Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Atheist Convention in Columbus

(For those of you who did not grow up in the Orthodox Jewish community during the mid 90s, the title refers to a song, “the Atheist Convention in L.A.” The song is about a Muslim atheist, a Christian atheist and a Jewish atheist traveling to Los Angeles for an atheist convention. During the flight there is an accident and the plane begins to go down. The three atheists, believing that they are going to die, all begin to pray. The plane mysteriously manages to right itself and everyone on board is saved. The song ends with the three atheists each returning to their ancestral faith.)

This past Saturday evening, the Humanist Community of Central Ohio hosted Pharyngula’s Dr. PZ Myers as part of their banquet in honor of Darwin Day. The event was held at the Fawcett Center, just a few blocks away from where I live. As a reader of Pharyngula, I did not want to miss the opportunity. I did not want to attend the banquet, though, since it cost $25 for students and it would not have been kosher anyway so I contacted the Humanist Community to find out if I could come just for the lecture and they very nicely said yes, though they recommended a $5 donation, which was perfectly reasonable.

PZ Myers is an atheist in the Richard Dawkins mold, known for his hard hitting polemics. I expected more of the same here. The PZ Myers I heard and got to speak briefly with afterwards managed to surprise me. He was not the internet polemicist that I was familiar with, but a scholar, a biologist and a gentleman. He spoke magnificently, putting complex ideas across in ways that a lay audience could understand without talking down to them. What particularly gained him respect in my eyes was that he avoided taking pot shots at William Paley, the nineteenth century English theologian who authored the famous watchmaker argument for design, and actually praised him. I only wish that more people could see Dr. PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota-Morris and not just PZ Myers of Pharyngula; our cultural discourse would be all the healthier for it.

Here are my notes summarizing Dr. Myers’ lecture. As always any mistakes are mine.

Darwin and Design by PZ Myers

Charles Darwin went on his famous five year sea voyage (1831-36) on the Beagle, during which time he formulated his theory, when he was twenty-two years old. We are used to thinking of Darwin as an old man with a beard, but he was really not that much older than our college students when he began his work on evolution. Darwin did not immediately publish his thoughts upon his return to England. He spent more than twenty years doing further research, particularly on barnacles. This is one of the things that scientists today so love about him.

To put Darwin’s argument in syllogistic form:

If there is a variability in a population
If success correlates to variation
If excess reproduction occurs
If variation is heritable
Than the relative frequency of the different variants must change (adaption will occur)

It should be pointed out that, in practice, there is no difference between micro and macro evolution. It is all really one thing.

It is interesting to note that Thomas Huxley, later known as “Darwin’s bulldog” started off as an opponent of evolution, but was converted upon reading a draft of the Origin of Species.

Darwin was heavily influenced by William Paley and his book, Natural Theology. Paley wished to show how complex the natural world was and how this necessitated a creator. Paley acted as a sort of scientist, though coming from a theological perspective, and you have to respect him for that. A big chunk of the Origin of Species is a rebuttal to Paley. Darwin blew Intelligent Design out of the water in 1859.

Biologists can show how complex designs can come about from simple designs. This process is called Bricolage. This term is taken from the arts; one tinkers with existing designs and creates something new from it. What we see in the natural world is cobbled together from different pieces.

It is difficult to define complexity. For example the driftwood debris at Olympia beach in Washington is complex, far more complex than a brick wall, but came about through a natural process. It would be very difficult to draw the debris and it serves a multitude of purposes, such as food for various organisms, yet it is all due to chance. Random things are much more complex than things that are designed.

Human beings are complex. Brad Pitt, for example is a metazoan. He possesses approximately 5 x 1013 cells and twenty thousand genes. 4% of these genes are for adhesion, 12% signaling and 6% act as switches. His brain consists of 1012 cells, 1011 neurons and 1014 synopses.

This is what creationists do; point out how complex life is and say that God must have done it. Of course simply saying that God did it is not very interesting. Much of what we see in such a complex metazoan as Brad Pitt is reproduced in simple organisms.

Choanoflagellates are single cell organisms that have a lot in common with sponges. We see that they are able to clump together and act as a singular organism. This could be a precursor to multi-celled organisms. The Choanoflagellate possesses things that were once thought to be unique to metazoans; they have receptors such as tyrosine kinases, cadherins and integrins. Trichoplax adhaerens are in a phylum all by themselves. Think of them as micro organic versions of the Blob. They possess genes found in complex brains like ours. In essence our brain is a glorified digestive system. What we think is special about us exists in simpler organisms, serving another purpose.

