Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Truth

Background: My good friend Jerid and I used to perform on stage during our years at the University of New Hampshire. We would do improv comedy, along with a handful of the funniest people I've ever met. Jerid is a Christian. I am not. That's ok. If all Christians were just like Jerid, we'd live in a lovely world. Unfortunately, they are not. I often leech onto Jerid's Facebook postings, trying to inject my views on religion, usually criticizing it for being, as I believe, the source of far too many of the world's problems. Jerid is nice enough to entertain my arguments, hopefully knowing I am not criticizing him personally, and he is able to counter argue in a way other believers cannot.

Below is a response of mine in one of the most recent debates. The topic of evolution seems to have gotten a bit of press recently on the heels of the Miss USA pageant (google it if you don't know what I'm talking about). A friend of Jerid's claimed (as many Christians do) that their God is the one true God and the only source for the answers to all of our questions. I made the point that his beliefs about which god was the "right" god would be completely different had he been born in a different location. The point was then turned around on me. I was also tasked with explaining what defines "evidence" and what is "true" if it is not god. Below is my response.

If I were born somewhere else, I would have different beliefs only if I subscribed to the popular religion of my community. If I subscribed to science, as I do here and now, no. My beliefs would be absolutely the same. And I'd love to really put a distinction between the words "belief" and "truth".

Let's say I did subscribe to a religion, any religion. Does that change the way my crops grow? Does that change the way in which I need to tend to my livestock in order for them to flourish? Absolutely not. Those things, along with everything else, are governed by nature. And what science is, is our best understanding of that nature. It's not a belief at all. I don't care how strongly one believes a chicken doesn't need to be fed in order to survive. If you don't feed that chicken, it will die. That's a truth.

The Earth orbits the sun. That's another truth. Ibuprofen is a drug that reduces inflammation in our bodies, which can relieve headaches, arthritis, and other pains. That's another truth. There's a man that wanders the streets of Manhattan with a colander on his head because he's protecting himself from extra terrestrial brain scanning. Does he really believe what he says? Without a doubt. Does that make it true? Absolutely not. Do I think Harold Camping believed without a doubt he and thousands of other believers would be raptured and the non believers would be damned on May 21? I do. Were we? He's changed his tune a bit and the new date is Oct 21. Does anyone want to bet against me that on Oct 22, we'll all be just fine?

These are the "truths" and "falsehoods" to which I subscribe. You MUST, as semi-rational human beings, agree with me that a belief in something does NOT necessarily make that something true. And from this point forward, when I use the word "true", I mean "true" as in the examples above.

What I find ever fascinating about religion is how subscribed its followers are in many aspects of their lives, but also how, without thought, they'll resign themselves to science when it suits them. When you get in an airplane, you're believing in the science behind flight. When you use your computer, you're not doubting for one second the science of electricity. When you get ill, you're putting your trust in the science of medicine to make you better. These technologies didn't just appear to us one day. They've been developed over hundreds of years of cumulative research and testing. Research and testing that produces truths and falsehoods.

How can you say science has it so right in so many ways, but then, somehow, they've gotten how we got here so wrong? These are the same scientists. They're all observing the same laws of nature. When you go to the hospital to be treated, you can bet some of the treatments you receive were first researched on apes. Why? Because we evolved from them and their biology and anatomy is virtually identical to ours. Like it or not, you, me and everyone else evolved from apes... and before that, simpler primates... and before that, simpler mammals... and before that....

If you truly don't believe in that process, in that science, then why do you seek medical advice from doctors at all? Why not just stay home and pray? If everything is predestined, then wouldn't your fate lie in the hands of your god, rather than a doctor (a doctor who, by the way, you can bet is an atheist)?

Evolution is not a topic, up for discussion and you can choose to believe or not believe. Evolution is as much a "theory" as gravity is. You choose to look at the evidence and reject it because it doesn't sync with what your book tells you. Does that mean you're right? As much as you and the man with the colander on his head wants to believe you are, no.

One last point, how did God create light on the first day, but not put the stars in the sky until the fourth? Glowsticks?

And before you ask, I don't claim to know for certain that I am right. No scientist does. What they do is give the best possible answer to the questions based upon the evidence available. And by evidence, I mean the cumulative collection of those millions of truths and falsehoods science has uncovered since the beginning of history.