Sunday, August 07, 2005

Intelligent Design and Other Non-Sequiturs

Regarding Intelligent Design, I'd just like to give a clarification on one thing. Some people believe that ID can refer to a wide-range of ideas, including the idea that God started everything in motion, using the process of evolution for change, and then was completely hands-off after that. And this could include either the idea that he completely allowed evolution to do its magic, in which case we weren't inevitable and anything could have been produced; or the idea that he had a specific "recipe" that he used in order to create things exactly as they are now. And in both cases, the idea is that God had nothing to do with the evolutionary process after he set it into motion. This is probably the most widely accepted idea of Intelligent Design, and is usually the one that the more "open-minded" intellectual-type ID'ers cite as a reason we shouldn't reject it.

But the problem is, the process I just described is not Intelligent Design. I mean, they can call it that if they want; but they'd be stupid in doing so. Because there's already a name for that theory, and it's called evolution. So if the ID people wanted to also adopt that theory, that's fine I guess, but I think it just confuses everyone unnecessarily. Then again, perhaps that's their intent.

But the process I described is certainly within the realm of evolution; or at least it's not excluded by it. Because evolution says absolutely nothing about who or what set the process in motion. It doesn't cite the Big Bang or Allah or the Easter Bunny. It doesn't mention origins at all. Evolution is only concerned with the process that happened after "it" all began. So if someone wants to believe that Allah or Yahweh created the world and used the process of evolution to create his creations, evolution has nothing to say which could contradict that. The only thing the theory of evolution is concerned with is the theory of things evolving.

The real theory of Intelligent Design, that of the hands-on God who made important changes (like eyeballs, for example), is in opposition to evolution because it covers things that are covered by evolution, and uses a different process to go about it; i.e., the supernatural. And once the ID'ers can prove that these things happened, we'd be fools for not accepting them. But until then, we are forced to reject these unproven claims.

And there is a natural confusion about this, and the reason is simple. Before evolution, most folks believed that God had created everything "as-is", with no change involved at all. That's what creationism is. And that's why ID really isn't exactly a good replacement for creationism, because ID uses some kinds of evolution, and creationism doesn't. So if, god forbid, ID does somehow gain legitimacy, they're still going to have a problem with the creationists who believe in the 6000 year old planet and whatnot. Of course, that's assuming that the ID people have the slightest bit of integrity or intelligence; an assumption that is far from clear.

The evidence so far seems to put Intelligent Design as a free-for-all regarding intellectual integrity; allowing anyone to believe anything they want. Which is, of course, the antithesis of education. Education isn't as interested in telling people what to believe, as much as it is in telling people what not to believe. But you're allowed to believe everything else that science doesn't exclude. So maybe faster-than-light travel is possible (science hasn't proven that it's not); but it's not possible that the earth is the center of the universe, so you're not supposed to believe that. That's just how education works. And a main tenet of education is that people just aren't supposed to make shit up. That would defeat the whole purpose. But again, perhaps that is their intent.

The Realm of Science

But there's something else even bigger to all this. It's not just evolution. It's the whole thing. All of science is immune to any supernatural forces, because there is no overlap between science and the supernatural. Anything that can be proven or disproven by science falls within the realm of science; and anything which cannot be proven or disproven by science falls in the realm of supernatural. That is by definition.

For example, we find fossils, oil fields, geological and archeological evidence, blah blah blah; all proving that the world is an old place which has been around for a long time. Additionally, these things prove that plants and animals have evolved over the years, and are now far different than how they were originally. And while these things could be falsified by some supernatural force, using the rules of proof and science, we must conclude that this proof is real.

But the opposite is true too, that things which cannot be proven or disproven fall within the realm of the supernatural. And science can say absolutely nothing about these things. Not that we, as individuals, can't call it all bull dooky. But science can't say a damn thing. And that goes for the existence of gods, ghosts, UFO's, Santa Claus, and supply-side economic boosts.