But evolution can also create things. Nylonase bacteria eat nylon, a product which did not exist before the 1930s. A Japanese nylon factory was dumping waste into the local river and sure enough within a matter of decades the bacteria had evolved to be able to eat nylon. What we have here is a frameshift where a previously useless protein turns out to be useful in binding to nylon. The bacteria were able to exploit this.

In conclusion, nature is not an engineer. The factors that play a role in change are chance, modularity, multifunctionality, incremental tinkering and contingency.

There was a question and answer session following the lecture where Dr. Myers again proved to be far more congenial and far more open to certain nuances than he is on Pharyngula. He acknowledged the need for multiple approaches such as trying to build bridges as opposed to the no holds barred method of attack usually employed by him and Dawkins. Myers noted that part of the problem with attacking organized religion is that many people out there have deeply religious relatives who are wonderful people whom they love. So when you attack religion people take it as a personal attack on their grandmother or the like. (This is somewhat disingenuous on his part as his attacks can get quite personal.) He talked a bit about the documentary Expelled. He had a great story about him trying to go see a pre-screening with Dawkins. Apparently Myers was recognized and kicked out, but nobody kicked out Dawkins. So they got the best of both worlds. He got expelled from Expelled, which allowed him to avoid having to sit through it, and Dawkins got to watch it and write a nasty review of it. As Myers sees it they made the right decision to actively oppose the film even though it made slightly more money, mostly from atheists going to see it, because at the end of the day the film was received negatively. This was a better outcome than if the film had been allowed to just pass unnoticed.


cnocspeireag said...

I'm sure that, were you to meet him, you would also find Prof Dawkins to be scholar, gentlemen and biologist.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for doing this excellent summary.

Trivial point - you have a broken link to "tyrosine kinases"

Izgad said...

I fixed the link. Thank you.

Muscleguy said...

Far be it for me to cast aspersions on the good Mr Pitt, but I would be surprised if he could remember 10^14 synopses. For a start to do so he would need more than the 10^14 synapses he has.

Nice post though.

Andrew said...

It seems to me that P.Z. is a fully committed secularist. This means that he fully recognises the need to keep religious (or non-religious) polemics out of the public sphere. It would be a bit hypocritical of him to expect this of others without following it through himself.

If the talk was on P.Z.'s personal views on religion then I'm sure those would have been far more prominent. Inevitably his views are going to come to the fore somewhere, but P.Z. respects his audience.

The blog is rather different because it is more private. In the private sphere P.Z. sees no problem with expressing his views bluntly, but he is gratious enough to know that the way he expresses himself has its right times and places.

FrodoSaves said...

Great summary, and fascinating point about the Nylonase bacteria. You learn something everyday, when you go looking for it.

Hank Fox said...

The little joke you lead off with is yet another way godders pat themselves on the back with their wonderful perspicacity at being religious ... as compared to those can't-possibly-exist, only-fooling-themselves unbelievers. From my side of the fence, it's remarkably condescending.

Anonymous said...

Add "vertical-align:super" to your inline style to get superscript placement on your exponents.

Anonymous said...

FrodoSaves said...
"Great summary, and fascinating point about the Nylonase bacteria. You learn something everyday, when you go looking for it."

You'd have learnt it much sooner if you had been following PZ Myers blog.

chuko said...

I could've sworn the song in the opening was going to end with the converted former atheists arguing over whether they were saved by Allah, Jesus, or the God of the Torah.

George Peterson said...

"The little joke you lead off with is yet another way godders pat themselves on the back with their wonderful perspicacity at being religious ... as compared to those can't-possibly-exist, only-fooling-themselves unbelievers. From my side of the fence, it's remarkably condescending."

Agreed, but it's also confusing. How can one be a "Christian Atheist" or "Muslim Atheist" ? The only one I see as possible is "Jewish Atheist," if you mean a person of Jewish origin, but the other two are completely oxymorons.

Anonymous said...

Your story about the 3 atheists praying says nothing about what they are praying for.
It assumes they would pray for some supernatural force to prevent the plane from crashing
(even though that same force has just caused it to go down). But given they are atheists,
it is quite likely they are praying that the engines will restart, or that the pilot can
find a way to land the plane safely. In other words, prayer can also be an expression of hope
for a better secular outcome.

