Just Because It Sounds Science-y Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Faith-Based*

Beyond the limits of reasonable expectation.

There is a perception out there that whatever issues from the mouth or pen of one who wears a white coat is completely rational, reliable, evidence-based and trustworthy.  While this is more probably true when the white-coat is discussing some matter of little social or political import – electron spin, say, and not neuro-physiological differences between the sexes, etc. – we shouldn’t be too certain that this is always the case.  Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the failings of reason and intelligence that goes along with being a member of our species.

This all comes to mind as I was flipping through the latest edition of Scientific American (cover pictured to the left).  This ‘special issue’ includes a number of essays by some far-out looking people about the future of ‘Science’ and where it’s going to take us.  Of course, the contents of these essays are interesting (entertaining, to be more exact) but fundamentally have no real basis for some of the claims they make – rather they are expressions of faith that Science will continue to uplift, enlighten, and transform the human race into whatever the authors of these pieces would like for humans to be.

Here’s a guy who looks like he has predictions you can trust. Just look in his eyes.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that per se – we all have to have faith in something, after all – but we should recognize religious-style beliefs for what they are, even if they come with the trappings of Science, because Science/science has a place of privilege among powerful decision-makers [1].  And when powerful people can be convinced that something is a good idea on the basis of Science, a lot of money, effort, and time can be wasted on pointless endeavours.

SETI is a paradigm example of this dynamic in action.  A number of scientists got together and convinced important people in the US government that there is a high enough probability that alien life is somewhere out there that it would be worthwhile to set up (at grand cost to the taxpayer) a series of listening-stations to see if we couldn’t pick up ancient signals travelling across the void.  Presumably they used math to help bamboozle the decision-makers in question. Now, there are a number of practical problems with the program [2] but there are even nastier issues on the purely conceptual side of things.

Specifically, the program only makes sense if one has a reasonably high estimation of the probability of there being other intelligent beings out there, but at the time that the program was being set up there was really no (good) reason to think that such is the case.  Sure, there were inferences and assumptions drawn from what we knew/know about how the world actually is – paraphrase: “it is simply inconceivably improbable that in a universe this vast in which intelligent life has arisen once, intelligent life should not have arisen multiple times” – but none of this constitutes any reason to think that it is so.  Perhaps it is improbable that a universe with laws and a history such as our own should only have intelligent life emerge once.  OK, so perhaps we happen to live in a really improbable sort of universe?

“But we can’t know if we don’t check!”  Ah, yes, true, but here’s the difference between SETI-fans and myself: I don’t expect (or hope) to discover anything and, moreover, I don’t think that a failure to find evidence would demonstrate anything about the universe we inhabit (remember those practical difficulties I mentioned?).  But if one believes without evidence that there must be life out there – or that it’s inconceivably improbable that there isn’t – it does raise the question of why this is believed.  Perhaps, like me, they find the grandeur of a well-populated universe appealing or, also like me, they find the prospect of human solitude infinitely depressing.  But those are not scientific reasons, to be sure, and today, after the program has been running for several decades without any positive results, it seems ever more probable that we are alone.  “But we can’t give up!  What if we do and we miss our chance to know?  It would be horrible!”

No, it wouldn’t.

USA! USA! (They’d’ve actually mooned Russia too, if it weren’t for decompression-related issues. This seemed the next best thing.)

Granted, this does not comprise reason not to engage in the program.  For all the bluster about the advancement of science that has flowed from NASA, the real point of the thing was never really about ‘Science’, was it?  It was more about having the best vantage point in the universe from which to flip Russia the bird (also, something about weaponizing space).  The science stuff has been a nice bonus but I sincerely doubt that it was what was foremost on JFK’s mind when he decided that humans would set foot up there.  And this is fine because we don’t need to have Science decide what our every act, individual and collective, should be – what more reason do we need for landing on the moon than “because it’s awesome” (awesomeness, I note, is not a property of objects/events measurable by ordinary scientific methods).  But pretending that because SETI might have some scientifically valuable side-effects means that it is principally a scientifically driven enterprise is simply misleading – it’s a(n ugly) Hail Mary for those who wish that ST:TNG was a documentary film.

An ugly cathedral of sorts. Did I mention ugly?

Endnotes:

* Not the catchiest title ever, so perhaps I ought to have gone with the alternate title for this entry: “SETI Is a Waste of Time, Effort and Money and Should Be Shut Down.”  That one is a bit on the blunt side, though.  Oh well.

[1] Despite much upset about the “War On Science” being perpetrated solely by those nasty Republicans (after all, who else could possibly have any non-scientific reasons for rejecting scientific findings) there really isn’t anyone (important) who is actually against science as an endeavour, just findings that are inimical to his or her particular agenda(s).  Whenever I hear the phrase “War On Science” trotted out I immediately start wondering whose research agenda is being impeded or whose political agenda stands to gain by painting the other guys as low-brow, fundamentalist rubes.

