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Biblical Patternicity

by Michael Shermer, Apr 29 2009

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Last night, April 28, 2009, I debated Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana from Reasons to Believe (RTB), an evangelical Christian organization whose mission it is to give people “reasons to believe” beyond the usual faith-based reasons. In this case, it is to scour the annals of scientific discovery in search of findings that seem to gel well with biblical passages; and even if they don’t seem to fit, these gentlemen are adroit at massaging both the research and the scriptures such that in the end they will fit come hell or high water.

I blogged about my previous debate with the RTB boys before, so I won’t repeat their arguments and my rebuttals here, but this was most definitely a larger venue and audience — the basketball arena at the University of Texas at Austin with over 3,000 in attendance — so I made sure that my presentation was especially poignant and lively (first and foremost, I believe, a public speaker must be interesting, have something to say, and say it in a manner that gets people to pay attention and remember). For example, I nailed Ross right off the bat on his claim that the RTB “day-age” model of creation is correct when he said that the use of the Hebrew word “yom” in Genesis means “epoch” (and therefore no matter what scientists discover about the age of the origins of life, the Earth, and the universe, they can say “see, our model predicted that correctly”).

No, sorry gentlemen, yom means “day,” as in, well, a day, a 24-hour day. Yom Kippur, for example, is the “Day of Atonement”. Yom Kippur is, in fact, the 10th and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur does not mean the “Age of Atonement,” the “Epoch of Atonement,” the “Geological Age of Atonement,” or the “Cosmological Constant of Atonement.” As I pointed this out I could see Mssrs. Ross and Rana scrambling through their Bibles and other works of reference they had on the table with them, but they never did respond so I presume that they have conceded the point.

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I also made the general point that their RTB creation models are based on postdictions, whereas science depends on prediction. That is, the RTB models start with what we already know about nature, then search for biblical passages to match them, then predict that we’ll find more of the same. This is exactly what the Nostradamians do, as when they “predicted” 9/11 … after it happened! Sorry gentlemen, that’s not a prediction; that’s a postdiction. For RTB to be science, they must make predictions about things we do not already know!

Ross claims that the Bible — and only the Bible — has a creation story to match that of modern cosmology; that is, the creation of the universe out of nothing, that the earth was without form and void, etc. That’s not true, and I provided several examples from the ancient Mesopotamians and the ancient Egyptians. But I also found this one that I added to the collection, from the Tao-te Ching 25, 6th century B.C.E.:

There was something undifferentiated
and yet complete,
which existed before heaven and earth.
Soundless and formless,
it depends on nothing and does not change.
It operates everywhere
and is free from danger.
It may be considered
the mother of the universe.
I do not know its name; I call it Tao.

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At one point in my presentation I pointed out the supreme irony of an atheist having to explain to theists how to properly read the Bible. The book of Job, for example, is about suffering and the problem of evil and why bad things happen to good people. It is not a book of cosmology. Further, I noted that Bible scholars of all stripes (most of whom are deeply religious) agree that the Bible is an edited volume written by many authors over a long span of time. This helps explain why, for example, in one passage Noah is instructed to take two of every kind of animal on the Ark, and in another passage he is instructed to take 7 of each kind. One version has the flood lasting 40 days and 40 nights, another passage says 150 days. In one passage Noah sends out a raven to find land. In another passage he sends a dove. And on and on. By adopting the methods of Reasons to Believe, you are forced to dismiss all of this scholarship and miss the real meaning of the Bible. The Bible is about how people should get along with one another and about morality and ethics and meaning. By trying to make the Bible fit the current estimates of the Hubble constant (to pick just one among many examples), me thinks you are missing the point of the book, and thus (in your world view) you are missing God’s message.

Is that supreme irony, or what?

In a form of what I call “Literary Patternicity” (patternicity is the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise), in the following passage from the great poet John Donne, it would appear that he anticipated the discovery of the double helix as the basis of life and reproduction:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string;
So to intergraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

Wow, incredible, how could John Donne have anticipated the discovery by Crick and Watson centuries later? But more importantly, my point in this exercise in literary patternicity is that you will miss the beauty and power of Donne’s poetry if you try to read into it modern scientific discoveries.

I closed with a set of challenges to Ross and Rana, asking them to tell us, from their scriptural readings, the answers to the following unknowns in science:

  1. Did Neanderthals have symbolic language, and what caused their extinction?
  2. Is RNA the precursor to DNA, and what came first, cells or self-replicating molecules?
  3. Did eukaryotic cells come from prokaryotic cells?
  4. When did ID/God intervene in the history of life — never, occasionally, always?
  5. Why doesn’t God heal amputees?
  6. If it turns out that your testable RTB models are refuted, will you give up your belief in Jesus as your savior?

Interestingly, although Ross said that if his RTB models were refuted he would give up his belief in both God and Jesus, there erupted in the audience a loud chorus of “no” voices, which made my point beautifully: this is not, never was, and never will be about science, because no scientific evidence would ever dissuade believers from their belief. Why? Because such beliefs are not based on science in the first place.