When Captain Sullenberger was asked whether he prayed during the Hudson river landing,
he said something magnificent to the effect of "I was busy taking care of the plane.
I was pretty sure that the passengers were taking care of the praying."

Bennzion, as a historian you are obligated to begin by dropping your biases.
So, how about reframing your quest from being a messenger toward helping
to advance humanity out of the shadows of religion toward the sunlight of secularism?


unfire said...

Well, 1) it's pretty obvious what it means, especially in the context. You're either being absurdly obtuse, or disingenuous.

and 2) if people imagine that an inoffensive joke (that has a fairly large slice of irony to it, to boot) is condescending, I dread to think what believers must think of the things that are said on Dr Myers' site every day of the week.

Nice post, Izgad, it seems like an interesting talk.

Izgad said...

I actually agree with you on this one. The song is condescending. Believe me, though, my youth was littered with a lot worse. The intended joke in referring to it in the title was meant to be at the expense of the song. I am sorry if my intention was left ambiguous.

The funny thing about the sing is that it is remarkably ecumenical. I have a hard time thinking of Jewish songs that manage to say good things about either Christianity or Islam let alone both.

To paraphrase Garrison Keillor (another great thinker from Minnesota): “Everyone in Lake Wobegone was a Lutheran, even the atheists. It was a Lutheran God they did not believe in.” So a Muslim atheist would be someone who actively did not believe in the God of Islam and a Christian atheist would be someone who actively did not believe in the God of Christianity.

Izgad said...

This is a fictional song, and a pretty silly song at that. I was not trying to make any claims about real life atheists.
I like that line from the captain. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
Much of this blog can be seen as a running meditation on the fact that while I turned against much of my Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) upbringing, I am not happy with the alternative offered by modern secularism. So now that I do not like either religious fundamentalism, in its Jewish variety let alone any other version of it, or modern secularism, let us try to work on some alternatives. I am interested in hearing suggestions as much as I am interested in offering them.

rebelmacaque said...

I really appreciated your balanced review of Mr. Meyer's talk last weekend (misfired humor notwithstanding). Is it the scientific facts underpinning secularism or the chaotic freedom of the social aspects that you disagree with? And if it is the latter, is that based on personal distaste for modern culture or leftover religious proscriptions? As a recovering magical thinker myself, people's pathways out of a magic-based worldview are always of great interest to me.

The Ridger, FCD said...

You can be a culturally Christian atheist - that's what most European atheists are, even Dawkins calls himself that. But atheists don't believe in *any* god, not just one of them. Labelling them "Christian atheists" is confusing though - surely practicing Jews and Hindus are "Christian atheists" in that sense, are they not?

Anonymous said...

Izgad, how would you define secularism? What do you consider it to be?

Izgad said...

Andrés Diplotti found the lyrics at

The plane took off on schedule from La Guardia
On a bright clear sunny summer's day
What a cheerful trio they appeared to be
They were off the ground westward bound
To the Atheist Convention in LA

Peter was a lawyer from Manhattan
Mohammad sold used cars in Sheepshead Bay
Howard was a dentist out in Woodmere
With the clouds below they were on the go
to the Atheist Convention in LA

Aren't you glad that we'll be staying in the Hilton
I can't wait to spend a day in Disneyland
Did you hear this year they're letting in agnostics?
The convention should be absolutely grand

There'll be speeches that will ponder our existence
Religious dogma will come under fierce attack
That "We all once were primates" is our motto
And the Big Bang's not a theory but a fact!

Peter ordered white wine with his dinner
Howard and Mohammad asked for gin
There was a chasid in the next row eating kosher
Could he be so still believe
That someone up there's watching over him?

Suddenly there was a big explosion
Everyone began to scream and yell
The plane was in a spin and losing altitude
Peter cried "Mercy father"
Mohammad "Spare me Allah"
And in Hebrew Howard said, "Shema Yisroel"


Just before that final awful impact
When everyone was sure that they would die
Somehow some way the engines came to life again
Just a few yards from the trees
With what seemed to be great ease
The pilot flew the plane back to the sky

Everyone gave thanks to G-d in heaven
"It was a miracle that saved us on this day"
The chasid turned and asked the trio with a smile,
"with your true colors showing...will you three still be going
To the Atheist Convention in LA"

Peter's now a priest in Cincinnati
Mohammad built a mosque in Santa Fe
and Howard's still a dentist out in Woodmere
But now they call him Chaim'el, and on Shabbos (Sabbath) he wears a streim'l
Cause their buried faith ignited
While flying on united
To the Atheist Convention in LA

Bart said...

