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May 27, 2010

Religion and evidence-7: Uniqueness and the problem of induction

(For the complete series of posts on religion and evidence, see here.)

In the previous post, I argued that under the rules of logic, existence claims placed the burden of proof on the person making the claim to provide evidence in support of it, while universal claims required the person disputing it to provide evidence. In the case of 'god exists', which is clearly an existence claim, the burden of proof is on the believer. Similarly the claim 'there is no god' is a universal claim and again the burden of proof (or disproof in this case) is on the believer.

It could be argued that the logic argument can be turned around, and that the statement that 'a natural explanation exists for this phenomenon' is an existence claim and that 'no natural explanation exists' is a universal claim, and so positive evidence has to be provided in support of the claim that an explanation exists. But as I said in the previous post, the symmetry is not exact. An existence claim for an entity (like an electron or god) is qualitatively different from the claim of existence for an explanation or theory.

But suppose for the sake of furthering the discussion that we ignore this difference and ask what evidence we can produce that a natural explanation exists for the alleged miracle. In the absence of producing an actual direct alternative explanation, the only evidence that can be supplied is historical, that it has been the case that event after event that were once thought to be inexplicable and thus miraculous have subsequently been found to have natural explanations. Furthermore, one never sees medical miracles in which (say) an amputated limb has grown back, which would really confound all expectations. All the medical miracle claims are of extremely subtle forms where the cures do not obviously violate any scientific laws and are not obviously incompatible with natural explanations.

Of course, all this historical evidence cannot prove that the current claim of a miracle is false because of the well-known problem of induction. The problem of induction says that there is no logical reason to think that just because some pattern of events has been invariably followed in the past, that the pattern will continue into the future. As an example, whenever I have let go of something in the past, it has always fallen down. Does that mean that the next time I let go of something it will certainly fall down? I may be fully convinced that it will, but there is no logical reason why it should, just as there is no logical reason as to why the Earth will continue to spin on its axis tomorrow.

The Vatican's chief medical expert was implicitly appealing to this when he said that, "the miracle is in the particular, in the exceptional; statistics cannot prove or disprove that singular cause-and-effect relationship." (Jacalyn Duffin, Medical Miracles (2009), p. 187). One of the features of scientific investigations is its repeatability and predictability. Miracles, by definition, are one-off events defying our expectations of regularity.

But of course none of us go around in a state of panic wondering if things will suddenly fall upwards or the Earth will stop spinning. The reason for our calm is that we use common-sense logical rules that enable us to arrive at conclusions that we are confident of even in the absence of proof. What we routinely do in such situations is to place the burden of proof on those claiming an exemption to the expected pattern to provide evidence as to why we should believe their claim. The reason we are amused by the iconic cartoon of a man carrying a sign "The world will end tomorrow" is because there is no reason to think that it will. Since the world has not ended so far, we feel safe in going to sleep tonight thinking that the sun will rise again in the morning.

In the case of medical miracles, what the weight of this historical evidence does is establish a prima facie case that since so many previous miracles have turned out to have had natural explanations, the latest miracle likely has a natural explanation too. To maintain that the latest case is an exception to this trend is to shift the burden of proof back to the people making the miraculous claim.

Science operates on the principle of methodological naturalism as described by George Gaylord Simpson (Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944), p. 76):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.

Religious people may dislike methodological naturalism because it seems to shut out miracles but there is no denying that it has delivered the goods when it comes to advancing our knowledge. Abandoning it in order to allow us to say that inexplicable events are caused by god's intervention (which is really what miracles are claimed to be) is to risk losing a lot without gaining anything in return. By all means religious believers can choose to call inexplicable events acts of god. But it is perfectly reasonable and even desirable for scientists to reject such explanations if they are proffered without evidence in support of the existence of an agency that caused the event.

Philosopher David Hume in his essay On Miracles laid out a rule-of-thumb for determining how to judge whether an event is a miracle, saying "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

So applying Hume's rule, if one has a cure from an illness that is inexplicable on the basis of current knowledge, which would one consider to be more miraculous: the belief that god intervened, or its falsehood, that god did not intervene and there was a natural cause?

It seems to me that in the absence of evidence for the existence of some supernatural causation, it is perfectly rational and not at all unscientific to take the position that medical 'miracles' of the type described by Duffin are either the product of current deficiencies in knowledge or are improbable (but not impossible) events, and are not miracles in the religious sense in which the word is normally used.

