Tuesday, August 07, 2007

God of the Gaps

Eliezer Yudkowsky at Overcoming Bias: Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable
Back in the old days, there was no concept of religion being a separate magisterium. The Old Testament is a stream-of-consciousness culture dump: history, law, moral parables, and yes, models of how the universe works. In not one single passage of the Old Testament will you find anyone talking about a transcendent wonder at the complexity of the universe. But you will find plenty of scientific claims, like the universe being created in six days (which is a metaphor for the Big Bang), or rabbits chewing their cud and grasshoppers having four legs. (Which is a metaphor for...)

Back in the old days, saying the local religion "could not be proven" would have gotten you burned at the stake. One of the core beliefs of Orthodox Judaism is that God appeared at Mount Sinai and said in a thundering voice, "Yeah, it's all true." From a Bayesian perspective that's some darned unambiguous evidence of a superhumanly powerful entity. (Albeit it doesn't prove that the entity is God per se, or that the entity is benevolent - it could be alien teenagers.) The vast majority of religions in human history - excepting only those invented extremely recently - tell stories of events that would constitute completely unmistakable evidence if they'd actually happened. The orthogonality of religion and factual questions is a recent and strictly Western concept. The people who wrote the original scriptures didn't even know the difference.
We've made this same point ourselves in the past. The idea that certain parts of the Bible are just colorful metaphors or instructive parables, and that certain parts are to be taken at unannealed face value, is a rather recent invention:
If we accept that it's okay to adhere to Jesus's exhortations to charity, but to ignore Deuteronomy's commands to stone heretics and burn adulterers, then what criteria are we using for such selection? What filter do we pass the 'word of god' through, that healing the sick emerges but slaying the infidel is left behind? Whatever this filter is, whatever benchmarks we use to determine what parts of the Bible to follow and what to ignore, it must obviously be taken from outside the Bible itself. For the Bible itself does not instruct its readers to ignore anything that sounds "barbaric" or "outdated"; the Bible does not invite you to pick and choose. So if the Bible's more moderate adherents apply some sort of filter to it, that filter must - of necessity - come from their own moral sense.
As Yudkowsky points out in the Overcoming Bias post - read it in its entirety, it's a gem - religion used to make plenty of Unambiguous Pronouncements about law, nature, cosmology, sexuality, history and ethical behavior. Western civilization has slowly come to realize that none of those Pronouncements were, in fact, true ... except in the fields of ethics and metaphysics. And from thence the claim that religion is a "seperate magisterium" - meant to answer the "why" questions while science is left brushing its feet in the "how"s.

But are ethics any less scientific than biology, a subject on which the scientific method has shown the Bible to be unquestionably wrong? Ethics is the study of how we ought to act. We hypothesize that certain actions will yield certain results. We study history and current events to see if those hypotheses bear out. Certainly, the muddle between different teleological schools of thought makes the science of ethics harder to pin down than biology. But biology has gone through its feuds as well and scientists have not stopped trying to uncover its secrets.

The case for atheism - the case against God - is as strong today as it's ever been. Only tomorrow will it be stronger.


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