Science is irreconcilable with religion

October 4, 2010 § 17 Comments

There are people who claim that science and religion can exist side-by-side, one asking the “how” questions (science) and the other asking the “why” questions (religion). I’d like to say I disagree with this stance, and for a few simple reasons.

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Atlas supporting Earth on his back

Scientific inquiry is based on measuring interactions and outcomes from observable and repeatable phenomena, based on established empirical principles and existing theories. Outcomes are then observed, tested and compared to create a hypothesis. Scientific method also allows for the falsification of any established hypothesis if information or data arises which is counter to the hypothesis being presented. It is constantly evolving and changing, and if the evidence is great enough, then an agreement is struck among the science community.

Theological inquiry, if it happens at all, is based on interpretations of texts written by men during times when little was understood about the world and the universe. Theological discourse about “what the texts really mean” as opposed to what they say makes up a great deal of the discourse between theologians. Those who go beyond the religious texts tend to talk in vague ways around metaphysical ideas, claiming there must be something more, although ideas like soul have never been observed.

Science does ask the “why” questions, because “why” follows “how” in inquiry, but the “why” of science is actually asking for an answer to the reason something occurs, whereas the “why” from theology is asked without any real intention of arriving at an answer.

Francis Collins, in his video interview at Big Think:

“But faith in its perspective is really asking a different set of questions.  And that’s why I don’t think there needs to be a conflict here.  The kinds of questions that faith can help one address are more in the philosophical realm.  Why are we all here?  Why is there something instead of nothing?  Is there a God?  Isn’t it clear that those aren’t scientific questions and that science doesn’t have much to say about them?  But you either have to say, well those are inappropriate questions and we can’t discuss them or you have to say, we need something besides science to pursue some of the things that humans are curious about.”

I would argue that there is a LOT of philosophy in science, but it lies more in the realm of interpretations for what a scientific outcome might mean for humanity, what the implications for society and cultures are, or what possibilities might arise from a scientific discovery. I say there are no questions that can’t be asked of science, but I would say that in lieu of an answer that mysticism is not a real-world solution to these questions.

I think the irreconcilable nature of religion versus science comes from their origins. Sam Harris makes a good point in this video, where he equates the role of religion historically as the one now filled by science.

When we ask questions of our universe using current methods of inquiry we arrive at answers that can then be compared against other observances and outcomes. When we use the method of inquiry of theology, the answer has already been pre-determined from the outset, and the answer is always “God”. This is not a viable way to find answers, especially if we truly desire to know truths.

I feel that Francis Collins is falling victim to his own cognitive dissonance, where he knows that science has the answers for the big questions, and I think he secretly believes that science will eventually  have the ability to answer the philosophical questions we all ask. At the same time he deeply wishes that there is a creator for the universe, whether it be an Abrahamic god, or an alien creator. If there were a creator then we can stop asking questions safe in the knowledge that the ways of the universe are out of our control and beyond our understanding. And some people find it difficult to imagine a universe without a creator because it leaves us alone and isolated in the universe even more so than we already understand ourselves to be.

Why is it such a horrible fate than man is the result of natural processes and not the result of some divine creature’s tinkering with subatomic particles? We do think ourselves so special that there must be some preordained reason for our existences rather than simply existing, and to be special means to be created.

Furthermore, rather than falling into the downwardly spiraling argument “if there is a creator then who created it?” I think it is enough to say this. Just because we don’t understand something fully does not mean we should attribute it to a universal creator. Just because emotions and other non-physical interactions occur between people does not make it magic. One day, as scientific inquiry advances forward we shall see where the “unaccountable” stuff comes from, and we’ll look back at our immaturity and laugh, much as we do about ancient mythologies of a flat earth, elephants and turtles. People once believed that Atlas held the earth aloft on his back, but does anyone believe that now?

Bertrand Russell said this in 1927:

“If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

Science remains unafraid to ask the difficult questions, while theology will skirt around the subject matter, posing questions with circular reasoning and asking for disproof of something science has never claimed to exist in the first place. It’s not the job of science to disprove the existence of god, nor is it the desire outcome. Science is here to help us understand the universe, and one day, given enough time, we may discover why we keep asking for there to be a god.

