Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Seahorses and heresy

I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. - Thomas Jefferson

In this article (via BlueLyon) the author sets out to demolish “3 Silly Religious Beliefs Held By Non-Silly People” - “three widely held beliefs of modern progressive and moderate believers: beliefs held by intelligent and educated believers who respect science and don't think religion should contradict it.” In other words, silly beliefs held by the good guys. The beliefs she goes after are:

1) Evolution is guided by God.
2) There is an immaterial soul that animates consciousness
3) The universe is sentient, apparently also expressed as a belief in a “World-Soul”

I know absolutely nothing about the third belief she lists and have nothing to say about it. I found her specific arguments against the first two beliefs interesting but unsophisticated, somehow off-focus. I have no background in theology but it sounds to me as if she’s arguing more against her image of these beliefs than against the actual beliefs as they exist within a coherent religious framework particularly in her comments about an immaterial soul. Still what really struck me about her article was her conclusion and that’s what I want to address.

After first commenting on the author’s woefully inadequate analogy of evolution as a kitchen redesign. Capital “E” evolution strikes me as being remarkably similar to how a computer program evolves: you start with a program designed to do one thing and as you add functionality you are constrained by the need to insure that the existing code continues to work. This means you end up with some very elegant code, some inelegant but serviceable code, some very odd code, some very inefficient code, and some code that appears to be totally unnecessary but that everyone is afraid to rip out for fear it’s doing something important somewhere. Occasionally you mumble - or scream - that the only smart thing to do is scrap the whole system and start from scratch but deep in your heart of hearts you know that the system is now so complex you probably couldn’t recreate it if you tried. And, hey, the system pretty much works. (Note that my analogy explains seahorses which I think is more than anyone else can do. Seahorses are what happens when you’ve been pulling all-nighters for too long and need to write some code that reminds you how much fun programming can be. We mortals come by our playfulness honestly.)

Now about the article’s conclusion:

If you're going to be a moderate or progressive religious believer; if you're going to be a religious believer who respects and supports science instead of treating it as the enemy; if you're going to be a religious believer who wants their beliefs to at least not be directly contradictory with the available scientific evidence... then you need to be willing to consider the possibility that your own beliefs are every bit as contradicted by that evidence as the beliefs of the fundamentalist crazies.

And if the answer is "yup, that belief seems to be contradicted by the evidence"... then you need to be willing to let go of that belief.

So you see it doesn’t matter if you support every item on the moderate - even the progressive - agenda; it doesn’t matter if you staunchly oppose even the slightest hint of religion creeping into education or the public square; it doesn’t matter if you rally, march, and vote for every penny of funding desired by the scientific establishment; it doesn’t matter if you accept every claim of the scientific establishment as Holy Writ. So long as you harbor impure thoughts you are unfit to consider yourself a communicant in the great church of moderate and progressive religious believers. You are a heretic. You are the enemy.

I wonder what religious beliefs this author would permit moderate and progressive religious believers to cling to while still allowing them the privilege of communion with the great congregation of Respect for Science and Separation of Church and State. And has she informed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that some of their silly beliefs are going to have to go?


Grim said...

The author hasn't thought very deeply.

"What we see instead is exactly what we would expect to see if evolution proceeded entirely as a natural, physical process."

If God created the universe, he authored that natural, physical processes. As a result, even if you prove that there is nothing at work except the physical process, you haven't disproven the claim.

Grim said...

On point two:

"I will acknowledge freely: We don't yet understand consciousness very well."

That is a remarkable understatement. There are two problems to consciousness, the easy problem and the hard problem. The hard problem is so hard that nobody has even sorted out how to approach it:

"The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place.... none of the inroads into the Easy Problem brings a solution to the Hard Problem even a bit closer."

And that's by Stephen Pinker, who would like to be on her side on the question.

Figment and Reality said...

This statement makes an assumption that God, would have some desire to forcefully make our individual lives better, to make us live longer, or live better lives. The basic error appears to be that He would direct us to move along faster. Yet if He wanted us to move along faster, why wouldn't he just make us better from the start? Maybe the whole idea is for us to start as single cell creatures and develop as best we can and use the tools available to make ourselves better. We can create a great environment for ourselves to grow or we can kill ourselves off if we misbehave enough. If we believe in the basic nature where He gave us a desire to become better, He also probably gave everything similar direction, assuming evolution is part of His plan. With time being an irrelevant parameter for Him to work under, it makes sense that evolution could also be a basic part of His plan. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem that no one could prove it one way or another, as Grim stated in their response.

Lynne said...

To quote Jefferson again: My religious beliefs neither pick her pocket nor break her leg, so why does she care?
I certainly don't care if a person is an atheist or agnostic. I would never harangue them in this way if their inclinations did nothing to impede mine.
The chief reason I find the current breed of militant atheists so irritating is that they refuse to see that they, also, are touting a belief system. In fact, it seems to me that their belief system is right now among the most intolerant. Deviate from a single principle and you are immediately declared an irrational, destructive threat to modern society.
I'm sorry the the author is so disappointed in the evolution of the human body. But might it's shortcoming just be the result of misuse? Maybe we should all be tattooed with a warning label at birth: perishable. Keep away from flame. Leaping from tall buildings is not recommended. Accumulation of excess fat may result in malfunction. Avoid extreme applications of pharmeceuticals...
Many smart, rational, 'scientific' people throughout history felt they could improve on the supposedly underevolved human body.
That seldom worked out well.

Elise said...

I'm sorry the the author is so disappointed in the evolution of the human body.

That cracked me up. I have this image of a woman in a store, tut-tutting over the shoddy quality of the merchandise.

And yes, F&R, the author's certainty that time means the same thing to a being beyond our comprehension as it does to us seems odd to say the least.

Interesting link, Grim. Thanks.

lumpy said...

This author really doesn't understand science, or epistemology.

Modern science cannot interpret evidence as being of the divine and remain science. No modern scientist could ever posit a divine factor in any hypothesis and have that hypothesis considered scientific. Consequently, of course science doesn't report finding such evidence. Modern science is, by definition, blind to whatever divinity there may be.

Two, she shows great faith that science will explain the things we don't understand yet. This is effectively a "Godlessness of the gaps" argument.

Three, as F&R points out, her whole take on evolution assumes that she knows what a deity's goals would be.

Fourth, historically, the universe revolving around the earth was not a religious belief. Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology was based on empirical evidence and supported by mathematics. Christian thinkers later made some claims about where Heaven must be in that cosmology, etc., and pasted it on the system, but the system itself was not a religious invention.