The Amazing Meeting is Coming Up - Let’s Look at a Letter to The Editor

I’m very excited about being able to attend this year’s Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Amazing Meeting

is a celebration of skeptics and skepticism sponsored by the James Randi Educational Foundation. Thinking people travel the world to share a few days of learning, laughs and life with fellow skeptics and distinguished guest speakers.

Yup – a couple days listening to The Amazing Randi, Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller and others discuss logic, science, pseudoscience, magic, and critical thinking.  (OK – Teller won’t likely discuss anything.)  What could possibly be more fun?  Doing this in Las Vegas, that’s what.

So, on the eve of our departure to Vegas, I bring you this letter to the editor that appeared in this morning’s Mobile Press Register.  Now, while I am certainly not above poking fun at some of the minor aspects of life in the Deep South of the US, I am not presenting this as an example of what you may take as some sort of Southern Backward Thinking.  That, my friends, is a myth.  Instead, I believe this letter reflects a level of thought that commonly passes for logical debate and scientific understanding in a broad range of our society.  That it concerns itself with science and religion makes it interesting to me.  I’ll present the letter in its entirety, and then address some specifics after that.

Belief in God not a matter of Intellect

Here is a novel idea.  In a Dec. 27 letter to the editor, titled “A commission can study God’s role,” the writer said, “What the world needs now is another Baker Commission to study if God exists.”  The writer must have an exceptionally high opinion of the Baker Commission’s findings.

The writer also makes the bold claim that no living man, woman or child has seen or talked to God.  It would take an exceedingly wise person to speak so emphatically for all 6 billion people on this planet.  Humans can only see a small portion of the spectrum, which proves that just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Thousands speak to God daily.  It’s called prayer.

The assumption that there is no “logical evidence” that God exists is also an error.  Modern cosmology predicts that an expanding universe must have a beginning, and that requires that it have a “beginner.”  The creator must exist aside and apart from the universe he created and is not dependent on it for his existence.

These things are true and logical because of the law of cause-and-effect.  Whether you believe this first cause is the God of any of the religions of today is of no consequence.  Because of the obvious design in nature, logically the first cause, or creator, must be of superior intelligence.  Design implies intelligence.

Here’s the truth: No matter how many facts are presented, those who chose to believe will continue to believe and those that choose not to believe will not believe.  This is true because one’s relationship to God is not a condition of the intellect, or what one knows.  It is dependent on the condition of the heart, or what one believes.

RC
Wilmer, Alabama

 

Now let’s analyze this:

Here is a novel idea.  In a Dec. 27 letter to the editor, titled “A commission can study God’s role,” the writer said, “What the world needs now is another Baker Commission to study if God exists.”  The writer must have an exceptionally high opinion of the Baker Commission’s findings.

First, studying whether God exists isn’t a new idea, and neither is doing so by committee.  Google something like “Does god exist” for supporting evidence.

The writer also makes the bold claim that no living man, woman or child has seen or talked to God.  It would take an exceedingly wise person to speak so emphatically for all 6 billion people on this planet. 

It’s quite possible the writer read his Bible.  In Exodus 33:20 the Lord clearly states that no one can see him and live.  Also, John 1:18 is pretty emphatic that no one has ever seen God.  At best, these statements are simply evidence of the self-contradictory nature of the Bible – a common trait in human literature, though somewhat unexpected in one’s holy texts.  At worst, these statements are simply wrong (or lies) and the Bible again becomes fiction.  Somewhere in the middle are the claims that these statements are misinterpreted.  Really?  How do we misinterpret something like, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only Begotten who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”  Any person of faith should rightly believe that the writer’s claim is not so bold after all.

Humans can only see a small portion of the spectrum, which proves that just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

This argument is illogical.  Indeed, it falls prey to the logical fallacy known as the “fallacy of four terms”.

The argument has the form:

Humans cannot see all of the spectrum
The portion of the spectrum we cannot see exists.
Therefore God exists.

The fallacy arises from the fact that the terms in this argument – Humans, the spectrum, and existence – appears in both premises, but there is no mention of God until the conclusion.  In this argument, there is no connection from either of the premises to the fourth term, God, which makes the argument invalid.  This argument also appears of reach an irrelevant conclusion, which is another logical fallacy in which the proposition supported by the argument is actually something other than that which it appears to support.  In this argument, a proper conclusion would be that Humans cannot see all that exists, which is a long way from saying that God exists.

Thousands speak to God daily.  It’s called prayer.

That’s likely an great underestimation of the number of people who pray daily.  Even so, the fact that people pray isn’t proof that God exists.  Does speaking into a phone prove that someone is listening on the other end?  (This may be a bad example in the US, but the NSA can’t be everywhere, can they?)