Further Reading:
Science and religion aren’t friends


Atheist Climber Prominent People Project

September 24, 2010 § 7 Comments

Atheist Climber Blog is turning One year old on October 10! Yay! And I remember like yesterday thinking “Do I have anything to write about? Will anyone care? Will anyone read it?” I just wish I had taken more baby photos!

Well you have all spoken to me by visiting and commenting on my blog. My measure of success has been reflected in the blog stats with over 60,000 page hits, over 100 subscribers, and more than 1500 comments for the 100+ articles and videos I have posted. This far surpasses my expectations and for that I thank you all.

To celebrate, I am in the process of interviewing a selection of prominent figures in humanism, atheism, science and critical thinking. Most of these will be in the form of written interviews, but who knows? I might, down the track, do some video or audio interviews too. This will be dependent on how these interviews are received by my readers.

I don’t want to say too much at this stage, but suffice to say, I already have confirmation from a few very prominent and important people who I’m sure you’d recognise. More information to come. So stay tuned!

The first interview will be published on Atheist Climber Blog’s first birthday, October 10, 2010. So come celebrate with me, and feed your brain with the words of some great thinkers.

Thanks again,
Atheist Climber

Richard Dawkins: An atheist’s call to arms

August 27, 2010 § 1 Comment

One of the more entertaining and funny talks by Richard Dawkins, this time from TED talks in 2008. I’d be interested in what you think of this one. I tend to agree with him, though BadAstronomer and Sam Harris don’t seem to be 100% in line with him either. Is there room for all types of discourse? Or should we be looking to find a united voice?

The Bible Is Not A Historical Textbook

August 1, 2010 § 20 Comments

I’m scared for the future of Australia, and I’ll tell you why.

Recently I have been reading reports of education in Queensland that sugest that people who believe the logical fallacies of the Bible have been teaching biblical writings as historical fact. I don’t need to break the bible down piece by piece to show you why it is illogical or why the stories in it are ludicrous, but I do want to point you at this article which states that “Primary school students are being taught that man and dinosaurs walked the Earth together and that there is fossil evidence to prove it.” At first I thought it was a joke, and checked my calendar to ensure it wasn’t April 1st and not August 1st.

I admit, I have no problem with teaching Religious Studies in schools. In fact I think we should present all sides of the religious picture, tell the children that every religions claims to be the “one true religion”, point out all the similarities and differences between the theistic writings, and let the kids work it out for themselves that religion is nonsensical. This knowledge would also be excellent in that it would teach the children about the history of humanity, and about this seemingly natural propensity that all humans have to want to believe in something outside the physical world. And I think all religions should be taught, not just the popular ones. How different would our opinions of religious texts be if we were to teach them as simply works of litereature, and not divine words from above?

I agree with Sam Harris when he says “I view religions as essentially failed sciences.” We naturally want to try and explain everything that happens to us and around us, and when we didn’t know the answer we would try and fill this viod with something. If you fill this void with God, then you don’t need to wonder about the causes of things, and you can move on to more  important things in your life, and leave godly matters God to worry about. If we had stayed as ignorant about our world as we were when religions were formed we would neve have progressed to the point we have now. We would have never questioned why the sun rose, or why water turns to ice, or what causes volcanoes. We would have simply just been happy with the unfounded knowledge that God did it. Whereas once we would ascribe natural disasters to an angry deity, we now know the causes of these disasters, and yet we still hold on to God.

Fundamentalism seems to be on the rise in Australia, which is very alarming. Earlier this year there was a report saying that Creationism was going to be included in the National Curriculum in Queensland schools. Now we hear that some teachers have been making things up to support the information of the Bible. It is a worrying trend, and I really think that if this kind of teaching is allowed, not only are we going to raise our children as ignorant and unquestioning, but that we as a nation will eventually be dumbed-down because of it.

