The Interloper

Science Is a Dirty Bastard

What is the meaning of life?  Where is our purpose?  Why are we here and what are we supposed to do?  Where did we come from and what will follow us when we are gone?  Why am I such a lowly worm and a sinner?

In my favorite episode of My Three Sons, Chip Douglas wants to join a club that his friends have started.  They cook up a series of tasks for him to complete for his initiation, and when he completes his tasks they will teach him the “dirty little secret.”  He is dying of curiosity, so no matter how absurd the tasks, his dogged determination carries him through so that he can reach the Holy Grail of the “dirty little secret.”

Chip finally completes the last task and goes to his friends and says “Okay, I’m in.  What’s the dirty little secret?”  They laugh and tell him that “The dirty little secret is that there is no dirty little secret.”

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno

And that, my friends, is the mystical meaning of life.  There is no dirty little secret, no hidden answer “42.”  It rains on the just and the unjust alike. I am not a sinner, nor a lowly worm.  The purpose of “purpose” is to puzzle us, to urge us to try to discern the secrets as a great pastime, inspiring wonder at the world around us.  A deep desire to understand the “why” of the cruelties of fate (or the blessings of good fortune) is born of a curiosity that drives us on through our tasks.  If we just keep on searching for answers to our questions, eventually our gods will give us the 411 on life.  Or something will.

I was out having a conversation with a guy who calls himself an “atheist, mostly” because he doesn’t accept the Christian/Jewish/Muslim concept of God.  Nor does he accept the gods of mythology.  He does, however, think that there is more out there that we don’t yet perceive through our physical senses.  He bases his belief on the shared experiences of humanity encountering ghosts and other unexplainable phenomena.  He has decided that if so many people have reported supernatural phenomena for centuries, there must be some basis in fact.   I didn’t laugh at him, but I did explain to him that I had experienced some weird things myself.  I explained to him that when I looked back at them, I could find a plausible and natural explanation for each.

That’s how it is with the appearance of design in nature, and it’s the appearance of design that leads to the illusion of purpose.  The biological cell is incredibly complex, with multitudes of cooperating organelles and structures.  The process of creating copies of DNA and from there, mapping out the structure of proteins (which then fold in the most efficient structure possible to carry out their tasks), well it’s all just too complex to develop without the guidance of a planner.

If the Planner is capable of such wondrous processes as meisosis and mitosis (and sex), then the Planner must be in control of Purpose and our lives thus have meaning beyond that which we can see, touch, taste, smell and hear.  Religion, in this context, makes a great deal of sense.  It provides answers to the question of purpose.  Follow a path and gain enlightenment and/or eternal life in the Planner’s Presence.

Unfortunately, the answers provided by religion aren’t all that satisfactory, because they don’t provide any means to verify or test the answers.  The answers are based on authoritative declarations from the writings and thoughts of learned people who have analyzed the works of other learned people. The answers are based on the pronouncements of a priestly class who lay claim to a source that we can’t access (unless we have a faith strong enough to believe them despite contrary evidence).

Science steps in and looks at the processes of nature and shows us how to tease apart the secrets of their workings, slowly and carefully and with missteps along the way.  The missteps are readily acknowledged and re-examined.  The successes are retested to make sure they closely approximate (within a high confidence interval) the truth.  Then they are once again examined as new questions arise that cast doubt on the answers.

The problem with science is that it doesn’t provide comforting authority.  It never promises the “truth” of anything, just progressively more useful descriptions.  The result of scientific methodology is often more uncertainty, and that is not comforting to those of us who believe in absolute answers.  This will never do, and from this uncertainty comes for some faith that we can still practice the ritual and pray and get the answer we have been promised.  Science and religion are in a pas de deux, but they are constantly stepping on each other’s toes.

If science can’t produce comforting authority then what is it good for?  It is good for disproving assumptions, is what it is good for.  It has been good at disproving the “certain knowledge” that race is a valid biological construct.  It has been good at disproving the the “certain knowledge” that complex structures such as avian vision can’t develop in stages (half an eye).  It has been good at disproving the “certain knowledge” that there was a global flood 4,500 years ago.  It has been good at disproving the “certain knowledge” that the universe and all of its contents can only have been produced by an intelligent actor.

