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“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please”

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October 12, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Karl Giberson. You can read more about what we believe here.

“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please”

Jerry Coyne, who has taken to calling me “Uncle Karl” on his blog, has responded to some of my defenses of religion. I am not sure what I should think about being called “Uncle Karl.” I have some wonderful nieces and nephews up in New Brunswick, Canada, who call me “Uncle Karl,” and perhaps Coyne is just reminding me of this happy fact.

I continue to be surprised—and I mean that honestly—at the incoherent way that Coyne engages these topics. He reminds me of that great Monty Python skit about the customer who pays to have an argument, and then is frustrated because his sparring partner just sits there, responding with variations of “No, it isn’t.”

The classic Python sketch is hyperbole, of course, but I offer it as an illustration of how hard it seems to be to get Jerry Coyne into a real conversation about religion. He seems to think that any critique of religion is an appropriate response to any defense of religion, whether or not the comments are even related.

There are several examples of this, but I want to mention one particularly glaring one. A few months ago I posted a blog on the Huffington Post about mathematics. I was making a modest, albeit important, point—namely that the mysterious explanatory power of mathematics seems to point to a transcendent reality beyond the physical. I suggested that this mystery offered a “partial explanation for the religious impulse” and explained “why so many of us are driven to embrace realities that go beyond what science can establish with clarity.”

At no point did I suggest that the transcendent mystery of mathematics was grounded in God. In fact, I intentionally quoted from three mathematical physicists who had no conventional religious beliefs to make my point:

Contemplating the mystery that is mathematics led the Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner to pen a provocative and widely reprinted essay about the "Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics." It has led Sir Roger Penrose -- one of our greatest living mathematicians -- to postulate the existence of a non-physical "Platonic realm" beyond the physical to make sense of the world. Einstein once commented, in reference to the power of mathematics, "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

The argument about mathematics is what I would call a preliminary argument. It opens space for other arguments but does not make dramatic claims on its own. It merely suggests that the physical world may not be all there is. It does not suggest, for example, that “God” is the rest of the picture. If it did, then Wigner, Einstein, and Penrose would all have believed in God.

If one accepts the incompleteness of the physical picture of reality then the follow up question is: “What is the nature of that which completes the picture?” I had the privilege of talking to Penrose about this one summer at Oxford, and he was clear that he saw no reason to infer God from the mystery of mathematics, but he was fully convinced that the power of mathematics implied that there was more to reality than just the physical. When I asked him why so many biologists disagreed with him he said, “Because they don’t know enough mathematics.”

The mathematical physicist John Barrow—who is a believer—made a similar point directly to Richard Dawkins. When Dawkins challenged Barrow in Cambridge about the mathematical precision found in nature Barrow responded: “You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you are not really a scientist. You are a biologist.” Barrow views biology as little more than a branch of natural history, and thinks biologists lack an intuitive understanding of complexity. Their study of the higgledy piggedy paths of life on this planet give them limited appreciation for the rich laws of physics that enable those paths. (Unfortunately the original link to this story has gone dead, but a version of it can be found here)

Coyne’s reponse—shared by hundreds of others who commented on my piece—went like this: “What really puzzles me about Giberson’s argument is not just his seamless transition from ignorance to God. It’s his transition to the Christian God, complete with Jesus, virgin birth, Resurrection, and all the accoutrements. (Giberson is an evangelical Christian)"

At no point in my piece did I even mention the word “God.” Here, in fact, is my rather modest conclusion:

“The quest for the deepest understanding of the world does not compel all of us to ponder the origin of mathematics. Many of us don't like math, have no idea what it means to say that "equations rule the world," and are thus not awed by math. And the quest does not lead all of us who are awed by such mysteries into religion. But those that understand the eternal mystery best impulsively lean over the railing into the abyss because they know in their bones that there is something out there. Whether they encounter something depends on factors that elude many of their less imaginative peers. This is a deeply religious impulse: one that goes beyond science, but not one without motivation.”