Q.E.D.

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42 Responses to “Biblical Patternicity”

  1. Dano says:

    Thanks for coming to have lunch with the CFI folks. It was fun!

  2. MadScientist says:

    John Donne is dead and gone but his words are printed on and on.

    I had another look at the bible to see how it informs me to behave. Tonight I think I’ll pillage the neighborhood and rape all the women. The bible sure sounds like fun.

    • Michael Hornback says:

      ROFL!!!!! We read the “good book” the same way, I would love to have partied with that wild crowd from the Old Testament! Party animals they were!

  3. Kent Jones says:

    I attended the event in Austin last night. In a state where fundamentalism seems to be the modus operandi, it was refreshing to hear someone openly and effectively challenge the prevailing certitudes that the rest of us endure on a daily basis. Those things simply aren’t said in polite conversation around here.

  4. Daniel Hawkins says:

    What I found frustrating was that they (Dr. Ross especially) threw out a bunch of numbers related to their version of fine tuning, with no justification, no error bars, or specific details about how those numbers were calculated. Oh of course it’s in their book, but they can’t be bothered to justify a string of impressive looking digits. And of course, it’s nothing that the skeptics could (or should) challenge in that setting – you could spend hours on the nitty gritty of just one of their absurd claims, and that’s if you had the rebuttal right at your fingertips. But the failure to address those points is seen as a tacit concession by the creationists in the audience.

  5. I posted a few pictures I was able to take from the event on my blog. I also have some video tape, but my battery died :(

    Good job at the debate. It’s interesting how I, as an atheist and skeptic, think you did a great job, while a few Christians I’ve chatted with thought you didn’t do very well.

  6. Shayne says:

    I like to think of myself as a skeptic. I also believe in a supreme deity. To me, it makes the most sense of a bunch of options that are just plain strange and wierd. As far as I can tell, there will never be a way to verify the origins of the universe itself. Which leaves science in a place that it seems to hide from itself – science isn’t about meaning, truth, emotional reality, identity or anything personally or subjectively significant: yet these are all the most important aspects to our lives as conscious individuals.

    At the same time, theism isn’t about objective data, careful and systematic study of the natural world or experimental and scientific techniques that can be verified or refuted. As you say, any religious person who tries to, um, sciencize (!) scripture is totally missing the point – scripture provides us with subjective meaning and insights into the abstractness of truth, not with the schematics and code for the phenomenal world.

    The thing that pisses me off, as someone who has gained deep insights and understanding of myself and the world around me from both science and religion, is this need of zealots from both sides of the argument to engage in “debate”. As if there were any way for these people (i’m talking about the ones at this event in Austin) to actually meet on level ground. Rather, we have two competing sets of self-righteous fools arguing semantics, etymology and a greater understanding of the opposing sides point of view. Lots of referring to texts and singing “So what do you think about *that*?!” … yeah, you nailed him man.

    Please, idiots who engage in this crap – science and scripture are not mutually exclusive. They each provide what the other can’t. Chill the frack out and get off your high horses.

    • Kubrick says:

      Shayne,

      “science isn’t about meaning, truth, emotional reality, identity or anything personally or subjectively significant.”

      That is truely one of the most ignorant statments I’ve ever read.

      • Shayne says:

        ““science isn’t about meaning, truth, emotional reality, identity or anything personally or subjectively significant.”

        That is truely one of the most ignorant statments I’ve ever read.”

        I guess that’s why it was so easy for you to explain why.

        OH NO – I forgot about the Social Sciences!!! Sorry, you’re obviously a sociologist – didn’t mean to imply your discipline wasn’t a real science! The way you and I personally feel about “stuff”? Yeah, dude, that’s science!! REally! What does a “rock” mean? What does the wind mean? What does it mean that we seem to be alone in the universe? Come on science, tell us …

        Science can’t prove anything (well, i’m conveniently leaving out maths here – along with Godel’s theory there), only disprove and leave us with the best available explanation … until another comes along. So it doesn’t really have access to the “truth” (if there even is such a thing as we think of it).

        I could keep going, but i get the feeling you will label anything you don’t fully comprehened as ignorant.

      • Kubrick says:

        Your entire world is based upon scientific truths… Every touch of a keyboard is a scientific truth… Every time you start your car, use your phone, drive over a bridge, fly in a plane, take medicine. All of these are the foundation of scientific truths, building blocks of life — they are all part of our “emotional reality.”

        Science will continue to venture further into space, deeper into the subatomic world, all the while continuing to unlock the building blocks of life. Every successful exploration of a new planet, moon, solar system is another scientific truth… Every strand of DNA another step forward… Science grows daily, is not afraid to challenge its own truths, it cares not about faith, or belief… Science works, or it doesn’t. The plane flies, the building stands based on science not on faith or belief.

