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March 21st, 2019

Atheism: Not What You Think It Is

A friend on Facebook shared this, from of all places Scientific American…

Atheism Is Inconsistent with the Scientific Method, Prizewinning Physicist Says

In conversation, the 2019 Templeton Prize winner does not pull punches on the limits of science, the value of humility and the irrationality of nonbelief

I had to do a double-take when I saw the direction this came from, but then again this man is a well respected physicist and the sciences are just as diverse as any other crowd. Marcelo Gleiser, a 60-year-old Brazil-born theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College and a science popularizer. The article’s headline is a tad sensationalistic…the body of the article is mostly about a need for humility in science, and his evolution as a physicist. But there is a passage about atheism where he says 

“I honestly think atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. What I mean by that is, what is atheism? It’s a statement, a categorical statement that expresses belief in nonbelief. “I don’t believe even though I have no evidence for or against, simply I don’t believe.”…”

But this gets it entirely wrong.

This is mischaracterizing atheism as a positive declaration that there is no god. That’s a pretty common mistake and I suppose a lot of folks who call themselves atheists make it too. But then you’re boxed into the position of proving a negative and that’s how believers like to tie atheists in knots and how he gets to where he can say it’s inconsistent with the scientific method. But atheism is simply unbelief. And if declaring there is no god is unscientific then so is declaring there is when the evidence simply isn’t there.

I’ve written previously that in his book Science and Human Values Jacob Bronowski makes an excellent case for the moral values the practice of science teaches…that scientific method Mr.Gleiser says is atheism is inconsistent with. And it begins and ends with respect for what a fact is…

Theory and experiment alike become meaningless unless the scientist brings to them, and his fellows can assume in him, the respect of a lucid honesty with himself. The mathematician and philosopher W. K. Clifford said this forcibly at the end of his short life, nearly a hundred years ago.

If I steal money from any person, there may be no harm done by the mere transfer of possession; he may not feel the loss, or it may even prevent him from using the money badly. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself dishonest. What hurts society is not that it should loose it’s property, but that it should become a den of thieves; for then it must cease to be a society. This is why we ought not to do evil that good may come; for at any rate this great evil has come, that we have done evil and are made wicked thereby.

This is the scientist’s moral: that there is no distinction between ends and means. Clifford goes on to put this in terms of the scientist’s practice:

In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous.

And the passion in Clifford’s tone shows that to him the word credulous had the same emotional force as ‘a den of thieves’

The fulcrum of Clifford’s ethic here, and mine, is the phrase ‘it may be true after all.’ Others may allow this to justify their conduct; the practice of science wholly rejects it. It does not admit the word ‘true’ can have this meaning. The test of truth is the known factual evidence, and no glib expediency nor reason of state can justify the smallest self-deception in that. Our work is of a piece, in the large and in the detail; so that if we silence one scruple about our means, we infect ourselves and our ends together.

-Jacob Bronowski “Science and Human Values” 1956

But in the end Carl Sagan said it best:

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Science, as Richard Feynman once said, is just a way we have of not fooling ourselves. Where is the evidence for the existence of god? Where is the science? My atheism isn’t a reaction against religion. It’s one day I finally had to admit to myself that belief had stopped making sense to me. But I can be convinced. Perhaps one day I’ll find myself walking on Newton’s beach and pick up one of those prettier sea shells he spoke of and find God inside (oh…well there you are!). But at this point in my life I just don’t believe. I am not asserting a negative, I’m saying I don’t see the evidence and even the concept makes no sense to me anymore.

That isn’t unscientific. And more than that, it’s respecting my human identity and that of my neighbors. We are a thinking animal, we’ve benefited greatly in the struggle for survival from having minds capable of rational thought, and Bronowski also said that the state of mind and of society is of a piece, and when we discard the testing and verifying of facts, we discard along with that what it is to be human.

Your mileage may vary on the question and the evidence and that’s fine. And it’s true that some questions put to us can be frustratingly subjective. Details matter. Science can demonstrate that Pluto exists, but some folks might disagree as to whether or not it’s a planet. I happen to think “planet” fits little Pluto just fine but I’ll listen to arguments to the contrary…or at any rate Much Better ones than I’ve heard previously. What is God? What do we mean when we say we believe or not in God? What would William Jennings Bryan say? What would Albert Einstein? Frank Lloyd Wright had this wonderful saying, I believe in God but I spell it Nature. For a long time that was me, but at some point even that became untenable. It had just stopped making sense to me.

Maybe as the concept of God evolves and changes so does the concept of atheism. Maybe as atheists listen more to why believers believe, and to their understanding of God, atheists better understand what it means to not believe. Maybe some decide they’re actually agnostics. Maybe others eventually figure out that it isn’t actually about proving a negative, proving that there is no God, and that they really and simply just don’t believe.

And if even an eminently respected physicist says my atheism is contrary to the scientific method I think I’m rightly allowed to object. He needs to understand atheists a little better.

by Bruce | Link | React!

