Disagreeing Constructively on the Internet

If you’ve visited the comments section of a Facebook article, YouTube video or a news site, it becomes quickly evident that there’s a lot of trolls out there. There’s something about the anonymity and distance provided by the Internet that seems to welcome anti-social behavior. The problem with trolling, at least as I see it, is three-fold: firstly, the way we speak to others online genuinely affects them so we should be careful with our words; secondly, the tenor of our online interactions shape the conversations and attitudes we have about issues when we’re offline; and lastly, too many people are too easily satisfied by attacking the people they encounter online instead of actually getting to know them.

A number of years ago I wrote a book review on Amazon for David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion. The book itself is unremarkable and I’ve pretty much forgotten everything about it; nonetheless, a number of visitors to the site both read and replied to my review. Out of all the subsequent interactions I had I recall two of them specifically: the first was with a person named “Geoff” whose comments were pretty indicative of your typical Internet troll; the second was with a fellow named “Laners” who, as it turns out, eventually became one of the best friends I’ve ever made.

What follows, then, is the original review I wrote followed by comments made by Geoff, myself and Laners. The point of sharing this is so that, for anyone interested, they can see how people can disagree constructively online instead of resorting to name calling or just being generally shitty to one another.


The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions (Paperback) by Rick D.
I read the Devil’s Delusion in part because I thought it might provide a thoughtful and relevant criticism of scientific materialism. But instead of the expected objective criticism I found more of an attack on science and its apparent “pretensions”.

The first indication that the author was less than objective was when I came across his first (of many) references to the Old Testament. I concede that Mr. Berlinski perhaps used his first biblical reference for certain stylistic or aesthetic purposes; however, his repeated invocation of Scripture caused me to wonder whether the author was the right man for so important a job as to help further the philosophy of science.

Another issue I had with the author was his over-use of the exclamation mark. I admit this is such a petty thing to point out; and I acknowledge a writer needs to be free to make use of whatever tools are at hand–be them rhetorical or grammatical–to do the job. Yet, from a reader’s point-of-view I found the abundance of exclamations distracting. In fact, I left many a chapter sensing that the author was simply trying to out-shout his opponents instead of out-think; any educated/literate person would agree that the validity of one’s arguments does not depend upon one’s volume so much as one’s appeal to truth through a combination of evidence, logic and reason.

Thirdly, I often found the author’s tone unprofessional. His disdain for scientific materialism (and Richard Dawkins in particular) was absolutely palpable; and I think it’s safe to say the author’s choice of title is indicative of his particular fixation with Mr. Dawkins. In short, I’d be surprised to find the Devil’s Delusion in print if in fact Dawkin’s God Delusion hadn’t existed first. There simply would be no reason to publish Berlinski’s book otherwise. If an author is intent on providing an objective account of “things” you would expect that he/she might acknowledge that the object of criticism (scientific materialism in this case) might have at least a modicum of validity. Berlinski did not concede any point to science that did not further his own particular agenda. However, despite the weaknesses I perceived in his style I was grateful for one thing: he did provide in my opinion an excellent overview of the history of the scientific world-view. Albeit his account is broken up over several chapters I found it informative, balanced, and well-written.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a book that provides reasonable, well-constructed, objective counter-arguments to those posed by Richard Dawkins this is not the book for you; and if you are looking for a book that furthers (covers new territory) the dialogue on the philosophy of science…well, this book isn’t for you either. However, if you are interested in the history of 21st Century religion-based polemics then perhaps this book is for you.

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Geoff says:

So, you think the book is bad because it quotes the Ancient Greeks too often — whoops, the Ancient Hebrews — and uses too many exclamation marks — and shows insufficient respect for Dawkins the Noisemaker. Wow! That’s pretty deadly!!

I call him Dawkins the Noisemaker because he is so obviously a Fame Whore. Just five minutes ago, I watched a YouTube video where some girl asked him, “What if you’re wrong?” Did Dawkins answer the question? No. He simply turned the question around, and asked the girl, “What if you’re wrong (in believing in JooJoo, God of the Cannibals)?” A truly disgraceful performance.

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Laners says:

Your complaints regarding this book seem to be a little trite. To over quote from the greatest book ever written would not seem to be too much of a sin, particularly as the Bible has been central to the point at issue between Dawkins et al and Berlinski. The overuse of a exclaimation point hardly seems to be worth pointing out. It is as though you entered the discussion looking for a reason to be distracted or annoyed and ignore the content of the book.

Your third point I can readily agree with but would note that this tone seems to be central to the discussion at hand on both sides and can be seen clearly not only in all literature that I have read from both sides, but also in almost every post regarding the discussion at hand. What I can say about Berlinski is that his slams against the opposition are at least quite witty and written with a sense of humor. I note that you do not mention that Dawkins et al are most rabid in their snarky and disdainful comments against those that they disagree with. Compared to them, Berlinski is a piker in the use of this use of uncivil and unprofessional language. I don’t disagree that it is there and that I found it refreshing to have someone on my side taking the occasional dig at the other side, however the tone is so offensive when reading Dawkins that it is only with great deference that I can try to get to the meat of what Dawkins is saying.

