Does the Flying Spaghetti Monster Exist?

In a previous post, Belief and Evidence, I addressed the argument made by many atheists that those who believe in God have the burden of proof. In this view, evidence must accompany belief, and belief in anything for which there is insufficient evidence is irrational. One popular example cited by proponents of this view is the satirical creation known as the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Proposed as a response to the demands by creationists for equal time in the classroom with evolutionary theory, the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been cited as an example of an absurd entity which no one has the right to believe in unless one has actual evidence. According to famous atheist Richard Dawkins, disbelievers are not required to submit evidence against the existence of either God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it is believers that have the burden of proof.

The problem with this philosophy is that it would seem to apply equally well to many physicists’ theories of the “multiverse,” and in fact many scientists have criticized multiverse theories on the grounds that there is no way to observe or test for other universes. The most extreme multiverse theories propose that every mathematically possible universe, each with its own slight variation on physical laws and constants, exists somewhere. Multiverse theory has even led to bizarre speculations about hypothetical entities such as “Boltzmann brains.” According to some scientists, it is statistically more likely for the random fluctuations of matter to create a free-floating brain than it is for billions of years of universal evolution to lead to brains in human bodies. (You may have heard of the claim that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare — the principle is similar.) This means that reincarnation could be possible or that we are actually Boltzmann brains that were randomly generated by matter and that we merely have the illusion that we have bodies and an actual past. According to physicist Leonard Susskind, “It is part of a much bigger set of questions about how to think about probabilities in an infinite universe in which everything that can occur, does occur, infinitely many times.”

If you think it is odd that respected scientists are actually discussing the possibility of floating brains spontaneously forming, well this is just one of the strange predictions that current multiverse theories tend to create. When one proposes the existence of an infinite number of possible universes based on an infinite variety of laws and constants, then anything is possible in some universe somewhere.

So is there a universe somewhere in which the laws of matter and energy are fine-tuned to support the existence of Flying Spaghetti Monsters? This would seem to be the logical outcome of the most extreme multiverse theories. I have hesitated to bring this argument up until now, because I am not a theoretical physicist and I do not understand the mathematics behind multiverse theory. However, I recently came across an article by Marcelo Gleiser, a physicist at Dartmouth College, who sarcastically asks “Do Fairies Live in the Multiverse? Discussing multiverse theories, Gleiser writes:

This brings me to the possible existence of fairies in the multiverse. The multiverse, a popular concept in modern theoretical physics, is an extension of the usual idea of the universe to encompass many possible variations. Under this view, our universe, the sum total of what’s within our “cosmic horizon” of 46 billion light years, would be one among many others. In many theories, different universes could have radically different properties, for example, electrons and protons with different masses and charges, or no electrons at all.

As in Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, which collected all possible books, the multiverse represents all that could be real if we tweaked the alphabet of nature, combining it in as many combinations as possible.

If by fairies we mean little, fabulous entities capable of flight and of magical deeds that defy what we consider reasonable in this world, then, yes, by all means, there could be fairies somewhere in the multiverse.

So, here we have a respected physicist arguing that the logical implication of existing multiverse theories, in which every possibility exists somewhere, is that fairies may well exist. Of course, Gleiser is not actually arguing that fairies exist — he is pointing out what happens when certain scientific theories propose infinite possibilities without actually being testable.

But if multiverse theories are correct, maybe the Flying Spaghetti Monster does exist out there somewhere.

Scientific Evidence for the Benefits of Faith

Increasingly, scientific studies have recognized the power of positive expectations in the treatment of people who are suffering from various illnesses. The so-called “placebo” effect is so powerful that studies generally try to control for it: fake pills, fake injections, or sometimes even fake surgeries will be given to one group while another group is offered the “real” treatment. If the real drug or surgery is no better than the fake drug/surgery, then the treatment is considered a failure. What has not been recognized until relatively recently is how the power of positive expectations should be considered as a form of treatment in itself.

Recently, Harvard University has established a Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter in order to study this very issue. For many scientists, the power of the placebo has been a scandal and an embarrassment, and the idea of offering a “fake” treatment to a patient seems to go against every ethical and professional principle. But the attitude of Ted Kaptchuk, head of the Harvard program, is that if something works, it’s worth studying, no matter how crazy and irrational it seems.

In fact, “crazy” and “irrational” seem to be apt words to describe the results of research on placebos. Researchers have found differences in the effectiveness of placebos based merely on appearance — large pills are more effective than small pills; two pills are better than one pill; “brand name” pills are more effective than generics; capsules are better than pills; and injections are the most effective of all! Even the color of pills affects the outcome. One study found that the most famous anti-anxiety medication in the world, Valium, has no measurable effect on a person’s anxiety unless the person knows he or she is taking it (see “The Power of Nothing” in the Dec. 12 2011 New Yorker). The placebo is probably the oldest and simplest form of “faith healing” there is.

