Beware Of Dogmatists

dog·ma·tism: the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.

When writing critically about religion, it is sometimes hard to adequately convey both the idea that fundamentalism is undesirable and dangerous and that other, less dogmatic, forms of spirituality can be, and often are, forces for good. People often conclude from some of my criticisms of religious faith: “You hate religion, period.” Well, I don’t. There are many religion-motivated people who do a lot of good in our communities. Each and every day. Thus, allow me to explain, in more detail, where I’m coming from. Then, I promise, I will resume my blogging on politics.

What I don’t like, and what I believe all thinking people should aggressively attack, is any form of religion that does not admit to what a couple of commenters on my latest piece (“‘Without God, I Am No One’—Bullshit That Needs Our Attention“) called “humility,” the idea that one’s vision of God is not necessarily the correct one and that “the next person may understand God even better than I do.”  I have no quarrel with anyone who holds religious views in that context.

My quarrel is with the dogmatists. I believe, and I think the evidence from history supports it, that religious dogmatism is mostly a destructive force, even if it isn’t (these days) always manifested in violence against others. I ambrose biercehappen to think that dedicating precious time and minds and other resources to discussing or settling dogmatism-inspired controversies is a colossal waste, a form of destruction. (And I am one who has spent a lot of time exploring the meandering contours of Christian theology.) So, I want to be clear that the form of religion I dislike is not the kind that admits to uncertainty or doubt. With increasing passion, I am attacking the kind of religious dogma expressed by people like Douglas McCain, whose fanaticism and dogmatism may have finally led him to Syria to kill and be killed in the name of his religion, but who first began by embracing incontrovertible beliefs and essentially enslaving himself to his unquestionable notion of God.

Evidence should always be our guide, wherever it leads. As a former evangelical Christian, I am now open to evidence that God exists or that he doesn’t exist. I have to admit that most of the evidence is for the latter, but I’m not dogmatic about it. I have before described myself as a theist, even though my faith is really a hope that there exists a being who will enforce common notions of justice at some point in the life of this universe or beyond. Really, I suppose, I am an agnostic. I don’t know if it is even possible to discover the existence or non-existence of God. But I do know that I don’t have much faith that a collection of old writings, written by ignorant and bigoted men, has anything at all to do with finding God. In fact, in so many ways, they lead the other way.

One commenter wrote,

It is entirely possible to be a serious, devout Christian and still maintain an awareness that, however binding you may personally find the Bible, the next person is entitled [to] view things differently.

Of course that is true. Most serious, devout American Christians do believe people are entitled to view things differently. After all, we live in a country with a secular Constitution that values no religion over another, and most of us have been taught to respect the religious views of others.

But my argument is not about whether this or that religious dogmatist thinks others are or are not entitled to hold one view or another. I am not saying that zealous believers necessarily want the government to step in and demand that people become fellow fundamentalists and fanatics. My argument is with the zealotry, the fundamentalism, the fanaticism itself. It is about whether we should continue to leave unchallenged the views of people who say things like, “Without God, I am no one,” or, “The Bible is all I need in this life,” people who enslave themselves to their necessarily imperfect idea of God. And I especially think we should challenge the views of people who teach their children such dangerous and injurious ideas. Deliberately closing the minds of children, essentially drowning their imaginations in dogmatism, shouldn’t be something our 21st-century culture accepts in silence. We should object to it, and loudly.

In addition to all that, I think we should challenge religious dogma because—and this may be painful for some to hear—there is an element of narcissism involved in its expression. If you think about it, it is an amazing expression of egotism, even if it is in our culture a regrettably acceptable expression of egotism, to say after some personal escape from calamity, “God blessed me today.” Let me give you an example.

The Christian medical missionary, Dr. Kent Brantly, was recently released from the hospital, to much fanfare, after he was apparently cured of Ebola. No one can say for sure that it was the experimental drug he was given or whether it was his own immune system or some other treatment or mechanism that made him well. It even may have been the prayers that people offered up to God that did the trick. That is certainly what Dr. Brantly claimed:

…there were thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world praying for me throughout that week, and even still today…what I can tell you is that I serve a faithful God who answers prayers…Through the care of the Samaritan’s Purse and SIM missionary team in Liberia, the use of an experimental drug, and the expertise and resources of the health care team at Emory University Hospital, God saved my life—a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.

“God saved my life.” How often have we heard people say that? After the 2011 tornado here in Joplin, I heard that a lot. And I always wondered what those other people, those who didn’t survive the tornado, did to not deserve God saving their lives. And I wondered, when I heard Dr. Brantly talk, why those other people, now in the thousands, who have died or will die at the viral hands of Ebola, did to not deserve God’s blessings? Is Dr. Brantly’s life worth more to God than those others? Are those who survived the Joplin tornado worth more to God than those who didn’t?

People who claim that “God saved my life” should be challenged to explain why others were undeserving of such salvation. They should be challenged to explain why they were so special to the Creator Of The Universe. We would certainly challenge them if they said, “God exempted me from income taxes,” or “God has a plan for my life that includes being President of the United States.”

