The Dim-Post

April 28, 2009

There and back again

Filed under: general idiocy — danylmc @ 8:37 am

AN Wilson has an essay in The New Statesman about his damascene conversion from Catholicism to Atheism and gradual return back to belief:

I realised that after a lifetime of churchgoing, the whole house of cards had collapsed for me – the sense of God’s presence in life, and the notion that there was any kind of God, let alone a merciful God, in this brutal, nasty world. As for Jesus having been the founder of Christianity, this idea seemed perfectly preposterous. In so far as we can discern anything about Jesus from the existing documents, he believed that the world was about to end, as did all the first Christians. So, how could he possibly have intended to start a new religion for Gentiles, let alone established a Church or instituted the Sacraments? It was a nonsense, together with the idea of a personal God, or a loving God in a suffering universe. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense.

Wilson has written a number of books about early Christianity, most famously a biography of St Paul. He’s a bit like Bart Erhman, another Christian scholar who started out studying the origins of his faith only to lose it.

But . . . I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. Reading Louis Fischer’s Life of Mahatma Gandhi, and following it up with Gandhi’s own autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, I found it impossible not to realise that all life, all being, derives from God, as Gandhi gave his life to demonstrate.

I found Gandhi’s autobiography to be almost comically self-absorbed, but the point is valid. Lots of sane, intelligent people have profound life-changing spiritual experiences that convince them of the existence of God. Unlike Wilson I think these experiences probably have a materialistic basis but right now there’s no proof of that and it’s a major failing of the ‘new athiesm’ of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett  et al who hold the position that religious people are all crazy or stupid or both.

the existence of language is one of the many phenomena – of which love and music are the two strongest – which suggest that human beings are very much more than collections of meat. They convince me that we are spiritual beings, and that the religion of the incarnation, asserting that God made humanity in His image, and continually restores humanity in His image, is simply true.

I don’t find language, love or music very implausible from an evolutionary viewpoint – but (and don’t tell the creationists this) I have huge problems with mathematics. As Wigner pointed out, math is an unreasonably effective way for us to understand the universe and it’s hard to imagine how we evolved the ability to perform tensor calculus.

There are two obvious answers to this. (a) Our intelligence is a ‘peacocks tail’ that arose through non-directed sexual selection and math is a fringe benefit of this or (b) there are far more effective ways to model the universe than math but we haven’t evolved them so we don’t know what they are, and this is why our understanding of the natural sciences is incomplete.

But the first of these answers is awful convenient and the second is a kind of ‘math of the gaps’ argument.

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35 Comments »

  1. perhaps it’s a) and b).

    We have an innate sense of number that displays itself within a few months of birth. Then quite a lot of maths could be seen to be related to our (innate, evolved) sense perception – parallel lines for example.

    But the metaphors we have used to understand our universe break down when applied to things we can’t have direct experience of – wave vs. particle. So we have a brain that is inventive but follows grooves laid down by evolution. We can only understand the universe via a brain evolved for survival but because it evolved for our environment our understanding is more than just story telling.

    “The brain has corridors surpassing
    Material place.”

    Comment by Neil — April 28, 2009 @ 9:08 am

  2. But yes, it’s kind of spooky that we can develop the maths needed for space travel.

    “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”

    Comment by Neil — April 28, 2009 @ 9:22 am

  3. I don’t really see how you can class our intelligence as a “peacock’s tail” when it is definitely something that confers an evolutionary advantage rather than a distinct disadvantage.

    It seems to me that once we had put all our eggs in the “big brain, walk upright” basket then there is no real evolutionary pressure working against increasing intelligence – which would therefore increase rapidly. I also tend to believe that just as life itself is probably an inevitable result of having the right elements in the right environment, our self awareness and “spirituality” is an inevitable result of our intelligence reaching a given level…

    Comment by Rakaia George — April 28, 2009 @ 9:24 am

  4. you mean you are just bad at math?

    Comment by pkiwi — April 28, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  5. “it’s a major failing of the ‘new athiesm’ of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett et al who hold the position that religious people are all crazy or stupid or both.”

    Possibly, but have you ever been in the position where someone else treated you like an idiot because you admitted that you didn’t believe their unsubstantiated story about a all-powerful being who only wants to be loved, and will punish you forever if you don’t love it? I have: it is annoying. Perhaps the fore-mentioned just got tired of being polite.

