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Jan 04 2012

Attack Of The Undead Scarecrows

If the scientific method uses senses, which are flawed,
Then the scientists who use it, when they poke their fun at God,
Have no guarantee of certainty, and so they might be wrong
Which is what religious faithful have been saying all along.
Religion studies subjects, though, which no one has observed,
There’s no observation bias, thus the truth is better served!
Since they can’t believe their measurements, the scientists are lost—
So the whole of modern science, why it might as well be tossed!
Yes, tomorrow they could tell us that they’ve found they got it wrong,
Cos the solar system’s center was our planet all along!

Since scientists are human, they have all the human flaws
So religion is a better way… because!

Context–both general and specific–after the jump:

We are sometimes accused of going after strawmen–attacking the simplistic arguments that no serious thinkers would make. “Sophisticated theology”, the elusive true target, gets ignored while we go shooting fish in barrels.

But the thing is, these strawmen don’t appear to be made of straw at all. I use a search device to point me to blogs and news sites that I am unlikely to stumble across on my own (we tend to stick to our familiar haunts, and it is too easy to think we’ve seen it all when all we have seen is our own neighborhood), and the comments there are anything but “sophisticated theology”. These strawmen are flesh and blood. The arguments, of course, are ones that have been shot down thousands of times, but that does not stop them from rearing their heads yet again in another context. These are not strawmen; these are undead scarecrows, the stuff of nightmares.

Today’s post marks the first in what I hope to be an ongoing series, where the same old arguments you’ve seen a million times are addressed yet once more. Because they are alive and well, or at least undead and shuffling, in their own little isolated fields on the web.

Today’s zombie scarecrow comes from “Eternity Matters“, where the blogger has been arguing with an atheist. Mind you, the opening post is a target-rich environment for critical thinking practice, but the purpose of my post (and new series) is highlight just one comment at a time, for the sake of my own sanity. (What’s that? Too late? alas…) In particular, a comment by Kathy (to which the blog author responded “Good points, Kathy.”) is what inspired today’s verse:

I have a different rebuttal to the first point; they admit that humans are flawed and have fallible observations and reasoning… yet that is exactly what science is based on — observations and reasoning! So, they are admitting that the basis for their god (“science”) is flawed and therefore ultimately baseless. After all, maybe our observations on the orbit of the earth around the sun are just flawed; or the reasoning about the sunrise and sunset is flawed. This atheist has just admitted that it may be so, so what further reason is there to trust science or anything based on science, since it is all based on our fallible observations and reasoning?

So much sophisticated theology in one place. Kathy, you got one thing right; we do admit that humans are flawed. That’s why the scientific method, and methodologies which protect us from our own biases, has been so successful. We have, in double-blind methodologies and in peer-review processes, mechanisms which systematically guard against our known observational flaws. It is for this reason that scientists are able, in the long run, to converge on consensus about things that stand up to testing, and to discard ideas that prove not to be useful. The beautiful thing about science is that we can collectively, systematically, account for our human frailties and overcome them.

It is odd that you would have chosen the earth’s orbit and rotation as your example. Without science, we had all sorts of wonderful stories about how the sun rose and set over a stationary firmament. With Copernicus and Kepler, then Newton, we had better and better explanations. Were these “truth”? Of course not; the process of science gives us better and better explanations, theories that fit and explain the observations we make, but we are always open to even better explanations. For instance, an observed wobble in the orbit of the planet Mercury could not be explained by Newton’s gravitational theory, so we knew that while it was very useful, it was not perfect. Einstein’s equations accounted for all the observations that Newton’s did, but also accounted for Mercury’s orbit (and a couple of other things), making it a more useful theory. Each time science discards one theory for a better one, we have to explain everything the old one did and more; the observations are still valid data, not something to be discarded when they do not fit our theories.

The thing is, our same flawed human senses are found in theologians, religious believers of all stripes, and everyone else on the planet. In religion, though, do we see convergence on an agreed picture of one particular picture of divinity? Do we find agreement on the nature of a god or gods? (The very question hints at an answer.) Assuming, just for a bit, the Abrahamic God, does He frown on bacon? Circumcision? Is He triune, or one? Do you have to believe in Jesus? Do good works count? How is it that wars break out over interpretations of the word of the same god? Our same flawed human senses, and flawed human belief systems, require some sort of structure to self-correct. Religion does not have this; indeed, the history of religion suggests that it actively promotes the insulated sort of thinking that allows these flaws to firmly root.

