Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: science (page 1 of 8)

Do we have free will?

I recently interviewed professor of neuroscience Thalia Wheatley for an episode of Talk the Talk, but at the tail end of the interview, I threw her a curveball and asked her about free will. I’ve been trying to understand this for a long time. Do we choose something, or does our brain just… do it? And if it does, what does that mean?

Here’s that part of our conversation.

Your browser does not support this audio

If you want some prep, here’s a video of Thalia with actor Alan Alda.

The rest of our interview will be appearing in an episode this August. Watch for it!

The LDS statement on DNA and the Book of Mormon

The LDS Church dropped their latest Big Essay this Friday. Friday’s the day that PR organisations drop press releases that they hope won’t attract a lot of attention. And that makes sense, because I don’t think anyone at Church HQ was looking forward to writing this one. It’s on DNA and the Book of Mormon.

There have already been some takedowns and discussion on the individual points it makes, and I’m not a population geneticist, so I’ll just defer to them.

But from my perspective, here are the interesting bits. In the second paragraph, we hit this:

Although the primary purpose of the Book of Mormon is more spiritual than historical, some people have wondered whether the migrations it describes are compatible with scientific studies of ancient America.

This was so jaw-dropping, I had to read it a couple of times. Are they actually backing away from the historicity of the Book of Mormon? It’s a very common tactic in apologetics to kick things a rung or two up the ladder of abstraction so they can’t be falsified, but this is a shift that I’ve never even seen hinted at. Weakening the historical case for the Book of Mormon is one step away from saying it didn’t happen. And that makes me wonder if church leaders even believe it anymore. Make no mistake, this is a meme to watch in the coming years.

Another tack I noticed is the Church’s retreat into obscurantism. Notice the kind of language they use:

Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples…

DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon provides little direct information about cultural contact between the peoples it describes and others who may have lived nearby.

Nothing is known about the extent of intermarriage and genetic mixing between Book of Mormon peoples or their descendants and other inhabitants of the Americas…

…the picture is not entirely clear.

One reason it is difficult to use DNA evidence to draw definite conclusions about Book of Mormon peoples is that nothing is known about the DNA that Lehi, Sariah, Ishmael, and others brought to the Americas.

It is possible that each member of the emigrating parties described in the Book of Mormon had DNA typical of the Near East, but it is likewise possible that some of them carried DNA more typical of other regions.

In the case of the Book of Mormon, clear information of that kind is unavailable.

it is quite possible that their DNA markers did not survive the intervening centuries.

…the evidence is simply inconclusive. Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples.

As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles observed, “It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”

Retreat into the unknown

What a lot of mealy-mouthed vacillation. Is this the same group that boldly proclaims that a god restored the everlasting gospel, and that we know for a surety of its truthfulness? But now, when there are questions about its foundational text, they sound like Hans Moleman. When you have the facts on your side, you state the facts. If someone’s trying to obscure things and retreat into uncertainty, you can bet they don’t have the facts on their side.

The phrase “Nothing is known about…” is repeated four times. Gee, it’s too bad they don’t have a… prophet or something to help them with that. It’s this kind of thing that made me realise that listening to a prophet is a really weird and unreliable method of getting information.

Possibilism

There’s also a heavy emphasis on the idea that “you can’t prove or disprove” the Book of Mormon story, with the implication that the probability of it being true or not is about 50-50. It’s not 50-50. The bulk of the probability that the Mormon story is true is vanishingly small, and shrinking. Yet some people will hold onto that tiny sliver of hope, as long as they think it’s still ‘possible’.

I call this possibilistic reasoning, by which I mean ‘a tendency to look only at the possible, holding onto one’s preconceptions until they’re conclusively disproven, one hundred and one percent’. This is how true believing Mormons hold onto their belief in the Church. God, Jesus, and the ghost of Joseph Smith could appear and tell them it was all a fake, and they’d write it off as the devil’s deception. They’ll ignore the bulk of probability, and hold onto the sliver. It’s the same way some of them reject evolution and climate change. The possibility that it’s wrong (and there’s always a possibility) is enough for them to reject it and keep going with whatever they like.

By contrast, probabilistic reasoning looks at the bulk of probability. How true is a thing likely to be, given the evidence we have? By this reasoning, evolution and climate change are extremely likely — not 100%, but close. And the Book of Mormon, with no evidence on its side, but a lot of strikes against it, is likely false.