I submit to you that in any other context what Dr. Brantly said, and what some of those who survived the Joplin tornado said, would be taken as expressions of an unhealthy narcissism. But we don’t bat an eye when people talk that way about God saving them after an illness, a car wreck, or a horrific storm. And my argument is that we should bat an eye. In fact, both eyes, and say, “How do you know?” Or, more to the point, “How can you know?”

I will end this with a YouTube video that was put together by someone named Devon Tracey, an atheist (unfortunately, a much too dogmatic atheist) who took a presentation by Sam Harris and cleverly matched it with images and other video to make Harris’ speech on God and morality much more entertaining. Although there are some points I would quibble with, I urge you to watch with batting eyes:

26 Comments

  1. Reminds me of something I saw on Facebook a few days ago. It was a paper napkin and written on it was: “The only true God is the Napkin God. I know it’s true because it is written on this napkin.”

    And that’s the problem you have with ‘dogmatism.” It’s circular logic. God saved me from the tornado because god saved me from the tornado. Those other poor bastards who were killed? Well, God has a plan and we don’t know what that plan is because, well, it’s God’s plan and we can never question God.

    Or, it was “their time.” God called them home. I know that’s true because — OK — I don’t know that, but then you can’t read the mind of God. Can you? No.

    The holocaust? Again, who among us can question the creator and master of the universe?

    So you’re always wrong, and I’m always right. I know that because of a book, some of which was written 3,000 years ago, and some of it 2,000 years ago, and how could anything written that many years ago be wrong?

    All seriousness aside, the key to Christianity (and Islam even) is the afterlife. You have to earn your way into heaven/paradise. And that is where you are so correct here to note that a faith, which, in effect, is a carrot and a stick, requires a selfishness, what you call an unhealthy narcissism. You are born with sin (a debt) and you’re supposed to spend the rest of your life working it off.

    But I think the Buddhists have it right. I found a Buddhist website some time ago with an interesting essay titled “Salvation Versus Liberation, The Limitations of the Paradise Worlds.” Some excerpts:

    “In a paradise, the individual is a kind of slave to the deity. Many of the deities are quite nice, but there is no tolerance for rebellion. If you do not worship the deity, you are out. Some gods are notorious about requiring constant worship, and they are very sensitive about any concern for or loyalty to other gods.

    “Paradises are very good places to meditate and pray. However, they have limited options for creativity. These paradises already exist, and are decorated and furnished. They do not need creativity and change. And there are limited options for helping the suffering. If you are in a paradise, you cannot help them. You are too busy pleasing the deity or pleasing yourself.

    “People in paradises take the easy way out. They could be struggling and striving for enlightenment, and instead choose a feathered nest without responsibility or maturity. For the sake of temporary happiness, they renounce knowledge and freedom. They then have no choice but happiness. Their growth is stunted like a child who will never leave his mother’s lap, no matter how old he gets.

    “Some paradises require an entrance fee. It may be your total love and devotion, and it may be a renunciation of spiritual maturity. In some cases, the individual must offer (the) jewels of light – the light of his or her past kindness and good deeds. They are taken away as the individual enters, and if the individual should turn his or her back on the god, he will be left with nothing.

    “Liberation is not easy, but it is the birthright of every person. Frittering away time in the heaven worlds may be enjoyable, but it is a form of spiritual gluttony. You are fulfilling your own desires and those of a powerful and often egotistical deity, but what are you doing to help the universe?

    “Paradises are places for the weak and traumatized, who need shelter and cannot take life’s intellectual challenges. This is why paradise deities emphasize love [as opposed to knowledge]. Only those who cannot go forward will choose to stay back forever. And paradises fulfill a valid need – the world is full of people seeking shelter.”

    The Christians and Muslims should take note.

    Herb

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    • Yes, the world is full of folks seeking shelter, shelter of all kinds.

      When I was an evangelical Christian, in my more curious moments I wondered the following: If God could create a future “paradise” where we all would live blissfully for eternity, why didn’t he just create that paradise to begin with? I also wondered if any future heavenly state also came with the possibility of rebellion; if it were possible, in the paradise to come (what we called heaven) for a revolt to take place, a genuine revolt against God, or a revolt just against his keeping an even greater paradise from us. In other words, I wondered if it were possible for a repeat of the whole Garden of Eden tragedy. That sometimes led me to think that a real paradisaical heaven was, for creatures with free will and a thirst for knowledge, impossible because we would always wonder what else was out there that God didn’t want us to think about or experience.

      That is why I appreciated very much the line from your excerpt: “paradise deities emphasize love [as opposed to knowledge].” It is easily recognizable in the Genesis account of the fall of man that the real sin was seeking knowledge that was put off limits by God, which is a very anti-Eastern (and especially after the Enlightenment, a very anti-Western) idea. The condemnation of such knowledge-seeking pretty much sums up what is wrong with some forms of Judaism, and almost all forms of Christianity and Islam, in my opinion.

