What if I’m Wrong? What Do You Mean “if”?

After I posted an article that stated the not-at-all-controversial fact that evolution was the best explanation for biodiversity and that creationism did not belong at all in the science classroom, a friend responded with comments to the effect of, “What are the consequences if we’re wrong?” There were other things he brought up, and we talked more about those things and not so much about this play on Pascal’s Wager. I honestly didn’t want to address that question because the question is flawed, and I don’t really want to (1) explain what a garbage philosophical argument Pascal’s Wager is, because that would mean I’d have to (2) admit that I’m conversing with people who think Pascal’s Wager is a good argument. I tried instead to present the case that there are many people of faith who have no problem with evolution, as it is the best explanation of the facts as we understand them. This worked to steer the conversation toward science and facts and away from making it a theist v. atheist thing, which may as well be insoluble as long as the two sides seem more often than not to talk past one another rather than really trying to reach an understanding.

Still, the question and its implied misconception stuck in my craw. I found the perfect rejoinder to it this morning in the form of a Phys.org article about how the Standard Model may need to be revised. That headline alone – “Hey we’re probably wrong about something!” – is enough to smash the premise of the question. That premise being that we don’t acknowledge the presence or the possibility of error in current scientific models. The whole point of capital S Science is that we know that we’re wrong somehow, and we want to find out how exactly we’re wrong. This idea of scientists declaring the answers to life, the universe, and everything from some ivory tower, never to be challenged is bullshit. What if we’re wrong? We gather more data, form another model, test it to see if it makes useful and reliable predictions, and eventually settle on a new understanding of the phenomena in question by consensus of experts in the field.

There’s this absolutist thing in the question, a black-or-white-ness that is not at all what real life is like. As if there were just those two choices, creation and evolution, that are either 100% right or 100% wrong. This characterization reveals how little the questioner knows about the topic. In every field that I’ve looked into, I’ve found that there are almost always shades on shades on shades of grey coloring every aspect of it. Things are seldom, if ever, just that simple. When we talk about things that way it is usually out of convenience – which makes me wonder, did my friend talk that way about “the two sides of the evolution debate” out of convenience? I think maybe yeah, there’s something to that. Of course he’d realize that the two positions have mini-camps within them that differ on some details, but that they agree on the fundamental things enough to count themselves as on the same side. However, the idea that there are two somewhat equal “sides” to this thing is an idea favored only by the uninformed or those who are under the sway of the charlatans on the side of creationism. For that reason, I can say that my friend is oversimplifying this topic much to my chagrin.

I am aware that even though the concepts and fundamental ideas of science, lofty though they may be, are not without flaw in practice. Malfeasance of all kinds is something that we should always be on the lookout for. It would be folly to say otherwise. If you want to bring up those kinds of problems in the scientific community, fine, but now you’ve started another discussion.

What about the other side of that question, what consequences await if it turns out that creationism was right all along? Aside from the obvious problem of which particular version of which creation story it is, we could defend ourselves by saying that the evidence we encountered led us to understand the world in the way that we did. And by every measurement we could make, it appeared that we had made a lot of correct predictions about how things worked. We were able to produce results with science. Far be it from me to know the mind of God, but it seems like maximizing life and minimizing misery – by and large the output of science in the last four hundred years – should be thought of as a good thing. So if we were able to do all this good stuff using science, how can it be bad if the employment of the same leads us to concluding that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor? What, if any, difference can be drawn between the two?

Whenever I have these kinds of discussions, I always end up asking about the epistemology of the other participants. What is it that led you to hold the position that you do? But epistemology is more than that. It’s the next question, or even the next next question or later. What do you consider to be knowledge? What attributes make a statement, or series of statements true?  

This is at the bottom of every discussion people have with one another, and they rarely realize it. We go back and forth with our talking points about this or that issue, and to the one making the statements, it seems like you must be crazy to think differently. We do this without realizing that the other person is thinking the same thing about their own view. Once we realize that people think differently than us, and that they think they have good reasons for doing so, and that we could benefit from finding out those reasons, can we hope to have productive discussions.

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Apparently, I Don’t Exist: Another Intellectually Dishonest Apologetic

My friend declared the other day that atheists don’t exist. I was kind of flabbergasted by this news. Here I was, thinking that I was existing, but it looks like, ever since a couple years ago when I decided that I officially didn’t believe in god, I wasn’t. After I got over the very real existential crisis this statement wrought in me, I wondered what he meant by that, since it could be a couple different things. He could be 1) abandoning reason altogether and casting his lot with the Presuppositionalists, who say that everyone knows that the god of the Bible exists; or 2) defining atheism to mean gnostic atheism, or having absolute knowledge that no gods exist. Turns out it was this one.

