Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Into the darkness

Yesterday someone posted an article on Facebook called "The Science of Faith".  Reading it was not good for my blood pressure.  The message was basically that science is overrated and that there are other ways of finding truth that works just as well if not better.  This type of mealy mouthed mysticism triggers me to no end but what to do about it?  I could vent in the comment section but experience has taught me that my incoherent rage at proponents of anti-science usually just leads them to shake their heads at me condescendingly while making comments like "Your blind adherence to scientism blinds you to larger truths, don't be so close minded!" or even worse, "I'll pray for you".  I could simply avoid all articles like this but where would that leave me?  To avoid everything I disagree with and only read things I already agree on will just leave me stagnant and trapped in my own conformation bias.  No, it's far better to engage with the things I disagree with.  There is always a chance I'm mistaken and this way I can be corrected.  If I'm not mistaken I can still gain a better understanding.  The problem is that when I try to engage things that piss me off I have trouble expressing myself clearly.  So then it's better for me to learn how to respond to articles like this with less blind rage and more sense.  But how to do that?  I guess I could wait for someone out there who is smarter and more informed than me to tell me what to think but that doesn't seem like a great option.  How much would I really be learning from that after all?  So I decided to instead work out a proper response here on my blog.  It may be a little rough and clumsy at times but I can't really think of a better way for me to learn how to give a clearheaded response to things I disagree with.  After all, that was what my New Year's not-resolution was all about! 

By the way, I welcome all input in this whether you agree with me or not.

OK then, here is my response to "The Science of Faith" by Nico van der Westhuizen.  Original article in bold my response in [brackets].  All pictures added by me.

I am not necessarily what you would call a “Scientist”, [up to here I agree completely but it quickly goes downhill from here...] but I am an avid student of all things unexplored and mysterious [He uses "student" in the loosest sense of the word only]. Science in many ways has become the root of all things that steer our lives in the modern world [the what now?]. And at the core of all human investigation is the yearning to explain the unexplained. 

That brings us to my point of question for this discussion, the Naturalist. As I was flipping through the numerous useless and unentertaining channels of my very expensive television subscription, I came across a scientific program explaining the Naturalist view of the world.
[so far so good]

Despite being an enthusiast of science I have some reservations about what was being said during the broadcast. If I can recollect correctly the presenter claimed that he was a Naturalist by heart, one who believes that we can only know what can be scientifically tested. He based his belief on the fact that since we have made much progress in science over the last 300 years compared to the fields of Arts, Theology or Humanities, it is therefore vastly superior to other ways of “knowing.”

The very statement that we can know only that which is scientifically testable is in itself a self-refuting statement. No scientific laboratory in the world could perform any kind of experimentation to prove this statement as fact. 
[See this is why I have such a hard time taking Mr vd Westhuizen here seriously.  He calls himself "an enthusiast of science" but he clearly doesn't actually understand what science is - something that's going to become much clearer as we keep going.  It seems that he thinks that the only way to verify something scientifically is with a test tube and a microscope.  Wrong!  We can totally test this scientifically using a little something called The Scientific Method.  The question is, which is the most reliable way of knowing the truth - Science, Theology, Arts or the Humanities?  Now let's observe and gather data.  On a wide range of issues, which of these has been correct most often?  Much like the unnamed Naturist, the data is bound to lead you to the hypothesis that Science is the best way of separating fact from fiction.  Now we can test this over and over again.  Science says bacteria makes you ill, Theology says it's demons.  So lets give some sick people antibiotics and some other sick people exorcisms and see who gets better.  Repeat as many times as you'd like and make some predictions using this model and see if it's accurate. This is both repeatable and falsifiable and therefore scientific]

Famous physicist Stephen Hawking wrote the following in his latest book ‘The Grand Design’. He writes, “Philosophy is dead. It has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly in physics. As a result scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.”

This avowal is clearly not a scientific statement; rather it is a philosophical statement about science. It is a logical inconsistency, because what he claims to be inapplicable is what he is using to prove his statement. 
[Did he read past the first page?  I did and I seem to recall Dr Hawking backing that statement up with lots and lots of scientific evidence, not philosophy and handwaving.  So no, it's not logically inconsistent at all.  Science says the side with the most evidence wins, Hawking gave evidence so he wins]

Science creates many assumptions while producing its own experiments.  [No.  Some assumptions are necessary but not many.  In fact to practice good science you have to make as few assumptions as possible] So much so that many experiments cannot begin without assuming certain things.  [Yes, for example we have to assume that we exist and that reality is not some kind of computer simulation a la The Matix.  We also have to assume that our senses are mostly reliable and that the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn't tampering with our results as they are measured] These assumptions guide experimentation and are themselves not the result of experiments. So the assumption that all things are scientifically knowable and nothing is supernatural is itself a belief which can neither be asserted nor defended by the Naturalist position that all things are scientifically testable.  [WTF??  This is just wrong on so many levels!  These assumptions scientists make are not just random bullshit they pull out of thin air.  They have to be pretty well grounded and defensible because other scientists are going to check their work (peer review) and the first place they are going to try to poke holes are in the starting assumptions.  There is a reason science makes a naturalistic assumption rather than a supernatural one - supernatural claims have been tested over and over again and each time the answer turned out to be a natural one.  Assumptions like these are actually based on other experiments.  Go check out the James Randi Educational Foundation, they regularly run tests on alleged paranormal and supernatural claims and they have yet to find someone who can demonstrate such a thing for a million dollars]