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  2. ansonburlingame

     /  August 28, 2014

    Duane,

    Briefly, I “cherry pick” one comment in your blog, “…..meandering contours of Christian theology.” That is a great description of at least my own experiences from reading the Bible, and the Quran for that matter. I have also read about the life of Buddah and find it “refreshing” to say the least.

    I firmly believe there is “no human power” that can tell me everything I need to know to live a “good life”. That includes words written then and now how to do so. My job in life is to absorb as much as I can and then make decisions each day based upon an accumulation of knowledge and experiences throughout my life. I in no way believe more “good ways to live” are extinct, stopped being written 2000 or so years ago. I also believe no one can comprehend all the “crazy contours” in any religion, a set of dogmatic “things” written by human beings.

    We are what and who we are, which can change over time, based on our own choices, day by day. “Natural laws” and human choices will determine when I am born, how I will live, and when I will cease to exist as a human being.

    Anson

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    • There are some who believe that what you call “human choices” aren’t choices at all, merely the illusion of choice. But that’s another subject for another time. That being said, I don’t think we differ all that much on our views of the limitations of religious belief.

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  3. Ben Field

     /  August 28, 2014

    Duane,
    I lost my home in the tornado and cannot count the times I was prayed for, told how blessed I was to be alive, or that God had plans for me, and my wife and children as we all lived through it. The loss of our home, injuries and the terror of the three minute duration did not feel like a blessing. What did feel like a blessing were the hundreds of people offering prayers, assistance, food and water, that came to aid fellow humans. My faith in humanity was restored even if the people were doing it for narcissistic reasons, although many did not show any religious pretenses. I however did not challenge any statements, I accepted them as gestures of goodwill. I accept your assertion that dogmatists unacceptable of others views to the degree they would kill over it as unacceptable to any rational human. To question their belief that you were blessed or that God has plans for you, I think would be rude even if you disagree with the statement. Science nor religion can explain the origins of the universe or multiverse so to argue the point is an exercise in futility. NPR had an excellent story back in March 2013 regarding the impasse in the argument you might like
    .
    The Origin Of The Universe: From Nothing Everything? : 13.7 … – NPR
    http://www.npr.org/…/the-origin-of-the-univers...
    Mar 27, 2013 – Defenders of scientism might argue that this is the best that we can do, that it is the … So, a scientific explanation of the origin of the universe needs to use such concepts to make sense.

    In the words of a wise five year old grandchild, “Let it go, let it go…

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    • Ben,

      First, sorry about your losses and injuries from the tornado.

      Second, I appreciate very much your point on rudeness. I wouldn’t for a second challenge anyone who was offering up prayers on my behalf, especially if I thought they were offered as gestures of good will. I never meant to even suggest that. Of course, for the most part, people do offer prayers and “blessing” talk as gestures of good will. Again, I have no problem with that. It is just part of our culture and I do think it would be rude to return such gestures with knee-jerk skepticism.

      Third, what I think should be challenged is dogmatism, the idea that people are unquestionably certain about religious claims such that they base their entire existence on them. I see no need to be rude about it, but I do see, in some limited circumstances, the need to ask questions and insist on responses, if the person is presenting their dogmatic faith in public spaces, or even sometimes in personal ones. I have engaged many people in that way over the years since I moved away from evangelical Christianity, and most of the time it has been non-rude exchanges. You might be surprised how much some people like to discuss such things, so long as it doesn’t get heated. One just has to pick one’s battles wisely.

      Finally, thanks for the link. I have been attracted to cosmology for as long as I can remember. Even as a evangelical Christian I studied the relationship between scientific explanations of the universe and biblical explanations. In fact, I spent a lot of my time with books that attempted to harmonize in some way or another science with theology. John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist turned priest, was one of my favorite authors in that regard.

      The only reason I mention any of that is to try to explain that I don’t just come to this subject empty-handed, or, if you will, empty-headed. Even though I’m not a professional philosopher, I have spent a lot of time, for whatever that is worth, reading, studying, thinking, and writing about these matters. And based on what I have learned, and based on what I have learned about how much I really don’t and can’t know, I will quibble with the following statement you made:

      Science nor religion can explain the origins of the universe or multiverse so to argue the point is an exercise in futility.

      I find that statement troubling and, to be honest, culturally dangerous. Both science and religion can “explain” the origins of the universe. Whether these explanations are true or not true is another matter. In the NPR source you cited, we have the fairly standard scientific explanation:

      …the Universe emerged spontaneously from a random quantum fluctuation in some sort of primordial quantum vacuum, the scientific equivalent of “nothing.

      I once attended a debate at Missouri Southern between noted skeptic Michael Shermer and conservative Christian philosopher R. Douglas Geivett. At the time (April of 2003) I still considered myself some kind of believer, albeit a teetering one. After Shermer presented the argument for the beginning of the universe (that it came into existence out of “nothing,” a quantum vacuum), I posed a question to Dr. Geivett about what Shermer could have possibly meant by that primordial quantum vacuum. I knew, because of my layman’s familiarity with quantum mechanics, that Shermer’s “nothing” was misleading, since he was talking about fluctuating electromagnetic fields. Geivett, of course, seized on the opportunity, as I recall, to make the point that such a vacuum was indeed not “nothing.”

