June 13, 2004

Hypothesis/Apotheosis

I've often said that arguing about religion is much like arguing about a conspiracy--you can't win because no matter what points you bring up, you're branded as part of the problem. "Of course you say that...you're part of the conspiracy" sounds an awful lot to me like "Of course you believe all those fossil records and scientific evidence...that's what the devil wants you to do." Ultimately, though, no matter how much evidence I provide, it always seems to come down to one statement: "If you have faith, the evidence won't matter." I have a problem with that.

That's why I could never be religious. I don't find the worlds of science and Faith to be compatible. Now before you get all riled up, I know that science deals with a belief system. That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about Faith with a capital 'F', which asks you to believe something without any evidence, or worse--to believe in the face of contradictory evidence. In the scientific world, belief is founded on observable, repeatable evidence, and more importantly, scientists (for the most part) change their minds based on new discovery, the same way Newton's gravity becomes Einstein's spacetime becomes Hyperspace theory/Theory of Everything. On the other hand, the case for Faith is made on a two thousand year old text of questionable authorship, and...um...did I mention the two thousand year old text?

Anyway, butterfliesandwheels has another great article about the difference between the two camps. It also clarifies something that I've been trying to get my students to understand--the difference between proof and evidence. For example, to say that there is no evidence of WMD programs in Iraq is incorrect. There is quite a bit of evidence, which I'll bore you with at another time. What they mean is that there is no 'proof'. Occasionally evidence and proof are the same thing (the "smoking gun" at a crime scene, perhaps) but not necessarily, although a culmination of 'evidence' can often 'prove' something. Of course, all this is a matter of semantics, so feel free to disagree with my definitions, but the underlying idea is, I think, good.

My favorite quote from the article:
Naturally we can't prove our own emotions to other people, any more than a bat can prove to us what it is like to be a bat. But what does that have to do with truth-claims about a supernatural being? And in any case the issue is not one of proof but one of evidence. We can't prove our emotional states, but we can offer evidence. We can't prove the non-existence of a deity, but we can ask why there is no good evidence of its existence. Bertrand Russell pointed out that we can't prove there's not a china teapot orbiting the sun, and Carl Sagan pointed out that we can't prove there's not an invisible odorless inaudible dragon in the garage, and both pointed out that that's no reason to assume there is.

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