    Okay, ultimately you can’t disprove the existence of an all-powerful being or force “who moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform”, but should you waste your time believing something just because you can’t disprove it? I can’t disprove that the sinister incomprehensible bulk of Cthulhu lurks in the depths of the Oceans, but I won’t waste my time believing in it. Perhaps it would be a better use of your time to find something that has some evidence that supports it.

    Evolution does have some evidence behind it, so personally I have no trouble with what you describe as the ‘peacock tail’ theory of intelligence. Except, I think describing intelligence as a peacock tail underplays the weight of advantage intelligence provides in all spheres of life. It really is very likely.

    Comment by Sean — April 28, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  6. Ah, Wilson has just proved the existence of Horus, the Egyptian God of Mathematics.

    Comment by vibenna — April 28, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  7. It’s “maths” Danyl, “maths”. With an ‘s’. Woe the drift to South Pacific Yankeeism.

    Comment by insider — April 28, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  8. What I find is absolutely awesome is a couple of ancient Greeks could, without almost any aid but their brains, postulate that our bodies were buzzing with atoms; and a plethora of those old guys could unashamedly recognise the limits of their knowledge and understanding, but still explore the metaphysical and come up with elegantly argued notions of God.

    Not for those guys the modern theme of “If I can’t prove it, it can’t be”. For them, the edge of understanding was the place to start thinking, imagining, exploring and coming up with a logical idea on the nature of the void.

    For me, the derogatory “God of the Gaps” is designed to stop people thinking in a metaphysical way and stay within the narrow path of accepted science.

    JC

    Comment by JC — April 28, 2009 @ 10:17 am

  9. I’d also recommend Wilson’s book ‘God’s Funeral’ about the discoveries of the 19th Century and their impact on faith. I’ve read quite a lot of his work over the years and the mood of a lot of it is summed up in the opening line of ‘Nothing to be Frightened of’, Julian Barnes’s last book: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.” He writes well, thoughtfully, and even at his most sceptical he does not have the scornful attitude of Hitchens or Dawkins. For all their learning and for all their vivid writing, those two overdo the vituperation.

    I say all this, btw, as a recovering agnostic. I have a fairly irreverent attitude to a lot of the tenets of organised religion, especially when it claims scientific as well as theological authority.

    I think that if there is a God – and these days I think, or rather feel, there is – such a being will be beyond our comprehension anyway. I’ve got no intention of worshiping the psychopathic god of the Abrahamic religions.

    Comment by Rob Hosking — April 28, 2009 @ 10:26 am

  10. Possibly, but have you ever been in the position where someone else treated you like an idiot because you admitted that you didn’t believe their unsubstantiated story about a all-powerful being who only wants to be loved, and will punish you forever if you don’t love it?

    I’ve spent a lot of time debating religion with Ian Wishart so I guess my answer to that would be a big yes. I think the fact that people of every faith and none have religious experiences argues against the validity of any one faith, but I also think the ubiquity of these experiences is a pretty huge obstacle for the scorn of neo-atheism to overcome.

    Comment by danylmc — April 28, 2009 @ 10:40 am

  11. then there is no real evolutionary pressure working against increasing intelligence – which would therefore increase rapidly.

    There is a huge evolutionary pressure against increasing intelligence – the amount of energy required to sustain our brain activity is massive.

    Comment by danylmc — April 28, 2009 @ 10:43 am

  12. “I’ve spent a lot of time debating religion with Ian Wishart”

    Good for you, I’ve a whole heap of respect for you danylmc.

    “I think the fact that people of every faith and none have religious experiences argues against the validity of any one faith, but I also think the ubiquity of these experiences is a pretty huge obstacle for the scorn of neo-atheism to overcome.”

    Actually, I have to disagree with you there. Please accept this as being without scorn.

    I believe the difference between a person witnessing an unusual event with religious connotations and one witnessing an unusual event without those connotations is a matter of the conceptual frameworks the witnesses use. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to call for, and seriously inspect, evidence to support either view, which is independent of the witnesses’ interpretation.

    So just because people claim a religious experience doesn’t mean I need to believe in I,t even if it is the only explanation offered, if there is no actual evidence to support the explanation. I know that there are things in this universe that we cannot explain yet, but I’m comfortable with that, therefore “I can’t explain it, I’m sure it’s God” cuts no ice with me.

    I find the Agnostic view that there could well be a powerful force, like God (QED), out there, but no one religion is right be true, hardly a compelling argument for anything at all. It leaves the Agnostic believing in the possibility of something that they don’t comprehend or can have a relationship with, so why bother?