If, then, religion depends on a creator in order to provide a purpose to life, what happens when that creator is no longer a necessary function in the life equation?  Religion steps back in and says it can still help find purpose because science is limited to a natural methodology, whereas through faith there are “other ways of knowing” and science can’t approach those other ways.

Of course, as an atheist, I can look at the pathetic claims to “other ways of knowing” and scoff.  I acknowledge that I have been using very general terms and examples, and in my examples I allow religion to be relatively harmless.  It is a concept that claims an authority it cannot have.  I could simply sit back and say “Well, if some people want to believe, then that’s their business” and I could leave it at that.  With that, I could be just as accommodating as Josh Rosenau or Chris Mooney or Chad Orzel, and then I could whistle on my way nonchalantly.

My problem is that I am not content to leave it at that.  I didn’t become an atheist because of science; it was a slow realization that I was not born a lowly worm.  I was not born dependent on the sacrifice of a man-god and his resurrection in order to gain “salvation.”  I realized that I had no overriding purpose to uncover; I was not born to any certain fate.

I learned that as religion lost its explanatory power on the workings of nature, it clung to its power of redemption and salvation, and these are problems that it created so that it could provide the solution.  I’ll drop the generality of religion and address my specific objection to Christianity.  I was taught that at birth I carried the sin of Adam and Eve and that I needed to practice certain rituals or pray certain prayers to be cleansed of the sin that I never committed.  I needed baptism, confession and contrition to access the creator. In another version of Christianity I needed to be “born again.”  I could never be good enough for the creator on my own, being human.  And being human, I was condemned to be separate from the creator unless I chose the right way to accept redemption.

I am not a sinner.  I have done bad things, but I am not a sinner.  The sin for which I am supposed to be supplicating forgiveness was a sin committed by someone else.  I just couldn’t buy into the idea that I was born evil and unable to become good on my own.

I dropped Christianity.  That was when I ran into the objection that I couldn’t explain origins without God, and therefore I am foolish to be an atheist.  What I find humorous is that when I explain that scientific methodology has disproven the notion of a necessary supernatural designer, or planner, then I am also told that God is “not an explanation for origins, God is inseparable from Creation.”  The goalposts are continually shifted.

And finally, I arrive at my point.  The organizations fighting (thanks to all of you!) to achieve acceptance of solid education in subjects scientific, are bowing first to the demands of religion to say, “But this shouldn’t harm your faith.”  They are granting privilege to religion that it doesn’t deserve, while the defenders of religion are demanding that science conform to faith.   By giving in to this demand, the defenders of science forget that the process of science is an interloper into the security blanket of cherished, certain knowledge.  Science is a dirty bastard, because it doesn’t confirm the answers we want.

In advancing science education, scientists should not accede to such demands to accommodate religious fear of becoming less and less relevant.  What they should instead do is explain the science and let religion and the religious deal with their own issues regarding the implications of the discovery of how nature works.

They’re grownups. they can handle it.

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16 Responses to “The Interloper”

  1. June 29th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Alden says:

    Actually, science isn’t an interloper. The scientific method was born in the midst of the Roman Catholic Church, and much of the anti-science attitudes blamed on the historical church are mythological. Of course, today we have fundamentalism to deal with, but I consider them an anomaly in the context of the whole church.

    Also, science has still not come up with a reasonable theory of origins of either the universe or of life, not that it matters. As I’ve said before, science explores – to oversimplify – how things work. Occam’s Razor doesn’t preclude God (and, as many know, the argument was developed to make the opposite case from how materialists use it today).

    Then, of course, we have the issue of the validity of science itself, whether it is capable of dealing with origins, and whether it can stand as an authority at all. Philosophically, science fails. It is a very useful tool, but with limitations. This is especially true when dealing with issues of religion, which deals with issues outside the realm of science. And, of course, science has no authority to claim there is nothing outside of the material world.