This is not the time to be teaching our children badly. From a bad education comes bad decisions. We have already proven as a species that our uninformed decisions can be the cause of some of the most disastrous situtions and consequences. Let’s move forward with what we have learned, and not fall back on the mysticism and magic from our historical ignorance.

Stumble This!

“Don’t be a dick”? Sometimes we need to…

July 10, 2010 § 17 Comments

I have no idea what Bad Astronomer Phil Plait said at TAM 8 today, I was not there, in fact I am on the other side of the world right now. But the news I got is that Phil was trying to put forward the position that being overtly aggressive when addressing any kind of wrongly held belief is not the way to go, that you don’t catch flies with vinegar, you catch them with honey. Some people apparently took this as a criticism of Pharyngula’s PZ Myers, and the twittersphere was filled with tweets about his talk. I can’t comment on the talk itself, but I know that PZ likes to be overtly assertive in his standpoint and is not one to avoid a topic for the sake of being polite. I’m sure also that there was more to Phil’s talk than just puppies and hugs.

But it does bring forward an interesting problem. What voice should we use?

As overtly critical thinkers, is it better to be aggressive toward people who hold ignorant or skewed views about the world, society and the universe, or is it better to adopt a “soft touch” approach?

Personally I tend to go for the latter, and for this reason. I think it is very important to see where the other side is coming from in debates about religion, society or science. In my experience in dealing with people if you go at someone hammer and tongs from the beginning they stop hearing what you are saying, they get defensive. It’s ineffective, and they tend to resent you for attacking them. If you approach them by listening and understanding, people will tend to listen to you in return. A civilised conversation does not involve a knife-fight.

Having said this, there is a time and a place for ridicule. Some people only respond when they have their faith in irrationality shattered. And some people need to be publicly humiliated before their peers before they can see just how ridiculous their viewpoints may actually be. But keep in mind, this will not change the mind of the individual being ridiculed. What it can do is change the minds of those who listen to the irrational person, people seeing both sides of the debate can evaluate both sides of an argument and come to a conclusion for themselves.

For me the biggest problem is that people who hold certain irrational beliefs will go into a state of denial about their situation or beliefs. As I said in an earlier blog “Pitfalls in debate – the difficulties we face” in relation to dealing with loved-ones’ irrationalities:

  • People’s core beliefs are very precious to them, because this is what they base their assessments of their universe upon. If you stomp on these, you stomp on all they hold dear.
  • When discussing topics of belief, people with strong views which you are addressing or opposing can tend to “clam-up” and stop listening to you. The more insistent you become, the less they hear.
  • Aggressive attacks only cause the other person to feel threatened. If you get too emotional about a topic or during debate, you lose, the other person will claim victory based on your lack of self-control.

This applies to all people, not just your grandmother. Because so many base their understanding of the universe on what they were brought up to believe, by smashing these beliefs you are threatening to destabilise the very foundations of what they consider to be themselves, their core being. As ridiculous as this may sound, it’s true, and to try to smash someone else’s beliefs with heavy-handed insults will only make people feel belittled or “not heard”. People hate to feel their views are not heard or are dismissed.

There is a place for both the heavy-handed approach and the softer approach, and I think it comes down to the situation, who you’re talking to, what it is that they are saying, how much influence this may have on others, whether it’s a public forum or a private conversation. Likewise there is room for both Phil Plait’s approach to debating, and that of PZ Myers.

There are two key factors in debate that DO matter; the facts that we bring and the language that we use. If our facts are sound, and the language we use is persuasive, we may not win over the nay-sayers we are debating, but we may just win ourselves some converts in the audience at large. But again even if we have the facts and the persuasive language for our arguments, the noise coming from opponents may be so loud as to require aggression and ridicule.

