Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Cost of Being a Soldier

Army Suicides Increase Again - Politics on The Huffington Post

In all of the panoply about "supporting the troops" there is rarely any discussion about the cost of being a soldier. Sure, President Bush has equated the loss of loved ones with him foregoing playing golf for months, but beyond the absolute disgusting quality of the man's morality, even this statement doesn't point to the troops themselves, only their families. There is talk of sacrifice and it is usually couched in terms of familial attachment being lost, time spent away from children, etc. Where is the talk about the soldiers themselves, the inner destruction going on when they are asked to kill?

Let us make no mistake about this; to be a soldier means to place oneself in the position of having to take another human life, often with only the word of a superior officer's command as a means of moral justification. To be a soldier, whether on the front line or in a support capacity, is to place yourself among a social grouping who's sole purpose is the destruction of life and the structures that support it.

Now, before going forward, I'll address the obvious criticism that is popping up, namely that armies also serve as a means of constructing things, or, to use the politically nebulous term, nation-building. There are two problems with this point. One, armies and its personnel go about the business of building, but it is more correctly termed RE-building, as it was they who destroyed the very thing that they are now creating. So that doesn't get away from the fact that the primary goal of being a soldier is destruction. Two, it is a very rare situation where an army is called in to help rebuild initially and, even when this is done, it's primary role is for the protection of the construction personnel and therefore they must as a primary objective, be capable and willing to destroy the living.

When in this social group, the soldier is, to use conservative rhetoric, in the position of "dying for his country" to "ensure the freedoms that we all take for granted." Indeed. At face-value there is no disagreement here, but unlike the obsequious quality of Bush's skin-deep caring for others, there is more going on here than mere freedom fighting. One of the cornerstone's of representative democracy is debate, civil debate for the purpose of getting to the best solution of a problem via the usage of reason. Democracy accepts implicitly the thought that anybody could be wrong and a majority should be capable of being questioned. Without this aspect of democracy, it would not be a democracy, it would be an oligarchy or dictatorship.

The role of the soldier is not debate, it is not reasoned discussion. Arguments are taken care of by bullets and finalized by the final spurt of arterial blood. Hence, the soldier, while certainly fighting for the freedoms of democracy (at least in the case of America) is not doing so with the freedoms of democracy. In other words, the soldier operates from a contrary position to all that he is fighting for. In any other social context, people who argue with guns are put in jail. But the soldier is not and yet he is lauded for it. This disjunction in the mind has a cost.

I am not dismissing the usage of the military, it is an unfortunately needed aspect of national government. My point is not to discuss the existence of a military, but what it is that as a nation, we are asking people to sign up for.

The numbers for Army suicides were released for 2007. They show a 13% increase from 2006, among active duty soldiers and National Guard and Reservists. As noted by Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, "the army has lost over 580 soldiers to suicide, the equivalent of an entire infantry battalion task force," since the beginning of this so-called Global War on Terror. Also, during the same period of 2007, 10 to 20 times as many soldiers sought to harm themselves or attempted suicide. And these numbers are only for active duty soldiers. The VA says there have been "144 suicides among the nearly 500,000 service members who left the military between 2002-2005 after fighting in at least one of the wars." In addition, it should be noted that suicides are difficult to isolate, as there have been repeated stories of soldiers over the years who have been involved in murder-suicides of their own families and accidents via the usage of drugs like alcohol. None of these would be counted as suicides for statistical purposes and yet only a truly cold-hearted bastard would say they were anything but.

If the data is stretched to include soldiers who have fought in any wars, the VA estimates that nearly "18 veterans a day - or 6,500 a year - take their own lives."

6,500 lives a year are lost of those who lived a life they would be shunned for living in the very democracy they are defending. Does it at all cross the minds of those who blindly "support the troops", who support the recruitment of soldiers from colleges and small towns with lies, who are ready to fling themselves on the bandwagon of totalitarianism with a war in Iran, what they are asking of the men and women who serve? Ah yes, a curious word there, "serve." The soldiers serve at the behest of the public who support the policies of the administration putting them in harm's way. There is a responsibility involved here by the public itself, all who don't wear a uniform, to remember that these people give their lives on and off the battlefield at the request of the voting public.

