Monday, 30 June 2008


There just comes a point where trying to argue with believers is like beating ones head repeatedly against a brick wall until such time as bits of brain fly out and the body falls into a state of delirium. It truly is an exercise in futility. The key reason for the disparity comes not from the creationists ability to reason, but what they constitute as evidence differs greatly. Unfortunately in a setting where faith is considered a virtue, the uncertainties of the scientific process will always be a foreign concept. And this is why we see believers trying to discredit Darwin, or that evolution can be linked with unfavourable movements. The lack of understanding about the scientific process and the treatment of science as belief makes appealing to physical evidence as credulous as creationists appealing to the bible.

So-called experts
As science has become almost a universally acknowledged discipline for effectively measuring reality, it's hard to just dismiss all of science without seeming like a complete fool. We won't see people arguing with the theory of gravity as we can both see the effects of gravity and mathematically model the process. Likewise with electromagnetic radiation, while people don't understand the process it's still regarded as a near certainty thanks to being able to witness it's practical application. With sciences that don't directly produce immediate results, it becomes a lot hazier to try and understand for someone who can't directly grasp the evidence. The same process of observation, hypothesis, testing, peer-review and extensive falsification still applies. But because we can't directly witness events that take place over hundreds of thousands of years then for some it seems like a leap of faith.

From there comes the discrediting of certain methods of discovery like radiocarbon dating. We see absurd claims about irreducible complexity, and have to hear about the faith of evolution. Two things stand out to me; firstly that they try and point out things that scientists already know about and have taken into account long ago, and secondly that even if science fails that their explanation is any better.

Yes, there are gaps in scientific knowledge. Yes, there are checks that are needed for various techniques to ensure they are accurate. No, science does not work in certainty, it works in degrees of certainty. Yes, evolution is a theory. Theory does not mean guess. Facts in science are observed phenomena, theories are explanations of the phenomena. And to call something a theory takes a vast amount of testing, empirical data, peer review and falsification. Only after all those checks are exhausted is it called a theory. A theory must explain all the evidence, if it doesn't explain any new evidence that comes to light then the theory must be tweaked to encompass the new evidence, or if the evidence is entirely contradictory to the theory then the theory is discarded and a new theory replaces it. I explained this in my blog post why creationism is wrong.

Do believers honestly feel that scientists with decades of training overlook the flaws of the methods they use? Do they feel that preachers with little to no scientific training have a deep insight to the methods that scientists don't? Or is it simply they are looking for flaws because it hurts the position of the other side? The latter is something that proponents of complementary and alternative medicine thrive on, and to me it seems similar behaviour in this case. The flaws are there, we know they are there and we don't pretend for a moment the system is perfect. We even willingly point out the flaws as the process encompasses it, it's a self-correcting process. Scientists know all this and this is why degrees of certainty are used as opposed to absolute certainty. Science doesn't know everything, the chances of it knowing everything are nigh on impossible; that uncertainty is vital to the ability to comprehend new evidence as it comes to light.

Even if a scientific theory was destroyed by new evidence, what would possess believers to think that it suddenly means their beliefs are validated? If we say all cars are blue, then we see a car that isn't blue, it doesn't mean that all cars are red. It just means that the idea that all cars are blue is false. Pushing beliefs as an alternative to knowledge just shows ignorance of the process. In science new facts are coming in all the time. Most of the time it fills a gap, occasionally it leads us to rethink the way certain mechanisms work. So believers can spend all the effort they like trying to destroy evolution, it doesn't support for a minute the notion of creationism. It is simply creating a false dichotomy and frankly it amazes me that believers focus so much on destroying evolution as opposed to trying to do the science to support their beliefs.

I know it's true, I can feel it
The great disparity of reason is that while all we can ever truly know is based on our own experience, the brain is a poor mechanism for both comprehending and rationalising the extent of the world. They are not finely tuned machines, they are clumsy. The fallibility of man, of memory, of interpreting our thoughts and actions is well established. It's with that the argument to personal experience is not accepted. What can appear real to us is not necessarily so, and even the most sound mind and hardened sceptic is prone to the same shortcomings and limitations that the mind allows.

For the most part, the human mind works on a practical level. We can interpret most input around us with a degree of accuracy. To process all the input we receive is impossible, it's a very selective process. But for the most part we can interpret the normalcy with precise rationality. It's those irrational experiences, those "spiritual" experiences, which are out of the normal that our ability to interpret them is weak. Whether it's seeing a ghost, having a perceived out-of-body experience, or feeling the presence of God, the effect on our physiological and mental state is so profound that in order to explain it we grasp at any explanation possible; most of the time it's something tautological in that it's based on our perceived notions of dualism. i.e. if we are in a Christian society, it's the work of God, a Muslim would see Allah, a Hindu would feel Brahman.
"At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one's experience of the world radically transformed. Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention-we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream-most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible" - Sam Harris (The End Of Faith)
Spiritual experiences do have a profound effect on those who go through it, and that isn't to be taken lightly. It needs to be recognised that such experiences exist and how transforming they can be to the person who has them. But on the same token, appealing to a supernatural explanation is not proof of the supernatural explanation. This is the mistake of appealing to personal experience, that the information provided no matter how much it is believed to be so still has no verifiable motive. An explanation is useless without a mode for which it to work. The explanation has to include a plausible mechanism under which the explanation operates. When proposing that humans look designed by an intelligent agent, saying Goddidit is not a plausible mechanism. It just raises further questions about that intelligent agent. The need for a plausible mechanism is one to best grasp the nature of reality, without a mechanism under which these entities operate is simply giving attributes to the unknown. It's looking at the world in a dualist perspective as proof of a dual nature to reality.

The problem of trying to rationalise a spiritual experience is that we are ill-equipped to properly handle them. Hence why it's so easy to lump them into a category that thrives in irrationality. And the major flaw of personal experience is that it doesn't explain conflicting personal experiences that we see around the world. It begs the question: do we take the Christian's word that it was God or a Hindu's the presence was Visnu? There is a far more mystical object inside of all of us: the brain. We have yet to uncover all it's secrets, it's functionality and the process of consciousness itself. Without understanding the exact processes of how it works, how can we appeal to it as a reliable tool for rationalising the spiritual?

The pursuit of truth
As much as some religious folk are repulsed by science, there is a resignation amongst them that science is the best tool we know to understand this world. While some inject their beliefs into the gaps of knowledge or even outside the bounds of testing, there are those who take the approach of dismissing any scientific concepts as unscientific that don't back their belief. When someone knows in their heart that they are right, of course anything that tells them they are wrong is going to be treated as a threat. For those who want a scientific validation of belief, there is a means of achieving it: do some research. The peer-review system is there for all, and if there is merit to the claim, then it will be accepted by the scientific community. Learning about science isn't tough, there is a wealth of information out there. Picking up an elementary book on geology or biology will explain the process of the age of the earth better than I ever could.

Some of the claims creationists come up with would win the Nobel Prize, not to mention it would validate the beliefs of billions and they would have something more than faith to support their belief. And in the end, solid evidence is what we all want. So I implore those who feel that science does show a young earth to put forward peer-reviewed work into academia. Don't be fooled by Expelled, if there is scientific merit in the paper, then it will be accepted. There are foundations like the John Templeton Foundation that fund research into the intersection of science and religion. Glory awaits those willing to throw their beliefs on the line, though the risk is great. Why try and empirically demonstrate something that successfully propagates now without any scientific merit? Because above everything else we humans have a desire to find out what's true, and at the moment the scientific method is the best tool we have for determining truth.

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