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no syllogism incarnate

16 October 2009 14 comments

So, here’s a thing.  Today, one of the people I follow on Facebook posted the following update:

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” – Charles Darwin

One of his other followers posted this (almost eerily) prescient followup:

“…to argue with a man who has renounced his reason is like giving medicine to the dead.”  – Thomas Paine, The Crisis

Then, as if by plan, a theist chimed in with this bit:

“It is quite possible that God acts in ways that cannot be described by scientific laws.”   – Stephen Hawking

I, being the smartass I am, posted this twist:

“It is quite possible that Zeus acts in ways that cannot be described by scientific laws.”  – paraphrase of Stephen Hawking

Out of the complete blue comes this response:

Golly Dan. You’re right. This Stephen Hawking fellow must be an ignorant doofus. We should discredit all of his contributions, discard his ideas, strip his books from the shelves, burn them, and not allow any of his theories to be taught in our schools. That would teach supposed scientists what will happen if they mention the “G” word in public. Wouldn’t it?

Whoa.  I hadn’t thought that would be the logical conclusion to what I had posted, but clearly the link between merely substituting one god’s name for another and expecting a critical mind to see the inherent fallacy in the statement illuminates my own (heretofore unknown) desire to trash Hawking and all he ever did in an almost Inquisitional fashion.  Led by the overwhelming majority that we atheists are, of course.

So, I bore down intellectually, rifled through all my apparent hatred of all things Hawking (and presumably everything he’s ever said that overwhelmingly refutes the large part of non-scientific opinion on stellar evolution and the nature of the universe), and finally came up with this diatribe – nay, this thesis, this MAGNUM OPUS:


… and I was exhausted from the struggle.  But then, some yahoo comes along and throws my anti-Hawking bigotry for a loop!

“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.” – Stephen Hawking

Dammit!  Now I have to throw the baby out with the primordial bathwater!

From the Wikipedia entry on Stephen Hawking:

Hawking takes an agnostic position on matters of religion. He has repeatedly used the word ‘God’ (in metaphorical meanings) to illustrate points made in his books and public speeches. Having been described as an atheist by various people, including his former wife Jane, Hawking has stated that he is “not religious in the normal sense” and he believes that “the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.”

So, using Hawking (or Flew, or Einstein, for that matter) to buttress a belief in the divine is ill-conceived, or merely shows a lack of study on the subject.

“Consistency” was all I was bringing up.  Those who believe that science is somehow flawed since it cannot answer every question, all the time, and subsequently write off the “gaps” to theistic influence never seem to apply their own standard to other named deities – many of whom have far longer histories than the Judeo-Christian one (assuming it wasn’t modeled after the previous ones), texts that proclaim themselves accurate, and the testimonies of “witnesses” to miraculous events.  The quote I leave with is logical in its form.  Regardless of who said it, it is a question that should be asked by every believer; then (and only then) can one really be said to “believe:”

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” – Stephen Roberts


  • David Broome said:

    Believe it or not, I have on my office bookcase an engraved brass plaque with that very quote on it. It so perfectly captures my rationale for atheism.

  • DG Seaton said:

    That is probably my favourite atheism quote EVER, Dan. Simple, straightforward, succinct.

    I was still dabbling in paganism back in 2004, and I worked with a man at the State. He was openly atheist, and I was daunted by, even in awe of, him and his astonishing openness about what at the time seemed shocking. (I was in a broom closet of my own, as a Wiccan.)

    He and I discussed whether he had any religious belief at all, and he said something to me that rang the bright bell of truth in my mind, and which I’ve echoed in times since: “a myth is a myth is a myth.” And indeed, he is right.

    I have met plenty of “believers” who also find some credence in the theory of evolution, and there is always common ground to light upon with those minds. It is the ones that cling so desperately to their beliefs, to the exclusion of all else, that give me pause and make me steer a wide berth. Darwin nailed that tell-tale indicator — nothing denotes the presence of abject fear of being wrong, quite like sanctimonious certitude.

    “All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure.” (Mark Twain}

  • Emily Overturf said:

    OK, I’m working on more for later, but I HAVE to get this out there. I think the atheist quote is bunk. And I think you can believe in as many gods you want to and still be a christian. The God of Abraham simply said, “HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME”. He never discounted the existence of other gods, but admitted to being a Jealous god and wanted to be FIRST. As far as I am concerned, that is the gist of it. The God of Abraham claims to have created the world- possible- and to have peopled it with beings in his image -possible. And I agree with Hawking in the sense that God doesn’t interfere with processes. God said LET IT BE, and it was. God did a lot of interfering during the fledgling existence of man / Jewish tribes. Went nowhere. Accomplished NOTHING. So- turn the key and see where this puppy flies. Lay down some basic ground rules for any that care to follow them and follow that up with some consequential results if they get past the finish line without the rules.
    And frankly, it is OK that you don’t believe in the God of Abraham or any others, but it is also OK if I do. You should not be made to feel bad or inferior because how you believe and I should not be either.