And that also applies to whatever happened before the Big Bang. Science can have theories about how things evolved and how the Universe was created; but it can't say who or what is responsible for that. ID'ers like to be able to throw that in our face and insist that this is why we should accept their theory. But this sword is double-edged and the one facing them is far more potent. It's simple: Because science can't explain things that fall within the realm of the supernatural, those things cannot belong in the field of science. And as such, they shouldn't be taught in our science classrooms. So the very aspect that ID'ers tout as the reason science can't dismiss their theory is the very reason why science must dismiss it. There's nothing personal about it. Science simply cannot allow theories which can't be proven or disproven.

Gay Lincoln Love Trysts

And this isn't just about science or creationism. This is about every field of study. You can only cover the areas that people know about. For example, I can imagine a very long and dramatic conversation between Abraham Lincoln and his gay lover, John Wilkes Booth; and I could even throw-in Robert E. Lee wearing assless chaps and a leather-clad Ulysses S. Grant as his drunken dom. And there's no way you could possibly disprove it. I mean, let's face it, there are a lot of gaps in the historical record. Who can really say this didn't happen? And wouldn't it explain a lot? Primarily why Booth killed Lincoln and why Lee unnecessarily surrendered. But if we see this as a lover's quarrel, and realize that Lee surrendered because it was such a big turn-on for him; history's gaps are easily filled.

And while that is a plausible theory, it's also crap. And so it has no part in a history class. Everyone realizes that. I can also invent more realistic dialogue between Lincoln and his wife, and it would be really mundane stuff that they must have said at least on a few occasions. Like "Gee, Mary, isn't it great that I'm the President." To which Mary would respond "You bet, Lincoln. You're the greatest President in the whole world." And Lincoln, who was honest as ever, could only reply "Yeah, I think you're right. I am doing a great job. People will remember me." And so on. Pretty boring stuff. And probably true. But even if it would help fill the gaps in the conventional theory, it still doesn't belong in a history book because we have absolutely no proof that they said it.

And all fields of study are like that. Even Bible Study classes aren't allowed to just completely make shit up. They have to have some basis for what they're saying, no matter how crazy. And everyone understands that. But because science has replaced many religious beliefs, religious people are naturally upset about it, and are trying to undo those changes. Or if nothing else, they seek to have the Scientific Seal of Approval stamped onto their beliefs. Similarly, if it was widely taught in history class that Jesus never existed, there might be a bit of a backlash.

And lets face it, the encroachment of science on the realm of the supernatural is never-ending. Science will continue to slowly eat away at many of the concrete ideas that Christianity and other religions have believed in. And so there is some reason for them to fear science's discoveries.

The Power of Belief

But overall, I think from a Christian perspective, this can only be a good thing. A 6,000 year old universe? What a crock. Even the bible has no good sourcing on that one. It was just some invented claim by some preacher somewhere. Same goes for a lot of this creationist stuff. But the truth is, Christianity doesn't need any of that stuff to have its power. The power of the bible doesn't stem from its few scientific claims, or even its historical claims. Its power comes from its spiritual side; in the power of belief, and of how to live a proper life.

Of course, the bible is just a mirror; allowing people to see in it exactly what they want to see; which is themselves, and a justification for what they do and what they believe. But if that's what they need, so be it. I'm fine with that, just as long as they don't try legislating out of the damn thing, or pretend as if its words have some kind of hold on me. That's naturally where I draw the line, just like everyone else.

And so by adopting science, Christianity can rid itself of its outdated scientific claims (not that there are many) and focus solely on the spiritual side of life. Does it really matter if the earth was made in six days or 3.65 trillion? Does that really have an affect on whether someone believes in God? If anything, I could see them scaring people away with this non-scientific gibberish; people wanting to avoid Christianity because it's so scientifically absurd and childish. And most churches have adopted this way of thinking too. It's really just a handful of diehards trying to hold our children's education hostage, in order to preserve their own egos.