        Your quote:

        “What does a “rock” mean? What does the wind mean?

        The meaning in the rock, the wind is not defined but “what they mean.” They are defined be how they affect us.

        Quote:

        “What does it mean that we seem to be alone in the universe?”

        This is incomplete. Like so many others you make the mistake of suggesting that science has run out of answers… When the facts are that science is just beginning.

        Your love of religion and Eastern Philosophy shows through… You’re intimidated by science and seek comfort in the belly of the great philosophers.

        Go ahead, spend your life drowning in religious fairy tales, swallow whole the fantastic stories of creation, the soul, the after life. You can embrace eastern philosophy – a how to guide on building your own “truths,” your own “reality.” After all life’s much easier that way… all religions come with a convenient beginning, middle and end. And if you screw up the middle part, no problem there are plenty of loopholes that will help “get you to the other side.”

        Truth? Who needs truth when you have faith and belief?

        While science painstakingly searches for the truths that rule us all… religion lays stagnant, choking on its own ignorance.

      • Shayne says:

        “Your entire world is based upon scientific truths” … sorry dude – MY and YOUR entire world is based upon assumptions made via interpreting the external world as it appears through our senses. We try to extract scientific truths from these assumptions. BIG DIFFERENCE.

        “The plane flies, the building stands based on science not on faith or belief”

        Of course – thanks for stating the obvious … If it seems I implied that god is responsible for planes flying or holding up buildings, then I guess you need to read my comments a bit more critically and not from a pre-determined blueprint.

        “The meaning in the rock, the wind is not defined but “what they mean.” They are defined be how they affect us.”

        Well, extracting meaning from this grammatical travesty is like extracting blood from a rock, if you get my meaning … but if the meaning in a rock is defined by how it affects us – how do they affect us? At velocity, thrown against the head? What would that mean? Someone thinks we’ve got leprosy? How would we scientifically prove what a rock means when it is different for everyone? So – does science provide meaning/truth, or do individuals? Am I getting a bit too east of California for you here?

        “Go ahead, spend your life drowning in religious fairy tales, swallow whole the fantastic stories of creation, the soul, the after life. You can embrace eastern philosophy – a how to guide on building your own “truths,” your own “reality.” After all life’s much easier that way”

        … ah, here it comes … misrepresenting my beliefs. I never said or implied anything that you suggest here. Are you even talking to me, or am I standing as a proxy for you to vent your hatred of creationists and religious fanatics and bigots?

  7. @Shayne The reason that science and faith are incompatible is specifically for fundamentalists who take their scriptures literally. In many regards, the RTB folks are just as bad as young earth creationists. A fundamental part of modern biology, which has proved useful in our understanding of fighting disease among many other applications, is being called into question because it doesn’t line up with their scriptures. That is the focus of the debate Dr. Shermer agreed to participate in. Unfortunately, it never quite centered around that and instead focused a lot on cosmological/biblical arguments.

    I actually posit that science and religion aren’t compatible mostly for the inconvenient truth that any supreme beings are always relegated into gaps of knowledge that we don’t have an explanation for. Science’s task is to fill gaps of knowledge, and thus science and religion will always be in conflict.

  8. Kyran says:

    @ Shayne-
    Doesn’t this-
    “At the same time, theism isn’t about objective data, careful and systematic study of the natural world or experimental and scientific techniques that can be verified or refuted. As you say, any religious person who tries to, um, sciencize (!) scripture is totally missing the point – scripture provides us with subjective meaning and insights into the abstractness of truth, not with the schematics and code for the phenomenal world.”

    Contradict this?
    “science and scripture are not mutually exclusive”

    You argue firstly that they are about two separate thoughts (science is how and religion why) and then state later that they are in fact compatible. From how you’ve said that, it sounds contradictory.

    Finally on this point-
    “As far as I can tell, there will never be a way to verify the origins of the universe itself”
    This is a fairly big assumption and has more to do with your personal opinion than what might actually happen. It may well be that it is possible that the exact origins of the universe are one day known (though not in our lifetime). If it is discovered the universe just is (ie- no ultimate meaning) then most of your argument is baseless.

    The truth is that as the knowledge of science grows, areas of religion which were used to explain aspects of our universe are obsolete. Religious explanations of the world are not compatible with scientific knowledge- which is exactly why this debate took place and is relevant.

  9. Shayne says:

    @GeekyAtheist … I think they will only be in conflict if they each keep trying to perform the duties of the other. Science can’t give meaning to anything it describes (perhaps even takes meaning away from what it describes) and Religion can’t explain the way the world works. But, as Nietzsche said, knowing that the chemical composition of water is H2O isn’t going to help the drowning man.

