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Aug 03 2008

The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions

How do we deal with unanswered questions? Especially when it comes to the most basic things we believe in?

I once had a Christian friend tell me that she didn’t have a really good answer to this question, which she called the “problem of evil”. I was flabbergasted; it seemed that merely naming it was enough to keep its rhetorical force from having an effect.

It’s like meeting someone who thinks that everything in the world is made of fish, but when you ask why things don’t feel like, smell like, or behave like fish, they say “ah, the ‘problem of unfishiness’, it’s occupied our brightest fishists for many years!”

Mystery of gods will
One of the peeviest of atheist pet peeves is the way so many religious believers, in the face of huge unanswered questions about their beliefs, essentially throw up their hands and say, “Yup, it’s a mystery.”

Exhibit A: the comment above from Paul Crowley. The question at hand is a familiar one: an all- knowing, all- powerful, all- good God, but evil and suffering in the world, blah blah blah. And the answer… well, the answer varies, from person to person and from sect to sect. But essentially, the answer is always some version of, “We don’t know.”

“It’s a mystery.” “God moves in mysterious ways.” “It is not up to us to question God’s ways.” “That’s where faith comes in.”

Zebrasoma_flavescens
And as Paul pointed out, this drives atheists insane. Far too often, it’s exactly as he described it: you point out to an ardent fishist all the different ways that the world is not fishy, and they nod sagely and reply, “Ah, yes, the problem of unfishiness.” And then they go on blithely believing in the fish-based world: as if the unanswered question had no relevance, as if it didn’t reveal a major crack in their fishy foundation. (Possibly getting mad at you in the meantime, for being so intolerant.)

But are atheists being fair here?

After all, the world of science and secular knowledge is also full of unanswered questions. Big ones. What is consciousness? How did life originate? What happened before the Big Bang, i.e. what caused the Big Bang, i.e. why is there something instead of nothing? And the world of science responds to these questions by essentially saying, “Yup, it’s a mystery. We don’t know the answer. Sorry.”

But I think there’s a difference.

A huge one.

Man using microscope
For one thing: When science is confronted with a question it doesn’t know the answer to? It doesn’t just give up. It doesn’t throw up its hands, gaze into the air, and revel in the glorious mystery. It says, “We don’t know the answer to that question — yet.”

“Yet” being the key word.

Science’s response to unanswered questions is to say, “Hm. Interesting question. What might the answer be? We really don’t know — but we’re working on it. We have a number of possible theories; we’re gathering data; here are some of the promising directions we’re moving in.”

Crayon
Whereas, when religion is faced with questions it doesn’t know the answer to, it just gives up. It takes the empty places in the coloring book, the places we haven’t filled in yet with actual tested knowledge… and fills them all in with a blue crayon. And it calls that blue crayon God. And it thinks that’s an answer.

(In other words, when science is faced with a question it doesn’t know the answer to, its response is, “Processing… processing…” Whereas, as Ingrid put it, religion’s response is, “Error… error…”)

Which is a big problem. It’s a practical problem: for one thing, when an actual real answer to an unanswered question does come along, it can be damn difficult to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s brains and replace it with the right color. (Witness the difficulty many Christians have accepting the theory of evolution, or the age of the planet and the universe.) And in my mind, it’s a philosophical and ethical problem as well. When faced with an unanswered question, I think it’s a lot more honest to say, “I don’t know,” than to say, “The answer is God.” (And despite atheists being so frequently accused of arrogance, I think it shows a lot more humility as well.)

But I think there’s another difference as well. An even huger one. And it has to do with the nature of the unanswered questions themselves.

The questions that religion can’t answer? They cut right to the heart of their theory. They reveal profound inconsistencies of the theory with observable reality…and fundamental contradictions within the theory itself.

Tornado
The obvious example is the one this whole post started with: the obvious contradiction of an all- knowing, all- powerful, all- good God who nevertheless permits horrible evil and suffering, and even causes it directly himself. I have never seen a theology or an apologetic that explained this without either (a) conceding some portion of God’s knowledge, power, or goodness… or else (b) copping out with “mysterious ways.” The hypothesis of the God who is all- etc. and yet permits and creates terrible suffering is fundamentally flawed: a theory that completely contradicts everything we see about the world, with a logical paradox at its very heart.

Whereas in science, the unanswered questions are simply unanswered questions. They’re gaps in the knowledge… but they’re not flaws in the knowledge. There’s a difference.

