> on effability

on effability

2010-01-10 - jjackunrau

Last night I went to see PZ Myers speak on “The War between Religion and Science.” His side is that creationism is bad because religion is bad. The highlight of the night came in the Q&A afterwards, in an exchange with what appeared to be a 13-year-old girl. She asked, in her wavering nervous voice, what he thought about purity rings that some of the kids today wear to symbolize that they aren’t going to have sex. He said that studies show that those wearers tend to be more active in terms of oral and anal sex so they don’t seem too effective. She responded from her microphone, “Well, actually, I think the rings are only about vaginal intercourse. Not oral or anal.” And there was general laughter, so I missed a bit before Myers (also laughing) said, “Yeah, purity rings signify you’re into anal.”

There was only one person in the Q&A asking questions from a creationist perspective, a Mr. Toews. Sean and I were kind of hoping there’d be more. As Myers said in response to another precocious kid, “A room full of atheists with one Christian can be just as smug as a room full of Christians with one atheist. It’s just a function of group dynamics.” It was a pretty smug room.

But the interesting part of the evening for me (aside from learning about Darrelle Revis) was afterwards when the three of us, Dave, Sean and I, were walking back to the van and Dave asked, “So, did he convert you?” It threw me off. Convert me? I would have thought I’d be seen as firmly on the side of science when it comes to creation vs evolution. And more skeptical/scientific leaning than religious in general. But the fact that Dave, my lifelong friend, could think otherwise, well, it gave me pause.

Now, Myers was talking about how stupid religion is because it depends on things that can’t be verified by evidence. Christianity is only an appeal to the authority of a book of bronze age legends (and assorted accretions from throughout the centuries). Just saying “It’s in the Bible” doesn’t make it so. I agree that that’s a bad way to think.

For most people, I’d argue, science is the same way. Sure, if you are actually a scientist you’re talking about piles of experiments and data that’s been collected and has proven reliable, and you are theoretically open to the possibility of the next discovery being made that could set the whole thing on its ear. But for many people all they hear is “It’s been scientifically proven that…” Regular non-scientist people don’t go searching through the journals to assess the methods used. They gloss over when scientists start talking about actual details.

A while back I was trying to explain to my mom how the proto-humans in Olduvai Gorge were determined to be as old as they are. I learned this stuff in university, and could explain how radioactive dating worked in general, but Mom asked, “But how do they know it works?” And I said things fit with the evidence so far. “What’s the other evidence? How do they know?” And I had to throw up my hands and say, “Look mom, they’re specialists! I trust them to know what they’re doing!” Because I don’t know what they’re doing exactly. I don’t think this is uncommon. People hand over the responsibility of thinking about science to the authorities, the same way people hand over thinking about morality to the clergy (or to their chosen traditional book of legends). It’s not like the age of some African fossils actually makes much of a difference to my life, so I’m not going to become an expert. This is why we get so much pseudo-science around, just like we get so much dangerous religion (and exploitative “spiritual” bullshit), because people aren’t interested in being responsible for what they think.

And yes you can blame bad basic science education for that. That’s certainly what PZ Myers is doing. But the fact of the matter is that not everyone in the world is going to be a scientist. He wants people who aren’t scientists to trust science, because it’s based on evidence. But when religion is based on experience you’ve got a problem. Science asks you to believe your senses. Well, not your senses exactly, the senses of these specialists who know what they’re doing. When the report from someone else’s senses comes into conflict with a person’s direct experience of whatever transcendence or peace or good feelings a person gets from religion that’s the issue. If my grandma is happy believing that she’s going to sit around on fluffy clouds praising Jesus with my dead grandpa for all eternity when she dies, me explaining how that’s just chemicals coursing through her brain on well worn neural pathways isn’t going to help her have a better life. Her experience of religion has far more weight with her than the words of some authority.

At the lecture last night there was mention of the humanistic philosophy being one that we are the creators of everything we find meaningful. And it’s investing something with meaning that’s one of the most important things we can do. Yes that something may be a collection of moral rules so our bunch of primates don’t rape each other constantly, but it’s also where our art or anything else we find meaningful comes in. A person asked a question about what hope the atheist community can offer to compete with what religion does. Myers said “Hope based on a lie is not hope.” Bullshit. All we’ve got are the lies we choose to believe in. That’s it.

I do think that the scientific method is the best way people have of understanding how the universe works. Right now. But. We made up the scientific method just like we made up all those myths we don’t believe anymore. Maybe it’s my Lovecraft showing, but I think there are important things we don’t know, that are ineffable (and possibly squamous). And that’s why we have created all these cultural phenomena like religion and science. Like stories and metaphor. We try to make things make sense, even though they won’t. I think a purely materialistic view of existence is wrong, especially for the individual, because it’s just as blinkered as dogmatic woowoobeliving. I think there are plenty of important unverifiable things. People are still small, fragile and stupid, and it seems the height of arrogance to think we can know everything, be it from ancient scriptures or analyzing fossils. Things are more complex than we want them to be. “The way that can be explained is not the eternal way.”

(I also believe in most of this.)

So yeah. That was my evening. And this post’s length is why I didn’t have a real good answer for Dave on the ride home. Sorry dude.

afterlife anal art authority bull durham darrelle revis dave education evidence evolution grandma hope ideology jesus lovecraft mom olduvai gorge oral primates pseudoscience purity rings pz myers radioactive dating science sean smug tao vaginal