Sunday, April 8, 2012

Scientific Theory vs. Opinion



Scientific Theory vs. Opinion
According to celebrity physicist Brian Cox, head of the ATLAS division of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, the largest and most advanced technology that science has ever developed, and his colleague Jeff Forshaw, a Professor at the School of Physics & Astronomy in Manchester and an expert in the phenomenology of elementary particle physics, they state that a good scientific theory is one that "specifies a set of rules that determine what can and cannot happen to some portion of the world."


Notice that they are dealing with things which occur in reality, i.e. are observable/testable, and thus can be understood according to the physical processes which underline all of reality. Continuing on they add that a good scientific theory must "allow for predictions to be made that can be tested by observation. If the predictions are shown to be false, the theory is wrong and must be replaced. If the predictions are in accord with observation, the theory survives."


Many people have the mistaken notion that if a theory is proved 'true' then it is concrete. That the theory becomes some kind of absolute law which undergirds the workings of the universe. This is not entirely the case. Cox and Shaw are keen to remind us that "No theory is 'true' in the sense that it must always be possible to falsify it."


This is an important point. One which many people who talk about proper theories tend to overlook. 


No single theory is, in principle, infallible. That is, all theories, in order to be scientifically viable, must be amenable to falsification as they are amenable to evidence which can overthrow their incorrect predictions and/or assumptions. 


Additionally, what this means is that all theories are merely tentative because we can never be certain that the theory represents a complete model with one hundred percent accuracy. There is a certain probability that we may wrong, a probability we need, in order for the theory to be falsifiable. 


Indeed, even the best theories, such as Newton's Law of Gravity, which works for large objects with large masses on a large scale was undermined, literally, by the more accurate model of Quantum theory. As Cox and Forshaw explain:


The laws of quantum theory replace Newton's laws and furnish a more accurate description of the world. Newton's physics emerges out of the quantum description, and it is important to realize that the situation is not 'Newton for big things and quantum for small': it is quantum all the way.

Additionally, our scientists drive the point home by asserting:



Any theory that is not amenable to falsification is not a scientific theory--indeed one might go as far as to say that it has no reliable information content at all. The reliance on falsification is why scientific theories are different from matters of opinion.


I find this last quote exceptionally well stated.

Now that we understand what a scientific theory is more clearly, the question becomes, is the God hypothesist, i.e. theistic belief in a God or gods, on par with that of a proper scientific theory?

The Oxford Dictionary of English states the definition of God is: n. the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being. 



Technically speaking, the standard definition of God is falsifiable, all but for the exception of the "creator" bit, which simply remains unknown. In fact, it may prove to be unkowalbe, in which case the claim is entirely baseless. The answer as to how or why the universe exists may simply require nothing more than the answer, "We don't know." The American philosopher Peter Boghossian, of Portland State University, has espoused, "Yeah, we don't know. And you know what? That's a wonderful answer. Not pretending to know things that you don't know is a virtue."

Personal Creator God or Dice Rolling Buffoon?
Personally, I find that science has ruled out any perceptible involvement of God or any interaction he may have on the physical universe, at least as far as we can determined that, as Einstein quipped, God does not play dice. For Einstein, the physical laws were both simple and elegant and there was no need for random or arbitrary events. A tinkering creator is merely a bumbling buffoon who failed to perfect his masterwork the first time around and so must continually tweak it to correct for his many oversights. Such a being could not represent the supreme being of religion for the very reason an imperfect creator's supremacy is called into question by his very bumbling nature. 



I suppose, there is the oft ignored possibility that God could be an idiot who accidentally created the universe, still a creator by any definition but simply an unintentional one. This, however, is not a theory religious people like to entertain because it would simultaneously mean they are both worshiping the wrong God and that the embarrassment of this astounding revelation would have them wishing the atheists were right.


Although Einstein was primarily concerned with the physical laws remaining fixed when he invoked, what the beloved Irish poet W.B. Yeats would call: the Grand Artificer, I would go one further and say that science has boldly determined that there are no random or arbitrary supernatural events effectively overriding the known physical laws of the universe. That is to say, no supernatural event has ever been observed and cataloged by science in the everyday functioning of the physical laws.




This seems to suggest, quite assuredly, that we have good reason to suspect that there is no God, or at the least, that post creation his supreme power as a so-called creator ceases to be relevant. One may argue that an irrelevant God is, perhaps, less desirable than no God at all. But I'll leave that up to you to decide.

Objective Morals--If they Exist
As for God being the source of all moral authority, the fact that there are good, kind-hearted, and compassionate atheists disproves the claim. But one might argue, as C.S. Lewis did, that moral laws underscore even an atheist's moral reasoning (whether they admit to it or not) and that the very existence of moral laws, then, denote a moral law-giver. 



Before you readily agree with such a proposition, however, I would suggest you familiarize your self with Kantian ethics (such as the categorical/hypothetical imperatives) and follow it up with a thorough reading of Hume (and his strict sense of empiricism). If Kant and Hume's analytic reasoning isn't enough to convince us that moral laws can and do arise from the minds of humans, and not supernatural entities such as a God or gods, then modern neuroscience puts the nail in God's coffin, so to speak. 