And I would add this. The tone of Dawkins in particular belies his real motives in taking up this fight. Were he truly seeking to convince rather than incite what is the point of publishing demeaning and offensive rhetoric as he does? If his arguments were persuasive enough he would hardly need to attempt to shame others into renouncing their beliefs. But his arguments are not and so we must be repeatedly subjected to his disdainful remarks against those of faith as though we have never analyzed the issue logically or had a cogent thought pass between our ears.

It is the simple fact of the matter that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved. I believe that God intended it this way so that we would be forced to make a decision based on what our heart tells us and how we view our place in this world and eternity. Were the arguments forceful enough on either side then we could be convinced based on conclusive evidence rather than on the condition of our hearts and this is not what God had in mind. Many have described faith in God as a blind faith but this is simply not the case. The truth is that there is an abundance of evidence on both sides, though scientific evidence for the existence of God is hard to find because it is difficult for scientists with this world view to be published and this also shows that there is something deeper going on. Were we having a real debate based on available evidence then all sides would be willingly published. However, the accepted scientific community has largely made up it’s mind and is generally only publishing one side of the story. This means that books with evidence supporting ID or the existence of God are published under minor labels and are difficult to find. It is not as though their work is sub par. I have read many widely published works (with the accepted world view) that were either not peer reviewed or were reviewed very uncritically and were largely rubbish.

As the the existence of this book, it is in many respects a refutation of Dawkin’s book no doubt and would not exist were it not for Dawkins and a host of other books proporting their world view. This is generally called a “critique” and is not at all uncommon in literature. It is the very nature of the critique that it would not exist were it not for a previously published work(s), similar to this post. It is hard to understand why this would be considered a point against Berlinski’s book.

It is interesting that it is your opinion that there are no counter arguments to Dawkin’s arguments in this book. The whole point of the book was to state that writings such as Dawkin’s are simply overstepping their bounds in the application of science. I am not sure any specific counter arguments need to be made as Dawkin’s arguements are generally fallacious and outside the realms of scientific method. We are instructed to have our imaginations inspired by Darwin….this is science? Don’t give me a dream sequence, show me evidence. Anyone can imagine how something happened, that doesn’t make it science. I am amused in one of his chapters how he (Dawkin’s) makes the point that it is invalid to state that since most of the scientists in the age if enlightenment were Christians we should all be Christians because they were so brilliant and that is what they thought. Then he proceeds to state (at great length) that today most of the “brilliant” scientists are athiests; the implication being that the rest of us dummies should be too. If the argument was invalid 400 years ago it is invalid today as well. I would think making points such as these are as much a waste of Berlinski’s time as they are mine and that most reasonable people can see thru them without reading another book.

Berlinski’s point is deeper. Science is science, philosophy is philosophy, religion is religion. Science should have evidence to back up claims. It should be rigid in it’s methods and should be regarded with the view that as humans we tend to interpret evidence in light of our worldview. This means the measure of “proof” should be very high indeed else our preconceived notions cloud the picture to obscurity and the truth of the matter becomes difficult, if not impossible to find. The discussion about string theory points this out very well. Is there anyone that really believes that there are an infinite number of alternative universes out there that are undetectable outside a set of theoretical physics formulae? All mathematical models are based on a set of assumptions. How closely have these been examined in this case? I am not a physicist so I don’t know but it does seem to me that sometimes people have to be way more educated than I to believe something so preposterous, else (for the lesser educated) it is a belief that is taken by faith. Faith in a group of scientists that I certainly do not trust to have my eternal welfare in mind at all. The clear point of Berlinski’s book is that it is quite likely that string theory would never have come to be. It is a deep desire to explain away the existence of God that it is here at all and continues to be pursued despite the conceptual and theoretical difficulties that it poses. And this is the problem that he is bringing out. Scientific pursuits have been mixed with religion and philosopy to drive research that is biased, unhelpful, and in all likelihood untrue. So what if string theory is correct? We can never prove or disprove it as these alternate universes are undetectable. How has it advanced anything other than to allow athiests to be a bit more smug? I am not saying the questions shouldn’t be asked, however scientific inquiry into fields that are more productive would seem to be a good idea. If we could get to the advancement of society that would seem to be more productive and a better use of grant monies to my mind.

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Rick says:

@Geoff

Thanks for replying to my review, Geoff. I love the Internet for the simple fact it makes the exchange of ideas so easy. I feel the need to provide some clarification for you as to what my main issue was with respect to Berlinski’s book (a book I presume you’ve read).

My main problem was not with his use of Scripture or exclamation marks (though I found these distracting and frankly, odd, for an “academic” work). I apologize if what I wrote came across as being so super-ficial and juvenile. In reality, I had a problem with Berlinski invoking Scripture to support his anti-scientific establishment ideas, i.e. Using Genesis as proof of the falsity of evolution. I don’t think too many theologians (at least on this side of the Enlightenment) would think this particular collection of books (produced by Bronze Age Israel) would be used–relevantly at least–to establish the short-comings of the scientific method or scientific materialism. If Scriptural fiat were as powerful as perhaps you seem to imply, then we’d still think the Sun revolved around the earth because of some obscure reference in the Book of Job.

So for the sake of clarity I’ll draw your attention to my main problem with Berlinski’s book. Here’s a direct quote from my review (in hindsight I was not as clear as I should’ve been):

“I left many a chapter sensing that the author was simply trying to out-shout his opponents; whereas any educated/literate person would agree that the validity of one’s arguments does not depend upon the volume spoken so much as an appeal to truth through a combination of evidence, logic and reason.”