So I believe that a naturalist’s assumptions are as much a matter of “faith” if not more than that of a believer who believes in the supernatural. [No, assuming that you should trust in evidence does not take as much or more faith than it takes to believe things happen magically.  For example believing that Jesus turned water into wine takes faith.  There is no natural, scientific mechanism by which to do that and no rational way to prove it therefore if you want to believe it you just have to take it on faith.  It does not take any faith on the other hand to believe that the world is round though - we can fly around it, we can send up satellites and spaceships to take a look and see for ourselves.  One of these things is not like the other]

In light of this it can then also be concluded that other forms of “knowing” are equally certain and sometimes even superior to science. [Credit where it's due, here he demonstrates what it would look like if things really worked the way he thinks they do.  If people make nonsensical assumptions and then just run with it they end up with crazy conclusions like this one.  Do tell, how are other forms of "knowing" superior to science?]

To use an example: Mathematical knowledge like 1+1=2 is inescapably true and I don’t need any experiments or any of my senses to guarantee that it is true. Similarly, the basic laws of logic are self-sustaining and don’t need any support from science.  [Here's the thing.  This example actually proves the opposite of what you think it does.  You don't know that 1+1=2 via osmosis or magic.  You know it the same way you know the basic laws of logic are true, through science.  The only reason it feels like these things are second nature to you is because you have been doing the science on this all your life.  You are NOT born with the knowledge that 1+1=2 or with the knowledge of cause and effect.  Instead you learn these things by observation, experimentation, testing and prediction - science.  At the very basis of what you know about math there is the observation that there are things and things come in amounts.  Pretty soon you learn that you can make those amounts more or less.  You learn this with toys, marbles, stones, whatever is available to you.  If you were born deaf and blind and lived alone in an empty room, you may never have any concept of basic math or logic.  Sorry but you don't know this via magic, you know this via science]

Certain universal laws of ethics are applicable and accepted without having to be proven to us through scientific tests. We “know” that abusing our children is wrong and those concepts such as mercy and kindness are virtues. [Who is your "we" kimosabe?  Have you seen the crime statistics?  A LOT of people don't seem to "know" that abusing children is wrong.  There are also no "universal laws of ethics" to speak of.  Ethics can and does vary wildly throughout time and space.  Your morals and ethics depend mostly on where (and when) you live and how you were raised, they certainly don't get magically zapped into everyone mystically.  I did a fairly long blog post on this a while back using Sleeping Beauty as an example but for now, consider someone born into an organized crime family who grew up in a culture of violence and cruelty.  Do you think they see mercy and kindness as virtues or weaknesses to be exploited?]

I do not wish to offend anyone by writing these words, [only actual fans of science will be offended at this point, don't worry about it, I doubt you know any] but I believe that we [we? srsly?] fans of science and the yet unexplained are too engrossed in finding the mechanism that works a system and are confusing it with whomever or whatever set that mechanism in motion. [How about no?  The one does not preclude the other.  There are plenty of scientific fields - physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology - that are dedicated to investigating both the mechanism and whatever set the mechanism in motion.  If you were an actual fan of science you would have known that.  Both are fascinating.  You know what's not fascinating?  Closing your eyes to the wonders of the universe and shouting "You can't explain it! It must be magic gnomes!"]

Let’s look at another example: Birds have wings in order to fly. Because we want our own set of wings or developed that same mechanism to make an airplane, we sometimes stop at the mechanism as the ultimate explanation to that phenomenon. [I'm not sure what that last sentence is even supposed to mean!  However when I think of how human beings - a species of flightless mammals - managed to overcome our biology and mastered flight (which btw, not everything with wings can even do!) I am overcome with awe and wonder!  Think about it!  We can fly faster than the speed of sound!  We have flown to the moon!  We dreamed it and we did it!  Yet somehow all that leaves him with a profound sense of "meh" because that's just boring mechanics and not the divine purpose of wings or whatever]