    Either way, you are left with having to make a Kierkegaardian leap – either based on the whole of your experience (including emotions, etc.), or based on your presumed intellect alone (but I would argue that such objectivity is humanly impossible). Even choosing an “authority” – whether science/intellect or a religion – requires such a leap.

    Most “normal” Christians (and I’ll even use the term “normal” generously) do not expect science to “conform” to faith; however, science also has no authority to demand that religion conform to science.

  2. June 29th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    NewEnglandBob says:

    I apologize for responding to you over at Coyne’s blog before reading here first. I was ready to respond as I read each part of this piece until you responded to each in the next part and I enjoyed your thought process (and presumably your philosophical evolution). I particularly enjoyed your last two large paragraphs but the final small one – I have my doubts that they act like grownups and whether they can handle it – since leaving the comfort of a supernatural parent is very difficult for many people.

  3. June 29th, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Theo Bromine says:

    Science is about reality, about *what is*. Religion is either real or imaginary. If it is real, it must be subject to scientific and logical analysis, just like any other claim about life, the universe, and everything. The world, as I perceive it, is consistent with an uncaring universe without purpose or cause. It is not at all consistent with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity. Nor is there any evidence of my personal existence outside my physical body – no mind without brain, no evidence of anything that could qualify as a soul.

  4. June 29th, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    It was okay, I chose the excerpt I did as a tease.

  5. June 29th, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Mike W says:

    “Most “normal” Christians (and I’ll even use the term “normal” generously) do not expect science to “conform” to faith; however, science also has no authority to demand that religion conform to science.”

    Religion doesn’t even conform to religion.

  6. June 29th, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Then, of course, we have the issue of the validity of science itself, whether it is capable of dealing with origins, and whether it can stand as an authority at all. Philosophically, science fails. It is a very useful tool, but with limitations. This is especially true when dealing with issues of religion, which deals with issues outside the realm of science. And, of course, science has no authority to claim there is nothing outside of the material world.

    If God crossed our paths again after all these years, as you once suggested, you may want to pray for some better material to work with than this.

    Science is process that :provides objective, testable analysis of data and observation. Religion, not so much. We should revisit Paine someday. Your personal revelations have little value to me if I don’t share them.and are as applicable as a teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars. Yes, science has limitations, and its practitioners are cognizant of and respectful towards those limitations. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that point, but as far as tracing the origins of life or for that matter the origins of the universe, it would take an extraordinary discovery to destroy the the theories of abiogenesis or the big bang. The Gospel of John is not able to do that.

  7. June 30th, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Lorax says:

    Just a quick note (Ill try to add a more substantive comment or my own post later). There is much flowing through the blogosphere regarding science faith compatibility and what not, now Mike goes and throws out “Original Sin” as a discussion point! Like I don’t have enough to have angry opinion about!

    Anyway, I wanted to mention that Im currently reading Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem.” Its about the issue of suffering and the biblical explanations for it. Im about half-way through, but its a tremendous read which I highly recommend. (At least the first half, the second half may suck, which of course will just piss me off, but I doubt it.)

  8. June 30th, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Sorry! 🙂 I just liked your response at Thorny’s site. Thanks.

    (Alden isn’t a fan of Ehrman.)

  9. June 30th, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Crudely Wrott says:

    Science, in the sense that it has existed over the last handful of centuries, probably is up to the task of explaining origins. This is predicated on two things. 1) That the example set by science in terms of explaining natural mystery, in elegant if not excruciating detail, is continuously supported by current and future discoveries and, 2) That sufficient evidence and experimental results prove as dependable as that which supports Ohm’s Law, Boyle’s Law and Murphy’s Law.

    Should science pull of such a tour de force it would still be unable to address any notion of purpose or of some deeper, more inscrutable, origin. For lack of evidence, wouldn’t you know?

    And that’s the name of that tune.

  10. June 30th, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    peter says:

    “and much of the anti-science attitudes blamed on the historical church are mythological”

    I wonder what Kepler, Giardono Bruna and Galileo among others would say to that bold statement.
    The church, especially the catholic church, was always more concerned with dogma and the power of the holy sea than any truth to be arrived at from observation. The church for centuries despised and tried to throttle any attempts that were made to overcome the accepted usually non evidential Aristotelian “science”.