I was disappointed with the book primarily because of the author’s tendency towards over-statement of the evidence against scientific materialism (regarding evolution for example…I recommend your read something written by Kenneth Miller like Only a Theory on this topic and not Berlinski) and the author’s use of over-simplification (arguing against the mathematical probability of rational “well-designed” creatures like ourselves evolving through the use of an appeal to personal credulity). In short, I felt like I was being berated by a Jesuit priest while reading Berlinski and not listening to a well-reasoned, balanced, or heaven forbid objective account of “things”.

Where you say Berlinski doesn’t show enough respect for Dawkin’s the Noise Maker you really need to take a step backward. Berlinski doesn’t have to respect Dawkin’s the man. Who cares about Dawkins?! He’s just a cog in the wheel of the scientific community. What I want is Berlinski to take on Dawkin’s ideas and thinking. Berlinski doesn’t do this. Instead he obfuscates the issue by attacking the man (Dawkins) instead of the ideas (scientific materialism).

Lastly, when you use terms like “fame whore” you come off as crass and ignorant. Also, I’d suggest perhaps actually reading some books by Dawkin’s (you might find the God Delusion, Blind Watchmaker, Greatest Show on Earth or the Devil’s Chaplain useful) and not going to YouTube to form your opinion.

Regards.

@Laners

Thanks for your response, Laners. You sure wrote a lot. I think I understood most of what you wrote. You obviously are passionate about the culture war raging between science and religion. Passion is a good thing; however, it doesn’t always lend itself to effective communication.

You suggested the bible was somehow central to the exchange between Dawkin’s and Berlinksi. I absolutely agree, e.g. Dawkin’s views the Torah in a way similar to Einstein, i.e. A set of fairy tales taught to children. However, to Berlinski scripture is holy, inerrant even. Consequently, I’m not surprised that there’s conflict between the two men. I do not think there’s a dialogue though. Neither man would likely concede (at least publicly) that the other has something useful to say. And, as you intimated, since Dawkin’s doesn’t play nice why should Berlinski…

As I mentioned in my review, I thought Berlinski’s book to be written mainly as a response to the God Delusion. I purchased the book not knowing that Berlinski was writing under the umbrella of the Discovery Institute. I had zero pre-knowledge of him. Consequently, I had only one pre-conceived notion going into reading the book: based on the book’s subtitle I thought I’d be reading a much needed and informed criticism of scientific materialism. To that end I found Berlinski lucid and informative at times. However, his effectiveness was much diminished in my mind because he continually yells at the reader (exclamation mark after exclamation mark). If you’ve actually read the book (which I suspect you have), you might concede that my observation here is well-founded and not simply “trite” (or not…I suppose that’s your prerogative). Moreover, Berlinski’s usage of scripture is, in my opinion, lazy. If this were the 16th Century, I’m thinking Berlinski’s constant allusions to scripture to back up his claims would add authority to his arguments. However, last time I checked I lived in a secular society and I didn’t have to worry about being burnt at the stake for disagreeing with believers. The fact remains scriptural fiat is much diminished in the 21st Century. I assure you Berlinski has not in fact knocked Darwin off his perch. And if Darwin does get knocked off it won’t be at the hands of a theologian or a fellow from the Discovery Institute; it will be done at the hands of another scientist using logic, experimentation, objectivity and intellectual rigor.

I’d like to take issue with your claim that the Bible is the greatest book ever written. It certainly has been influential, i.e. The book has been mis-used (some would say used exactly as it was originally intended) to justify white supremacy and slavery; it’s been used to justify persecution of homosexuals and the oppression of women; burning of witches; holy wars, etc. The central tenets of the Christian testaments also led to the Reformation which in turn had some influence on how questions related to truth were asked and how truth was pursued during both the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. The teachings of the NT also helped inspire the social justice and social gospel movements of the late 19th and early 20th century leading to many improvements for the working poor. Hmmm. Greatest book ever, though? I think I could find about 1 billion Hindus who might disagree. Perhaps a few hundred million Muslims might likewise take issue? Is it the greatest book because you personally believe it to be so…? This is one of the problems with Berlinski: for most of his arguments to have any plausibility you must first be in some form or fashion already in agreement with him. In this respect, his writing reminds me of Thomas Aquinas’ circular reasoning (in Summa Theologiae).

I completely appreciate why you as a believer aren’t impressed by Dawkins. Dawkins is absolutely irreverent to Christians. I’ve read about four or five of his books mainly to get an appreciation for the so-called new atheism. You were made upset by Dawkin’s tenor? I can understand that. Just out of curiosity: if you could get past Dawkin’s the man would you see any of his arguments as having any validity? You found Berlinski funny? I definitely sensed his irreverence for the idols of science. I didn’t laugh out loud though at any point (I was too busy placing cotton swabs in my ears because he kept yelling at me).