The assumption that there is no “logical evidence” that God exists is also an error.  Modern cosmology predicts that an expanding universe must have a beginning, and that requires that it have a “beginner.”  The creator must exist aside and apart from the universe he created and is not dependent on it for his existence.

These things are true and logical because of the law of cause-and-effect.  Whether you believe this first cause is the God of any of the religions of today is of no consequence. 

This is not entirely true.  It is true that one can create a logical argument for the existence of God.  Here’s one:

The universe exists.
God created the universe.
Therefore, God exists.

Of course, a logically valid argument isn’t the same thing as scientific evidence.  This argument, as any syllogism, relies on the truth of the first two premises.  We can probably agree that the universe exists and isn’t some sort of illusion, so the truth of the first premise is probably established.  It’s that second one that hangs up everyone.  If you’re a person of faith, then you accept it as true, and the argument holds.  If you’re a scientist, then the absence of any corroborating physical evidence that God created the universe puts the whole argument on shaky ground.

Now, as far as cosmology and causality are concerned, there are a few problems here.  It’s true that most scientists accept the notion of time’s arrow, and an expanding universe.  Indeed, much thinking about causality seem to match our subjective experience – that is, that for every effect, there is a cause.  Unfortunately, classical notions of causality were upset in 1927, when Werner Heisenberg presented his famous paper about the uncertainty principle:

In the sharp formulation of the law of causality—“if we know the present exactly, we can calculate the future”-it is not the conclusion that is wrong but the premise.
—Heisenberg, in uncertainty principle paper, 1927

Indeed, modern cosmology is informed by Quantum Mechanics, in which the so-called “Law of Cause and Effect” doesn’t always apply as we expect.  From this, our personal experience with causality may have nothing at all to do with causality in the early universe.

The creator must exist aside and apart from the universe he created and is not dependent on it for his existence.

I took this out of context because it actually speaks about something that exists outside the context of our existence.  If it were true that something can exist outside the universe, as RC claims of God, then there is no reason to expect that something to be bound by any laws of physics, or space-time, or causality that exist within the universe.  In addition, there be no reason to expect that something to be able to interact with the universe – or any of it’s occupants in any way.  Furthermore, as a being “aside and apart” from the universe, it’s unclear that any of us within the universe could actually interact with it since it’s on the outside.  In many ways, this is similar to the classic problem of Cartesian Duality, in which the Body and Soul are seen as distinct entities, each governed by their own rules.  The problem, of course, is of interaction:  Is it possible for things that are bound by physical laws to interact with things that are not so bound – assuming they even exist? 

 

Because of the obvious design in nature, logically the first cause, or creator, must be of superior intelligence.  Design implies intelligence.

Here, RC confuses complexity with design.  Nature is complex, and this doesn’t imply anything concerning its origin.  While it’s true that design implies intelligence, it’s not true that the complexity of nature implies a designer.

Here’s the truth: No matter how many facts are presented, those who chose to believe will continue to believe and those that choose not to believe will not believe.  This is true because one’s relationship to God is not a condition of the intellect, or what one knows.  It is dependent on the condition of the heart, or what one believes.

RC
Wilmer, Alabama

This part made the most sense to me.  It is true that those who believe will continue to do so in the presence of contradictory facts.  They will continue to believe when their arguments are shown to be flawed, or simply dead wrong.  Ultimately, faith clearly defies reason.  So all I want to know is why a person of faith would even attempt to couch what is, at its core, an irrational set of beliefs within any sort of logical conceptual framework?  This is unnecessary for the faithful.  I respect the faithful that embrace the illogic of their beliefs much more so than those that attempt to make rationalizations for them.  You don’t need reason – accept it.

More likely, it seems, in the few centuries since the advent of modern Rationalism and Empiricism, the faithful are necessarily becoming increasingly adept at logic and rational thought.  Armed as they are, this may lead to some self-examination, from which I would expect a certain measure of cognitive dissonance.  Better then to deny the evidence, look past facts, and keep on writing those letters to the editor.

Reposted from The Smug Baldy Speaks

 

21 thoughts on “The Amazing Meeting is Coming Up - Let’s Look at a Letter to The Editor

  1. From http://deerimbaud.blogspot.com/2005_10_01_deerimbaud_archive.html

    “If you speak to God you’re praying. If God speaks to you, you’re schizophrenic”

    Aynway…

    RC: The creator must exist aside and apart from the universe he created and is not dependent on it for his existence.

    He could well be dependant on the universe for his own existance and vice versa – it would replace the unsatisfactory termination arguements of ‘physics existing because of god and god existing for no reason’ or ‘god exists because of physics and physics exists for no reason’, with something more self-explaining. In fact the laws of physics themselves could depend on each other to exist whether god is factored in or not.