[2] I can think of a few off the top of my head.  First and most simply, there is no guarantee that any radio signals that an alien civilization might have sent into space would reach Earth without having degraded in pure noise.  Second, there is the matter of timing.  Could such signals even have had the time to reach us if they did exist and if so, how do we know they haven’t already gone by and we’ve missed our chance?  Heck, maybe we are the first intelligent lifeform to develop technologies that would send signals out into space (in which case, listening stations: no dice).  Third, why should we assume that any alien civilization will be using media enough like our own that we could even recognize their communications for what they are – alien tv broadcasts may just look like noise to us (and vice versa).

Some More Words on Agnostic Atheism

I was having a conversation with an atheist friend of mine and he suggested (actually, ‘suggested’ is much too weak a description of what he did) that my agnostic atheism is hopelessly confused.  He gave two  somewhat related reasons that struck me as being worth addressing.  The first is that, although he was willing to concede that atheism ought properly to be considered a belief claim, he nevertheless felt that one who believes that ‘there is no God’ necessarily cannot also believe that ‘whether or not there is a God is beyond our capacity to know’ – to do so is to somehow do something that is contradictory.  The second reason was that the agnosticism takes away reasons for adopting the atheism.

The first is actually not that difficult a matter to address.  Obviously, in one sense he was cutting himself off at the knees by granting that atheism ought to be considered a belief claim rather than a knowledge claim.  If the one claim is that ‘I know x‘ and the other is that ‘I cannot know x‘, there is an obvious contradiction there.  But there is nothing at all inherently contradictory if the first of the two statements were to be replaced with ‘I believe x‘.  For example, suppose I believed that I will be receiving a pink slip today (perhaps the company is in some tough times and layoffs have been announced).  This is in no way incompatible with my acknowledgement that I do not know whether or not I will actually receive a pink slip (maybe I sit somewhere in the middle of the seniority ladder and the management hasn’t announced how many they will be laying off).  The same applies to agnostic atheism.

The second criticism is perhaps more damning.  To take a stance on the question (whether that be some species of theism or atheism) is to make quite a strong commitment, even if that stance is ‘merely’ a matter of belief rather than knowledge.  Given that this is so, wouldn’t it just be best to acknowledge that one cannot know and leave it at that?  While it would certainly be a ‘safer’ position, I don’t think that it is a better one.  While the epistemic requirements for knowledge (especially of this kind) are rather high (I am here assuming some JTB+), there are certainly reasons for deciding more or less tentatively in favour of one proposition over another.  For example, I believe (rather strongly) that my house keys are where I left them when I got home yesterday.  Of course, I do not ‘know’ this – perhaps my wife, for what would clearly be a good reason, had occasion to move them – but, nevertheless, I have some pretty good reasons for thinking so.  The same can hold for theism or atheism.  For example, I see Darwinian natural selection as an adequate explanation of apparent design, which makes a designer superfluous to the whole process, while a theist might point to what he sees as the unintelligibility of morality without a lawgiver as evidence in favour of God.

Of course, the coherence of my position really does depend on whether theism/atheism really are belief – but not knowledge – claims.  I think so, but that is a matter for another day.

The Curious Case of Western Atheism

The atheism of Westerners is a curious phenomenon, in that it is constitutively dependent for its coherence upon the cultural and ideological structures laid down by Christianity.  I have heard some express this notion by saying that it is ‘parasitic’ upon theism, but I think that this is an unnecessarily hostile way of saying the same thing.  Atheists may at this point answer that, of course, atheism wouldn’t exist if theism also did not, but to think in this way is to miss the point.  It is trivial to point out that without theism atheists wouldn’t exist, but the claim I am making is more substantive than this – Western atheism draws many of its intellectual, moral, and activist imperatives from Christianity.

How is this so?  Historically speaking, Christianity has been greatly concerned with truth and fact.  Atheists will scoff at this assertion, but it is true.  Owing to the fact that the Christian faith depends crucially on the historical fact of Jesus’ living, his dying on the cross, and his later resurrection (else no salvation), Christianity has always been centrally concerned that what it holds true can be supported by the evidence.  This is in contrast to other religious traditions that are more ‘loose’ about the literalness of aspects of their faith – Buddhists, for instance, can sometimes be remarkably cavalier (from a Western perspective) about the historicity of Buddha, the authorship of their sutras, or the reality/unreality of the yidams of tantric practices.  ‘Truth’ and the knowledge of it became highly valuable in the Christian world – indeed, valuable enough that to know the truth was more important that preserving the faith (all of this has been said far more wittily by Nietzsche, though I cannot recall where to point an interested reader to).