    Oh, lord. Ya’ll have turned me into a damned liberal.

  • dan (author) said:

    Well, Em, if you have outed yourself as a poly- or henotheist, more power to you. You have a hard row to hoe against your monotheistic brethren. And you’ve developed a Deistic flavor to it, as well. So, I follow up with a gem from my man Epicurus:

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”

  • Emily Overturf said:

    Well, Daniel, evidently I’ve birthed another. Below is a post of the clones in response to a conversation this subject matter spawned:
    (repost from Darth Barbie on FB):
    (Darth Barbie) Wonders the fact that it is almost impossible to call yourself an atheist (but please take no offense for those of you who claim this title, this is simply just a venture into thought) and claim that there is no chance of any divine being other than yourself, when that is wholly unarguable because of the simple fact that all of us are confronted with divine beings every day. Arguably your parents are divine beings because they are the primary source of your existence, and their parents to them and so on and so forth. Making it, by design, impossible to claim that nothing exists more elevated or with more of a divine status than yourself. But to be fair, I can also say I am truly irked by the group of not only Christians, but people of all FAITH, who state that there can not possibly be more than one god, the I Am. I Am says to put no God before me but does not deny the presence of other divine creatures. In both of these I find enormous flaws and can only explain as the wish to either push away some flaw of self or simply a wish to stay ignorant of all TRUTH whether it be spiritual, personal, or secular.

  • Kellwood said:

    Interesting use of use syllogisms and great example of the problem of pure logic. If one thing my years of studying the Philosophy of the History of Science has thought me is that holding a particular paradigm or worldview as an absolute is extremely limiting. I think human kind is at a point where the Kuhnian “Scientific Revolution” is once again upon us. Hopefully, instead of viewing things as “either,” “or,” or “nothing,” that causes a “black & white” perception of reality, when maybe we should have something more flexible. Human kind is still evolving. One day, our brilliant scientists will be perceived as misled by misunderstood assertion. Even Einstein and Hawking. We now generally perceive Newton has a fruitcake today.

    “A scientist will never show any kindness for a theory which he did not start himself.”
    Mark Twain

  • Emily Overturf said:

    Regarding Epicurus – he makes good points. But with a God who has established a free will society: can that God interfere with evil? That God can have pre-established, anti-evil safeguards and wards that believers can call upon in order to not be subject or to succumb to evil (i.e. specific prayers, the name of Jesus, prayer hedges, angel hedges, etc.). But once the game begins, it is “sit back and watch.” No true malevolence, but simply playing by pre-established rules.
    Regarding my “belief”. I simply accept my belief but do not plan to cast or project it against any other. I accept Free Will. So I have no row to hoe. I will be happy to discuss it, but each person’s decision is their own. I cannot save anyone, I can only to be sure of my walk in the Christian Lifestyle I have chosen. I do not claim it as a religion, because I shy from zealots of all kinds and “religious” seems to tie on the zealot moniker. One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Jefferson, (an Epicurean – NOT a Christian):

    “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.” — Thomas Jefferson

    I also found this little gem:

    “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” — Thomas Jefferson

    If god wanted us to be cattle, he would have created cattle. But he/or cosmic evolution produced working brains, so OOPS.

  • dan (author) said:

    Kelly; agreed wholeheartedly. That’s why science and reason work – our working theories are such until other, more workable ones come along. Fundamentalist religion is rarely so enlightened.

    Em; to your (or rather, the kid’s) first point, it is absolutely impossible for an atheist (or anyone, FTM) to “claim that there is no chance of any divine being other than yourself,” specifically because it is “wholly unarguable.” Atheists, unless they are being intentionally disingenuous, do not assert a negative. Why? Because we can’t prove it. No one can prove a negative. What the thinking atheists are saying is that one can prove a positive assertion, but religion has failed to do so. Despite thousands of years of humans searching for it, not one verifiable piece of evidence has come forth to prove the existence of a deity (or deities, if you like). And I refer you to Anthony Flew’s story of the Gardener (https://www.dansanders.net/2009/01/24/how-does-your-garden-grow/) – if that’s all there is, then what’s the point?