[Note: If you subscribe to the belief that Kant's categorical imperative, also known as an absolute moral law, is somehow evidence for the absolute laws we get from, ergo, an absolute law-giver then I'm afraid you are not following Kant's reasoning but instead are, ersatz, unintentionally following the trend of Neo-Kantianism. This distinction, however sublte, I think is necessary to make considering the amount of theologians which try and use Kant's categorical imperative to prove an objective and absolute moral law--and thereby prove their own metaphysical assumptions. At least this has been the case in my experience listening to the arguments of and debating with theists.]

Science Can't Prove Everything...Or Can It?
Modern anthropology, psychology, sociology, and neurology all point to man-made morals--a virtual Moral Landscape as the neuroscientist Sam Harris has called it. Regardless of whether or not objective morals actually exist, as much more research needs to be done first, it appears that the science driving this investigation leaves no room for superfluous metaphysical speculation. That is, human morals can, and are to a high degree, explained naturally. Everything from altruism to pacifism can be explained by naturalistic processes. Even love, once esteemed impossible for science to adequately explain, has now been extensively mapped out by modern neurologists. Even so, you will still hear the spiritual believer state, "Science can't explain everything. It can't explain love."

Actually, yes, it can. One's ignorance as to this fact doesn't make the fact any less true. 



Will science be able to explain everything? The remains to be seen. Some believe so, other's do not share their optimism. I for one think it is too early to tell. What we need to keep in mind though, is the areas which are still unfamiliar or mysterious to us will most likely follow the same path of discovery as all the rest, by being explained naturally. Science, we might say, has the potential ability to explain everything within the natural world--prepossessing that Naturalism is true. So far, all the evidence amassed thus far seems to indicate that this is the case, and even if the natural world isn't all there is, then science will surely have the power to detect what else there might possibly be. Thus far, however, science only points toward an all encompassing natural explanation for the universe and all that transpires within it.

This leaves no room for God, in my estimation. 



The theologian is free to safeguard his belief in God by claiming God is beyond this reality, but that is the same as saying that God is outside of reality, i.e. not a part of reality as we understand it. This is something we can neither confirm nor deny, so it, more or less, equates to saying that I imagine God existing some other way. Which is fine, as long as the theologian honestly admits that such a God only exists as an imaginary construct they created to explain God in a way which would continue to let them believe in him despite the fact that he remains completely hidden from our detection.

Returning to the Definition of God

The problem is, most theists do not agree on the definition of God. Most religions, in point of fact, each define God in their own way. Often times their definitions are incompatible. There is little in the way of irenic agreement within or among competing religious faiths and their *multifarious definitions of God. I have talked about the problem this brings in my series on Ignosticism (here's part 2), but today I wish to get at something more basic.

Many religions will try and protect God from the falsification process. That is, many theologians will define God in such a way as to make his very existence unfalsifiable. They will claim something along the lines that God is the highest conceivable being that exists beyond space and time, that he is transcendent and thereby tenable, he is immutable, eternal, and he exists external to the known universe but still interfaces with it (even as, I should point out, we have no direct or indirect evidence of such interaction). Such claims, and many more like them, are simply impervious to disproof. In other words, they are not defeasible. 



However, a defeasible position, impervious to disproof, albeit well protected from being falsified, simultaneously makes the hypothesis impossible to confirm as true. That is, if you cannot disprove it because you have obscured it so readily, it is just as likely that you will be unable to prove it for the same reasons.

In which case, we can confidently affirm that, belief in God and matters of theology are no more than matters of opinion.

Defeasibility is a Prerequisite of Justification
If religious people want their "beliefs" to be taken seriously they have to offer properly supported beliefs and not simply unfounded opinions. Moreover, if they want their beliefs to be true, then they have to start working diligently to justify those beliefs and not simply demand we give them the benefit of the doubt. Or worse, demand we respect their beliefs for the simple fact they hold them to be true without so much as an investigation into what that claim entails. If the claim cannot demonstrate itself, then it is likely to be false. 



What does this mean for the person of faith? 


It means they have to make their beliefs defeasible, and their claims and theories falsifiable, and then start working toward discovering the correct system of (religious) belief. To state it more precisely, all belief must be defeasible as defeasibility is a prerequisite of justification. Ultimately, if a belief isn't defeasible then it can never properly be justified. 


The problem is, as I see it, so far all religious believers have offered in the way of evidence for God is sophist opinion and baldfaced conjecture. Instead of sifting through false theories,  weeding out the fallacious ones perchance to discover the correct one(s), they instead make the a priori assumption that their knowledge is correct and so their belief true--and that everyone else is mistaken--without actually having considered any of the other competing claims. 


This is a cheap tactic which simply allows the believer to make their faith irrebuttable. Like the code of the immortal Highlander, "There can be only ONE!" For these dogmatically minded types, it is not a matter of debate. Which is why they promptly jump at the opportunity to remind everyone who does not share their beliefs how wrong they really are.