April 23rd, 2017

The Science Of Shadows And Light

I went to the March for Science in Washington D.C. More about that later. But I’m back home now, and the first thing I did naturally was offload my digital photos onto the network drive. I’ll put them into Lightroom in a bit and post a new photo gallery later. The rally was taxing enough on my sixty-three year old body that I had to bail out before the march actually happened, and retreat to my hotel room. But I got a bunch of good shots at the rally on the Washington Monument grounds so I’m happy.

Later, after my legs recovered a bit and I got some energy back, I took a dinnertime walk around D.C. and snapped off a few shots with the mini Hasselblad (Sony) of what was left of the march ephemera after all the crowds were gone and the streets were nearly empty and it was still drizzly because I’m a weird old fuck and I was in a gloomy mood just then. If you’ve seen my art photography here you know what was coming. And I wasn’t sure even as I was taking those shots whether or not I wanted to include them in a gallery of shots of the March for Science. What comes out of me at those times when I’m doing it for the pure art of it is pretty dark. I can see that photographic eye in everything I do and I don’t really like it. But it’s worse when I’m not working on a theme or an event. Then it’s the pure inner photographic eye that comes out. I was pretty sure none of that belonged in a gallery with the science march.

As I wandered, I found a street sign…one of those historical markers D.C. has been putting around town. This one told me the studio of Mathew Brady was nearby  on Pennsylvania Avenue, and that it was relatively unchanged from when he lived there. So I tried to find it just to nod in fellowship to whatever memories might still be lingering there…

Mathew B. Brady was one of the first American photographers, best known for his scenes of the Civil War. He studied under inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, who pioneered the daguerreotype technique in America. -Wikipedia

But of course it had no marking plaque or even a street number over the door so I’m still not sure I saw the right one. But something had drawn me there. Obviously since I’m at the March for Science, I count myself as a person  of science. But I am also an artist, and those two sides of me were excruciatingly difficult to reconcile when I was a teenager, until I read Jacob Bronowski’s little book, Science and Human Values.  I try to be rational about things, but there are moments when I feel moved by a spirit I have no name for. That was one of them.

I am not a camera, the camera is me. What comes out of it is me. But also what was actually there. The reality within and without. The cold grey drizzle. The nearly but not quite empty streets. What I saw. How it made me feel. In no other art are both those things quite that literally true. The photographic image is fixed by light entering the camera and it exists in a fixed time and place, but the what the photographer sees is within and timeless. Brady was the first to show us what war looks like via the camera’s unflinching deterministic eye. But it was also a mirror held up to ourselves. This too is human. In retrospect it was a perfect sort of serendipity being drawn to Brady’s studio that evening because probably no other art owes as much to science as photography. Chemistry, optics, the physics of light. The camera shows us what was there, and in the process tells us what it is to be human. Whether or not we want to know it.

 

Mathew_Brady_1875_sm

 

reflection-sm

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Science Of Shadows And Light

May 21st, 2015

Cheating Is When You Lie To Get What You Want

Arrogance is thinking you’re entitled to someone’s trust anyway.   This came across my Facebook stream just   now…

bush_arrogance

 

“And for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you. It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t have a conversation about it even.”

Never mind that the science regarding global warming is about as solid as it gets, here’s the thing about that. Jacob Bronowski in his magnificent book and BBC series on the history of science, The Ascent of Man, devoted an entire episode to the difference between truth and dogma, titled Knowledge or Certainty. He begins with the face of his friend, Stephan Borgrajewicz who, like himself, was born in Poland. And he asks us, how well, how precisely, can we describe this man’s face? He asks a painter to render it, and says…

“We are aware the these pictures do not fix the face so much as explore it; that the artist is tracing the detail almost as if by touch; and that each line that is added strengthens picture but never makes it final. We accept that as the method of the artist. But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge. There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition; and that is what quantum physics says. I mean that literally.”

Science, says Bronowski, “…is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. ”

The arrogance that Bush is accusing those of us to believe the science of isn’t about the measured, careful judgements of the evidence of global warming. The arrogance we’re being accused of is to even think that science can tell us things about our world, about our universe, that the dogmas of the mob he represents cannot. There are two sides to this argument and it is not over the science, It is an argument about the nature of knowledge. One side believes that knowledge is something that is received. The other, that knowledge is something that is discovered, and which can always be challenged and discarded as new facts emerge. Whether it is religious dogma or political dogma, the practice of science rejects wholly the belief that any knowledge is certain, absolute, and can never be questioned.

That is the arrogance Bush means: that we think we can question for ourselves what the pulpit, the party leadership, the corporate interests tell us is true, and reject it if the evidence does not support it. That is not arrogance though it may seem like it to the authoritarians. It is humility. It is understanding and accepting the human status, that the god’s eye view is not ours, not anyone’s, not humanity’s to have, that every prophet who says thou shalt not question is a false prophet, that our lot in life is we must always ask ourselves what do we know, and how do we know it.