Izgad, I have a question. You seem like a very rational person, one who accepts facts though the lens of inquiry, not dogma. You reject the ultra orthodox religion of your upbringing, and consider some portions of the founding text to be metaphor, and not literal fact.

Then, you refuse to eat a meal that isn't Kosher? Don't the arbitrary ancient dietary laws of the Torah seem... well, ancient and arbitrary? How do you choose from the Torah which are genuine rules to follow, and which are merely parables open to interpretation?

I grew up in a secular home, and have never had a belief in any supernatural. I have little patience for the extreme fundamentalists, they seem to have a permanent set of blinders on. But I do have some understanding. I hold to the rational, empirical scientific method for determining my reality. I hold so firmly to it, that you might call it a dogmatic faith. So when I see someone hold up a book, and declare that it is the only way to know Truth, I might think they are crazy, but I understand their dedication to the idea.

The middle of the road people are the ones I cannot figure out. How can a person use rationality in a huge portion of their life, until its lunch, and then declare a pork sandwich unclean?

I'm not being condescending, I truly don't understand. I can figure out atheists who use the morality of the religion that based their society. This makes logical sense if you assume that morality is not an absolute truth, but a culturally inherited system. I just don't get the normally rational people who hold to the dogmas of an ancient faith without having a rational reason for those dogmas.

Can you help me understand?

Thank you for your time, I enjoyed reading your review of Dr. Myers talk.


Anony said...

The point made by three reasoned atheists falling back to religion when scared they were going to die in flame and physical dismemberment is not an argument for religion; it is simply an argument against fearful events.

Atheists already know that religion is a consequence of fear, ignorance, and gullibility. No need to invoke a plane crash or a foxhole to reinforce our point for us.



Miss S. said...

Hey Bart,

You raise an interesting question; and I'm curious to hear the answer as well (if Izgad wishes to answer it). However he stated his rejection was of charedi/ultra-Orthodox Judaism which is not the same as observant Judaism. Keeping kosher is basic Judaism. Fear and demonization of the non-Jewish world and its products (which charedi Jews tend to do) is not.

In my opinion, both religious fundamentalism and modern secularism are extremes. Yet the extremes are much more efficient at maintaining it's adherents than the middle ground seems to be.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Bart. I'm actually an atheist, but I keep kosher just because I like having that cultural link to my heritage. It's hard to justify to someone who has never been in the orthodox community, but that's what I do, and I feel that it's my business and nobody else's.

Mona Albano said...

Hi! I popped over from Pharyngula. Nice review.

To me secularism is an attitude that religion isn't very important in daily life. It's common even among people who go to worship sometimes. In the U.S. especially or if you're speaking of government, secularism usually means believing that government should not promote nor repress religion.

One of my friends once remarked that even though he is a non-believer, he was raised to avoid pork and still can't bring himself to eat it.

I suggest Deism -- the idea that there may have been a spiritual presence in the universe, who perhaps started everything up, but who isn't concerned with us in our daily lives. The grandeur of the universe can be a spiritual inspiration without being a personal god.

PZ is sometimes writes rudely, but I think it's kind of like a person reading the newspaper under his breath and grumbling about the "idiots" in the news. Just as a believer can't understand why the self-evident truth of their scripture isn't evident to everyone else, someone who's been non-religious for a long time finds it hard to credit why a believer hasn't given up God or gods along with Santa Claus and fairies.

I'm not sure who said it: "We are all atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do."

kamaka said...

The religionists are fighting "ethnic" wars everywhere you look, and secularism is extremist?

Take individual responsibility for making the world a place worth living in.

Seems rational to me.

Deism is for folks who can't make the leap to "we just don't know".

Jeff said...

Very well-written. Thanks!

Jeff Dubin
Board Member, HCCO

Siamang said...

Nice article.

I'm of the camp that "I don't know, and I don't think you do either, Rabbi/Pope/Iman/Televangelist/ScreamingStreetcornerGuy/Dad" is not an extreme position.

We've got a whole planetload of people who swear the theological equivalent of "I can fly to the dark side of the moon in my dreams and know every detail of it and you don't because you're evil and sinful and know I'm right but you just want to be evil" and we're the extreme ones for saying "Nun-unhh"?