One thing that is important to note is the reason why Phil, PZ, Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, myself and many, many others are debating irrationality, religion, bad science, bad medicine, dogma and ignorance. We all come forward with a certain understanding that these irrationalities cause more harm in this world than people give credit for. As I’ve said before, we are on a teetering point on this planet, where if we continue to make one bad decision after another about the way we evaluate what is important, the way we treat one-another, and the things we hold as true, then we are surely doomed to much further hardships. We have the information to make a real difference. We have to be effective and we have to be unwavering in our resolve. And we need to use all the tools at our disposal to do this.

I don’t think it matters whether we as individuals employ the same style or fervor in our debates. I think it comes down the the commitment we feel, the information we have and the way we phrase our facts. I don’t think we need to pander to the ridiculous claims of the delusional, but at the same time, with just the right measure of respect and the right amount of ridicule when needed, I do think progress can be made. The right tool for the right job. You wouldn’t use a sledgehammer to butter your toast would you?

Science vs Religion?

June 16, 2010 § 6 Comments

… or “Can Science Have a Positive Effect on Religion and Culture to Help Answer Questions of Morality?”

My previous blog Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions brought as many questions to the table as it did bring facts. It has been pointed out to me that many people feel that Sam Harris was using the word “science” as a way to get a conversation going rather than actually making a true statement that in fact science can answer moral questions. I agree with these statements, and I do believe that the title of Harris’ talk missed the mark.

That is not to say however that the speech is useless, in fact far from it. He raises some critical ideas about culture and religion, about problems brought about by cultural systems, about the extremes of each end of the spectrum in cultures, and about where we draw the line between being respectful of other cultures and where we should speak up and say when something is wrong.

I have touched upon this idea myself in a previous blog, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we must identify cultural practices that we consider morally reprehensible and label them as such, regardless of the cultural roots from whence they spring. For example another story in today’s paper, from Toronto. While the actual murder of Aqsa Parvez took place in 2007, the story is back in the papers because her father and brother this week pleaded guilty to murder and face up to 25 years in prison. The reason he gave for killing his own daughter? The article says:

When asked by his wife why he had killed their daughter, Ms. Parvez said her husband told her: “My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter. This is my insult. She is making me naked.”

This is just an indication that these cultural practices DO travel with people, and I would be remiss to expect individuals to leave behind their cultural backgrounds in their home countries. But we should not accept that practices such as this are accepted on the grounds of multiculturalism. The article goes on to say:

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said it’s a particularly pernicious form of murder to kill a member of one’s own family for cultural reasons.

“That’s one of the reasons we have been explicit in condemning what we call barbaric cultural practices such as honour killings,” Mr. Kenney said.

“We want to underscore that multiculturalism is not an excuse, or a moral or legal justification, for such barbaric practices. Multiculturalism does not equal cultural relativism.”

And I want to make that clear at this point. Just because it’s what people do or have always done in the name of their cultural heritage does not automatically make what people do morally acceptable. We have to make judgments on how a practice reflects on the individuals and the society at large, then make a judgment on how well that fits as a culture into a socially acceptable practice. If it does not fit, is unsuitable, unsustainable or harmful to an individual so as to cause pain, disfigurement or death, then they cannot be accepted. One man’s honour does not give him the right to kill his own family members.

Harris claimed in his talk that “Science can answer moral questions”. He touched on areas where science can inform our decisions on topics that we can then make moral judgments on, but I think he failed to  address the topic he set properly.

Given this, how does science fit into this equation?

As I said, science can help us inform our decisions on moral topics by outlining what affects certain actions can have on other beings. Science can help us look objectively at the impact cultures have on societies and the environment. Science can help us to gain a new perspective on the world, and make us think philosophically about what it means to be human. It can help us discover what it is that makes us work as individuals, and how we interact with others.

But science does not invoke morality and more than mathematics or geology invokes morality. The fact that science is by nature an objective field that strives to better itself does not make it a good sounding-board against which to make moral judgments.

What science can do is help us understand ourselves better, and give us groundings in our universe, ones which then can set us in good stead to see what the future might hold if we can get it right here and now.

In a past article I talked about the nature of morality, and how it is subjective to cultures and people. In the comments to that article, the idea was extrapolated to say that an enactment of what one believes to be justified morality but based on the prejudices, intuition and upbringing, people can be lead to make bad moral judgments.