POST SCRIPT: My article in The Chronicle of Higher Education

I was surprised to learn that my article The New War Between Science and Religion was the most viewed, emailed, and commented article. There were 170 (!) comments the last time I checked.

I received a nice little note of approval from Sir Harold Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry for his work on Fullerenes, which are molecules that consist of 60 atoms, all of them carbon, that are connected in a manner that in one form (commonly known as 'Buckyballs') looks like the geodesic domes constructed by the architect R. Buckminster Fuller. In following up, I found this excellent interview where Kroto talks about what motives we should have for doing something, competitiveness, science and the enlightenment, and the danger we face from irrational religious thinking by people who occupy important decision making positions.

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Comments

An existence claim for an entity (like an electron or god) is qualitatively different from the claim of existence for an explanation or theory.

I agree with the point made about existence claims for entities being in a different class than the claim of existence for a theory. But with one exception. I don't understand how a God can be an entity. To many around the world, gods are simply an "explanation" because they have been used in creation stories since the beginning of human communication. Gods are an explanation for things that we have failed to explain. Despite what even the firmest believer may think, gods only exist in the minds(heart, soul, whatever it may be) of humans. An answer to all those questions that remain inexplicable. If you took the explanation of god out of the equation, many religious minds would be left in a curious and confused state.

I enjoyed this series of posts. Hope to see more. Congrats on the recognition from Kroto.

-Daniel

Posted by Daniel on May 27, 2010 01:41 PM

But isn't the claim of the agnostic "God can neither be proven nor disproven" a universal claim? Therefore, isn't it up to the theist to prove that God exists and to the atheist that God does not exist by the rules of logic to the agnostic?


- Carolyn

Posted by Carolyn Wu on May 31, 2010 12:38 AM

Perhaps it would help if I rephrase it since its universal nature may at first escape some thoughts:

"There is no correct and complete proof that can be offered regarding God's existence or nonexistence."

So now isn't the ball in both the believer's and the unbeliever's court to prove otherwise to this (strong) agnostic?

Indeed, by the rules of logic doesn't my universal claim trump yours (since you are merely stating that God does not exist whereas I am claiming that it is impossible to determine whether God exists or not). Logically, you have actually made an existence claim, not a universal claim, with your claim that God does not exist: You have claimed existence of a proof that God does not exist.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on May 31, 2010 12:49 AM

Carolyn,

There is no dispute here concerning the existence of proofs. Atheists agree that there is no proof that god exists or that he does not exist.

The issue is the existence claim that god exists or the universal claim that god does not exist, which are different from the issue of whether there are proofs that god exists or does not exist.

But even with the question of proofs, there still exists an asymmetry. I can specify any number of ways in which god can prove that he exists. Can you specify what you would accept as a proof that god does not exist?

Posted by Mano on May 31, 2010 10:47 AM

But Dr. Singham, if an atheist asserts that there is no proof that God does not exist, then strong atheism cannot exist (a requirement of strong atheism is to be certain that God does not exist--that requires a proof). You are all agnostics who happen to believe that God does not exist. Atheists who assert that God does not exist are expressing a statement of faith.

However, you have presented a very interesting question: please provide a way to prove that God exists. I submit that this is impossible to provide such a complete and correct proof, even if God does exist and wanted to demonstrate His godliness. If you watch the TV program, V, people are claiming that the aliens are gods simply because they have wonderful technology that can cure all. As noted by Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Of course, he also said, "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong."


So please specify the "any number of ways in which god can prove that he exists" (of course, doesn't that beg the question as to why He would wish to do that? In fact, isn't it true that if God proved that He existed, free will would be destroyed as would faith (faith requires us to believe something that has not been proven)?)

See Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for the irreverent logic of why God will vanish in fit of smoke if you could prove that He existed (proof provided via the Babblefish existing). Really fun, especially for agnostics!

Posted by Carolyn Wu on May 31, 2010 02:15 PM

Carolyn,

Here are some things that I would immediately accept as proof of god's existence. He simultaneously announces to the whole world that at some specified time the next day he would:

1. stop the Earth rotating for 24 hours, thus creating a 48-hour day, or

2, regrow all the limbs of people who have had them amputated, or

3. make all the whales in the ocean fly through the air in formation, or...

well, you get the idea

Ok, now you give me something that would prove to you that god does not exist.