    It strikes me more as a way to smooth social gatherings as the Agnostic can say to anyone of faith ‘Well, you could very well be right.’ Not really a decision on the matter.

    That’s why I got off the fence and became an Atheist. And every day I get up to be the best Atheist I can be.

    Comment by Sean — April 28, 2009 @ 11:23 am

  13. “I don’t find language, love or music very implausible from an evolutionary viewpoint – but … I have huge problems with mathematics”

    If you consider that Language, Music and Maths are all the result of our ability to recognise, interpret and apply patterns, then not that big a leap. All are the result of out ability to deal with pattern.

    As with most things the ability to recognise different patterns and types of patterns differ from person to person. (People seems to be renowned for displaying unusual ability in one rather than all, music / linguistics / mathematics)

    A person’s ability to acquire a new language is dependant on their ability to recognise pattern (in general) then learning the rules (patterns) applicable to a specific language. Learning a new language is of course easier for some than it is for others, the same holds true for music and math.

    Comment by cj_nza — April 28, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  14. “There is a huge evolutionary pressure against increasing intelligence – the amount of energy required to sustain our brain activity is massive.”

    Granted, but our intelligence is not a mere adornment which should diminish the bearers ability to escape predators, like the peacock’s tail…increasing intelligence should confer an evolutionary advantage beyond an enhanced ability to convince members of the opposite sex to bear one’s children.

    Comment by Rakaia George — April 28, 2009 @ 11:31 am

  15. If you consider that Language, Music and Maths are all the result of our ability to recognise, interpret and apply patterns, then not that big a leap. All are the result of out ability to deal with pattern.

    I just find it suspiciously convenient that the pattern recognition properties of mathematics gives us such a broad insight into the universe. The pattern recognition in music doesn’t really let us ‘do’ anything other than enjoy it.

    So just because people claim a religious experience doesn’t mean I need to believe in I,t even if it is the only explanation offered, if there is no actual evidence to support the explanation. I know that there are things in this universe that we cannot explain yet, but I’m comfortable with that, therefore “I can’t explain it, I’m sure it’s God” cuts no ice with me.

    I’m also an atheist, I think that mystical experiences probably have a materialistic basis. But we don’t know that for sure, all we know is that lot’s of sane, smart people have them and I think this undermines the Dawkins position that religious people are crazy and stupid.

    Comment by danylmc — April 28, 2009 @ 11:37 am

  16. “But we don’t know that for sure, all we know is that lot’s of sane, smart people have them and I think this undermines the Dawkins position that religious people are crazy and stupid.”

    Fair enough, but there could come a point when you may have to give an honest opinion on the matter to one of these sane smart people, and it may well offend the recipient. I believe it is possible to be an Atheist and not rude, but on this subject an atheist will always risk offending someone, as politely as possible.

    As for Dawkins, I’ve not read him, but he may well be both an atheist and rude, and his being rude helps him sell books (does that make rudeness a good evolutionary trait?).

    Comment by Sean — April 28, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  17. Intelligence is pretty useful. That is why we are the most successful and populous organisms on the planet larger than 100 grams. (Below that, of course, its insects and bacteria. And really, bacteria has us beat hands down.)

    And Sean – isn’t it pretty rude to say “agree with me or burn in hell forever.”

    Comment by vibenna — April 28, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  18. I miss the singing in church I grew up with. It was one of the places where the entire population would gather and sing for at least half an hour per week.

    Religion has many benefits which can be found elsewhere (such as the certainty in life it can bring), but religions that do well manage to incorporate these into a package.

    Comment by George D — April 28, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  19. “And Sean – isn’t it pretty rude to say “agree with me or burn in hell forever.””

    Yup, it’s rude (more importantly, it is unsubstantiated. I’m going do what? Can you prove it?). However I personally found it ruder when people, on discovering I was an atheist, just snorted at me because they instantly decided that I was so wrong-headed it wasn’t even worth engaging with me. See comment 5.

    I will say though, I have disagreed deeply with people, who, without stepping back from their position, were never rude to me. I think that level of behaviour shows integrity.

    Comment by Sean — April 28, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  20. @Rob – I’v ejust gone and picked up a copy of God’s Funeral from the library – thanks for the tip.

    Comment by danylmc — April 28, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  21. “There is a huge evolutionary pressure against increasing intelligence – the amount of energy required to sustain our brain activity is massive.”