    Science tries to overstate its claims into the region of Truth, Meaning, Purpose and Beauty as often as Religion overstates its claims into the region of Literality, Science, etc. The problem isn’t that some religious zealots believe some crazy shit about the scriptures, it’s that anyone gives them a platform on which to use science as a fulcrum for the gullibility of their sheep. The only reason I can see that this continues to happen is that the scientists and skeptics who engage them think that science *is* a drop-in replacement for religion, that once science has filled the gaps in our knowledge, the need for religion and a spiritual side to life will evaporate. All science does by filling the gaps in our knowledge is expose our consciousness to even more gaps. History has proved this, that there will always be gaps in our knowledge, misconceptions, etc and there always will be. Therefore, religion will always be necessary.

    You guys should really take a course in Robert Anton Wilson – in my mind, the perfect, skeptical alliance of science and metaphysics.

  10. Shayne says:

    @Kyran … i may not have elucidated my point enough, but I don’t think I’m being contradictory. What I mean is that even if current scientific thinking throughout all of its disciplines is correct and a true representation of how the universe works, it doesn’t mean that religion is incorrect – *because no matter what creationists, IDers, or RTB think, the scriptures aren’t about scientific explanations*. Therefore, a belief and adherence to the methods and outcomes of science does not mutually exclude a belief and adherence to the scriptures. I know, because I believe and adhere to both (well, it’s probably a little easier for me to adhere to the tenets of science than scripture as I’m not sure my lifestyle is exactly saintly).

    “It may well be that it is possible that the exact origins of the universe are one day known (though not in our lifetime). If it is discovered the universe just is (ie- no ultimate meaning) then most of your argument is baseless.”

    Well, it’s true – once we get to this point, it is *all* personal opinion and assumption … and you’ll note that that is all I claimed it to be: “As far as I can tell …”

  11. Matt says:

    @Shane
    I don’t think Science makes any claims at all in the region of Truth, Meaning, Purpose or Beauty. At least, that wasn’t an element of this particular debate.
    However, what we do see constantly is religious zealots making claims about purely scientific ideas like the age of the Universe, evolution of species and the existence of the supernatural, all based on their ancient scriptures.
    This is encroachment on scientific turf and cannot be left unaddressed.
    If the religious stuck solely to Truth, Meaning, Purpose and Beauty and stopped trying to force pseudo-scientific nonsense on the world, then I doubt there would be any debate at all.

    • Domagoj says:

      Must have been a great debate! Was there cameras aboard? (so maybe it will be on youtube in future)…

      I’m occasionally reading this comments on Shermer’s blog posts and never found Michael itself responding on them… so Michael, are you reading this? :)

    • Domagoj says:

      Sorry about this… I accidentally replied on this comment instead of commenting the article.

  12. Shayne says:

    @Kyran “It may well be that it is possible that the exact origins of the universe are one day known (though not in our lifetime). If it is discovered the universe just is (ie- no ultimate meaning) then most of your argument is baseless.”

    From my understanding, we seem further away than ever from an understanding of the exact origins of the universe. I’m almost finished reading Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which is absolutely mind-bending … I don’t claim to fully understand all the concepts, but after reading a number of these layman guides to physics and cosmology, I’m starting to get my head around stuff like special and general relativity, quantum uncertainty, string theory etc. Quantum mechanics, with its wierdness is leading science in strange directions and it seems we’re almost at a point where scientific ontology rivals religious ontology on the unbelievability scale. Parellel universes and the holographic universe (of which Philip K Dick was one of the most important investigators, laugh if you will … Dick understood better than anyone that science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive) … past, present and future existing all at once, with time travel an every moment occurrence. A lot of these ideas seem unverifiable to me, but that doesn’t mean they are … I’m also not sure that the existence of a supreme deity is unverifiable. Perhaps we’re just not thinking hard enough (the closest I can come to some sort of logical argument stepping in this direction is: if the laws of physics apply equally throughout the universe, and if there are an almost infinite number of planets throughout the universe, then some law of averages dictates the universe would be teeming with intelligent life, not just on one out of trillions of planets. If there is no other intelligent life in the universe, then there must have been a purposeful creator of that life. There doesn’t seem to be another explanation, but correct me if I’m wrong.

  13. Shayne says:

    @Matt “I don’t think Science makes any claims at all in the region of Truth, Meaning, Purpose or Beauty.”

    Try telling that to atheists. Richard Dawkins and his followers, I think, would argue that Science *does* give us Truth, Meaning, Purpose and Beauty. From what I remember of the God Delusion, Dawkins starts off waxing quite rhapsodical about science. And when you declare war on religion and propose we rid the world of its silly ideas, you sorta gonna need something to replace it. Dawkins and most atheists seem to contend that science is all you need. They forget that science can’t replace faith, maybe only act on it.

    “If the religious stuck solely to Truth, Meaning, Purpose and Beauty and stopped trying to force pseudo-scientific nonsense on the world, then I doubt there would be any debate at all.”

    Maybe. So long as you don’t mean “all you religious people, please just sit over there and paint your pretty little fantasy pictures and don’t make any claims of representing a reality” … i mean, science can pretty much trace its origins to religious ideas or reactions against them. Science wouldn’t be very advanced without religion, methinks.