6,500 lives a year. That is double the number lost on 9/11. And this number in no way addresses the damage to families and communities by these soldiers who took arms.

The army thinks to address this growing problem by hiring more therapists. True, that is a good start. But it ignores the fundamental issue at the heart of being a soldier, that to become one means to look upon another human being with no more emotional connection than one would look at a rock in the middle of a road, as simply an obstacle to be removed. That quality of mental disengagement is frightening, troubling, and yet we blindly support it's usage.

This systematized brutality, this worship of carnage ( ), this anti-life stance of the pandering politicians (of both left and right) who throw people into harms way often for the purpose of supporting their own dogmas and machinations, has a cost. That cost is the mental well-being of the citizens they swore to support. We, the voting public, the bulwark against ideological hegemony spoken of by Jefferson, should remember to look beyond cute slogans and empty platitudes and remember the cost of our decisions.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Infidel Saint: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

While walking down dark streets in various cities or reading articles in Time and Newsweek, I have often imagined that I heard the muffled screams of the victims of violence. The thought was that if I simply strained a bit more, my ears would hear them better and I would know where they came from. The fact is, those screams have never been quiet, they have only been muffled by the veil of silence I have created to keep me shielded and unaware of a world who's madness I have tried to compartmentalize and take in by bite-size pieces.

In reading "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a woman who's story I thought I was familiar with already, the strained voices of the victims burst into the open with a cacophonous wail of pain and despair. While Ayaan would be the first to admit that she wrote not from a position of victimhood, but from responsibility, this is, to me, merely another sign, among so many others, of the treasure she is to humanity. In her struggles to leave family, clan and religious ideology, Ayaan shows us the best of what inner strength, buttressed by reason and carried aloft by a fierce caring for those in plight, can do.

It has become a black mark among liberal elites to speak of cultural practices in the light of western morality, as if there is no means by which a set of behaviors can be juxtaposed with another set to determine the better. This worship of cultural and moral relativity results only in the creation of an apathy to human rights and the better parts of our human natures. We have not survived as a species by moderating ourselves to what is best for a minority, by sheltering a ridiculous and harmful behavior behind a wall of self-righteous sanctimony. Individual rights are only meaningful in the midst of group rights. Just as it is wrong to scream "fire" in a crowded room, so it is equally wrong to promote any idea who's sole goal is the destruction of the inalienable rights that the founding fathers of this American nation sought to uphold.

Islam has that goal.

By softening our reason and pandering to a false uncertainty, liberalism creates the scenario by which we look upon death with a blind eye and muffle our ears to the screams of the tortured. By promoting merely another set of dogmas equally as oppressive, conservatism would replace the rusty cages of Islam with the gilded cages of capitalism and Christian piety and call it progress.

The screams of every child murdered by their families in the name of Allah, every girl child who's genitals are mutilated to preserve a despicable practice of male domination, every wife beaten to instill submission, and every person imbued with an abhorrence of critical appraisal, they all cry out to us, the rest of the human beings who share this ever-shrinking planet, to stand not simply for tolerance. It is the catchword of the apathetic, the tool of the fundamentalist, the wall behind which the weak whimper in fear of standing in the middle of a storm. What we must stand for is criticality in our thought, self-appraisal in our morality.

These dogmas, these hideous and deplorable examples of the dark side of human imagination are not simply alternative lifestyles or quaint cultural practices, but vile instruments condemning a vast number of people to a future of pain, despair and a disavowel of all they could be. They are a threat not only to democracy, but to the free exercise of human will and reason.

For these reasons and the others, shored up by the bruises and scars of women who are told submission is their only lot in life, we must not merely bring Islam to modernity but see it utterly wiped away from the ideological landscape, fit only to warn us of the evil are capable of creating.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Is Faith a Valid Epistemic Tool?

Science Series: 3

Is "faith" a valid epistemic tool?

Q: I've cornered my good friend through reductionist logic before and he's often ended the discussion with "Well to an extent it is a matter of faith...but I know these things to be true, yada yada." I would like you to expand on the idea of 'faith' being an unreliable rubric for truth. To me it is apparent why faith can be misleading if not wholly incorrect, but why can it not be used to justify an entire theology that seemingly makes sense?