Of course, there is one aspect that could be crucial to all this: the infallibility of the bible. If people start doubting some claims in the bible, they might start doubting the whole thing; or so the thinking goes. Because the bible's authority is based upon it being authored by God. And because God is infallible, the bible must also be so. And if the bible is wrong, then it can't be the work of God. Or at least not the God that the fundamentalists believe in.

But this is crap too. Because nobody accepts every aspect of the bible. Nobody. Everybody picks the parts they want to believe in, with the emphasis they want to see; and discard the rest. As I said above, the bible is just a mirror which reflects the exact answers that people want to see. That's why it's so widely accepted and enduring. It covers all kinds of stuff, and if one book doesn't give you want you want to find, you can just turn to another book and interpret to your heart's content.

A Work of Men

And beyond that, it's absurd to even claim that the bible is the work of God. That's just so obviously false. I know that many bible believers insist that the consistency of the bible over all those centuries is proof that it was written by one being; and how that being could only be God. And that argument might have some merit, had the people who wrote/recited the parts of the bible not heard the other parts of the bible. But because the people who added the later parts did know all about the earlier parts, it should just be assumed that they kept the same theme going.

In fact, I would find it far more surprising if the later parts were completely different from the earlier parts. I'm sure you've read textbooks that were written by multiple people, sometimes five or six. And wouldn't it be unusual if you could obviously tell which ones wrote which parts? But it's really not that hard to make a work consistent, if that's what you're going for. Especially if it means that you interpret current events through the filter of those earlier theories.

For example, if a famine hits the people of Judah, they're likely to attribute it to God because that's what their beliefs state the problem would be; as learned from the earlier parts of the bible. And so when they wrote their part of the historical record, they would naturally attribute the famine to God, just as the earlier writers did. And besides Job, who got screwed over by God on a bet, they'd find some lapse of faith as being to blame. But their basis for that was the earlier record, and not an independently created explanation. Had these people never heard of God, it would be extraordinary indeed that they would attribute it to him. But because they had heard that God did these kinds of things, it only makes sense that he was the one who did it this time. That is logical thinking.

And of course, this is a big undermining argument against religion. I mean, why is it that people only adopt a particular religious outlook when it is exposed to them? Why wasn't God working with more than one group? He clearly has nothing against non-Jews, yet he supposedly spent the first four thousand years of our existence focusing on a small tribe in an overcrowded region of the world?? And even when we made his word more widely spread, he could only do it by human means?? Not that I don't necessarily see motives for doing things that way, but it's fairly unimpressive. Even I can spread word through the grapevine, and people don't even like me.

But it would make more sense if various regions of the world came up with the same God stuff as the people of Judah. That's the kind of consistency proof that these bible thumpers are looking for; if native people from Japan, America, and Africa had these exact same stories and laws. But they don't. People only blame the famine on what they know, and if they weren't told about Yahweh, it'll never occur to them to blame him for it.

And not only that, but this idea of consistency also insists that the later people couldn't have edited the earlier parts. But why the hell not? Especially when we're talking about four thousand years of history, which was never written down for much of that time. We're really supposed to assume that, through language differences and different historical needs, nobody changed any of that stuff? Really?

Now I'll confess that I once watched a university's bible study class on a public access station, and that professor did make this exact claim. In fact, he claimed that the proof that the bible didn't change was because these people's memories were so good that they wouldn't forget anything or let it change. And I suppose he arrived at the premise that their memory was so good because they could do this. But naturally, this kind of circular thinking makes for a much better understanding of logic than of religion.