Rather we should also pause to think who gave those wings to the birds and for what ultimate purpose. [Ohhhh now I get it!  All that ultimate purpose stuff was about God somehow.  Well I for one would LOVE to know the ultimate God given purpose of wings and remember, it can't be something stupid like "flying" because that's besides the point somehow] Because we are only interested in technology and not the whole truth we have gotten our languages confused. We are beginning to treat the natural world or the mechanism as the agent who contains the ultimate purpose. [This just seems like a case of weapons grade projection to me.  Creationists and other proponents of anti-science are always telling you how much they love science when all they really love are the fruits of science - all the technology and advancements that make our lives easier and longer.  They don't like science itself.  Because science doesn't care what you believe or what you would like to be true.  Science is a process that can find the truth no matter what that truth is.  You start messing around with science and next thing you know all that cool, mystical "ultimate purpose" stuff may end up not seeming so profound anymore.  Real scientists on the other hand aren't in it for the tech, they are in it for the journey of discovery]

How do you test the love between a mother and a child? [Well thank goodness not everyone was satisfied with that Hallmark card drivel.  See not all mothers love their children.  Some mothers go a little nuts sometimes and drown their babies.  Good thing then science didn't just chalk it up to "mysterious ways" because now postpartum depression can be diagnosed and treated] How do you explain the spontaneous explosion of matter into what we now call the universe? [Work in progress.  There may be much we don't know yet but scientists are actually working on that over at CERN.  Fun fact, it's thanks to work on particle accelerators that we ended up with things like MRI machines and the internet]  Sometimes we should just accept that some things are better left unexplained and mysterious. It’s more fun that way too. Imagine a world in which all things were revealed to all men…not that magical anymore is it? [You know that world you're fantasizing about?  The one without all these stupid "explanations" and "scientific inquiry" where everything was mysterious and magical instead?  We had that!  It was called the Dark Ages and it wasn't a great time to be alive.  No one had the slightest idea how the world worked but hey, at least they had art and philosophy and theology!  But don't fret, I hear that in parts of Nigeria they reject science in favour of the supernatural so you could always move there if you don't mind occasionally having to torture and kill a child for being a witch!  I'm sorry, was that rude?  Am I being offensive?  Good, because this was an offensive article!  You know what rejecting science in favour of "other ways of knowing" gets you?  People people being robbed of potential happiness, suffering and even dying needlessly.  Our supernatural superstitions landed us in the deepest, darkest holes humanity has ever been in and it was only by the light of reason and science that we managed to claw our way out of it.  To suggest we turn our backs on that and return to the darkness is a deeply offensive notion.  Oh, I know you don't mean it like that.  You just think talk of "other ways of knowing" and "deeper ultimate meanings" make you sound oh so damn deep and thoughtful and spiritual.  But it doesn't.  It makes you sound ignorant and clueless.  The world is incredible and the universe a place of infinite wonder but you can't see that.  You miss the true beauty of your garden because you would rather imagine it has fairies in it than learn of it's true magnificence.  You refuse to see the awesome wonder of reality because you would rather believe in the smallness of magic and superstition]

I think it is for that reason that C.S. Lewis said “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator”.  [Right, scientists of old like Newton, Kepler and Galileo assumed that if God created the universe then it followed that the universe would make sense and therefore they should be able to understand it.  Modern anti-scientists do the opposite.  They say that since God did it we shouldn't try to understand it or bother investigating it.  We've come a long way baby!]

OK so I lost my cool there for a while but at least I managed to get through the whole thing without once using the word "fucktard" so there's that.   It just upsets me when people act as if science takes all the mystery and joy out of the world.  Have these people ever listened to someone like Carl Sagan or Brian Cox (the rockstar scientist, not the curmudgeonly actor) talk about science?  Science doesn't steal the mystery away, it gives us the tools to appreciate it in full!  The more we explore the more we find, each question we answer leads to countless new questions!  Science robs you of nothing, it gives you the keys to the castle.  You know what does rob you?  Closing your eyes to all that by making up your own ignorant bullshit and calling that "a different way of knowing".  Sure, that way you can get to live comfortably in your own little cave, blissfully unaware of the greatness that is right outside (but at least your little pet beliefs will be totally safe so there's that).  You would be missing out on so much though!  The self made prison world of superstition and fairytales will rob you of all the wonder of the universe while offering nothing but a tiny portion of pathetic mysticism.  Trust me, once you get a taste of the real mysteries of the world, it's hard to go back!


Ali said...

Oh my goodness, YES! This is an amazing and well-deserved spork of a whole lot of bullshit woo. I don't think that guy says anything in that entire article.

The idea that an empirically-based worldview is somehow fatally flawed is a vaguely interesting philosophical question, but I really don't think it warrants that much speculation. And "faith in science" is the biggest load of crap, because the whole point of science is falsifiability! We learn new things! And - here's the kicker - CHANGE OUR MINDS.

To quote the great Tim Minchin, "Science adjusts its beliefs based on what’s observed; faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved."

Speaking of which, have you seen Storm? Because I've never seen a more perfect 9 minute deconstruction of all this sort of crap. It's wonderful. It might as well have been written for articles like this one.

Seriously, it'll change your life.

Eugene said...

Thanks Ali!! Appreciate the input! And yes, I did in fact see Storm! I loved it so much I posted it as my first post for 2012 and based my New Years not-resolution on it!