Evolution
Example. Take evolution. As of right now, the question of abiogenesis — how the process of life originated in the first place — is unanswered. It’s a question that’s being worked on, but right now we don’t know the answer. But that doesn’t undercut the theory of evolution. The theory of evolution — the theory of how life forms became so well adapted to their environments, how complex forms of life descended from simpler ones, etc. — is still supported by a massive, overwhelming body of evidence from every field of biology… regardless of how the process started. Abiogenesis could have come from some chemical process whose exact nature we don’t currently know, or it could have come from visiting space aliens, or it could have come from the invisible magic hand of Loki… and the theory of evolution would still hold up. The unanswered question of abiogenesis is a big one — but in the science of biology, it’s not a flaw. It’s merely a gap.

And when actual flaws in scientific knowledge are revealed, then the knowledge gets discarded as mistaken pretty damn fast. In science, if your theory is shot full of internal contradictions, or if it conflicts with a massive body of data, then that’s it for the theory. Individual scientists may cling to their pet theories, but the scientific community as a whole discards it, and moves on to a new theory that better explains all the data, and that makes better predictions about the future, and that isn’t shot full of internal contradictions.

And scientists who cling to their pet theories, despite the contradictions, aren’t admired as “people of faith.”

BarbusCarnaticus
Hanging on to the fishist viewpoint, coming up with elaborately contorted rationalizations for it, devoting your life to explaining either why it makes sense or why it doesn’t have to — and refusing to let go of even one aspect of the fishist hypothesis to make it more consistent both with itself and with reality — is not seen in the world of science as noble, or admirable, or a sign of strength of character.

Which is a big, big difference.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    efrique

    I really love the blue crayon metaphor.
    On mysterious ways:
    “It’s a mystery.” “God moves in mysterious ways.” “It is not up to us to question God’s ways.”
    Oh yeah; it’s especially frustrating when sometimes the mind of God is an unknowable mystery, but other times they somehow know exactly what God wants.
    Most convenient how that works…

  2. 2
    efrique

    Damn, sorry about not turning off the bold after “exactly” there.

  3. 3
    efrique

    Try again. That should do it.

  4. 4
    efrique

    Greta said:
    Science’s response to unanswered questions is to say, “Hm. Interesting question. What might the answer be? We really don’t know — but we’re working on it. We have a number of possible theories; we’re gathering data; here are some of the promising directions we’re moving in.”
    For many of the tricky questions (and that’s a lot of them, because the non-tricky ones mostly get tackled first), the first thing that a scientist might be saying is “how the heck might we even start answering a question like that?”. And that’s sometimes where the new big ideas come in – in nutting out how to begin answering a tricky question, you sometimes have to think about the problem in a whole different way – and then you realize you’ll need to ask (and answer) some questions you never even thought about before. I think that’s part of where science reaches it’s greatest heights. It’s not simply the most reliable way we have of answering a laundry-list of questions, its a way of coming up with questions we would previously never even have comprehended asking.

  5. 5
    Elise Conolly

    Surely saying “ah, the ‘problem of unfishiness’, it’s occupied our brightest fishists for many years!” also has an implicit “yet” after the “we don’t know” – it’s not as though theologians have stopped asking the question.

  6. 6
    s.pimpernel

    As usual Greta; bullseye.

  7. 7
    Greta Christina

    Surely saying “ah, the ‘problem of unfishiness’, it’s occupied our brightest fishists for many years!” also has an implicit “yet” after the “we don’t know” – it’s not as though theologians have stopped asking the question.

    True. But you’d think that after two thousand years of being stumped by the question, they’d be willing to consider the possibility that there’s something wrong with the premise.
    After all, as I wrote in this other recent piece, if you let go of even one of the Alls — all- knowing, all- powerful, or all-good — Christian theology would become a lot more plausible.
    Yes, they’re still asking the question. But they’re refusing to consider two of the most obvious answers to it: either that God does not exist at all, or that God exists but isn’t as they conceive him. They’re continuing to set their best minds to the problem of unfishiness… but are unwilling to concede that perhaps the world isn’t made of fish after all.

  8. 8
    K

    I think that the point at which the atheist is really being unfair is in expecting something like religion to answer questions, or to provide answers, or whatever, and if a religious person claims that their religion has such answers in a clearer and more useful manner than science, then they’re clearly being disingenuous, too.
    On the other hand, not everyone is seeking to minimise unanswered questions, nor to come to a decision about what axioms they should use in their everyday life on the basis of Socratic debate.
    Evangelists are a difficult matter because they seek some form of conversion, perhaps by means of debate. And if you can’t agree on the terms of the debate, you can’t debate, really, and it all reduces to a mudfight between two people who are mutually incomprehensible.

