Tuesday, March 20, 2007

On Falsifiability and Processes

Although I harbor countless objections to the Christian superstition, two stand out as being insurmountable and, as far as my potential faith goes, terminal. This article endeavors to lay them out concisely.

I. Christianity makes innumerable claims which cannot be tested, falsified or verified.

Let us consider, for a moment, some of Christianity’s truth-claims. Before proceeding with this list, I readily will admit that some Christians reject certain of these assertions.

A. Jesus was crucified, died and, dozens of hours later, came back to life bodily. After a short stint on Earth, he ascended into Heaven. At least two other specific individuals also were resurrected, according to biblical accounts.

B. Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary, experienced parthenogenesis—gave birth without having been fertilized.

C. The Bible attests to both a donkey and a serpent speaking in human tongues, presumably Hebrew or Aramaic.

D. The Bible claims that individuals such as Noah and Adam lived to be older than 900.

E. The Bible relates the story of Noah’s Ark, and every “kind” of animal being represented on the vessel.

F. Christians believe that Heaven or Hell follow corporeal death. According to most Christians, an individual’s memories, character and personality make it to the afterlife. Moreover, most Christians assert a wispy “soul” can feel physical agony in Hell, despite the lack of a physical corpus.

G. Most Christians assert that God is omnipresent and able to keep track of, and observe, all humans at all times. All prayers are heard; all thoughts are known; all deeds are seen—from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica.

Can any of these notions be tested, falsified or verified? I would argue not. The best “evidence” for most of these allegations rests in the Bible—the very textual vessel in which the claims are posited. Certainly, it is circular to think asserting a claim can be that claim’s supporting evidence, as well. I would argue that assertions which cannot be tested, falsified or verified are veridically worthless and not something on which one should waste one’s time. [I am reminded of an orbiting china teapot in outer space and an invisible, levitating, undetectable dragon in a garage.] When hypotheses are immune to disproof, they usually are rubbish.

II. Christianity does not posit processes by which its own fantastical claims could take place.

A phenomenon without a workable process is of very limited usefulness. I suppose the classic example is evolution. Surely, prior to Charles Darwin, some individuals considered the possibility of evolution as an explanation for biodiversity. However, they did not have a viable explanatory process. As such, evolution did not make it from the starting gate. With Darwin, the idea of evolution was given an operative mechanism: natural selection. With that, science leapt a great leap.

What is the process by which Jesus’ resurrection occurred? “God did it” is the Christian equivalent to pre-Darwinian evolutionists. No notion can be taken seriously without a workable process.

What is the process by which the Virgin Mary’s parthenogenesis took place? This is a crucial question, since mammalian parthenogenesis never has been observed in the wild. Scientists agree that a human parthenode, were such a being possible, definitely would be a female.

Through what means did God come to make a serpent and a donkey speak? If a special vocal apparatus was crafted, how did the apparatus work? From whence did its pieces come?

What God-given physiological properties made Noah and Adam enjoy such marvelous longevity? How were those properties installed into their otherwise-normal Homo sapiens sapiens bodies?

Without a process, we are left with precious little. Just as evolution would be worthless without an operative mechanism and explanatory principles, so too is Christianity without a more detailed explanation than “God did it.”

I welcome a viable process for the alleged miracles. I prefer a process which can be tested, in order that falsification and/or verification potentially could be achieved.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Debating Christians: The Final Frontier

What follows is the final part in a My Case Against God series of discussions between me and assorted Christians I have encountered on popular theology-based internet forums. Today’s exchange took place in a thread I started with my recent essay “Modern Man, Primitive Beliefs.” The Christian quoted here picked apart one of my responses and, in turn, I picked apart his reply. That portion of the discussion is several thousand words in total, so I have chosen not to re-publish it here. Rather than going point-by-point with me again, the Christian chose to issue a single, multi-paragraph response addressing my core arguments generally. The meat of this entry consists of the Christian’s final post, broken up by my concluding response to him. He chose never to rebut the text you are about to read.

As ever, I have not modified the Christian’s spelling, grammar or syntax. However, I have edited my own copy slightly.

Christian: Clearly, your expectation for hard evidence is quite reasonable. There is a fundamental flaw in your reasoning however. You rely entirely on science for your understanding, that is limiting, and you discredit the entire canon of scripture based on a select few "absurdities".

Nihilist: I do not rely solely on science for my understanding. But, indeed, I consider science clearly to be the most reliable method by which truthful information can be discerned. The single statement that best summarizes my philosophical stance is, "The road to truth is paved with evidence." I believe this fully. When it comes right down to it, biblical claims are basically 2000-year-old anecdotes contained in a book many believe is comprised largely of metaphors, poetry, fables, morality plays, folklore, etc. As you obviously read, I cite a few particular claims that, to me, smack of outright absurdity. Some are minor; for example, the donkey speaking after witnessing an angel. Some are major; for example, the bodily resurrection. Nevertheless, it is tremendously difficult for me to take seriously biblical claims that are surrounded by metaphor and poetry, nonscience and absurdity.

We have hard, tested, written-about evidence that brain death is irreversible. We also have hard evidence attesting to the centrality of spermatozoa in a woman becoming pregnant. We have hard evidence that donkeys and serpents do not have the physiological tools to speak human language. We have hard evidence that humans are not physically cut out to live to be 930. So, what you are asking me to do is look past the hard evidence we have and take a leap of faith on a book of Jewish folklore being the actual truth. It is not in me to do that.

