Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Does Evidence Undermine Religion?

Recently I have been binge watching Youtube videos of debates and discussions on religion and ethics. Every time I watch one of these videos I have a million different thoughts rushing through my head and very strong opinions on what's being discussed and I always think to myself that I will put all these thoughts into writing, but for one reason or another I never do. So, this post is the first of many posts where I discuss and comment on certain videos on religion and/or ethics. However, it doesn't have to be limited to those topics, it could be on pretty much anything. The video I will talk about in this post is titled 'Does evidence undermine religion?". It is part of the BBC's Big Questions series of debates. These debates cover a variety of topics including religion, ethics and morality, law etc. These debates consist of a group of people with wide ranging views on the topic talking in front of a studio audience. Taking part in this particular debate, as mentioned in the video description, are: evolutionary biologist Adam Rutherford, Biblical scholar professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Rabbi Miriam Berger from the Finchley Reform Synagogue, author Robert Feather, Hamza Tzortzis from iERA, Visnu Murti Das from the Hare Krishna Temple, philosopher Dr Arif Ahmed, Lola Tinubu from London Black Atheists, professor Joan Taylor from King's College, philosopher Dr Peter Cave and Dr Radisa Antic from the Seventh Day Adventist Research Centre.. Anyway, the video I'll be talking about is posted below. I'll leave it to you to decide whether to watch it before reading the rest of my post or after.

I don't really want to discuss the subject matter itself but rather try to address and comment on the points and questions raised by people in the video. Before I get into that I just wanted to say that I loved the look that Prof. Francesca Stavrakopoulou (at 2:26) gave when Robert Feather talked about the evidence he felt 'logically' and biblically demonstrated the truth behind the story of Moses. I just though that was brilliant. Other than that I don't feel the need to say much more about what Robert Feather said regarding the evidence that he thinks he has to claim that he has found the Mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. One more point, he claims that from his understanding of a certain unit of measurement, there were about 30,00 to 40,00 thousand Jews (4:12) involved in the exodus from Egypt. However, he doesn't have any evidence to back up his claim on the size of the Hebrew/Jewish group in Egypt at that time, he says that there are some textual evidence of some Hebrew/Jewish people in that region. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, however, refutes his claim by saying that there is no archaeological evidence of large numbers of Israelites living in or fleeing from Egypt (5:56). Dr. Arif Ahmed sums up my view on this part of the discussion perfectly (7:45) by saying that even if what Robert Feather says is true, and like Arif my inclination is to go with Francesca and disagree to the validity of the both the evidence presented and the biblical account of it, there is no evidence for the supernatural claims made in the bible regarding this event. Even if you choose to believe that the bible is a book that documents real historical, although there are biblical scholars who will dispute this, there is no reason you should believe the supernatural/metaphysical claims. Following on from what Francesca says about how/why those types of stories come about, Rabbi Miriam Berger says something interesting (10:12); it doesn't matter to her if those biblical events actually happened or not as those stories give her a sense of identity as a Jewish person. Which is, of course, fair enough and I like that she was honest enough to say that because many religious people would never consider that what they read in their holy books might not have happened. However, what that statement says to me is that truth is not central to religions. It is more about the identity and the community it provides. Of course, many religious people will argue against that by saying that religion is a quest for 'truth' - whatever that truth may be.

Next, we come to Dr Radisa Antic, who says some things that annoys me every time I hear them. Firstly, he tries to dismiss (12:00) archaeological evidence by saying we shouldn't make it the 'measure of all truth'. I don't know who is claiming that archaeology is the 'measure of all truth' but what Radisa is doing is using a cheap method to cast doubt on archaeological evidence. Basically, he's saying it's not perfect and so it shouldn't be taken seriously. More annoying, he goes on to say (13:05) that because he sees beauty in the Universe therefore god must've done it. A lot of people, including myself, see incredible beauty in the Universe but that subjective view/feeling isn't evidence for god. He then goes on to say that the 'atheistic community',I don't know why he's saying atheists and not scientists, have no answer as to how the Universe came into existence. I'm glad to hear that in a way because it would be surprising if anyone claiming to be an atheist said they knew how the Universe came into existence. Not knowing is OK, don't be afraid of it as the famous physicist Richard Feynman once said. He further claims that these atheists are telling people that something came out of nothing. I still don't know who these atheists are but he may be talking about Lawrence Krause who, I think, said that the Universe and the physical laws can come out of the vacuum i.e. empty space. However, that vacuum, I suspect, is not what Radisa means when he talks about 'nothing'. We, and by that I mean physicists, have a very good model (the standard model of cosmology) of the Universe that is predictive and backed up by a lot of evidence. With the addition of cosmological inflation the scope of the model goes back to a fraction of a second (~10^-36s) after some event that we call the Big Bang. We don't know what happened at the Big Bang or if it is even sensible to ask what existed prior to the Big Bang as space and time came into existence at that moment. There are ideas and models e.g. the multiverse idea, however, it's safe to say we don't know and people are trying to understand and new ideas are being generated. Radisa at one point mentions common sense and Dr Adam Rutherford picks up on that (15:05) and explains why people should not use, or rely on, common sense as a guide to understanding nature. Common sense does not give you the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics; ideas which  are quite counter-intuitive and go against common sense. Also, what the hell is 'common sense'?

