"If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
- Charles Darwin

Jul 19, 2007

Calculating Faith

The Unseen and Unknowable Has No Place in Science.

Thanks to PZ Myers over at Pharyngula for the link. It seems that the mathematics metaphor has some making furious calculations on their abacus in consternation.

Allow me to lay it out in a more nuanced fashion. It is my view that religion and science are incompatible in a very specific and important way. I say this as someone who previously drank the Kool-Aid and spent countless hours studying what was described to me as the Holy Spirit. I have been confirmed in the Lutheran tradition and have recited the Nicene Creed so often throughout my life that, as an adult, I no longer paid any attention to what the words were saying. They came out of me as rote, like a wind-up monkey who clapped his symbols at the turn of a crank.

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.
of all that is, seen and unseen.
I came to realize that this mantra the church elders were making impressionable youngsters recite over and over again throughout their lives was little more than brainwashing kids into an irrational faith in imaginary forces. I asked myself, "Why should I pledge my belief in all things unseen?" How do they know there is anything unseen? Why not pledge my belief in all things unheard or, for that matter, unsmelled? Why should I believe anything just because they tell me to?

Naturally, my questions didn't go over so well in afterschool Bible study. I remember vividly Pastor Carl's frustration when he couldn't answer why, if every living thing was made for the benefit of man, do mosquitoes exist? He finally settled on an answer that, what I would later discover, is an old favorite in shutting down inappropriate lines of inquiry. "We can't always understand God's will." But wait, I thought, you claim to understand God's will in all of these other areas. Why do you suddenly claim ignorance simply because I've noticed a contradiction? But I quickly learned to shut up. Certain questions weren't welcome and, at that time, I wasn't confident enough to rock the boat.

Where I did find these queries welcome were in my college science classes. There I would ask equally probing questions but, rather than being dismissed or made to feel like I was foolish, I would be rewarded with the response, "What a great question!" I was equally impressed that when my professors didn't know the answer they said so, and showed me tools by which I could find the answer out for myself. I've been using those tools ever since and have never looked back to the arguments from unreason that defined my past.

Faith, as Gary Whittenberger discusses in the latest issue of Skeptic, has multiple common uses.

“Faith” may refer to a religion or worldview, as in “My faith is Islam.” It may refer to an attitude of trust or confidence, as in “I have faith in my physician.” Or it may refer to believing propositions without evidence or out of proportion to the available evidence.
It is this latter use of faith that is incompatible with science. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (which has 140 Hare Krishna centers in Europe and North America alone), has been up front that he denies the evidence of evolution. Why? He didn't argue that the methods employed may have biased the results and that he'll reserve judgment until the studies are replicated. He didn't dispute the sample size or suggest a separate interpretation of the observable facts. He completely disregarded the entire pursuit of such knowledge because it contradicted his faith in a prime mover. His faith told him that he is correct, regardless of what the facts may be. There is a word for that, when you prefer your own private fantasy to the real world. I think Richard Dawkins used it as part of the title to his recent book.

Yes, religion is incompatible with science. This doesn't mean, of course, that religious people are incapable of doing science. Far from it. There are certain questions that don't probe too deeply into the foundations of a person's faith and they have no problem employing their reason to its fullest in those cases. But when reason starts to get uncomfortably close (as it has for Francis Collins, Deepak Chopra and Michael Behe) well, that's when the desperate appeal to fuzzy thinking becomes apparent. Because the assumption of God is so obvious to them (and I'm sure they feel it powerfully) the evidence suggesting that evolution follows natural mechanisms and has no need of a supernatural intelligence must therefore be wrong. They'll bend over backwards trying to rationalize irrationality.

So for those of you who grew up being taught that 2+2=5 but are now feeling like you've been hoodwinked, don't be afraid to say so. There's a growing number of people who understand where you're coming from. It can be a scary thing to let go of but, I can assure you, the confidence that comes with intellectual honesty and reason is far more rewarding than empty promises based on an unseen faith. I should know, I was bad at math most of my life and I just couldn't make sense of my calculations. I don't have that problem anymore.

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Enigman said...

You make some very good points, but one thing that strikes me (as a mathematician) is that set theory (the standard foundation for the mathematical models of science) is presumed without evidence (by mathematicicans explicltly, and by scientists implicitly), on the basis of tradition and authority (although it was originally adopted for reasons that have since been shown to be misguided), bolstered by subjective feelings that might be inappropriate (such as the feeling that it makes sense to think of the infinite in a certain way, when the only ground for that is that the finite behaves in such a way). That is, to have such foundations just seems to be the way of human knowledge?

Eric Michael Johnson said...

We've moved on a bit from the argument that "because Aristotle (or Euclid or Pythagoras) said so it must be true". If a mathematical theorem is demonstrated to be wrong it's not going to be around much longer for practical applications in science. We can't have all of our Mars missions crash just to appease the mathematician who develops some new model.

Also, it was a joke! Mathematicians can be so sensitive.

Enigman said...

Hi Eric, thanks and incidentally logicians seem to tend towards madness, paradoxically (although that may suit me:) Anyway, the thing is, most religious people nowadays also accept the maths-and-science that goes into Mars missions and aeroplanes (and many of those who do like crystal magic and homeopathy also dislike religion), they too just want it to get its job done, in the real world. And name a religion that didn't begin as a heresy? Religions change just as much as science. People do just accept what priests say without the sort of thought that you've put in, and priests do say that they should; but people also read popular science that way, while science teachers may well just want their pupils to pass their exams. (Things are just not so simple:)