Science cannot make us make the right moral judgments, but by studies of cultures, of societies and of the human mind and emotional impulses,  science (mostly social sciences) can draw us closer to an understanding of just why it is that humans can make such seemingly immoral decisions but still feel morally justified.

Some people have a fear that if we use science to make our actions seem like they are all products of brain chemistry that we will be stealing the innate “humanness” from humanity, making us the lose our “souls” to the mechanistic and deterministic principles of machines. But as I have said before, just because we know how something works, does it make it any less remarkable, or beautiful, or mysterious? The human mind is so amazing that even if we do eventually discover how morals work in our brains, I doubt we will all of a sudden be saying “Well that’s the last mystery solved, there’s nothing more.” This is because with every new discovery we find a new question, or several questions.

So science can’t answer moral questions, not directly anyway, but it can help us understand ourselves better.

EDIT: I do realise that I too failed to address the topic of this blog post in the blog, however I think that the wider ranging idea of morality in many contexts and for many people is intrinsically linked to their religious views. I hope to address this point further in subsequent blogs. I have given this blog a subtitle to help avoid confusion.

Don’t call me an Atheist!

June 6, 2010 § 14 Comments

I have always been atheist. I was born without god and have never found that I have ever needed a god in my life. And it would seem as time goes on, that I have been drawn toward people who share the same opinions about religion as I do, mostly without ever having discussed it, or at least having barely touched on the subject. I had never called myself atheist until recently and I must say, I do it with a bit of apprehension, because the term itself to me is without meaning. However at the same time, I do call myself an Atheist with a capital “A” for reasons I will expand upon below.

I find the title of “Atheist” with a capital “A” to a be problematic thing for various reasons.

Being atheist is not like missing something that is needed like being without an arm or leg, in fact it’s an absence of something people add to themselves, more like being without an iPad, or without a favourite type of sushi, so I wonder why it needs a label at all. It has been compared to being a “non-stamp collector” or like considering bald as a hair colour, which shows the absurdity of the label.

With “Atheism” also I worry about the gathering of many people, all of whom have their own individual views of the universe, being lumped under the banner of “Atheism” makes us easy to identify and demonise as a collective. With the collective comes the “target” which theists and conservatives can band together against, much like has happened to Communists and witches in history. Sam Harris at the Atheist Alliance Conference in Washington DC in 2007 went so far as to say “…our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.”

I also have a bit of discomfort in saying  I am an “Atheist”, because it is a word which is loaded with so many misconceptions, and paints us as a pariah. We get called variously, “baby eaters”, “haters”, “communists”, “Nazis”, “extremists”, “un-American”, “un-Australian”, “infidels”, “heathens” and the list goes on. The label of “Atheist” is a negative thing, even though it asserts a positive standpoint. Harris says this:

“Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.”

So here we have an unneccessary label, which is demonised and targeted, is considered to be evil and yet we stand proudly under this banner and say “Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about.”  I know that the misconceptions of Atheism are incorrect, and nobody I know has actually eaten a baby; in fact I would go as far as to say the self-proclaimed Atheists I have met are some of the smartest, wisest and kindest people I know.

However, in opposition to Sam Harris’ stand on the label, I also see a plus side. While he says “We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them,” a sentiment I understand and agree with on one level, I think there is an advantage to the label which Harris fails to address in this talk. There is an advantage in unity. The unity of people, who while they might like to gather under the banners of “reason” and “rational”, to gather under the “Atheist” banner gives us a face, gives us a voice and gives us power of numbers. I cannot see how a bunch of solitary people who simply call themselves “reasonable people” and nothing else can even hope to have their voices heard. Sure we can write replies in blogs, or blog ourselves, we can post links in Facebook or tweet as much as we like, but without a unifying label I think we are just solitary figures without a face and without any power.

So we have the conundrum. Which is better? Flying solo under no banner, or flying under a banner of unity? I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to this, but it is something I have been thinking about.

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