  14. Ryan says:

    @Shayne “Try telling that to atheists. Richard Dawkins and his followers, I think, would argue that Science *does* give us Truth, Meaning, Purpose and Beauty.”

    Of course they would argue that. That’s because science is a pursuit for knowledge that has led them to fulfilling experiences that allow them to arrive at subjective conclusions about the world around them and their places in it. I don’t think Dawkins (or his followers) ever suggested that we replace church service with recitation of the times tables, or bibles with periodic charts of the elements.

    I would argue that with atheists of his caliber, there is a general advocacy for the elevation of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and that especially in the God Delusion, there is a plea for the world to rid itself of the often constricting trappings of dogmatic belief for the more eye-opening experience of learning.

    “They forget that science can’t replace faith, maybe only act on it.”

    I think you forget that science would never want to replace faith. If science ever began being treated like religious ‘knowledge’ is today, accepted without question or critique, then its entire purpose would become meaningless. Science would not be about the pursuit of new discoveries and new knowledge, it would be about maintaining the status quo.

    I wanted to ask your a question. You mentioned earlier that throughout history, the pursuit of knowledge has always created more questions, more gaps, etc, and therefore religion will always be necessary. Does this mean that you feel humankind will always require the security that religion provides by pretending/attempting to answer these “questions” through the mechanism of faith, or could you see a point in time where humans no longer need that security? Or do you feel that religion actually does provide answers about the Objective, and not Subjective, experience of being human? Or am I even clarifying myself properly? I did just get home from the grave shift at work…

    “Maybe. So long as you don’t mean “all you religious people, please just sit over there and paint your pretty little fantasy pictures and don’t make any claims of representing a reality” … i mean, science can pretty much trace its origins to religious ideas or reactions against them. Science wouldn’t be very advanced without religion, methinks.”

    I was wondering if you could clarify what you mean here. Religion shouldn’t be making objective claims about reality based on their belief systems. If Heaven is reality, than does that mean valhalla is not? What about the Kingdom of the Dead? Is Zeus real but not Odin? Not every religion can be right, can they? If not, can’t they all be wrong?

    I do agree that historically, science would not have progressed so quickly if not for religion, but I think for different reasons. I would argue that it comes more from the fact that, historically speaking, becoming a priest/minister was a fast track to respectability, and that it was a profession that allowed for free time for other more interesting pursuits (i.e. Science).

    “I’m also not sure that the existence of a supreme deity is unverifiable. Perhaps we’re just not thinking hard enough (the closest I can come to some sort of logical argument stepping in this direction is: if the laws of physics apply equally throughout the universe, and if there are an almost infinite number of planets throughout the universe, then some law of averages dictates the universe would be teeming with intelligent life, not just on one out of trillions of planets. If there is no other intelligent life in the universe, then there must have been a purposeful creator of that life. There doesn’t seem to be another explanation, but correct me if I’m wrong.”

    Supposing that the laws of physics did apply throughout the universe (ignoring black holes and their ilk), the the universe very well could be teeming with intelligent life, but considering the vast distances were imagining here, there is no reason why humanity should ever expect to find proof of one. But assuming that Earth did in fact hit upon the ONLY assortment of random events to kick start the advent of intelligent life, there is no way that the next logical explanation is that a purposeful creator started everything.

    The problem is that your example works both ways. I could say that the idea of there being billions of intelligent life in the universe is proof of a divine hand, because of the intrinsically unlikely occurrence of naturally developing intelligent life on ANY planet. Either way, all you have proof is that intelligent life either did, or did not develop on any specific planet, and nothing at all about the existence of divine beings.

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation.

    @Original article
    I wish I could have been there to see your debate Mr. Shermer. While I personally don’t think in the long run, a debate format will ever really persuade any large number of believers to the side of rationality, they do provide a type of rallying call to know that there are people out there “fighting the good fight”. And you never know, if your well thought out arguments convinced even one person in that audience to look at their beliefs with a more skeptical eye, than it’s definitely worth it.

    Ryan

    • Shayne says:

      “I wanted to ask your a question. You mentioned earlier that throughout history, the pursuit of knowledge has always created more questions, more gaps, etc, and therefore religion will always be necessary. Does this mean that you feel humankind will always require the security that religion provides by pretending/attempting to answer these “questions” through the mechanism of faith, or could you see a point in time where humans no longer need that security? Or do you feel that religion actually does provide answers about the Objective, and not Subjective, experience of being human? Or am I even clarifying myself properly?”