You said: “It is interesting that it is your opinion that there are no counter arguments to Dawkin’s arguments in this book.” I’m sorry I couldn’t find any counter-arguments to Dawkins to be honest (at least not effective ones); it’s been a couple years since I read Berlinski’s book. If I ever re-read it, I will try to do so with a mind to look for these effective counter-arguments. I do remember thinking Berlinski somewhat petty for ridiculing Dawkins for shedding a tear at a symposium in which a senior scientist, after his scientific model has been disproven by a junior scientist, accepts the fact that his life’s work has been…wrong. This is what science does: it refines itself; changes with evidence; and precepts of science are not (unlike science’s critics maintain) accepted out of deference to authority. To echo Dawkins: can religionists say the same? But as you yourself said, Berlinski’s book was primarily polemical in its ends and not scientific. You appear to have some affinity for Intelligent Design. I confess I do not share your affinity; however, I might suggest the following book (Only a Theory by Miller) on the topic. Miller does something Berlinski does not; that is, he actually suggests how ID might be demonstrated by providing examples of actual experiments a scientist could undertake.

I’m sorry but the rest of your comments were riddled with fallacy after fallacy. I find that I can only identify your fallacies (and they were many) and then explain why I have a problem with your observation. See below a few.

Argument from Ignorance
Laner’s Wrote:
“It is the simple fact of the matter that the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved.”

Oddly, at one time you accept that there’s no evidence for the existence of god. Then at the same time you actually use our inability to disprove the existence of god as proof for his existence. “You can’t prove he doesn’t exist!” (Sorry for being like Berlinski but I thought the exclamation a useful rhetorical device here.) Strange. I wonder if it might be more logical to concede that our (yours and mine) ignorance, well, means ignorance; that is, you/we don’t know. Period. It’s not a puzzle that the Deity gave to us to solve so he could separate the “saved” from the “damned”. Our ignorance of such things is just a brute fact. And perhaps, and I don’t mean to offend, that there’s no evidence (at least acquired through anything other than personal revelation) for god because there is no god? Just putting that idea out there. I’m not saying I am an atheist. I am simply thinking aloud, playing with ideas.

Argument from Mystery
“I believe that God intended it this way so that we would be forced to make a decision based on what our heart tells us and how we view our place in this world and eternity.”

You believe god created this cosmic riddle for us to solve? You base this belief on what evidence exactly? I believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. My belief in the existence of this pasta-monster is not evidence for its existence; it’s evidence for my accepting something as true without properly vetting or being critical of it. Belief in belief is a hollow compass, indeed.

Argument from Emotion
“Were the arguments forceful enough on either side then we could be convinced based on conclusive evidence rather than on the condition of our hearts and this is not what God had in mind.”

Is reality optional? Is something true because in my heart I feel it is so? If my heart of hearts tells me the earth is at rest or the sun revolves around the earth, does that make it so? If I look at the sunrise and say to myself “a god must exist to have created that”, is the feeling inspired by the sunset evidence for the Deity? I’m thinking not. I didn’t make the rules but I follow them when it comes to thinking: you cannot alter physical reality, history, etc. one iota through a simple act of volition or emotion. God’s existence is not dependent upon your belief for his existence; and conversely God’s inexistence does not depend upon the atheist’s denial.

He is. Or he is not.

I admit to being moved by the beauty of nature; but I don’t mistake my emotional reaction to something as evidence for anything other than, well, how I personally feel about that thing at that given point and time.

Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

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Laners says:

Richard,

Thanks for the reply. It is refreshing to have an even toned communication about these issues. It is really very difficult to find people that will debate them without things rapidly devolving into an emotion charged argument. Mostly, it seems the evolution minded group tend to treat anyone of faith with disdain or scorn as though we have no brains or have no ability to think things through and this is why, to me, the discussion really has very little to do with science. I am reminded of Indiana Jones saying to his archeology class that archeology is not about discovering the truth; that if you wanted truth to head down to the theology department. Archeology, he said, is about the discovery of fact. Largely, I think, science should be about the same thing, though fact can often lead to truth…the two are not completely disparate. But there are certain truths that cannot be discovered by science and the existence of God is one of them. In your post you claimed that I said that there was no evidence for the existence of God, but that is not true, I did say “that there is an abundance of evidence on both sides” of the argument and this is where the rub lies. When data is open to interpretation we tend to rely on our pre-conceived notions to get us to the point of belief and I use this word belief here loosely. There are many positions I hold to generally at about 60/40 in the absence of further information. For example I am a mid-trib rapture believer because it seems to me to fit the evidence in the book most closely…but it is not a hard and firm belief. If I turned out to be wrong it wouldn’t cause me to lose any sleep.

I view most science this way. Every scientist comes to the table with a certain worldview. They cannot be objective. Certainly many recognize this and take steps to shield themselves from their own bias (these would be the good scientists). This is why a randomized, double blind, placebo, control drug clinical trial is currently the gold standard of the way to prove a compound works. Because the structure shields us all from known biases that we all have. Unfortunately most modern science does not tend to work under these constrictions and as for Dawkins, I can’t say that I have read about any real scientific work that he is engaged in at all. His life seems to be mostly made up of lectures, book writing, and travel (not that I disapprove of these things, it sounds like a wonderful life it just isn’t science). I do recall the experiment involving the monkey and the typewriter but I would hardly call that science.