    “science also has no authority to demand that religion conform to science.”

    You are right, as long as religion does NOT make statements as to topics that clearly are statements as to the origin of the Universe, natural phenomena etc. If religion does that, then religion develops a hypothesis that clearly can be tested and falsified. Religion is an interloper into science and should be rudely put into its proper place.

    “Philosophically, science fails”

    I say philosophy fails, as it is quite often based on non-testable presumptions that have very little to do with what science can describe as reality.

    “And, of course, science has no authority to claim there is nothing outside of the material world.”

    Where is your evidence but some cobbled together books now called the bible. What about the claims of hinduism, daiosm, shamanism etc? What is the evidence that grants the exceptional status of christianity being “right” while all others are wrong? I see no evidence for any of the supernatural claims, nor do see I any evidence of a morality superior to one that could be arrived at by following Kant’s categorical imperative. I therefore conclude for myself that all religions make claims based not in observable reality but are asking to believe completely unfounded assumptions based on a supernatural world conflicting with each other.
    As there is no evidence for anything supernatural but some statements in fusty old books, that proclaim the same “untruth” about the natural world for centuries without the chance of improving the word of god (who should have known better from the beginning when he dictated nonsense to his whoever “chosen” people), science can surely say:
    As there is no evidence whatsoever for any of the claims thereof, we can with a high probability say that anything supernatural, as claimed by religions, does not exist.

  11. June 30th, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    @Crudely Wrott – Well played.

    @Peter – Smack Down!

  12. July 1st, 2009 at 12:17 am

    Alden says:

    Peter, you’d better re-read your history. And, read a bit of theology while you’re at it. I am no supporter of the Roman Church – however, the Galileo-church story is mostly myth. A lot of people – including those considered scientists – were upset about any challenge to the Aristotelian order of things. Foolish, in my opinion, but there you have it. And, by the way, most religion does concern itself with origins.

    Mike, once again I am talking about basic philosophy, which science depends upon whether anyone likes it or not. (lousy sentence structure, but you know what I mean.) I am not talking personal revelation. Science does have limitations, but unfortunately, many do not understand what they are.

    You folks put a lot of faith in testable assumptions. However, your assumptions about the validity of science, etc., or as Loftus calls them, core beliefs, are themselves not testable. You must make the leap just like everyone else.

    And, look up the definition of “evidence.” There is tons of evidence, you just narrow your definition to exclude it.

  13. July 1st, 2009 at 1:11 am

    Greg Laden says:

    science has still not come up with a reasonable theory of origins of either the universe or of life

    Huh? What?

  14. July 1st, 2009 at 9:42 am

    IBY says:

    Yeah, Galileo pissed off the pope with his book, and generally, he was a very unpleasant man, but that doesn’t justify the pope’s attempt to censor his works. Nor is it a myth that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for spreading ideas that were different from the status quo.

  15. July 1st, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Theo Bromine says:

    Quoth Alden: There is tons of evidence, you just narrow your definition to exclude it.

    My standard for evidence is that those who present it are not allowed to retreat into question-begging arguments when that evidence is challenged.

    Alden: according to Mike you are not a fan of Ehrman. Yet, he is very familiar with the conventional evidence for God and in favour of Christianity, and has come to his conclusions by studying that evidence. “God’s Problem” as articulated by Ehrman does present a real challenge, to which the only responses I have seen rely on the idea that
    1) it is not acceptable or reasonable for humans to question God, since we are imperfect and fallen (I consider this to be begging the question), and/or
    2) that because we are actually immortal souls that just happen to have bodies for a short time, all the awful things that happen in this life pale in comparison to our eternal reward (I see absolutely no evidence that there is such a thing as a soul or any form of consciousness independent of our physical existence.)

  16. July 4th, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    It’s always hard to nail Alden down on these issues, He prefers slipperiness while declaring absolutes.

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