I am discouraged that our supposedly intellectual conversation about religion has become a “Fox News” debate where it is permissible to simply say “No, it isn’t” over and over again, rather than engaging in meaningful responses.

On his October 11 blog, Jerry Coyne asks “Can there be evidence of God?”.

Coyne’s question is a good one and even religious believers would disagree on the answer. The great skeptic Martin Gardner would answer “No” to Coyne’s question, while passionately affirming his own belief in God on non-evidentiary grounds.

I fear however that the real question for Coyne would not be, “Can there be evidence for God?”, but rather, “Could an atheist pay attention to an argument long enough to get the point?”


Karl Giberson directs the new science & religion writing program at Gordon College in Boston. He has published more than 100 articles, reviews and essays for Web sites and journals including Salon.com, Books & Culture, and the Huffington Post. He has written seven books, including Saving Darwin, The Language of Science & Faith, and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age.


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Jack Bentley - #34973

October 16th 2010

To sum up the Giberish, 2+2=4, therefore, Virgin Birth


Barry - #34974

October 16th 2010

Mike Gene - #34971

“Dr. Coyne doesn’t get it.  He seems to think the issue is Giberson’s personal beliefs or where Giberson’s argument is supposed to lead.  In other words, Coyne is thinking like a politician and not a scientist.  A good scientist knows how to focus on the issue that is actually before him.  That is, when an argument is raised, you focus on the argument.  Not the person making the argument.  Not the motives for making the argument.  Not your guess as to where the argument might eventually lead.  Not “code words.”  You focus on the argument.”

That’s what we’d like you to do. For what reason was the word “transcendental’ used? In the context he used it it actually means “the concept of being above the created universe”. The title of the original article was “Mathematics and the religious impulse”. For Giberson to hide behind his…well I didn’t actually use the term “God”...line is disingenuous. As his apologist even you should see this.


Mike Gene - #34978

October 16th 2010

Hey Steve,

Did you see this one?

Jack Bentley - #34973

October 16th 2010

To sum up the Giberish, 2+2=4, therefore, Virgin Birth

Make that 4.  The pattern continues.  Jerry Coyne sure knows how to mentor his followers!


Mike Gene - #34979

October 16th 2010

Barry, who champions New Atheism, calls Dr. Giberson “Gildo” and then asks, “Where is the insult Mike?”  New Atheists are so accustomed to smearing other people with their mocking and insults that they don’t even see themselves as doing it.


Mike Gene - #34980

October 16th 2010

Barry:

That’s what we’d like you to do.

Who is “we?”


Mike Gene - #34985

October 16th 2010

For what reason was the word “transcendental’ used?

He uses the word “transcendent” in two places:

the mysterious explanatory power of mathematics seems to point to a transcendent reality beyond the physical.

At no point did I suggest that the transcendent mystery of mathematics was grounded in God.

You write:

In the context he used it it actually means “the concept of being above the created universe”.

Where did he write that?

I have always interpreted ‘transcendent’ to mean a reality that goes beyond our senses -something that ties in to the intuition that there is more to reality than meets the eyes.  And sure enough, I checked, and the dictionary’s lead definition is “going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding.”  Nothing there that necessitates a proposition of God’s existence nor the resurrection of Jesus.  A traditional, Christian theistic world view is not needed to propose “the mysterious explanatory power of mathematics seems to point to a transcendent reality beyond the physical” nor is it a necessary conclusion that would follow from this proposition.


Mike Gene - #34986

October 16th 2010

The title of the original article was “Mathematics and the religious impulse”.

The original article did not even use the word ‘transcendent.’ Dr. Giberson was talking about the ‘religious impulse’ which is not the same as any specific religious belief.

For Giberson to hide behind his…well I didn’t actually use the term “God”...line is disingenuous.

No, it shows me that Dr. Giberson understands logic and is capable of a nuanced analysis.  That you accuse him of hiding and being disingenuous for this tells me you don’t understand logic very well and seem incapable of a nuanced analysis. 