    Article: Indeed, modern cosmology is informed by Quantum Mechanics, in which the so-called “Law of Cause and Effect” doesn’t always apply as we expect

    Look up Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle for where uncertainty comes into quantum mechanics. This originally seemed like just a result of speed changing (by absorbing energy) when you tried to shine light on it to measure it’s speed, but it appears to be an actual rule of existence too because it implies nothing can be completely static – because then both it’s position and speed will be exact, and Particle in a box theory also says you cannot have zero energy because the 0th harmonic has 0 amplitude.

    What the uncertainty principle allows is the position of the outer electron of an atom to momentarily change, resulting in a change of the atom’s shape. Now when atoms, ions or molecules collide it’s like billiards, only if you momentarily change shape immediately before colision you can control the angle and possibly momentum it moves with after impact, my idea is that micromanagement of collisions may be a mechanism for an external consciousness to control charge build up (ion positions) in the brain.

    The uncertainty principle’s possible openness to manipulation may be where god comes in because god cannot do anything directly chemical without violating physics, but this is a way of controlling position and hence putting a leash on entropy, a statistical property that applies very much to chemistry.

  2. I’m envious!  I wish I could attend the Amazing Meeting too.  I got to spend some time with Randi at a party recently, but it’s just not the same as a real conference in Las Vegas.

  3. Quantum Physics explained:
      Imagine a box with two holes.  You push the end of a wooden stick through one hole and out of the other hole comes a flower.  No one really seems to be able to explain exactly what happens to create this phenomenon, but there are plenty of theories.  I’ve tried to listen to them, but every time I do, their words are drowned out by a persistant whine behind my eyes.

  4. It is true that one can create a logical argument for the existence of God.  Here’s one:
    The universe exists.
    God created the universe.
    Therefore, God exists.

    That is formally known as ‘begging the question’.  The argument assumes the existence of God in the second clause, then concludes that God does exist.  Begging the question, dinosaur style.
    Other than that, great post and have fun in Vegas!

  5. DWangerin: That is formally known as ‘begging the question’.  The argument assumes the existence of God in the second clause, then concludes that God does exist.  Begging the question, dinosaur style.
    Other than that, great post and have fun in Vegas!

    In the spirit of this year’s The Amaz!ng Meeting (TAM), where the topic was Skepticism and the Media, I want to remind all of us that nobody should get a free pass with regard to the validity or correctness of their arguments – even, or maybe especially, if those arguments tend to support our own views.  In that same spirit I happily accept your correction, DW.  Good catch.

    I got back from TAM pretty late last night, and I’m putting together a post about it while I catch up on other work.  There were several really compelling talks, and some pretty funny shit as well.

  6. I’m looking forward to it Michael. I appreciate you keeping us informed.

    One of these years when I’m in a stable job I’m going to try to make it to one of the TAMs myself.

  7. Les: One of these years when I’m in a stable job I’m going to try to make it to one of the TAMs myself.

    It’s certainly worth attending at least once.  There was an announcement that the next TAM will likely be held in June 2008 or so to allow more educators to attend.  Prior to that, there will likely be a one day mini-TAM next January in Ft. Lauderdale, FL for those that absolutely cannot go 18 months without their regular skepticism fix.

    Watch the James Randi Education Foundation site for more info.

  8. Michael’s argument is okay. However, I yet to see conclusive evidence that said “exterior” being absolutely can not interact with the universe.

    I see flaws in arguments on both sides. The “faithful” can’t absolutely prove that God exists, and science can’t absolutely prove that God doesn’t exist. All his points show that there is no 100% evidence of gods existence, however, where is his counter argument or 100% evidence that there is no God?

    Science doesn’t approve or negate a theory until there is evidence to support one side or the other. I appreciate Michael’s arguments against the complexity of nature meaning God has to exist, but I see nothing in his argument to support the contrary.

  9. I see flaws in arguments on both sides. The “faithful” can’t absolutely prove that God exists, and science can’t absolutely prove that God doesn’t exist. All his points show that there is no 100% evidence of gods existence, however, where is his counter argument or 100% evidence that there is no God?

    The burden of proof rests with the faithful. Too bad for them that science doesn’t support their dogma.

    Required reading: Dawkin’s The God Delusion wink

  10. eric: I see flaws in arguments on both sides. The “faithful” can’t absolutely prove that God exists, and science can’t absolutely prove that God doesn’t exist. All his points show that there is no 100% evidence of gods existence, however, where is his counter argument or 100% evidence that there is no God?

    I think the two approaches of science and religion try to approach the same thing from opposite ends, and I’m not sure they will ever meet in the middle because if we are unable to observe the dimensions that may contain an afterlife; then we cannot find the link between dimensions that there would need to be if we did continue existing elsewhere after, this is because we would only be observing the physical end of things.