      I think I get you … and maybe I can answer you this way:

      Science obviously only deals with verifiable claims. Science also wants to discover what this universe is made of and how it came into being. It seems that whenever science gets “close” to these answers, there is a final barrier to actually answering them. In quantum physics, I guess this barrier is the uncertainty principle. Studying the Big Bang, I guess our own technology prevents us from recreating its initial conditions (thank dog). But just because something is unverifiable, doesn’t mean it’s false. Take the uncertainty principle – if we know a particles momentum, we cannot verify its position. It’s impossible. Does that mean the particle doesn’t have a position? No, it just means that we can’t know it. So, obviously, there are some things that aren’t verifiable that we still consider in the light of science. We assume that the particle has a position as well as a momentum. What about God? I’m not talking about a God that intervenes in human affairs, performing miracles, creating crop circles, etc … I’m talking about an intelligent entity that somehow created the universe. It’s unverifiable – but it is also possible. No matter how you create the universe – with God or science – it is going to take a mechanism that defies belief. There is NOTHING we can conceive of that would produce something out of nothing. I’m not talking about the pretend nothing that a lot of scientists seem to use to make their life easier (you know – a nothing that spews out particles that wink in and out of existence … sorry, when there is NOTHING, there is no existence to pop in or out of).

      So my idea is this – there will always be gaps in scientific knowledge because science cannot show us how the universe appeared FROM NOTHING. Science doesn’t deal in nor know nothingness – because as soon as you describe nothingness, it is no longer nothingness. If science doesn’t know nothingness, how can it trace the evolution from nothingness to a universe with heaps of stuff and time in it? It can’t. It’s impossible. There will always be this gap. And even though it is unverifiable, I choose to fill this gap with a God-like entity or force because that makes sense to me. Unless science can come up with something better (it hasn’t yet). This is intuitive to me … and believe me, it’s an intuition i have examined from all sides, from all states of consciousness, and one that I don’t hold on to easily. And maybe science can one day figure all this out without the use of a god-like force or entity … but for me to believe that requires more faith than does the idea of a god-like force or entity.

      thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

      • Ryan says:

        But the universe did not just appear from “nothing”. The universe as we know was a kind of singularity that expanded violently to create the universe we see today. But you do make a valid point. As humans, we have an intuitive sense of cause and effect, but in reference to the big bang, time did not exist before the expansion, so logically, it makes little sense to think about what happened “before”. Which is certainly not to say we will never have at least a general understanding of what came “before”. I do see the comfort in assigning a supernatural entity to that event as compelling, but hardly necessary.

        An interesting way to think about this; I worked at a casino, and as a Blackjack dealer, I was incessantly accused of “stacking” the deck, or told that the machines used to shuffle the cards were sorting them, and only giving out bad ones. The players saw these random events (the good or bad hands that led to either winning or losing) and projected their own desire to see order in a completely random game by thinking we were cheating. It’s the same with religion I find. People see the randomness of the universe (it’s very existence) and in a desire to see order, they end up anthropomorphizing it. When really, it’s way more likely that we were just (randomly) dealt an extremely good hand.

        On a side note, I think when you mention particles that appear in and out of nothingness, you’re speaking of virtual particles. But they don’t really appear from “nothing”. There is a plethora of ways that they can and do appear, and can be tested.

        Have a good evening.

      • epicurus says:

        @shayne
        If we know absolutely nothing (as you said) how everything came from nothing, then postulating a ‘god-like entity or force’ or supernatural gods adds nothing to our knowledge of nothing. We might as well say we know nothing and our postulates amount to nothing. Fortunately there’s nothing to worry about because the universe did not come from nothing. It started in the Big Bang singularity, a point of infinite density. The total mass-energy of the universe is finite. The Big Bang singularity had infinite density because all the mass-energy of the universe was contained in a single point. If the universe started from nothing, the singularity would have zero density since it would have zero mass-energy. The Big Bang is a transformation of mass-energy from high density state (singularity) to low density state (wave-particles) not a creation of mass-energy from nothing.

        Your idea is very old. Somebody said my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients. We’re just rediscovering what philosophers in the past have already thought of. The ancient Greek natural philosophers believed nothing can come from nothing 2,300 years before modern science formulated the law of conservation of mass and energy. Aristotle thought god is the ultimate cause of the universe. Hume thought god is unnecessary in explaining the universe because god is more inexplicable than the universe. This is not to dismiss the possibility of god. To quote Shermer’s Last Law: “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence would be indistinguishable from god.” I like his ‘theory’ but I’m reminded of Mintzberg’s caution ‘theories aren’t true but they’re useful’ and ‘we don’t discover theories (that’s truth) we invent them.’ Certainly we have not discovered ET and I don’t know what’s the use of Shermer’s ‘theory’ other than I like it. Isn’t belief in god like that too?

  15. GL says:

    Open debate is a good thing.

  16. Paul says:

    Mr. Shermer,

    Any chance you’ll post that ppt or send it to someone that was interested?

    Paul

  17. Leslie says:

    Dear Mr. Shermer,

    I attended this event and noticed that in the presentation
    when you spoke of Type I and II errors, your imagery
    was interesting to me – of the predator in the grass.

    My question is:

    Do you think God or the idea/concept of God as
    a predator?

    Please be honest, seriously.

