Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Biblical Soil Science

My work here in Everett has been postponed, so I'm sitting in the hotel waiting to hear from my temporary masters on what they need me to do for them, if anything, and idly surfing the 'net. And in so doing I came across Frank Moraes' essay on atheism and theology.

In it Frank concludes:
"One can’t be an atheist without knowing what it is to be a theist. And most atheists don’t seem to even know what God is supposed to be. What they seem to be against is ignorant people with childish beliefs. If that’s the case, we should call such people areligious. They don’t know or care enough to have an opinion about God, and thus don’t deserve to be called atheists."

I guess I fit into one of these niches. I'm an atheist, or, at the very least, a "don'tgiveashit-ist". My feeling is that I have no fucking idea what is God, or gods, or what it or he or she or they do. Or whether they do anything. Or care, really.

(I should note that it seems to me that if what I see as human life, life on this planet, is really the province of a God, or gods, then those Powers are, at best, some pretty fucking capriciously feckless sonsofbitches and, at worst, some serious assholes).

If people did what those Higher Powers are accused, or credited, with doing in the physical world they'd get kicked from here to Armageddon.

Plagues? Floods? The Penn/Madonna Shanghai Surprise? WTF, deities? You got nothing better to do than eff with people bringin' that shit?

Moraes links to an earlier post of his that references S.J. Gould's idea of "non-overlapping magisteria"; the idea that science (or, at least, non-theological explanations for physical matters) can happily exist side-by-side with theological/philosophical/spiritual explanations of moral and ethical (and ontological) matters.

Moraes' problem is that, apparently, there are a group of atheists who are not content with the Gould idea but are directly attacking religious ideas of, well, pretty much everything. And that this attack is focused on the "worst" aspects of theology, the "Answers in Genesis" sorts of theology that insist that God created dinosaurs and humans and the one rode the other (or something; I never bother much with the AIG people). Moraes wants atheists to a) ignore the AIG dumbshit and b) learn genuine theology - at least, learn enough to understand it - if they want to debate it.

But as I commented on Frank's post, I think the biggest problem is this “worst theology” and how predominant it is over the “better”, and how destructive, and I think that's why the theists are attacking religion, not because they don't understand the higher thinking or care.

There was no Great Flood. We know that. "Know" as in know; the "flood" of Genesis and the Middle Eastern texts that preceded and fomented it were legends, stories, fictions. The textural references to it are stories made up by people who saw things they didn’t have the intellectual tools to understand.

There were no humans riding dinosaurs. "God" didn't give humans "dominion" over volcanoes and oceans and squirrels. That's "Answers in Genesis", the Bible (or Torah, or Quran) as soil survey manual. Iron Age superstition and ignorance dressed up in churchy clothes.

And you'd think there'd be no point attacking or debating that.

But, dammit, this sort of “Answers in Genesis” theologian are all over the fucking place, and their nonsense contributes mightily to the very real damage that religion does in the public square.

It's that sort of Vacation Bible School "theology" that permeates the GOP and helps them in their quest to free their patrons to resume dumping shit into Love Canal and crap into the sky and credulous nonsense (or canned "facts") into kid's brains.

It's that sort of simplistic "theology" that encourages We the People to make stupid choices based on what we've been told about God and Man and the world around us (and politics as God-bothering, another real problem).

THAT’s why the atheists go after them, I think.

Not because they’re a “worthy” opponent Moraes wants to engage...but because, as rubbishy as they are, the Answers-in-Gensis sort of “theology” is much more destructive than the theology of the "better" sort, the kind of theology of people of faith willing to start from the NOMA standpoint.

To put it in videogame terms, it’s all well and good to recommend going up against the boss in an epic struggle.

But it doesn’t help when the damn trashy little minions are running all over the place wrecking the joint.

(h/t to Gods Playing Poker for the comic...)


Leon said...

You know if I was to believe in a supernatural it would have to be a polytheistic religion along the lines of Greek/Roman gods. It would be the only logical explanation of why we humans are (to quote a great philosopher) "bastard coated bastards with bastard filling". Then it would make sense with a bunch of gods that were every bit as capricious and fickle.

FDChief said...

Yep. I agree that the Greeks had the right idea; if you want gods, make them as human as possible. A bunch of drunken bastard gods screwing with each other and the Real World? Yeah, that's kinda a thing.