    When early man popped down out of the trees and walked on two legs we had to contend with predators that bigger and faster than us, the only advantage we had is our brains. A large brain also allowed us to use tools (another enormous advantage – especially when hunting) build shelter and make clothes all things that allowed us to migrate and live in different climates, ultimately we learned how to grow food, living in communities etc etc all massive advantages.

    Really all man is, is an evolutionary experiment to see if a large brain, walking on two legs, animal can be successful. We are only a couple of million years into natures experiment so it is fair to say that the experiment is going reasonably well but still has along way to go.

    With regard to religion I think it is obvious to anyone who thinks about it logically that there is no God. However a lot of people are hard wired from birth to believe in a God as that is the belief of their parents. Almost everyone who is religious cherry picks parts of the religion that suits them, to some God is the guy with robes up in heaven to others God is more of an energy or force. Many also believe because ‘you might as well believe in something’.

    With regard to maths, to me it is like a language, it is a way of expressing things so that others can understand. Yes maths is related to music but I think the fundamental difference is maths has a logical basis and music has an emotional basis.

    I certainly don’t buy into the ‘But yes, it’s kind of spooky that we can develop the maths needed for space travel.’ we are really crap at space travel, we build these huge and expensive chemical rockets which mostly explode and it takes us ages to get even the smallest distance in space. We need better maths but we seem stuck at the moment with some fundamental questions (dark matter anyone?).

    Comment by ieuan — April 28, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

  22. “we are really crap at space travel”

    it would be a lot harder without maths.

    I’m not inclined to believe that our evolutionary development was tweeked by monoliths but it’s interesting that we have evolved abilities that came to enable us to venture off the planet when these didn’t really confer any evolutionary advantage back in the day. Spandrels perhaps.

    And how come there could be analogue electical ciruits that could so handly integrate and differentiate?

    There’s an ongoing debate about is maths created or discovered. Maybe the way the brain works – our perception uses Fourier transforms – just gets reflected in our maths.

    Comment by Neil — April 28, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  23. Was maths created or discovered? Neither, it evolved just like our languages, just look at the history of ‘zero’ as proof of that.

    Comment by ieuan — April 28, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  24. Interesting discussion!

    –“Maybe the way the brain works – our perception uses Fourier transforms – just gets reflected in our maths.”
    This was always my take on it – maths is a representation of our perception. And as such we always perceive things in such a way that maths explains them. The forward-extrapolation of our perception is still slightly spooky though! But that may suggest an underlying consistency to our perception of the universe.

    Comment by Gareth — April 28, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

  25. maths is a representation of our perception

    But most maths is totally outside our perception, and mathematical concepts have a funny way of turning up in reality hundreds of years later – the best example of this being negativity which turns out to be the perfect was to represent atomic charge.

    Comment by danylmc — April 28, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  26. –“mathematical concepts have a funny way of turning up in reality hundreds of years later”
    That could be the “underlying consistency to our perception” that I mentioned though – we can only perceive things in a certain way and there’s either all kind of underlying linkages we can’t understand, or our perception is shaped such that they align. Strong Anthropic Principle type o thing.

    Comment by Gareth — April 28, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

  27. @25 “best example of this being negativity which turns out to be the perfect was[way]? to represent atomic charge”

    Maybe I read your comment totally wrong but;

    maths like language is descriptive. So at the time of discovery of atomic charge we discover that we have a mathemetical descriptor for our observation. Same way we can call a craft that hovers a hovercraft.

    @24/26 It might even be that there is an underlying consistency in the universe and that we recongnise these patterns and develop ways in which to decribe it, inter alia language and maths.

    Comment by cj_nza — April 28, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  28. What is there not to be scornful about? I’d say when the crazy fundies started trying to present their beliefs in scientific terms with the *only* goal of displacing biology from the classroom they became deserving of our scorn and ire.

    The money that these folks throw at this cause and their apparent success at duping the general public definitely warrants some strong push back.

    Comment by Don — April 28, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  29. “that may suggest an underlying consistency to our perception of the universe”

    it worked for my ancestors.

    “It might even be that there is an underlying consistency in the universe and that we recongnise these patterns and develop ways in which to decribe it, inter alia language and maths.”

    we’ve always faced the problem of too mucn information and not enough information. We cannot hope to process all the information about our environment that is potentially there hence we need to filter. But from that we then have to predict possible futures.

