the impotent cry against reason and logic

June 8, 2013

far future city

Ever since the New Atheists arrived on the scene, there’s be a loud, wailing siren from religious and humanities pundits decrying the idea that we could use science to explain the universe that we occupy. Generally their argument for why we can’t use reason and experiments to clear up a lot of mysteries and what makes us tick boils down to "how dare you say you can explain all this complexity and wonder in math and mechanistic descriptions?" And that’s really as far as it goes because their objection to using science to explain their pet topics in the language of formulas, statistics, and data sets is that it takes away a mystery they so desperately wanted to preserve for another sermon or tome of nebulous ponderings on the human condition. While researchers and engineers see the beauty in knowing how things work, science-phobic pontificators rush to the fainting couches, distraught that someone dare to explain their minds as sprawling networks neurons and accumulated experience alongside evolutionary mechanisms.

If you’re one of those people who needs to be a mysterious, delicate snowflake who is just way too complicated and nuanced to study, I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. Knowing how the world around us works in scientific, mechanistic language is how we build modern societies, land on a different world, send robots into deep space, and find cures for what ails us. If you refuse to see how knowing what makes the universe tick gives your existence even more meaning and a very enviable ability to modify the world to accomplish something, even to a small extent, that is your personal problem. Now, far be it from me to say that literature or religions never made profound contributions to humanity because they have. But what they couldn’t do was to find and confirm solid, experimentally proven, reliable answers to big questions about who we are and where we might be going. Science has given us a vast, complex, mysterious universe, and they’re upset that we can derive some algebra to try and explain how a few bits of it fit together?

Consider this. If you’re loudly and publicly rebelling against the scourge of "arrogant scientism" but you’ve ever tried something to find out what will happen and then repeated your experiment to confirm it, you’re a hypocrite. You relied on the scientific method to answer your question, not those nebulous "other ways of knowing." Come to think of it, what are all of these "other ways of knowing" we hear invoked so often by both a fundamentalist zealot with a mind wide shut, and a crunchy New Ager with equal zeal? Voices of an omnipotent deity? The universe telling you that we’re all connected in a creationist fantasy for left wing anti-intellectuals? That’s just your brain making shit up to put it bluntly. You can attend philosophical seminars and conventions of tweed suit-clad graybeards, huffing and puffing, and looking serious, saying "isn’t life so mysterious?" as Tim Minchin once put it, and rage against the fact that science can explain things that were once said to be off limits to mere mortals. It won’t change the fact that it’s our ability to explore, dissect, catalog, explain, and predict though science that makes us who we are.

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  • Todd Smutz

    Valid way of putting it (and I’m not an atheist – nor do I strictly refute the scientific method). On a different matter, your neurons caused you to miss a couple typos. (That was a joke, not a jab.)

  • gfish3000

    Yeah, my neurons are not wired well enough to catch them all…

  • Dar Norris

    In the last ten years or so some people in my family have battled and prevailed in their fight with cancer. Many surrounding family members becoming more religious as a consequence and quick to credit god for the positive outcomes. Never thanking the long years of science that brought about not just the hope of a treatment but actual results. Medical advances and evolutionary biology have changed the history if our species yet there’s no emotional attachment to it. If the concept of a god lives only in the mind of believers and they give all credit to this god then what they are really doing is taking credit for not just medical cures but everything science has brought to make their lives longer and bearable. Now that’s hubris.

  • Russ Toelke

    Religion has steadfastly clung to its mysteries, but the biggest mystery to me is the number 14 billion. Years. The Big Bang.
    Science has a long way to go to determine just where we came from.
    Raised Catholic (since lapsed), even as a child I wondered just how the biblical God could create an Earth in seven days when the days we know now on Earth weren’t even a concept yet. (I did better in elementary science than I did in catechism classes, much to my mother’s chagrin.) :)
    Genesis, to my ears, is an allegory. Maybe that God’s days are 2 billion years long.
    Whatever, whoever started the universe we observe is what we call “God.” The scientific discoveries in cosmology we read about these days sound more and more like the Genesis fables I heard as a child, fables being how my mind took them after I learned rudimentary scientific reasoning. It is a book of allegories- written for the mindset of the nascent human population of the day, who were barely beginning to dare to challenge religion and its rulers with observations and experimental evidence.
    The trouble with anti-atheist religious nuts today is that they take such stories as fact rather than the fables they are. They unnecessarily pound solid science seemingly because it’s too much to absorb too quickly. The mystery is so much easier to lean on, since that’s what they were taught, and by golly, if new science comes at ’em too fast and furious, they’ll fall back on their old reliable beliefs.
    I have respect for Dawkins’s reasoning in The God Delusion, but he omits any theories or explanation for our beginnings other than the inference that “we just are.” The supernatural, or what religions call miracles, is dismissed with Dawkins’s personal anecdotes from his own childhood- barely a mention. Could miracles be a sort of quantum entanglement? By inferring that we just “snapped” into existence, while having little to no explanation for what caused that existence, Dawkins dances dangerously close to the edge of being a theist himself.
    To me, the scientific method should keep open the possibility that there could be a God. I really don’t see any explanation for the universe just exploding on the scene out of nothing. There is zero evidence for such a God, but just a year ago the only evidence we had for the Higgs Boson was math. Well, what about 14 billion? That’s a number that screams for explanation.
    I by no means subscribe to the fallacy that since you can’t disprove God (or Santa Claus for that matter), therefore he must exist, but doesn’t 14 billion, a finite number, beg us to allow for the possibility that we are a creation of something bigger?
    Atheism, to me, would be more legitimate if it was open-minded about just what it is the world’s religions call their respective gods rather than summarily dismissing them.
    At the same time I might not be lapsed if religion wouldn’t lean so hard on its mysteries while making money off deceiving its followers into believing the written words intended for relatively uneducated audiences from centuries ago were pseudo-facts brought down from on high.

