Friday, September 19, 2008

Why I trust science

I guess this week is the week for publicly posting all the email I send. This post is adapted from an email I sent to Stephen Gibson of Truth-Driven Thinking. He no longer does the podcast, but I highly recommend listening to some of the past episodes. He has very interesting interviews with well-informed people, and the interviews challenge conventional wisdom on a variety of topics.

One of the last podcast episodes I listened to was Epilogue #5, a guest appearance with Don Johnson Ministries, and it kind of pissed me off. You don't have to listen to the episode to appreciate this post, but it might help.

I felt like the Christian interviewers were trying to pigeonhole Steve as a "materialist" so that they could dispatch him with their stock philosophical arguments, instead of actually listening to what he was trying to say. At the same time, they kept insisting that this was a dialogue for the purpose of greater understanding. To me, it came off as disingenuous, though I believe they may have honestly thought they were trying to participate in an open dialogue.

Particularly bad was their assertion that the best worldview is the one that explains what others cannot, and therefore scientific naturalism is inferior because it cannot explain the supernatural. So how about the assertion, "I believe science, reason, and evidence are the best way of understanding the world. I accept the scientific consensus on all matters pertaining to reality. Also, I have an invisible dragon in my garage." Is this a more correct worldview because it explains something supernatural that pure naturalism cannot explain? If my friend says that my garden is beautiful, and I say, "Yes, but did you know there are also fairies at the bottom of it?", does that make my point of view superior? I don't think so, because the addendum of "God did it" doesn't really explain anything. There is no value in arriving at an explanation via Making Stuff Up.

If you're going to compare worldviews, you need to examine them against the evidence. The evidence for scientific naturalism is that science works. The space shuttle flies, and vaccines work, and the reason they work is because science allows us to make testable predictions about the universe. Our understanding of reality has increased by orders of magnitude in the past, let's say, 2000 years. We know that we are progressing in understanding because we are able to make successful predictions that we weren't able to make before. Science is the tool for doing so, and it is also the tool for measuring our progress. That is the evidence.

How has our understanding of reality been increased by Christianity? How would we even know? Does Christianity make any testable predictions about the world? In a way, you could say that prophecy is a testable prediction. Unfortunately, most prophecies in the Christian tradition are so vague that they can be interpreted in dozens of ways. Even prophecies that are specific are not falsifiable, because any failures can be conveniently explained away with "God works in mysterious ways" or "I guess the people weren't faithful enough" or any other rationalization you can come up with. Would the space shuttle fly in a Christian universe? Sure, probably. Did God tell us how to make the space shuttle fly? No.

Does the practicality of science prove that matter is all that exists? No, but it certainly suggests that it is a very valuable approach to assume that we live in a natural universe. As Steve said during the interview, asking for proof that "matter is all that exists" is really asking for proof of a negative proposition. One can no more disprove the existence of God than one can disprove the existence of the invisible dragon in my garage. It is the onus of supernaturalists to demonstrate a single counterexample to the proposition of naturalism. It is not the onus of naturalists to disprove every conceivable example of anything that would fall outside the realm of naturalism.

I found it interesting that they demanded this impossible evidence in order to support the naturalistic view, yet when claiming evidence of their own position, the best they could do were ideas like:

- "Thoughts and emotions aren't physical." (Why?)
- "Is rationality rational?" (Why not?)
- "The gospels tell what Jesus' contemporaries thought of him." (No, they were written about 100 years later.)
- "Plenty of people have debunked Ehrman." (This is an argument?)

In a way, this is a specific rant against the Christians in a particular interview, but it's also a more general complaint about supernaturalism in general. If a supernatural explanation were better than a scientific one for explaining any part of reality, I wouldn't have such a problem with it. If prayer could help someone regrow an amputated limb, I would pray. Hell, if prayer were shown to have a significant effect on anything at all, external to the person praying, I would pray. But as far as I can tell, naturalism is sufficient to explain everything we see and experience. And furthermore, science works. That is why I trust it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Taking some control

As I was writing an email to a friend tonight, I realized that I have recently made a lot of changes for the better. In the past 18 months or so, I have:

  • Taken control of my own mind as I realized that I am free to believe what makes sense to me, and I no longer believe in the church. I have pretty much come to terms with what I do and don't believe, and why. I like who I am, and my family still loves me, and that's really all that matters.

  • Taken control of my finances. We've been focusing on paying off debt for the past 17 months, and in 12 days from today, we will be totally debt-free except our home. I think the feeling of freedom that comes with paying off debt is one major contributor to my reassessment of where I am and what I want to do with my life.

  • Taken control of my health, by paying attention to what I'm eating and by exercising. I've lost about 30 pounds in 4 months, and I now run 3 miles every other morning, whereas a year ago I could barely walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath. I feel so much better, and it just adds to the feeling of empowerment over my own life.