      The point I am making is that both science and religion do have explanations for how things came to be and both can and should be challenged. Our job, as human investigators and evaluators, is to determine what explanation best fits the available evidence, or whether the evidence supports the explanation. In other words, which explanation is the most probable, given what we know.

      In that light, if we compare, say, the random quantum fluctuation emergence theory with the creation account in Genesis, I think a fair-minded person, and one whose mind has not been captured by religious dogma, would say that the scientific explanation is the most plausible one of the two. (Some might even say it is compatible with some religious explanations of God’s bringing the universe into existence through his command, but that’s another issue.) Thus, I think it is mistaken to claim that it is an exercise in futility to argue the point of whether science or religion is closer to the best explanation of the origin of the universe. I think it is a necessary exercise, one that is vital to making sure magical thinking does not prevail in our culture.

      Duane

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      • With respect to something coming from nothing, you may appreciate my essay on the subject over on my blog

        http://theabsurdityindex.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/you-can-only-get-something-from-nothing-if-nothing-is-something/

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        • There are a couple of things I am tempted to challenge in your excellent piece, Herb, but I will stick with this one:

          The difficulty in accepting the idea of an uncaused cause is to admit an infinite regression of causes. But this is no different, it seems to me, than considering the future as unending, eternal, forever, an infinite progression of causes and effects.

          Well, considering and imagining infinite regress of causes does seem to be quite different from considering and imagining an infinite progress of causes.

          We can imagine some causal chain going on and on forever, from this point forward or from some finite point in the past. We can so imagine it because we know it had a prior cause or causes, something which began the infinite progress. But that’s not the case the other way. If we try to imagine an infinite regress, we never, by definition, arrive at a starting point and thus frustrate our attempt to properly imagine it.

          Moreover, we can’t really imagine how, if there is such a thing as an infinite regress of causes (remember, we are not merely talking about mathematical infinities but actual ones), how things got to the point in the chain where we are now, since the regress is, in principle, infinite. In other words, if there is no first cause in the chain of events that leads up to you and I thinking about this subject right at this moment, then we can’t imagine how it is possible that an infinite regress ever got to the point where we are, indeed, thinking about it. It seems the fact that we are thinking about it implies a finite past, a chain of events that had a beginning at some point but may, or may not, have an end.

          To put my objection to what you said another way, let’s suppose that where you and I are right now in the cause and effect chain corresponds with the number 830. We can easily imagine a cause and effect chain that extends into infinity, as we can start counting at 830 and imagine it continuing forever. Now, let’s go the other way and try to imagine an actual infinite regress. We can start counting backward but we can never get to the point where we can stop. Thus, we can never imagine how the chain of causes and effects ever got to 830 in the first place precisely because an infinite amount of time would have to pass before we got to any point we want to imagine.

          Now, I am sure there are philosophers out there who think they have overcome this difficulty with infinite regress, but my point here is that there does seem to be quite a difference between it and infinite progress, at least as we can conceive them as actual infinites. Right?

          Duane

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  4. ansonburlingame

     /  August 29, 2014

    Changing the subject, from religion to science, I respectfully disagree with Ben above. Science makes new discoveries all the time related to things that used to be considered Acts of God.

    I completed the book “The Cosmic Landscape” written by one of the founders of String Theory. That theory remains for now simply a mathematical (very complex and beyond my understanding) concept of “multiverses”, unimaginable numbers of universes within the Cosmos. True or not, who knows today, but just studying and considering such matters is a common trait, thankfully, of human “wonderings”.

    The horizons of science, limitations of our knowledge of things (both very big and very small) are moved forward all the time. Humans benefit from such advances as well as “technology” advances behind those new and expanding horizons.

    Such does not negate a view of God as there will always remain some horizon of knowledge beyond which humans cannot see, hear, observe or “find” many things. It just means that what used to be considered the actions of a god are now better understood to be something else, logically, instead.

    Anson

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    • Ben Field

       /  August 29, 2014

      Anson,
      String theory, multiverse, Hawking and other science are included in the story by NPR above and found to be no more conclusive than faith based opinion. As much as man has learned and opined himself brilliant, the fact is it is unknown. Mankind in all it’s brilliance cannot even confirm extra-terrestrial life, so excuse me if I doubt science as well. As I said, to argue the point is futile. Science nor religion can prove our origin. I am not here arguing biblical events just the fact that it is unknown to all humans, yourself included.

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  5. ansonburlingame

     /  August 30, 2014

    Ben,

    I am not trying to argue herein, just state that science is something that I “believe in” when science becomes “provable” using the scientific method. I agree that we as humans still do not know our “origins”. But I strongly disagree, based on science, with the “ancient book” version of the origins of humans.

    I “believe in” carbon dating technology and thus believe the earth is about 4 billion years old, not 150,000 years of age. I “believe in” evolution, not sudden creation of new “beings”. I “believe” there are some 10 to the power of 22, one hundred, billion, trillion planets, or more, in our own universe and thus “believe” the odds of at least a few of them having liquid water and an environment that “could” support life as we know it. That is not proven, but for social “scientists” that believe in probability and statisics, and me, the “odds” are in my favor on that “belief”.

