Science.

A friend asked me what my philosophical beliefs are, how I feel about alchemy and astrology and whether I think there is a God. He didn’t know this site existed and so I pointed him toward my Post Christianity post.

His reply was that he understood me to be an atheist but that he felt that the question had not been answered fully and followed with whether or not I thought “so called science” had all the answers.

It was not the first time I have heard the term used and not the first time it struck me as indicative of a foregone conclusion. It was however the first time it really struck me as an oxymoron. (noun, plural oxymora [ok-si-mawruh, –mohruh],oxymorons. Rhetoric. 1. a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous,seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness” or “to make haste slowly.”.)

It is an oxymoron because it implies uncertainty, that is to say it describes science as something that is unreliable or hit or miss in some sense, but science is – ( noun 1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws:). That is to say “so called science” is defined as unreliable knowledge. Knowledge is by definition a known quantity – hence, reliable.

The definition above relates to a single scientific discipline however, but in the context of our discussion it referred to the entirety of these disciplines in the same vein as the broader discussion going on globally – i.e. Science is the body of disciplines which encompass the study of the universe that surrounds us, from the very small to the very large, with branches such as physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, etc, all of which use mathematics to a great extent as a tool.

The “scientific method” – the method we employ in order to discover new science (knowledge) relies on experiments that can be independently performed by anyone with the means and inclination to do so, whose results are published for all to see and critique. This ensures that all conclusions are thoroughly verified and tested before they are accepted as truths. What’s more they are repeated to ensure that the results and therefore the conclusions of those results are reliable by means of standard deviation. This method has evolved to be more and more reliable over the past two centuries and the fact that you can read this text on an LCD screen is part of the tangible evidence of its’ reliability

So where’s the philosophy in all this Kirk? you’re going off on another rant.

Well, now the questions become “Does science as described above have all the answers?” and if “No”, “Is there any merit to Alchemy and Astrology, or even a religious philosophical system?”

Well the short answer to the first question is a simple “No”. Why? because we have only been at it for a very short time, and the universe is really big, and a lot is happening in it. Furthermore most of the time that we have been asking questions about it, our tools were limited to our own eyes and our mind, so one could say we have only been at it seriously since the Renaissance.
What’s more, there are unanswerable questions: “Is there a God?”. God is defined as a supernatural being that is to say, beyond nature, or above the plane of nature – the universe. If God exists we cannot measure it, if we could measure it (by implanted vision or talking or praying) that would imply its’ pertaining to the universe and thus not supernatural. Even if the interaction is one way say, from God to us, that still means it can be part of the universe and so a subject to its’ laws which again violates its’ supernatural definition. If a God does not exist, we have no, and will never have means of knowing this with any degree of certainty because of the nature of the definition.
There are also nonsensical questions: “What happened before the Big Bang?”. The Big Bang is an event which created the space-time continuum, so the question is equivalent to “What is south of the South Pole?” At the South Pole, all directions are North. Asking the question is like trying to divide by 0 – nonsense.

So we cannot conclusively answer the “Is there a God?” question, so let’s instead shift it to something that we could possibly tackle with a few more questions.

“Is it possible there is a God?” – “Yes” – it is certainly possible, if we define anything as being supernatural i.e. not beholden to the laws of the universe (known or not) then that concept is possible, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The issue with this is that God is defined as being the primal source, prime cause or the more archaic prime mover but even the question of “Is God there?” subordinates its existence to the concept of truth and the very idea that God is subordinate to anything makes the entire concept collapse making God’s existence more and more unlikely.

To conclude this answer, in my view, the existence of a God is irrelevant, and the pursuit of an answer to an unanswerable question is a waste of time.It is irrelevant because if it does exist, we cannot interact by definition and so it cannot communicate with us and vice versa, no communication results in no influence and thus no relevance – it would be nice to know, but we can’t, so why bother when our lifespans are limited? furthermore why dedicate our lives to something that is impossible to be sure of when we could instead pursue concepts that come with some benefit.

“Alright, what about Alchemy and Astrology, why are they pseudo-science”. We defined science as something that is known, rigorously. So, what makes a pseudo-science.

Alchemy is the process of transmuting a substance into another by way of chemical reaction and/or incantations, it was the precursor to the modern science of chemistry. While Alchemy was able to observe correlations between certain interactions (Vitriol transmutes metals into salts) and their effects, it could not explain the underlying mechanism that lead to those effects and so results were, understandably, unreliable. They thought they knew something because certain predictions came true, but they did not understand why or how so… pseudo-science. Eventually alchemists became chemists as the mechanisms of reactions became more and more understood making alchemy obsolete in its’ use to pursue facts about the natural world.

Astrology is the study that assumes and attempts to interpret the influence of heavenly bodies on human affairs. Astrology relies on correlations between astronomical positions of planets and stars and human behavior and psychology (i.e. if Jupiter is in this constellation such and such will happen to you or your psychology). This is a fallacy. Correlation does not imply causation as shown here. Astrology has not produced a theory (read a system of proofs) by which the correlations it presents as fact come to be. They think they know something because certain predictions come true but they do not understand how or why so… pseudo-science.