The point is that in the end there is something else that we all base our beliefs on. None of us can know all the science out there or can understand it all. We have weighted beliefs based on the things that we read and the conclusions drawn from other peoples work. Whether we believe what they are selling or not does rest somewhat on their arguments, but we have not done the work ourselves. In the end it is faith in what they are saying (and maybe in the person or scientist themself) that settles the matters in our minds. The days of flipping a switch to see what happens are largely over and we are dealing with issues that are not simple nor are the result easy to interpret (quite often) and even more now we are dealing at the argument level only. Simple theological arguments about why evolution works or it doesn’t. The days of science being about finding fact seem to be over, particularly in certain fields, and the hay is being made on the interpretation of the few facts that we do have. I really wouldn’t have much of an issue with this except for the fact that it impacts all our lives and it seems that few have recognized where we now are in what is typically called “science” anymore.

As to the emotion component, I suppose talking about the heart isn’t the best way to present this as it is often interpreted as an appeal to the emotional side of us (most specifically related to love), however to the Christian this is not really the way things work. God speaks to the heart, He appeals to us in ways that are beyond science and the question is whether we are willing to listen to Him or not. It is not an emotion based decision (though I don’t deny that once a decision is made, and a connection is established, that emotion is present, but it is a result of the decision not the impetus for the decision). As I said, there is a great deal of evidence for the existence of God, it is a question of how we want to interpret it. I won’t bore you with a list of highly intelligent men that approached this issue with an open mind and found the evidence overwhelming and I would hope you wouldn’t bore me with a list of the highly intelligent men that approached the issue with an open mind and found the evidence not so compelling. The point is that the very fact that highly intelligent people come down on both sides of the issue should argue that there is compelling evidence in both directions and that there is something else that causes people to decide. I believe that this is the heart, not emotion but listening to God speak to the heart. It is not a cosmic riddle, it is something available to all, some chose to listen and others do not.

So for me in the end the entire thing is a search for truth and, as you say, reality. God is in the center of that reality and science, to my way of thinking, is a tool that helps to find truth if it is real science. I am not afraid to look into what is going on with science because I know that if it is objective and based in fact it will point to God because He is truth and the ultimate reality. There are many examples of people that mis interpret passages in the Bible (like the one in Job) and hold to a system that would be shattered were it found to be incorrect, but this is because they are not so concerned with finding truth as they are with the idea that they have to protect their system. In my view, it is God’s system and He is perfectly capable of protecting it. He doesn’t need me to do it for Him so there is no threat here. I merely enjoy the debate.

I do believe that the Bible is the greatest book ever written. This is obviously a personal belief although it can be argued objectively. We do owe much of western culture directly to the church and in this day an age it seems some think that is a bad thing, but western culture at its height was really something to behold. Now that we are in a post modern society it seems to me to be spiraling out of control but we will see. Interesting times ahead. I have read some of the Rig Veda and though I don’t wish to offend it is very difficult to make any sense of. In many ways the Koran seems to me to be a continuation of the Hebrew texts and the book of Mormon is not believeable largely because there is no evidence to back it up (Mormons largely appeal to the emotions to get converts…but I do tend to like to have some evidence for what I believe). There simply is no evidence at all of a large Iron age based society on the eastern seaboard of the US no matter how you slice it…but there I go digressing again. The bottom line is that for me it is more than a book. If God is who He says He is then He would give us some direction as to how He wants us to live. If He is all powerful and loving He would certainly give us an indication and protect it thru time. I belive that the presevervation of these texts in a way that has been well documented and researched is a clear indication, or evidence if you will, of this very truth. There have been minor changes to the text over time but nothing that changes the intent of the book. For this reason and for the impact that it has on people’s lives (mine included) it is the greatest book ever written regardless of it’s impact on western society.

I have read Dawkins and tried to get to the meat of what he was saying. I did read the blind watchmaker and I recall being somewhat trepidatious about it as I had heard so much about him and there was some concern that I would encounter things there that might challenge my faith…however I found his arguments unconvincing and, again, the arrogance and smugness of the man made it very easy to see that his motive was twisted in some way. These are tactics used by people who cannot put a cogent argument together and he was no exception. His abuse and misunderstanding of probability theory is…appaling for a learned man. My thoughts in the end were “this is all you have?”. The God Delusion was more of the same and at the end of the book he simply begins listing all the bad people that call themselves Christians. Truly a waste of paper. I honestly can’t believe that this is what passes for enlightened thought in this day and age. The part about the incident in Canada where the police went on strike and the crimals all started coming out and robbing banks and the like….and his response is that he had hoped we would have evolved to the point where we could have controlled ourselves better (or something to that effect) just left me in disbelief that anyone could be so naive. He (and many other “intellectuals”) have some weird thought that humans are essentially good….when the Bible makes it clear that we are essentially bad. How can anyone look at history and not see this? Talk about ignoring the evidence in front of your face. I have read others as well and found them to be more level headed. Sagan and Asimov are two of my favorites. In fact, Asimov is one of my all time favorite authors. He is looking somewhat like a prophet these days.

All this to some degree is beside the point however. I want to see how all these enlightened athiests have improved upon life. I have a house full of seven children and a wonderful wife. We live largely in happiness and joy. We homeschool and teach our children the classics and rhetoric and (of course) the Bible and live in peace with those around us. I wonder, can these athiests say similar things? If we are indeed searching for ultimate truth should it not get us beyond believing in some scientific theory or not? If it is not practical in bettering my life and the way I live in God’s world then it is hardly needed and though I am interested in truth in all it’s forms with all these kids, I hardly have any time!

