Tuesday, 14 July 2015

My Truth is Bigger Than Your Truth

I like to think my views on science, philosophy and religion are based on good, fairly solid foundations. I also like to think that I don't think in terms of absolutes. Therefore, rarely do I read or watch something that makes me re-evaluate my core beliefs and positions. That's not to say that I don't learn anything new or that my core beliefs are not expanded or better polished. I want to discuss a video I watched recently that made me shine a light on some of those core beliefs and re-examine them a little more carefully. My core beliefs haven't changed in any fundamental way but I think I view certain things with a slightly different angle now. Some of this probably sounds a bit vague and fuzzy and I guess it is.

The video I want to discuss is titled 'London Thinks: A Scientist, an Atheist Biblical Scholar and a Vicar Walk into an Ethical Society'. I find this video interesting for two reasons: the first I've stated above and the second is Prof. Francesca Stavrakopoulou. I think I've fallen in love with her. I love how knowledgeable she is in the area of religion and ancient texts. I find her arguments very clear and compelling. I just think she's a cool person There are other reasons but let's not go into those. My interest in her is probably slightly unhealthy with the number of videos I've watched on her recently. Thankfully, she will probably never come across this blog post.

Another reason. @DeaneGalbraith
Anyway, my slight obsession with Francesca aside, here is the video:

The discussion also includes scientist Dr. Adam Rutherford (who is also very cool), vicar Rev. Giles Fraser. I guess you can figure out who the atheist biblical scholar is. Channel 4 News's Samira Ahmed is there to guide the discussion along.

Before I say anything else, I'm glad Samira took off her earring that was banging against the mic and causing a really distracting sound.

Francesca starts off with by saying that she is an atheist but people should not assume that she is a 'new atheist' - referring to Richard Dawkins' style of atheism. She disagrees with Dawkins' combative style of atheism and how he sees science vs. religion as a battle. I agree with Francesca to a certain extent. I think Dawkins' style and aggressiveness may not be helpful in winning hearts and minds. I feel that some people will feel overtly threatened by this so called 'new atheism', leading to further entrenchment in their religious and supernatural beliefs. However, I do believe that there are some battles between science and religion/superstition e.g. creationism, faith healing. Of course, religion is much more than than the sum of its superstitious elements. However, I don't think there should be an automatic call to arms every time religion and science are discussed. I also disagree with Francesca as to the motives of Richard Dawkins. I don't think he is doing what he does simply for fame or that it is his primary motive. I think he, and people like him e.g. Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, do see a threat from religion. They, perhaps, may see an exaggerated threat but I feel there is some substance to their views. My personal feeling towards religion is that the decline in religiosity is necessary for the advancement of civil liberties, education, gender equality, economic prosperity etc. Not that a liberal, educated and prosperous society cannot have ideas derived from religious sources. Superstitious elements aside, religion is just an example of humanity's struggle to live in a complex world. Religious voices, like any another other voice, should not be ignored but critically assessed and challenged when necessary. I agree with Francesca that a more nuanced approach is needed, especially in the media.

Giles Fraser's comments about atheism made me think about my response if god suddenly appeared in front of me. Unlike Giles' atheist friend, I don't think I will continue calling myself an atheist. I won't suddenly become religious but with sufficient (not sure what that would or could be) display of power I may entertain the idea that a god exists. I'll most certainly have a lot of questions and won't just automatically trust what my eyes see. On of the thoughts I'll probably have is "how do I know that this being claiming to be god is not just a really advanced alien?" Although, with sufficient threats I may be forced to bow down to this god x number of times a day.

Adam Rutherford doesn't really care about what people believe in as long as they don't 'step on his turf'. I agree that if and when religious people make claims about how the world works, e.g creationism, geology.., then it is right that scientists say that there is a problem there and attempts should be made in the public sphere to rebut religious claims about the way nature works. I don't think there is much for scientists to discuss regarding religious claims within an academic setting but there should be a sense of duty regarding educating the public outside of lecture theatres. Giles, after obtaining some paper and a pen, responds to Adam by pointing out that there is a link in the rise of new atheism and and the attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001.  I agree with Giles, that event probably had a huge influence on new atheists but I think other things in American society e.g. the encroachment of creationism in classrooms, also had a big effect.

Francesca says something about science that I don't really understand or perhaps appreciate. She says that science and some scientists portray science as having some exclusive, superior way of knowing and understanding the world. She claims that there are other ways of understanding the world and what it means to be in the world that is not scientific. I'm not sure what she means by 'other ways of understanding the world', is she talking about the behaviour of matter and energy? Or the behaviour of people and ideas, how and why those ideas come about? I think these areas a pretty much covered by physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience and psychology. Also, the part 'what it means to be in the world' is also a bit fuzzy to me. I don't know if that refers to ethics, morality, arts etc. I think the space of possible human behaviour, including every thought possible, is huge but finite because there are a finite number of atoms comprising a human body and there are a finite number of interactions between that body and the external world. I guess what I'm trying to say is that science is the only tool we know of that can map that space. Whether that map has or gives people meaning is something I can't say anything about. Also, adding free will, determinism and randomness to this makes it very complex and interesting. I am not smart enough to come up with any meaningful answers to these questions.