There are scientists who are critical of many of these placebo studies; they believe the power of placebos has been greatly exaggerated. Several studies have concluded that the placebo effect is small or insignificant, especially when objective measures of patient improvement are used instead of subjective self-reports.

However, it should be noted that the placebo effect is not simply a matter of patient feelings that are impossible to measure accurately — there is actually scientific evidence that the human brain manufactures chemicals in response to positive expectations. In the 1970s, it was discovered that people who reported a reduction in pain in response to a placebo were actually producing greater amounts of endorphins, a substance in the brain chemically similar to morphine and heroin that reduces pain and is capable of producing feelings of euphoria (as in the “runner’s high“). Increasingly, studies of the placebo effect have relied on brain scans to actually track changes in the brain in response to a patient receiving a placebo, so measurement of effects is not merely a matter of relying on what a person says. One recent study found that patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease responded better to an “expensive” placebo than a “cheaper” placebo. Patients were given injections containing nothing but saline water, but the arm of patients that was told the saline solution cost $1500 per dose experienced significantly better improvements in motor function than patients that were given a “cheaper” placebo! This happens because the placebo effect boosts the brain’s production of dopamine, which counteracts the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Brain scans have confirmed greater dopamine activation in the brains of those given placebos.

Other studies have confirmed the close relation between the health of the human mind and the health of the body. Excessive stress weakens the immune system, creating an opening for illness. People who regularly practice meditation, on the other hand, can strengthen their immune system and as result, catch colds and the flu less often. The health effects of mediation do not depend on the religion of those practicing it — Buddhist, Christian, Sikh. The mere act of meditation is what it important.

Why has modern medicine been so slow and reluctant to acknowledge the power of positive expectations and spirituality in improving human health? I think it’s because modern science has been based on certain metaphysical assumptions about nature which have been very valuable in advancing knowledge historically, but are ultimately limited and flawed. These assumptions are: (1) Anything that exists solely in the human mind is not real; (2) Knowledge must be based on what exists objectively, that is, what exists outside the mind; and (3) everything in nature is based on material causation — impersonal objects colliding with or forming bonds with other impersonal objects. In many respects, these metaphysical assumptions were valuable in overcoming centuries of wrong beliefs and superstitions. Scientists learned to observe nature in a disinterested fashion, discover how nature actually was and not how we wanted it to be. Old myths about gods and personal spirits shaping nature became obsolete, to be replaced by theories of material causation, which led to technological advances that brought the human race enormous benefits.

The problem with these metaphysical assumptions, however, is that they draw too sharp a separation between the human mind and what exists outside the mind. The human mind is part of reality, embedded in reality. Scientists rely on concepts created by the human mind to understand reality, and multiple, contradictory concepts and theories may be needed to understand reality.  (See here and here). And the human mind can modify reality – it is not just a passive spectator. The mind affects the body directly because it is directly connected to the body. But the mind can also affect reality by directing the limbs to perform certain tasks — construct a house, create a computer, or build a spaceship.

So if the human mind can shape the reality of the body through positive expectations, can positive expectations bring additional benefits, beyond health? According to the American philosopher William James in his essay “The Will to Believe,” a leap of faith could be justified in certain restricted circumstances: when a momentous decision must be made, there is a large element of uncertainty, and there are not enough resources and time to reduce the uncertainty. (See this post.) In James’ view, in some cases, we must take the risk of supposing something is true, lest we lose the opportunity of gaining something beneficial. In short, “Faith in a fact can help create that fact.”

Scientific research on how expectations affect human performance tends to support James’ claim. Performance in sports is often influenced by athletes’ expectations of “good luck.” People who are optimistic and visualize their ideal goals are more likely to actually attain their goals than people who don’t. One recent study found that human performance in a color discrimination task is better when the subjects are provided a lamp that has a label touting environmental friendliness. Telling people about stereotypes before crucial tests affects how well people perform on tests — Asians who are told about how good Asians are at math perform better on math tests; women who are sent the message that women are not as smart perform less well on tests. When golfers are told that winning golf is a matter of intelligence, white golfers improve their performance; when golfers are told that golf is a matter of natural athleticism, blacks do better.

Now, I am not about to tell you that faith is good in all circumstances and that you should always have faith. Applied across the board, faith can hurt you or even kill you. Relying solely on faith is not likely to cure cancer or other serious illnesses. Worshipers in some Pentecostal churches who handle poisonous snakes sometimes die from snake bites. And terrorists who think they will be rewarded in the afterlife for killing innocent people are truly deluded.

So what is the proper scope for faith? When should it be used and when should it not be used? Here are three rules:

First, faith must be restricted to the zone of uncertainty that always exists when evaluating facts. One can have faith in things that are unknown or not fully known, but one should not have faith in things that are contrary to facts that have been well-established by empirical research. One cannot simply say that one’s faith forbids belief in the scientific findings on evolution and the big bang, or that faith requires that one’s holy text is infallible in all matters of history, morals, and science.