 

As a rational being I try my best to base my decisions on the best approximation of truth that I can. Neither religion, alchemy or astrology provide anything close to the best approximation, let alone truth.

Post Christianity.

I am an atheist. There are places in the world where saying that openly comes with severe consequences; because it is a departure from an idea that has been one of the pillars of human cultures from the beginning of time – that a being beyond the scope of our understanding is the ultimate explanation to everything that we cannot rationally explain. In saying that I am an atheist I also expose willingly a bias which you would no doubt have noticed on your own throughout the text below.

Rowan Williams is a cleric, decidedly not an atheist. He is the former Archbishop of Canterbury. While not an equivalent of the Catholic Pope (the Monarch is the head of the Anglican Church), his former position was that of an archbishop foremost among equals, he spoke in the name of the Anglican Communion.

To put this into a little bit of context, the Anglican Church was formally created when Henry the Eighth  became “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England” through a law called the Act of Suppremacy in 1534, thirteen years after the Lutheran split. It is however argued that the Church in England had a local identity long before this date due to it’s remote distance from Rome as well as the cauldron of culture which was England in the Dark and Early Middle Ages. That said, one can infer that there is a revolutionary identity to this otherwise traditional Church.

It is with these facts in mind that I recently read about something Rowan Williams said not two days ago, speaking not from his official position of Archbishop of Canterbury from which he stepped down in 2011, which may have been a little too revolutionary, but from that of a cleric nonetheless and that is: “Britain is now a post Christian country”. It made me dwell. It is a remarkably profound statement, and knee jerk reactions by the likes of David Cameron who replied “au contraire” only serve to underscore this.

He meant that even though people are nominally Christian, the vast majority do not actively practice and even though it is a part of the national psyche to be Anglican, people are really only ever in church for rites of passage, baptism, marriage and funerals.

I live in a large city. There is hustle and bustle, everyone is in a hurry to get where they’re going because they have to be someplace else after they get there. There is little time for soul searching even though, judging by the number of churches in the capital we are a staunchly Orthodox country. Our priests dress in increasingly more elaborate garb the higher the rank, and we take pride in the beautifully painted monasteries in the Romanian half of Moldova. People still do go to church and flock in their tens of thousands to kiss relics on special occasions of the Orthodox calendar, but there is a real distinction between the rural and urban populations in this sense.

It is in this context that I was recently invited to a wedding. A friend, whom I have known my entire life is getting married. There was a formal invitation, and the service will be held in a church and will be performed by a priest, just like my brother’s and my father’s and my cousin’s et cetera. These are people who, I think, do not really believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly perfect God who created the Earth seven thousand years ago and suddenly decided three thousand years in that he got it wrong and had to drown everyone to start with a clean slate. No, for the most part they are rational people who can tell myth from falsifiable hypothesis.

And yet, they all made a conscious decision that, yes, “I want to be the protagonist in this religious ceremony even though I don’t really believe God physically took one bone from Adam and made a whole Eve out of it”. What’s more is that I too wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am to marry, I would like some kind of ceremony, the mayor/ship’s captain is not enough. Why is that? It’s completely irrational, why is it important at all to me?

I asked myself this same question when my father died. There was an Orthodox funeral, people came, there was chanting, flowers, superstitious wine spilling, everything you can come up with. Why? He’s dead, it won’t change that fact. Why would making a certain sequence of pressure waves pass through the air of this concrete building make a difference in whether or not he goes to heaven, if indeed heaven exists. Will God punish the individual that was my father if I do not describe the shape of a cross with my hands three times? What if I only do it twice? Not at all? Why do I have to do it with my tongue? Why are these things relevant? I thought of believers as either gullible or stupid, and of priests as either stupid or charlatans. I still think that this is true to some extent but I am no longer as militant about it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the ritual itself that is important. The more elaborate the better. It not only binds us to our community as social creatures but provides a sort of ‘loading screen’ if you will, allowing us to progress from one perceived stage of our lives to the next. Before the ritual I had a father, I didn’t afterward, it helped come to terms with that fact and I contend it’s something that we all experience when we go through a religious right of passage.

Neuroscience has shown that this is not just a cultural phenomenon, something that we have consciously construed. There is such a thing as a religious center in our brains, an area that lights up in the lab when we are having a religious experience, when we have feelings of intense spirituality. I can’t say that I understand the detail of the science involved but the jist is, it is as much a part of who we are as love and fear, without it we would be less human. It is something our evolution came up with to avoid us asking too many questions about the world and concentrate on dinner, because dinner means we live to procreate while a starry eyed kid looking up at the night sky in the savanna with lions around would not.

All of that said it is however important to realize that much of the way we are built as humans does limit our potential to achieve our goals of a better life for everyone and solving the world’s problems. We are warm blooded animals which means we consume a lot of energy and therefore require a lot of food compared to say a juvenile Komodo dragon who weighs about as much. This means feeding seven billion of us requires some ingenuity. The fact is you can’t really make it rain fish. Prayer will not stop an asteroid impact and you can’t repent your way out of a pandemic. We need to ask questions, it IS now a matter of survival and so we must recognize our limitations in order to overcome them and I think that is exactly what Rowan Williams did.