e + God Equals m Times c Squared

I Lost My Temper in the Comment Section of a Friend’s Blog

God Plays Yo-Yo with the Universe

God Plays Yo-Yo with the Universe

I have a friend from my early days as a Christian youth growing up in Hallock, Minnesota. I had looked to him as an extra-churchory adviser on matters related to prayer and integrating fun into the practice of everyday religion. I had lost touch with him after he graduated from high school.  Alden and I both shared a love of sixties rock music, and he assured me that a Christian needn’t trap his ears in the Christian music aural ghetto.  Mutually, our favorite secular band was The Guess Who, and I still remember late evenings singing the song “F-I-D-D-L-I-N-G” outside of a nearly-abandoned Baptist Church in Hallock.

It is a song that celebrates drinking and gambling.

Alden found me as the result of a blog post I wrote four years ago regarding the northern lights and their frequent appearances in northern Minnesota.  I mentioned his name because he had bragged to a pair of missionaries from the Baptist church to Hallock, and he said that “The northern lights practically live here.”  The funny part of the story was that in the two months that the missionaries spent in Hallock, the northern lights didn’t light.

Alden happened to be googling his name four years ago and found my post.

Over the years since then, Alden and I have traded friendly yet pointed barbs on each other’s blogs.  When I needed help desperately last fall, Alden was among those who generously answered the call.

Here’s the main point of our disagreement.  Alden is a strong Christian who thinks that modernism has had a disastrous effect on our culture and our individual abilities to determine the answers to important questions.  As an atheist, I am unable to see where religious belief and faith yield any sort of objective understanding of the nature of life and origins.  In his mind, I have succumbed to the prejudice of natural methodology, and in my mind, he is all too willing to accept the writings of anybody who displays a philosophical skepticism over the historical explanatory power of cosmology and evolution.

It may be that as the days stretched on without being able to blog at Tangled Up in Blue Guy, I was suffering withdrawal and was more likely to lash out at ludicrous and ill-informed attacks on the settled science of evolution.  It may be that he didn’t correct one of his peanut gallery commenter’s inane statements that “evolution is scientists’ subconscious way to deny the Living God that they hate” and that evolution wasn’t necessary for understanding biology in the seventies and that Skell is right that it is still unimportant.

I lost my cool and lashed out.

Steve, you just blew my irony meter.

How well do you then understand biology? Enough to get by?

What you both ignore is that the battle over evolution and religion was hashed out in the 19th century and evolution was unearthed and investigated by people who were creationists trying to prove the accuracy of the bible and the creation story. You should take the time to acquaint yourself with the full development of the theory before you start insulting the motives of people who have been unearthing nature’s secrets as some sort of justification for affirming their “hatred of the living god.”

It is just your sort of thinking and talking that drove me away from religion in the first place. If I have to suspend my disbelief in science so much so in order to practice religion, and if the things that religion teaches contradict what I can see with my own eyes, then religion loses out.

If Augustine wrote one thing that makes sense, then it is his statement that misstating the facts of the natural world in order to promote religion is a fool’s game.

Your continued denialism in the face of the evidence of evolution leads me to the conclusion that you will never be interested in anything that contradicts your “faith.” Instead you will continue to follow the lead of those who don’t understand that the process of science is a matter of investigation and not faith.

And Alden, I am still trying to figure out how a method of science that includes the supernatural is supposed to work in yielding objective information.

Finally, as to the accusation that scientists are only interested in protecting their money, power and authority; I would suggest that religion is lashing out on this issue because of its fear of losing hegemony.

I invite readers to to the full exchange over at Alden’s blog, because my intention is not to provide a rehash here at Quiche Moraine. In reference to Augustine, I had in mind this passage:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. (1 Timothy 1.7)

[Saint Augustine (A.D. 354–430) in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim) provided excellent advice for all Christians who are faced with the task of interpreting Scripture in the light of scientific knowledge. This translation is by J. H. Taylor in Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41.]