There are two main questions being asked here that my friend is conflating. One is, “do you believe in a god or gods?” and the other is, “can we know for sure whether or not a god or gods exist?” Here is a helpful illustration:

Epistemology

For me this comes down to epistemology, or how we know what we know. I only want to believe things that are demonstrably true. Religious claims such as, “There is a god.” don’t have any demonstration to support them.

You should be able to test any claim so that there are clearly defined, measurable circumstances that indicate that a claim is false. This quality is also called being falsifiable. Evolution is extremely well supported because there are clearly defined conditions that would show it to be false (e.g. rabbits in the Pre-Cambrian as J.B.S. Haldane once said) and those conditions have never been met in the century and a half and then some following Darwin’s The Origin of Species. On the other hand, Creationism doesn’t work as since there are no defined conditions that could show it to be false.

For example, I know as well as one can know anything that our planet rotates approximately every 24 hours. I also know that this planet orbits the star we call the sun, and it takes about 365.25 days to do so. I can support these claims with measurable, testable, falsifiable data.

Biblical Claims: What Do We Know?

I know that there are some ancient writings where a man named Jesus worked miracles, was crucified, and rose from the dead. I know that there are many people that believe that those things happened, and that Jesus died for them. The most that any non-biblical text ever says about this is that there were people who believed that these things happened. All of the non-biblical texts are from at least a hundred years after the crucifixion.

The above is just a nugget of the information that is available about the truth of the claims of Christianity. I have seen many Youtube videos and lectures on this, and read about it. I am but a layman when it comes to ancient writings. There’s a crapload of information out there. I recommend interacting with media from both sides.

However, if you are an expert, like my friend that I mentioned above, your faith-based opinion on the Jesus story doesn’t sell me as long as it is, at bottom, based on faith. By faith I mean belief in something without evidence, like the Jesus story. Even if the most miraculous and arguably most important event of the Gospels, the resurrection, can be shown to be true, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is the son of god, or god, or anything else.

Think about it. According to the books of the Bible, Jesus is the third person to get resurrected. Why is this one the one that must be the son of god? These are questions that you are allowed to ask.

Atheists Don’t Exist

To come back to the topic, my friend says that because I can’t know everything, I can’t make the positive claim that no gods exist. I will concede that I don’t have absolute knowledge. It would be foolish for me to claim to know something that cannot be known. Somehow, he is able to know that his god is the one true god, the creator of the universe. This reminds me of Josh Feuerstein’s $100K challenge. For those that don’t want to click the DoNotLink link, the video has the red-ballcapped one offering $100K to any atheist who can provide proof that god doesn’t exist. It is but one float in the endless parade of stupid social media that he is responsible for.

This challenge contains a presupposition that is glaring. You are correct in pointing out that I can’t have absolute knowledge. You fail to recognize, however, that that applies to everyone, yourself included. To say otherwise, that is, to say that you can have absolute knowledge that your god exists while atheists and every non-Christian person can’t is a case of special pleading.

Atheismwonka

You Don’t Get To Say What I Am

The thing that really irks me about my friend’s argument is that he is trying to tell me what I am. He says, “you can’t be atheist. You can be agnostic, but to be atheist is not possible.” This would be like me telling him, “you can’t be Christian. You can be Jewish, but Christianity is just an offshoot of Judaism and not its own thing.” You may really not agree with slap bass, or Korean cooking, or libertarianism, but that doesn’t mean you can tell people who identify with those musical, culinary, or political schools of thought that those things don’t exist. In many ways this apologetic is even worse than #atheismisbelief because it attempts to rob people of their identity. I am an atheist because I have not seen evidence that can only be explained by a divine creator. I am an atheist because I have seen explanations for myriad things in nature that did not require a god. I don’t believe in any gods, therefore I am an atheist. It’s not the whole of my identity, it’s not even a positive belief. They don’t need a word for people who don’t golf, but somehow we live in a world where we need to have a word for people who don’t believe in gods. Atheism is just one conclusion that I have come to after reviewing the available information and applying critical thinking to it. It can be revised if new information comes to light. People like my friend are contributing to the negative attitude people have toward atheists. Atheists are a misunderstood and maligned group and I would like to see that change. In the meantime, don’t tell me who I am.