When discussing this with my friend Mark Ellison, he remarked, “I think possibilistic reasoning is responsible for a great deal of intellectual evil,” and I’d have to agree.

So this DNA statement from the First Quorum of the Anonymous may be somewhat comforting to possibilistic reasoners who are trying to sustain their faith in the irrational, but it’s falling flat with people who are concerned with basing their views on the best evidence.

Education in reverse: Indonesian edition

Indonesia is planning to gut science and social studies in schools. What are they going to focus on instead?

You guessed it.

Millions of children in Indonesian elementary schools may no longer have separate science classes starting in June, the beginning of their next school year, if the government approves a curriculum overhaul that would merge science and social studies with other classes so more time can be devoted to religious education.

Why? What benefit could this provide?

Officials who back the changes say that more religious instruction is needed because a lack of moral development has led to an increase in violence and vandalism among youths, and that could fuel social unrest and corruption in the future.

“Right now many students don’t have character, tolerance for others, empathy for others,” Musliar Kasim, the deputy minister of education, said in an interview in November. He proposed the changes in September.

If the youth lack morality or tolerance, they won’t learn it from any holy books, be they Bibles or Korans. To build character, the kids should be learning from the very classes they’re cutting. Science encourages openness to real-world evidence, critical thinking, and honesty. Social studies gets kids to think about what it takes to live in a society with others. Religion just encourages dependence on imaginary beings.

If Indonesia wants to raise a generation of dummies, they’ve found the way to do it. Religion poisons everything.

The problem of evil and the incompetence of supernaturalism

Two articles crossed my screen today, and they’re a great example of the divide between rational thought and superstition.

They’re both about the gun tragedy at Sandy Hook, and the first one is written by a Catholic priest.

Now, believers in the Christian god have a bit of explaining to do when horrible things happen. That’s because they claim there’s a god who’s good, loving, and all-powerful, but who somehow fails to prevent evil things from happening. So after a tragedy, a reasonable question is: where was he? Is he really all that good if he has the power to prevent grade-school massacres, yet chooses not to? Here’s the theologian’s answer:

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger.

Well, that’s a bit pathetic. He doesn’t know? All that theological training, and he can’t answer a question that belongs in his discipline?

Seriously, read it; it doesn’t give any more than a shrug. And it’s not just this writer. This is literally the best they’ve got. (Oh, there are other religion guys out there who do claim to know, but their answers are so morally callous as to be not worth repeating.)

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

Great, so if you help others, it’s actually god’s love; not yours. (Hat tip to Stephanie for this thought.) And why would ‘soothing’ be a consolation? I’d exchange buckets of after-the-fact soothing in order to not have had that tragedy happen. Who wouldn’t? What’s wrong with this guy? But all we’re left with is: I don’t know.

It’s good to admit when you don’t know something, but if you have no way of finding out, and no way of telling whether your answers are good ones, you have a bit of a fucking methodological problem. And this is a sad sign of the inadequacy of supernatural thinking. See, I do science because science is good at scientific questions. People may say that science isn’t good at moral questions or spiritual questions, and we can argue that. (My answer is that it does just as well as anything else.) But by gum, science is good for doing science.

Spiritual reasoning, on the other hand, isn’t good at answering scientific questions, but it’s also terrible at answering spiritual questions. It’s incompetent within its own domain. It is a shitty way of reasoning. Pardon my language, but spirituality/religion/supernaturalism has one job, and it sucks at it, and this incompetence makes me angry, especially when we have people telling us that it has the answers to life’s great questions, and then when it comes down to it, all that its professionals can tell us is “We don’t know.”

On the other hand, here’s the same issue handled by someone who’s intellectually honest: the scientist, Laurence Krauss. He doesn’t have the same problem as the priest because he doesn’t have to tap-dance around demonstrably untrue theological claims. That means he can deal with things more directly, including the superfluity of gods in times of tragedy.

Why must it be a natural expectation that any such national tragedy will be accompanied by prayers, including from the president, to at least one version of the very God, who apparently in his infinite wisdom, decided to call 20 children between the age of 6 and 7 home by having them slaughtered by a deranged gunman in a school that one hopes should have been a place or nourishment, warmth and growth?

We are told the Lord works in mysterious ways but, for many people, to suggest there might be an intelligent deity who could rationally act in such a fashion and that that deity is worth praying to and thanking for “calling them home” seems beyond the pale.