My Response: I deal with the issue of "faith" slightly different from most atheists or humanists do, or at least the reactionary ones. While I haven't read Dennett's complete take on the issue, from what little I have read, I do believe I follow a bit in his criticism. In either case, the simplest way of putting it is that I take the believer at his word, i.e. that faith is a means of ascertaining knowledge.

The mistake of most reactionaries is to look at faith as some kind of childish attempt at giving a glib justification for believing anything one wants. While certainly this is the case for many religious believers of various dogmatic persuasions, it is not the issue for the more learned of religious intellectuals, notably Augustine and Aquinas or more recently Gordon Clark and Carl Henry. For these men, faith is an epistemic tool, a necessary one due to the innate problems that empirical knowledge supposedly has, based on the observation that numerous times in history the scientific method, so it is claimed, has led to wrong conclusions. Incidentally, this history of false conclusions is dealt with, in a manner of speaking, by Thomas Kuhn, who, rather than being a critic of the scientific enterprise, is actually a great proponent of it. But more will be said about that in a later blog.

I am aware of the arguments for the validity of science as a legitimate, in fact only legitimate, means of gathering knowledge. Many atheists, humanists, etc. would start with this claim, leaving “faith” to be discarded by default. Indeed, if this were a discussion about science, I would come down completely on the side of it and agree that as a system of systematic knowledge acquisition, empirical science is the best we have and probably the best we will ever have. However, this is not a discussion about science, it's about faith and I want to deal with it on its own, to see whether it has any legitimacy in itself as an epistemic foundation. For the believer, faith is seen as at the very least an equal to empiricism as a means of knowledge acquisition.

The immediate issue to be acknowledged by both the believer and unbeliever concerns the usage of faith. As mentioned already, faith is a tool for acquiring knowledge. When the agnostic asks the believer how they know the resurrection of Christ is true, the response is some variation of "the Bible says so" and/or "faith compels me." Notice here in the last phrase the issue of compulsion. When I was a believer I often used this notion and have heard many others use it; this idea of faith being some kind of internal force, pushing and prodding one to believe in some predetermined thing. Curiously, the very same phraseology is used when referencing reason or logic, as when someone says, "I was forced to see his logic" or "the force of his reason was strong" or "his argument held weight." Thus, even in our linguistic metaphor, we accept tacitly that faith and reason are synonymous at least in as far as they are a compelling inner force, pulling us along to claimed conclusions.

It is imperative that the believer accept this. The sophomoric usage that faith is often put to, as when one nonchalantly answers "faith" whenever an objection is brought up that can't be answered any other way, needs to be seen as masking an underlying dynamic, that being the force of faith. Now, I am not at this point making a case for the efficacy of faith as a legitimate epistemic tool, but merely pointing out the power of it. Believers and unbelievers alike do themselves a disservice when they mistake the usage of faith as being simply an easy answer to tough questions. The fact is, faith isn't easy, though not in the sense that believers declare it so, in fits of self-proclaimed martyrdom. Faith, like reason, via the perceived force that it embodies, compels people to various cognitive conclusions that are, depending on the situation, of various difficulty in accepting. Again, I am not equating the two, merely pointing out that the seeming conclusions of the two forces can be jarring to the person led to them, whether it is the resurrection of the Christ as prescribed by one faith, or special relativity as prescribed by reason.

So then, faith is a force compelling one to certain ideological conclusions (what those are depends on the religion one typically grows up in, but that’s a tangent we haven’t gotten to yet). The next question is: how? It is all well and good that the nominal notion of a force has been accepted, but as with all forces, the acknowledgement of their existence is only half the issue, the other being the means by which it works. Ironically, this question is empirical in nature.

So, how does faith work? What is its modus operandi? Logic and reason, through thousands of years of philosophy and recently cognitive science, have been documented quite thoroughly as to their inner workings. In fact, anybody can go to college and take a course in logic or several if one is prone to masochistic intellectualism. One can also read books and take further classes in cognitive science, figuring out the inner workings of the brain and the means by which thought and analysis are done. While there are many years left, to put it lightly, before a complete understanding of human thought is understood, only the hugely obtuse individual would declare we don't know anything or have not made great leaps in our understanding since even 50 years ago. However, this is not a discussion about logic and reason, but one about faith. Where, then, are the texts and classes on the inner workings of faith?

This last question, in its simplicity, does not do justice to the issue at hand. In the world at large, there are billions of people going about their lives, claiming to make decisions, often of a life-altering kind, based on a system of epistemology called “faith.” Entire governments are at the mercy of this self-described inner force. Lives are continuously lost and ruined because of an inner compulsion. Bombs are set off, planes flown into buildings, court decisions and civil rights violated because of the claimed dictates of this force. Yet, not a single book, article, or letter has been written detailing the process by which faith works. What other force that affects this many people is either not understood or attempted to be understood? The answer is simple, none.

Where does this leave the believer then? It would seem that the lynchpin of religious dogmatic adherence is incapable of being elucidated as to exactly how it compels people to particular conclusions. Thus, the believer seems to be stuck in a secondary epistemic position, that of believing in the power of faith to compel belief in something. Looked at this way, what should really be under discussion is why someone believes that “faith,” a force without definition, would lead necessarily to any conclusion. Now, this may come as no surprise to many non-believers, and I do realize I’ve jumped ahead a bit, so to quiet the frustrated huffing going on in the contrarian crowd, let me take a moment to flesh this point out a bit.

As I mentioned earlier, the question as to the inner workings of faith as an epistemic tool is an empirical one. Since faith is used as an answer to questions that have no empirical basis, like the resurrection, how exactly sin functions, the tripartite existence of "god", and the virgin birth (to name a few) then it cannot rely for its own justification upon a system of thought that is incapable of supplying the conclusions sought after. Now, I can already hear the religious apologists of the empirical camp raising their objections. Who has not heard the poetically put point of "reason brings you to the water and faith makes you jump in?" Kierkegaard referred to it as a "leap" of faith, into the unknown. These "answers" skip a point however, that being the why and hence the how of faith's compulsion to jump in the water or take that leap. I consider this a rather important question and so should everybody if it is considered for but a moment. If someone were to jump off a bridge and survive, the first question asked of that person once he or she is fetched from the water is why; and once an answer given, the how of its power to incite the act is next on the list. These questions are basic to how we deal with the actions of people and have been so since Freud first shocked us into the knowledge that the inner workings of the mind are the real force behind our actions. We cannot, in fact find it impossible to think outside of these questions. No answer to the why of an action is ever taken completely at face value, as is shown anytime we become puzzled over an answer that doesn’t seem to fit. It doesn’t fit because we find it difficult to understand the how, or power, of the why to incite such an act.

Yet, when it comes to religious acts, the why is never followed up with the how. Faith is blindly accepted as an answer to the why of an act and yet never pursued further as to the how of its power. As noted above, this lack of the second question should be astoundingly puzzling. We constantly grasp at the reasons why people do the things they do, often asking in various states of incredulity or hysteria "why did you do that?" When the answer is given, while we may not understand it personally, there is a weight lifted by the knowledge, this being because we now know the compelling force, the reason. Who has not heard or said the phrase after hearing a reason given, "I can see how that would force you to do it" or some variation?

What is to be made of this? If faith is not capable of answering the why/how questions of human action, there must be another route. Now, one way out is to posit the notion that faith actions occur in a vacuum without any causal predecessor. However, since the actions of faith are said to be, by any religion, moral in nature and morality is claimed to be by these same people, moral only if there is will (self-causation) behind it, saying that faith acts occur without causal connection would destroy the moral mandate of absolutism.

I put forth the notion here that faith is not an answer in the traditional sense of a cause, but rather faith exists as a cognitive box holding together various ideas that are believed for many other reasons. In other words, faith is an answer to "why," but the "how" is to be found in psychology, sociology, memetics and cognitive science. Faith is, as I noted above, not a belief itself, but the object of belief, a concept that is used to hide the real reasons behind belief in something. By positing a nebulous, undefined, concept as the power behind belief, it inculcates the believer from having to deal properly with the so-called conclusions that “faith” has brought him or her to. In the end, it serves as a coping mechanism, much as drugs serve as a means to hide the real issues behind a person’s depression or lack of self-worth.

I am not denying the power that faith has and in fact, I believe I am allowing the power of its force to be more fully understood by thinking of it in the way that I have so far described. Here is the answer to why "faith" is given as an answer to the "why" of belief and yet those beliefs number in the thousands, with individual permutations numbering in the still more thousands. That's because the "how" is different for everyone. Faith is a force with no motor device it is waves without water. The power of faith is then to be found in the ability of it to mask the "how" of human action, to end discussion before it goes further than surface rationality.

This, then, is why, to answer the original question, faith cannot be used to justify an entire theology or anything else; it has no means of explicating the how of its compulsion and therefore no means of delineating between legitimate true faith concepts and the false. True, textual criticism, historical studies and rational inquiry can be utilized, but these academic disciplines concern how specific theological points arise, are thought out and then established. By bringing in these scientific disciplines, the question is no longer about faith per se, but about the so-called conclusions that faith was supposed to lead one. Ironically, the church’s usage of these disciplines is a tacit, though unacknowledged, acceptance that faith itself compels no one, but rather is merely a cognitive tool to describe a process that the believer is unaware of.

Is it any great surprise that people who grow up around a specific religion tend to identify with it? Or when the story of conversion happens, it is most often told in the light of some great emotional experience surrounded by mystery? Fact is, the confusion created by a lack of truly knowing the how of conversion is covered up and hidden by yet another uncertainty, allowing the believer to continue on without getting in touch with a very real human, not divine, experience.

Faith, as used by the religionist, cannot make true/false delineations between competing conclusions. Nor can it be defined in any way that allows us to understand the how of its compulsion. Therefore, it cannot be a valid source of epistemology, no matter how many times the word is used.

What is Evolution?

Science Series: 2

Note: I use the term “contrarian” here and going forth as a means of defining those who doubt basic scientific truths such as evolution, global warming, etc. I agree with Christopher Hitchens that to call them “doubters” or “opponents” is to give them more power than their arguments actually possess. Instead, by using the term “contrarian,” it signifies that the so-called arguments presented are not properly called such, since no matter how often they are answered, no change of opinion occurs. Thus, they are not doubters; they are merely being contrary to well-established and validated scientific findings.

Starting Statement: “My definition of evolution is that micro-evolution is real and provable whereas macro or jumping one species to the next is not.”

My Response: Concerning evolution by natural selection, it is a scientific theory that has been tested, retested and continuously bears out predictions about data being gathered. It touches upon in various ways all fields of science and is the foundation for most scientific inquiry. Evolution, when it was articulated by Darwin, began a break with the extant ideological structures, having science finally become a discipline in its own right. Until this time, science was wholly of the present, with myth telling us of origins and astrology telling us of the future. Darwin’s articulation of the evolutionary theory began the scientific pursuit of past and future. Evolution sought to give the past a scientific understanding, to bridge the seeming "gap" between past and present. The result is a scientific theory and discipline that is directly in line with what I have previously mentioned science to be, the information-based hypothesized conjecture about testable material and its resulting data.

Evolution is, at its most basic, "change through time." What changes is determined by the topic under analysis. For biology, evolution is the change of allele frequencies over time. For geology, evolution is the change of rock formations and strata. For astronomy, evolution is the change in the molecular composition of celestial bodies. "Natural selection" is the vehicle by which biological evolution occurs affecting a change in allele frequency by which an organism changes to survive and procreate in its environment. Other forces at work are mutation, genetic drift, and migration, though natural selection remains an overarching force or framework by which the entire process can be seen. If the environment is such that genetic variation results in the eventual progressive emergence of an organism that is no longer capable of procreating with its genetic ancestor, a new species has emerged.

Thus, the delineation between micro and macro is utterly false, as the process is the same for both. To draw this kind of distinction is to create a false dichotomy, as there are not two forces at work, but one. One way of looking at this is through the various mappings found on Google. If you select a location to map, Google finds an intermediate spatial placement whereby you can see the streets and roads intersecting within a certain space of your selected target. If you scroll out however, these smaller roads disappear and you are now looking at the larger highways in a broader geography. Such it is with the so-called “difference” between micro and macro-evolution. Micro processes occur at the level of species and deal with genetic variation. Macro processes are merely these same forces viewed from a broader perspective whereby one can then view the occurrence of speciation.

The usage here of the phrase “jumping from one species to the next” is a standard misrepresentation, created by Ken Hamm and others possessing a similar lack of intellectual integrity. It brings to mind the image of a crocodile laying an egg and a chicken popping out. Indeed, I have actually seen similar pictures in the propaganda pieces handed out by religious leaders posing as scientists, i.e. adherents of Intelligent Design. Not only is this articulation completely, woefully, ridiculous as a description of evolution, but it shows a willful desire to misrepresent a position. No evolutionary biologist would describe evolution this way, thus the example must have been made up completely by the contrarians as a way to draw people away from what is actually being said. It’s a shameful but all too often practiced, manipulative tool.

As stated above, micro changes can occur but until the specie gets to the point of being incapable of procreating naturally and producing reproductive offspring, no speciation has taken place. There are debates within the scientific community as to precisely how the term “specie” is to be used, especially for bacteria that reproduce asexually, but technical problems with terminology do not mean a problem with the thinking behind it. The number of creatures that this problem encompasses is vanishingly small. Thus, positing a croc-to-chicken example is to ignore any changes that occurred between, a fact that no evolutionary biologist would ignore.

I am well aware that some scientific literature speaks of "micro" and "macro," but only in the sense of drawing a descriptive delineation, as noted above, not in noting two separate processes. "Micro" is simply an indication of the usually small changes that occur through an organisms interaction with its environment and "macro" is simply a descriptive term for the end-result of those changes in the sense of a species being capable of different classification. It is a continuum.

There are numerous so-called “problems” with evolutionary theory trumpeted by contrarians. As I am neither an evolutionary biologist nor a molecular biologist, I will, for the moment, leave the answering of those issues to those with the education to do so. Numerous books are out there for the reading if one wishes to be acquainted with the very real and serious refutations of every mischaracterization and “problem” presented. For starters, I would begin with Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” In it is the clearest elucidation of evolutionary theory I have yet seen. In addition, there is an excellent website that has a wealth of material from Berkeley:

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What is Science?

What follows is the first of four blog entries following a theme of science in general. The first will deal with the question of what science is, juxtaposing it with the epistemic foundation of religion. The second will touch upon evolution and a common mischaracterization made by many. The third will be an analysis of whether “faith” is a valid epistemic foundation. And finally, the fourth, which will be in two parts, will be a critique of a letter recently written by Christopher Hedges on what he names “the new atheists.”

So, we begin with: what is science?

Starting Point: “My definition of science would be simply the scientific method or being able to reproduce conditions to obtain results to determine validity of an object.”

My Response: Above is a rather standard response from many people, religious or otherwise, to the question of what they believe science and evolution to be about. My attempt here is going to touch upon the notion of science presented, correct the serious mischaracterizations about the discipline, as well as go into some detail about the differences between the epistemic foundations of science juxtaposed with that of religion. I am taking the time to be corrective about definitions here for two reasons; one, this standard understanding lacks necessary components of what the modern scientific discipline is; two, any discussion that may occur between those of separate epistemic foundations needs to begin with a proper understanding of definitions. This is a rule I personally try to adhere to, as I will not engage in the particular nuances of a scientific discipline with someone who fails to see the significance of just what science actually is.

My response will take the form of a discussion, as if I am addressing someone who has made this particular claim. I do this because the above actually was an answer I was given, but also it’s simply easier to do so in the format of a blog. It also allows for further discussion for someone who, reading this doesn’t agree with the original answer but still disagrees with me. If so, please feel free to write how this is so and I’ll respond accordingly.

Science, in the above answer, seems to be defined in two ways. The first is simply saying it is the scientific method. While typically, little clarification is given, as to what is meant by this, I believe I can safely assume it to indicate the basic rubric that is taught since the 3rd grade: create hypothesis, gather info, test, and retest. The second definition given is that of the reproduction of results to determine the validity of a particular object. I hesitate to differentiate these two as separate since your writing seems to indicate that you believe the scientific method to be exactly your second definition as I have stated it. However, since the second part isn't anything close to the scientific method as defined by scientists, I can only give you the benefit of the doubt and hope you knew this already. In any case, my criticism and correction isn't affected whatever you may have intended.

The problem of your first definition is its oversimplification. First, the creation of a hypothesis and the gathering of information are not two separate steps. As a simple description to teach in textbooks to children, it works, but in reality, it is not so easily delineated. Information is constantly being gathered or observed and hypotheses as to how that information is to be connected are always being created. Here's the issue, this is all happening internally by the brain. Information does not exist in a vacuum without connection to any other piece of information. When we think of things, they are already connected, sometimes well, sometimes not so well (like in dreams). What science is, is this process externalized and offered up for testability. Thus, a person may conjecture about the means by which an event occurs, but until it is formulated in words in such a way as to be proven or disproven and further observations and testing done so as to determine the validity of the hypothesis, it is not science. The limitation of your initial definition is therefore one of simplicity, it simply ignores the very public nature of science and its connection with the past and future.

The second definition, or perhaps clarification, offered looks to solve this problem by expanding science to incorporate the reproduction of conditions such that results are replicated for the further understanding of an object. At face value, this is almost more constraining than simply saying science is the scientific method, since by using the term "object" you seem to declare science only deals with singular substances. As this would destroy all scientific disciplines outside of chemistry, I do hope you simply chose the wrong word. But, even if this is the case, the rest of your definition is problematic. You seem to believe that science is about preconceived conclusions being validated by the reproduction of pre-ordained conditions. While certainly the testing of a hypothesis is done by the creation of tests whereby variables are isolated as to their connective nature with the subject under analysis, results are not preconceived but rather hypothesized. Put more simply, scientists do not go into experimentation with the idea that their hypotheses will necessitate certain data, but rather that the data produced by the test will further validate or invalidate the hypothesis offered.

As Michael Shermer puts it in his book “Why People Believe Strange Things,” "a scientific law is a description of a regularly repeating action that is open to rejection or confirmation." The action is in nature, not the description or hypothesis. Hence, it is not, as you put it, the creation of conditions to repeat results, that is science. Rather, science is the testing of hypotheses as to their predictive power of repeatable actions in nature. If something is not repeatable or does not occur in nature, it is not the subject of a scientific pursuit. Science deals with both the transcendent and the historical, not with the idiosyncratic and a-historical. This is not to say that idiosyncratic experiences are not real, only that they are not testable and hence incapable of being brought into the public discourse that is science.

As Michael Shermer notes through a quote from the Dictionary of the History of Science, the process of science is what philosophers call the "hypothetico-deductive" method, which involves "a) putting forward a hypothesis, b) conjoining it with a statement of 'initial conditions,' c) deducing from the two a prediction, and d) finding whether or not the prediction is fulfilled." This definition clearly delineates the process of science from that of "construct-building," or the creation of a non-testable statement that is claimed to account for a set of observations.

Which brings me to the difference between science and religion, that being a separate and irreconcilable difference in epistemic (knowledge) grounding. Science is based in nature, is testable, public, and its particular hypotheses capable of being proven wrong. Its philosophical background is based in empiricism, or the testing of observable phenomena (though of course "observable" here means much more than by the naked eye). Religion is based in the supernatural, is not testable, idiosyncratic, and its dogma is incapable of being proven wrong by definition. Its philosophical background is based in presuppositionalism, the declaration of a rule by deductive fiat without recourse to observation. In other words, the truths of science are so because they have been tested and are open to public display and criticism, whereas the “truths” of religion are so because they are declared such via the claimed authority of divine fiat. Religion is the ultimate example of the logical fallacy "truth by authority."

Here's the problem this creates: as soon as you open yourself up to the usage of science, you are no longer in the realm of religion and faith but that of critical analysis and reason. You can't have it both ways. If science and empiricism are correct, then all knowledge is tentative, testable and natural. If religion, at least in the form of its absolutist forms (Christianity, Islam and Orthodox Judaism), is correct, then the only true knowledge is that which has been handed down by fiat through the power of their self-declared god. Let me rephrase to make the point more obvious. According to religion, truth is that which is created by god, i.e. if god wanted to reverse a law of nature, he could and it would still be true. Hence, laws of nature of mutable, capable of being changed at the whim of a deity, i.e. the usage of miracles in mythological literature. This is simply not possible within the parameters of science. For science, laws in nature are such regardless of who says so and exist regardless of the ability of anyone to articulate them. As such, laws are not broken or changed, but rather simply capable of being re-hypothesized via the gathering of new data through testing and analysis. While the laws could have been, hypothetically, different post-Big Bang when everything was being set up, once done so, they don’t change. The existence of a supreme being who can circumvent laws at any time negates the philosophical foundation of science, since science deals with nature as being properly basic or foundational. For religion, nature isn't basic; it is secondary to the dictates of god.

More will be said about “faith” itself as a source for truth in the third blog of this series, but before we get to that, a short overview of evolutionary theory follows in the next blog.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Change in Ideology: My Journey to Atheism

Since the question of my deconversion almost always comes up eventually, I figured that as a first blog, I'd go into the story and answer it before it comes up. I have lost count the number of times I have heard your question and it always makes me smile. It's been 6 years now since I changed my ideological opinion and while it's been some time since I've looked in a mirror and gasped at what I saw, there is still the recurring thought that I have turned into the very thing I used to preach against. Life, it seems, is full of irony.

I went to Grace Bible College in Grand Rapids, MI after high school, with the intention of becoming a pastor. I was still very much a believer and had already begun studying extensively, mostly apologetics, in particular the works of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. However, as my mother once told me, I was going to ask too many questions at some point. Considering where I now am, it would seem that I did.

I had already become convinced of evolution and had been struggling to fit it within my studies of the "bible." I then started studying philosophy particularly christian philosophy. Reading the likes of Carl F.H. Henry and Gordon Clark, I spent a short time as a presuppositionalist, though was rather irked by the criticisms offered of it by evidentialist apologists. Thus, I started reading the opinions of other points of view from the source. This was, in hindsight, my final "error." In reading the actual people who I'd spent my life preaching against, I realized that often the apologists for christianity lied about or mischaracterized what the other side said. It was not difficult for the needles of doubt to begin questioning why this was so. Then I read "Atheism" The Case Against God" by George H. Smith. I was convinced inside of 60 pages.

There was no single event that changed me, no relationship that ended or emotional experience that troubled me, at least in so far as being the singular inculcating event. Certainly, the troubled relationship I had with my parents didn't help and the attacks of 9/11 showed me just how much fundamentalism and ideological commitment can affect the world negatively, but these were points along a long line of questions and life experiences. I never believed to believe, I was a believer because I thought it answered my questions. When it ceased to do so, I left it.

So, I am an atheist. I like to explain it by saying that if you were to stretch out my beliefs in a long line, there would be a gap where the question of a "god" would be. There is no affirmation, there is only an absence. Where people say there is an entity, I shrug and say there is no clear definition, no ability to talk about the supernatural, and as such there is nothing to talk about. It's like playing 20 questions without the other person giving any clue, only telling you that what he's talking about ISN'T something, never what it is.

I am also a scientific humanist. I believe that the answer of the divine is to be found in our society, in our ideas about life, seen through the eyes of evolutionary theory and hence scientific discipline. Thus, the power of change is ubiquitous, permeating nature and our ability to understand it. Given our surplus of neurons, we are able to view reality in a way different than any other creature and so shape it as we see fit, but always, always, are we faced with the inevitable finality to our existence. Change is, as I mentioned before, in everything.

I rarely actually call myself a buddhist but I find that people more easily accept that than they do atheism, despite the fact that the two are virtually synonymous. A problem arises due to the many misunderstandings the west has about buddhism. It is not a religion per se, because it has no specific doctrines. It is more a view of life, one in which the only reality is the natural/physical and man's reason through discipline can be used to grasp it. True, there is a oneness within buddhism but it is not the oneness of the mystic but a recognition that there is only one reality, one substance/process to all things. I don't agree with every aspect of buddhism, but many of its central ideas are special to me, especially as so many of them are borne out by science.

Hence, I can say that I am atheist/buddhist/humanist. I study, meditate and expand my ability to grasp reality. It is liberating, challenging and I am more at peace now than at any time in my life.