Christian: I don't say you should just accept things that are scientifically inexplicable, or even contrary to science. What I am saying is it is not reasonable to chuck the whole lot out based on a couple of events that challenge your view of reality.

Nihilist: But, it is much more than simply challenging my view of reality. What you are asking me to do is set aside the scientific knowledge I have been fortunate enough to gain and take a leap of faith to believe biblical claims for which no hard evidence exists. What’s more, many biblical claims are wholly extraordinary and contrary to known natural principles, which makes hard evidence an absolute necessity in order to gain any degree of confidence in the claims’ veracity.

Realize that there are about 10,000 distinct religions in the world today, all vying for my adherence. Most, if not all, include nonscientific, extraordinary claims which flatly contradict known natural principles and established hard evidence. Should I take a leap of faith and give credence to the claims of all 10,000? You seem to admit that Christianity does not have actual hard evidence for some (if not most, if not all) of its extraordinary claims. I assume this is the case for almost every world religion, too. When one discounts the centrality of hard evidence, how does one decide which nonscience to take on faith, and which to write off as the absurdity it appears to be?

Christian: I'm not trying to mince words here and argue for the sake of it. We have to admit that science has its limits, which you have done. That means that you have a twofold flaw in your reasoning:

1. You assume if it cannot be explained by science, or is contrary to science, it is not possible.

2. You generally dismiss the entire canon based on a select few events (you alluded to the fact there are more than the few you mentionedbut the point remains). This is flawed because there may be context that lends credibility to the parts you dimiss.

Nihilist: I am not the dogmatic follower of “scientism” that you might perceive me to be. I do not write off everything contrary to science. But, I never stray from my demand for hard evidence (whether testable in a laboratory setting or not). My belief in anything has a direct relationship with the amount of good evidence presented to me. You might consider something being written in the Bible evidence in itself. However, going back to the 10,000 distinct religions in the world (nearly each of which having its own sacred texts), that would leave me with 10,000 equally plausible alternate realities, none of which is particularly endowed with hard evidence to substantiate it. And, again, I would stress that the examples on which I chose to harp are firmly in the mainstream of science. It is extremely doubtful scientists will soon discover that brain death easily may reverse itself, or spermatozoa are optional to achieve pregnancy. I feel very comfortable standing my scientific ground on those four key absurdities.

I do not mean to “throw the baby out with the bath water” when I cite my short-list of absurdities. That, in itself, does not disprove Christianity. [I never claimed to disprove your religion, by the way.] Rather, it is a cumulative thing. There are multiple nonscientific absurdities. There is admitted use of metaphor, poetry, fable, morality play, etcetera within the body of the “factual” text. There is a dearth of hard evidence to substantiate the more extraordinary claims within the text. And, there are 9,999 other religions, boasting starkly different worldviews, and possessing equally cocksure adherents. I keep thinking back to the days of Enlil (Ellil) and Ninlil—gods worshipped all over the ancient civilized world for years. Those believers, too, took a leap of faith. Tellingly, nobody believes in those gods anymore.

No matter what the actual truth is (either a single religion is correct or none at all is correct), many people clearly are wasting their time….

Christian: Maybe I can relate to your evolution frustration. You claim evolution to be a fact. I say there is disputable. You firmly believe there is sufficient evidence to assert it is a fact. I dispute that because I believe there is insufficient evidence. You may be able to plug the holes in evidence with perfectly reasonable and scientifically acceptable extrapolation, interpolation and other reasoning but there are still holes in the evidence.

Similar tension in the debate of the scripture. You can dispute the claims all you like with scientific reasoning. The fact is you don't know for a fact that these things did not happen. So you claim is based entirely on reasoning and extrapolation. Not on hard evidence. You weren't there to say it didn't happen. You are extrapolating based on evidence that is not directly related to the event.

Nihilist: I do not think these are precisely analogous. When "evolutionists" and creationists debate, at least they are discussing hard evidence one way or the other. They discuss the fossil record, transitional species, mutation, speciation, exaption, the Tree of Life, etc. Some of these things are philosophical, to be sure, but at least they are firmly grounded in the hard sciences of anthropology, archaeology, biology, chemistry and ecology. Very seldom are evolution debates mired in anecdotes and first-hand accounts unsupported by actual evidence or data.

The Bible, at its core, is a collection of claims. Some are ordinary; some are wholly extraordinary. Since the events of the Bible are alleged to have happened millennia in the past, there is very little hard evidence for many of the claims (both ordinary and extraordinary assertions). There is no data about Jesus’ resurrection, the Virgin Mary’s spermless impregnation, Adam and Eve rising from the dust, Noah’s unreasonably long life, etc. There is no video evidence of (the substantially decayed) Lazarus rising from the dead as Jesus called to him. These are stories—possibly true but probably false. Every religion has them, to be sure. Christianity is not alone.

When faced with 10,000 religions, all equally unburdened by hard facts (at least with respect to their extraordinary nonscience assertions), and then, on the other hand, one set of agreed-upon natural principles, boasting magnificent mountains of supporting data, I must choose the way of nature. I know that people can be delusional, deceptive, deceived and credulous. I know that man is a story-telling animal. For these reasons, and so many others, I must hold to the fact that the road to truth is paved with evidence.