We don’t need faith to empathize with the grieving in Newtown. We can feel real connections, whether we are parents, or neighbors of families, or simply caring men and women. And we can want to help simply because of our common humanity.

Note that he identifies ‘common humanity’ at its origin: with humans. The difference in approach is striking. So is the relative capability of the authors. It helps if you’re not burdened by outmoded dogma and superstition.

A+

Regular readers will notice a lull in the frequency of posting here on Good Reason. Part of that is that I got a new job that’s keeping me busy, but then I have been busy before. And lately I’ve felt like I’m running out of things to say. But it’s not really that.

Something’s been paining me about Movement Atheism. Elevatorgate was an uncomfortable wake-up call, but I managed to hit snooze. The recent TAM difficulty renewed my discomfort. In both cases, a female atheist blogger expressed perfectly reasonable discomfort with unwanted sexual attention, and was met with rape threats (from the most unhinged) or self-serving counter-arguments (from a lot of atheist guys). The casual and not-so-casual sexism of atheist guys really bugged me. Weren’t we progressive thinkers? Why was this going so wrong? And then Thunderf00t’s actions on Freethought Blogs gave me a rising sense that something bad was happening to my movement. This made it easy not to blog. I was busy, after all. I had other things to do. And it hurt to watch, so I turned away. In the words of Leonard Cohen, I ached in the places where I used to play.

So I was encouraged by this blog post by Jen McCreight.

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.

It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

Ah, the Second Wave. Remember that? Coming out as an New Atheist, and not afraid to say it. Heady days. And remember how we used to feel like we were on solid ground when we said that ‘atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods’? Except when you looked around at other atheists, that wasn’t really true. We really did have other things in common besides just our lack of belief. We were attracted to a constellation of issues, including skepticism, secularism, science, political progressivism, and (pretty uniformly) equality for LGBT people.

I see this third wave — or as a commenter on Jen’s thread dubbed it, A+ — as a simple way of acknowledging that atheism can incorporate positive values, including social justice and gender equality. It can go beyond what I call ‘mere atheism’ and reflect the values that atheism draws us toward, but does not necessarily encompass.

An example of how this works: How do we get from atheism to respect for LGBT people? Many times I’ve seen atheists complain about LGBT posts on Reddit: “How did this get here? What does this have to do with atheism?” Well, not much to do with ‘mere atheism’, but a lot to do with actual atheism. It may be partly “the enemy of my enemy” thinking; religions have had gay people oppressed and killed, we don’t accept the right of religions to do this; ergo, we oppose it. And just as Richard Dawkins’ use of the ‘coming out’ metaphor has been apt in the case of atheists, we feel like our lack of societal acceptance and even ostracism from our families helps us make common cause with LGBT people, who endure much of the same.

So how do we get from atheism to acceptance of women as equals, deserving of respect? I see a clear line from skepticism to feminism. To be a skeptic is to constantly remind yourself that you may be wrong, that you need to keep revising your accepted beliefs, and there’s always more that you could be a little more skeptical about. Well, I’ve realised that I can do better at challenging my attitudes about sexism. Oh, but I don’t consider myself a sexist person, right? Maybe sexists never do. And if I’m truly not a sexist — if I’ve incorporated that value so thoroughly into my thoughts and actions — then why not say so?

So I’m saying so. I’m stepping beyond ‘mere atheism’ and reaching out for that third wave: A+. In some ways, it’s quite natural to do so, and in other ways, I can tell I’m going to have to do a lot of listening, thinking, and updating. But as a skeptical atheist, I can do that.

Global Atheist Con: Eugenie Scott

Eugenie Scott is the Executive Director of the National Centre for Science Education. Her talk was “Reason and Creationism”.

I’ve disagreed with Scott and the NCSE over the years because of the stand she’s taken on the ‘accommodationist’ side of the science and atheism divide. It’s not because of her reluctance to fly the ‘atheist’ flag; I’m happy for the NCSE to appeal to a larger audience of possibly religious folks who would otherwise be put off by the ‘atheist’ label (see also Neil deGrasse Tyson). I also understand that the NCSE is in the business of teaching about evolution, not atheism. And so Scott has avoided the conflict. That would be okay, if she didn’t set herself against the New Atheists who want to take creationists down to the mat. New Atheists want to force the conflict between creationism and reality because they know it’s a debate they can win; accommodationists would be happy if they could fool creationists into thinking that there is no conflict between evolution and faith long enough for biology teachers could get on with their work.

