Don’t mind us, just continuing our vendetta

Careful thereThis is an answer to Ambrose’s answer to my answer to his post on atheists. Comment fields are just too small, so we exchange blog posts. Feel free to ignore me as I talk to Ambrose…

Hi, "poor Bertrand" here. First, don't worry too much about me, I'll do just fine. Second, no, I am not trying to prove myself smarter, or anything silly like that. Having always been surrounded by people who were clearly smarter than me, I maintain no illusions of the sort. The truth of it is that I actually have (as I've said before) a lot of respect for you, and I think you can do much better than that. I maintain that your post was in a way lazy, relying as it was on one single example, one where the author could quite easily be suspected of not talking seriously, being a writer of mostly comedic books. I do apologize for the general tone of the post though, as it could have been much more centered on ideas rather than personal trolling. I guess your post had the misfortune of being the proverbial straw on the camel's back that day.

So what more could you have done? Well, maybe quote from more than one book (oh the temptation to troll on that one, but I'll be strong, I'll resist), more than one atheist or ask atheists that you know what they thought? I would have no problem with your explaining your readership what atheists think if you were exposing the actual spectrum of opinions or narrowing your target to something more precise than that very wide term.

Unfortunately this new post piles new misrepresentations on top of the previous ones. Involuntary ones I'm assuming: there is a clear call to honest discussion, so again I'll bite.

At no point did I claim to say what all atheists believe, except for the absence of god, which is the definition of the word. What I exposed was my own position, as I thought was made clear by my usage of the words "I", or "me".

The claim that you and the book I linked to make is not just that monism requires faith, but that it requires *more* faith than... faith religion (you said: "it takes a tremendous amount of faith"). I pointed out in my post that the assumptions behind science (not atheism) are quite benign and cannot be meaningfully compared with those of any religion. I have not given up hope on convincing you one day that the flying spaghetti monster comparisons are more relevant than you think. The idea is not (just) to ridicule organized religion, but to explain what most religious claims look like *when seen from the outside*. My talking directly about your beliefs is unlikely to convince you because you have trained yourself to rationalize them. The FSM comparison is intended to shift your viewpoint and show you how your beliefs can look like. The hope is that it may encourage you to take a true outsider's test for faith, of challenging your own assumptions.

I recuse the accusation of scientism. I don't consider science to be a universal and exclusive answer (nor do I "worship" it, that is preposterous). I do not claim to "have a direct line to truth based solely on science". What I do maintain is that science has enabled us to attain some truths with an unparallelled level of reliability. That when a claim is contradicted by science but affirmed by religion, science wins every time. I also maintain that as science progressed, the gaps where the supernatural can hide has been shrinking considerably, and one is warranted to ask whether it exists at all. It certainly warrants one to ask for a precise definition of the supernatural. What does it *do*? If it doesn't do anything, it might as well not exist. If it does something, we can observe that something and put it to the test. Note that I'm not saying it doesn't exist, just that I find it extremely improbable. Is that materialism? Maybe it is. What it is not is a reduction to only admitting the existence of things that have "atoms".

You claim that "in school we are indoctrinated to treat [science][...] as an authority". Well, I don't know what kind of school you attended, but the ones I went to, and the ones where my kids go, have always made it very clear that science was verifiable, not a matter of authority at all but one of experiment. I cannot think of a single example of something being presented in the science classes that I attended without a direct experiment supporting it. The word "indoctrination" is particularly inappropriate as science teachers tend to do a good job at asking their pupils to think by themselves and formulate their own hypotheses, and then confront them to the results of an experiment. And before you ask, yes, even quantum mechanics I've been led to experiment directly, and so can you. I even went into the tunnels of the CERN and visited the colossal machines that observe and measure particle collisions.

Is there "an ability of science to account for reality"? Yes, there is, and we know that because it works, because we have countless verifications that it does, not because we have faith in it. No reification to see here. You say that "unless you personally participate in scientific experiments of EVERYTHING that you want to form an opinion about, then you are de facto forced to take things on authority, including those things purportedly discovered through scientific methods". I have heard that a lot, and it is true to an extent, but that extent is very small, which makes the argument a little dishonest. The *principle* of reproducibility is sufficient to reduce the importance of authority. If someone tells you that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun, he's asking you to believe him on authority, and that is just silly. If the same person tells you there is a teapot in the kitchen, and if there are people in the kitchen who are attesting there is a teapot, and who are reporting how they came to that conclusion (by seeing it, by touching it), if all those people give a consistent description of the teapot and if those persons are inviting you to verify yourself that the teapot is there, you don't need to actually go there to have a much higher degree of certainty that there is a teapot in the kitchen than that there is one in orbit around the sun. So is this still accepting the teapot on authority? Essentially yes, but to such an extent that it becomes irrelevant. That's what I meant when I said that not all authorities are equivalent.

When you say "you can't subject justice and love to scientific experimentation", I would disagree: why not? Both those concepts obviously exist and have an effect on the world. Why couldn't we study that effect? I'm not saying that it would necessarily give us a complete understanding, note. But some understanding, certainly. For example, if those sentiments can be induced realiably, isn't that an interesting insight?

Let me try to explain again now that thing about justice and love as emerging concepts. What I'm recusing is the idea that either requires a source. The idea of a source implies that there is something like a fluid, that is conserved and needs to be injected from somewhere else in order to exist. But when I fall in love, do we really need to believe that Cupid or some other entity had to transperce me with an arrow that had been plunged in the mysterious fluid? It's a poetic image, but not much more than that. There is no need for a reservoir of love, and giving love somewhere does not deplete it from somewhere else. That it's not conserved does not imply either that there is an infinite reserve of it somewhere. It only means that it is not conserved, like many other things, such as entropy or temperature. This leads to an important point: thermodynamics give one of the simplest examples of emerging phenomena. Thermodynamics have been developed without an understanding of the underlying microscopic phenomena. Later, we discovered that it could be *reduced* to the microscopic motion of molecules, but the concepts of temperature, exchange of heat or entropy form a perfectly fine model at the scale where they are valid. One cannot find an atom of heat, but one can understand how heat emerges as a concept from the collective movement of atoms. More than that, the concept of heat has no meaning at microscopic scales, but only makes sense at macroscopic ones, where statistics can be computed. The feeling of love can appear in a sufficiently complex animal's brain, and without resorting to evolutionary psychology, it is pretty obvious to see how it can be beneficial to the species (see Price's equation -and yes I'm aware of Price's religious ideas-). The same goes for justice, which is largely a corollary of the ideas of fairness and reciprocity. All those concepts require no source, only a substrate. This substrate is the brain. There is no need to invent a mysterious external source.

On dualism, not to appear arrogant, but http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dualism_(philosophy_of_mind). Please note, Ambrose, that I did not categorically reject the possibility of a soul (it may surprise you, but neither do I categorically deny the possibility of a creator god), I just said that it was increasingly improbable as neuroscience progresses. Again, what does it do that a brain can't? I think that at best the answer is that we don't know. Otherwise, the next question has got to be: how do you know?
Finally, I'm all for the benefit of the doubt. Doubt is all I ask in fact.

Tags: Religion, Science

Saturday, March 3, 2012 11:38:21 AM

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