    So we have pattern recogntion plus imagination plus filtering. No wonder we have problems with politics and religion.

    Comment by Neil — April 28, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  30. I’d say when the crazy fundies started trying to present their beliefs in scientific terms with the *only* goal of displacing biology from the classroom they became deserving of our scorn and ire.

    I agree – when people think that their private spiritual experiences should dictate policy for the general public it’s time to start pointing and laughing.

    Comment by danylmc — April 28, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

  31. I’ve never really understood Wigner’s problem. It seems to me that all you need is the fact the universe is rule-governed – that there are rules which govern which types of perticles exist and how they interact etc etc. Whether our understanding of these rules is correct, and whether it is logically possible to ever know if a proposed model of these rules is correct are surely irrelevant. As long as there are rules then the universe will be describable mathematically since mathematics is, in essence, about formalizing rules. I have had a hard time imagining what a universe would look like if it couldn’t be described by any form of mathematics whatsoever.

    Danyl:There is a huge evolutionary pressure against increasing intelligence – the amount of energy required to sustain our brain activity is massive

    That presupposes that size is important as opposed to better organization, connectivity or faster nerve conduction.

    There is, btw, research on the neurological basis of mystical experiences. It is materialistic

    Comment by chiz — April 28, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  32. In this article, G. William Barnard explains why the reigning model of scholarship as disengaged, dispassionate, objective enquiry is based on an epistemic fiction: we want to convince ourselves that our academic work and our teaching is neutral and unbiased, that we are simply discoverers and transmitters of information. So we fool our colleagues, our students and ourselves into thinking that we are “just presenting the Facts”

    If it is indeed the case that we are all approaching the material that we study and teach with a highly charged, often unexamined, set of assumptions and motivations, then the academic playing field is leveled.

    If the secular critic of mystical phenomena has to acknowledge and defend his or her naturalistic worldview, has to admit the subtle ways in which the veneer of detached scholarship is often a convenient rhetorical camouflage for an emotionally charged desire to covert his or her audience to a sceptical or positivistic perspective, then the question becomes not so much ‘is this scholarship objective?’ but rather ‘which impassioned set of arguments is most persuasive?’.

    Comment by ropata — April 29, 2009 @ 11:29 am

  33. Also on point (b): there are far more effective ways to model the universe than math but we haven’t evolved them so we don’t know what they are, and this is why our understanding of the natural sciences is incomplete

    One Kurt Gödel offered a compelling hypothesis as to why any mathematical systems (and hence physical models) cannot be logically complete within their own framework.

    Comment by ropata — April 29, 2009 @ 11:57 am

  34. As I understand it, our gift for maths comes from the powerful spatial reasoning abilities our ancestors must have developed for swinging around in the jungle. They were hunters and, as silly as it sounds, chasing monkeys through the treetops must be one of the most difficult tasks performed by any animal in the natural world. Imagine trying to navigate your way through a complex 3D environment while coordinating with the pack and predicting the moves of your prey. Once we started walking around on the ground, all that brain power got co-opted into other things.

    Bear with me. The thing to remember is that for people, maths isn’t so much about numbers as it is about structure, and space. We understand polynomials by plotting them on a graph. The first example of derivatives they teach you is distance, velocity, and acceleration. The earliest mathematical works were more about shapes than numbers, Pythagoras being a good example. His understanding of numbers was so limited that when one of his students discovered fractions, he was thrown down a well.

    Maths is fundamental and pure. I’d say any species that gets as far as writing “1 + 1 = 2″ will end up with basically the same set of laws as we have. But there’s nothing so spiritual about the way we get our particular heads around the idea. It’s just the usual, clunky, turns-out-it-worked evolutionary approach.

    Comment by Doug — April 29, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  35. ropata:One Kurt Gödel offered a compelling hypothesis as to why any mathematical systems (and hence physical models) cannot be logically complete within their own framework.

    Irrelevant and wrong. Many mathematical systems are complete. Incompleteness results such as those of godel only apply to some mathematical systems not all. The kind of mathematics you get in theoretical physics – algebra and some topology – isn’t powerful enough for Godel’s theorem to apply. At the applied end, there is some debate about whether differential equations always have turing-computable solutions but this is surely irrelevant since the debate is about why mathematics can describe the universe and not about the particularities – its completeness or not – of that said mathematics.

    Comment by chiz — April 29, 2009 @ 5:26 pm


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