    The author of Genesis had no idea of “science” as we know it today. I respect his “beliefs” from 3000 years ago, but I do not agree with such beliefs today.

    One last observation, current today. I “believe” that humans affect climate and thus “believe” something should be done about climate change effects. What to do is a huge argument however and we might well disagree. So be it.

    But in becoming familiar with Yale these days, I note a course called The Thermodynamics of Climate (or a title close to that one). I am sure that is a course of study based on SCIENCE (with some really complicated math as well) that would provide a scientific basis for my current “belief” in the adverse affects of “stuff” going into the air produced by humans, like burning almost anything to produce heat (except hydrogen maybe).

    Anson

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    • Ben Field

       /  August 30, 2014

      Anson,
      Obviously you did not read the article I suggested or you would know that science states 3.5 billion years ago that somehow life on earth began from non-living matter. Science cannot explain this but evolution came afterward, not before. So there is your sudden creation of life in which you do not believe. I am surprised you believe in E.T. as science has also not proven this as well, but you like the probability. The universe is estimated by science to be 13.8 billion years old so that leaves over 10 billion years before life came to Earth. Science considers the origin of life much easier to determine than the origin of the universe but cannot determine how it began from non-living matter. Science cannot repudiate or confirm God nor can religion. Science nor religion can explain from whence came God. To say either is correct is solely your opinion, which is unsupported by facts, so faith in either is what drives your position. Conformation bias if you will based on your life experiences.

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      • Ben,

        I know Anson is more than capable of answering on his own and I don’t mean to preempt him here. But having studied the issues you bring up here for many years, I though it might be helpful to throw in my two cents for whatever they’re worth.

        First and foremost, to say that God exists depends on how the believer defines God. Some, like deists, believe god created the universe, including us, and then sat back to see what would happen. The other extreme is belief in a god that is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, that watches out for us individually and responds to prayer.

        But science does not require belief. Science is concerned with the study and knowledge of the physical world and its behavior based on experiments and facts that can be proved, and organized into a coherent system.

        For example, we once thought our little rock was the entire universe and saw the sky above as the “firmament.” Then we found out that there was a cosmos out there, but were absolutely positive that we were at the center of it. We knew for certain that the sun rose and set, even though the sun was still and we here on earth were just rotating from west to east. We thought the world was flat. We thought the universe was static and unchanging.

        But as we know, all of these observations were wrong. They had to be informed by an objective science that had, literally, universal application. Science therefore has developed and is continuing to develop the tools and intellectual concepts that we humans can use to better understand the universe in all of its aspects. It gives us facts, not beliefs.

        A good way to think about this comes from Victor J. Stenger ‘s “God: The Failed Hypothesis — How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist,”

        1.Hypothesize a God who plays an important role in the universe.
        2.Assume that God has specific attributes that should provide objective evidence for his existence.
        3.Look for such evidence with an open mind.
        4.If such evidence is found, conclude that God may exist.
        5.If such objective evidence is not found, conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God with these properties does not exist.

        Having said all that, I argue that god does exist, but only in the same way Santa Claus exists. God comes from the “Anthropic Principle,” which is the way we can project ourselves onto the universe. In other words, god is a meme.

        As to the creation of life on this planet, science has been unable to do so in the laboratory as of yet. But see http://www.livescience.com/1804-greatest-mysteries-life-arise-earth.html for a good overview of this issue.

        You conclude your comments with, “Science cannot repudiate or confirm God nor can religion. Science nor religion can explain from whence came God. To say either is correct is solely your opinion, which is unsupported by facts, so faith in either is what drives your position.”

        Actually, science can repudiate God and has. Science would not be involved in explaining “whence came God” because that would admit that God exists, which science has denied. There is no opinion when it comes to science; it’s either fact or fantasy.

        And scientists will tell you that conjecture about multiverses and 11 dimensional vibrating strings is not science. It is speculation based on what we used to call SWAG — Scientific Wild Ass Guess.

        Herb

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        • Ben Field

           /  August 30, 2014

          Herb,
          I read the article and found the last statement most on point:
          “The solution of a mystery of this magnitude is totally unpredictable,” said Freeman Dyson, a professor emeritus of physics at Princeton University in New Jersey. “It might happen next week or it might take a thousand years.”
          And I totally agree with that statement, but he is referring to the origin of life on this planet, not the origin of the universe. This is what you referred to a SWAG, and I submit that until the origin of life on this planet is discovered next week or in the next 1000 years, then it can be classified the same as well. I am not advocating for religion nor science, just that it is unknown and until it is then to say one is more correct is without merit. I disagree that science does not operate without belief, as this is how experiments are often began to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Thomas Samuel Kuhn wrote a book on the scientific process called, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he discusses paradigm shifts which points out that scientific truth at any given time cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of the scientific community. This our comprehension of science cannot rely on full objectivity; but must rely on subjective perspectives as well, all objective conclusions being based on subjective/worldview. Consequently it cannot be expected that two scientists when observing, experiencing, or experimenting on the same event will make the same theory-neutral observations. The role of observation as a theory-neutral arbiter may not be possible. Theory-dependence of observation means that, even if there were agreed methods of inference and interpretation, scientists may still disagree on the nature of empirical data.