  9. 9
    yogurtbacteria

    I just want to say that the blue crayon metaphor is excellent. Excellent, excellent, excellent.

  10. 10
    yogurtbacteria

    In fact, that metaphor could really be taken further. Especially if I happened to have been incredibly amused by the idea and had some free time on my hands over the past fifteen minutes or so and written a comment about it. And then posted it below this introduction.
    Say you have a coloring book with numbers in it that correspond to the different colors you’re supposed to use in each area. Except that the instructions are in a forgotten language.
    Science studies the language until it can reliably determine which numbers correspond to which colors based on a constantly growing understanding of the words and symbols that make up the language. It colors nothing in until there is sufficient evidence supporting that coloring.
    Religion produces a book from a long time ago that asserts without evidence or demonstration of any understanding of the language that two is for yellow and three is for green and five is for blue. Some passages also have vague, unspecific references to the number seven, which some people take to mean seven is red and others take to mean seven is orange. Oh, and one passage says that only one color corresponds to each number and vice versa, while simultaneously asserting that both five and nine are for blue. Noted scholars assert that there are, in fact, many varieties of blue and that the book probably meant that seven is for indigo or something.
    When science determines after a significant accumulation of study and evidence that one is for brown, no one argues. Then they uncover evidence that seven is for red, and the Seventh-Color Orangists are deeply offended. Then the evidence starts stacking up that two is, in fact, for aquamarine. Then John Scopes is arrested for contravention of the divine doctrine of Two Is For Yellow by teaching that two is for aquamarine. His case against the State of Tennessee goes down in history as as a watershed in the Yellowism-Aquamarinism controversy. And the rest is history.

  11. 11
    yogurtbacteria

    Or rather, five is for indigo.
    Damn, I edited around the colors in that more than any sane person should have.

  12. 12
    Greta Christina

    Damn, yb. That’s brilliant.
    There’s just one small change I’d propose.

    It {science] colors nothing in until there is sufficient evidence supporting that coloring.

    Well… sometimes it does.
    But the prevailing ethos of the scientific world is that getting the right colors matched to the right numbers is more important — much, much more important — than any attachment to any particular theory or dogma about which color goes with which number.
    So if the evidence becomes very strong that the great Dr. Strange was wrong about 8 being orange, but instead is lavender, there isn’t a powerful Strangist sect demanding that it’s wicked blasphemy to suggest that it’s anything other than orange. Or rather… there is, but it sure as hell isn’t coming from the scientific community.

  13. 13
    yogurtbacteria

    That’s fair. Say, they color them in in erasable pencil progressively darker as the evidence stacks up, I suppose.
    Glad you liked it :)

  14. 14
    saltyslug

    I hate to be all nitpicky on such a great post, but I am afraid you throw around the word “theory” a little too much. What religion has are all hypotheses and not one theory. A theory is a falsifiable idea that has yet to be disproved. Religion is not only unfalsifiable, but has next to no empirical standing whatsoever and the standing it does have (the bible, personal testimony, etc…) is altogether dubious.
    anyway, really great post. I love the unfishiness idea and that is one of the things that really really bugs me about religion :)

  15. 15
    Ender

    Only addressing the OP here, as I haven’t read all the comments.
    Essentially the problem here is that you’re putting words in the mouth of religion, then condemning them for those very words, while claiming that those who only believe in science would never say similar things, even if they sound very similar.
    Unfortunately that is a fallacy. Technically a straw man, but I hesitate to use that as it is thrown around much to often these days. The religious answer is not ‘”It’s a mystery.” “God moves in mysterious ways.” “It is not up to us to question God’s ways.” “That’s where faith comes in.”
    Which is what you claim it is. That might be what individual uneducated or uninformed religious people might say, but that’s the equivalent of asking random people on the street how exactly super-positioning occurs in quantum mechanics, and then claiming that ‘science’ says that ‘we just don’t know’, “it’s a paradox” or any of the things someone not educated in the vagaries of quantum mechanics might say.
    As it happens there are numerous explanations for the problem of evil, from numerous different religions and creeds. The logical problem of evil has been comprehensively dealt with, and there are plenty of potential answers for the evidential problem of evil. Check out Plantinga for just one of the many people who haven’t just said “It’s a mystery”
    Also, to claim that this is a problem with ‘religion’ is deeply and almost offensively ethnocentric. I’m guessing that you’re essentially referring to Christianity and the Abrahamic religions here, since this isn’t so much a problem with say, Jainism, Hinduism etc etc.
    Essentially my post can be summarised as: 1) Straw religious position, so really… big whoop for knocking it down, 2) average Mr(s) religious is not someone you can use as a reference when criticising ‘religion’ as a whole, 3) ethnocentric choice of example, very poor.
    p.s. Also, the metaphor of a world of fish is terrible, (I’ll write a better one after this) but given it – here’s two defeaters to the ‘Logical problem of fishness’ (the E-PoF would depend on which religion you were positing)
    1) It’s odourless fish. The smell you’re thinking of is that of fish with odours. There’s no logical reason that fish must smell as you expect it to…
    2) It does smell of fish. Everything is fish, and the smell you smell from any individual thing, that’s its smell – i.e. the smell of ‘fish’
    Neither of these things need to be true, but as they are possible, they defeat the L-PoF
    A better metaphor of course would be, they say A B and C are true. You say that therefore everything should smell of fish. (Where this time we’re defining a fishy smell as that given off by actual fish).
    If you’re right, then A B and C are not true. As it is clear that everything does not smell of fish.
    However, no matter how ‘obvious’ it seems to you, not everyone agrees that A B and C —> smell of fish, inevitably. And in fact many different possibilities have been put forward. You need not agree with any of these, you may think they’re all flawed, but it is completely intellectually dishonest to claim that we all think “It’s a mystery”, when actually people have plenty of different, well formulated reasons that A B and C —/–> a smell of fish.