Posted by Mano on May 31, 2010 11:20 PM

None of those things that you suggest would cause me to believe that God had been proven:

1. Stopping the Earth rotating for 24 hours does not prove that God exists (even though the "miracle" has been claimed in Joshua 10:12-14) because a sufficient mass could be placed on the Earth that would halt the Earth's motion similar to a hand stopping a spinning globe. The same mass could be used to restart the Earth. Of course, it would cause all sorts of other problems: such as the fact that the objects on the Earth would have to be stopped as well. Pretty difficult stuff, but not impossible.

2. Regrowing of limbs has occurred in animals and thus it is theoretically possible for this to occur if the proper gene is turned on.

3. A hurricane of sufficient intensity and coverage can do what you suggest.

Of course, all of these can occur if we can slip from one of the multiverses (one where our current "laws" of physics do not apply) into the other and then back again (really, really difficult, but possible) or the being could simply alter our consciousnesses to believe that we had experienced these changes (much easier, actually--probably how a charlatan "god" would try to convince everyone to believe his godhood--of course, then he could convince).

Furthermore, none of these items prove anything other than an alien intelligence of sufficient technological advancement has come. Such an alien intelligence is not God. So any "god" who provides such proof must be opposed.

See, none of these prove that God exist.

I cannot come up with a proof that God exists or fails to exist because, as I have indicated, I argue that there is no such proof. God does not interfere in this world. Indeed, the only argument that provides for God's interference that I have seen as potentially plausible is that offered by theists who suggest that God recreates the universe every instant of every time but that thesis is highly problematic as well because it would deny the existence of time, as well as causality, and so I have rejected that concept as well.

What would be a proof that God existed to me? I die and I go to Heaven or to Hell. What would be a proof that God did not exist to me? I die and there is, well, nothing there. Unfortunately, these experiments are not repeatable.

It seems that I am more of a skeptic than an atheist, eh?

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 1, 2010 07:17 AM

One more problem with each proof: it requires God to take initiative. I have already stated that God has a reason not to do so (it would destroy faith and free will and all that). What is a experiment that we can conduct to prove that God exists - or fails to? That's even harder and, again, no one can come up with one. Unless you can come up with an experiment to disprove God or prove God, I think you are right where I am: no proof is possible, therefore, you are back to my original dilemma of where is the proof of lack of existence? I have no problem with you asserting that the believer must prove that God exists.

Further interesting dilemma: what if God is dead (Nietzsche)? Nothing about a creator precludes it (it would kind of put a damper on my belief system, though).

Since we cannot prove that someone who is written about in history (Jesus, Mohammed, etc.) actually lived and did the things they say, do we claim that they did not exist? By the reasoning that you have given, these claims are univesal ones that cannot be challenged: "No person such as is claimed in the Qu'ran existed as Mohammad", "No person such as is claimed in the Bible as Jesus", "No person such as Socrates as is claimed by Plato existed", "No person such as Homer existed", "No play or poem attributed to William Shakespeare was ever written by Shakespeare", etc. (please note that each and every single one of these arguments have been put forward by one scholar or another -- does that not mean that we should scientifically accept these arguments and remove all references to the conventionally accepted ideas?).

Of course, we could come up with proofs for each of these (if somehow spontaneously we find DNA evidence on the original manuscripts that was Shakespeare's, along with signed confessions from every single person who is a candidate for authorship of Shakespeare's plays denying their authorship and giving it to Shakespeare, for example) but these are not realistic proofs. Therefore, we really must reject these claims . . . on faith.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 1, 2010 07:44 AM

Carolyn,

You have forgotten that I said that each of those events would be preceded by god appearing to everyone everywhere simultaneously and predicting that these things would occur 24 hours before they do.

I am saying that any one of those kinds of things would be sufficient proof to me that god exists. I am pretty certain that any atheist would go along with me on this. It would be vastly far more conclusive proof than the normal standard of proof we use for anything else in life.

You seem to be saying that logical proof is the only proof there is. The position you are taking is one of extreme skepticism that says that we can never logically prove anything since we can always come up with an alternative hypothesis. Using your standard, we could never prove any criminal guilty in a court of law, for example.

But scientists use logical reasoning based on evidence to arrive at proofs. Science consist of such empirical-logical proofs. Sure, you can argue that friction forces are caused by tiny invisible, undetectable demons that try to prevent motion and that is logically possible. But when you make such a claim and have no evidence to back it up but make it only on the basis of logical possibility, no scientist will take you seriously. Arguments for god are of the same nature.

