Back Off Science

Articles of faith

Posted in atheism, narrative by backoffscience on November 10, 2009

The New Atheists or scientists, as I like to call them, don’t just have a problem with organised religion. They have a problem with the very concept of faith.

In science’s language, the definition of faith is this – living your life as though human-created stories are real things in the world.

Making concepts real is what faith does, and all concepts, by definition, are human-created. Faith is simply a belief that a belief is real.

I, for example, have faith in the existence of love. I know it cannot be explained as the causal link between two brains or organisms. I know love only exists because I believe it’s existence is real. But I also know that my faith in love, along with everyone elses, is all that keeps love in existence. I could inspect as many brains as I like, and I will not find love, only the brain parts which make the concept possible.

So how can I have faith in something’s being real, at the same time as knowing that it only exists as a concept? Doesn’t this make it an illusion? all depends how you want to define reality. There is no absolute rule stating that you have to restrict the concept of reality to exclude concepts. You may choose to believe that there is such a rule, and you can make your arguments around assuming that rule is true, just as many atheists do. That just isn’t a good way to argue (to assume your answer).

Personally, I wouldn’t want my concept of reality itself not be real – for me that would be confusing. If you think it works, let me know how.

So if you allow conceptual as well as material reality in, what then?

Well you have to accept that things like love, happiness, joy, freedom, responsibility and community are real, but only in so much as we believe in them.

Actually, the relationship is much more complex than that, we’re not talking about twinkerbell here. Faith, defined as a belief that a belief is real, is a necessary condition for the existence of our conceptual reality. But the articles of faith still have to acted upon to make them real. It’s no good believing love is real when no-one is actually in love.

Now here’s the crunch. Communal conceptual realities (or you could call them faith communities I guess, or folks that share the same story) that do not include the discoveries of science don’t personally suit me. I’m an atheist, and always have been.

And there is no doubt that literalist religious conceptual systems can cause harm in some cases – the intelligent design lab biologist for example, or the Al Qu’aida bomber. However, most people who believe in concepts that massively contradict material reality – that the world is young, the people go to a special place after death and so on – lead pretty normal lives, considering.

The point is that there is so much more besides, which fits in just perfectly with the material reality, but which still make use of our ability to live our lives within complex and beautiful narratives. Here are just a few examples:

Awe and wonder. Richard Dawkins prefered conceptual reality, built on our emotional (concept) reaction to beautiful(concept) natural (concept) scenes.

Golden Rule. Love thy neighbour. Perfect consequentialist rule of thumb.

Humanism. Ain’t life great. Couldn’t it be great for everyone.

Humanitarianism. Ain’t life shit. Couldn’t it be great for everyone?

Progress. I believe there will be a situation in the future, which could be better or worse depending what I do now.

History. What I am now is because of great-great-great-great-great grandpa’s awesomeness.

Evolution. How brilliant is it that complex life, or life itself, even exists. How great that the ancestors survived and changed.

Freedom. I can do anything.

Community. We can do anything.

Creativity. I can improve the world by making interesting and beautiful things.

and last of all Depth. There are such things as shallow and deep experiences, and the deeper ones are often better.

There are tons more, let me know your favourite.


Once upon a time…

Posted in narrative by backoffscience on October 25, 2009

This talk from physicist Lawrence Krauss is fascinating. It’s a masterclass in how scientists and narrative are bound together – it tells stories about the universe, as science believes at the moment it really is – 13.72 billion years old, flat in a 3D sense and expanding at an accelerating rate. Scientists and atheists like Depth Deception, Brother Richard, Prometheus Unbound and The Good Atheist love it, although all for different reasons.

The problem is that the questions of interest to science drive the narrative, in a way that is far from scientific or rational. For example, he argues that less than 1% of the universe is planets and stars and all that we see and are. The rest is dark matter (30%) and dark energy (70%). So on the scale of the universe, we’re completely insignificant. this whole set of facts is clearly generated by the scientific interest in solving the conundrum of dark matter. What on earth do the facts thus gained have to do with the significance of our life, planet or solar system? In what respect is living matter equal in value to dark matter? In equations about the universe it is equal, for sure, but not in our actual lives. There’s a mother and baby on one railroad track, a pile of dark matter on the other…

As tongue in cheek as this talk is, there is something serious going on. Atheists, like everyone else that ever lived, need their stories. The success of this talk clearly derives from this need. What is more there’s clearly a quasi-theological argument going on. The fact the universe is “flat”, for example, means the total energy is zero so you don’t need to posit the existence of a deity to have kicked it off (as if that is what physicists would posit if the universe were not “flat”).

