As mentioned during the start of this blog, I based its name off of Gregory Boyd's apologetics book, Letters from a Skeptic. It was over 10 years ago that I remember reading it, and what I believed back then is very different from what I believe now. I don't think I was nearly the skeptic then as I am today. Letters is a collection of correspondence between a Father (an atheist) and his Son (an apologetics professor), discussing the various problems with faith and the potential answers to those problems.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
My Dad just sent me this article, entitled Things not seen, saying that it summarizes his belief in the nature of faith.
It's obvious to me that the point of this article is to make an appeal to the more emotional side of human experience. The problem is that the author (as with most people) uses "faith" to blur the lines between the subjective and the objective. Some people see faith as the part of our psyche that helps us get through the difficult times -- the little voice in the back of our heads that tells us to "hang in there". But that "faith" is all too often used as an excuse to ignore critical thinking and to override common sense.
I have to take issue with her analogy of faith to things "unseen" in physics. I hear this argument quite a bit: "You can't see the wind, so you must have faith that it's there." That's nonsense, of course -- there are many other ways that I can demonstrate without faith that the wind is there. I can see with my eyes the effects of the wind on other objects in the world. I can feel the wind on my skin. We have scientific models that show exactly how wind works.
In science there are many things that we cannot observe with our human senses. We can see microscopic things, but only with the aid of an optical microscope. Optics can only get us so far because of the physical limits of light when reflecting off of an object. To see smaller, we have to use an electron microscope. We use different methods to observe different things. Thanks to technology, we aren't limited to our human senses. We can use instruments which translate the small invisible things into something that we can interpret using our natural senses.
Now here's my problem with equating this to faith. Most definitions of faith involve believing with a high degree of certainty that something is true without requiring any evidence to demonstrate such truth. Science is just the opposite. We know with a high degree of certainty that subatomic particles exist because we have been able to scientifically confirm their existence over and over again through experimentation. Just because we cannot see them with our natrual senses does not mean that we have to take it on faith that they exist. When someone makes a claim that that subatomic particles exist, we can believe it because we have mountains of empirical data to back it up.
If faith were a valid tool for determining whether or not something was true, I could tell you that drinking Mountain Dew will make you invisible, and you would have no reason to doubt that claim. I could simply tell you to take it on faith. We know, however, through simple scientific observation, that Mountain Dew in fact does not make you invisible. The same scientific process should be applied to any claim, whether it be unicorns, UFO's, fairies, or gods.
I also believe that the Polkinghorn quote is a bit misleading by saying that we "infer" the existence of subatomic particles (implying that we should do the same with our belief in God). What he fails to mention are the different types of inference used in science. In science we use inductive inference to make predictions, but we use deductive inference to confirm those predictions. Polinghorne's work was mostly inductive, however the folks at CERN and FermiLab use deductive reasoning and experimentation to confirm the predictions made by subatomic theorists. There are some theories that have not made it that far -- we are still searching for the higgs-boson. It might not exist at all -- we won't know for sure until we can demonstrate it exists using the scientific method. That's how science and skeptical inquiry work, and thank goodness for it! I don't want people walking around naked because they think their Mountain Dew makes them invisible.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Dad gave me a book that he wanted me to read called "Questions of Truth". The author is a man by the name of John Polkinghorne, a British particle physicist. We agreed to read the book together, starting with the foreword and introduction.
Starting with the foreword, it appears as if right off the bat the book is being set up as an argument from authority, although I understand that the purpose is to introduce the author, so that doesn't really bother me that much. I do of course recognize that Polkinghorne is a lot smarter than me in the fields of mathematics and physics. What I want to make clear, however, is this: the fact that a person is smart in math and physics does not necessarily make them an authority on the existence of God and the supernatural. A claim should stand on its own merit, not the merit of those who state the claim.
The foreword author makes a comparison between the un-intuitiveness of quantum mechanics as well as that of the supernatural. He proposes that we should be prepared accept that "the deepest aspects of our existence go beyond our common-sense intuition". While I agree with this statement, I don't agree with the context in which this statement is used. What he's trying to convey here is that because the ideas behind quantum physics are at times non-intuitive, we should also be open to accepting claims of the supernatural. I disagree with this because even though some aspects of quantum mechanics seem non-intuitive, its principles still adhere to the scientific method, while claims of the supernatural are usually not held subject to scientific inquiry.
After reading the first two paragraphs of the introduction, I can see that I'm going to have a difficult time taking Polkinghorne very seriously.
Planets on which any intelligent life-form resembling humans would be likely to evolve would probably have a blue sky, so in an important sense the sky is blue because we are here to observe it.This is, as I've explained before, is a textbook example the anthropic principle, which I believe to be a complete logical fallacy. This basically says that the existence of human beings constrains the properties of the universe.