    For humanity to find the common ground and ultimately answer the one question science and religion both ask, science must at least entertain the theory that we were summoned into existence by a higher power, and religion must admit that written words from centuries ago could in fact have been embellished much like stories told around the campfire.

    Where did we come from?

  • Russ, first off, this is just the god of the gaps argument – you might as well say “magic” for all the explanatory power itherein. The reason science has produced all of the answers that it has is because that’s not an acceptable answer. More below.

    “Genesis, to my ears, is an allegory.”

    An allegory for what? Why couch the creation of the universe in nonsensical, misleading terms? There’s nothing about genesis that is phrased to make sense, even to bronze age people – how hard would it have been to say the planet took form from dust over thousands of years? How about light coming from the sun, instead of before it had even been created? The only reason anyone tries to use allegory and metaphor is because we’ve proven it all to be utter nonsense – before that, most people took it as fact.

    “I have respect for Dawkins’s reasoning in The God Delusion, but he omits any theories or explanation for our beginnings other than the inference that ‘we just are.’ ”

    A theory isn’t a wild guess – it’s a potential process to explain where we got the facts we have on hand. We arrived at the figure of 14 billion years by extrapolating backwards such things as the expansion of the universe, the residual radiation as it cools (CMB,) and the decay of fusion products, which all converge on not just a time period, but an apparent singularity (or close to it.) Since this is as far as physics can give evidence of, at least to current knowledge, everything before that is just speculation. We still have several speculative ideas for that, but no way of establishing the likelihood of them.

    However, if the “just are” explanation actually bothers you, why do you still find a god to be valid? Where did this god come from?

    “Atheism, to me, would be more legitimate if it was open-minded about
    just what it is the world’s religions call their respective gods rather
    than summarily dismissing them.”

    I think you’ll find that most atheists, and certainly science itself, is more than open-minded about creation – provided someone comes up with something much better, and more firmly evidenced, than a large collection of wildly disagreeing stories with no common factor other than “things began” (mind you, this includes all religions, not just one chosen arbitrarily.) Simply throwing out ideas, however, isn’t really useful.

    “For humanity to find the common ground and ultimately answer the one question science and religion both ask,…”

    Neither science nor religion asks that “one question.” Science asks millions of questions, mostly along the lines of “how does this work?”, only it seeks corroborating evidence. Religion doesn’t ask any questions, nor does it even answer them – it just asserts, often nonsense that cannot be applied to our lives in any way (which is why you’re resorting to the allegory idea to try and rescue it, rather than seeking something that really does answer questions.)

    “Where did we come from?”

    Gravitational attraction, nuclear fusion, chemical energy exchange, cell division – how many answers do you want? It seems clear you’re reluctant to accept any of them, even though they can all be demonstrated much better than “god.” The point is, can you accept the answers that you find, or do you only seek answers that you’re emotionally wedded to? That’s the difference between science and religion.

  • Every time I hear someone resorting to the “other ways of knowing” and “science can’t tell us everything” arguments, the only thing that I can determine is that they believe “knowing” translates to, “something I feel emotional about.” The most recent examples, in the rare cases where anyone has provided any examples at all, have been “history” and “literature.” Yet history is science, empirical all the way, even to determine that some historians have editorialized shamelessly. While literature might as well be compared to art, since it’s wildly subjective, despite our English teachers (change as appropriate) insisting that we should appreciate Steinbeck and Hemingway. All of those that enthuse about how religion provides insight and guidance and general good feelings somehow manage to ignore the countless forms of bigotry, class consciousness, and outright violence it also leads to – these, apparently, don’t count, or aren’t “knowing” in some way yet to be explained.

