Monday, July 8, 2013

NOMA and The Right Questions (Part 1)

I know that compared to a lot of bloggers out there, I'm pretty verbose, and I try as much as I can to be exhaustive in my takedowns of various ideas.  That in its end, has also given me a reputation as someone who writes a hell of a lot and leaves nothing unturned.  It also earns me a lot of flaming emails, but that's often hilarious.  Of course, this blog isn't the only place where I go so wild.  In some mailing lists where I work, I also do much the same because someone is bound to say something ridiculous. For example, when I see someone asking for recommendations about reiki healers and such, I always give the best possible recommendation -- go to an actual doctor. They can do more for any one patient than all reiki "healers" combined can ever do for anyone.  In any case, I get known throughout my office as the "guy with the huge posts on [mailing list which shall go unnamed]."

Well, I felt like actually bringing up an example of an exchange I had with a few people about the NOMA(non-overlapping magisteria) argument for belief.  This is probably one of the least confrontational modalities by which people try to reconcile science and reason with religion.  It's the idea that religion simply deals with different topics and questions than science and mathematics does, so it's still valid within its scope even if not necessarily valid within anything that falls in the purview of science.  This was first advanced by Stephen Jay Gould, and I have a feeling that if he'd still been alive today, he'd probably not think this way at all.  There are simply too many examples which clearly demonstrate that religion brazenly trespasses on the territory of science and the religious extremists demand the supremacy of their irrational beliefs over fact.  But nonetheless, in a particular thread, I tried to address the other problem I have with the NOMA argument because that's what was originally brought up in the thread.

Here's what that looked like.
This is my first post specifically on the NOMA topic --

I feel like there's a fundamental weakness of human nature that underlies the classical "NOMA" approach to reconciling science and religion.  There's this need we have to assign purpose, meaning, and agency to things regardless of whether or not such a thing is possible in the first place.  You hear the counterarguments where people say science answers the questions about how the universe works but religion answers the "why" questions and provides purpose and meaning to the universe.  We like to think there is such a thing because it helps to create a more complete context, and it helps soothe the ego.

Problem is that people who say this don't really have enough of a clue to realize that's a nonsensical question.  At what point was it established that there should even be a purpose behind it?  There are causative forces behind rainfall, but why on earth would someone even believe that there is a purpose behind it?  Reasonably educated people will at least know enough about the water cycle to realize it's silly to assign a purpose and meaning behind something like rain.  But not very many are educated enough to realize that it's no less silly to ask "why the universe works..."  That's as meaningful as asking "What is the square root of a puppy?"  You can't get an answer because the question is nonsensical at the outset.

100% of the reason people even ask such a question is their own stupid egos and their awareness of their own mortality.  They'd rather have some sort of ultimate purpose overarching everything than to accept that they are small and insignificant.
That may seem a little harsh, and that meant it shouldn't be said, apparently.  So here came two follow-up responses (I leave out the names of the people responding, but these responses are from two separate individuals) --
That's a bit extreme, isn't it?  Persecution complexes aside, most religion swaps out your ego for that of your god(s).  Asking "why" isn't due to ego, it's due to them assuming there's a god, and therefore "why" questions are reasonable things to ask.
Well, I had things to say about that, but I responded to that along with the following one --
There's really only two options, right? Either everything is random and meaningless, or it isn't. The nature of science is that we don't reject the null hypothesis until a certain threshold of certainty. Until that threshold is reached, since there is no scientific evidence against the super-natural, and a lot of people seem really sure about it, so... Pascal's wager anyone?

Also, once you accept (on faith) that your thoughts can represent truth, and are not just random and meaningless, you kind of have to ask how that state of affairs came about.  Evolution only explains our behavior, not our perceptions -- Why do we need to be able to think?  Things like thoughts, aesthetics, morals, etc. are not (yet?) explainable by biology.  It seems like that's the doorway, at the lowest level, from science to "religion," philosophy, theology, etc.
I should note that this particular response is made by someone who is not a believer himself, and is even a fan of this blog.  It sounds from this as if he's using the old "you can't disprove God" canard...  he later made a response to clarify that he didn't intend that meaning, but rather meant to indicate that this was how people arrived at propositions like Pascal's Wager.  I wasn't the only one confused by this, but my initial response which actually responded to both of these messages was based on that first interpretation of his post.

So here's the first of my responses that was given the designation of "epic", and this is, I feel, the biggest problem with the NOMA argument. (purple text is the inline quote from the the original mails to which I was responding).
Whoa, whoa...  since when is the position that the supernatural exists a null hypothesis?  It actually posits a truth claim...  specifically the truth claim that a magical creator deity exists.  A position for which there is no supporting evidence, only widely common feelings and impressions...  You don't get to be a null hypothesis just by being popular.  An epistemology such as that like that betrays an abject disregard for fact and an inability to differentiate between belief, knowledge, and opinion.  The null hypothesis in science contains only that which has been shown more or less to be true, and the supernatural does not fall in that category.  That which has not been shown to be true is given equal weight as that which is definitively not true.

In any case, Pascal's wager fails just on the basis that it doesn't really make any case for the question of "which religion".  Even otherwise, its premise that nothing is lost by belief is demonstrably false as being a follower of a religion requires a time effort as well as a number of various restrictions, especially to new and poorly understood technologies (e.g. abortion, stem cells)  and it is necessarily incapable of adjusting with moving social dynamics and an ever-flattening world.  Furthermore, religion, tradition, faith, are all euphemisms for not thinking for yourself, which as far as I'm concerned is the single most inexcusable cost of them all.  Thirdly, it is entirely possible to disprove a god provided you are specific in your definition of god -- for instance, a literal interpretation of the god of the Bible is indisputably false.  So the only way to make room for the belief to still be true is to alter the definition and ultimately make it a lot looser...  but the moment you do that, you also decrease the relevance of your proposed deity, and the more we know, the more and more hollow and meaningless god will have to become.

> Things like thoughts, aesthetics, morals, etc. are not (yet?) explainable by biology.

You'd be surprised.  We have a pretty deep understanding of these things both on an extant biological level and on an evolutionary level.  Aesthetics is probably the hardest one because it is so loosely defined to begin with.  It's not easy to bring a mechanism that operates on specificity together with something that has none.  Aesthetics is probably better understood in the realm of the "softer" sciences such as sociology.  Morals, on the other hand, we have a pretty strong degree of explanations for them, though it is a bit broad sweeping at this point...  finer details are something you can really only study one at a time, and that's a slow process.  Thoughts, again, is kind of a nebulous term, so it covers a lot of ground, but the level of understanding we have right now just in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology is strong enough that it's pretty safe to say that dualism is just about refuted -- or at the very least, since dualism is technically unfalsifiable, you'd have to modify the concept enough that it would entirely cease to be distinguishable from monism.

> Persecution complexes aside, most religion swaps out your ego for that of your god(s).

Yes, and it's very convenient how one's own personal preferences and feelings and values on all matters just happen to be the same as their god's...  what a coinky-dink!!  Let's be realistic here...  It's not "swapping" anything other than the name.

> Asking "why" isn't due to ego, it's due to them assuming there's a god, and therefore "why" questions are reasonable things to ask.

And god is a projection of the ego that makes people believe that the universe exists only for them.  200 billion galaxies with 200 billion stars stretching across an observable expanse that covers some 4.23x10^32 cubic light years of volume as far as we can tell, all so that some zombie can tell you not to masturbate.

Second of all, asking "why" questions doesn't become reasonable just because it makes sense within the context of a necessarily unreasonable assumption.
And more fun ensued.