Saturday, August 31, 2013

A NOTE ON SCIENCE VS. AUTHORITY


In one of my responses to a comment on a previous essay, I used an illustration from the history of theoretical physics to make a point about the difference between reliance on authority and reliance on scientific reasoning.  I thought it might be good to expand that illustration into a separate essay in the hope that it will get a bit more exposure.  

By the mid-1920s a new area of theoretical physics was developing that went by the name of quantum mechanics and that concerned the behavior of subatomic particles.  [OK, let me stop right there.  If you feel that the following paragraphs are hard to follow or just plain boring, then go ahead and skip to the fifth paragraph.  I don’t want to lose your attention.]  Research in this area had been yielding some very strange results that seemed to call for a fundamentally different view of the world. 

A FEW DEFINITIONS

I’ve been using a number of related terms in this blog and thought that it might be helpful to describe a bit more carefully what I mean by each of those terms.

Agnosticism.  Originally, this was an epistemological term.  It stood for the idea that we cannot know whether God exists or not.  This follows from the idea that the only “truth” we can know with certainty is mathematical truth, because we make up the rules. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

THE PASS/FAIL EXAM


In the religion in which I was reared, the Seventh-day Adventist church, this life was viewed essentially as an entrance exam, and it was going to be scored strictly pass/fail.  Moreover, you only got one shot--no retakes.  If you passed, you got into heaven to spend eternity in a state of bliss.  If you failed, the news was not so good.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

THE PROBLEM OF PAIN


I live in the upper Midwest, and I suppose we have our fair share of natural disasters.  There can be bitter cold and an occasional blizzard in the winter and tornados and flooding rains in the spring and summer.  But we seem to escape the truly massive disasters--the earthquakes in California, the hurricanes of the Gulf and Atlantic Coast states, and the brutal tornados common to the Plains states.  

Again and again, in interviews the victims of major disasters make comments such as the following:  “We lost everything, but we still have each other.  We were praying to God and He must have been watching over us.”  Undoubtedly, those individuals were fortunate not to have suffered injury or loss of loved ones, but it is also clear that the disaster had been devastating in terms of their personal loss of property and the disruption of their lives.  That suffering is written plainly on their faces. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A MATTER OF CHOICE


In the initial post I said that becoming an agnostic was not a choice that I made.  Rather, it was a choice that occurred to me.  Let me try to explain what I meant by that.

First of all, by choice I mean free will.  I know that I spent entirely too much time my freshman year of college arguing with friends about free will versus determinism.  But I have to admit to fond memories of those nights spent sitting around dorm rooms interminably debating these things.  Each of us, I’m sure, felt that he had the better argument, but no one convinced anyone else and no one changed his mind--at least not at the time.  Sound familiar?  

By that point in my life, I always found myself arguing on the side of determinism or at least the denial of free will. 

GIDEON, THE REAL STORY


Growing up, we were taught the story of Gideon at least two or three times over the course of our elementary school years, and he was something of a hero of mine.  A natural born leader, Gideon became a commando of sorts, routing the Israelites’ arch-enemies, the Midianites, with a relatively small band of hand-picked warriors.  But what kept my attention were his unusual requirements for a sign from God.  When I decided to write an essay about those signs, I felt I should reread the Biblical account, which is located in the book of Judges, chapters 6-8.  But when I actually read those chapters, I was surprised to learn some of the aspects of the account that had been omitted in the story we were taught as kids.  So instead of just telling Gideon’s story from a skeptic’s point of view (my original intent), I decided to compare the story we were taught with the “real” one in the Bible.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

WAITING IN LINE AT BURGER CHEF


After I graduated from college I attended Michigan State University, where I ultimately received a masters in psychology.  As a single student, I lived in Owen Hall, the on-campus dorm for graduate students.  The dorm had a cafeteria, but all they served was, well, cafeteria food, and I and my friends would frequently go off campus for dinner and to talk.  All of us being in our early 20s with our lives ahead of us, we did a lot of serious talking.  

