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Bad diagnosis : Pharyngula

Another blog article discussing my National Post column. Thanks to 'Rebecca65' for the link! The whole purpose of this blog and my National Post columns are to get people talking about these issues. It is heartwarming to see that my desire is coming to fruition, even when the remarks and comments do not agree with what I hold to be true.

Bad diagnosis : Pharyngula


  1. Well you certainly got them riled up over at the scienceblogs, father. You're a good man to take all that abuse. I thought this comment, by a person called aumahazuki was kind of shocking and honest:

    "When I'm panicky or scared I forget the giant gestalt of history, biology, anthropology, cognitive science, and so on that led me out of this nightmare in the first place and get all emo over how much bad shit happens.
    When this happens to you, what do you do? I try to tell myself "we've been on this planet for an eyeblink, nature isn't just cruel but incredibly wasteful, we KNOW how much of the Bible was forged," etc. But it's hard sometimes.
    What do you all do when the sheer, crushing injustice of reality gets to you?"

    That's probably the best description of despair I've ever read, and it's the kind of despair that brought me on my knees back to the Church. It's like Chesterton said, even the man who goes knocking on the door of the whorehouse is looking for God, even if he does't know it.

  2. Fr. Michael Smith23 December, 2010

    In the atheism vs. theism debate, there are two philosophical mistakes commonly committed by both sides:

    - the category mistake by which theism is assumed to be an attempt at a scientific theory.
    - straw-person arguments: the presentation of a grotesque caricature of one’s opponents’ position, followed by dismissive remarks or ridicule.

    The position is worthy of consideration which holds that the existence of the universe, with all its complexity and beauty, calls for an explanation that addresses the question, “Why?” (as distinct from the question, “How?”).

  3. Constant Mews23 December, 2010

    "- straw-person arguments: the presentation of a grotesque caricature of one’s opponents’ position, followed by dismissive remarks or ridicule."

    Why did you chose this option when talking about atheists? It would seem counter-productive. By doing so, you stimulated the posters at Pharyngula to discuss what appeared to be your hypocrisy and refusal to actually engage in discussion with them, rather than the topic itself.

  4. "The position is worthy of consideration which holds that the existence of the universe, with all its complexity and beauty, calls for an explanation that addresses the question, “Why?” (as distinct from the question, “How?”). "

    And yet, no matter how many times the religious are asked for their rigorous, evidence-based hypothesis to answer that selfsame question that is (supposedly) both paramount and best answered by their faith, nothing is ever forthcoming.

    Another category error is being made here, of course, as in answering 'how', one almost always answers 'why' in the course of it. For example gravity - once you have answered 'how' something falls, you have in passing answered 'why'. Meteorology - answering 'how' the wind blows gives a trivial solution to 'why' the wind blows. And of course cosmology - once you understand the idea of indeterminacy, you understand that the 'how' is all that there is, that some things, in as far as we can tell, simply don't require a 'why'.
    One might not like this idea, but it stands until you can replace it with something more confirmed by real-world observation.

  5. Anri: IF all that is 'real' is the material universe, then you are correct. IF there is an intelligence or existence of something beyond the material universe, then you are incorrect.

    Believers hold that the patterns inherent in the created universe point to the presence of a creator. The fact the universe is knowable to us through the existence of these patterns implies an intelligence that made it knowable to us.

    I appreciate that this is an argument of inference, one that relies upon circumstantial evidence (measuring an effect to deduce the cause) but it is evidence none the less.

    Fr. Tim

  6. Fr. Tim: you've said you'll be somewhat busy over the holiday, so I'll understand if getting back to this takes a while, but here goes...

    "Believers hold that the patterns inherent in the created universe point to the presence of a creator."
    This seems strange to me. Water flowing downhill is a pattern, and a constant one. Are we to assume intelligence of the part of the water? Clouds form patterns - intelligent? Does carbon get smarter when it becomes a diamond?

    Wouldn't it make more sense to assume that when things happen outside of observed patterns, that would suggest intelligence? In fact, isn't the typical term for that a 'miracle'?
    Unfortunately, it seems like you are arguing it both ways - if things happen according to the laws of nature, well, that's evidence for an intelligent creator, and if a miracle occurs (something beyond the laws of nature) well, that's evidence for an intelligent creator, too!

    Let me put it to you this way - what state of the universe would you count as evidence against the existence of an intelligent creator?
    In other words, what would the universe have to look like for you to assume an intelligent creator doesn't exist?

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Anri: 1. The 'perfect balance' of the universe. If gravity had been 1% more, the Big Bang would already have collapsed into the Big Crunch. The absolute requirement of so many factors such as this one example is necessary for the continued existence of the universe - so many factors that its strains incredulity to believe that chance alone could account for the universe.

    2. The ability of mathematics to comprehend everything that exists. If there were not a pattern to everything, mathematics could neither explain nor even describe creation. For example, all of nature makes use of fractals as a basic form. Leaves, animals, rocks and stars are all forms of fractals. How could all of creation be explained in these terms with there being an intelligence behind them? Again if we hold only to chance, then this is yet another layer of statistical of impossibility one top of the first one.