    I think it’s helpful to question why the first thing to ever exist came into existence, whether that be the matter of the big bang or some form of conciousness – perhaps it’s only reason to have existed was ‘because it could’ – it had positive probability in an infinite multiverse so it’s occurance was guaranteed at some point

  11. Eric: I see flaws in arguments on both sides.

    There’s a slight difference between flaws in the logic and reason of science on the one side, and the in the logic and reason of faith in the existence of God on the other side.
    I apologise if that sounded sarcastic.  smile

    Please name a flaw in the argument used to support faith and belief in the existence of God.
    I would be very interested.

  12. eric: Science doesn’t approve or negate a theory until there is evidence to support one side or the other.

    This is half true – science doesn’t actually “approve” theories as I believe you’re implying.  Since the scientific method is an inductive process, it cannot actually prove anything. Science can provide supporting evidence for theories – like evolution the big bang.  On the other hand, science is really good at disproving bad ideas – like the notion that the earth was created in 7 days, or that humans lived contemporaneously with dinosaurs, or there was a flood that covered the entire earth a few thousand years ago.

    eric: All his points show that there is no 100% evidence of gods existence, however, where is his counter argument or 100% evidence that there is no God?

    Let me be clear about 2 things. 

    First, rather than something approaching 100%, there is instead exactly 0% evidence of god’s existence.  Neither scripture, nor theological ramblings, nor the beauty of a snowflake, nor the complexity of quantum field theory, nor absolute certainty of the vast multitude of believers qualifies as evidence.  There isn’t any.  None.  Never was.

    Second, when the conversation moves out of the realm of magic and enters the realm of evidence, the burden of proof is on the religious, not on the skeptic, to prove their position. 

    If I were to claim that a giant flying spaghetti monster created the universe in just one day, which is way faster than your average god, any sane, reasonably skeptical person might rightly respond with, “Prove it.” 

    But instead of proof, I quip, “No no, it’s an article of my faith.  You need to prove me wrong.”  At that point, my position is exposed as the irrational, intellectually cowardly evasion that it is. 

    The faithful should never look to science to support their beliefs, because they’ll always be frustrated by how the scientific method doesn’t care how pretty your snowflake is.  Instead, it shows you how you can get really pretty snowflakes naturally, without resorting to the intellectual crutch of invoking an invisible man in the sky.

  13. I agree that science doesn’t exist to support or negate religion. However, my point is that arguments on either side come down to belief in something that can not absolutely be proven.

    Michael says that “the burden of proof” is on the faithful. Well, in talking with the faithful, they argue that the “burden of proof” is on the unfaithful. Interesting, both sides use this statement to support their view…

    With this, we arrive back to my origional point, both sides completely believe in their positions, but neither side can prove their position. Shall the circular argument contine?

  14. If religion was true, it would need to be linked to science in order for any interaction, hence there would need to be a link. If we only see one end of it, we wouldn’t be able to make the connection (not seeing the other end) but would nethertheless observe the consequences of the interaction. Interaction by necessety breaks thermodynamic laws in science (namely entropy) but that doesn’t mean that it cant be done – when nobody’s looking (and hence unprovable) – it could be intended that the universe looks like it could exist without god – you can think about something in more levels if you are unaware of it’s existence – it makes you think why things should be that way, but then again, this is only an extrapolation on a possibility. One possible route of violating entropy through large scale micro-manipulation would be via the hiesenburg uncertainty principle – controlling colision paths of atoms/molecules by controlling the position of their valence electrons (and hence shape) immediately prior to collision, but his is again an unprovable possibility

  15. Eric, you have to try a lot harder.

    First, it wasn’t Michael who said what you are misquoting.

    Second, what little point you have is based on a false dichotomy, i.e. that there are only two kinds of people—the faithful who make the positive claim that deities exist and the unfaithful who positively deny that any deities exist.

    Third, even if somebody positively denies the existence of deities, the faithful are not relieved of their own burden of proof.

    The faithful persist in making a claim that science doesn’t substantiate. If anything, science supports that religion is man-made and evolved over the millenia.

  16. science supports that religion is man-made and evolved over the millenia.

    You use the term science loosely when talking about social science as one.

  17. Consi opines:

    You use the term science loosely when talking about social science as one.

    Do you say that because you don’t like what the social sciences often have to discover?  wink

  18. I gave up a long time ago trying to figure out why some people still believe in sky daddies.  Some people want something to explain those things that they don’t know, and some people need the false reassurance that when they die that they will go to ‘heaven’.  Some other people also like the idea that bad people are going to “hell”.

  19. Consi: You use the term science loosely when talking about social science as one.

    Why don’t you offer your definition of a scientific discipline, explain the differences and commonalities between social science and physics, say, and explain where the looseness comes into play?

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