Adam then says that the scientific way of knowing is better than all other ways of knowing - a statement that causes Francesca to exclaim 'oh god!'. I, again, am not sure that the 'other ways of knowing' has been defined properly to be able to make that statement. Giles uses the example of William Wordsworth, a poet, and whether his knowledge of what he saw is inferior to that of a scientist, such as Adam, I don't particularly following Giles' line of reasoning. Take the case of a daffodil for example. A scientist and Wordsworth are both staring at a beautiful daffodil. Does Wordsworth know more about the properties and nature of the daffodil than the scientist who has studied it? Unless, Wordsworth was also a scientist, I don't see how that is possible. Wordsworth may have more information in his brain related to the daffodil that you may describe as being poetic. He may even have more bits of information in his head in total about that daffodil but does that mean he knows more about the daffodil than the scientist? Or if what Wordsword knows is better or worse? I guess a definition of 'knowing' and'better' in this context is required. If by 'better' you mean that the information inside the scientist's head is better for describing the physical properties and behaviour of the daffodil and perhaps making testable predictions about aspects of the daffodil, then I think it is safe to say that the scientist knows better. To me the statement: 'there are ways of knowing other than science', can be rephrased as 'other brain states are possible'. Some may say that I don't understand, recognise or appreciate things like philosophy, sociology, religion or art. I do. However, one must also be careful when speaking of knowing about the world or using terms such as 'facts' in such contexts. As Adam puts it: what science says about something is not necessarily the most interesting thing that can be said. 'Interesting' is, of course, subjective. This particular debate without concrete examples is rather vague and a little philosophy-y. Perhaps the following video is relevant to this part of the discussion:

Samira says something really annoying about why some people may have some hostility towards science. She brings up the Nazis, Auschwitz and eugenics as potential reasons. Just because some scientists, either willingly or unwillingly, collaborated with the Nazis in finding better ways to kill people or did horrific medical experiments on them doesn't mean science is responsible for it. Science is a process/method of investigating the world and a way of falsifying our ideas/hypothesises about the world. Whether a scientist uses the knowledge gained about the atom to build a bomb or a transistor does not make science somehow culpable for the application of some knowledge by people. Also, in the medical case, scientists can find out about the human body by unethical experiments on live human beings or by examining a dead one. Thankfully, we have tools which can investigate the inner workings of the body non-invasively. I understand why Samira brought this up and she isn't saying that that view is correct. She is just highlighting some misconceptions and misunderstandings of and about science in the public sphere. However, Samira saying that 'science' has not always been 'impartial' and 'rational', is just silly. What I've written already covers that statement. I don't know what point Adam was trying to make when he was talking about eugenics or what Giles was going on about when he talks of 'relativism'. Scientists are not perfect, rational beings who use the knowledge they have gained for 'good' purposes. Also, eugenics is not a science.

Before I even watched the debate I had a feeling that I would disagree with Giles on more things than the other two. As I watched the debate and as Giles talked, I saw more and more evidence to justify that feeling. He says something, that I think is frustratingly ignorant, about the arrogance of religion and science. He says that the 'old empire' i.e. religion, used to think that it knew everything and it was always right. He then says that science is the 'new empire' that claims to know everything. I don't know how he can equate the unsubstantiated arrogance of religious claims to the substantiated claims of scientists. Does he believe that scientists or science, which is just a process, claim to know everything or claim that what they know is 100% correct? Does he think that creationist claims about biology or geology and scientists claims about biology and geology are equal in arrogance? One has zero evidence to back it up and the other has shitload of evidence to back up their claims. I wonder if Giles knows which one is which. That last sentence is of course very pejorative but I don't understand how intelligent people can make arguments like that. Perhaps he said that just to spark a conversation. Giles talks about self criticism in regards to science. Does he know what science is and how science works? Criticism and doubt is absolutely essential to the scientific method. Francesca seems to agree with Giles and says that the privileging of science in society is a problem. Privileging in what context? And why is that bad? I never though I'd disagree with Francesca so much. Which is a good thing because I'm glad my infatuation with Francesca has not inhibited my criticism of her views.

Adam makes a claim that the knowledge scientists have obtained over the years cannot be used by religious people to say that it was already revealed to them in their holy books. Samira disagrees and gives the example of the embryo and the qu'ran. First, the vague description in the qu'ran hardly qualifies as any kind of description of the embryo. If your standards are low enough you can never be wrong. Second, the qu'ran did not come out in a vacuum of knowledge about the human body. There were many people investigating, dissecting the human body long before the qu'ran came along. I think a divinely inspired book could have done a little better. Also, people are very selective in their acceptance of things from holy books. They tend to ignore the many obviously wrong things. Giles thinks he has a better example but never provides one.

Adam asks Giles if he believes the historicity of Jesus and the account of him dying, coming back to life and ascending to heaven. Giles says yes and that those beliefs are an absolutely unassailable part of his world-view. Adam then asks Giles, as a hypothetical situation, to imagine there was evidence to show that either Jesus didn't exist or that he didn't come back to life and ascend to heaven, would he then change his views? Giles says that he would still have the same world-view despite evidence against 'absolutely unassailable part of his world-view'. This response is not surprising coming from religious people. Evidence doesn't really matter, it's more about how they feel and identify themselves. In that case, I don't know why these religious people don't just give up supernatural claims and stick to moral/ethical things in their religious books.

Francesca shows pornography in her classes! Best.Professor.Ever! Actually, I've seen images in a electronics engineering presentation that was almost pornographic.

I also just wanted to say that Samira is in for a treat with her Battlestar Galactica box set.

I'm knackered and that's all I have to say about this video.


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