One of the reasons the talk is so engaging  is that Krauss’s universe seems to have a character, but that character is of a massive, cold and uncaring thing – like a god who doesn’t care. But the universe has no character whatsoever. It’s size is not, for instance, large – there’s no comparison for that word to make any sense.

In one way, I’m being pointlessly sour. This is just funny stuff about the universe, meant to make you think, to communicate the facts in a fun way. But sadly, this stuff is the closest atheists come to having something to believe in. And in this talk, the overriding narrative is fundamentally confused.

At one point, Krauss says cosmology has uncovered the most poetic fact about the universe – that the explosion of stars generates the atoms that end up in our body:

“Forget Jesus,” he says. “The stars died so you could be here today.”

But the talk ends on a total downer on the big picture of the universe:

“It’s big, rare events happen all the time, including life, and that doesn’t mean its special.”

The trouble is, Krauss’s cosmic narrative is generated as a way of interesting us in the facts and does not seem thought through as a narrative. There is a feeling that the narrative naturally follows when you know the facts. It is obvious that our lives are insignificant when you know the scale of the universe. It is obvious that our lifespans mean nothing when you know the timescale of the universe.

But these things simply are not true. The cosmological calculus has no necessary bearing whatsoever on whether or not we think life is special, purposeful or good. The value of life is not found naturally occurring in the universe – thats a religious thought. We make up the values, not the stars. we want to think life is special we can construct a narrative to do that – using whatever tools we chose. The facts by themselves are only physically or causally connected. The conceptual connection is made up by us and simply does not exist in the universe before we find it there.

So whether we chose to fit a story about the universe  and the people curious enough to find out about it into a good story or bad is up to us. We decide.

Humans have to believe in something and it is irrational not to make the most of this ability. It is a cowardly lie to pretend the narrative forces itself upon us. (Although I don’t think Makouli will agree).

Why not believe in something good, that our lives are meaningful, that there is a point to existence? This talk gives much to inspire, but does much to purposfully destroy all faith in life at the same time.

Stories of the scientist

Posted in narrative by backoffscience on October 11, 2009

But maybe you’ll say, “Storytelling is just for fiction.” Sorry, but that’s not true. This is a shortcoming of today’s science education—the failure to make scientists realize they are storytellers, every bit as much as novelists. They just don’t like to admit it, or really even think about it. They tend to think stories mean Star Wars and Harry Potter. The truth is, stories are as equally important in nonfiction as fiction. They are the way we understand our world.

[link to Randy Olson writing in The Scientist]

There is a conundrum of the scientist. For, as Olson makes clear, scientists want to think they are just doing science, that they are simply investigating things in a rational and scientific way, and that there is nothing intermingled with it whatsoever, because anything creative, or un-scientific, would pollute what they do. the whole scientific investigation (which should of course be conducted in a scientific, rational way) is embedded in stories. What scientists are interested in, what fires up their investigation, the value of what they find out, the scope of their investigation, its purpose and success, are all related to the place of the scientists’ discoveries and clarifications in the story of our lives. As Olson says, the scientists’ questions and their results are framed in language, and language is fundamentally not comprehensible to scientific investigation (although I admit I’ve got a way to go before I convince anyone of that).

The point is, that the only time a scientist is a scientist in the sense of someone completely cut off from narrative, is when they are actually engaged in scientific investigation. Once their eye is off the microscope, they are no longer a scientist. Everything they say about what they have found out creates and modifies stories. It is utterly inescapable. [ Comment saying this].

What Olson also brings out is that stories are not only a matter of fiction, but of non-fiction as well. Once you start looking for stories you find them everywhere – from our immediate experience of values and meanings to the grand narratives that describe human history.

The mistake of believing you can operate outside of stories has huge consequences. It is one of the scientists primary sins.