The accommodationist view has always struck me as weak and disingenuous. When Scott says that she does not see a “dichotomy between science and religion or evolution and religion,” well, that’s just wrong, at least for Abrahamic religions that take their doctrine seriously. They make claims about the origin of the world, claims which many of their members take seriously, and those members reject evolution because of those claims. And every time she says that science is somehow powerless to evaluate supernatural claims, I scream. Science tells us exactly what to do with supernatural claims; bin them until they’re supported by evidence. Oh, they can’t be, because they’re not verifiable? Then that’s a problem for the believers to sort out. They need to do the work of defining what they mean by ‘god’ and backing up their claims, but they never seem to get around to it because they’re too busy preaching the word, brother.

Simply getting religious people to sign off on evolution is not the ultimate goal — the goal is getting people to reason without superstition. Non-acceptance of evolution is just a part of this larger problem, and if we don’t work on this, irrationality will pop up in other ways (e.g. climate change denialism, which the NCSE is now also fighting). And trying to do this by claiming that there’s no conflict is just fooling people, and I don’t think that even the religious will be fooled by it.

Gnu Atheists want to tell the truth. And they’re arguing from an advantageous position; when you have the facts on your side, why not argue from facts?

Well, this is an old argument, and once I get to this part, I usually regain some perspective, and remember that Scott and the NCSE aren’t the bad guys. They’re out there teaching the facts about evolution, and climate change. In fact, the NCSE news feed looks to be a good resource for evolution news. The NCSE deserve some love, even if their approach bugs the shit out of me, and even if Scott undermines her own work by saying wrong things.

To the talk.

Scott started not with biology, but with geology. There are two principles that help geologists figure out the age of a rock formation.

  • The principle of horizontality states that layers are layed down horizontally.
  • The principle of superposition tells us that lower layers are older.
But this makes life hard for a Young Earth Creationist because the earth as we see it takes longer than the 6,000 years they posit from their reading of some book or other. They allege that there hasn’t been enough time to lay all that rock down, and so they say silly things, like the Grand Canyon was laid down in a year. The geology of Coconino County, Arizona poses a special challenge for YECs because they have alternating wind-lain and water-lain layers, and that’s hard to do in a short period of time. But they take up the challenge, and try to get their work past geology editors.

Scott says that creationists see themselves as the good guys in a culture war. They reject the idea that you can be good without a god, (says Scott: “I don’t know about you, but I haven’t killed anyone in weeks!”) and see the world as a struggle between their god and materialism. But this is a linguist trick, explains Scott. Materialism has two senses that creationists conflate:

  • Methodological materialism refers to the practice of using natural explanations for the phenomena we observe, and
  • Philosophical materialism is the view that matter is all there is.

(I suppose we should add to these the idea of acquisitive materialism, concerned with getting and having the latest, which really can be destructive, IMO.)

Fighting materialism, says Scott, is a strong motivator for their attacks on science, as they try to pave the way for Christian theism. Scott has no doubt that creationists believe their schtick, but their typical modus operandi is to bypass the process of communicating with the scientific community and take their arguments directly to an undiscerning public, as in high schools and even very young children. That’s because their fight is a political and cultural one, not a scientific one.

Gayvoice: Is it real?

There’s a new study that claims that people can detect gayface with 80% accuracy. But I’m not satisfied with it — when you dig down, the study really says that some people can get up to 80%, but everyone as a whole scores 57%, which starts to look a lot like random chance.

What about gayvoice? Lots of people are certain they’re gayvoyant, and they give a lot of plausible explanations for the voice — gay people use extra sibilance that serves as a socio-linguistic signal, and so forth — but I think that’s getting ahead of the game. Before we try to explain gayvoice, we have to make sure it’s real. As a starter, I’ve set up a quasi-scientific experiment.

The concept is simple. I’ve pulled twelve samples of male voices from episodes (chosen at random) of Dan Savage’s wonderful Savage Lovecast, where people call up and ask Dan for sex advice. The podcast is publicly available, so one presumes the guys in question consented to having their voices out there. Each of the guys identified as either gay or straight (but not bi or trans), and I’ve chosen a bit of their call that I think gives enough to get a feel for their voices, but not enough to give their orientation away.

Guess which guys are gay, and which are straight. You’ll see how well you did at the end of the test, and I’ll post the overall results in a couple of weeks.

