Sunday, May 10, 2015

The folly of evangelical anti-theism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, polemics, science, religion, faith, pseudoscience

The human ape is a religious animal. It is part of our evolutionary heritage and we cannot escape it. Given that we must, by our nature, dedicate ourselves to something, what shall that something be?

To be religious does not require belief in God or a god or gods. Buddhism, for example, says nothing about the existence of any deity. Taoism at best only hints that some kind of god may be behind the scenes; that "Tao" might be personalized.

Mathematician Amir D. Aczel writes about a book a year, and his offering for 2014 is Why Science Does Not Disprove God. Several debates and discussions about science and religion in which he participated provided the initial fodder for writing the book. While he makes it clear he does not believe in the Lord God described by a literalist reading of the Bible, he is sympathetic to religion and even favorable.

The thesis of the book is simple: It is a misuse of science and scientific methods when the New Atheists use them to claim, not only that there is no God, but that there cannot be any kind of god. Who are the New Atheists? In order according to noise level, chiefly Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence M. Krauss, Christopher Hitchens (deceased), and Sam Harris. While atheism has long been with us, what is comparatively new is the evangelical tone of at least these five (although evangelical atheism is not particularly new, as an apparent conflict in the 1760's between Leonard Euler and Denis Diderot illustrates).

Even more to the point: The past couple of decades have been marred by increasingly shrill denouncements of Western and Judaeo-Christian institutions by extremist Islamic clerics. Over the same period, Dawkins and others have become equally shrill in their anti-religious campaign. The language of Dawkins in particular is just as inflammatory as any fatwa by a shrieking Imam. (BTW, this is me speaking; Dr. Aczel is too gentlemanly to point this out.)

Anti-theist claims are many and complex. The book tackles the most serious abuses of science by these "scientific" atheists in twelve chapters; three other chapters limn the history of the relationship of religion and science, and deal with more general matters. Along the way, Dr. Aczel shows how the New Atheists have grossly misused archaeology, cosmology, mathematics, probability, evolutionary theory, and the philosophy of science. Put it all together, and what do you have? A new religion based on pseudo-science, whose adherents are just as fervent, even rabid, as the most bigoted Bible-thumper (and, sad to say, there are all to many of those).

Scientists tend to overstate the power of science. The best scientists are humble and humbly grateful that science works as well as it does in so many realms. Unfortunately, they are a minority; most are simply "science workers", getting results and publishing as often as possible without giving much thought to the philosophy of science. Even more unfortunately, those "best" are outnumbered by those who arrogate divine powers to science, expecting all questions to be answered, if only we gather enough evidence, theorize deeply enough, and perhaps one day craft a "Theory of Everything."

Dr. Aczel demonstrates that such claims are overblown. He invokes the following:

  • The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle demonstrates that it is impossible to know with perfect accuracy both the position and the energy of a particle. Accuracy can be very, very good, but there are limits beyond which it will forever be impossible to measure. Even more, the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics states that even in the absence of measurement, the precise path a particle will take has an irreducible amount of uncertainty. Diffraction in optical systems is evidence of this.
  • Chaos Theory describes nonlinear systems (those in which the ongoing process influences itself) that are hypersensitive to initial conditions. In practical terms, when such systems are described mathematically, the equations cannot be solved in what we call "closed form". The simplest such system is the gravitational Three-Body Problem. Certain special cases have been mathematically solved, but it has been proven (in the mathematical sense) that the general case cannot be solved. Numerical (computer) simulations can be crafted over a limited span of time and space, but they are always dogged by the accumulation of rounding errors, until those dominate the result, and you are no longer simulating the system you began with. Even in "linear" systems (those with no feedback), successive iterations of a computer simulation still accumulate rounding errors, and special methods must be used if you need to test the magnitude of those accumulated errors. That greatly increases the computational cost of such simulations. And wouldn't you know it: Nature presents very few linear systems.
  • The Schrödinger Wave Equation and other work by Edwin Schrödinger show that "things can go where you think they can't", and the poor cat of his paradox, being both dead and alive, actually illustrates our inability to know in detail the fate of any quantum event. By the way, I count the cat as an observer: it knows whether the cyanide got released, before the "official observer" opens the box to look.
  • The Incompleteness Theorem of Kurt Gödel shows that it is possible to ask questions that cannot be answered using the mathematical (or "formal") system in which the question was asked. For example, formal logic is full of paradoxes that require one to step outside the system to elucidate. A famous example is the Barber of Seville: He shaves all men in Seville who do not shave themselves. Who shaves the Barber? Of course, the question has no answer in the system as set up. But if we bring the matter into the real world, we find that, of course, the Barber is bearded and is not shaved at all. The false premise of the paradox is that all men in Seville are clean-shaven.

The anti-Theists have formed a new church. You could call it a religion without any of the benefits. Of course, I agree that religious motivations have led to great abuses. For political reasons, couched as religion but really in a land grab, a Medieval Pope wrote a death warrant for the entire population of a province (or was it 3 provinces?) in France. Some 3 million persons were to be slaughtered. This was not carried out. Anti-Theists invoke the Crusades. Again, the motives were a mixture of religion and politics; for political gain the leaders incited religious fervor in ignorant knights and peasants. In fact, the terrible abuses of the history of Christianity in Europe and the Near East can just as well be invoked to prove that politics are evil…and they are!

But let us not forget the greatest slaughters of history. Do the names Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong mean anything to you? Atheists one and all, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions or, in the case of Mao, more than 100 million. Compared to any of these four (and a couple of others), the Pope mentioned above was a piker, even had his order been carried out.

But we must remember that today's New Atheists claim the mantle science. Dr. Aczel has shown that at best they skew their science, and more frequently they abuse it all out of recognition. To put it baldly, the New Atheists, today's anti-Theists, are charlatans.

What does God think of this? The first six verses of Psalm 2 provide a clue:

Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”

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