I have no problem agreeing that the earth is the only environment (that we know of) in which we are able to survive. The reason for this, as science has shown, is because humans evolved as a product of their environment, not the other way around. That is, the environment was not created as a product of humans. This is a classic "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy, or "affirming the consequent", which asserts that if one event happens after another, then the first must be the cause of the second.
On the other hand, consider this: If the entire universe is created "just for us", why would an intelligent being design 99.9999...% of the universe to be incompatible with human life?
Friday, November 20, 2009
It's been quite a while since I've posted -- I haven't been having many philosophical conversions with my Dad over the past few months due to some "life issues", however I plan to pick up the conversation with him again fairly soon.
In the meantime, I wanted to jot down my ideas about whether or not we are able to choose what we believe. I had a discussion with my Mom recently, where I asked if she believed that a loving god would send me, a relatively nice guy, to eternal suffering. She responded by saying that if I chose to not believe in him, then yes, he would do just that.
Can we really choose to believe something? I don't want to get too deep into the philosophy behind free will (I'll save that for another post), but let's assume at this point that we do have free will and the ability to make a decision. What are some things that can I choose? Here are some examples:
- I can choose to have toast for breakfast instead of cereal.
- I can choose to stop at a red light instead of running it.
- I can choose a lower paying job that I enjoy over a high paying job that will make me miserable.
See the pattern there? My choices are based on my beliefs -- it's as simple as that. Consider the following questions:
- Can you choose to believe you can fly by just flapping your arms?
- If someone offers you one million dollars to jump off of a hundred-foot cliff and fly back up only by flapping your arms, would you choose to do it?
In summary, I believe that our core philosophy dictates our beliefs, that those beliefs dictate other beliefs, and that our beliefs dictate our choices. If you accept this idea, then you can easily see how it just isn't possible to choose what you believe.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
As a scientist and searcher of truth, I simply find it much more rational to believe that there is an intelligent creator that has always existed and will never have a scientific explanation for his existence, than to believe in multiple universes, which continues to beg the question of how they came into existence. I see an mysterious particle called Photon hitting an intricate object with multicolored cellophane like wings, which then translates through a series of amazing chemical and neurosynaptic firings in my gray matter, finally reaching my consciousness (where that exists no one knows!) and I recognize through another amazing factor called "memory" (again, a mystery of bio-neurochemistry) this thing called a butterfly.
I've always admired my Dad's sense of awe and wonder for the world, and I know I've inherited that sense. Light (or any electromagnetic energy for that matter) is a mysterious thing. How can it be a particle and a wave at the same time? I still haven't wrapped my head around that. An insect's wings are indeed intricate. The process of our eyes absorbing light and sending chemical signals to our brain is also quite amazing.
The fact that we find awe in nature is by no means objective, however. Ever hear the phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"? The awe that we feel comes from that grey matter in our skulls, and is entirely subjective. Why should we use these feelings of awe to derive any objective conclusions?
Again, I find it a stretch to think that given enough time, with no intelligent Creator or creative force or the "Supreme Something with massive intelligence", that a particle of matter exploded into being from NOTHING about 13.7 billion years ago and that I'm an accidental byproduct. Can I prove God? No. But we also can't prove what causes gravity!
To prove something means to convince someone of an idea by demonstrating it's truthfulness using the evidence at hand. There is not enough evidence to demonstrate that God exists, therefore I am not convinced. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that gravity exists, and it has been demonstrated by science throughout history, therefore I am convinced that it exists. We may not yet know for certain the cause of gravity, but even Einstein had theories on what causes it. Science is currently working to find evidence for the cause of gravity (look up quantum field theory), so one might want to think twice before they say it cannot be proven.
There are, however, many, many mysteries about our universe that science has not yet solved. Just because we don't understand something doesn't mean that a "higher mind" was behind it. Let's go back in time a few thousand years. Let's say we were having a conversation about the wind. You would say, no-one can explain where this wind comes from -- therefore someone with more intelligence than I must be causing the wind. If I were a skeptic back then, I would say, "How can you make such a conclusion when you have no evidence that supports it?". If we then time-traveled to present-day I would show you textbooks that show the precise weather patterns of the earth, which are explained by the properties of the earth's atmosphere and variations in air pressure. You would then say, "Ah, but how can you explain the mystery of light!?". I'm willing to bet if we time traveled a few thousand years in the future, we may find some pretty surprising explanations to the things we can't currently explain.
The point is, as I said in my last email, why isn't it enough to just say "I don't know"? If I need an explanation for everything at any given point in time, I would have to make some false assertions about the things I don't yet understand. And because I care that what I believe is true, I choose to just say "I don't know", and I'm OK with that.
