Sunday, July 5, 2009

Science Good; Logic Bad!

Just started reading “God is Not Great”, by Christopher Hitchens, because, as my girlfriend pointed out, I haven’t been angry enough lately. Only on chapter 1 so I’m withholding judgment, but he’s already made several logical errors like the ones Dawkins made and I’m overdue in responding to my friends about their responses to that post so I’ll take this opportunity.

To paraphrase, not only is god stranger than we imagine, god is stranger than we can imagine. The mere fact that we are capable of picturing the oft maligned “white-beard, long-robe” image of god almost certainly means it is wrong. But a faulty definition of god is not the same as the absence of god. Bohrs’ conception of the atomic nucleus was completely wrong but atoms and their nuclei still exist – and I’m fairly confident that a few centuries from now people will look back at our current models and laugh at their shortcomings.

Several of the major atheistic fallacies stem from the idea that proving part of the definition of god wrong disproves god – which, by the way, is the same behavior atheists complain about when fundamentalists use any gap in scientific knowledge as proof of god’s existence. Yes, there is much in religion that stems from a specific definition of god (and most of the differences between churches and religions occur on this definitional level) so changing the definition may prove part or all of some religions wrong, but does not disprove god or religion as a whole.

The second major type of fallacy is:
“If A then B
Not B
Therefore not A”

In this case “God [A] created the world, designed according to god’s plan [B]”; “The current state of the world is due to evolution and other natural phenomenon [Not B] therefore god does not exist [Not A]”. Logically, this is the same as saying, “The Egyptians believed the heart was the source of all emotion and thought; now we know most of this comes from the brain, therefore the heart must not exist.”

Let the flames begin.

On to Hitchens. Starting with the cover, where we find the word “god” is not capitalized. In fact, the only word that is capitalized is “Great”. This is a measured insult; not an auspicious beginning to a book that claims to examine religion rationally and logically.
One of the legs of Hitchens’ argument is the idea that, “If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful – and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding – than any creation or “end of days” story.” (p. 8) This isn’t even an argument; it’s opinion! “More awesome” is a comparative statement, qualitative not quantitative. No one ever conducted an experiment that demonstrated Hubble telescope pictures are 53.7% more awesome than St. Paul’s apocalypse. Which comes back to one of the fundamental issues dividing my stripe of theists from atheists: when Hitchens sees those awesome photos of distant stars and nebulae he thinks about the wondrous natural forces that produced them; I do the same and thank god that such forces exist.

He continues with a discussion of Hawking on black holes’ event horizons: “the theoretical lip…over which one could…plunge and see the past and the future (except that one would, regrettably and by definition, not have enough “time”)…” Let me get this straight; he’s describing a wondrous place where one sees incredible things, seeing through time itself, but no living person has seen it. Yet he believes it to be true – has faith in its wonder and beauty – because a Great Teacher told him it is so. Hitchens describes his experience of a black hole in exactly the same way as a religious person describes the experience of their own faith.


One of my friends quoted Einstein in his response to me: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.” He was using the first half to argue the god hypothesis fails because it is too complex, but I’m looking at the second part. The simpler theory is preferred as long as it is an accurate and complete explanation. A godless universe might be simpler, but if god does exist it becomes too simple.

What is it, exactly, these atheistic writers are trying to prove?

That religion has done bad things? True, so has every other human institution; the ability of powerful people and propaganda to take advantage of base human tendencies does not stem from religion.

That a god such as we commonly conceive cannot – most likely – exist? True; as I said at the beginning, the mere fact that we can imagine such a god almost certainly means we are wrong in our understanding. But we, as humans, tend to anthropomorphize things, to assume they are similar to us so we can try to understand them. Having a conversation with god as if god were a corporeal being such as myself is easier for my mind to deal with, if not more correct.

That religion is a human creation? True, and pointless. Sweaters are human creations, but wool is not. A pearl is a created thing, but it is formed around something real. Proving humans created religion does not disprove god.

That moral behavior is possible without religion? True; so what?

Darwin but not Jesus; hypotheses but not miracles; to believe one book is right but not another, to cling to the teachings of your leader and dogmatically refuse to admit the “other side” might be right…these things are not the hallmarks of scientific thought; they are religious.

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