Evolution is not what turned me against religion. I was able to reconcile evolution with my faith. Honestly, I didn’t give it a lot of thought, this contradiction between faith and evolution. I knew for dang sure that the literal belief in the 6,000-year-old creation was not to be taken seriously, but a form of “guided evolution” was something I could accept until I started thinking more deeply about the role death, disease and starvation play in the development of a diverse tangled bank.

An Honest Transitional Fossil

An Honest Transitional Fossil

No, this ancient Christian philosopher got at least one thing right if nothing else. It was an insistence that religion should have prima nocta over any understanding of nature that finally drove me away. If it came down to a dispute over whether or not tiktaalik was a transitional fossil (which I can plainly see to be the case) or a denial that evolution is a valid historical science that yields current insights into the modern study of biology based on the religious authorities’ insistence that I should deny evidence, I would have to discard religion.

The progenitors of intelligent design creationism have clearly not thought through the theological implications of teaching their stance. By inserting an insistence that there is more to evolution than can be learned through the scientific method, and then by deliberately misstating science in ways that can be easily fact-checked, they are setting up a situation through which students will learn to distrust religious authority. By drawing a direct relationship from the natural methodology used to study evolution to atheism they are paving a road towards atheism for kids who might not otherwise have even considered it.

For me, the value of inserting religion into science is that we can see we are inserting an extraneous variable into our statistics and our mathematical equations. The formula most beloved by people who are interested in science is the famous “e = mc².”  It is useful in understanding the relationship between energy, mass and the conversion thereof.  It has been tested and verified through the observation of matter and light in the labs and in astronomy’s galactic lenses.

My friend insists that through denying the role of faith in understanding, modern scientific practice has limited itself.  By eliminating the role of the supernatural in science, modernism is unnecessarily stultifying my thinking and the thinking of those of us who are no longer open to a supernatural creator/designer.

When I look at the equation “e + God = mc²,” I see the same result as the equation “e = mc²,” and I don’t see the value of the extraneous variable “God” in explaining the relationship between energy and matter.  With the insistence of inserting that variable, creationists of whatever stripe are making things worse for their cause when the thinkers of tomorrow consider the implications of their folly.  They should leave science for science and stop meddling.  As an atheist, I should be happy that they are weakening their argument better than I possibly could on my own.

For my friend’s sake, I am actually a bit saddened.

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16 Responses to “e + God Equals m Times c Squared”

  1. March 2nd, 2009 at 10:50 am

    eric says:

    If only all Christians would be familiar with the teachings of St. Augustine.

  2. March 2nd, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Alden says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for the publicity! However, you continue to misstate my position a bit. I am not against science; in fact, the reason that I continue to debate this issue with you is that I really enjoy science. Although to be completely honest, my experiments nearly always failed and I don’t think I would have survived chemistry if it weren’t for the fact that my lab partner was Rosemary Jerome. But, that’s another matter.

    To use a classic example that I’m sure you’ll appreciate, let’s say we have a watch, and we want to find out how it works. It is, for the most part, irrelevant as to whether the watch was designed or not; we can still disassemble it and “see what makes it tick.” The method we use to examine the watch is more or less neutral; it is a tool. The only difference between us is the context in which we look at the watch.

    Just a couple of days ago in a debate with William Dembski, Michael Ruse (who, by the way, told Dembski that “The Design Inference” was a great contribution to science), stated that the design inference is not science because it does not lead to a naturalistic designer. This, to me, is incredible. Ruse seems to have forgotten that science is a method, not a philosophy. It is intellectual castration to limit possible outcomes due to your philosophy.

    I would not necessarily insert God into the formula, although it is always fair to consider that God may or may not have done something. That, of course, is outside of the methodology.

    What I am talking about is not inserting God into the method, but seeing the method in a larger context. I have a hard time seeing how your position is really any different than logical positivism, which is really no more than philosophical suicide. Even Sir Alfred Ayers, the father of logical positivism, admitted that the philosophy failed. It seems that the only people who carry on in this thinking are those who don’t see its internal inconsistencies.