Second, the benefits of faith cannot be used as evidence for belief in certain facts. A person who finds relief from Parkinson’s disease by imagining the healing powers of Christ’s love cannot argue that this proves that Jesus was truly the son of God, that Jesus could perform miracles, was crucified, and rose from the dead. These are factual claims that may or may not be historically accurate. Likewise with the golden plates of Joseph Smith that were allegedly the basis for the Book of Mormon or the ascent of the prophet Muhammad to heaven — faith does not prove any of these alleged facts. If there was evidence that one particular religious belief tended to heal people much better than other religious beliefs, then one might devote effort to examining if the facts of that religion were true. But there does not seem to be a difference among faiths — just about any faith, even the simplest faith in a mere sugar pill, seems to work.

Finally, faith should not run unnecessary risks. Faith is a supplement to reason, research, and science, not an alternative. Science, including medical science, works. If you get sick, you should go to a doctor first, then rely on faith. As the prophet Muhammad said, “Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah.”

Belief and Evidence

A common argument by atheists is that belief without evidence is irrational and unjustified, and that those arguing for the existence of God have the burden of proof.  Bertrand Russell famously argued that if one claims that there is a teapot orbiting the sun, the burden of proving the existence of the teapot is on the person who asserts the existence of the teapot, not the denier.  Christopher Hitchens has similarly argued that “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”  Hitchens has advanced this principle even further, arguing that “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.”  (god is not Great, pp. 143, 150)  Sam Harris has argued that nearly every evil in human history “can be attributed to an insufficient taste for evidence” and that “We must find our way to a time when faith, without evidence, disgraces anyone who would claim it.”   (The End of Faith, pp. 25, 48)

A demand for evidence is surely a legitimate requirement for most ordinary claims.  But it would be a mistake to turn this rule into a rigid and universal requirement, because many of the issues and problems we encounter in our lives are not always rich with evidence.  Some issues have a wealth of evidence, some issues have a small amount of indirect or circumstantial evidence, some issues have evidence compatible with a variety of radically different conclusions, and some issues have virtually no evidence.  What’s worse is that there appears to be an inverse relationship between the size and importance of the issue one is addressing and the amount of evidence that is available.  The bigger the question one has, the less evidence there is to address it.  The questions of how to obtain a secure and steady supply of food, water, and shelter, how to extend the human lifespan and increase the economic standard of living, all have scientific-technological answers backed by abundant evidence.  Other issues, such as the origins of the universe, the nature of the elementary particles, and the evolution of life, also have large amounts of evidence, albeit with significant gaps in certain details.  But some of the most important questions we face have such a scarcity of evidence that a variety of conflicting beliefs seems inevitable.  Why does the universe exist?  Is there intelligent life on other planets, and if so, how many planets have such life?  Where did the physical laws of the universe come from?  What should we do with our lives?  Will the human race survive the next 1000 years?  Are our efforts to be good people and follow moral codes all in vain?

In cases of scarce evidence, to demand that sufficient evidence exist before forming a belief is to put the cart before the horse.  If one looks at the origins and growth of knowledge in human civilization, belief begins with imagination — only later are beliefs tested and challenged.  Without imagination, there are no hypotheses to test.  In fact, one would not know what evidence to gather if one did not begin with a belief.  Knowledge would never advance.  As the philosopher George Santayana argued in his book Reason and Religion,

A good mythology cannot be produced without much culture and intelligence. Stupidity is not poetical. . . . The Hebrews, denying themselves a rich mythology, remained without science and plastic art; the Chinese, who seem to have attained legality and domestic arts and a tutored sentiment without passing through such imaginative tempests as have harassed us, remain at the same time without a serious science or philosophy. The Greeks, on the contrary, precisely the people with the richest and most irresponsible myths, first conceived the cosmos scientifically, and first wrote rational history and philosophy. So true it is that vitality in any mental function is favourable to vitality in the whole mind. Illusions incident to mythology are not dangerous in the end, because illusion finds in experience a natural though painful cure. . . .  A developed mythology shows that man has taken a deep and active interest both in the world and in himself, and has tried to link the two, and interpret the one by the other. Myth is therefore a natural prologue to philosophy, since the love of ideas is the root of both.

Modern critics of traditional religion are right to argue that we need to revise, reinterpret, or abandon myths when they conflict with new evidence.  As astronomy advanced, it was necessary to abandon the geocentric model of the universe.   As the evidence for evolution accumulated, it was no longer plausible to believe that the universe was created in the extremely short span of six days.  There is a difference between a belief formed in the face of a scarcity of evidence and a belief that goes against an abundance of evidence.  The former is permitted, and is even necessary to advance knowledge; the latter takes knowledge backward.