IMO the originators of the monotheistic Middle Eastern religions have a lot to answer for. Their creation and it's successors; the God of the Jews and Muslims (and the Christians, tho my problem with Christians is that they tend to ignore their supposed Christ in favor of the sort of tribal-asshole behavior that you tend to see in the older versions.

Ael said...

The thing is, all ethical systems and even science is founded on belief.

Without axioms to form the foundation, logic takes you nowhere.

So, given that right and wrong is founded on arbitrary belief, religious belief is simply a subset of pragmatic belief systems.

FDChief said...

The difference being the scientific "belief", to be valid, must be founded on empirical knowledge and observations and must be revised if the data does not support the hypothesis. Faith is under no such obligation.

The problems arise when, on the one hand, supposed empiricists become so wedded to their thesis that they ignore - or, worse, obfuscate or destroy - contradictory evidence, thereby turning their scientific "faith" into a sort of religious dogma.

And, from the other end, when people of faith mistake the texts of their dogmas as soil surveys and try to impose that "faith" on physical observations.

So, in fact, these two systems are, or should be, characterized by very different approaches to belief; the one founded on deduction, the other by induction. The problems arise when the first adopts the mores of the second and when the second invades the provinces of the first.

Ael said...

Actually Chief, that is not true about science.

Some of the fundamental axioms of science do not depend on evidence, they are simply believed to be true.

Science assumes that the laws of nature are amenable to logic.

That the laws of nature in one part of the universe are the same in another part or another time, that Occam's razor accurately describes nature.

There is absolutely no reason why the universe should be tidy enough for humans to understand it. However, given that the tools we have (logic, mathematics, etc) and our desire to understand things, we simply *believe* that they work.

Modern physics is at a crisis precisely because mathematics can produce models of the universe that are complex to explain everything, but need to do that by having sufficient 'wiggle' room as to produce no testable explanations.

FDChief said...

"Some of the fundamental axioms of science do not depend on evidence, they are simply believed to be true."

Name one.

Seriously. Is "temperature" "believed to be true"? Pressure? The makeup of rocks and minerals? Gravity? The speed of light? Young's Modulus? Bernoulli's Principle? Are you telling me the Periodic Table is a "belief"? The structure of DNA? Catalysm in reactions?

Don't forget, before I was a gunner I was, and am today, a scientist. It's both my field of study and my job. And I can tell you this; in my field ain't nobody "believes they (earthquakes, tectonism, landslides...) work". Like fuck we do. We know how they work because we study the hell out of them.

It's not an issue of the "universe is untidy". It is that the universe works on fundamental physical planes. Temperature. Pressure. Intensity. Speed. Chemical reactions and interactions. Biological processes. Stress and strain. Force. Work.

Our tools aren't limited to fucking logic and mathematics. We have instruments that can measure all these things. Observe their effects. Better yet, we have the human mind that can devise experiments with all these potential variations, isolate the variables, and analyze them. Fuck, multivariate analysis allows us to perform operations on systems too complex to understand less than half a century ago. "Believe they work".

My butt.


Physics. Yep, truly high-end physicists are half mad scientists and half mad prophets. I'll give you those goofballs. I can no more understand the truly experimental end of physics than a cow understand the Council of Trent. I agree that the problem posed by the "mathematical models" of things like the behavior of subatomic particles is completely batshit.

The fundamental principle of a scientific approach to natural phenomenon is to 1) learn from observation, deduction, analysis, hypothesis, experimentation, and thesis, and 2) admit that some things are not fully understood by those methods while continuing to investigate them.

That's different than "simply believing (something) to be true".

Ael said...

I gave you three beliefs of science.

1. The laws of nature are amenable to human understanding. (i.e. can be accurately describe by mathematical models - in fact, even talking about a "law of nature" exposes a belief in its existence)

2. The laws of nature in one part of the universe are the same in another part or another time.

3. Occam's razor is true. (ie. the simplest explanation is the best explanation).

All this guff about pressure, temperature, etc. is built up on top of those core beliefs. Now, I happen to believe in those things (and indeed trust my life daily to the logical conclusions offered by these axioms) but they are, down deep, simply beliefs.

To put it another way, all mathematical / logical systems need to have, as part of their *definition* core axioms (or assumptions) from which all else is deduced.

These axioms are simply believed to be true. In fact, if you chose the wrong axioms you can get poor results. Mathematics was *shattered* when Russell's paradox showed that one of math's core axioms led to a paradox.