Thus, the Western atheist’s infatuation with knowing the ‘truth’ about the world is born from Christianity’s fixation upon proving the ‘truth’ of Jesus’ biography.  This manifests itself in fascinating ways in the atheist community.  For instance, the activism of modern atheists (like Dawkins, Dennett, the late Mr. Hitchens, and Harris) seems far more focused on evangelizing theists (even utterly inoffensive ones) about the unreality of God, rather than attempting to mobilize for substantive political changes that will make the world a safer place for atheists and other dissenters from theistic faiths.  The bus ads bought up in London a couple of years back had an important message, but reveal the concern for ‘truth’ over praxis.  I have often marvelled that influential atheists haven’t tried to mobilize campaigns to get respected individuals out of the closet with their unbelief, to address religiously motivated extremism that is permitted free reign in religious institutions, or to vocally criticise attempts to establish in Western countries parallel legal structures based in religious doctrines.  Granted, they talk about these sorts of things, but there hasn’t been any visible action on such matters.

Of course, it could be objected that they are attacking the problem at its root.  This is a bad objection, however, because it suffers from two flaws.  First, the suggestion is that if we can just change everyone’s mind, everything will be fine thereafter.  But this is both unrealistic – it is doubtful that belief in God/gods will ever vanish.  Second, this is an example of the Nirvana fallacy (better known by Voltaire’s observation that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”).  Sure, it might be great to live in an atheist society, but we do not, and working towards effecting changes such as the ones I have suggested will make the society better immediately.

How to Avoid Getting Trapped in an Echo Chamber

I asked the question a few posts back of what it would take for atheists to reconsider their atheism and for theists to reconsider their theism (specifically, what would count as evidence in favour of/against god or gods).  It was mostly out of curiosity, but there is a more serious side to it.  That is, I find that far too many people live their lives stuck in an echo chamber of one sort or another.  What do I mean by echo chamber?  Well, an actual echo chamber is a space that, by its design, creates echoes – so in this usage, an echo chamber is going to be a group environment wherein the same opinions keep bouncing around without ever really changing or being challenged.  We are all very familiar with this dynamic because it keeps popping up in all sorts of different places: churches, political parties, philosophy departments, peer groups, and even entire cultures.  All of us have spent some amount of time trapped inside an echo chamber – it’s only human, after all – but it is best to extricate oneself as quickly as possible.  At least, I think so – I have always felt relieved and thankful to have broken through to the other side.  But it is better by far to avoid getting trapped in on in the first place.

I think that absolutely the best method of avoiding this fate is to do just what I did in the post I linked to – ask people what it would take to disprove some deeply important belief or what would count as evidence against it.  If you ask someone this and he shames you for daring to suggest that the belief might be wrong or she asserts that her belief cannot be disproven or that there can be no evidence against it because “it’s the truth”, then you know that you are dealing with someone who is in an echo chamber.  When you discover this, do your best to stay away from such people (or at least from the topics that have them trapped in the echo chamber).  And never forget to frequently conduct honest assessment of one’s own beliefs (especially the ones that one holds dear) in order to figure out what would count as evidence against them.  Freedom is valuable and important, but it isn’t necessarily fun.

Contrary to Agressive Atheists and Their Theistic Counterparts,…

can be both an atheist and an agnostic.  It has been claimed by at least one theist of whom I am aware that he appreciates atheists because they at least have strength of their convictions, whereas he finds agnostics to be too wishy-washy.  Of course, a sentiment such as this makes perfect sense coming from a man of faith – he recognizes and admires firm belief in the face of doubt, even if that belief directly contradicts his own.  [1]  And I am personally acquainted with many atheists who would agree with this pastor that agnosticism is an unacceptable form of cowardice because it is obviously the case that there is no God. 

But I must demur.  I think both of these positions can be taken up by the same person, because they have different domains – atheism is a doxastic (i.e. belief related) position, while agnosticism is an epistemic (i.e. knowledge related) matter.  It is true that I do not believe that Christianity is true (or, more strongly, I believe that it is false), and I believe that I have good reasons for saying so.  But I also think that I do not and cannot know that there is nothing at all that exists which is invisible to us and which might well be something that is deserving of the appellation of ‘God’ or ‘The Absolute’ or somesuch.  [2]  So I don’t see these positions as incompatible.

Endnotes:

[1] This reminds me of an old story about my great-grandfather that has been passed down in family lore.  He (British) fought in the trenches in WWI and had the following to say about Frenchmen and Germans.  Paraphrased: “give me a German over a Frenchman any day: at least you know the German’s not going to run.”

[2] Granted, the falsity of Christianity is something that can be more definitively assigned to the realm of knowledge because it posits miracles and interventions by God in the natural world – for example, I am fairly certain that I know that there has never been a virgin birth.  Other positions are firmly out of the realm of knowledge, however.  For instance, deism is precisely the sort of position that I literally cannot make any knowledge claims about.