Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, January 30, 2006

More on Christianity

I would like to make further a response to the remarks of Jeff Dockman. He starts out by saying, ”You say Christianity is bankrupt for claiming that Jesus died for the sins of mankind on the cross. What about this claim makes Christianity bankrupt? Is it because it seems foolish to us that God would utilize this method for the salvation of man?”

The first point regards the existence of God. Most people seem to think that they know what is meant by the concept of God. They will say something like, God was the creator of the universe, or God is the supreme being. However, there are problems with both of those descriptions. For example, what evidence is there that there was a creator of the universe. Just because our minds are structured so that it is difficult for us to imagine an act of creation without a creator does not mean that such a thing is necessarily true. It just means that we have a hard time comprehending it. Calling God the supreme being merely moves the question to what is meant by the phrase “supreme being”. Christian philosophers in the Middle Ages made so-called proofs of the existence of God based upon notions like “supreme being”, but these have been shown as false arguments. I’m not going to go into the details. Anyone who is truly interested can find references to these arguments in a good book on the history of philosophy.

Hence, if someone were to ask me if I believed in God, I would say that I didn’t know how to answer that question since I don’t know what could possibly be meant by the concept of God. It’s such an ambiguous concept. However, I would definitely say that I do not believe in the notion of God as understood by most Christians. The idea that there is some vaguely human-like, patriarchal deity with whom one can communicate and who intervenes in human affairs is certainly something that requires some sort of evidence. And there is no such evidence, not even the smallest iota of it. That is why I say that Christianity is intellectually bankrupt, because it requires the acceptance of ideas that are contrary to all physical evidence and all of the dictates of reason. It is nonsense, pure and simple. However, I would add that there are those Christians, and the evangelicals are not among them, who would say that the Bible is a collection of myths that aim to tell us how we should live, and that Christianity is a system of belief organized around that ethic. I would exclude such Christians from the charge of intellectual bankruptcy because they do not ask us to accept nonsensical statements as fact.

As for tolerance and respect, I believe that people deserve tolerance and respect in spite of the views that they hold, but that their irrational beliefs deserve scrutiny and criticism. For example, there are those who maintain that the Holocaust never took place. We have no problem with vigorously attacking those kinds of arguments and positions, and rightly so, but when it comes to religious nonsense, we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. Not only is the notion that Christ died for our sins on the cross an utterly nonsensical contention, but the idea that we all inherit some original sin is a toxic notion that should be attacked with as much intellectual vigor as one can muster.

Then there are the social issues in which evangelical Christians in particular have involved themselves, especially the teaching of evolution and the legality of abortion. Quite simply, intelligent design should not be taught in science classes because it isn’t science. One big reason why it isn’t science is because there is no conceivable experiment that could be performed that could falsify it. People have been trying to come up with experiments to falsify the theory of evolution for over a century, but without success. That is why it is so universally accepted by scientists.

Intelligent design states that it is impossible for anything as complex as life to emerge through the action of physical processes alone. What evidence there is suggests the opposite of what intelligent design maintains. There are numerous examples of extremely complex systems arising from simple processes. For example, the complex and beautiful fractal patterns are created by the repeated application of the simple mathematical operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. That would suggest something opposite to what is maintained by the theory of intelligent design.

As regards the question of abortion, its Christian opponents are trying to shove their opinions down our throats. They claim that they are opposed to abortion because they are “pro-life”. However, I have met many evangelical Christians and, at most, there were one or two who were opposed to capital punishment. There are even fewer who are opposed to all killing, including killing in war, even though pacifism would seem to be the logical consequence of the notion of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. I find it quite hypocritical to permit one to blow away an enemy with an M-16, while condemning a woman for taking a morning-after pill in order to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

As regards Prof. Mirecki, who was attacked, allegedly for his comments about fundamentalist Christians, Jeff states that there is some doubt that the attack really took place. That is not true, at least from the viewpoint of the authorities. Those who have written that are people who had axes to grind. They have presented no evidence whatsoever that would cast doubt on Prof. Mirecki’s claims.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Knowledge and Faith

My friend and former coworker, Jeff Dockman, has commented at length on my entry about Christianity. I feel that his comments deserve a reasoned reply, and I will devote several entries to responding.

Before addressing his arguments as such, I would like to make some comments about knowledge and faith, since they are at the core of what we’re going to disagree about. Let us say that we are presented with the following statement, “Hydrogen and oxygen combine to form water.” How do we determine whether that proposition is true or false? Easy. We appeal to empirical evidence. Combine oxygen and hydrogen under the proper conditions and you get water. That can be demonstrated to anyone who doubts it.

There are also propositions that can be proven by an appeal to logic. Take the statement, “The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.” If one accepts the assumptions of Euclidean geometry, that statement can be shown to be true by applying the laws of logic.

Science is based upon these two forms of proof, empirical evidence and logic. One might ask why we should restrict ourselves to these standards. The answer is quite simple. We humans are fallible beings and, when we disagree about statements of fact, we have to have some way of resolving that disagreement. Now that might not be such a big deal when a couple of guys are arguing about sports, but when it comes to knowing whether a drug is effective against heart disease or if air bags will really protect us in a car crash, it’s another matter.