Down is up. I must be extremist. I sure as hell don't fit in on this planet.

Malcolm said...

Mona Albano said "I'm not sure who said it: "We are all atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do."

The version of that quotation that I remember went something like this:
"I contend that we are both atheists. Only when you truly understand why you don't believe in all the other gods mankind has worshipped in the past will you understand why I don't believe in your god."

Bart said...

Miss S. I've done some thinking on your comment 'Yet the extremes are much more efficient at maintaining it's adherents than the middle ground seems to be.' Its an interesting claim, I would like to see some data on it. It would be a difficult thing to measure, as the bulk of the population would fit into the middle ground. From what I've seen in the world, I think that the extreme fundamentalists would be equal to, if not less than, the total number of secular people. The people who genuinely care about arguing these points are few, where the bulk of the world just wants to get on with its day.

To Anonymous right below, I'm wondering, do you 'keep kosher' in that you try to maintain a kosher diet, or do you absolutely refuse any food that isn't strictly kosher?

My friends are from Mexico, and they keep a latin kitchen. They make hand made tamales (yum!) and follow a traditional Mexican diet. When they come to my house, they love to eat my french onion swiss cheese burgers with a slice of pickled beet on it. I can understand and respect this type of 'keeping latin' as a non-believing Jew might keep kosher.

Now if you go to a friends party and the only food they are serving is non kosher, and you refuse to eat, then your views seem strange to me. Keeping a cultural identity alive does not mean rejecting all other cultures.

By genetics I'm Norwegian. I love a good lutefisk and lefsa bread, but I always keep Kosher salt in the kitchen. Its the best tasting salt in the market. I also like lox on bagels, but the perfect bagel is slightly toasted with a firm sharp white cheddar and prosciutto in it.

Damn, all this talk of food, and I'm getting hungry.

Tom Morris said...

"It seems to me that P.Z. is a fully committed secularist. This means that he fully recognises the need to keep religious (or non-religious) polemics out of the public sphere. It would be a bit hypocritical of him to expect this of others without following it through himself."

Yes, PZ is a fully-committed secularist. Secularists don't seek to "keep religious (or non-religious) polemics out of the public sphere". The "public sphere" is a vague and rather idiotic construction of those who oppose secularism by which they can group disparate phenomena. The First Amendment in the United States is far clearer - it forbids the making of laws "respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

When secularists sue governments over things like school prayer or nativity displays on government property, it is because they are an establishment of religion by the government. That they are in the public square is irrelevant: if you were to put a nativity display out in front of a church, it is in public view, and is arguably in the "public sphere". But secularism is about religious privilege granted by government.

Government can make laws that establish religion in the private sphere: for instance, there have been divorce cases where one parent has been preferred over the other because they are a "good Christian".

Secularism is about ensuring that the government does not establish religion, but allows a free market for people to make their own minds up. It is depressing - though understandable - that people have to keep spinning this simple principle to mean "ungodly attack of everything we hold dear".

Secularism is pretty damn simple: if your employer says you work on Sunday, you either work on Sunday or you find a new job. If your school insists on a uniform that doesn't include headscarves, chastity rings, crosses or ceremonial daggers, I don't care what you think your God tells you, you either accept the policy, or you find a different school.

The religious should oppose the alternative to secularism which is establishment or accomodation: because it will trample on their rights to free expression and practice of their faith if it happens not to be one that is favoured by the state. In Britain, we have had the utter farce of watching Justices of the High Court sit in judgment over verses in the Qu'ran to determine whether or not they require girls to wear the jilbab. This is profoundly wrong: if someone says "I believe this because God tells me so", then the State must take them at their word that it is what they believe. That doesn't mean they have to respect it. If someone says that they are told by God to kill their first-born child and they decide to go through with it, I cannot convince them that they weren't told by God to do so, but such an excuse should not get them off a homicide charge.

Mike said...

Re: Bart's question

I see this rejection of the majority view alot on atheist blogs. Perhaps the converse from religious fundamentalists is their mantra of atheism being a religion. Don't know what any of this means.

For me, the answer to Bart's question comes from two spheres of knowledge. From science (the real science as opposed to the popular misconceptions of science) we learn that there is no absolute truth. To paraphrase Bronowski, clarity of understanding lurches away from us the more we learn. There are always more questions produced in research than answers. The human condition always leaves us with uncertainty.