    To your second post: you’ve posited a mechanistic universe where all the links have been made, and it is up to the believer to do their chosen set of lever-pulling and button-pushing. I’m kinda fascinated by this, and would love to discuss it further. But if that’s the god you say put it all together, then you may as well do away with the Bible, because (especially in the NT) it paints a distinctly different picture (or, at least, “Paul” does). And if all prayer, invocation, etc., is a set of “pre-established rules,” then you do not have free will. There is Will, perhaps, but it isn’t free, any more than a football player is free to do what he wants in a game and expect a positive outcome, or a cow that has a choice of where to roam in its pen.

    And Sagan bless you for the Jeffersonian tidbits. Nice grist for the “America is a Christian Nation” zealots.

  • Kellwood said:

    Can’t prove a negative? Can we prove a positive? Hence the comment of the “either/or” fallacy: Reality is not black or white – it’s closer to Panasonic Technicolor. Way too many variables in any equation for us to come to an absolute. Why I have problems with both the fundamentalist (who aren’t fun at all) and atheist points of view. It’s “either/or.” There is a Greater Being or there is not. Reason can only lead us to “might” or “might not” be. With our limited amount facts, it all boils down to faith. Both in Science and Religion.

  • dan (author) said:

    Kelly, you are constructing a false dichotomy; the way I see it is that theists are saying “There is a god.” Atheists are saying “There is no proof.” So, I agree with you in stating that there “might or might not be.” But where I differ is that it really all boils down to faith in Religion. Science doesn’t require faith. It requires proof. No matter how hard you try, you can’t impose a mystical truth on it, by definition – if you say science requires faith, then it isn’t science anymore, it’s something else.

  • Emily Overturf said:

    Scientific theory, et al – upon which a lot of science is based and cannot be proven due to the limitations of technology and/ or man – is in essence a “faith” based process. If you are more comfortable with the word “hope”, use it. But “hope” and “faith” are interchangeable regarding an innate belief in an intangible and ultimately unprovable school of thought.
    So in this does not “science” and “faith” come full circle?

  • dan (author) said:

    I can’t comment on your conclusory statement, because you’ve begun with false premises. You’ve used the phrase “cannot be proven” as if that is fact. You call it a “faith-based process,” when it is not.

    I honestly don’t know what you’re getting at with this reasoning, but it doesn’t sound like you’re describing science. Honestly, it sounds like you are describing what Creationists call “science.”

    The Scientific Method is: Hypothesize, Experiment, Refine hypothesis, Experiment, State your theory.

    During the experimentation phases, you invite others to come and say, “hey, given your set of data, I can’t reproduce the results.” Take Cold Fusion, for example. No one else could reproduce the results, so it was deemed bogus. And, the original theorists have gone back to the drawing board; they did not say, “well, it will only work if you believe in it” or “Science moves in mysterious ways.” Yeah, you hope it works – there’s fame and funding to be had if it does. But if it doesn’t, you start over, you don’t just keep hoping.

    If the Scientific Method is a “school of thought,” then it has been proven over and over. So, to me, at least, they are not the same. Not even close.

  • Emily Overturf said:

    I’ll use the word ‘confirm’ rather than ‘prove’. The Big Bang Theory and Evolution can not be undeniably confirmed. BUT… by thinking individuals it can be accepted, either by the Scientist who sees this as a purely cosmic event; or by the open minded theist who sees it as an event where god struck the proverbial match and started the cosmic fire. So my statement is not relevant to theories (i.e. Cold Fusion) which can be falsified or corrected by new observations; but by the “trust?” -is that a safer word- in the unseen and unknown of an unconfirmable, yet significantly embraced Scientific Theory.

  • dan (author) said:

    Fair enough, though BBT and Evo are both pretty darned undeniable at this point. They’re not confirmable in the lab, to be sure, but they fit every prediction model, and every bit of new data that we have gotten so far fits as well (case in point, the Pterodactyl fossil that was announced on the 14th, and the 21-year Michigan State study that was done on bacteria, and the results just released yesterday).

    Look at it this way; I will never conclusively prove that in the following series:

    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, X, 7, 8, 9, 10

    …that X is six. However, it fits a model really well. But, I suppose if a “Cult of the Non-Six” wants to come along and say it isn’t six – well, science can only do so much. Ultimately, is it “faith” to believe that it is six? Depends on how one wants to define “faith.”