Dad asked an excellent question which I was more than happy to answer:
I would ask you to tell me what you DO believe? I think you'll agree that most belief systems are arrived at not by absolute proof but by evidence that is adequate to persuade. So please tell me what you yourself personally believe at this point...about anything...origin of the universe, how life arrived out of non-life, how consciousness came on the scene (another reality, along with self-identity, that according to many philosophers and scientists cannot be studied scientifically) or the composition of photons, electrons and why they operate as they do. Where do you believe the Fundamental Laws of the Universe were formulated? Where do the Cosmological Constants originate and happen to be so precise in nature? I'm certainly open to other plausible explanations.I hear this question a lot. People wonder that if I don't believe in the supernatural whether I believe in anything at all. Well, where do I start? I believe that the sky is blue. I believe that I live in a house. I believe I have a dog. I believe that the ratio of a circle's circumference to it's diameter is roughly 3.14159. I could go on and on. You might be better off asking what I don't believe in, though that's a pretty long list as well.
Because I care about what I believe, I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. The things I choose to believe are the things that can be demonstrated using logic and reason, as I believe that logic and reason are the best tools we have for understanding our world. To be fair, you did list out some specific things so I'll tell you what I believe (if anything) about those.
- Origin of the universe: I do not hold any beliefs about the origin of the universe. As I said before, there's no reason to for me to believe any claims made about the origins of the universe until there is enough scientific evidence supporting such a theory. This is based on my personal standards of evidence.
- How life arrived out of non-life: Again, I don't hold any beliefs about how life arrived out of non-life. I also addressed this in my last email when discussing absolute truth. I don't believe science has yet answered the question of abiogenesis. Although in this case, there are many good theories that try to explain it. While they are all currently speculative, I actually believe that science is very close to solving that problem. In fact, I'd be willing to bet within my lifetime we'll have some evidence that points to a solution.
- Consciousness: I believe that consciousness arose at some point during the evolution of our nervous system, during the formation of the brain. Although, I plan to do more self-education on this subject, as it is something that interests me. Several books have been written on this that you may find interesting, such as The evolution of consciousness by Robert Ornstein, The Accidental Mind by David J. Linden, and Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind by Gary Marcus. I'll admit that I haven't read these fully myself but only skimmed through them in Barnes and Noble -- I've got them in my "wish-list" though.
- Fundamental laws of the universe: Well, that sort-of depends on your definition of said laws. I believe that the "laws" of which you are thinking are simply constructs of science, and thus of the human mind. For example, the "law of gravity", which states that "the forces which keep the planets in orbit must be reciprocally as the squares of their distances from the centers about which they revolve" is simply derived from an observation of a naturally occurring phenomenon. This "law" wasn't necessarily written by anyone other than Newton himself. That doesn't mean that gravity would not exist without newton, it just means that the "law" we use to explain its effects would not exist had someone not observed it's effects.
- Cosmological Constants: As I've said before, I fully reject the anthropic principle around which the argument of "cosmological constants" is centered. Are all of these "constants" necessary for life as we know it to exist? Of course! I do not, however believe that these "constants" were pre-defined in order for life to exist. I believe that life simply evolved as a result of its environment. If the constants had been any different, yes, life as we know it would not have existed, but does that mean that no form of life whatsoever could have existed? How can we make such an assertion, when the only variables we know are the ones we experience? I'll again offer up Douglas Adams' analogy of a the puddle in a hole. To think that the universe was designed to "fit" us perfectly, is no different from a puddle thinking that the hole in which it lies was designed just for its shape; when in actuality, the puddle formed that way as a result of the puddle's environment (the shape of the hole).
I took it upon myself to address the issue of my Dad's appeals to authority in previous emails. I find that people will usually jump at the chance to quote a famous scientist, even if the quote only appears to support their claim, or when it's taken out of context.
Whether or not Einstein or Hawking believed in a god has no basis in the argument on whether or not God exists. I think that Einstein believed in a god or creator of some sort (although not a personal one). Although he was an absolute genius, he was also wrong about many other things. He completely rejected quantum theory, and even of his death bed attempted to formulate alternative theories to no avail. Einstein refused to believe in a universe that did not conform to elegant rules. Quantum physics is messy, and anything but elegant -- but predictions made by quantum mechanics have been verified experimentally to a high degree of accuracy. Hawking has also been wrong about some of his ideas, although he's admitted what he's been wrong about and has adjusted his theories accordingly -- a true mark of a great scientist. I'm not saying that I won't listen to anything these scientists have to say, they are much more brilliant than I am. I will not, however, use anyone's ideas that have not been confirmed by science as a logical premise for any argument.