Of course, the truth value of all statements are not so easily determined. Take the following, “There’s nothing stronger than a mother’s love.” Is that true or false? You or I might bring forth an anecdote or two that illustrates the truth of the statement but that would hardly constitute proof, since someone could undoubtedly come up with an anecdote that they would claim disproves the proposition. Part of the problem comes from “stronger” and “love”. What the hell is this strong that we’re talking about? Strong like a medicine, or strong like can bench press three hundred pounds. And what the hell do you mean by “love” here. I’d say I love my cats, but I don’t think anybody would say that refers to the same thing. Now, since nothing much rides on the statement above, it’s probably silly to spend much time analyzing it. When it comes to statements that impact the lives and decisions of millions of people, it’s something else again.

Consider the following statements, “Poseidon, the god of the sea, is really upset about the way we are destroying the planet, so angry that he smote New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina. It was a message to us.” Is that statement true or false? I doubt that there is anyone in the whole of the USA who would accept that statement as true. Reason would lead one to reject the statement out of hand. First and foremost, there is no referent for “Poseidon”. Ask the person who made the statement who this Poseidon is and what evidence there is for his existence, and it will ultimately come down to a matter of faith. If you don’t believe in the Olympian gods, there’s nothing he can do to demonstrate their existence. You can see where I’m going with this. How is the Christian God or, for that matter, the Jewish God, or the Islamic God, any different?

Now, I don’t necessarily say that the statement about Poseidon should be rejected. If it is taken as a metaphorical statement about the consequences of environmental destruction, then it makes sense and might have some value. In that way it is like a myth or art. They say things about the world without pretending that those statements are factual as such. We refer to the stories about the Olympian gods as myths, and rightfully so. A lot of those myths contain lessons about how we should conduct ourselves. Why should the Bible be taken any differently? If Christians were to admit that it was just a collection of stories and myths that tell us how we should conduct ourselves, I could accept that, but they don’t.

At the very minimum, mainstream Christians would maintain that the following are statements of fact. That there is a personal God with whom one can have a relationship. That this God is active in the world. That Jesus Christ is his son, and that he died to redeem us of our sins. If pressed on their beliefs they would assert that they are matters of faith, but that is just dignifying what is unreasoned belief.

I had a troubled adolescence and ended up on a psychiatric ward for a short period of time. One of the patients there was a paranoid individual. He believed that the government had machines hidden away all over the place and that the machines read our thoughts. I spent some time talking to him and he was unshakeable in his beliefs. Any objection you could bring up, he had an answer for. He had obviously thought it all out in detail. How are his delusions any different from the beliefs that Christians accept as matters of faith. The only difference is that there is a community of Christian believers. However, history is replete with examples of those who accepted beliefs that we 21st century Americans would find silly or delusional. The two most obvious belief systems that spring to mind are Nazism and Communism, both of which have much in common with religious belief systems in form, if not in content.

In short, I maintain that those who make what they claim are statements of fact be pressed to provide evidence for their statements on the basis of empiricism or reason. If they can’t do that, then they are either spouting nonsense, or speaking metaphorically.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Civil War Thoughts

”If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent Texas out and live in hell.”

Those are the words of Philip H. Sheridan, a prominent Union general in the Civil War. After the war he was in command of Army forces in Texas. That’s when he made the remark, which got around and led to his transfer. I thought I would share it, given that Texas seems to be the fount of the runaway corruption that now dominates our national politics.

I ran across that quotation in With My Face to the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War. If you’re a Civil War buff, I recommend it.

I read a lot of military history. It fascinates me, though I don’t really know why. Though I’m not a pacifist, I’m pretty damn close. I don’t think there are many wars that need to be fought and, even when a country fights a so-called just war, it invariably turns into an imperial venture. For example, one could make the argument that World War Two had to be fought to stop Hitler. However, the American ruling class entered that war to secure a position as the world’s dominant economic and political power. In that they succeeded.

Perhaps my fascination with military history comes from the fact that I pretty much grew up on Air Force bases, but there is more to it than that. War is the one activity in which everything is on the line. You live or you die. You win or you lose. That said, I would be only too happy if we humans were to pass into a future free of war. If the Christians want their Armageddon, let’s build them a theme park where they can go and live the experience. I’ll bet the Disney folks could do a great simulation of Jesus descending on a cloud in his second coming.

The American Civil War is one of the more intriguing conflicts. One thing I find interesting is the number of prominent generals who were, in one way or another failures, only to emerge as successful officers. There was, of course, Grant, who was reputedly a drunk and a failure at every business enterprise he attempted. Sherman had a nervous breakdown at the beginning of the war only to bounce back and play what was possibly the most critical leadership role in the war. On the Confederate side, there was Stonewall Jackson, a promising young officer in the Mexican war, who ended up teaching tactics and natural philosophy at the Virginia Military Institute. He was a horrible professor who would memorize the texts and then parrot them back in his classes. If a student interrupted with a question, he would back up to the beginning of the previous paragraph and continue.

One thing all of these generals had in common was that their uncompromising individualism. Each spoke the truth as he saw it, and did things his own way. In spite of the supposed American individualism, that’s a prescription for failure. Kissing butt and telling your superiors what they want to hear is the way you move up in the world. It’s unfortunate but true, and it is only when everything is on the line, and things just might fall apart, that the truly talented individuals come to the fore, because they’re the ones who can get things done.