The Voyage of Captain Obvious

Grading is satanic

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hi again.

Well, a weekend of pretty big ups and downs. Had a great Sat and Sun, though. Maybe I'll get into more specifics later. Also, very soon, I will be having more musings about the Cardinals. Life has just really pushed me around recently.

But what interests me right now is this post over at Cosmic Variance. There is a lot to read there that is pretty interesting, but the thing that bothers me about a lot of the tone. It's something that I have noticed quite a bit from the outright, unabashed athiests out there. It's a seeming surety about the world that may or not actually be present. The Planck energy is 1019 GeV. Currently, we have tested energies up to 1000 GeV, or so (really, nowhere close to that). That means that we have only explored 0.00000000000001% of the energy range that current science purports to describe. Making absolute claims about the way that the universe behaves seems kind of silly in this context.

I am not giving fodder to the Intelligent Design nuts. What they purport to do is reject the mountain of evidence in front of us, and simply make odd sorts of hypotheses that, lo! and behold are completely compatible with the belief system of most mainline Protestants. What an odd congruence!! This entire project essentially results what Science purports to do. IDers make a hypothesis, and attempt to twist the data in front of them to conform to said hypothesis. It is the sort of reasoning that makes Aristotle very difficult for modern readers to take in context. This is even further made rediculous due to the essentialism inherent in observing the universe, and from that, concluding that a designer whose only well-defined trait is the tendency to create a universe just like ours. My favorite questions are always of the form "why not this?" and ID-type reasoning is totally antithetical to this.

Ok, having shown why I really despise the approach that IDers take, now I want to take a closer look at why I think that the absolutist, "athiesm is truth" type arguments end up falling on deaf ears, and end up being abrasive and counterproductive at best, and wrong at worst.

The primary reason that I have to believe this is that science and religion have nothing to say to each other. For the sake of this article, I will define science as a process by which one makes and tests claims. I am going to say nothing about the standards which are required to test claims, except to note that it is essential that claims are testable and disprovable. Religion means different things to different people, but for the sake of brevity, I am going to lump religion into two categories.

First, you have religions that take practice centrally. These are systems by which one practices certain rituals and 'ethical' behavior, but does not concern themselves any more than superficially about the reasons behind these behavior. An example of this type of religion might be, at one level, Confucianism, which has a belief system, but it is a very flexible one, and is very much secondary to the set of rituals which the religion requires*. Catholicism also has some elements of this sort of religion. Ok. So, the point is, that this type of religious practice has little, if nothing to do with science. It makes no external truth claims, and therefore, has noting to verify or disprove. It is overtly agnostic. It's why, in China, so many other religious traditions were able to comingle and integrate themselves without expelling the extant Confucian practice--they didn't conflict with the practices of Confucianism, and therefore, were perfectly fine. Similar things are true for various Pagan religions in the west, as well for the incorporation of some pagan practices into Christianity. Even when the belief system around the religion changed, the practices remained. Consequently, if the religious system of this type, then science has nothing to say, because the practices will simply incorporate themselves into whatever truth claims that the scientific community deems allowable.

Then, you have the revelatory religions. These are based around basic truth claims, that are, in turn, based either in an oral tradition or upon a written scripture. The world is looked at taking these claims as axiomatic, and everthing else as derived. Examples are mainline Protestantism and Islam, amongst many others. Note that although Catholicism has elements of a religion of practice, it also has revelatory elements. Now, this type of belief would seem to be much more contradictory toward the science. And clearly, it's practicioners are the ones that are causing much of the hostility that religion feels toward science. However, this perspective is, I think, wrongheaded and doesn't properly look at what is being really said, on either side. The nature of revelation is that each instance of revelation is a one time, supernatural occurance. One cannot repeat revelation, nor can one really use post-revelation evidence to test whether or not information was revealed. On the other side, the revelatory documents really say nothing direct about the natural world, having often been written by ancient sources that had no definite definitions of the terms that are being interpred oh so literally.# Often, with the mere reading of these texts in their proper historical context, and taking into account the contemporary rhetoric, most of these apparent contradictions can be ignored, since, after all, most religious texts are way, way more concerned with establishing basic ethical principles than they are with establishing that the Earth was flooded for exactly forty days and forty nights. And if you don't buy this, fundamentalists, then why does every Gospel record different contents of the cave after the Ressurection?

On a deeper level, the revelatory religions also have nothing to do with science due to their basic approach. In revelation, everthing starts at universal axiom, and works its way down. Science, really, starts very empirically--looking at things, figuring out how they work, and then trying to come up with an explanation that gives a justifiable reason why these things work this way. It is never truly universal--these claims are only valid over the domain in which they have been tested. This leaves a religious person free to argue that, in a larger context, things work out to be consistent with the religious doctrine, leaving religion impossible to disprove--it's claims are universal (in a very absolute sense--to the religious, God exists everywhere, and affects everything, so using a small part to destroy the means by which one understands the whole is a fool's errand), and centered around one-time, untestable occurances. Since most religions are robust enough to not be truly disproven, then science has nothing to say to religion, and religion has nothing to say to science.

Anyway, I've always found agnosticism a viewpoint far more consistent with the scientific mindset than is outright athiesm. If you've made it this far, thanks for your interest, and my congratulations!

*Note once again, that I am going to be relatively brief about various traits of religions. I am attempting to speak very generally about religions in order to get at this science/religion split. Thus, these sorts of examples are intended more to establish what the hell I am talking about, rather than to give a comprehensive, or even introductory overview of individual religions. If more sourcing is wanted, say so in the comments, and I will go and do it.

#It also should be noted that Biblical literalism, particularly about the time of creation and the unfolding of the events in Genesis, is largely a 19th century event. Before then, it was seen as largely foolish to try and trace back the exact day when the Creation happen. This is a position that Rabbis still hold, from what I hear.


  • At 20 March, 2006 05:58, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hey babe- I'm sorry I'm stressing you out. I wish I could make all your dreams come true.

  • At 27 March, 2006 11:49, Anonymous John VonBokel said…

    If Agnosticism is not being sure of the existence of a god, and Athiesm is beleiving in the absense of a god, what is just not caring? Apathy? That's me, I'm an Apathist. Who really cares where the earth came from? All I care about is where *I* came from, and I know my parents pretty well, so I think I've satisfied that. Beyond that, I'm concerned with what's going on now, and what impact that will have on the future.


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