    The method of science must be seen in some larger context; it is not the method that I challenge, but the larger context, which has direct implications as to how the method is used. Modernism, in its pure sense (if that is possible, seeing as it’s a hodge-podge worldview), holds to a mechanized, push-button, cause-and-effect view, as well as a naive belief in the inevitability of progress and a misplaced faith in man’s reason. (Modernism in practice, however, allows us to toss these out the window whenever we choose.) I think these three elements that I have named are wrong; they all have elements of truth, but in modernism they are universalized and misapplied.

    So, in a nutshell, I am not opposed to science per se; I am opposed to scientism (aka logical positivism), and the failure to see science in its proper philosophical context. My thoughts have evolved somewhat over the years as I continue to read and rethink things, and I assume that my thinking will continue to change. You have been extremely helpful in this regard, as I really doubt I would have read as much as I have on the issues (especially Dawkins!) without your inspiration.

  3. March 2nd, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I am starting, finally, to understand what you are getting at. However, I am still trying to figure out why you wish to allow Intelligent Design into the “science” mix.

  4. March 2nd, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Norm says:

    Interesting stuff. I’m going to send that Augustine quote to my sister who attends Northwestern College. Maybe she’ll take it to heart and quit bugging me about how evil evolution is.

  5. March 2nd, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    Lou FCD says:

    For the record, my personal favorite equation is C6H12O6 + 6O2 = 6CO2 + 6H2O + energy. (though it looks better with working sub tags)

    I love it so much, I can’t live without it.

  6. March 3rd, 2009 at 4:57 am

    Glendon Mellow says:

    For my 2 cents, I don’t think it sounded like you lost your cool, Mike. You never resorted to ad hominem attacks or liberally peppered your arguments with cussing. Your arguments were direct. Same as your opponents on the other side of the debate.

  7. March 3rd, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Unfortunately, she may try to turn it back on you using the false science she is learning at Northwestern.

  8. March 3rd, 2009 at 7:11 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Thanks for the inspiration. I am converting some to energy right now!

  9. March 3rd, 2009 at 7:13 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Thanks, Glendon. I do have to admit that I was much more upset than what shows in the reply. I wanted to use a stronger phrase than “jack all,” but held back.

  10. March 3rd, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Alden says:

    btw, I think Augustine himself would probably take issue with you on a number of issues.

  11. March 3rd, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    Alden,

    Ruse is more or less correct. The details are complicated but roughly speaking science can only talk about naturalistic entities because scientific hypotheses need to be falsifiable. It might help to read up on Karl Popper. Just because science can’t talk about something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Science is methodology, but it is a methodology that is by nature restricted to certain types of questions and answers.

    The more serious problem that theists needs to deal with is that this method has worked so well. Methodological naturalism works really well. It is very hard to explain why methodological naturalism works well without recourse to some form of philosophical naturalism. But this is a distinct issue from what questions science can ask or what answers science can accept.

  12. March 4th, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Admiral Allahu Ackbar says:

    “Modernism, in its pure sense (if that is possible, seeing as it’s a hodge-podge worldview), holds to a mechanized, push-button, cause-and-effect view, as well as a naive belief in the inevitability of progress and a misplaced faith in man’s reason.”

    I must not be a modernist, then. I do believe that effects usually have causes — I don’t understand vacuum fluctuation so I leave that open with “usually” — but I think emergence makes a “push-button” scheme insufficient for our understanding. I don’t believe that progress is inevitable and I don’t know anyone over the age of 20 who does; patriarchs and plutocrats have crushed progress many times throughout history and they may do so again before our species dies. I don’t think that human reason is infallible, rather, it is sufficient for survival in our evolutionary niche and that’s probably the best we can expect of it. Nor do correct ideas necessarily propagate; mental bulwarks like presuppositional apologetics serve emotional needs and as such may prove more popular than empiricism.

    But I suspect that, using a heuristic developed by interviewing walking, talking modernists and listening to what they actually believe, rather than relying on an evangelical handbook’s ungenerous categorical definition, I’m probably still a modernist. I don’t see the label as being of much use, though, given that it’s a very poor tool for predicting any individual’s beliefs.