I'll come back to Radisa Antic in a moment but next to speak is Hamza Tzortzis. He begins by saying we, I'm guessing he means scientists, should show epistemic humility (17:30). I've heard this before from religious people and it is rich coming from  those that make unsubstantiated claims about reality. Anyway, fair point, let's all be more humble. He says that science is limited and that we shouldn't restrict ourselves to science as the only tool to reach truth. He mentions philosophy and maths as other ways to truth. I don't know what Hamza means by truth when he says this. We are talking about religious truth and not mathematical truth for example. In mathematics you can actually prove statements to be true or false. I wonder what he claims religions assertions to fall under. In my opinion this is just handwaving to distract people from the core debate about the truth of religious claims about reality. As to the limit of science and ultimate truth, I think Richard Feynman said it much better than I ever could:

Arif comes in at 21:23 to say something about the fine tuning argument that was made earlier. Before that he points out that some of what Hamza said was just platitudes and I agree completely. Back to the fine tuning argument; which says that it appears as though the constants of nature are fine tuned for life and even slight deviations of those constants would result in a vastly different Universe that is not conducive to life. As with many other religious arguments: apparent fine tuning > god did it. Arif argues that claims that life is unlikely to have arisen due to chance is not justifiable because we don't have any grounds to establish a probability distribution with which we can say that is is likely or unlikely. The only way to establish a probability distribution is to do repeated trials and as far as we know we only have the one Universe. So we can't really say that these constants of nature, that have resulted in the development of life, are unlikely to come about by chance. Arif then challenges anyone to justify or provide a probability distribution to back up their claims. The gentleman next to Arif comes in (22:52) and talks loosely about the big bang and some explosive force and then gives a ridiculous example involving poker and the unlikelihood of getting a dozen royal flushes in a row. We know that such an event is unlikely because we know the probability distribution of such things and so we are justified in saying the likelihood of a dozen royal flushes is very rare. Arif then goes on to provide a excellent example of why you shouldn't think like that poker example using gentleman did. He uses the example of the snowflake and what the first person to see one under a microscope would think, without knowing anything about how snowflakes form, about the remarkable regularity and pattern to that snowflake. That person could assume that the probability of such a shape forming must be incredibly rare considering how all the atoms have to arrange themselves in a specific etc.  

The discussion moves on to evolution and human evolution specifically. Radisa is asked (26:00) if his faith will change if evolution is true and he says it would. What his answer tells me is that he either hasn't really looked into the enormous amounts of evidence in favour of evolution or that no evidence will convince him.  

We also get some opinions and questions from the audience members, one of whom says (28:56) that atheism is a religion. I sigh every time I hear this from people. He also asks a question which I don't really understand. It's something to do with how we can trust our minds if we are the result of evolution. I think what he's trying to say, I may be wrong, is that intelligence i.e. human intelligence, can't come from evolution as it is not necessary or beneficial for survival. He says that cockroaches aren't discussing quantum mechanics over tea. If that is actually what he means then he must think intelligence has no part to play in survival??? That intelligence, not just human intelligence, and the ability to analyse and understand the world, learn from experience, pattern recognition, understand and predict behaviour of other animals, learn to use tools etc. are not beneficial to survival?? I guess he then has a hard time imagining how one of those intelligent beings can then go on and contemplate about the Andromeda galaxy. Evolution is not aimed towards intelligence but that doesn't mean intelligence can't arise from it. Furthermore, I also don't know what this gentleman means when he says "how can we trust our minds". 

The gentleman sitting next to Arif speaks again about one form of evidence that they haven't covered: relational evidence. He says that he knows his wife loves him but there isn't anything that he can put in front of people to show evidence of that love. He then lists some things which tell him that his wife loves him e.g. touch. I'm not quite sure what his point is in saying this. He and others can ask his wife if she loves him and he and others can observe the actions of his wife towards him and come to some conclusion based on the evidence whether she loves him or not. Of course, she may fake all signs of love but I doubt that is the case. Anyway, my point is that there is evidence, it is not the same as evidence you get in physics for example, that he and others can see, repeatedly, that justifies his claim that his wife loves him. I really dislike these kinds of arguments, I'm not even sure what his purpose was for such an argument, because it is a dishonest attempt link it to other claims e.g. god, fairies, devils etc.

The debate then moves onto resurrections, miracles, faith healing and demons and it is at this point I was exhausted and decided to tune out. I think I have said all I could about this video. I'll leave you with Richard Feynman:


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