Thursday, October 22, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part IV

Intelligent Design and the God-of-the-Gaps

Intelligent Design (ID) is supposedly a strong argument for the existence of a creator/designer/god. On the surface it doesn’t imply a specific god but each religion will use it to imply their own god. In America, which is predominately Judeo-Christian, the unwritten implication is the God of the Bible. The basic premise is that some things around us are so complex and work together so well that they must have been designed that way. This approach was popularized in the late 18th century by William Paley who used the example of finding a watch in the field. One would immediately recognize that the watch was designed and built by a maker. Paley looked at the world around him and determined that it was complex, like the watch, and therefore had a maker. Since Paley lived in the late 1700s, dying in 1804, he did not have the benefit of the scientific knowledge we have today. Yes, the universe, the solar system and life on this planet are complex but we have now identified natural mechanisms to account for the gradual build up of that complexity. Many Christian fundamentalists who want to believe that God created the world, man and all of the animals in 6 days, still cling to the notion that it took magic to make the world but this is an argument from ignorance. They don’t know physics, chemistry, biology, geology… the sciences that explain how we got here without the magic of supernatural intervention. The intelligent design argument is no longer convincing to (most of) those who are grounded in the sciences. There are a few scientists who still push the ID agenda, as one might expect in a population distributed across a bell curve distribution. These scientists rely on the God-of-the-Gaps argument. They will admit that science can explain A, B, C and D but since science hasn’t yet discovered the answer to X, Y and Z then X, Y and Z are what God did. At first they argued for things at the macro (visible) level. “God made the world with mountains, valleys, oceans. Natural disasters like storms, floods, earthquakes are acts of God.”. But science shows us that mountains and valleys are formed by tectonic plate movement, that canyons are caused by millions of years of erosion, that weather is caused by the heating and cooling of the Earth on both its daily and yearly cycle. No God necessary. So they went to smaller, harder to explain items. A popular one was the eye. Science couldn’t explain how the eye evolved so God must have designed it. Well science eventually explained how the eye and other body parts could evolve so the ID proponents went even smaller. Down to the molecular level. Science couldn’t explain how this or that biochemical molecule came about so God must have designed it. Science is currently in the process of answering that challenge and there aren’t many gaps left for God to fit in. Gods as creators and designers are unnecessary. That doesn’t prove that they don’t exist, but the design of the world and the life in it are no longer evidence for their existence. Without some evidence, why would I, or anyone, accept someone’s proposal that there was a supernatural being in charge of everything? In fact, in looking around at the world it appears that many things were not intelligently designed. The example that comes to mind first for me is the human reproductive system. If it were intelligently designed would we have miscarriages, still births, birth defects, and even on occasion the death of the mother? A God with infinite knowledge and infinite power couldn’t do any better than that? For his supposedly chosen species? There may be some religions whose gods are only semi-competent which would explain the haphazard world in which we find ourselves but I haven’t studied every religion to that extent so I can’t name them. Certainly the Christian concept of a masterful creator does not fit well with the results. The concept of Intelligent Design fails to convince me that things are intelligently designed much less convince me that there is a God. In the final analysis, the domain of the God-of-the-Gaps is so small as to be trivial or the god is so incompetent as to be unworthy of worship.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part III : You Want to Bet?

Pascal’s Wager

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Pascal's Wager (or Pascal's Gambit) is a suggestion posed by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal that even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should "wager" as though God exists, because so living has potentially everything to gain, and certainly nothing to lose. It was set out in note 233 of his Pensées, a posthumously published collection of notes made by Pascal in his last years as he worked on a treatise on Christian apologetics.

I don’t believe I had run across Pascal’s wager until I took a course in comparative religion in college. By then I had dropped any pretense of belief in God so the “wager” intrigued me. Maybe I should reconsider my position. Almost immediately I saw 3 or more interrelated problems. The first was that I couldn’t just make myself believe on the basis of “it’s the safe thing to do”. I couldn’t just willfully change my mind without some sort of convincing evidence. How about if I just said I believed and went through all of the ritualistic motions? Something seems wrong with that. What kind of god would accept that? Certainly not the omniscient Christian God who supposedly knows our every thought and emotion. And if he (she, it, they) would accept that, what other variations or limitations in belief would be accepted? Semi-belief? Conditional belief? Hedge your bet belief? So the second problem was that it didn’t seem that any god worth his salt would accept the “wager”. The third problem was that Pascal seemed to specifically be referring to the God of the Bible. But, if his wager were correct, I would need to believe in every proposed god on the chance that one and not the other was the real god that really cared if I got it right. Many of the religions are exclusionary and/or contradict each other so that route was out. As I noted elsewhere, my chance of picking the right one was slim-to-none. I don’t know how Pascal managed to overlook those points but they really throw a monkey wrench into the “do it because it’s a good bet” approach. So Pascal’s argument that I should believe, pretty much convinced me that it was useless to try even if there were some unknown god running the show.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Never Quite Grasping God - Part II