    Do you consider God a predator to humanity
    and to your own humanity in particular?

    Is that your main impression of God (or of the
    idea of God)?

    If so, why do you think so?

    Thanks ahead of time for your answer.

    The presentation did give me some things to
    think about, but I noticed both sides of the
    debate need much more work and to focus less
    on battling the details against one another that
    don’t hit key principles well.

    Also I think that the skeptic/atheist humor in these debates
    often comes across as more of a defense mechanism
    or tactic to avoid issues and keep shielded some
    double standards being played sometimes, not that
    I don’t get anything out of the arguments though.

    I think one the weak points was all the fuss at the
    end about specific Bible predictions – all those
    questions.

    One of the themes in the Bible has to do with individuals who are told certain things and though they believed in God in general, they did not believe or understand the specific thing predicted. They understood only after it occurred, so it taught lessons about faith and understanding.

    An example is Abraham was told he would have a son by Sara and Sara laughed when she overheard because it did not make sense to her (she was so old), but it happened. Same with Jesus telling his disciples he was going to die and rise again and they did not understand until it happened. Our understanding increases in all sorts of ways.

    No, the Bible is not about measurements, it is
    about what is most important. One of the most important
    things to understand and for children to understand
    is that we are not merely molecules and we are not
    merely reason and emotion either. Those things don’t
    account entirely for who we are.

    Can human reason and awareness account for themselves?

    Can reason and emotion alone assign value,
    goodness, and explain love (I am speaking of other than
    mere survival since there is more to value
    and love than survival)?

    If love is emotion, then why is
    knowledge pointless or useless without love?

    As far as teaching science, it should be taught
    with these limitations in mind and not give
    students ANY impression that this is all there
    is to life since that would be dishonest,
    pretentious, and tyranny. It should not be
    taught that ALL is matter, energy, gravity, cells etc.
    It should be clearly expressed that there is more
    to consider than that when it comes to life,
    much unexplained!

    We can so easily be “too smart for our own good”
    (both sides of the argument) and
    use a bunch of rabid details to sound
    oh so so smart (and be only noise in the end)!

    Sorry to be so grim, but seriously!

    I still will consider your “x looks designed…”
    and “time and place determines religion” ideas
    as well as a few other ideas brought up.

    And about that last thing when there was all
    those people saying No they would not give up
    thier belief even with evidence, I think it can also
    work the other way with those determined to
    believe that molecules, reason, and emotion
    is all there is and only look at those things
    for answers. The creationists can make their
    models too and change them around since they
    also believe in human error of scientific
    models and inquiry (as well as in errors in
    understanding spiritual and Biblical things),
    at least the most honest of them, especially in details.
    We all count our costs and rely on/build upon certain
    foundations that we hope are secure.

    We all have faith.

    Thanks for listening. I hope I was at
    least somewhat interesting in my inquiry!

  18. One hardly knows where to begin and ultimately nods, smiles, and walks away.

  19. Mastriani says:

    Well done Dr. Shermer; nothing more, well done.

  20. Michael says:

    @Shayne [words in all caps are for emphasis only; no shouting]

    You did, of course, notice that when Matt said:”I don’t think Science MAKES ANY CLAIMS at all in the region of Truth, Meaning, Purpose or Beauty,” you answered a completely different question.

    Namely, your response was: “Richard Dawkins and his followers, I think, would argue that Science *DOES* GIVE US Truth, Meaning, Purpose and Beauty.”

    That an individual might find TMP&B in science says no more than that one might find TMP&B in pressing wildflowers or painting with watercolors. To say that science does not claim to know TMP&B is a totally different thing–and as an aside, I’ve not encountered any religion that fails to actively make claims about TMP&B, e.g., “we have the T; only our adherents have M in their lives; without the P that god(s) give you there is no such thing as B,” and so forth.

    So, given that you seem to claim (at least here) that no forward progress for humanity will continue as long as the idiots on both sides continue to clash, will you point us to the blog of Ross or Rana wherein you surely take them to task for engaging in such a meaningless show of bravado, that we might admire your evenhandedness, wisdom and perspicacity?

    • Shayne says:

      “To say that science does not claim to know TMP&B is a totally different thing”

      I don’t know, maybe you’re right – but I find it a little wierd to personify Science as some kind of entity that can claim anything. Did Science claim that the laws of general and special relativity apply to this universe or did Albert Einstein? What about the uncertainty principle – was that a claim made by science or a dude named Heisenburg? You see – Science doesn’t claim anything – individuals, and collections of individuals, do.

      “So, given that you seem to claim (at least here) that no forward progress for humanity will continue as long as the idiots on both sides continue to clash”

      Don’t know how I gave you that impression … I really don’t think either side of this debate (skeptics versus creationists) has much to do with the progress of humanity. That is a hilarious excursion into hubris.

      “will you point us to the blog of Ross or Rana wherein you surely take them to task for engaging in such a meaningless show of bravado, that we might admire your evenhandedness, wisdom and perspicacity?”