And let's face it, most serious bible scholars believe the bible to be the work of many different sources, and heavily edited at that. In fact, there can be no doubt that the original religion at the beginning of the bible belonged to polytheists. It's just too obvious. Yahweh was competing with lots of other gods, and his power only extended to the specific plot of land that the early writers happened to be on. There can be no doubt about that. But over time, the later writers did their best to correct for such inconsistencies. To expect otherwise from them is to assume them to be complete morons, and I'm just not willing to go there. I'd rather assume that these people were intelligent people who understood that the earlier parts must have been incorrect.


But more important than all these little details, none of the bible needs to be written by God to have it's importance. And even the "inspired by God" idea shouldn't be taken too literally. Too often, people take that to mean as if God dictated the words to the writers. But that's completely unnecessary. If anything, that should be taken on the same level of a song writer saying that God inspired their songs. Nobody actually takes that to mean that God actually gave them the song or that the song is holy or something (or I hope that that's not what they mean). They just mean that the religious teachings they've learned and their feelings toward God inspired them to write a song.

And that's what the bible being "inspired by God" should mean. That their ideas and beliefs told them that these are the things that they should write down. But God wasn't necessary for that. Whether there is a God or not, these writers had the same feelings and beliefs.

But it's not the God-angle that makes the bible so important. Its impact comes from its message. And after all, the bible reads like a history book with a strong mix of metaphorical stories and direct moral lessons. So why does that need to come from God? Why can't it just be a bunch of smart stuff that a bunch of smart people wrote to help themselves and their people? Why does it have to be the word of God?

This is how all intelligent people accept the bible. For them, the bible isn't "right" because it came from God. They believe that it's "right" because they believe the truths in it are real. And that is how it should be. To believe that God makes things right or wrong is the ultimate in moral relativism; where in God is perceived as a capricious dictator who invents laws as he sees fit. But Christians don't really believe that, even if they say it. They believe that God's laws are permanent and supersede God himself. Murder isn't wrong because God made it wrong. If anything, God is merely pointing the direction for how to behave properly. And it sure doesn't hurt that all the other gods agree on all the big issues.

Christian Philosophy

And let's face it. What is religion, but a codified philosophy with rituals and whatnot. And for intelligent Christians, that's exactly what it is: a philosophy. Not that I really understand that at all. It's seems to me that if you're so damn smart, you shouldn't need anyone telling you the answers. That's why I've never really been big into philosophy either. There's nothing wrong with sampling a little here and a little there, scrounging for ideas to help us along the path. But the big ideas have got to come from yourself, or you'll just never get it.

But then again, nobody actually does that anyway. They just adopt much of the language of their particular religion/philosophy/political belief system, and mesh it into what they already believe. It's more of a filter to screen incoming and outgoing information.

For philosophy-types, that generally means that they get to name-drop and use a certain phraseological shorthand that makes them sound smarter than they really are. And for religious-types, that gives them the power to invoke their god's name to justify their own actions. And that includes everything from televangelists pretending that they're collecting money for Jesus, to madmen like bin Laden blowing up buildings for Allah (and no, I'm not making a fricking moral equivalence here).

But the main thing is that people adopt philosophy or religions as a way of making their voice stronger. As a way of giving outside confirmation that they're doing the right thing. Like how jury members for murder trials often insist that they were doing God's will. Not necessarily because they really really believe that. But because it comforts them from thinking that they might have made a mistake. Because this way, even if the verdict was wrong, it was "God's will" and therefore couldn't be wrong. And that's what this stuff is all about. To make personal decisions and actions part of something bigger.

And I have no problem with any of that, as long as people understand that that's what's happening. But if they believe that they really do understand what God wants, and that God wants them to use the bible as the source of our laws, science, or something; then we're in big trouble. But if they understand that religion is for their own comfort and/or salvation, then we're all good.

And tied into that, they need to understand the areas in which their religion ends. Like science, for example. They need to understand that science trumps their religion in areas that science covers, but that they can keep everything else. And if they want to believe that God created the big bang, evolution, and everything else scientific; that's perfectly acceptable. They just need to understand why that specific theory doesn't belong in the classroom.


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