  16. 16
    Ender

    boldbegone!
    And that’s no attack on you either. I just don’t agree with your post. And there’s more I don’t agree with too, but my post was already far too tl;dr (especially given the narrow margins) so I left it at that.

  17. 17
    Ender

    Sorry to poly-post like this, but I’m reading around your blog, since it’s quite interesting (I’ll try and be positive with my next comment, I promise). But it’s this type of comment:
    “True. But you’d think that after two thousand years of being stumped by the question, they’d be willing to consider the possibility that there’s something wrong with the premise.”
    That makes me think that you’re not very informed about the things you’re talking about. (Which isn’t a crime in itself, but it certainly indicates that you’re overreaching yourself, and probably becomes a crime if you refuse to inform yourself when it’s pointed out). Since indeed religious people actually haven’t just been sitting around twiddling their thumbs for nigh on two thousand years (and that’s only the Catholics, others have considered this sort of stuff for much longer), and have in fact not been ‘stumped’ by such questions, they’ve come up with plenty of varied and interesting theories. Now some of them are wacky, some insane, and lots of them require acceptance of a-priori that you would most likely reject. But I’m not saying that you have to agree with even one of these explanations, merely acknowledge that they exist, and that they have indeed satisfied religious theologists and philosophers to the extent that pretty much none of them are saying “we just don’t know, we’re totally stumped”.
    Otherwise, again, you’d be being intellectually dishonest. Just like I would be if I said something like “scientists have are stumped by the origins of life”. I may not agree with suggested scientific possibilities for the origin of life (actually I do, but that’s besides the point) but it would not be honest of me to indicate that they have no ideas at all.