Kathy, if science is fatally flawed because of human perceptual frailty, when science at least has the ability–the duty–to compare its ideas to the real world, how flawed must religion be, when the same human frailties are unchecked? The opening post you respond to says “Science is great for material things, but by definition it doesn’t deal with immaterial things.” The thing is, human perceptual systems are material things. If religious matters are immaterial, that’s fine, and science can have nothing to say about them… but we can and do have plenty to say about human (very material) sensation, perception, cognition, memory, and belief. Science may not be able to speak to God, but we can certainly speak to believers, and to belief. The things we know have proven to be useful, to be practical, to have utility. When religion comes up with a better explanation for sunrise and sunset, Kathy, you let me know.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Warren

    ‘When religion comes up with a better explanation for sunrise and sunset [...] you let me know.’

    Hey, you know, tide comes in, tide comes out – never a miscommunication.

    The gist of your rebuttal is objectively sound, but I think you overlooked something important. In order for religion to work in the mind of the believer, s/he must be certain that s/he is dealing directly with a deity who has revealed the truth, either through ‘scripture’ or prayer. So there’s no question at all of human fallibility in the senses, you see. It all came directly from god/dess/es, which is/are by nature infallible.

    Such thinking is absolutely immune to rational discourse.

    It’s the dialectic opposite of, ‘well, everything is true!’ – but every bit as ironclad, because both points of view steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the possibility of a common starting point, about which all contenders may agree – a place to start where everyone can nod and say, ‘This is at least provisionally true.’

    Without that one point of common ground, rational discourse is impossible. For the hardline theists, you must agree exclusively with their rules. For the mushbrains, you must agree that all rules are meaningless. The discussion is over before it ever starts.

  2. 2
    Cuttlefish

    Fortunately, Warren, not all believers are so blinkered. And since we can’t know who is and who isn’t a priori “mushbrains”, I tend to assume I am dealing with thinking individuals. So far, I have been pleasantly surprised.

  3. 3
    Warren

    Cuttlefish – you clearly run in kinder, more enlightened circles than I do. :\

  4. 4
    jbrock

    Wow. Remarkably well said.

    Back in my Christian-but-wondering-why stage, I welcomed the appeal to ‘sophisticated theology’. Then I tried actually reading some of the stuff that my peers assured me was substantial and, yes, sophisticated enough to drive away doubt. Unfortunately, that writing all seemed to follow a template something like this:

    Blah blah blah [logical fallacy]. Blah blah blah [carefully mined quote]. Blah blah blah [tangential anecdote]. Blah blah blah [obscure allusion]. Blah blah blah [uncredited ripoff from C.S. Lewis]. Blah blah blah [mangled science]. Blah blah blah [urban legend]. Blah blah blah [another logical fallacy]. Blah blah blah [brazen fatuity]. Blah blah blah [bafflegab]. Blah blah blah [ad hockery]. Blah blah blah [non sequitur]. Blah blah blah [blatant lie]. Blah blah blah [handwave].

    Variations for color: (1) Change order of square-bracketed meta-components. (2) Misattribute quotes. (3) Manufacture quotes outright.

    Lather (a lot). Rinse (lightly). Repeat (ad nauseam).

    Good on you for having the logical chops–and the patience, and the genuine humanity–to go after those ‘undead scarecrows’.

  5. 5
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]
    After all, maybe our observations on the orbit of the earth around the sun are just flawed; or the reasoning about the sunrise and sunset is flawed.

    Well, it certainly cannot be off by much. There is no possibility that something other than the Earth orbiting the Sun is happening, if that is what she means. And as far as sunsets go, what part of the explanation is suspect? Never mind the ground observations or satellites, people fucking live in Earth orbit. We have pictures of the Earth from beyond the orbit of Pluto. What the hell?

  6. 6
    Scott F

    I use a search device to point me to blogs and news sites that I am unlikely to stumble across on my own (we tend to stick to our familiar haunts, and it is too easy to think we’ve seen it all when all we have seen is our own neighborhood),…

    Yes, but you’re a Liberal. You seek out new information, new ideas, to challenge your existing beliefs. This IMO seems to be in the main what separates a modern “Liberal” from a “modern” “Conservative”.

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