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          • Ben

            In science, unlike religion, anyone can in principle confirm experiments on their own — and the ability of others to repeat experiments to make sure they are right is one of the things which defines the scientific method. Gravity is a theory, and so is the speed of light. You can conduct experiments until the cows come home and the physics of gravity and the speed of light will be the same every time.

            However, scientists, Stephen Hawking for example, agree with you that the magnitude of gravity’s weak attraction and the speed of light could change tomorrow and because of that they will always be theories. But those universal constants are as close to facts as you can get. And it would be ludicrous, and dangerous, to think otherwise.

            I never heard of the theory-dependence of observation and the only scientists who disagree on the nature of empirical data are those who challenge the unfalsifiability of a particular theory; e.g. cold fusion.

            Clearly, science provides a platform to challenge or confirm claims about nature that religion doesn’t have. Therefore, God is an illusion determined by belief. There is no empirical data to draw against, no experiments to conduct. In terms of the laws of nature, then, God is dead.

            Herb

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            • Ben Field

               /  August 30, 2014

              Herb,
              You are entitled to your opinion, but there have been paradigm shifts throughout history involving science. To say that the universe and life can be explained by science is arrogantly naive. The fact is and supported by all scientists that they cannot at this time and may not ever be prior to our demise. As I stated previously, arguing the point is futile because humanity admits it just doesn’t know the answer. You may accept the fact that it is unknown or choose to believe whatever you wish. It will in no way change my opinion that it is an unknown that has yet to be proven scientifically. So in the meantime when somebody tells me I’m blessed or God has a plan for me, I will not challenge them as ignorant or uninformed. I will take it as a token of goodwill, nothing else.

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  6. Pretty good discussion on religion and science, I must say. I can only think of a couple of points that I as a serious skeptic would like to offer.

    1. It is misleading to compare science to religion as if they are opposite concepts of the same ilk. They are as different as an apple from an orange. Science is a logical process of reasoning that collects data and then employs skepticism, testing and analysis to improve understanding and approach certitude asymptotically. Note that perfect certitude is rarely achieved. Religion on the other hand is just what Ambrose Bierce said it was, as in the excellent quote in Duane’s post.

    Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel. ― Ambrose Bierce, The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary

    Bierce also defined prayer accurately.

    Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.

    Religion is, in my own opinion of course, essentially wishful thinking, confused by myth, historically leveraged for power, and helpfully consonant with the group cooperation ( as in the Golden Rule) that has benefited our specie’s evolution.

    2. It is misleading in any discussion to refer to “God” without defining the term. God to a Deist is much different from what that means to a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Christian, or an animist, all of whom deploy Faith as defined by Bierce.

    3. I agree with Ben that disparaging religion is not only unhelpful but likely damaging to relationships, except, hopefully, in rare forums like this one in which people are willing to debate the matter as dispassionate discourse. Religion seems to be an evolutionary artifact of abstract thinking. I wonder if we will outgrow it before we destroy ourselves?

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    • Ben Field

       /  August 31, 2014

      Jim,
      Thank you for agreeing with my original statement. I would also consider myself agnostic as the enigma to me is that scientific worldview agree that the origin of life on earth happened 3.5-4.5 billions years ago when non-living matter begat life. This defies laws of science and nature. In my opinion such reasoning cannot be held superior to any other as it is self-contradictory. Anson may very we’ll be right in that if E.T. Is proven then we will know there is an avenue for life from non-living matter. Until then I shall remain skeptical of both religion and the current scientific worldview.

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    • Jim,

      Since we are in a forum where such things are socially acceptable (!), I will challenge something you said:

      disparaging religion is not only unhelpful but likely damaging to relationships…

      That is often true, no doubt. But I wasn’t talking about “disparaging religion” in my piece. I was talking about challenging dogmatic beliefs with questions like, “How do you know?” and “How can you know?”

      Let’s think what might be at stake, if we fail to challenge obviously false or likely mistaken ideas that those in our relational circle might hold.

      Let’s say that you had a close relative or close friend who started following a cult leader, someone you were convinced was a charlatan. Let’s say the attraction started out slowly, with your relative or friend at first just attending meetings, then purchasing books and other material, and finally leaving family and friends behind to go live on the cult leader’s compound.

      I would ask you this: at what point would you be doing a disservice to your friend or relative, or doing a disservice to the idea of friendship or kinship, by not at least challenging what they were doing? At the beginning? At the end? Sometime in between? Sure, it might possibly damage the relationship you have with the person, but if it is a relationship you value don’t you owe it to the person to be candid? To ask, “How do you know?” or “How can you know?”