  • Started taking control of personal organization, after reading Getting Things Done by David Allen. It's basically a system for getting everything out of your mind and into a written system so you don't have to worry about everything you're doing or not doing at any particular moment. I haven't gotten too far into it yet, but I can already tell it's going to be a very positive change. The simple act of capturing my thoughts on paper instead of trying to hold them all in my brain has been very freeing.

I feel like all these positive changes are part of the same phenomenon that's happening in my life, and they all support each other. It's like I'm systematically finding areas of my life that I'm unsatisfied with, and consciously making changes to improve them. It feels a lot like cleaning out 10 years worth of garbage that has accumulated through laziness and negligence, so that I can move forward and actually do something positive. Like filling in a bunch of holes I dug for myself, so that I can finally start to build something.

About two years ago, I remember sitting in church and writing down the question on a piece of paper: "What do I really want?" I thought about it for a while, and finally I wrote the answer: "Freedom." By this, I didn't mean freedom from anything in particular. I meant freedom to dream and to dare, freedom to explore, to create, and to achieve. In all of the areas I mentioned above, I can see how something was holding me back (religion, debt, laziness, disorganization), and I can see how eliminating that thing has given me more options. I feel like I'm starting to experience more freedom in all these areas, and it's because I decided to change my life in order to get what I really want. I'm not sure what caused me to stop and write down that question two years ago, but I think that was the beginning of all these big changes.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Science is never finished

I've decided to start posting a quote from Carl Sagan each Sunday, to remind me of why I have chosen the name "Saganist" to identify myself on this blog and in other places around the Web. Carl Sagan had a way of expressing many of the hopes and ideals I would like to express myself, except that he was much more elegant and succinct than I am. I hope you enjoy the quotes.

I urge you to bear in mind the imperfection of our current knowledge. Science is never finished. It proceeds by successive approximations, edging closer and closer to a complete and accurate understanding of nature, but it is never fully there. From the fact that so many major discoveries have been made in the last century – even in the last decade – it is clear that we still have far to go. Science is always subject to debate, correction, refinement, agonizing reappraisal, and revolutionary insights. Nevertheless, there now seems to be enough known to reconstruct some of the key steps that led to us and helped to make us who we are.
– Carl Sagan

Recently on another site I frequent, someone implied that scientific naturalism requires as much faith as theism, and as evidence for this claim, he pointed to the fact that physicists disagree with each other just as theologists disagree with each other. Specifically, he said,

I notice today in the news...Stephen Hawking has a $100 bet that the elusive "God" particle won't be found by the new particle collider and it will be back to the drawing board for even the "standard model".....yikes....Again, it seems to me that physicists disagree among themselves as much as theologists do.....

The difference between physicists and theologists is that physicists do experiments. Whatever evidence the LHC provides, scientific theories will need to be adjusted to account for it. This is not a weakness of science; this is science's greatest strength. It is what connects scientific understanding to reality. Theology does not need any such connection.

I actually agree with the assertion that science is not infallible. It is a method used by humans; and humans make mistakes, take wrong turns, disagree with each other, and play politics. But I believe science is simply the most effective method we have found so far for discovering the nature of reality, and in the long run it maintains the balance of wonder and skepticism that is necessary for finding truth.

The fact that physicists disagree with each other is a good thing! It means that there is much left to discover, and we don't have all the answers. I think the media tends to portray scientists as thinking they have all the answers, but continual uncertainty is integral to scientific inquiry. As Dr. Sagan said, science is never finished. If you think science claims to have all the answers, I think you misunderstand science. Disagreement among scientists is usually about how to interpret the evidence, or which theory best explains the evidence. It is not disagreement about whether to follow the evidence at all, and that is what makes it so different from religion.

I leave you with a quote from Bertrand Russell:

The scientific temper of mind is cautious, tentative, and piecemeal; it does not imagine that it knows the whole truth, or that even its best knowledge is wholly true. It knows that every doctrine needs emendation sooner or later, and that the necessary emendation requires freedom of investigation and freedom of discussion.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The devil wears Birkenstocks

I love This American Life, and last week's episode, "The Devil in Me", was fantastic as usual. It's worth listening to the whole thing, but especially Act Three: The Devil Wears Birkenstocks. I found myself laughing and clapping several times, because it is so right on. Here's the brief description:

Some people battle inner demons, but contributor Dave Dickerson went one step further. Dave tells the story of the time he took on an actual demon in his college classroom. (10 and 1/2 minutes)

Dave was raised as a fundamentalist Christian, and at a point where he thought he was mostly past all that, he found himself placed in a situation where his belief in angels and demons was brought to the forefront of his mind in a very real way. Listen, you won't regret it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The power of Christ compels vampires!

I love Jack Chick tracts. They're just so over the top that you can't take them seriously at all. Even as a Christian I thought they were way too goofy. Here's one where the heroine uses the power of Jesus to convert a vampire! Rock on! In the next episode, I bet she uses the sword of the spirit to slay unicorns!

December 22, 2012

Mark the date on your calendars, if you have a long count calendar that actually goes that far. I don't normally prophesy, but this is an official prophecy. The world will still be here on December 22, 2012.