The next several segments in this series will take a brief look at a variety of factors that play, or played, a role in my non-belief. This is not an in-depth examination. I draw on a tremendous amount of reading that I have done but I don't cite particular books or authors. If you want further information on a topic or if you don't believe a particular assertion, you can search the internet as easily as I can. In fact, I hope you will be intrigued enough to go look for more information. For a little background read Part I first.

A Few Reasons for Non-belief in God

The Bell Curve changed my life.
One of my college courses at the University of West Florida was a class in statistics. That course altered the way I look at the world. I was aware of the Bell Curve and standard distribution from other classes in high school and Junior College but those courses had not focused on the “why”s and “how”s. Suddenly I had a new understanding and I saw that I could apply it to many aspects of daily life. Whereas before I might have mentally questioned the effectiveness of prayer, now I had a new way of examining it. If we prayed each year for 10 years to have good weather for Easter Sunrise Service and got good weather 8 of the 10 years, should we thank God? Or should we examine the weather patterns for that time of year and see, on average, how other dates fared? If it turns out that the average for other days of the week is similar, do we still have reason to thank God for the sunny mornings or do we just chalk it up to the law of averages? Well, you can see where I’m going. For about anything you look at, the results of prayer fall into what we would expect based on averages, means, and standard distributions. Pray for sick people at church… some get better, some get worse, some die, some linger for years with a chronic condition. Where, in there, is the effectiveness of prayer? I can see it more clearly now that I’ve studied statistics but I may have subconsciously recognized it in my earlier years.
When I was growing up “other religions” were things like Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans. Way out on the fringes were Catholics who were probably going to Hell for worshipping idols and Jews who were going to Hell because they didn’t accept Jesus. Mormons were just a brand of heathens like all those foreigners who worshipped mythological gods. They didn’t count and we didn’t examine their beliefs. Of course as I got older I learned a bit more about other religions, at least learned that they existed and that they were followed by millions if not billions of people. And what I began discovering was that all those people believed their religion for exactly the same reasons we believed ours. Their prayers were answered, their god(s) performed miracles, they got the same ‘warm fuzzy feeling’ from their religion, and of course the big one… they were brought up in it. But if their gods were performing the same kind of miracles that our God was performing, what did that say? If their prayers were answered at the same rate, in the same manner that ours were answered, which god was real and which a myth? Statistics combined with a bit of knowledge of human psychology gave me an answer. Miracles, when examined critically, turn out to be not so miraculous. A little boy lost in the woods is found alive. It’s a miracle! No. Of all the children who get lost, some will be found, some won’t. It’s a case of noting the hits and ignoring the misses. Since Christianity doesn’t do any better at miracles and answered prayers than other religions, it implies to me that none of the religions are true. They all misjudge natural occurrences equally.
Closely related to the miracle/answered prayer issue is something else I began noticing and again is related to statistics. Pick any human condition; health, wealth, happiness, longevity, etc. Let’s pick health for our example. There are healthy Christians and sick Christians. There are healthy Muslims and sick Muslims. Healthy and sick Hindus. Buddhists, Rastafarians, Scientologists, Mormons, Santerians, B’hais, you name it. Some healthy, some sick. Some wealthy, some poor. Some happy, some sad. If there were any god with any power, especially supreme power, you would expect his people to have a hugely better result than average. We don’t see that, so I’m inclined to believe that there are no gods. At the very least, if there is a god, it doesn’t appear as if any of the existing religions has hit on the right formula for gaining special consideration from said god. So if there is a god out there who desires to be worshipped, I have pretty much zero chance of getting the right name, the right rituals, the right rules of behavior.