I would inform you btw, that Berlinski fashions himself an agnosic though he does have some religious background and he is a scientist of the truest form, he is a mathematician…the only pure science; and he has done research in molecular biology. I did not notice him using scripture to make points, but rather to place pieces (mostly at the beginning of chapters as I recall) to kind of set the tone. It has been about 8 months since I have read it as well so it is getting fuzzy.

I hope the timliness and length of this reply does not alarm you. I enjoy this type of thing greatly and rarely find people that are willing to discuss matters of import in a reasonable way.

All the best.

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Rick says:

Laners:

Thank you for taking my comments in a spirit of understanding; it is indeed rare to meet someone online who doesn’t hide behind their anonymity and refuse to take the opinions of others seriously. In my experience, people are less inclined to thinking and more inclined to heap scorn and ridicule. So thank you for that.

I wasn’t aware Berlinski was an agnostic. I know within the Discovery Institute there are issues of contention between members, i.e. Old vs. Young Earthers. However, they do share a common purpose, that is, they’re collectively attempting to address the perceived implications of scientific materialism on American society at large. I see them as sort of self-appointed protectors of an antiquated world-view, damage controllers if you will. You mentioned Berlinski is a mathematician. In some ways, this gives Berlinski greater credibility; however, ideas stand or fall on the basis of prevailing evidence. Although I am more inclined to listen to a scientist on scientific matters, I don’t find arguments from authority convincing. Evidence, pure and simple–irrespective of who is speaking–speaks for itself. Further to that I am more inclined to believe in the credibility of a biologist speaking on evolution, astrophysicists speaking on the Big Bang, and lastly, mathematicians when it comes to String Theory.

With that said, I’m aware the Discovery Institute has in its employ biologists, physicists, etc. However, I’m less inclined to believe them compared to those working at other institutions. The reason I think this is because of the institute’s official “wedge strategy”. I presume you’re familiar with the so-called “wedge document”. In this document, the enemies of scientific materialism actually state that their intention is to undermine the public’s confidence in science. They’re interested in producing science that is agreement with a theistic view of the world. In short, they’re going to impose an ideology (Kant might call this a filter) on the scientific process. I think the institute well-meaning but ultimately destructive to the public’s understanding of science. They are, and I apologize if this borders on hyperbole, a ministry of propaganda for the religious-right. They are not a “scientific” think-tank.

I scoured Berlinski’s book in search of his use of scripture. Here are some of the examples: 1). Page 37 an use of the Ten Commandments; 2). Page 60 he invokes the idea as faith as its own reward as a concluding remark; 3). Page 83 “I am that I am”-Exodus; 4). “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One!”-Deuteronomy; 5). Page 96 use of a non-Christian source referring to Abu al-Hassan al Hashari’s; 6). Page 186 there’s an allusion to Book of Job; 7). Page 130 quoting from 1 Kings about Elijah. The problem I had ultimately with Berlinski using scripture was this: he attempted to reprove science for its apparent pretensions by replacing them with religious ones. I don’t like it when people invoke scripture because there are as many interpretations of it as there are people. Consequently, a polemicist can make God’s word say virtually anything. However, I’ve got to say one thing: you’ve motivated me to return and re-read the Devil’s Delusion.

With that said I’d like to respond to a few of your most recent statements. I think they’d be somewhat helpful in pushing the discussion forward.

You wrote: “God is in the center of that reality and science, to my way of thinking, is a tool that helps to find truth if it is REAL [my emphasis] science.”

Is science only “real” if its findings confirm or edify a person’s faith? Science is a process, not an ideology. I don’t share your lack of confidence in science’s ability to produce reliable information. Science is a systematic and rigorous process, i.e. Come up with a hypothesis, test said hypothesis, and if hypothesis turns out to be either true or false draw appropriate conclusions. You don’t come up with conclusions and then test; and a scientist, if objective, accepts the results of tests even if results place into question personal beliefs. Again, reality is not optional and people have a tendency to believe in belief. I have to agree with Dawkins that just because the belief is consoling that does not prove the validity of theism; it shows theism has utility but the object of that faith (God) remains unproven…scientifically, that is.

You voiced some doubts as to the “objectivity” of scientists, e.g. No one lacks bias so conclusions always lack true objectivity. In as much as I agree with you in principle I do so with the following caveat: I think that this tendency is more perceived than actual by the public at large and is fundamentally over-stated by the critics of science. I think the popular perception that scientists have a hidden “leftist” and/or “liberal” agenda is ultimately a product of the American public’s dislike for the apparent implications of scientific theories; it would also be a product of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” in placing into question well-established scientific theories while simultaneously pushing forward a conservative agenda.

In the case of the Big Bang theory, people don’t like the idea (as Hawking intimated in his most recent work) that we can explain creation without invoking the need for a creator. Or in the case of the theory of evolution, people who’ve been taught they’re somehow special and significant (“…you are worth more than many sparrows…”) don’t like being described as simply one life form, equally evolved, of many. Therein lies the problems people have with science, that being, they don’t dismiss the theories for lack of evidence so much as for threatening their preconceived notions; and then when faith is challenged people go into defense-mode and unilaterally dismiss evidence supporting the opposing view. I have confidence in the scientific process when it comes to explaining what’s happening in the physical world; it is the only process that does not rely solely upon revelation or some form of belief, etc. to generate knowledge and understanding. The process deals entirely with what is demonstrable; and the conclusions reached through science are ones backed up by verified fact.