FDChief said...


1. It's isn't a "belief" that nature is amenable to human understanding. It is a simple fact that nature - many parts of nature - have been unraveled by human understanding. We know that lightning isn't Jove's thunderbolt. We know that volcanoes aren't pissed-off Pele'. And the term "law of nature" is an anachronism and a literary term. We don't use that formulation. There are "laws" (such as "Newton's Laws of Motion") but that simple means a theory that has been tested so often and proofed that it has been effectively accepted as fact.

2. The way the natural world works in "realtime" - that is, outside of places like the event horizons of black holes and the initial nanoseconds of the Big Bang - does, in fact, appear to be consistent. Which is to say, that sulfur behaves as sulfur. Water as water. Entropy as entropy. To the extent that we can observe these processes and materials. That's not a "belief", that's a collection of observations.

3. "Occam's Razor" isn't a belif, it's a rubric, and it's used to separate various theora simply because as scientists we understand that while observation and testing are verifiable and concrete, explanations - theories - are not. We use the "simplest is best" as a way to sort out multiple working hypotheses.

And all this "mathematical" stuff...I think the core issue here is that you want to include mathematics in "science" which it's not. Mathematics is, at bottom, a form of fucking philosophy. Here's the Wiki entry:

"Mathematicians seek out patterns and use them to formulate new conjectures. Mathematicians resolve the truth or falsity of conjectures by mathematical proof. When mathematical structures are good models of real phenomena, then mathematical reasoning can provide insight or predictions about nature. Through the use of abstraction and logic, mathematics developed from counting, calculation, measurement, and the systematic study of the shapes and motions of physical objects. Practical mathematics has been a human activity for as far back as written records exist. The research required to solve mathematical problems can take years or even centuries of sustained inquiry."

That ain't "science". We use math in science...but mathematics, the pure study of mathematics, isn't a "science" and if you insist on using mathematics as your baseline then of course you're going to come to the conclusion that there are "beliefs" at the bottom of the hard sciences like biology, chemistry, and geology. But that is not, in fact, the case.

That's where the error is creeping in here, IMO...

FDChief said...

Thinking about it, I'd go even further.

You observe that "(m)athematics was *shattered* when Russell's paradox showed that one of math's core axioms led to a paradox." Which just reinforces my concept of math as not a science but a form of philosophy or dialectic.

Because geology had to deal with a similar massive revision in the latter part of the 20th Century with the publication of Tanya Atwater's work on plate tectonics and Harlan Bretz's on the Missoula Floods.

The bedrock, to use the term metaphorically, of geology since the 1800s was the idea of "uniformitarianism". The early geologists (largely British and American) had developed the hypothesis in the face of Biblical criticism; the idea was that processes now worked as they had always worked, so observing how processes work in the present was critical to interpreting geological evidence from the past - indeed, the key phrase was "The present is the key to the past."

This was opposed to "catastrophism", that postulated that "once upon a time" some immense (i.e. God-driven or God-created) event had worked so differently as to have produced everything we see in the geologic record.

If you want to call something a "belief" uniformitarianism was it. Because, the geologists of the day decided, otherwise we'd have to constantly fight off the Bible-belters claiming that thus and so was because of God scratching his ass.

So elaborate hypotheses were developed for things like the formation of mountains and plains that required slow, steady processes.

But, meanwhile, evidence was piling up that everything was NOT uniform. Wegener set out the notion of "continental drift" back in the teens to explain what we saw - things like palm trees in Antarctica and glacial till in equatorial Brazil - but that foundered on his inability to come up with a satisfactory driving mechanism. J. Harlan Bretz noticed immense fluvial features - giant ripple marks and immense point bars - on the Columbia Plateau.

If uniformitarianism was, indeed, a "belief" these people would have been branded heretics to the faith and driven out and, yes, there were many geologists who disagreed violently with them and argued against them.


Their hypotheses were correct, their observations meticulous, and their conclusions valid, and as it became increasingly obvious that plate tectonics WAS a valid explanation for the things Wegener and the others had seen, and that there WERE things like "giant floods" - not THE giant flood, but glacial outburst floods on an immense scale - the geologic community was NOT "shattered". They listened, pondered, and accepted that their initial explanations were wrong and adopted the better ones.

That's not a belief system. That's science, dammit, and that's the single biggest reason for the idea of NOMA. Gould is right, critically right, about that.