April 18th, 2008

science wins

sparring match

So, I went out to dinner with the local Mensa group last night, and almost immediately got into a long discussion (about 2 hours!) with one of the guys there about religion. I really hate that.

Okay, it was sorta my fault it started. I forget what we were talking about, but I made some comment about 'so long as it's not an evangelical Christian'. So the guy next to me turns to me and says, 'so I'm guessing your an atheist or agnostic'. Turns out he's an 'evangelical Lutheran with gnostic leanings'. That's an ecclectic mix, but man, watch out for an evangelical that says he's 'not going to try to convert you'. Bullshit. It went downhill from there, and the guy is a lawyer, so that didn't help either.

He starts out by asking me what I think of the Ontological and Teleological arguments for the existance of god. Okay, look. As argumentative as I am, I don't have the names of all the various arguments memorized by their formal titles. Make the argument, I can say something about it. Drop names, you get a vague and general response. So I told him that most arguments for god have the same basic problem: they assume the conclusion they want to reach, and then selectively try to pull out only the evidence that they think supports that conclusion. They do not do as a scientist does, look at all the evidence that's available, come to the best possible conclusion about that, and then proceed from there. Thus, all arguments for god are fundamentally flawed. (He actually acknowledged that he understood where I was coming from because he's clearly done exactly that in court to defend clients.)

We talked about that for a while, and then moved on to supernatural vs. natural. Like most evangelicals (admittedly, while persistant, this guy was rather nicer than the obnoxious people on TV and I was getting in my own digs from time to time), he relied a lot on the claim that it was "faith" but rejected the idea that "faith" was somehow irrational. You would think a lawyer would know better. He can't make the "faith" claim in court and get away with it. So, I tried pointing out that the natural are things that we know, and the supernatural are things that we don't (he agreed) then the more we know about something, the more we bring it into the natural world (he agreed to that too). And there are things about the natural world that we don't know, but could be explained eventually... so how does he really know if something is natural and can be explained eventually, or if it's supernatural and isn't amenable to any explanation except faith? And if he explains the supernatural, is he not making it natural?

Playing word games with evangelicals can be fun for a while... :) Of course, talking about the "supernatural" in this way can be deceiving, because he turned to me and said that it was clear I could talk about the supernatural meaningful. No, not really, as the above example should have shown.

But a discussion of the natural world vs. the supernatural always eventually brings up either evolution or the big bang. Truthfully, I know a bit about both, but I'm a big astronomy fan, so bringing up the big bang as his choice was not a good alternative (though, he probably figured fewer people know that much about it). And of course, this is where the evangelical arrogance shines through as it didn't even during the UFO debate that got us there. I am perfectly capable of admitting I don't know everything and I don't need to. I don't need to pretend I have all the answers by making up a magical being who can be the answer to every unknown question. Where did the Big Bang come from? What was before the Big Bang? Mathematically, these are possibly nonsense questions since time and space as we know them began with the Big Bang... (of course in a multi-dimensional universe, 10 or so, maybe the Big Bang happened only in these four dimensions, and so there might be a way to look at what happened before, but for now, no theory can really manage it). I am content to say, I'll wait for the evidence rather than postulate a stop-gap god to explain away my obvious ignorance. And my ignorance does not in any way make his "explanation" better.

So, since I questioned his logical postulates earlier, he started trying to question mine, about the nature of how we measure time, and postulates and axioms in geometry and so on and so forth. One example was that there is only one straight line that passes through any two points. This can actually be proven mathematically without assuming it... at least in Euclidean space. Like other assumptions in Euclidean geometry, it's not true if you change your assumptions. I'm pretty sure it's not true in spherical geometry. This is when it got really boring. Again, he's try to poke holes in absolutely any claim just so that he can say, "ah, ha!", as if his position and my position were the only possible choices.

There was a bit of levity when he was talking about reincarnation being purged from the Bible by Constantine on the command of his wife who was a prostitute... Um, yeah. The wife of an Emperor is a prostitute? I don't think so. A slut maybe, but getting paid for sex? Of course, the semantic debate continued with my definition of an emperor... which drained all the levity out of the prostitute vs. slut distinction. (Never mind that I have a degree in Classics, and this argument is new to me. And he's not even sure which Constantine he's referring to.)

This is part of the problem with having a debate with Christians about their religion, even a friendly one. If I question their most basic assumptions about god, they start questioning inane things like the way we measure time, or how few postulates we need to get mathematics going, or the meaning of words like "emperor". Classic equivocation, and it's fucking annoying.

Here's a link that seems to summarize a lot of this guy's views on gnosticism, reincarnation, and Constantine's third wife. However, only slightly more poking around and one discovers this link that clearly shows that Constantine was still married to his second wife (the one he used to supposedly marry into power with) when the Council of Nicea took place and books were removed from the Bible.

What does this prove? Only that smart people can have really persistant delusions, I suppose. The smarter they are, the more their "reasoning ability" works against them. They are capable of clinging to their fantasies with even more tenacity. Not because they don't understand, but out of sheer force of will. This is probably why if I ever had kids I'd raise them as atheists, rationalists and skeptics... so that no one else could get their ridiculous notions into their heads in the first place.