This is where I’m somewhat critical of Dawkins, in that, in as much as I can appreciate his dislike for the shortcomings of religion he does have a tendency to over-state his case for the inexistence of God. For instance, the theory of evolution is a biological theory describing how life forms have changed over time. (According to Charles Darwin, science describes the “how” and does not answer the question “why”.) Dawkins goes beyond description (how) to the apparent implications (why) of the theory, e.g. Evolution contradicts (does it really?) the story told of humankind’s origins as found in Genesis; therefore, Dawkin’s concludes, God doesn’t exist. I’ve over-simplified Dawkin’s position and I’m sure he’d cringe at my logic here; but I’m just trying to move the discussion along without getting too caught up in semantics. I think Berlinski is ultimately critical of scientists going beyond the science and mistaking their personal views (though informed by science) as equally authoritative as science itself. In this I would join Berlinski cautioning scientists to avoid mistaking personal opinions for scientific facts.

In Dawkin’s defense, despite his obvious anti-religion agenda I don’t think he is being entirely arbitrary or capricious. The conclusions Dawkin’s reaches appeal fundamentally to the plausibility of this or that existing or happening, e.g. If he considers the Big Bang theory as an accurate statement of the Cosmos’ origin (i.e. We can actually see the background radiation from this event that took place some 13.7 billion years ago); if he likewise considers the validity of spectrography (i.e. We can see and measure the age of the light emitted by our sun determining its age to be approximately 4.6 billion years old); and on top of that if he further considers the fossil record (trilobites, dinosaurs, archaic humans) to not just be God testing us but an accurate representation of life existing on earth through time, etc. Dawkins starts to make a case for questioning the traditional view of life’s origins as inherited by us from our well-meaning but unscientific ancestors.

You said: “I am not afraid to look into what is going on with science because I know that if it is objective and based in fact it will point to God because He is truth and the ultimate reality.”

I don’t think science is supposed to work this way, Laners. Science is an objective process. In popular usage, the word “objective” tends to be mis-used. People tend to use the word as a synonym for “impartiality”. In the world of science, to be “objective” is not to be “impartial” but to go where the facts take you. This is not an easy thing for a person of faith to do because such a person by definition already has the answers, e.g. Why did X happen? God did it. Moreover, if you are truly objective you’ll allow the evidence to take you in this or that direction despite your faith. If you go into asking a question with first thinking you have all the answers, you’re not practicing science, theology maybe, but science definitely not. This brings me back to the opening question I raised: is real science only those processes which confirm a person’s faith?

I have many friends who believe the earth is 6,000 years old. These friends of mine do not have confidence in the various radiation dating techniques (uranium-lead or carbon dating for instance). I say fair enough. Doubt can be good. I also ask: do you doubt the integrity of the tests because of inherent problems with the process of dating itself? Or does a person doubt the findings of said techniques because as individuals they don’t like the fact these techniques produce information that challenges the “belief” that the earth is 6,000 years old? I accept their belief. But, politely, I ask further questions: then what we know of spectrography and the age of light (light traveling from the Andromeda Galaxy taking “x” number of years to reach my eye) is that false, as well? How about what know about plate tectonics and geology, i.e. Pangea turning into the current configuration of continents? It appears that continents have been moving very slowly for a very long time… This is also untrustworthy? You mentioned you don’t like people of faith being characterized as stupid or unthinking. Well, here’s the problem: it does appear at times that Christians throw out well established scientific theories and models for no other reason than it contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible. What if the earth is really, really, really old? If a person honestly appraises this question, I think you appreciate what I’m trying to say here.

Feel free to add me to your Facebook list of friends. Do a search for my name. I think I’m the only one with my moniker on there. I’d be happy to carry on our conversation.

Regards.

* * * * *

Laners and I continued an extensive online conversation over the next few months. We became friends on Facebook and eventually introduced our families to one another (taking a shared vacation to Yellowstone National Park). Since I was willing to listen to and have an intelligent conversation with another human being I gained a friend. What a better world this would be if people attacked ideas and not the people espousing them.

 

Speculating on Religion with a Friend

I think you are correct to place greater emphasis on the study of scripture over theology.  If you do otherwise, you place the proverbial cart before the horse so to speak.  However, I would argue it isn’t possible to read scripture and avoid practicing theology.  This is because all scripture at one time was theology (simply one step removed from formal promotion, canonization or doctrinal fiat).

I know your personal preference: taking scripture as a whole—not fretting over the peculiar historical circumstances making each book unique and thereby preserving a particular unity in perspective. However, this broad approach (while it has its place) notwithstanding, the Book of Isaiah did not “come out” fully-made and co-equal with Exodus. In the case of Isaiah, its significance was recognized only eventually and only eventually adopted as authoritative; but until enough time passed Isaiah was used by Jews in the same way early Christians regarded the Apostle Paul’s letters (a guide or as supplemental to scripture). Thus until its adoption as authoritative Isaiah (which took two centuries to compose) remained “theology”.