You seem to have a need to believe in an afterlife and so you have invented a god who exists only in the afterlife. Other believers want to believe in a god who also acts in this life, and they invent a god who does so. Each believer invents the god they need.

But this does not prove that god exists, any more than children's desire to believe in Santa Claus or fairy princesses means that those exist.

Why not simply say that you believe in god because you need to, for whatever reason? That would make more sense than the logical contortions that you are putting yourself through.

As to your other point about universal claims that Homer, Plato, etc., did not exist, I agree with you that those universal claims are true unless evidence is produced that those people existed, which is why some scholars work to establish that that evidence exists that they did exist.

For example, we do not believe that Hercules existed as a real person because there is no credible evidence in favor. The evidence for Mohammed as a real person is greater than that for Jesus which is why there is less doubt about his existence. But once there is sufficient evidence, we accept it as fact, which is why we believe that Shakespeare existed even though they still remains some doubt about his authorship of at least some of his plays. Scholars have gone to great lengths to find contemporaneous documentary evidence that a historical figure named William Shakespeare existed, precisely to counter the default position that he did not exist.

All these debates are all based on evidence for and against, which is why I keep coming back to the importance of evidence. The evidence for god's existence should be produced and evaluated in the same way.

Posted by Mano on June 1, 2010 08:26 AM

Carolyn,

I think that your definition for atheism is too strong; based on that pretty much any theist or atheist is "really" some form of agnostic. What's the point in having such a category system?

For a rudimentary start, I suggest:
***
An atheist is someone who is committed to the proposition that no gods exist.

A theist is someone who is committed to the proposition that there is at least one god existed at least once.

A weak agnostic is someone who is not committed to either proposition.

A strong agnostic is someone is is committed to the proposition that one cannot know whether or not there exists a god under any circumstances.

****

Jared

Posted by Jared A on June 1, 2010 11:28 AM

Of course, my belief is that everyone is an agnostic because they cannot possible "know for a fact" whether God exists or not. It is just that some people lie to themselves (strong athiests and strong theists, who are, by definition, the only groups that have no degree of agnosticism in them) into thinking that there is no possibility that they are wrong. To which I call them all supremely arrogant as to suppose that they can know for certain the nature of God.

That being said, agnosticism is not the same as atheism since an atheist believes that God does not exist. Similarly, agnosticism is not the same as theism since a theist believes that God exists. However, an agnostic may be an atheist or a theist depending on whether the agnostic believes that God exists or not (although, yes, they might be neither if they refuse to take a position). I am a weak theist who believes in God despite not knowing if God exists.

A weak agnostic holds out that it is possible to prove or disprove God but that has not yet occurred.

Those who are weak agnostics, weak theists and weak atheists cannot be called arrogant since they admit they do not know.

Of course, I am also probably supremely arrogant too: after all, I state emphatically that there is no proof (either in favor or against) the existence of God. That is what makes me a strong agnostic. However, that presents an interesting contradiction, doesn't it? Arrogance is typified by someone having strong belief systems that showcase how they are right and everyone else is wrong and I am stating that strong theists and strong atheists not only are wrong in stating that they have proven God or disproven God (a statement which seems to be self-evident to me) but I go further (here is the arrogant part) and state that it is impossible to prove or disprove God. However, I take comfort in one fact: knowledge of the truth is a justifiable defense against a charge of arrogancy. Damn, that's quite arrogant of me, isn't it?

:)

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 2, 2010 02:40 AM

Carolyn- But isn't the claim of the agnostic "God can neither be proven nor disproven" a universal claim? Therefore, isn't it up to the theist to prove that God exists and to the atheist that God does not exist by the rules of logic to the agnostic?

The proof is in the fact that existence can not be proven. If there is no way to prove that you are in the room than by all means you are out of the room. If one thing can not be proven than it is used as proof for the counter argument.

Posted by daniel on June 4, 2010 07:21 PM

"The proof is in the fact that existence can not be proven. If there is no way to prove that you are in the room than by all means you are out of the room. If one thing can not be proven than it is used as proof for the counter argument."