      If a person you knew and valued as a close friend or relative believed in faith-based healing, as opposed to medical science, and that person was struck with a curable cancer, would you just sit back and watch, without commentary, that person go to prayer vigils instead of seeking medical help? At some point wouldn’t the proper thing to do be to say, “I want you to know that medical science can quite likely save your life and otherwise you are probably going to die very soon”? And perhaps later wouldn’t it be proper to say something like, “You are wasting your life on prayer when you could save it with medicine”?

      To make matters even worse, what if such a person close to you were withholding medical treatment from one of their children in favor of some kind of religious beliefs that involved faith healing? What would you do? I am confident you would not worry about disparaging their religious beliefs in such a case, Jim. You would, especially in the case of the child, demand that they seek medical help.

      My point in all this is that we are right to overlook, every day of our lives, certain things that even the most committed religious folks say and do. Most of those things are not of any consequence, one way or the other. I understand that as well as anyone. But sometimes there are things we just shouldn’t overlook. Sometimes, at the risk of offending, we should challenge the religious dogmatism around us, else it will flourish and, to use your language, we will never “outgrow it.”

      Duane

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      • Duane, you are right that it makes sense to challenge religious beliefs when they bode harm, and especially, as in your hypothetical instances, when they are personal. Discourse is always sensitive to context, I’ve noticed, and many disagreements involve separate contexts with each party each talking past the other.

        My statement and agreement with Ben was intended in the context of casual social contact and everyday interactions. But your point is well taken when it comes to politics. Much harm comes to society wrapped in religion. Obvious instances would include disillusioned youths embracing radical Islam and pregnant children who were inadequately educated and denied proper contraception and healthcare.

        Your post here is an important effort for those who are willing to give these matters honest consideration. Unfortunately, it’s a small audience. Maybe it will grow. There is an undeniable shift away from ideological purity, such as, for example, American Catholic women using birth control. The majority of Europeans seem to have abandoned organized religion, although it still flourishes with the undereducated and the impoverished. That’s telling.

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  7. ansonburlingame

     /  September 1, 2014

    To all,

    An interesting and non-argumentative discussion in my view and thus productive.

    I remain rather firm in my belief that the “horizon” concept applies to the boundary between matters of science and matters of faith. And because that horizon continues to move forward, matters of factual understanding increase and other matters remain a mystery to humans and thus remain in a realm of faith.

    Never during my formative years did I even imagine, much less study, the concept of the “multiverse”. Now such a concept is being debated within the community of science and I can at least comprehend such a possibility. Taking that a step forward, thinking about BEFORE the “big bang” (in terms of what was there) I can now at least imagine the collision of two other universes causing our own “creation”, our universe, with our own unique set of “natural laws”, perhaps different from the laws of a different universe.

    If such musing are considered, then one must as well consider what is contained in “space” BETWEEN other universes? Is, just for example, a “Higgs field”, one that varies in strength, that is “all over the multiverse” and the natural laws within such universes are dependant upon the intensity of such a multiverse Higgs field. If there is such a possibility then I suggest another possibility of a natural event wherein light travels faster (or slower) than “C”, something we believe is constant “locally”.

    As for life and its origins, I don’t have the slightest idea. Did life come from “outer space” (carried to earth on a meteor?) or was it incubated from inorganic material on earth? Or did life travel from outside of our own universe (long ago) and was spread around a few places within our own universe in accordance with our own set of natural laws? The possibilities remain far reaching to science at least. Not so to ones believing in “ancient book” solutions.

    Moses (maybe) proposed the solution for the creation of human life, Mohammed agreed with him, and thus our Bible and the Quran see human life beginning with a “Act of God” As far as I know Buddah ducked that issue and stuck with how humans can live a good life, wherever humans first came from. As well both Chrtistians and Muslims believe humans in some form go somewhere else after death. Hindus believe that same thing but better define “somewhere else”. Buddah again, left that to be decided by others it seems to me.

    Bringing all of such musing “down to earth”, consider the intersection of faith, science and politics. If my concept of a very distant horizon of knowledge is correct, then on our side of that horizon we must consider what is “right” in terms of natural laws, not some Will of a supernatural being. On our own side of the horizon of knowledge, why things happen the way they happen, I believe the greatest unknown is understanding how the human mind operates. We have yet to even come close to such an understanding. Why is Duane a liberal and I am a conservative just as an example. There are some 6 Billion humans on earth. Inside each of those beings is a brain and each brain to some degree thinks differently. How much of that is nature and how much is nurture? I have no idea. All I know for sure is I have never found another human that thinks and acts exactly as I do so. Why?

    But one thing I remain firm upon in matters of faith. Mine is mine and yours is yours which is fine with me. But when politics intersects with faith, I almost always reject either side in trying to impose faith on me through politics. Recall if you will our recent exchanges on immingration law. Several liberals herein refuted my views by writing quotes of scripture, the teachings of Christ, back to me. My reaction was, well a reaction, rejecting the imposition of faith on politics. And of course that is why I voted for Claire instead of Akin as a matter of politics.

    Anson

    PS: Before hitting “post”, I noted a short blurb to the left of this comment on Duane’s blog. One Patsy Hathaway thought “love would conquer all” and was grief stricken when her adopted son was beaten by police. Faith lost out on that count. Shit happens in life and gods let it happen, as far as I know. And of course I have no idea why a cop(s) “beat” her adopted son, probably a black kid.

