Saturday, July 23, 2005

Oh, Christians... you so krazy

Last night I engaged in a religion/science discussion with two Christians. Nice people, educated (almost PhD level in political science) and generally informed. Yet, the discussion went as these kinds of discussions usually do. The most concerning point is that one felt "some things aren't open to debate," while the other thought that nothing could happen that would change her mind about the existence of a God. Once that information was ascertained and clarified, I said there isn't much point continuing the debate unless we want the conversational aspect of it.

Such a level of closedmindedness concerns me because I so clearly see links to other problems in the world. If an individual engages in an act or thought and says, "It does not matter what you present to me or if things change or if you bring me information I didn't know. I will not change my mind," I immediately start to think of any problem that occurs because of such a stance. Iraq caused 9/11, my religion is better than yours, people 'x' are inferior (because of reason 'y'), 'those' people, 'It's my right"...etc. Nearly all of these situations end up in violence or human rights abuses.

The connection was so clear to me but is less visible to those inside it. Obviously, people don't want to see the similarities to systems that have a greater likelihood of causing harm in the world. Critical thinking and being open to new ideas, as well as the possibility you are wrong, is what will help the problems of the world. It would be as if you get to keep all the good stuff (because good stuff is good) without any of the bad stuff.

One of the women had some novel thoughts about space and time. She felt one of her main points was "why can't we see into the future?" because time consists of levels... or something. I never really understood what she meant. I was content with the 'expansion of the universe in time/light cone/things haven't happened yet, so we currently cannot see into the future.’ Her stance was a new one. She said it is justified by quantum physics stuff. I’ve heard of infinite universes, but nothing like that.

Of course one cannot just have ‘science’ as a way of knowing, and it depends on the question one wants to ask, but religious people do not seem to see that most things that people want to know are best known when they are quantified, and those that cannot be fully quantified should still be quantified as much as possible or might be unknowable.

Example: The London bombings.
Who/How? An investigation regarding who committed these crimes will use rational, empirical methods of collecting evidence and testing hypotheses.
What/Where/When? These may seem pretty obvious, but would be based on consensual observation and data collection.
Why?… that’s the big one, the one that non-science people think science cannot answer. I think evidence based quantitative analysis is still highly useful here.
The were religious? How so? Where did they attend? How often did they attend? What books did they read? Who did they associate with? What do their phone records or net usage suggest? Does an independent observer feel similarly? What about an observer that has a different ideological/cultural background? This is how knowledge is best acquired. Obviously, such an investigation is not as rigid as physics or chemistry and much of the power of the scientific method is reduced… but what else is there?

Example 2: Why do people kill each other? God is testing us? Oooooor… the 4 billion year evolutionary past was such that violence occurred and survival was important. Aspects of our current existence come from previous times and things are not fair and balanced in society while weapons are available. But that is a general statement. I know I’d want to know (a) what percentage of people kill? (b) who, regarding group, sex or location, kills? (c) Are there any reasons for violence occurring more or less?
I don’t know the first answer (under 5% I think), but a combination of the latter two by way of statistical analyses. Younger men kill more, they kill more when there are economic disparities visible in a location and the legalization of abortion was directly related to the reduction of crime. But then one might say “But, REALLY why?” I think this goes back to the evolutionary past part. Additionally, it is useful to think of the situation as “why don’t more people kill?” Phrased like that one might want to examine various political systems, crime rates in various countries, prison systems, sentencing levels, rehabilitation efficacy, recidivism rate… all of which will be determined by evidence based analyses using ‘reason’ as a guide.

During last eve’s discourse, I said there is going to be some inherent subjectivity in science, but it removes more subjectivity than any other way of knowing. I asked for another way and one of the woman said, “You tell me another way,” I said, “I can’t, I don’t have to. I think science is the best, you should have to tell me how it isn’t.” I could have been more clear and said, “One: making things up. Two: Guessing. Three: Reading one source of information and generalizing…” but I feel all of these are just along the continuum of ways to acquire knowledge with the aforementioned ‘one’ at one end, and good science at the other. No other way of knowing will get to the moon.
“One of these things is not like the other.” (Sing it with me!)

Relatedly, we discussed the subjectivity of data collection. How whatever data collected are chosen among other data and if people are ranking things it is not that objective. I said, “But the data is real.” I believe it was a point that was not quite understood, as she kept going on about “But you’re choosing one way over another.”
If a scientist describes their methods of data collection and can actually be trusted, the data is real (within error). The interpretation, the statistics used for such interpretation, the hypothesis that lead to the data collection and any other biases are hopefully, but not necessarily objective… but the data is real.

The usual issues of ‘we can’t perceive everything’ and ‘god created it all’ came up. I uttered my usual replies of ‘yes… so what?’ and ‘who created god?’ So it goes.

One of the women asserted God was omnipotent. I did not have time to fully question the absurdity of that concept.

I sometimes ask religious people, “What if you were born somewhere else?” It is hard for me to believe that a N.A. Christian would still be one if born to a ‘primitive’ tribe in Africa. It makes no sense. Most asked agree that they would likely be different, but don’t seem to realize how untenable their whole belief structure becomes.

Additionally, they said they believe in evolution, but I am not quite sure about that. Depending on how you define it and decide on the implications of it, evolution and a continually intervening God are not really compatible; unless you reduce God to the very beginning of existence, which is like saying the universe itself is responsible, or enlarge God to everything, which is another way of saying ‘the universe.’

Some people seem to want one way for their very personal life, but a completely antithetical way for everything else. I say ‘very’ personal, because even in personal interactions people attempt to use evidence and reason to justify or explain things. I think most do not see the level of inconsistency they possess and perpetuate.

Such a dichotomized existence appears irrational to me.

The notion of bringing in a mysterious, ineffable variable to explain answers currently unknown or possibly unknowable is simply unreasonable.
I wish people could see that.

(What brings me hope is to look at how things have changed over time. The Western world is moving away from ‘Him,’ the guy in the clouds, to some ‘force’ or ‘energy.’ Very few think thunder is because of ‘the gods,’ turns out it is just thunder. True, new age stuff is also highly misleading, but it seems better than the alternative. It appears that worldwide violence is down and human rights are going up. Of course, I’d expect you to find the data ;)


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