No, that does not constitute proof. Read Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, which effectively disproves your statement. It has been conclusively proven that there are some true things that can neither be proven nor disproven. From Boyer's History of Mathematics:

"Gödel showed that within a rigidly logical system such as Russell and Whitehead had developed for arithmetic, propositions can be formulated that are undecidable or undemonstrable within the axioms of the system. That is, within the system, there exist certain clear-cut statements that can neither be proved or disproved. Hence one cannot, using the usual methods, be certain that the axioms of arithmetic will not lead to contradictions ... It appears to foredoom hope of mathematical certitude through use of the obvious methods. Perhaps doomed also, as a result, is the ideal of science - to devise a set of axioms from which all phenomena of the external world can be deduced."

Here is an outline of the proof, taken from Rucker's Infinity of the Mind:

"1.Someone introduces Gödel to a UTM, a machine that is supposed to be a Universal Truth Machine, capable of correctly answering any question at all.
2.Gödel asks for the program and the circuit design of the UTM. The program may be complicated, but it can only be finitely long. Call the program P(UTM) for Program of the Universal Truth Machine.
3.Smiling a little, Gödel writes out the following sentence: "The machine constructed on the basis of the program P(UTM) will never say that this sentence is true." Call this sentence G for Gödel. Note that G is equivalent to: "UTM will never say G is true."
4.Now Gödel laughs his high laugh and asks UTM whether G is true or not.
5.If UTM says G is true, then "UTM will never say G is true" is false. If "UTM will never say G is true" is false, then G is false (since G = "UTM will never say G is true"). So if UTM says G is true, then G is in fact false, and UTM has made a false statement. So UTM will never say that G is true, since UTM makes only true statements.
6.We have established that UTM will never say G is true. So "UTM will never say G is true" is in fact a true statement. So G is true (since G = "UTM will never say G is true").
7."I know a truth that UTM can never utter," Gödel says. "I know that G is true. UTM is not truly universal."

The logic works for science as well. There are some things that are true that science cannot establish no matter what science tries to do. It so happens that God cannot be proven nor disproven and the proof that you cannot use the inability to prove God as your proof that God does not exist has been clearly established (by science) to be noncredible.

Try again.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 5, 2010 09:39 PM

Carolyn,

You are using Godel's argument incorrectly. It is true that within a sufficiently complex axiomatic system you can construct propositions that are true but are not theorems within that system. But that does not mean you can take any proposition you like and declare that it is one of those propositions. In fact, an undecidable proposition in one axiomatic system can be made provable in another. To use your argument you have to show that the proposition "god exists" is one of the undecidable propositions based on your axioms, using rigorous mathematics. You cannot just assert it.

What you are doing is basically re-asserting that God cannot be proven nor disproven logically and throwing in Godel's name gratuitously.

In any case, Godel's theorem is inapplicable in this case because proofs in science, unlike proofs in mathematics, are empirical in nature and depend on evidence as well as logic. And in science we routinely assert that things don't exist if there is no evidence that they exist. That is why we assert that only two types of electric charges exist (because we have no evidence for a third), and that is why we assert that baryon number is conserved (because we have never seen baryon number violated).

The existence of god is an empirical claim. In the absence of evidence people can believe in it, just as they can believe in a third kind of charge. But in doing so, they have left the world of science and entered the world of faith where one can just as well believe in anything one likes such as fairies and leprechauns. People can believe in them if they wish because we cannot prove they do not exist. But that does not mean that believing in them has the same empirical justification as not believing in them

Posted by Mano on June 5, 2010 11:17 PM

But I am not using it incorrectly. I never used Godel's argument as an argument that God cannot be proven. I simply stated that there are some things that cannot be proven and I suggested that God might be one of them. The Godel argument is simply used to prove that you cannot prove all logical claims. I then asserted that God is not provable. This makes my claim universal and thus you are required to prove it false.

Now to take on part two. It is equally wrong to state that God is an empirical claim. It is not! It is an empirical claim under some conceptions of God. However, if God does not interfere in our daily lives, how can you possibly prove Him? Perhaps you can but that is your responsibility, not mine, to prove. I have asserted that you cannot prove God.

You claim that if the world were to stop its rotation for 48 hours and then restart its rotation, or if the whales all flew in formation, etc., you would believe in God. But you would not. You would find a natural explanation for this, just as any good scientist would. Science cannot explain God because science eschews all supernatural causes as part of what is science.

For example, we claim that the laws of nature are immutable. What if we found a way for man to cause the laws of nature to change, would that mean that we were now "God"? Of course not!

What separates out God from unicorns and fairies is that God need not exist in the universe in order to exist. Indeed, most religions do not assert that God exists within the universe -- so how do you prove Him?