Today we have reached the point at which science is attempting to answer some very large questions, and science is running up against the limits of what is possible with observation, experimentation, and verification.  Increasingly, the scientific imagination is developing theories that are plausible, but have little or no evidence to back them up; in fact, for many of these theories we will probably never have sufficient evidence.  I am referring here to cosmological theories about the origins of the universe that propose a “multiverse,” that is, a large or even infinite collection of universes that exist alongside our own observable universe.

There are several different types of multiverse theories.  The first type, which many if not most cosmologists accept, proposes multiple universes with the same physical laws and constants as ours, but with different distributions of matter.  A second type, which is more controversial, proposes an infinite number of universes with different physical laws and constants.  A third type, also controversial, arises out of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics — in this view, every time an indeterminate event occurs (say, a six-sided die comes up a “four”), an entirely new universe splits off from our own.  Thus, the most extreme multiverse theories claim that all possibilities exist in some universe, somewhere.  There are even an infinite number of people like you, each with a slight variation in life history (i.e., turning left instead of turning right when leaving the house this morning).

The problem with these theories, however, is that is impossible to obtain solid evidence on the existence of other universes through observation — the universes either exist far beyond the limits of our observable universe, or they reside on a different branch of reality that we cannot reach.  Now it’s not unusual for a scientific theory to predict the existence of particles or forces or worlds that we cannot yet observe; historically, a number of such predictions have proved true when the particle or force or world was finally observed.  But many other predictions have not been proved true.  With the multiverse, it is unlikely that we will have definitive evidence one way or the other.  And a number of scientists have revolted at this development, arguing that cosmology at this level is no longer scientific.  According to physicist Paul Davies,

Extreme multiverse explanations are therefore reminiscent of theological discussions. Indeed, invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.

Likewise, Freeman Dyson insists:

[T]he multiverse is philosophy and not science. Science is about facts that can be tested and mysteries that can be explored, and I see no way of testing hypotheses of the multiverse. Philosophy is about ideas that can be imagined and stories that can be told. I put narrow limits on science, but I recognize other sources of human wisdom going beyond science. Other sources of wisdom are literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy. The multiverse has its place in philosophy and in literature.

Cosmologist George F.R. Ellis, in the August 2011 issue of Scientific American, notes that there are several ways of indirectly testing for the existence of multiple universes, but none are likely to be definitive.  He concludes: “Nothing is wrong with scientifically based philosophical speculation, which is what multiverse proposals are.  But we should name it for what it is.”

Given the thinness of the evidence for extreme multiverse theories, one might ask why modern day atheists do not seem to attack and mock such theorists for believing in something for which they cannot provide solid evidence.  At the very least, Christopher Hitchens’s claim that “exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” would seem to invalidate belief in any multiverse theory.  At best, at some future point we may have indirect or circumstantial evidence for the existence of some other universes; but we are never going to have exceptional evidence for an infinite number of universes consisting of all possibilities.  So why do we not hear of insulting analogies involving orbiting teapots and flying spaghetti monsters when some scientists propose an infinite number of universes based on different physical laws or an infinite number of versions of you?  I think it’s because scientists are respected authority figures in a modern, secular society.  If a scientist says there are multiple universes, we are inclined to believe them even in the absence of solid evidence, because scientists have social prestige, especially among atheists.

Ultimately, there is no solid evidence for the existence of God, no solid evidence for the existence of an infinite variety of universes, and no solid evidence for the existence of other versions of me.  Whether or not one chooses to believe any of these propositions depends on whether one decides to leap into the dark, and which direction one decides to  leap.  This does not mean that any religious belief is permissible — on issues which have abundant evidence, beliefs cannot go against evidence.  Evolution has abundant evidence, as does modern medical science, chemistry, and rocket science.  But where evidence is scarce, and a variety of beliefs are compatible with existing evidence, holding a particular belief cannot be regarded as wholly unjustified and irrational.

 

Christopher Hitchens: An Excess of Errors

I recently finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

In some parts, the book is delightful, and I admire the author’s courage.  Although the social penalties for atheism are much less in contemporary democratic societies than in other societies, past and present, there is also personal courage in facing up to the possibility that there is no God and no afterlife, which can be a distressing and demoralizing experience for many.  The author’s main points about the inaccuracy or falsity of religious beliefs about cosmology and history, as well as the persistent use of religion historically to rationalize evil behavior (such as the trading or keeping of slaves) have been made by others, but the author’s arguments are not entirely unoriginal, and I definitely learned some new things.

Having said that, I also need to say this: god is not Great is filled with many errors — in many cases, obvious, egregious errors that should not have gotten past the editor’s desk.  (Do publishing houses even bother editing and fact-checking any more?)  Now, it is not unusual for even great scholarly books to have some errors of fact.  But when the errors are so numerous, and so significant, it can greatly undermine the case the author is making.  Frankly, I think Hitchens understands religion about as well as a fundamentalist understands evolution.  In a few cases, Hitchens does not even understand some basic facts of science.

