Pharyngula

Calvinball no more!

Uh-oh. Jerry Coyne is calling me out and reopening our old argument about whether there could be evidence supporting a god. I said no, for a number of reasons, but I haven’t convinced Coyne.

The statements by P.Z. and Zara seem to me more akin to prejudices than to fully reasoned positions. They are also, of course, bad for atheists, since they make us look close-minded, but I would never argue that we should hide what we really think because it makes it harder to persuade our opponents. On the positive side, a discussion like this one is really good for sharpening the mind.

He’s also gone to the Big Guy in the UK, Anthony Grayling, to get some allies; Unfortunately for him, Grayling is siding more closely with me than him. And now Ophelia Benson also sides with those who say gods are incoherent. This is not going well for him.

So I’ve got to pile on.

Religion has had a couple of millennia to make a case for its fundamental concepts: the existence of the supernatural, the existence of deities, the effectiveness of priestly intermediaries, etc. It has failed. It does not provide support in the form of evidence or logical consistency; it also fails to show any pragmatic utility. Religion never does what it claims to do. At what point do we learn from experience and simply reject the whole worthless mess out of hand? The abstract possibility that the god-wallopers will finally come up with a tiny scrap of evidence for their outrageous beliefs in the coming eon is not enough to win it credibility as a reasonable contender, either; you might just as well speculate that archaeologists could unearth artifacts from Middle Earth, or astronomers observing a galaxy far, far away will discover The Force. There is no cause to expect fictions and fantasies to manifest themselves as actual realities.

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Religion plays Calvinball. There are no rules except what they make up as they go. You might think that maybe you ought to concede that they could get a score of 13 and beat your 12…but they are already convinced that their Q trumps your puny pair of digits. And if they get a score of Oatmeal-Sofa, they’ll announce victory. Heck, if they somehow end up in the realm of numbers with you and get a 7, they’ll declare that they win because they’ve got a Mersenne prime and we don’t. Or because it’s like a golf score. The mistake is to play the game in the expectation that the other side has the same respect for evidence that we do, or that evidence even matters.

Here’s an example. This is part of a debate between Peter Atkins and William Lane Craig. Craig is an exceptionally glib debater, and he’s also an evangelical Christian who supposedly defends a very specific doctrine, that his god turned into a human who lived on Earth 2000 years ago, and that belief in his magical powers is your ticket to a Disneyland for dead people in the sky. I’d like to see some evidence for that, but no…his tactic here is to demand proof of bizarre assertions from science, answering questions that his religion can’t.

What’s amazing here is that Christians are actually impressed with Craig’s millimeter-deep, reason-free handwaving. Ha ha, you scientific smartie-pants, you can’t use science to prove you’re not a simulation on a computer of a brain in a vat that was created five minutes ago with false memories of your life, so therefore, Jesus. Never mind that science doesn’t deal in proofs. Never mind that Craig’s religion can’t prove it either, except by blind obdurate asseveration. Never mind that those are all non-questions, non-issues, irrelevant sophomoric wanking. Never mind, it’s Calvinball! The score is now Paisley over Feldspar, we win!

In science, we’re used to incremental progress and revision of our ideas. Evidence is our currency, it’s how we progress and it’s what gets results. It is a category error, however, to think that the way to address free-floating word salad and flaming nonsense is to take the scalpel of reason and empiricism and slice into it, looking for definable edges. No, what you do is look over the snot-ball of self-referential piffle, note that it has no tenable connection to reality, and drop-kick it into the rec room, where the kids can play with it, but no one should ever take it seriously.

Just make sure the kids wash their hands afterwards. That thing is slimy.

On second thought, just dump it in the trash. The kids would rather play video games, instead.