machine" makes a wonderful case that what we think of as emotions and intuition are an inherent part of all thought, and that real genius comes from a certain balance of emotions. That said, if someone insists on pitting emotion or anything else against science in the arena of truth, then they're an agent of confusion and I can't afford to take them seriously.

I'd like to indict one other misconception, the idea that Science is a united, infallible force. I've seen way too many angsty teenagers (and adults) proclaim that Science is their god and that Science proves them right. Science is an incredibly error-prone process, and the people who think otherwise are doing it wrong. There's no authoritative collection of scientific truth, and many experiments are flawed or even faked, not to mention that the results have to be interpreted. True airtight proof is only a mental model, and if you're going to claim that you have all the answers then please find your own term. It isn't science.