  13. March 4th, 2009 at 1:31 am

    Admiral Allahu Ackbar says:

    How could I forget? The great use of the label is as a scare term to litter fundamentalist tracts, between “liberal feminist” and “socialist humanist,” or as a cultural shibboleth, by which my failure to reject the label tells you all you need to know about me.

  14. March 4th, 2009 at 11:03 am

    abb3w says:

    Joshua Zelinsky: The details are complicated but roughly speaking science can only talk about naturalistic entities because scientific hypotheses need to be falsifiable.

    Ummm… not quite exact. Scientific hypotheses need to be distinguishable from one another, and need to be competitively testable against each other.

    Formally, Science relies on the validity of Wolfram’s Axiom (or other equivalents) for Inference via Propositional logic, the defined relation of Existential to Universal Quantification to extend to Predicate logic, the self-consistency of joint affirmation of the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms (including Definition of the Empty Set, but independent of the Axiom of Choice), and the principle that Reality is Relatable to Evidence (synonymous with “experience”) with at most Recursively Enumerable formal complexity. Everything else (including the validity of the Experimental Method and the Principle of Cause-and-Effect) is inferences.

    The problem with saying science is limited to “naturalistic” entities is that it necessitates defining non-naturalistic entitites. Such definitions may be either Recursively Enumerable complex, in which case science applies, or they require asserting existence of a Hypercomplex (or higher) relationship. Positing hypercomplexity appears to preclude any resolution of either Hume’s Problem of Induction or even Sextus Empiricus’s Problem of Deduction. Hypercomplexity mathematically precludes finite Recognition, so you can’t even tell it if it bites you on the backside.

  15. March 4th, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    Ray Ingles says:

    Of course science can’t incorporate the ‘supernatural’. But that’s because of what ‘supernatural’ means. So far as I’ve ever been able to tell, the ‘supernatural’ is unknowable by humans – something forever beyond human ken, something we will never be capable of understanding.

    Think about the difference between the notion of the ‘powerful alien’ (a staple of science fiction) and the notion of a ‘god’ in a religion. What’s the essential difference between them? In the stories, they both do amazing, astonishing things. But a powerful alien is (ultimately, eventually) comprehensible – often in the story humans are able to figure out some way of duplicating its powers, or interfering with them, etc. Gods, though, are ‘supernatural’: beyond what humans can do, and there’s no point in trying to figure out why or how they do what they do.

    Think about the fact that once something’s understood, it’s not ‘supernatural’ anymore. Think about all the things that have been confidently declared to be supernatural that have turned out to be perfectly explainable and comprehensible. Early in human history, practically everything was considered to be the direct result of supernatural forces, but over time more and more things have moved to the ‘explainable’ column. (BTW, it’s worth pointing out that so far as I can see, nothing has ever moved the other way, from the ‘explainable’ to the ‘supernatural’ column…)

    But how can we, in practice, distinguish between something ‘currently unknown but comprehensible’ and something ‘forever unknowable’? From a practical perspective, the only way to tell which category something falls into is to try to understand it; if you succeed, then it was knowable. The problem is, if you fail, you can’t conclude that it’s unknowable. It might be… but it also might be the case that you just didn’t happen to figure out something knowable, and you or someone else might have better luck on a subsequent attempt.

    Accepting that there are things that we don’t know is not the same as accepting that there are things that we cannot, even in principle, know. As discussed above, the notion of ‘the unknowable’ adds nothing from a practical perspective. There is no way we can tell the difference between ‘something we can never understand’ and ‘something we can eventually understand but do not understand yet.’ We’ve seen plenty of cases where giving up on ever understanding something turned out to be unjustified.

    So far as I can see, accepting the ‘supernatural’ means, in effect, “I give up trying to understand this”.

  16. March 6th, 2009 at 5:14 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I am sure that he and I would find fewer things on which to agree than disagree.

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