<a href=”http://goodreason.polldaddy.com/s/gay-or-straight”>Click here to take the quiz.</a>

polldaddy.add( {
type: ‘button’,
title: ‘Click here to take the quiz.’,
style: ’rounded’,
text_color: ‘FFFFFF’,
back_color: ‘000000’,
domain: ‘goodreason.polldaddy.com/s/’,
id: ’16CC078F34156E61′
} );

Just one catch: At the moment, the poll does not work on Safari — it doesn’t let you see the audio clips. Apparently the new version of Safari has broken a few different poll sites. Use a different browser.

If you’re curious about gayvoice, people have studied this a bit.

  • Benjamin Munson is on the forefront of the research [ 1 | 2 (pdf) ]
  • Uncle Cecil of the Straight Dope has treated it.
  • So has the Economist.
– – – – – – –
UPDATE
It’s been about a week, so I’ve put some results after the jump.
The way to read this chart: A green bar is the right answer, so when the green bar is on top, most people got it right. 
The upshot: People picked gay voice correctly only half the time. Looks like random chance to me. You’d actually have done better if you’d assumed everyone was straight.
This doesn’t mean gayvoice isn’t real though. It just means these test-takers couldn’t tell from these samples. And there might have been a lot of confounding variables.
  • The samples weren’t long enough, or of high enough quality.
  • The speakers were listeners to the Savage Lovecast, and might have had more-gay friendly attitudes, which might have affected their speech patterns.
  • This means they might have been more willing to accommodate to the person they were speaking to (viz, Dan, a gay guy).
  • Talking about your own sexual problems might make you speak differently.
  • Just because the general public can’t pick it doesn’t mean it’s not real. What about other gay guys? I didn’t do a breakdown that way, but it would be interesting.

Obviously, there are ways of speaking which are considered stereotypically gay, but from this test, they don’t seem to be reliably detected by most people. “More research is needed.™” Thanks to all to took the test. 
Also, a shoutout to Polldaddy — there are lots of polling services, and I tried them all, but theirs was the easiest and most helpful, especially when embedding audio clips. Try them for all your polling needs.

The Three Horsemen: Act 2

Setting: A very long book-signing queue

Dramatis personae:
Richard Dawkins (RD): A scientist. A public intellectual. A colossus among men.
Daniel Midgley (DM): A Daniel Midgley

Curtain rises.

DM: Hello again!
RD: (peers at DM as if for the first time, appears to recognise) Oh, hello.
DM: (hands over a copy of ‘The Magic of Reality’) This is the copy of your book that I read to my son.
RD: I’m glad! (Signs)
DM: Do you think that disgust was the mechanism for our evolved sense of morality?
RD: Yes. I do. (Hands back books)
DM: Thank you! (exit)

End of Act II

Global Atheist Con: Lawrence Krauss

Laurence Krauss is a physicist. His talk was titled “A Universe from Nothing”, which by no small coincidence in the title of his book.

“A Universe from Nothing” is also the title of this video he gave in 2009.

It would probably be a good idea to watch this video, rather than reading what I’m writing about it. I’m not a physicist, so I’m very likely to get it wrong. Krauss explains the origins and fate of our universe in a clear style which even Cardinal Pell would understand. (“Though he’s never thought about anything deeply in his life!” snipes Krauss.) This feeling of understanding ends immediately after the talk, leaving you with pages of notes full of gibberish. Perhaps my gibberish will make sense if you watch the talk first.

Here are some thoughts that I’m sure I got right.

• People ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But nothing isn’t as nothing as we used to think it is. ‘Nothing’ has energy. Empty space is actually a brew of particles that pop in and out of existence on tiny timescales. These particles have an impact on the mass of our bodies. Gravity plus quantum mechanics allows space itself to appear from nothing. So a universe from nothing is not only plausible, but likely.

• It was once thought that the universe was slowing down, and would end in a ‘big crunch’. (I remember hearing that back in the 70s.) But now that appears to be wrong. (Krauss: “Was the data wrong? It often is. The first set of data is always wrong.”) It now appears that we live in a ‘flat’ universe that will keep expanding forever, but more and more slowly. Krauss says that only a flat universe could arise from “nothing” and keep existing long enough for us to be here.

• “The best state to be in if you’re a scientist in to be confused. And I am.”

• “The real universe is more inspiring than any fairy tale.”