  18. 18
    Timortinel

    Ender:
    “p.s. Also, the metaphor of a world of fish is terrible, (I’ll write a better one after this) but given it – here’s two defeaters to the ‘Logical problem of fishness’ (the E-PoF would depend on which religion you were positing)
    1) It’s odourless fish. The smell you’re thinking of is that of fish with odours. There’s no logical reason that fish must smell as you expect it to…
    2) It does smell of fish. Everything is fish, and the smell you smell from any individual thing, that’s its smell – i.e. the smell of ‘fish’
    Neither of these things need to be true, but as they are possible, they defeat the L-PoF”
    I don’t think your two arguments, especially not the second one, against the fishness is truly dismissing the metaphor as much as it is dismissing the meaning of every word, because if you think like that, I could go around and claim that the whole world is pancakes and smells like pancakes, sounds like pancakes and so on, and if people object and say that it isn’t, because by that word most people mean a sort of food that’s made of wheat, milk and eggs, fried into flat, round pieces, created to be digested, (unless the pancake maker makes a mistake, of course, and it all is burnt up into a heap of inedible cinder and ash), it’s just for me to claim,
    “But that isn’t my definition of pancakes! To me all things are pancakes, pancakes could have any form and be made of anything, and it doesn’t even need to be fried!”
    Of course, I could go around and have that wide definition of pancakes, however, that would make it very hard for me to communicate with others around me if I made up a new definition of every word. Words are, after all just a common agreement among humans sharing the same language that when I do this sound or when I write these kind of symbols, I’m referring to a tree, when I do this, to a stone and so on, and if I’m going to change the definition of a word in the way I see fit, still most people would think pancakes is what I described earlier, and I cannot explain why I should call everything pancakes, when I might as well call everything spaghetti, considering I’ve already ignored the definition of the words shared by most people, and why should I use the word that most people refer to as a sort of food, when I could make it easier for myself to be understood by calling everything that exists by a different term than pancakes. Like the Universe, for example, or material, or why not simply everything that exists, or whatever term that would make me understood by most people. Re-definitions and new definitions of words might occur, I don’t deny that, but then most people using the word must agree with the change, otherwise the meaning wouldn’t really have changed.
    Don’t take me wrong, I know that there isn’t any word whose meaning is completely settled and absolute and the same to everyone, just that words are humans’ way of trying to grasp reality by putting name on things (and these words aren’t true , they’re not anything but stuff made up by human minds as a way to communicate), and that it’s easier to communicate if we agree around some categories, even though it might be hard to categories some things if it contains values of several categories, that it might fit in several of them, than to call anything by any name one personally see fit.
    I think most people would agree (I might be terribly wrong?) that fish is a general term for marine-living beings with gills and fins that needs to get oxygen from the water, and being unable to get it from the air, because of the lack of lungs and therefore needs to live in water to survive, and that when most of us thinks something smells like fish, we refer to the smell most of these creatures seem to smell like when we encounter them.
    And besides, what’s all this about the smell of fish? It’s also about the way fish looks, sounds like, and so on, and I don’t think that it is correct that everything is like fish, using the general term, and if I were to use my own term, as I’ve already explained, it doesn’t make it a better word for it than that everything is pancakes or that everything is flying pink hippos with lilac nail-paint smelling like rotten eggs.
    Greta Christina: “”True. But you’d think that after two thousand years of being stumped by the question, they’d be willing to consider the possibility that there’s something wrong with the premise.”
    Ender: That makes me think that you’re not very informed about the things you’re talking about. (Which isn’t a crime in itself, but it certainly indicates that you’re overreaching yourself, and probably becomes a crime if you refuse to inform yourself when it’s pointed out). Since indeed religious people actually haven’t just been sitting around twiddling their thumbs for nigh on two thousand years (and that’s only the Catholics, others have considered this sort of stuff for much longer), and have in fact not been ‘stumped’ by such questions, they’ve come up with plenty of varied and interesting theories.”
    I agree that religious people always have discussed the definition of religion and god, but somehow it always turn out that in the end they reach the conclusion god exists after all in some kind of form, even though no fact or evidence proves that statement should be truer than any other statement made,because although they discuss, they always discuss from the perspective that there is a god. But of course, that’s because if a religious person was to question the existence of a god and thinking out theories that exclude divine beings alongside theories that include them, that person wouldn’t be a very religious person any more, would he/she?

  19. 19
    Ender

    “But of course, that’s because if a religious person was to question the existence of a god and thinking out theories that exclude divine beings alongside theories that include them, that person wouldn’t be a very religious person any more, would he/she?”
    Sorry what? A religious person who questions the existence of God and considers theories that exclude divine beings is somehow no longer religious? That doesn’t make very much sense.
    My defeaters to the first metaphor weren’t that good, sadly, but as I said, that’s because the metaphor doesn’t represent the situation very well, where my modified one covers it better, I think.
    Again, the problem that I highlighted in another post about the characterisation of religious people raises its head. (i.e. generalisations that just aren’t true of all religious people, and are therefore essentially straw people when made without modifiers like ‘lots of’ or ‘the stupid ones’)- Yes plenty of religious people have considered the definition of religion and God, but they certainly didn’t always “reach the conclusion god exists after all in some kind of form, even though no fact or evidence proves that statement should be truer than any other statement made,because although they discuss, they always discuss from the perspective that there is a god.”
    Some of them became atheists. Others agnostics. Some found evidence that convinced them. (Be it personal experience, arguments about ‘necessary beings’ or ‘what caused the start of everything’) And they most certainly didn’t ‘always discuss from a perspective that there is a God’. In fact I’ll go out on a limb and say that pretty much none of them discussed from that perspective, since that would have been a short conversation-
    - Ok. Given that there is a God, is there a God? Yup.
    They might have all believed there was a God (which gives unfairly short shrift to those who started as atheists considering the problem, and were convinced.) But their discussions (or at least any worth reading) must have started from the perspective that the existence of God was up for debate – otherwise there could have been no discussion.

  20. 20
    Jesse Weinstein

    The picture of the man looking into the microscope is from (found via TinEye) the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA.
    The caption is: “Kenneth Young examines leaf litter for blacklegged tick nymphs.”
    Just thought I’d pass that on.

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