From Judaism, at least Conservative Judaism, we learn that we are always struggling to interpret what God wants of us. We have our current understandings, traditions, and folkways. Understanding of God has evolved. What we currently have is the culmination of generations of struggle. I'm not ready claim that my understanding is superior to all of that any more than I'm ready to claim that my understanding of biological control processes is superior to anyone else's.

So I will continue to do my experiments and read Cell, observe Shabbat and keep kosher without being Orthodox crazy about it, and always have the feeling that there's something going on that I don't quite grasp.

Miss S. said...


My apologies, I communicated my point badly. You are right, there are more people in the middle ground then there are at the [philosophical] extremes. What I really meant to say is that the extremes are more effective at impressing upon their adherents the "why" behind their particular outlook. Whereas in the middle ground, you have too much of "Well I just never thought about it." or "I just don't really care." It is far more uncommon to have someone with a strong resolve regarding why they take a middle-of-the-ground path. Like my Grandparents like to say, "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."

In regards to kosher food, kosher food is not an ethnic cuisine. It the food that is allowed by Jewish law; so you can have technically have kosher Mexican, Chinese, Italian food if you wish. You gave the example of your Latin friends. Your Latin friends have no religious law that mandates that they eat tamales; they do so as a cultural or taste preference. To be fair, keeping kosher does limit your social involvement with non-Jews -- that's probably the point. Even though its ultimate purpose is not really ours to mull over -- we just do it because G-d commands us to. An unfortunate effect of religious Jews functioning largely in the non-Jewish world is offending people left and right. Hopefully we can one day get to a point where non-Jews are no more offended by a Jew keeping kosher as they are by a vegan or someone on the Atkins diet.

Malcolm said...

Mike said From science (the real science as opposed to the popular misconceptions of science) we learn that there is no absolute truth.

That is the sort of meaningless, wannabe-profound statement that first caught my attention, irritated me, and started me reading and commenting on the debates around the intersection between religion, science, reason and tolerance.

Science has nothing to say about the existence or otherwise of an "absolute truth". That sort of thing is best left to philosophers be they religious or secular.

Science is founded on the belief that there are truths that we can discover about the universe.

A careful scientist will always have a caveat like 'all the data we have gathered to date supports the hypothesis that' in mind when he makes a statement about some feature of reality. However in the real world some observations are so solidly supported by evidence and data that the probability of their being proved false by future observations is effectively zero.

For example:
- The earth is a spheroid, it is not flat.
- The earth goes round the sun not the other way round.
- there are billions of stars in our galaxy

These statements are as near as we will ever get to being absolutely true - so your claim that science tells us "there is no absolute truth" - is false.

Bart said...

Miss S. thanks for your follow up, that clears up quite a bit. I always thought of kosher as a cuisine. I have seen the kosher tamales etc, but always considered that an aberration. On the first point, I still thing you're on to something. I would like to see a percentage study. What percent of people at the extremes abandon their position, how many become moderates, how many flip sides completely. It would be a near impossible task, but still could be interesting.

To Mike, I think you offered a Why to me question. I appreciate your reply, but I have a decent grasp on why people have faith.

My question is a How question. How do you determine which ideas from the Torah and the Talmud are worth keeping, and how do you decide which are archaic and not worth following? A good example is the difference between you and Miss S. She follows the rule of not writing the word God, as that makes the document subject to a set of rules. You don't follow this rule, even though your both Jewish(I assume).

Both of you seem to have a firm grasp on reality and rationality, but it breaks down when it comes to your faith. You said you believe that there will always be uncertainty, where I look at the history (that brief beautiful history) of scientific learning and see exponential growth of what we DO understand.

An ultra orthodox Rabbi would ask you if your evolved understanding of what God wants is better than the understanding Moses had after he had a nice chat face to face. The fundamentalists hold their texts to be absolutely true. Its the moderates who I see as being inconsistent, as they have no absolute authority to explain their position.

How? How do you pick which rules are good, and which are obsolete?

Miss S. said...

Oh, I type "G-d" out of habit, not religious mandate. The thing is, if I type a document and print it, if "God" is not fully written out, then there is no issue with a non-becoming disposal (desecration?) of G-d's name. Although the actual Jewish law only refers to the Hebrew name for G-d. So it's just a habit/custom and there's nothing wrong with typing/writing "God". Just like there's nothing wrong with having egg drop soup on Shabbat instead of chicken soup; if that's what you want to do. :-)

Izgad said...