So there’s a bit of an irony when people occupying the present consider themselves possessing a comprehensive view of things, scriptural experts if you will, or some such thing; that is, only the weight of historical circumstances makes this even possible; that being, it just so happens you and I were born after all of these books were written and finally incorporated into the New Testament around (391 AD) or the Tanakh (depending upon which source you consult finally assembled sometime between the years 200 BC and 200 AD).

In the case of the New Testament, if you happen to be born in the year 200 AD the Trinity is theology (speculative) not scriptural (literally authoritative) but if you’re born in 350 this idea is held as possessing scriptural authority because it is finally written down in scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in either the so-called Old Testament or the earliest versions of 1 John.  The Comma Johanneum (or the biblical justification for the existence of the Trinity) was eventually added to John’s letter during the Council of Nicea in the 4th century CE. The doctrine was arrived at following the “Arian controversy” where two church fathers (and their respective factions) wrestled with the nature of God’s relationship to Jesus. The Arians had the audacity of not regarding Jesus quite as godlike as was believed warranted and eventually the supporters of Athanasius’ views on Trinity carried the day. That is not to say that the Trinity was invented at Nicea. Far from it. The first time the word appears in writing is in the work of Tertullian (~150 AD) apparently—he is credited by most sources as the one who coined the Latin term “trinitas” to describe the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit; it must pre-date Tertullian in some respect.

I don’t get the impression the notion of Trinity was well-understood before Nicea. Arguably, more Christians of the early Church accepted the idea of “dualism” as the more plausible (there weren’t three persons in one God but a father, adopted son, and a spirit (intent really) shared between the two). Instead, it was Origen (~200 AD) and later Athanasius (~335 AD) who, in no small part was influenced by the writings of the non-Christian thinker Philo of Alexandria (~50 AD), who used a combination of Jewish allegory and Greek philosophy to describe the relationship of “three distinct persons sharing the same substance”.  Philo also introduced the idea of Jesus being the divine Logos (“Word of God”) present at creation as presented in Genesis. So, you need Philo to first establish, through an ad-mixture of Greek rationalism and Jewish thinking, the existence of a Logos (“Word of God”) distinct but not separate from God to get to Tertullian then to Origen and finally to Athanasius. In short, Trinity is “theology” and not “scriptural” for approximately two centuries within the Christian tradition (and it is not genuinely part of the Jewish tradition whatsoever). So if you think Trinity is “scriptural” and contemplating it is consistent with a purely scriptural/non-speculatory approach this is something of a comforting illusion.

I think the early church was actually reluctant to “theologize”.  I’ve got certain gaps in my learning to be sure yet from what I can tell it appears the Church had no choice but to defend itself against obviously false doctrines. These “false doctrines” are not obviously false, in that, you cannot literally ask God questions for clarification or scientifically falsify a doctrine by comparing it to some sort of phenomenon in the objective world. These false doctrines were either “logically” absurd and/or “scripturally” dubious like “matter/flesh is evil” and therefore “Jesus could not have been a physical being”; or Jesus was not truly human and that he only “seemed” to possess a body, suffer and die (according to one heresy I’ve come across Jesus switches bodies with Simon of Cyrene and laughs at all the stupid people as Simon, not Christ, is crucified).  The frightening thing is that there are people who still think like this; that being, they mistake the particular thoughts they have in their heads or their particular world-view as God’s. I would suggest, politely, they are deluded in their sense of certainty.

How is matter “evil” by the way?

Assumption: because we are sinners and God is perfect. Wow. Slam dunk there. Pure-speculation. The church fathers simply provided counter-arguments to discourage heresy and encourage orthodoxy (or unity for unity’s sake). I’d even argue that the church fathers were attempting, ironically, to diminish the role of the intellect in one’s faith life. They were trying to encourage ortho-praxis (or “right conduct”). Loving your neighbor, after all, is what living your faith is all about and not having the right ideas in your head. The only problem is people act on the basis of the thoughts they have (“you are what you think about”).  So you need to reign in the imagination from time to time, check your intellect at the door, and just be good to one another.

In all honesty, I do not think the various church fathers believed they were writing something scientific or infallible; that is, describing phenomenon that could be tested (affirmed); nor were they articulating concepts that could be falsified or made plain to everyone through some form of experimental validation. On the contrary, I think they knew they were intuiting and inferring and creating and did not mean to imply (as we moderns think) they were deciding issues for all time. In reality, they were just being pragmatic and addressing specific problems as they encountered them in their day. I do not think this means we are necessarily completely ignorant of what God actually is…it just means we are fundamentally ignorant: I rather doubt the following took place, e.g. Thomas raises his hand and asks Jesus, “Are you the second or the third person of the Trinity?”  Jesus responds, “I am the Second.  Next?”  Peter: “Are you literally present in the bread and wine when we do the whole Last Supper thing?”  Jesus responds, “Yes.  The bread and wine literally, not symbolically, become me.”  This Q & A session never happened.

Not sure if you’ve read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.  I read it when I was completing my religious studies minor in around 1991 or so.  I was quite taken with it at the time.  Here’s a link to it in full: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm
 

Conversation with My Sons

Had a great conversation with his two older sons. Two kernels of wisdom came out of the dialogue: firstly, that the actual Buddha was probably different than the “man baby” statue located in the local Chinese restaurant; and secondly, according to Aaron, “It’s funny…in order to be smart you have to be dumb” (Socratic ignorance I think is what he was intuiting).