In addition, empirical proof is being misused by you. You are using a justification argument, not a certainty argument, and yet you have called for people to stop believing because you view religion as evil. This closes off legitimate inquiry and is wrong on that point alone.

After all, we used to assert that creationism, not evolution, was how all species occured. Then along comes Darwin (who, by the way, argued in his original Origin of Species, for intelligent design because he could not find evidence for anything else) and, voila, we found that there was another way.

Similarly, even Darwin asserted a belief in the Creator, which we call God. It is only when we found evidence for abiogenesis that we revised this.

However, you make a serious error in asserting that become God need not exist that, therefore, God does not exist. You are making another universal claim, which again is disprovable by a single example. Your claim is that no one should believe in God because you cannot prove otherwise. Why? What harm does it cause you if there are millions of people who believe? Absolutely none. The only harm caused to you is when they try to impose their views on you. Hmm--kind of like strong atheists who assert that God is a delusion and, therefore, mental illness (Dawkins).

I am sorry but,except by degree, you are fundamentally no different than religious fanatics on the other side.

I have always agreed with you that a God that interferes in the world will quite likely leave a mark (although, I suppose if He is God, he can also figure out how not to leave a mark but then why would He interfere in the first place?) and thus those conceptions of God are empirical claims. However, a God that does not interfere is another thing entirely.

All science can do is narrow the range of functions that God can accomplish. It cannot disprove God. Prove otherwise.

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 6, 2010 09:51 AM

One final point: you state that in science we routinely assert that things do not exist because we have no evidence for them. We also assert that things do exist despite the fact we have no (empirical) evidence for them! For example, we assert that tachyons exist even though we have never found them because it works with our models. We do this because we have also found that there is no evidence against them and because the evidence that we have found is consistent with our models and that if we eliminated them from our models, we would yield inconsistent results, and (most importantly for this argument) because they yield a natural, not a supernatural, result.

The fact is that if one of us appeared to ancient man, he would look at us as a God (at least until they killed one of us). But even though death is a proof against an entity being God (well, to everyone except Christians), it is entirely possible through a natural process that an entity might never die and yet not be God.

Your mind is conditioned not to accept things without proof. Yet you, without proof, assert that all things must have a natural cause, including, by the way, initial creation.

So I ask you the following questions: what created the universe? If it is uncreated, how does science explain this eternity? If it was created, what happened one second before creation?

Religion answers these questions that science cannot. It may not provide the correct answers (in fact, there may be no way to provide a correct answer) but it provides an answer that makes sense. Well, at least until you try to ask the "unaskable" questions, which is why I am an agnostic, rather than a strong theist: What created God? If God is uncreated, how does religion explain that eternity? If God was created, what happened one second before His creation?

To paraphrase Shakespeare's Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Dr. Singham, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."


Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 6, 2010 10:08 AM

However, even for the God that interferes, there is a problem and it is one proof that science cannot prove what you think it can:

What if the "immutable" laws of nature have changed over time in a way that you cannot detect it?

Now, I don't believe that they have but I cannot prove that they haven't. I fundamentally take it on faith that they have not. Religious zealots would argue otherwise (in fact, if you read their creationist arguments, they must believe otherwise -- you can't get an "young Earth" without it!).

No, the religious zealots might be correct. The best you can ask is: "Is this useful?" and not "Is this true?" because truth is only in the eyes of the beholder who believes in certain axioms (like the laws of nature do not change).

Indeed, if somehow the laws of nature were shown to change and that change were unpredictable, then science would have to go back to the drawing board: God does not play dice with the universe because, if He did, science would no longer be useful (well, at least if we looked before and after a change in the law).

Religion, on the other hand, is not useful for most things but it is useful on one level: personal comfort. Furthermore, unlike the tooth fairy and Santa Claus (both obviously human inventions which give humans comfort so loong as they believe in them), one cannot expose the magic by showing that it actually Mom or Dad doing it. Unlike belief in the unicorn and the leprechaun, belief in God is useful. The unicorn and the leprechaun are merely amusing.

But, like all useful things, belief in God can be used for good or for evil. The goal should be to limit the evil and promote the good.

Or are you one of those evil people who go around to 4 year olds who are not your own children and tell them that there is no Santa Claus just so that you can make them cry?

Posted by Carolyn Wu on June 6, 2010 12:29 PM