As long as this a priori assumption of 'one true faith' is made without checking it against other rival claims and competing assumptions and verifying the truth of the statement, however, it will remain unjustified and, consequently, will render one's faith completely erroneous. 



An Unquestioning Faith is Only a Desire to Believe
Sadly enough, even today in the post enlightenment era of the 21st century this uncritical, unreasoning, form of faith based belief is the very kind of faith most religious believers practice--especially when it comes to questions about God. 


Why would people feel compelled to announce they have the truth before actually learning the truth? I can't help but feel that for them it is simply easier to take it on faith that God exists. After all, this is what they have come to believe. This belief is reinforced by other unjustified beliefs, but it is less problematic to take it on faith than to have to go through the arduous and rigorous process of examining each little belief which lead to their conclusion that God exists. 


Here's the thing though, when most people honestly try to go back and approach this issue objectively, painstakingly examining each the minutiae of each belief they suddenly find, more often than not, their faith begins to erode all around them. Those that don't see their castle of faith sinking into the sands are not in the majority, but rather are an exception to the rule. Why we believe what we believe is another area modern neuroscience is explaining with informative results.


Currently, there is good empirical evidence to suggest people are reluctant to give up their beliefs because they are extremely good at rationalizing away discrepancies, not because they are the few who have been lucky enough to stumble upon the correct faith. Most of us know from experience, however, that a fellow person of like belief could have just as easily started out with the same process of examination yet ended up with an entirely different set of conclusions. This reveals that being uncritical of our beliefs is merely a desire to believe because we are too lazy, or too busy, to properly examine those beliefs. Even so, one who has not taken the appropriate time to thoroughly examine their core beliefs has no right claiming that anyone particular belief or set of beliefs they hold to be true is, in actuality, true. 


Usually you know how well a person has considered their respective beliefs after a minute of applying the Socratic method with them and then gauging their adeptness in answering common questions related to their professed system of belief. However much they do or don't stumble over themselves trying to think through questions they may have never seriously entertained before is a good indicator of how critical they have been with themselves in the past and how critical they are likely to be in the future. Believers who take things on a matter of faith, I find, are rarely ever all that critical. You can pinpoint them in two second flat by asking, "Well, why do you believe that?"

If they reply with something along the lines of, "I just do," or "Because I know deep down in my heart it's true," then, chances are, you are dealing with a bona fide person of faith. 


You're No True Scotsman!

Believers don't want to admit that their beliefs might be wrong. Yours might be, which is why if you happened to believe the exact same things as they did starting out, they will adamantly deny it. These types love nothing more than to invoke The No True Scotsman fallacy. 


It shouldn't surprise us that those with strong convictions will, undoubtedly, invoke this fallacy more than those open to reconsidering their position. As it goes, this fallacy, when used in a religious discourse, becomes a sort of defense mechanism which allows the person of pious conviction to bypass the consideration that they might be wrong. Instead of them squarely facing the possibility of being wrong, it's obvious you who were never a true believer. 


The logic behind this fallacy is so laughable it is a wonder it continues to even be brought up. The question those who invoke it need to ask themselves is, why on earth would an atheist pretend they were a Christian for thirty years just to, suddenly do an about face and claim they were mistaken? The believer's response if that the atheist merely was biding their time to, and try not to laugh, make religion look bad. 


I am sure the atheist needn't have bothered seeing as how most religions excel at making themselves look bad enough, even without the help of its detractors. There simply is no good explanation we can come up with as to why so many secret sleeper-cell atheists would chose to hide within the folds of religion for a nondescript amount of time (which is completely random for all we can tell)--unless, of course, we take them at their word--that they genuinely believed once upon a time. 


If anything is close to being certain it is that beliefs an amenable to change. After all, people can and do frequently change their minds. Just stand in line at any given Starbucks and listen to a dozen or so customer orders to see what I mean.


For high end rationalizers, cognitive dissonance has less of an impact for this reason. Rationalizers consist of people who want to believe--either because their faith comforts them or they are not smart enough to cope without their faith should it prove false. Even when the evidence is not in their favor they will continue to believe. They often make faith their bedrock and remind you of it by asserting they know because they know because they know. 


For the highly rational, however, rationalizations simply aren't enough to justify belief in God when there is reason enough to doubt. The question is, is their sufficient reason to doubt? I think science has given us more than enough sufficient reasons to start doubting the claims of religious belief which has for so long been taken for granted.





Conclusion
I firmly believe things will continue as they have since the dawn of modern science. Ever since Newton wrote down his equation that
F = (G x m1 x m2) / r2 and derived gravity, science has been on the steady path to enlightening our minds. Meanwhile, God will continue to pale into insignificance while science continues to gloriously expand our knowledge of, not only ourselves, but the world and the universe too. 


As long as God (or any genuine evidence of him) remains imperceptible, and as long as science continues to explain the universe with surprising accuracy, efficiency, and detail it seems the religious have only one thing going for them--their sheer tenacity to believe in opinions over facts.





Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist