I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reflections on Faith and Science

I haven't written a single article during this month of December.  It is today or never.

I am an atheist.  No doubt about it.  I don't believe that some all-powerful, self-conscious entity is interested in our lives or even that it exists.  There are no reasons for believing that a God exists, but neither are there reasons for not believing that it exists.  Therefore, the most logical position is to be an agnostic, not an atheist.  I should be able to say: I neither believe nor disbelieve.  And yet, I don't believe.  For somebody like me, who has a scientific formation, this is not completely satisfying, because I am asserting something that can be neither proven nor disproven.

In any case, the existence or non-existence of God doesn't affect my life in any way.  At least not directly, as what believers manage to impose on everybody else does have an influence on me.  Religious fervour has resulted in laws prohibiting abortion (like in Malta and Chile), traditions keeping girls out of school (like in Afghanistan), and regulations forcing restrictive dress codes on women (like in the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Tel Aviv, where women must cover their arms).  Obviously, I will never need an abortion, I have been able to attend school, and I am allowed to wear short-sleeved shirts wherever I want.  Nevertheless, these rules, often directed at women, are deeply annoying.

This distinction between atheism and agnosticism is just another way of placing people in boxes.  A more important distinction is whether people have doubts or not.  Certainties are dangerous.  Certainties make possible for fanatics to strap around their waists belts full of explosive and blow themselves up in public places.  Certainties have caused over the whole recorded history of Humanity persecutions of entire ethnics groups and tortures of millions.

In fact, I believe that certainties are responsible for most of the problems we have today.  There are too many faithfuls and not enough scientists.

What many non-scientists have difficulties in grasping is that no scientific statement can ever be proven to be absolutely true.  For example, Newton's theory of gravitation worked flawlessly for a long time and is still used every day.  But it was discovered that it couldn't fully explain the orbit of the planet Mercury.  Einstein's theory of gravitation solved that problem and has been confirmed by countless measurements.  Does it mean that Newton was wrong?  Not at all.  It only means that Newton's theory is an approximation of general relativity or, if you prefer, that Einstein's theory can explain a wider class of phenomena and with more accuracy.  Does it mean that Einstein's theory will always be right?  Again, not at all.  It only means that, so far, it has never been proven to be at fault (although, truth be told, general relativity has not been successfully integrated with quantum mechanics; but that's another story).

Scientific statements, therefore, are a never-ending work-in-progress.  They can be proven wrong in some cases, but the proof of their correctness never ends.  Despite of their intrinsic uncertainties, all these temporary laws of Physics can still be used to discover further laws that explain our universe.  It is a bit like crossing an infinitely wide mountain creek on wobbling stones: scientists keep stepping on the same wobbly theories and, as they progress, the older theories become more and more trustworthy; more stable paths are identified.

People who insist that Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught at school in Science classes as an alternative to Evolution by Natural Selection (ENS) can only do so because most people don't know what I have explained in the previous two paragraphs.  The ID people state that ENS is an unproven theory.  But there is no scientific theory completely proven.  It is impossible.  The key issue is that ENS can be disproven, while ID cannot.  That is why ENS is a scientific theory and ID is not!

The same problem pops up with the hoopla about climate change, levels of CO2, and whether the changes are anthropic or not.  People ignorant in Science would like to have clear, unambiguous, and final answers, and confuse scientific results with beliefs.  But certainty has no place in Science.

My attitude towards God is scientific: if, after asking me whether I believe that a God exists (to which, as I said, I would reply no), you asked me whether I'm sure, I would have to answer with another no.  Of course I'm not sure.  How could I?  But I don't need to introduce an "ad hock" entity that explains everything Science cannot [yet] understand.  For centuries, the Catholic Church was a drag on Science because it wanted to cling to what its revealed truth (actually, it still is).  It was (is) a problem caused by certainties (not "misplaced certainties", because all certainties are misplaced).

All so-called proofs of the existence of God that come to mind rely on negatives: all this beauty of nature cannot be the result of random events; we don't know how our universe came into existence; it cannot be that our existence has no purpose; etc.  But how can one claim to prove anything on the basis of what one doesn't know?  It is baffling.

I know little about Judaism and Islam (of which I am somewhat ashamed), but I was taught the Catholic catechism.  I strongly encourage you to have a look at it, especially if you have never done it before.  It is an amazing construction of cross-linked concepts.  I have to wonder how many so-called faithfuls actually believe much of what is in there...

As Alain de Botton convincingly explained in his book Religion for Atheists, religion has its functions and its usefulness in society.  But it should be kept in check and not overpower everything else.

Christianity might have shaped morality and laws of the western world, but I don't need a priest to tell me that to contribute to a harmonious society I should behave with others as I would like them to behave with me.  Luke's do to others as you would have them do to you (verse 6:31) is only an expression of a Golden Rule that has been recognised and applied everywhere since antiquity.

I believe that ENS has resulted in the collaborative attitude of human beings.  A typical example of such a "social" attitude is shown by how people behave when confronted with the game called "the prisoner's dilemma".  From Wikipedia (look in particular to the last sentence):

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don't have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other, by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. Here's how it goes:

  • If A and B both betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)
It's implied that the prisoners will have no opportunity to reward or punish their partner other than the prison sentences they get, and that their decision won't affect their reputation in future. Because betraying a partner offers a greater reward than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray, when they would get a better reward if they both cooperated. In reality, humans display a systematic bias towards cooperative behavior in this and similar games, much more so than predicted by simple models of "rational" self-interested action.

It makes sense to speak of rules of ethics applicable to everyone, but, except for predispositions resulting from ENS, they ought to be based on rationality, with the aim of maximising our collective well-being, not allegedly inspired by a God invented to comfort us.  There is no need for a God to explain the validity of moral codes.

For millennia, religions played an important role in constraining some of human emotions that, if uncontrolled, would have resulted in chaos.  But, at the same time, religions also exploited those same emotions for their own purposes of expansion and control.  I say: let's get rid of them!

We must invest as much as possible in education, so that a secular, conscious morality will eventually replace the rules imposed by superstition, regardless of whether it is called witchcraft or religion.  One day, with the help of Science, we will be able to control our destructive emotions rationally, while still enjoying the positive ones.  Only then, we will have left behind the caves of our ancestors and be ready to explore the universe.