Let us review the errors.  (Page numbers are from the paperback edition, which appear to be similar to page numbers in the hardcover edition, except for the afterword that was added to the paperback).

p. 5  – “We [atheists] do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed and violence than the faithful.  (In fact, if a proper statistical query could ever be made, I am sure the evidence would be the other way).”  – Actually, according to The Handbook of Crime Correlates (pp. 108-113), while there is some variation in studies, the majority of social science statistical studies have concluded that religious believers are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.  This is by no means a slam-dunk, as a minority of studies point the other way, but I find it remarkable that Hitchens thought that nobody even bothered to study this issue.  Although the Handbook came out after Hitchens’ book was published, the studies cited in the Handbook go back decades.

pp. 7, 63  – Hitchens acknowledges the intelligence and scholarship of theologians such as Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman, but argues “there are no more of them today and . . . there will be no more of them tomorrow.”  The reason for this, he writes, is that “Faith of that sort — the sort that can stand up at least for a while in a confrontation with reason — is now plainly impossible.”  Actually, there are numerous intelligent and accomplished modern theologians who have incorporated faith and reason into their world views, including Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth.  Pope John Paul II pursued graduate study in philosophy and incorporated insights from the philosophy of phenomenology into his doctoral dissertation.  Did Hitchens ever hear of these people and their works?  A quick Google search confirms that Hitchens did know of Niebuhr, which indicates to me that Hitchens was being dishonest.

p. 7 – “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago: either that or it mutated into an admirable but nebulous humanism, as did, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brave Lutheran pastor hanged by the Nazis for his refusal to collude with them.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was far from being a nebulous humanist.  In fact, Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas were fairly conservative and Bonhoeffer insisted on the need for total devotion to God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  “I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions,” Bonhoeffer once wrote.  Also, Bonhoeffer was not hanged for simply refusing to collude with the Nazis, but for actively opposing the Nazis and conspiring to assassinate Hitler.

pp. 12-13 – “there is a real and serious difference between me and my religious friends, and the real and serious friends are sufficiently honest to admit it.  I would be quite content to go their children’s bar mitzvahs to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to “respect” their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate merchant, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations.  And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition — which is that they in turn leave me alone.  But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing.”  Let’s leave aside the curious claim that Hitchens has religious friends who all happen to be grossly intolerant (unlucky him).  What is the evidence that religion in general is hopelessly intolerant, including the Jain religion?  Jainism, which Hitchens doesn’t bother discussing in any detail, places nonviolence at the very center of its beliefs.  Jains are so nonviolent that they practice vegetarianism and go to great lengths to avoid killing insects; some Jains even refuse to eat certain plants.  Jainism influenced Gandhi’s civil disobedience campaign, which in turn influenced Martin Luther King Jr.s’ own nonviolence campaign.  Yet somehow those Jains just can’t leave Hitchens alone.  What a bizarre persecution complex.

pp. 25, 68 – Hitchens argues that the ancient works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost under Christianity because “the Christian authorities had burned some, suppressed others, and closed the schools of philosophy, on the grounds that there could have been no useful reflections on morality before the preaching of Jesus.”  Actually, the works of Aristotle and other Greeks were lost for centuries in Western Europe, primarily because of the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, which negatively affected education, scholarship, libraries, and book-making in general.  In the east, the Byzantine empire, though a Christian state, preserved the works of Aristotle and incorporated Aristotle’s thoughts into Byzantine philosophiesMonasteries in the Byzantine empire played an important role in preserving and copying books of the ancient Greeks.  Attitudes of Christians in Western Europe toward the philosophies of ancient Greece were mixed, with some condemning and suppressing Greek works, and others incorporating Greek works into their scholarship.

pp. 46-47 – “The attitude of religion to medicine, like the attitude of religion to science, is always necessarily problematic and very often necessarily hostile.”  Historically, medicine was not an alternative to prayer and devotion to God but a supplement to it.  The earliest hospitals were established in religious temples devoted to gods of healing.  While medical knowledge was primitive compared to today, even the ancients had some practical knowledge of surgery and anesthesia.  Many modern-day medications, such as aspirin, quinine, and ephedrine, have their roots in plants that the ancients used for healing.  The father of western medicine, Hippocrates, is famously known for his oath to the gods of healing, which calls for adherence to ethical rules in the practice of medicine.  And historically, both Christianity and Islam played major roles in the founding of hospitals and the study of medical science.

