Friday, September 29, 2006

Footprints in the Flour

I have been on a reading kick lately, and it’s been rewarding. I’m currently reading “The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan, a book which I’ve highlighted beyond all reason. I’d like to share an extended section of the book, which serves to illuminate my argument about the dearth of evidence supporting the God contention.

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle – but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, except she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stock.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative – merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

Imagine that things had gone otherwise. The dragon is invisible all right, but footprints are being made in the flour as you watch. Your infrared detector reads off-scale. The spray paint reveals a jagged crest bobbing in the air before you. No matter how skeptical you might have been about the existence of dragons- to say nothing of invisible ones – you must now acknowledge that there’s something here, and that in a preliminary way it’s consistent with an invisible, fire-breathing dragon.

Now another scenario: Suppose it’s not just me. Suppose that several people of your acquaintance, including people who you’re pretty sure don’t know each other, all tell you they have dragons in their garages – but in every case the evidence is maddeningly elusive. All of us admit we’re disturbed at being gripped by so odd a conviction so ill-supported by the physical evidence. None of us is a lunatic. We speculate about what it would mean if invisible dragons were really hiding out in garages all over the world, with us humans just catching on. I’d rather it not be true, I tell you. But maybe all those ancient European and Chinese myths about dragons weren’t myths at all…

Gratifyingly, some dragon-size footprints in the flour are now reported. But they’re never made when a skeptic is looking. An alternative explanation presents itself: On close examination it seems clear that the footprints could have been faked. Another dragon enthusiast shows up with a burnt finger and attributes it to a rare physical manifestation of the dragon’s fiery breath. But again, other possibilities exist. We understand that there are other ways to burn fingers besides the breath of invisible dragons. Such “evidence” – no matter how important the dragon advocates consider it – is far from compelling. Once again, the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the dragon hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.

In this section of the book, Sagan literally is talking about alleged alien abductions and alleged run-ins with holy visions. However, it’s equally applicable to the God question.

I have not closed my mind to God’s existence; I am open to new scientific data. However, at this point in time, with the evidence currently available, I must reject the God hypothesis, just as the character in Sagan’s story was forced to reject the garage dragon hypothesis.

In terms of testable, hard, scientific evidence, there’s no more evidence for God than there is for an invisible dragon in my own garage. As a matter of pure fact, I’m agnostic on both issues. I simply don’t know for sure. However, in practical terms, the deafening dearth of hard evidence in support of either claim makes both claims dubious at best.

In other words, I’m waiting for God to make footprints in the flour.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Secular Quotes - Reinforcing Rationality

From the Treaty of Tripoli (1797):

Art. 11. As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Its value: This is the definitive statement, by our Founding Fathers, that the United States is a secular republic. The U.S. emphatically is not a Christian country, but rather a country that accepts—and embraces equally—people of all faiths and no faith at all.

From Thomas Jefferson:

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

Its value: Thomas Jefferson was among the most influential of the U.S.’ founders. Moreover, he continues to be among the most revered of them today. Additionally, Jefferson makes the salient point that each and every supernatural mythology is equally ludicrous and irrational. No religious mythology is more reasonable than any other.

From Albert Einstein:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

Its value: Many theists wish Einstein were on their side; alas, he is with us atheists. Einstein completely rejected the notion of a personal God, a la Yahweh. One of the most brilliant minds in recent history, and an expert on the natural world, simply saw no solid evidence to support the God hypothesis. Count Einstein among the atheists.

From George Carlin:

In the Bullshit Department, a businessman can't hold a candle to a clergyman. 'Cause I’ve got to tell you the truth, folks. When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims: religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told.

Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man -- living in the sky -- who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!

But He loves you.

Its value: Carlin succinctly makes the devastating argument that Yahweh, if it were an omnibenevolent deity, would not design a place such as hell. Inventing hell would be positively antithetical to an omnibenevolent deity’s nature. No crime—absolutely none—warrants the tortures of hell. The notion that one could live a perfectly moral life—making other people’s lives better, caring for one’s friends and family, working hard every day—yet end up roasting in hell, simply for rejecting Yahweh’s authority, is unfathomable. Any deity that hateful is not worth our limited time, even if it were to exist.