      I really don’t want to engage in a discussion with those people because I don’t think they’d really listen to what I have to say. We being skeptics, I think that my ideas might be received a little better, and I gotta say I’ve enjoyed this discussion. You can admire my EW&P in any case.

  21. ChasM says:

    Not to be rude, but, wow, there are some nutty people out there – I mean the science/scripture folks…and some of the folks who posted their responses here.

    Anyway, Dr. Shermer, just saw your round table discussion in “The Question of God” and your video on strange beliefs (a real hoot!). as Excellent stuff – though I’m now frightened to listen to “Stairway to Heaven” backwards again, with or without the use of recreational substances.

    Thanks for bringing some humorous sanity to our postmodern Bedlam. Count me as a fan.

  22. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Clearly, if one uses the Bible as a moral compass, one must cherry pick the passages carefully.

  23. Kubrick says:

    To Shayne…

    It is difficult to have any sort of logical discussion with an individual as yourself when it seems your entire foundation is rooted in philosophical nothingness.

    Good Day.

  24. Shayne’s just doing what so many others do – condemning science for not being useful to them as a religion.

  25. kabol says:

    “…this is not, never was, and never will be about science, because no scientific evidence would ever dissuade believers from their belief. Why? Because such beliefs are not based on science in the first place.”

    i bow at the feet of michael shermer! oh wait, no – that makes it look like i’m worshiping him in a frenzy of “science religion”. ;)

    i HEART michael shermer! no, too girlie-fan juvenile.

    i am heartened at michael shermer’s persistent attempts to take on the people who need to hear what he has to say the most, but saddened at the fact that they probably aren’t really listening.

    much better.

    i’m wondering if shayne actually read the entire article, particularly that last part with the questions shermer posed.

  26. Shayne says:

    @Kubrik

    “It is difficult to have any sort of logical discussion with an individual as yourself when it seems your entire foundation is rooted in philosophical nothingness.”

    more precisely – it is difficult to have any sort of logical discussion when you don’t even try. even more difficult when you can’t even have a discussion without first misrepresenting the other participant.

    Philosophical nothingness? Philosophy is the first and foremost science – in fact, it is the only real science in that it deals primarily with the one and only verifiable fact in the universe – the existence of the self.

    But the very first act of science is to abandon the principles of its own methods – at the very outset, it *assumes* the existence of an objective universe even though this is impossible to verify. In other words, it assumes god exists. Do i give a shit? No – because if it didn’t just assume this and get on with figuring out the self-consistent underlying mechanisms of this dream, then we wouldn’t have computers and stuff. And fuck knows where we’d be without computers and stuff. Dead, I’d say.

    “Shayne’s just doing what so many others do – condemning science for not being useful to them as a religion.”

    *Sigh* It would make discussion a lot easier IF YOU STOPPED PUTTING WORDS IN MY MOUTH. I did not condemn science. I pointed out that it can not – and NEVER SHOULD – replace religion. If science wants to replace religion, science can just fuck off. But that’s just what *you* want it to do. You, and the other two I quote in this post, are fanatics. You are just as irrational and immune to reason as are creationists and these RTB folks. I have a big appetite for science – real science, not woo or creationism. i love quantum physics most of all … general and special relativity blow my mind.

    “i’m wondering if shayne actually read the entire article, particularly that last part with the questions shermer posed.”

    um, i’m wondering why you think you have the right to ask me anything when it is obvious you haven’t read or tried to understand a single thing i’ve written … are you actually assuming that i think the bible has scientific relevance? are you actually assuming that i believe religion has all the answers and science has none? are you REALLY assuming that i am somehow “against” science and “for” religion? if so, go back and read what i’ve written as slowly as your brain needs for you to understand where i’m coming from. if not – what claims have i made that are incorrect or not reasonable?

    but, to put your mind at rest – it was his questions and the very last paragraph that actually inspired my posts … i mean, he actually acknowledges his less than scientific aims and intentions:

    “no scientific evidence would ever dissuade believers from their belief. Why? Because such beliefs are not based on science in the first place.”

    … um, so what were you trying to do there? i can tell you – for some fucked-up psychological reason. one that makes people on both sides of this idiotic “debate” feel the need to “win” the argument of “who sucks more – god or science?” … it’s a total waste of time perpetuated by both sides so that their respective teams can pat each other on the arse and congratulate each other on showing how retarded the opponents are. i am on neither side, nor do i see the need for sides. science would probably call this objectivity – you may resort to your snide “eastern” label, if that helps you.

  27. marcelo says:

    Mr Shermer, I had been a ultra-orthodox christian for more then 15 years, but stopped believing the Bible somehow after starting reading on the internet about Bible contradictions, among other things. But as far as a try, I still cannot disbelieve in it 100%. Can you get in touch with me by email? Thanks for your time and attention!

  28. JackieG says:

    If you are going to debate the bible then you need to know about hermeneutics.