p. 68 – “[E]ven the religious will speak with embarrassment of the time when theologians would dispute over futile propositions with fanatical intensity: measuring the length of angels’ wings, for example, or debating how many such mythical creatures could dance on the head of a pin.”  The notion that theologians debated about how many angels danced on the head of a pin was actually an invention of post-medieval satirists who wanted to criticize theology.  Historically, theologians generally held that angels were incorporeal, or purely spiritual beings, and as such did not have “wings.”

p. 144 – While discussing persons who claim to have been visited by extraterrestrials, Hitchens argues, “travel from Alpha Centauri . . . would involve some bending of the laws of physics.”  Actually, Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to our own, a little over 4 light years away.  While I think it is most unlikely that extraterrestrials have visited earth, travel to or from Alpha Centauri would not require any bending of the laws of physics, only some incremental improvements in existing technologies based on the current laws of physics.  The travel would probably take decades, but would not be impossible.  Either Hitchens is arguing that interstellar travel is inherently impossible or he is claiming that advances in technology require “bending” the laws of physics.  Whatever he believed, it doesn’t make sense.

p. 181 – “As far as I am aware, there is no country in the world today where slavery is still practiced where the justification of it is not derived from the Koran.”  Among the countries ranked highest in modern-day slavery are several Islamic counties, but also China, Russia, Thailand, and Haiti.  It would be odd if these countries cited the Koran as a justification for slavery.

p. 192 – Pointing to the Rwandan genocide, Hitchens argues, “At a minimum, this makes it impossible to argue that religion causes people to behave in a more kindly or civilized manner.  The worse the offender, the more devout he turns out to be.”  Among the worst practitioners of genocide in the past hundred years were atheists, including Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and Pol Pot.  It is not clear whether Hitler was an atheist or a deist, but he was certainly not “devout.”  Finally, the majority of social science studies have shown that those with orthodox religious beliefs are less inclined to commit crime.

p. 232. – Hitchens attempts to argue that atheist totalitarian regimes are actually religious in nature: “[T]he object of perfecting the species — which is the very root and source of the totalitarian impulse — is in essence a religious one.”  Actually, a major point of most religions is that perfection on earth is not possible, that perfection is only found in an other-worldly place called heaven or nirvana.  The communist critique of religion is precisely that it makes people satisfied with their lot on earth, waiting and longing for a world that never comes.

p. 279 – Hitchens makes a reference to “Iran’s progress in thermonuclear fission.”  The correct terminology is “nuclear fission,” not “thermonuclear fission.”  “Thermonuclear” refers to the use of very high temperatures to cause the fusion of atomic nuclei, not fission.  It is possible to use a thermonuclear process involving hydrogen and boron to cause the fission of boron atoms, but this is not what Iran is currently doing.

p. 283 – “The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.”  After dismissing religious stories as fictional, Hitchens argues that we can obtain ethical guidance from . . . the fictions of literature and poetry.  Never mind that religious texts are also powerful sources of literature and poetry, that Jesus used parables to illustrate ethics, and that Church Fathers often interpreted the myths of the Bible allegorically.  Only secular sources of fiction, in Hitchens’ view, can be used as a guide to ethics.  Why is not clear.

Well, that’s it.  Reading Hitchens’ book was occasionally enjoyable, but more often exhausting.  There’s only so many blatant falsehoods a person can handle without wanting to flee.

 

Miracles

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “miracle” as “a marvelous event occurring within human experience, which cannot have been brought about by any human power or by the operation of any natural agency, and must therefore be ascribed to the special intervention of the Deity or some supernatural being.”  (OED, 1989)  This meaning reflects how the word “miracle” has been commonly used in the English language for hundreds of years.

Since a miracle, by definition, involves a suspension of physical laws in nature by some supernatural entity, the question of whether miracles take place, or have ever taken place, is an important one.  Most adherents of religion — any religion — are inclined to believe in miracles; skeptics argue that there is no evidence to support the existence of miracles.

I believe skeptics are correct that the evidence for a supernatural agency occasionally suspending the normal processes and laws of nature is very weak or nonexistent.  Scientists have been studying nature for hundreds of years; when an observed event does not appear to follow physical laws, it usually turns out that the law is imperfectly understood and needs to be modified, or there is some other physical law that needs to be taken into account.  Scientists have not found evidence of a supernatural being behind observational anomalies.  This is not to say that everything in the universe is deterministic and can be reduced to physical laws.  Most scientists agree that there is room for indeterminacy in the universe, with elements of freedom and chance.  But this indeterminacy does not seem to correspond to what people have claimed as miracles.

However, I would like to make the case that the way we think about miracles is all wrong, that our current conception of what counts as a miracle is based on a mistaken prejudice in favor of events that we are unaccustomed to.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “miracle” is derived from the Latin word “miraculum,” which is an “object of wonder.” (OED 1989)  A Latin dictionary similarly defines “miraculum” as “a wonderful, strange, or marvelous thing, a wonder, marvel, miracle.” (Charlton T. Lewis, A Latin Dictionary, 1958)  There is nothing in the original Latin conception of miraculum that requires a belief in the suspension of physical laws.  Miraculum is simply about wonder.