Prove to us that our understanding of global warming is incorrect. And if you can’t then tell us what authority you would have us follow, who says the fate of the human race and planet earth is of less importance than our blind obedience.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Cheating Is When You Lie To Get What You Want

May 20th, 2015

The Center Of The Universe…It Is Not You…

Browsing Fred Clark’s Slacktivist blog today I see this…

First contact and ‘the great disillusionment’

The idea that there may be something new under other suns is nothing new under the sun.

That’s why I’m mostly just kind of meh about this Damon Linker piece and the other (semi-)recent posts James McGrath rounds up on the subject. Linker hits on several of the “challenges … to the world’s religious traditions” that first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life would introduce, but he misses the biggest one — the one explored by both Kepler and Wells. Kepler acknowledges the kind of questions Linker raises — “have they souls to be saved?” But then he quickly skips ahead to the more potentially devastating question: “Are all things made for man?”

That would be the Copernican shift in our theology forced by such an encounter. The main problem would not be that we would need to refine or reform how we think about God, but that we would have to completely upend how we think about ourselves.

Fred Clark is one of the most decent people you will read here on the Internet tubes. I could wish voices like his were heard more often in the popular culture. I was reading the other day one of the heavy hitters in the religious right arguing against the idea of other intelligent life in the universe, because of course the entire purpose of Creation was mankind. Okay I’m being a tad sarcastic about that, but not by much. And it reminded me of that day in the fields by a newly cut country road. It’s the same mindset.

I’ve told this story before, about the time when I was earning a living as an architectural model maker, and the shop owner I was working for at the time took his employees out to the countryside in late autumn to gather yarrow. Yarrow was a plant we used to make trees out of for the landscaping around our model buildings. At the end of a season the stalks were hard and the seed pods all dried up, and you could dip the pods in wood glue and sprinkle flocking (a finely shredded colored foam rubber) over them which made them look like little trees. Even better, you could then split the seed pods into smaller and smaller halves to get trees suitable for just about any scale you were working at.

So that day we all went to a place the shop owner, Ron, said was a likely place to find our quarry. Yarrow he told us, was very particular about where it grew in the wild. It had to be free of any shade trees or other competing bushes. It had to be open to the sky to allow lots of sun and rain. The best places he said, were where new roads had just been built, and the ground on either side cleared during construction. He had been scouting all summer for likely spots, and that day he led us to one. A new road that had just opened up county.

Ron was very much the devout fundamentalist. I had a job there because mom and I went to the same church he did for a time (I’d already left the church by this time, and mom eventually went elsewhere but stayed friends with Ron’s wife). Ron saw in my landscape paintings a talent he could put to use and despite the heavy air of religiosity in his shop I found I liked the work very much. He liberally scattered religious tracts all over the employee lunchroom, and held prayer sessions with his favorite, while the rest of us opted out for the safety of the shop and our work. I’ve written elsewhere about what he did to his gay son the day he came out to his family. I bring this up because of what happened that day we went yarrow hunting that I still vividly remember.

Ron passed out trash bags and told us to stuff them with every yarrow we could find. The bags would end up being stored in the attic space of his shop, and the contents used as needed for model landscaping. The idea was to get enough to tide us over until next fall.

So I wandered around looking for yarrow, and eventually my eyes got attuned to the shape of the things amidst all the other tall grasses we were wading through. I’d filled up one trashbag and was opening another when it occurred to me that I had no idea about the life cycle of these plants our workflow depended on. Might be a good idea I reckoned, to leave some behind so we’d have some next year. So I started leaving behind every third yarrow I came across. There was plenty there, so I figured we’d still get enough for another year’s work.

Ron came over and pointed out I’d missed some. I explained what I was doing and why. I’ll never forget the look he gave me. Not one of exasperation (I’d already seen enough of those…Ron had…anger management issues…), but…patience. He saw a teachable moment in it.

He nodded his head. “I see where you’re coming from,” he said to me kindly, “but God gave us these things to use.”

And so I was instructed to get the ones I’d missed and pick every one I saw. It was disheartening because I knew he’d check now that he knew what I’d been doing. So I shifted gears and picked more slowly hoping he’d eventually decide he had enough and we could go and some plants might be left behind. I was more naive back then. People like that aren’t deflected away from their missions so easily. He got every single one near as I could tell. He’d have had us all working until the next morning if there were that many more there to be had.

The universe was created Just For Us. So of course there can’t be any other intelligent life out there. And global warming is a socialist plot. Anything that makes you question exploiting  every last natural resource, or for that matter your human neighbor, is socialism. Beware the ideology that regards humanity as anything less than the masters of the earth. Well…second only to God almighty of course. Maybe.

Not every person of faith sees it that way. Remember that. I’m not sure that we’ll ever detect signs of intelligent life beyond Earth in my lifetime. I am certain of this: if Franklin Graham is alive to see it, he will insist they’re evidence that demons are real. That mindset is not disillusioned so easily.

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Center Of The Universe…It Is Not You…

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