My friends were other graduate students in psychology, also single, also living in Owen Hall.  This was 1968 and 1969, and the thing on most of our minds, the thing we talked about almost incessantly, was the Vietnam War.  But that’s not what we were talking about on the night in question.  That night we were talking about God.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

PEEKING AT THE ANSWERS


When I was growing up our local paper, the Battle Creek Enquirer & News, ran a daily quiz of 10 questions.  The quiz was entitled, “How Smart Are You?”  I’m sure it was a syndicated feature that the paper just picked up.  Naturally, I was eager to test myself. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

ANESTHESIA, DREAMS, DEATH, AND FRUIT FLIES


I don't believe in an afterlife.  Death represents a permanent end to consciousness.  Sometimes people ask me if I therefore fear death, and my answer is, Not at all, but sometimes it makes me a little depressed.  Let me explain.

Monday, August 12, 2013

POINTS OF BELIEF


My favorite class in high school was geometry.  One of the things that I took from that class was the idea that there are certain premises that are to be accepted as true without proof.  These are generally referred to as postulates or axioms.  Additionally, there are certain rules of logic for working with those postulates; for example, propositions that lead to contradictions are not allowed.  And then the whole system is built from those postulates and working rules.  I loved the course in part because it introduced me to the concept of formal logic but probably more because the terrific sense of satisfaction that I got when I was able to prove something using that system.

If only the everyday world were as neat and tidy as mathematical systems are.  When we are discussing something like, say, religion, if we could all agree on our starting points and the rules of logic to be applied to those points, perhaps we could also agree on the conclusions about  how the world works. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

CREATING LIFE


If we were to fabricate a human brain, would it be alive?  Be conscious?  Have free will? 

Einstein would have referred to this as a thought experiment.  I’m not asking if we have the technology to do this.  I’m not even asking if we will ever have that technology.  I’m just asking what it would be like if we could.

Friday, August 9, 2013

PLAYING BRIDGE


One of the people who taught me how to play bridge was blind, not just legally blind, but totally blind.  We played with a braille deck.  The cards were fairly heavy plastic but otherwise looked normal, except that they had the braille bumps in one corner that only he knew how to read.  Whoever was dummy had to announce the cards in the dummy hand, and then we would just state what card we were playing.  He had to keep all of the cards straight, those that had been played as well as those that had not.  Pretty impressive, really.

Monday, August 5, 2013

PSYCHIC COINCIDENCE


I became a grandfather for the first time on May 31st when our son Jeff and his wife Bei welcomed their son Stanley into the family.  A few days later I was speaking with our daughter Michelle about the new addition to the family, and she related to me an interesting incident.  Michelle knew that Bei’s due date was in late May but she didn’t know that in fact Bei had gone into labor on the night of May 30th.  Nevertheless, on the evening of the 31st Michelle had had a sudden thought that perhaps Stanley had arrived.  She later learned that Stanley was born at very nearly the same time that she had been thinking about him.  Psychic phenomenon?  I think not. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

ASTRONOMY


My parents usually drove us to school each morning, swinging by to drop us off at Battle Creek Academy before they headed to the appliance store that they ran.  Generally they weren’t able to pick us up from school in the afternoon, and beginning in about the fourth grade I took a city bus home from school each day.  The Academy had school buses, and I’m not sure why I took public transportation.  Perhaps it was less expensive or perhaps it got me home faster.  In any event, I would pick up the city bus a couple of blocks from the school and ride it downtown.  I would then need to transfer to a different bus that would take me past my house.  Occasionally I would get lucky and the connection between the first and second buses would be fast.  But most times I would have a wait that could be as long as 15 minutes or more.  Because the city library was only a block or so from the downtown bus stop, I began regularly to check books out of the library between bus transfers.

The library used the Dewey decimal system for classifying books, and soon I found myself most afternoons in the stacks numbered in the 500s, science and math, eventually gravitating toward astronomy. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

TURNING POINT

Battle Creek Academy is a small school run by the Seventh-day Adventist church that is located in, yes, Battle Creek, Michigan.  The school, which includes classes from first grade through high school, has always been unapologetically committed to providing its students a Christian--and more specifically a Seventh-day Adventist--education.  Prayer, hymn-singing, religious services, and religious instruction are an integral part of each school day’s activities.  It is where I went to school from the first grade through graduation from high school.  

On a warm and sunny day in the early fall of my junior year of high school my friend David and I sneaked off campus over the lunch hour to visit a small natural history museum located just a few minutes north of the school grounds.  Leaving campus during the school day was forbidden, but it was easy to do, so we did.  

Many people can’t identify a specific point in time when their view of the world shifted or was clarified, but I can.