Wonder as an activity is an intellectual exercise, but it is also an emotional disposition.  We wonder about the improbable nature of our existence, we wonder about the vastness of the universe, we wonder about the enormous complexity and diversity of life.  From wonder often comes other emotional dispositions: astonishment, puzzlement, joy, and gratitude.

The problem is that in our humdrum, everyday lives, it is easy to lose wonder.  We become accustomed to existence through repeated exposure to the same events happening over and over, and we no longer wonder.  The satirical newspaper The Onion expresses this disposition well: “Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time,” reads one headline.

Is it really the case, though, that a wondrous event ceases to be wondrous because it occurs frequently, regularly, and appears to be guided by causal laws?  The birth of a human being begins with blueprints provided by an egg cell and sperm cell; over the course of nine months, over 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and other elements gradually come together in the right place at the right time to form the extremely intricate arrangement known as a human being.  If anything is a miraculum, or wonder, it is this event.  But because it happens so often, we stop noticing.  Stories about crying statues, or people seeing the heart of Jesus in a communion wafer, or the face of Jesus in a sock get our attention and are hailed as miracles because these alleged events are unusual.  But if you think about it, these so-called miracles are pretty insignificant in comparison to human birth.  And if crying statues were a frequent event, people would gradually become accustomed to it; after a while, they would stop caring, and start looking around for something new to wonder about it.

What a paradox.  We are surrounded by genuine miracles every day, but we don’t notice them.  So we grasp at the most trivial coincidences and hoaxes in order to restore our sense of wonder, when what we should be doing is not taking so many wonders for granted.

A Universe Half Full?

It has often been said that the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that a pessimist sees a half-poured beverage as a glass half empty, whereas an optimist sees the glass as being half full.  I think the decision to adopt or reject atheism may originate from such a perspective — that is, atheists see the universe as half empty, whereas believers see the universe as half full.  We all go through life experiencing events both good and bad, moments of joy, beauty, and wonder, along with moments of despair, ugliness, and boredom.  When we experience the positive, we may be inclined to attribute purpose and benevolence to the universal order; when we experience the negative, we may be more apt to attribute disorder and meaninglessness to the universe.

So, is it all a matter of perspective?  If we are serious thinkers, we have to reject the conclusion that it is merely a matter of perspective.  Either there is a God or there isn’t.  If we are going to explain the universe, we have to explain everything, good and bad, and not neglect facts that don’t fit.

The case for atheism is fairly straightforward: the facts of science indicate a universe that is not very hospitable to either the emergence of life or the protection of life, which greatly undercuts the case for an intelligent designer.  Most planets have no life, except perhaps for the most primitive, insignificant forms of life.  Where life does exist, life is precarious and cruel; on a daily basis, life forms are attacked and destroyed by hostile physical forces and other life forms.  There is not the slightest historical and archeological evidence of a “golden age” or a “Garden of Eden” which once existed but was lost because of man’s sinfulness; life has always been precarious and cruel.  Even where life has developed, it has developed in a process of very gradual evolution, consisting of much randomness, over the course of billions of years.  And even despite progress after billions of years, life on earth has been subject to occasional mass extinction events, from an asteroid or comet striking the planet, to volcanic eruptions, to dramatic climate change.  Even if one granted that God created life very gradually, the notion that God would allow a dumb rock from space to wipe out the accomplishments of several billions of years of evolution seems inexplicable.

The case for belief in God rests on a contrary claim, namely that order in the universe is too complex and unusual to be explained merely by reference to purposeless physical laws and random events.  It may appear that physical laws operate without apparent purpose, such as when an asteroid causes mass extinction, and evolution certainly consists of many random events.  But there is too much order to subscribe to the view that the universe is nothing but blind laws and random events.  When one studies the development of the stars and planets and their predictable motions, the vast diversity and complexity of life on earth, and the amount of information contained in a single DNA molecule, randomness is not the first thing one thinks of.  Total randomness implies total disorder and a total lack of pattern, but the randomness we see in the universe takes place within a certain structure.  If you roll a die, there are six possible outcomes; if you flip a coin there are two possible outcomes.  Both actions are random, but a structure of order determines the range of possible outcomes.  Likewise, there is randomness and disorder in the universe, but there is a larger structure of order that provides general stability and restricts outcomes.  Mutations take place in life forms, but these mutations are limited and incremental, restricting the range of possible outcomes and allowing the development of new forms of life on top of old forms of life.