From Gene Roddenberry:

We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.

Its value: I just like this one!

Monday, September 25, 2006

Questions of the Day

When I express my belief that homosexuality is perfectly acceptable—not offensive or immoral in the slightest—many Christians vehemently object. In doing so, they often cite the Bible’s explicit condemnations of homosexual behavior. Here’s one of the most oft quoted:

Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination

Leviticus 18:22 (KJV)

Now, Leviticus is part of the Old Testament. Considering the frequency with which I hear this verse quoted, certainly Christians must think Old Testament moral prescriptions still are relevant and valid today. For, if they no longer were relevant and valid, there would be no reason to quote Leviticus to make a moral point.

So, now let me quote from another part of the Old Testament: Deuteronomy.

(6) If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

(7) Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;

(8) Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

(9) But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

(10) And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God....

Deuteronomy 13:6-10 (KJV)

Just to be 100% clear: Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy are part of the Old Testament. As most everybody would agree, many Christians still cite Levitical law in order to condemn homosexuality. Clearly, that implies that Levitical law still is relevant in 2006. It stands to reason, then, that the laws of Deuteronomy also must be relevant, as they are in the same Testament as Leviticus.

Onto the questions:

1. Would you agree that the passage from Deuteronomy that I quoted still is relevant and ought to be followed by the true Christian faithful?

2. If not, then why is Levitical law still applicable? [Consider, again, the fact that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are from the same Testament and, thus, should be equally relevant or irrelevant.]

3. If Levitical law no longer is applicable, then why do Christians continually repeat the verse I quoted? Why not, instead, quote Jesus condemning homosexuality?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Dozen Questions For Creationists/I.D. Proponents

A Dozen Questions For Creationists/I.D. Proponents – ideas, inspiration and some verbiage from “Why Darwin Matters,” by Michael Shermer.

Foreword: This list of questions assumes that intelligent design and creationism, for all intents and purposes, are the same thing. True, there are variants and subsets within this larger whole. However, speaking generally, the available evidence indicates that intelligent design simply is creationism in a flimsy Halloween mask.

1. Why do males have nipples?

2. Why did the intelligent designer design the male uterus? (“the remnant of an undeveloped female reproductive organ that hangs off the prostate gland”)

3. Why do humans get goose bumps? (which are a physiological method by which to puff-up fur)

4. Why do some humans get wisdom teeth? (which don’t fit in our modern jaw structure and are meant for plant-eaters)

5. “Most modern humans have twelve sets of ribs, but 8 percent of us have a thirteenth set, just like chimpanzees and gorillas.” Why?

6. Why does the human genome contain junk DNA, repeated copies of useless DNA, orphan genes, gene fragments, tandem repeats and pseudogenes?

7. Why do the geological strata indicate an evolutionary history to life? For example, why does no geological stratum simultaneously contain a trilobite and a fossil horse?

8. A bat’s wing has exactly the same set of bones as a whale’s flipper and a human arm. Why? Additionally, why does a bat’s wing not have such similarity to an insect’s wing or a bird’s wing?

9. How is “intelligent design” accomplished? For example, how did the designer design vertebrates? This question is essential because a theory without a process is useless. For example, the theory of evolution would be of no value if scientists had no mechanism by which evolution could occur. Natural selection is a key mechanism of evolution. What are the processes and/or mechanisms associated with design?

10. How much microevolution is allowed? Can species only evolve to subspecies? Or, does the intelligent designer get involved at the level of genus, from which species then can evolve naturally?

11. If you reject Young Earth Creationism, this question is for you: At what stages, specifically, did the intelligent designer intervene? Additionally, did the intelligent designer modify the DNA of an entire population, or only of a single creature, from which an entirely new population was born?

12. Who designed the intelligent designer? (no theology allowed; remember, intelligent design is science!)