Wednesday, January 30, 2013

God and Reason Part 2: "Does God Exist?"

The lecture started out with "Welcome to Christianity 101". Wait, I thought it was called "God and Reason". Why not use the misnomer "Reason 101"? It's because this lecture series is in the business of motivated reasoning, and Christianity is the desired conclusion.

It was Robert Mann speaking again. I failed to mention in my previous post how good he is at speaking, though Jeff Shallit remembered. Prof. Mann was engaging and animated. I can see why he's won teaching awards.

That's not to say his lecture made a whole lot of sense to me.

He talked a lot about knowledge bootstrapping. About how we observe the world, and make inferences about how it works. But then those inferences sway how we gain more knowledge. He gave the examples of the fractional charge of quarks, and the wave/particle duality of light. But I had trouble understanding how - exactly - they illustrated the point. Basically, we have no method for attaining knowledge with 100% certainty.

I agree with him that we can't know anything about the world for sure. Yes, we can prove theorems in the insular world of mathematics, but we have no way to prove that the basic axioms of mathematics have any bearing on how the world works.

So can we make progress? Almost certainly. Science is about discovering patterns in nature. We don't have any guarantees, but there seems to be a lot of regularity in the universe. Once we gain confidence in a set of observations (that they are repeatable), then we form a theory to represent that new knowledge. That theory is tested against new observations, and if it holds up, science agrees that this is the best understanding that we have. And all the while, in the backs of our minds we know that the theory could be wrong. There simply is no way, in principle, that we can be absolutely sure.

Back to Prof. Mann's talk. He proclaimed three aspects to Occam's Razor,
  1. Simplicity: "All else being equal, the simplest explanation is the most likely."
  2. Credulity: "All else being equal, things probably are as they seem."
  3. Testimony: "All else being equal, things probably are as reported."
Occam's razor is really just a back-of-the-envelop way of assessing the relative likelihoods of competing theories, and is usually only used in the context of item 1 above. I don't see the purpose for points 2 and 3, since they should both be included in the first point. But this list IS a way of making all three seem like they are on equal footing. As if to say that testimony is as compelling as simplicity. In the context of "Christianity 101", the message is that it's OK to put stock in someone's subjective experience, even if it contradicts some laws of physics (eg. miracles).

Prof. Mann didn't really talk about whether God exists. In my final analysis, it seemed Prof. Mann's take-home message was
We can't know anything for sure, so God seems like as good an explanation as any.
That's not an actual quote, but my distillation. It's like his goal was to open up a crack of doubt about knowledge, and then suggest God is as intellectually sound as any other hypothesis. This view of epistemology brushes over the quantitative aspects of our observations... not all hypotheses are equally valid in light of evidence. In particular, with what we see in human psychology, it's not surprising that people believe in agency behind the universe, in God. We have well-established psychological biases that constantly push us in that direction. These are the same biases that make us compulsive gamblers and angry at our computers. Our best science says that we should be suspicious of our intuitions. That goes a long way in explaining religion.

He repeatedly stated that theology is progressing. With what? Would he agree that Islam is progressing too? I think he means that religious opinions are slowly changing. They are being forced to, by science.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

God and Reason part 1: "Doesn't science disprove Christianity?"

I found out about a free, not-for-credit "course" at my university (hat tip to Recursivity). The course is called "God and Reason", and it "explores and answers basic questions of the Christian faith from an academic point of view." I love this kind of stuff, so I signed up.

I just attended the first lecture. It was entitled "Doesn't Science Disprove Christianity?", given by Prof. Robert Mann, a full Professor in theoretical physics. His main point seemed to be that science addresses the "how" questions, while faith addresses the "why" questions. He made the comparison using these lists:

Science is...Faith is...
what iswhat ought to be
how things workwhy things work
public knowledge    private knowledge

He said that while science and technology can give us cell phones, science is impotent to answer questions like, "Is it OK to use your cell phone in class?" Another example, scientists created the atomic bomb, but weren't able to keep it from doing harm.

He says science informs us of how the universe works, but faith undergirds the values from which we can make such ethics decisions.

I'm afraid I don't see it that way. I felt he was half right. Yes, science helps us to understand our world.

But what does faith have to offer in making policy decisions? During the question period I asked, "What if two different faiths contradict each other on a question of ethics?" His answer... they have to work it out just like things are worked out in science. Umm, that analogy has a problem. Doesn't "working it out" require that the two sides agree on a shared objective reality? Two dogmas in disagreement have nowhere to go - intellectually - except to retreat back to their sacred texts.

Then he pointed out that those people who set off suicide bombs are not necessarily scientifically stupid. Some of them are technically adept. Errr... I wasn't sure where he was going with that.

Prof. Mann talked about the big bang theory and how he felt it pointed to a loving creator. His notion of God was more congruent with a big-bang, created universe than an eternal universe.

But what about a God who created the universe 5 seconds ago, with all the stars in position, and all your memories implanted. That God is equally unfalsifiable. Ditto for the flying spaghetti monster.

That's the problem. Trying to glean knowledge from an unfalsifiable entity is an intellectual wasteland. It's really no different than "Superman can totally beat up Batman". Who's to say?

The climax of the event, for me, was when someone asked Prof. Mann if he desired a future in which quantum physics and relativity merged into a super-theory. He said "Sure!" without hesitation. Then, the same questioner asked if he would favour a future in which Christianity and Islam merged into an encompassing super-religion. I assumed the answer would be an easy "yes". But I was wrong. Prof. Mann was not so decided. But what shocked me was the reaction of the audience members sitting around me. There were snickers, and I heard someone derisively say "how?", and another say "No!" with a huff and a glance at his friends.

Really?! Is it easier to consolidate quantum physics and relativity than Christianity and Islam? It shows that this is not, at base, an intellectual exercise. It's an exercise in self-congratulation for picking the right religion.