Physicists tend to agree that we appear to live in a universe “fine-tuned” for life, in the sense that many physical constants can only exist with certain values, or life would not be able to evolve.  According to Stephen Hawking, “The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and electron. . . . The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”  Physicist Paul Davies writes:

 [L]ife as we know it depends very sensitively on the form of the laws of physics, and on some seemingly fortuitous accidents in the actual values that nature has chosen for various particle masses, force strengths, and so on. . . . [I]f we could play God, and select values for these quantities at whim by twiddling a set of knobs, we would find that almost all knob settings would render the universe uninhabitable.  In some cases it seems as if the different knobs have to be fine-tuned to enormous precision if the universe is to be such that life will flourish. (The Mind of God, pp. 199-200).

The counterargument to the “fine-tuned” argument is that there could exist many universes that self-destruct in a short period of time or don’t have life — we just happen to live in a fine-tuned universe because only a fine-tuned universe can allow the existence of life forms that think about how fine-tuned the universe is!  However, this argument rests on the hypothetical belief that many alternative universes have existed or do exist, and until there is evidence for other universes, it must remain highly speculative.

So how do we reconcile the two sets of facts presented by the atheists and the believers?  On the one hand, the universe appears to allow life to develop only extremely gradually under often hostile conditions, with many setbacks along the way.  On the other hand, the universe appears to be fine-tuned to support life, suggesting some sort of cosmic purpose or intelligence.

In my view, the only way to reconcile the two sets of facts is to conceive of God as being very powerful, but not omnipotent.  (See a previous posting on this subject.)  According to process theology, God’s power is not coercive but persuasive, and God acts over long periods of time to create.  Existing things are not subject to total central control, but God can influence outcomes.

An analogy could be made with the human mind and its control over the body.  It is easy to raise one’s right arm by using one’s thoughts, but to pitch a fastball, play a piano, or make a high-quality sculpture requires a level of coordination and skill that most of us do not have — as well as an extraordinary amount of training and practice.  In the course of life, we attempt many things, but are never successful at all we attempt; in fact, the ambitions in our minds usually outpace our physical abilities.  Some people do not even have the ability to raise their right arm.  The relation of a cosmic mind to the “body” of the universe may be similar in principle.

Some would object that the God of process theology is ridiculously weak.  A God that has only the slightest influence over matter and cannot even stop an asteroid from hitting a planet does not seem like a God worth worshiping or even respecting.  In fact, why do we even need the concept of a weak God — wouldn’t we be better off without it?  I will address this topic in a future posting.

Science, Authority, and Knowledge

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues in a recent essay praising the virtues of science:  “Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.”

This is the sort of sweeping statement that one is apt to make when making an abstract case for the scientific method without examining too closely how scientists actually acquire knowledge in the real world.  The fact of the matter is that no one — including the most brilliant of scientists — can acquire knowledge without relying on social processes that include hierarchical authority and “conventional wisdom.”

How does a psychologist such as Steven Pinker know about the Big Bang theory of the universe?  Did he purchase a telescope, conduct his own observations, track the movement of the galaxies, and come to the conclusion that the universe began with a big bang?  No, like the rest of us, he was taught the Big Bang theory in school.  He had neither the time nor expertise to critically evaluate whether or not his teachers might have been wrong.  He had to accept their authority because there was no good alternative.  “Faith” might be too strong a word, but there is a certain degree of trust that when specialists in physics write textbooks and give lectures, they are providing the truth, as best as they are able to.  In an earlier time, Pinker would have been taught not the Big Bang theory but the Steady State theory of the universe — and he would have accepted that, without trying to verify it himself through empirical observation, because that was the conventional wisdom.

How does Pinker know that the theory of evolution is true?  Did he study living organisms and fossils for years and years, matching each empirical observation with the claims of Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould, and others?  No, he accepted what his teachers taught him, for the same reasons he accepted the Big Bang theory.  Like everyone else, he trusts the specialists that are doing their jobs, and when these specialists have a strong consensus that something is true, he accepts this.

What happens when there are outstanding disagreements among scientists, whether involving string theory, multiple universes, the “punctuated equilibrium” theory of evolution, or other issues?  Does Steven Pinker get right to work on these issues, making his own observations, and testing multiple hypotheses?  No, like the rest of us, he either pleads ignorance, accepts the findings of the most recent article he’s read on the subject, or tries to gauge the majority opinion of scientists on that issue and adopts that opinion as his own.

Now, I’m not trying to discredit science here.  I fully accept the Big Bang theory and the theory of evolution, and I have a low opinion of various attempts at “creationist” theory.  But I didn’t arrive at these conclusions by disregarding authority, but by embracing authorities that seemed to me to be genuinely interested in studying the real world, willing to share their methodologies and observations, accept criticisms, and change their minds when necessary.

We are born into this world as ignorant as the lowest animal, we gradually absorb knowledge from our parents, teachers, peers, and our culture, and we may — if we are very, very lucky — make one or two truly original contributions to knowledge ourselves.  Even the most hardheaded skeptic, the bravest dissenter, the most diligent and persistent questioner, cannot do without some reliance on authority and conventional wisdom.