I have posted the first part of my response to some of these comments. More to follow.(

Anonymous said...

Mike Said: "From science (the real science as opposed to the popular misconceptions of science) we learn that there is no absolute truth."

Hmmm... now there's an absolute statement. How could that be true logically? It's self-contradictory.

You've made an absolute statement that we learn from science that science cannot provide an absolute truth?

naturalist said...

Science provides us with approximations of truth that are revisable if new informtion is discovered. In a universe that is almost incomprehensible in time and space, a broad context that we have only limited personal knowledge of from our limited viewpoint on this small planet,it would seem incredibly naive,if not hubristic to assume we know the "absolute truth"

Mona Albano said...

Kamaka, I agree: deism is the fig-leaf for agnosticism, developed in an age when atheism and perhaps agnosticism were crimes.

Izgad said...

If you believe that God exists, (belief here meaning taking something as an operational assumption and the willingness to allow this operational assumption to directly affect your decision making) but that he has not revealed himself through any of the major religions and that no religion is the Truth then you are a deist. I fail to see how this is any less coherent than the claim made by those in formal religions to believe in God. If you are making decisions based on the assumption that God exists but you do not belong to any formal religion then you are a deist. If not then you are either an agnostic or an atheist.

Malcolm said...

@Naturalist, (and Brad, Mike et al.),

Re: Absolute truth

This has the potential to degenerate into another comment-thread debate where people just talk past each other. We are obviously holding different ideas of what 'absolute truth' means.

My position is that we (humanity) don't know the whole truth about the universe and never will. But we do know and understand some things with absolute certainty, we have a pretty good grasp on others, and some we just have to accept without (yet) understanding.

Science, and the scientific method represent our most effective tool for increasing the pool of things we can say with absolute certainty are true. And further,(at the risk of sounding pompous:) I would say that working to increase the area illuminated by understanding and to push back the borders of ignorance is one of the best ways a person can spend their limited time here.

Bart said...

Not to go all semantic on you, but agnostic isn't a belief system. Its an admission of lack of knowledge. You can be an agnostic Jew "I don't have any proof of Gods existence, but I believe in him" or an agnostic atheist "I can't prove they're no gods, but I don't believe in them" Or you can be gnostic in your belief system, or claim that you have specific knowledge to back up your claim. Agnostic, without a modifier, is a meaningless word.

Mike said...

Look, not alot of time. I'm a researcher. Know from experience that science produces more questions than answers. See the video "Knowledge and Certainty" from the "Ascent of Man" BBC series. Its in the library. Objective observation is limited.

naturalist said...


I fully agree that through science and the agreements of collective human experience, we do know some things with much certainty, though I would leave room for almost anything to be revised given the limits of our ability to know the full extent of the universe.

I agree that broadening our understanding through science and reason is probably one of the best ways we could spend our limited time here along with,of course the good we can do for each other and other life we share this planet with.

All knowledge and truths we accept as valid are the products of one species, who lives on one small planet in an almost infinite universe. Humans have as yet no other knowledge sources outside of ourselves to confirm that what we know is absoulutely true.

My previous comment is more addressed to those who believe that their religious or philosophical belief is the repository of all truth and cannot be challenged. I do not think that any of us have the authority to make such claims.

Malcolm said...

"know from experience that science produces more questions than answers."

Agree completely. But it does produce new answers that we can use to guide us through the world around us. And having new questions to ask is the first step towards finding more answers.

It seems we hold pretty similar views.
I agree that the knowledge and truths we believe now are the product of one species with a limited range - but if they hold up against reality here and now I see no reason they should suddenly fail in the future. Some of the ideas may be revised, or shown to be limited (viz Newton/Einstein) but most are unlikely to be completely wrong.
The outlying fringes of science are a completely different matter of course - things like string theory, and the ultimate origin/fate of the universe are beyond me - and I'm sure ideas there will be in flux for a very long time to come... those who believe that their religious or philosophical belief is the repository of all truth and cannot be challenged. I do not think that any of us have the authority to make such claims.
I'm with you 100% there. And I believe that when people claim to have that sort of absolute authority the rest of us have a duty to challenge them.

naturalist said...

Thanks Malcolm,

Again, I agree with your elaborations on this topic and with the necessity to vociferously challenge the subversive and ignorant "crusades" going on this country and elsewhere against science and reason.

Thanks Benzion for allowing us to comment about these things on your interesting blog.