    3. The universality of the 'religious instinct' throughout all of humanity. One of the oldest of our ancestors was uncovered, buried with a stone totem, leading the archeologists to posit that perhaps the first evolutionary step away from our primate cousins was the development of this religious instinct.

    4. The parallels between the recent discoveries of astrophysics and archeology which validate that everything that exists in all of creation was initially 'light' (energy) and that all human's today can be traced through their maternal DNA back to a single source. I am not saying that the Bible is scientifically true, but that science is validating the religious truth contained within its pages.

    As to your last question, I believe that science and faith both demonstrate that without an unbelievable confluence of many individual factors, there wouldn't be a universe or creation to 'look' at!

    Merry Christmas.

    Fr. Tim

  9. Fr. Tim:
    1. I assume you are familiar with the fact that devices like the LHC are designed to answer just these sorts of questions (are the variables that governed the early universe free to vary in relation to one another, or are they interdependent), yes? Can we assume that if it found that these variables are interdependent, you will abandon the assumption of a creator?

    2. Mathematics is based on the observation of the universe, so it is not surprising that it works to explain things within the universe. Again, unless one assumes that the creator used math to create the universe (I'm pretty sure the Bible claims it was language, not math), I don't see how that's relevant.

    3. Strange, then, that through so much of humanity's history, people following that instinct have been doomed to eternal damnation because they had the wrong god(s). It is difficult to posit a perfectly merciful creator giving humanity an incorrect, or at least incomplete, religious instinct that would lead so many down the 'wide path', and away from the 'narrow path.'
    More to the point, the origin of religious thought in the human brain can be tracked and traced fairly easily through modern science. (Interesting reading on the topic: Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran) Unless you have evidence that this religious instinct comes from somewhere other than the material brain, it's hard to see how its existence is relevant.

    4. But the Bible doesn't say that light came first - it says that the heavens and earth came first, and that the earth was dark (and covered with water) until god made light. This is not slightly wrong, or a little bit wrong, it is terribly, completely, utterly wrong.

    By your last answer, may I assume that you are saying that there is no state of the universe that would lead you to believe this? That, in essence, whatever you see will reinforce your belief - that evidence and argument will have no effect on your faith? Because if that's the case, if arguing with you is a total waste of your time and mine, I'll be happy to just shrug and walk away.
    But if that is the case, than please understand that any requests you make for argument or discussion are made under false pretenses - they are made dishonestly. I hope this is not the case here, but I'm willing to accept it if it is.

  10. Anri: Thanks for your patience. Here are my responses to your latest questions.

    1. I follow the developments at CERN with great anticipation. Yet it simply intends to better describe matter, yes? So, the best it could do is confirm my intuition that God exists (assuming that the rules of physics will still apply and the patterns I speak of should continue to be present). So it is unlikely that any discovery will definitively prove that there is no God. This being said, let me assure you that I hold open my faith everyday to the lessons of life and science. If it is truly of God, it will survive. If it is false, then it will crumble.

    2. If mathematics were 'quantum', providing different answers at different times, it would be useless. The fact that this is not the case (ie: math is useful) points to a knowable system of organization - something that was virtually impossible to have come together via agencies such as chance. This points to a creator.

    3. That's what is unique about the God of Abraham, especially when he stood among us as Jesus Christ. He was the one who told us that God was not vengeful but loving.

    4. "1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day." Gn1;1-5 - the very beginning of the bible.

    Note too please that I did say that the bible is not a scientific book of facts. I said that the theological message of the bible is being mirrored by recent discoveries of astrophysics and anthropology.

    Finally, I am open to discussion, argument and debate, but you are no more permitted to declare that the definition of success means simply that you are right and I am wrong. As I said above, I am always, everyday testing my faith. I continue to read mainstream science books and text books to learn more about creation - not to be cemented in my faith.

    Your contributions here would be most welcome, not only by me but by others who share similar views with you who regularly post here.

    Fr. Tim

  11. 1. Given the near - if not total - impossibility of proving a universal negative, the statement 'god certainly does not exist' is endorsed by few atheists. Certainly not by me. As far as I can see, the important question really is: does the god hypothesis explain anything; is it consistent with the observed world; is it needed? So far, for everything we have gained a deep insight into, the answer has been no. Perhaps cosmology will prove unique among all phenomena we have investigated so far, but I'm not betting on it.

    2. We seem to be talking past one another on this point, so let me try a different tack. The miracle of the loaves and fishes was god suspending - or defying - the laws of mathematics, yes? Making 2 + 2 = 100, or suchlike. Yet, you hold that the opposite - that the fishes could not multiply, that 2 + 2 would forever equal 4, to be evidence for god, do I understand you?
    A miracle occurs, therefore god... no miracle occurs, therefore also god.