Science vs ‘continuing revelation’

In a recent thread, I was wondering how people can have confidence in a religious leader who gets it obviously wrong. In a comment, brettandkatie asks (ask?) a really good question that I’ve been thinking about:

So, how does this differ from “further light and knowledge”? The apostle know what they are given now, just like I know what I am given now. Further revelation may change this. I don’t think that God and science should be separated, for they work together.
I don’t discredit science, it has given us so so much. However, we are getting the best of what they “know” may change. How can you use the word “know” if it is a hypotheses? I’m just saying that having full confidence in everything current science is saying can be hard because, while much of it is fact, much is also an educated guess that will change in the future. So how is this different from what you claim the LDS church does?

In other words, scientists learn more, and their knowledge changes. Religious leaders learn more, and their knowledge changes. So how is science different from ‘continuing revelation’? Don’t they work the same? Am I being unfair to expect religion to work differently?

It’s a tempting comparison, but not all systems that advance incrementally are the same. Consider the cheating spouse who tells a little of the truth, and then comes out with more and more of it when confronted with more and more of their lies. Or what about L. Ron Hubbard, who made up more and more of his phony-baloney science fiction religion bit by bit? That’s incremental, but most people are able to see how that isn’t quite on a par with science.

Before getting to the meat of it, a couple of caveats. First up, I’m addressing this from a Mormon perspective, since I’m most familiar with it and because it’s in response to a Mormon commenting on a post about a Mormon apostle. I think this relates to other religions too, but if this criticism doesn’t seem apt, be grateful that your church doesn’t do this. (Or it does, and you just don’t realise.) Also, I don’t think I’m comparing ‘ideal science’ to ‘the worst of religion’; I think I’m comparing how they work most of the time. Again, take it for what it’s worth.

SCIENCE
RELIGION
With science, you start with the facts and move to conclusions. With religion, you start with the conclusion and see what facts will get you there.

Still love this cartoon:

SCIENCE
RELIGION
In science, you start with the null hypothesis (assuming the hypothesis is not true), and you use evidence to build up a picture. An idea must be within a certain degree of confidence before you settle on it. Religious people require that an idea be argued down to null before they’ll abandon or (more often) modify it. As long as there’s a sliver of hope, they’ll cling to it.
The evidence for a scientific idea must be publicly verifiable, and replicable. Scientists submit their evidence and conclusions for peer review. So-called ‘spiritual evidence’ comes from emotions, experiences, and unusual-seeming happenstances, which cannot be examined directly by others, or replicated under controlled conditions.
The evidence for scientific ideas comes from the natural world. The evidence for religious ideas comes from interpretations of holy books and authority figures.
Scientists change their views when the evidence requires. Religions change their views when they become unpalatable.
Scientific hypotheses make testable predictions. If those predictions don’t come true, the hypothesis is rejected. Religious leaders sometimes make a prophecy. If it doesn’t come true when expected, the prophecy is either kicked down the road for “sometime in the future”, or reinterpreted to apply on a “spiritual level”. They are not typically abandoned.
In science, you publish your results when they change. With religion (particularly the Mormon sort), you quietly drop doctrines and hope no one will notice after 40 years. (The most recent exception I can think of happened in 1978.)

The main idea here is not just that science and religion are different in lots of ways, though they are — they actually function as opposite and incompatible methods. Science expands when it can; religion contracts when it must.

And finally, an observation: Science is a system created by humans.
Religions claim to get their answers from an all-knowing, all-powerful being.
Yet science has been much more successful at gaining knowledge, promoting longevity, and finding out about our universe. That ought to give believers some pause.

Let’s just say that brettandkatie is (are?) right, and science and religion are comparable systems. Why would a god even need to spread his knowledge by using the same system that humans invented? Wouldn’t we expect him to do better? An organisation led by a god would surely have more knowledge and would show more moral progress than a purely human one. Yet religions display less knowledge and poorer moral judgment than humans generally. So what are they for?

Some believers acknowledge this, but then say that god is ‘teaching his people line upon line’ or that ‘god chooses to work through fallible people’. Well, God would be awfully hamstrung if he could only teach to the level of his most advanced followers. Why would a god limit himself in this way, and not take the lead? We are meant to believe that this all-powerful being is stymied by human cognitive limitations and human intransigence. This makes no sense.

(p.s. You can tell I’m pretty gung-ho on science, but please don’t have full confidence in everything current science is saying. It’s going to change. That’s why it’s good.)

Older posts

© 2017 Good Reason

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