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    • Anson,

      You wrote,

      …on our side of that horizon we must consider what is “right” in terms of natural laws, not some Will of a supernatural being.

      I will say that on this point you and I are in complete agreement. A rare example of complete agreement between us, for sure. And I will also say that if everyone, every politician, pundit, and preacher in America agreed with us, the country would be better off going forward, no matter how much religious folks have contributed to our founding and development in the past. And, of course, it goes without saying that if those bastards overseas who seek to establish a Islamic State or caliphate agreed with us, the world would be an almost unimaginably better place.

      Duane

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  8. Duane,

    I’ll just give you a few responses to the “Something From Nothing” issue because, well, it’s kind of off-topic here and, in any case, ought to be discussed over on my blog anyway

    That said, I totally understand your position and the associated logic. Believe me, I went through very similar exercises before reaching my final conclusions.

    The biggest hurtle to get over is the fact that in our universe, we are trapped the 4 dimensions of space-time. The only way we can deal with any other dimensions is through the mathematics of physics. That’s why I say in the essay that “the movement of the arrow of time throughout space is the result of a series of causes and effects, most of which are nonlinear, multifarious, complex, highly chaotic, and virtually incalculable.” This means causation operates in an “open” system where all kinds of dynamics and interactions are constantly going on, many, if not most, of which we can’t even measure.

    So, the example you gave is a closed system, where you write: “we can start counting at 830 and imagine it continuing forever. Now, let’s go the other way and try to imagine an actual infinite regress. We can start counting backward but we can never get to the point where we can stop. Thus, we can never imagine how the chain of causes and effects ever got to 830 in the first place precisely because an infinite amount of time would have pass before we got to any point we want to imagine.”

    You are exactly right. That is the paradox I’m talking about.

    Another analogy to explain this paradox is to say that if you walk half way to a wall, and then half way again, and half way again, and so on and so on, then, theoretically you will never reach the wall, you’ll always be half way.

    Or, think of it another way. Suppose I gave you a basketball and ask you where it begins and where it ends. You’d look at me like I’m crazy because those questions are meaningless. Furthermore, the circumference of a circle or a sphere can only be measured to an approximation because pi is virtually infinite. Kinda makes you dizzy doesn’t it.

    But to me, to say that there is a first cause, where the cause is real, not hypothetical, is also a paradox. There are no known laws of physics or chemistry that can explain ex nihilo events. A may cause B, but what caused A? and so on so on in an infinite regression.

    I could go on, but I hope you get my point. To quote the polymath J. B. S. Haldane, “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only [stranger] than we suppose, but [stranger] than we CAN suppose.”

    Herb

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    • Herb,

      I will finish by noting that, for some Christian philosophers, it is quite proper to start with the basic proposition that God exists and that such a belief does not need any supporting justification in order to be rational (but not necessarily “true”). Much the same way that in mathematics there are axioms, points at which one starts without having to make a case for their truth value. I will admit right here that I find this philosophical stance, at first glance, quite formidable, but only in the sense that it seems coherent to one’s normal cognitive faculties that one has to start his reasoning from some given, unprovable point, and assuming the existence of God as a starting point appears to be really no more logically objectionable than starting somewhere else (again, we’re not talking about true or false here).

      Also, whether actual infinites can exist is quite important to one of the most influential Christian philosophers in the United States, William Lane Craig (which is why I broached the subject with you; I have spent countless hours listening to Dr. Craig present his philosophy). His claims for the validity and power of the Kalām cosmological argument (a variation that, oddly, was brought to us by Muslims!) depend very much on whether there can exist in reality an infinite number of things. He argues against the notion and claims that accepting that actual infinites exist leads to a number of “metaphysical absurdities.” So, our discussion was quite relevant to what is going on in at least part of the philosophical world and I enjoyed it to boot!

      Duane

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      • Ben Field

         /  September 2, 2014

        Duane and Herb,
        I have read the quantum theory you suggested and although I having studied analytical geometry and learned by theory you can prove 2 + 3 does not equal 5, the notion that something from nothing if nothing is something to explain how non-living matter begat life escapes me. Frankly it makes no more sense to me than Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign statement, ” I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.” I am a simple carpenter and do not know if we are a superior beings science experiment or how to explain our presence here, but do enjoy the opportunity to discuss such without ridicule of your point of view. With the suggested source material all have provided, it may be a while before I comment again as it is voluminous.

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  9. ansonburlingame

     /  September 3, 2014

    Winnie the Pooh captured the essence of this discussion. He said that he KNEW he had a right hand and a left hand. But he didn’t know where to start to figure out which one was which.

    As for Herb’s comment that we are locked in to only four dimensions, I can only observe that it took Einstein to show us that we had four, not just three dimensions in which to exist. Now String Theory suggests there might be at least nine dimensions “existing” in our own universe.

    Having said all of that, I am coming back to earth to figure out what to do about ISIS!!

    Anson

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