    Tellingly, most of those who spit on the floor every time they utter the word “scientism” appear to have only a rudimentary grasp of how science works in the first place, and nearly always resort to some wildly inaccurate example that is intended to show the failures of scientific thinking. Our knowledge base expands continually, however, in open defiance of those terrible limitations of empiricism…

  • Johnny

    I’m a little confused as to what to think about the humanities. I’m sure very few pro-science “gnu atheists” would reject the value in them. But they do seem to have a beef with science.

  • Russ Toelke

    My God (apologies), the multi-quotes.
    Perhaps in your excitement in finding several strawmen to (multi) quote, you missed the message as a whole. This is what seems clear to me, since I’ve already accepted every theory you accuse me of being reluctant to accept in that last paragraph. You can’t possibly know me, yet you’ve concluded as if you do.
    Stop it.
    And I’m aware of the god of the gaps: If it can’t be explained, must be God.
    I think I explained myself well enough; I don’t believe that a God must be disproved. I’m also aware of the changes science has brought, and kinda relish the way religion has taken those discoveries on the chin. (Again, maybe I’m not clear enough, but I figured there was enough context in my previous reply to make that assumption. Wouldn’t want to write *too* much; you may still be multi-quoting.)
    I’m saying we have 14 billion. Finite. Even if string theory or multiverse theory hold up, we could wind up some extreme number approaching infinity, but even with infinity, there still needs to be a basis. A start. Incubation of the whole mess.
    Science asks millions of questions, does it not? One more: who/what incubated/created/thought up gravitational attraction, nuclear fusion, chemical energy exchange, cell division (and all the other things you’re convinced I don’t accept)?

  • If you’re going to bring up numerous questions in a single post, you’re going to get multi-quotes in return so it’s clear what I was answering.

    If you interpret my answers as condescending, I apologize, that wasn’t the intention. But I was answering exactly your statements, without taking them out of context in the slightest.

    “I’m saying we have 14 billion. Finite. Even if string theory or multiverse theory hold up, we could wind up some extreme number approaching infinity, but even with infinity, there still needs to be a basis. A start. Incubation of the whole mess.”

    Okay, first off, why are you fixating on the 14 billion figure if you admit we have multiple ideas that this was not the start, just an event on a timeline?

    Second, NO, there does not have to be a “start, even with infinity” – it’s possible, but hardly a requirement. The very point of eternal is that there is no start and no end.

    The problem with believing that there is always an event that provokes a reaction is that you now have to explain what provoked *that* event, and end up in an infinite regression backwards, or quickly posit an eternal function of some kind. But everything we know about matter/energy (and the rules it follows) indicates that it *is* eternal – states change, but nothing appears and nothing disappears. So why would you need something more than this?

    I admit that it’s hard for us to imagine eternal states, or infinite existence, or spontaneous change, whatever. But there’s nothing that indicates this is anything more than a conceit of the mind, trapped in very finite bodies. We’re one of millions of evolved organisms with traits that helped us survive, and one of them is thinking in terms of pattern recognition and cause-and-effect scenarios. But because it was useful to us in a narrowly-defined environment doesn’t mean there’s a universal truth that everything has to have a cause.

  • Russ Toelke

    Apologies myself. I thought for a moment I saw a sign or two of signature phrases from a familiar internet foe/troll. I know this now not to be true.
    I agree that once we approach infinity/eternity, the regression becomes too absurd for our simple human minds to absorb. To paraphrase DeGrasse Tyson, there could be a more intelligent race of beings who find us simply not worth the time and effort to try and communicate with. They might see us as we see ants- organized and civilized, but still beneath their level of comprehension. Perhaps if/when we reach a higher level of consciousness eternity will make sense, what with the possibility that our universe of three (or four) observed dimensions could be only one of infinite universes encompassing the ten or eleven dimensions put forth by string theory.
    When science tells me we have much yet to discover and we’ve just begun to scratch the surface, it sounds to my ears much like, well… faith.
    I’m only trying to note the similarities between the questions both religion and science are chasing. The mistake religion is making is relying upon the relative simplicity of the human mind to line its coffers with the centuries-old “white-haired old man in the sky” allegories.
    The only thing I’ve ever heard or read in any scripture to try to convince religious followers that mankind is somehow somewhat special is that we were made in God’s image. Who’s to say that image is a visual match? Perhaps simple DNA is that image, and any God is just the allegorical 5th grader in a higher-consciousness race who placed some primordial DNA in his science fair test tube to see what would happen lo these 14 billion years ago.

  • Johnny

    You forgot another favorite of these people: Philosophy.