    3. Well, first of all, the god of Abraham was not the only god promising mercy and an escape from troubles, nor the first (Hinduism, Buddhism, for example).
    That aside, it bears keeping in mind that the thing that god was offering mercy from was, well, god. God was offering a (slender) way out of the damnation he himself had pronounced in reaction to humans acting in the way he had made humans to act. God is either unwilling or unable to remove sin wholesale from the human condition.

    4. So, can we agree, then, that that passage is simply factually incorrect?

    Lastly, I would like to extend my thanks in your hosting of this exchange of ideas. I should keep in mind that I am a guest here, and should therefore act like one.

  12. Anri:

    1: I am not expecting you or anyone else to prove a universal negative. I do not hold that we can definitely answer this question either way, at least not in this life. We can only infer from the facts we see in creation as to whether or not evidence exists that supports our respective suppositions about God.

    2. If any law of physics or nature were suddenly to act contrary to its nature (aka, a 'miracle), then just as its existence points to the possibility of an intelligence reflected in natures laws, the power to act without regard to them would seem to demonstrate a power greater than can be explained naturally.

    There are different possible inspirations to the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Forgive me please if I can't get the point you're trying to make.

    I'll get to your last points later tonight or tomorrow.

    Fr. Tim

  13. "Believers hold that the patterns inherent in the...universe point to the presence of a creator. The fact the universe is knowable to us through the existence of these patterns implies an intelligence that made it knowable to us."

    Well, that's interesting, Tim! The thing that you say makes you a believer is precisely the thing that makes me NOT a believer! For one thing, I'd never assume or buy the implication of what the lawyers would call "facts not in evidence" -- that a "creator" is necessary in order for patterns to be established. I actually think the patterns are indications of the LACK of a creator! Patterns (ie, endless repitition) are for that which has no imagination. I would think that the term "creator" would demand a full infusion of imagination!

  14. Hi Tim,

    I have read your exchange with the posters over at Pharnygula with great interest.

    The main reasons for the mutual acrimony is that both sides are speaking past one another – theists react viscerally to being labeled irrational and silly, while atheists are frustrated that you do little to understand the atheists’ very real and serious arguments against the notion of a Christian god.

    To your credit Tim, you have acknowledged that you were wrong to label all atheists as “grumpy” and “nihilists”.

    As a formerly devout Catholic, I can attest that scorn and ridicule were ineffective tools of persuasion when they were aimed at me. Whenever I encountered such an attitude, I naturally assumed an intellectually defensive posture. In truth, I believed that my religious convictions were logical and internally consistent (for the most part). Nevertheless, I had nagging doubts about how well my beliefs dovetailed with the world that I experienced around me. My faith told me that doubts are normal – the implication being that I should not pursue my doubts but just learn to live with them. Doubt was a normal fixture on the landscape of any theist’s faith journey.

    Having said that Tim, you ought to know better than to breezily and lazily dismiss the very real objections to the existence of god. To those who do not know you well, it smacks of arrogance. By your training and education, you know that there are several serious objections to the existence of god (I have myself reminded you of many of them in our exchanges on this blog):

    • The problem of evil
    • The hiddeness of god
    • Internal inconsistencies in god’s revelations
    • The problem of “bad design” in the universe
    • The omnipotence paradox etc…

    You also know that the standard apologetics to such objections are weak - at best. A belief in god is not totally indefensible – however the only unassailable argument in god’s favour is subjective knowledge or “personal faith”. That’s it. That’s all you got after you strip away all of the theistic apologetics and rhetoric. Personal faith. Subjective knowledge…oh…and Tradition.

    Instead of labeling atheists as “grumpy” and “nihilists” and being the standard bearers of “the culture of death”, you should have approached your subject with far more humility and honesty. As a theist and as a representative of your Church, you stand on the thinnest of intellectual and moral ice. You have no good reasons for your beliefs except your personal faith, subjective knowledge, and traditions. Even your Church is nearly bereft of any credibility as a moral compass for humanity.

    My friend, I am afraid you failed to anticipate the entirely predictable response that your article provoked, and perhaps even worse, you have squandered an opportunity to speak to a broader audience with genuine humility and candour.


  15. Greetings again!

    1. And so far, everything we can infer from everything we can see, god is not required. People once knew - absolutely knew - that god pushed the sun across the sky. Nope. Demons made you sick, asking god for help made you well. Wrong - microbes, actually. Stars were lights put there by god to help find your way hope. Oops - huge balls of fusing hydrogen, in fact.
    The 'obvious' and 'self-evident' case for god gets smaller with every bit of knowledge we gain about the way the world works.

    2. So, we have a 'heads I win, tails, you lose' sort of situation, yes?
    I brought up the story of the loaves and the fishes to make a concrete illustration of a position immune to evidence. If I am understanding you correctly, you would hold that the miracle of the loaves and the fishes would be evidence for god, because physical laws were violated, yes? But at the same time, you would insist that if the miracle had not occurred, then the upholding of physical laws would also be evidence for god, yes?
    If both (A) and (not-A) offer evidence towards the same conclusion, than what bearing does (A) have on the conclusion at all? None, as far as I can see.


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