As his apologist even you should see this.

I am not his apologist.  I just read the blog entry, the HuffPo piece, and Coyne’s reply.  I then spoke the truth – Coyne misrepresented Giberson’s argument.  In response, the New Atheists, who purport to champion reason and science, have rationalized the misrepresentation and turned up the scorn and mocking.


Deepak Shetty - #34994

October 16th 2010

To ensure that we understand you

“the mysterious explanatory power of mathematics seems to point to a transcendent reality beyond the physical.”
If you dont mean *God* then what do you mean? There is something beyond the physical reality which is not God, and is, what exactly?

I see a lot of comments stating about how you dont go from God to your version o it, so I’d like to know when you(only you , not anyone else) use the term God do you mean any God other than that of old/new testament? Do you entertain the possibility that God may exist in a form that is not the Christian God? If not then is it not a fair assumption that when you mean God you mean the Christian God with all the associated miracles?

You must also realise that using terms like you do without being precise is like an ID follower stating that a designer exists and insisting that this isnt a religious theory because he didnt explicitly use the term God - so if you mean something other than God when you use terms like transcendent reality - shouldnt you be more specific on what you mean?


Steve Ruble - #34996

October 16th 2010

Mike: A good scientist knows how to focus on the issue that is actually before him. That is, when an argument is raised, you focus on the argument.  Not the person making the argument.  Not the motives for making the argument.

Couuld you explain why these rules should apply only to scientists, and not to Mike Gene? I ask because the majority of your comments are about people and their motivations, rather than arguments.

Or maybe we should just ignore your remark, since it’s only your personal preference. Why should people conform to your notions of what “good scientists” should do? Or didn’t you notice that you are doing the same thing you just criticised me for, you (pompous) hypocrite?

If you do feel like interacting with an argument, take on Dave R @ #34949, which explains why it’s clear that Dr. Giberson was talking about God, and/or some set of creedal claims. I predict that you won’t get very far.


Mike Gene - #35001

October 17th 2010

Steve,

I think you are confused.  I did not write the HuffPo piece nor did I write the blog entry.  In fact, I have never argued that math gives me a sense of a transcendent reality.  So why in the world do you think I am supposed to address that argument? 

As should be clear from my first comment, I simply read Karl’s blog entry and decided to check if Coyne did indeed misrepresent his argument.  So I read the HuffPo piece and Coyne’s reply over at his blog (links provided by Karl in his essay above).  I then spoke the truth – Giberson was right; Coyne did misrepresent the argument Giberson laid on the table.  Coyne spun the argument as if Giberson was claiming more than he claimed.


Mike Gene - #35002

October 17th 2010

I ask because the majority of your comments are about people and their motivations, rather than arguments.

No, not motivations.  Behavior.  I am observing the behavior of Jerry Coyne’s followers subsequent to responding to the main point of this blog entry.  What I see is misrepresentation,  rationalizing misrepresentation, and mocking. I know you want to sweep that under the rug, but if someone replies to the arguments you perceive, given that pattern and trend, we can predict further rounds of misrepresentation and mocking on the part of the Gnus.  It would seem to me that we would need to deal with the problem of misrepresentation and mocking before any productive discussion could occur.


Mike Gene - #35003

October 17th 2010

Why should people conform to your notions of what “good scientists” should do?

Huh?  Are you saying that good scientists focus on the person and the motivations instead of the argument?

If you do feel like interacting with an argument, take on Dave R @ #34949, which explains why it’s clear that Dr. Giberson was talking about God, and/or some set of creedal claims. I predict that you won’t get very far.

I see.  So you think “the argument” is about what was going on inside Dr. Giberson’s head instead of what was written and posted on HuffPo.  It’s not about what was going on inside Giberson’s head – it is about the argument he laid on the table.

But okay, let’s interact with your argument about Giberson’s secret motivations.  His claim in the essay above is as follows:

“the mysterious explanatory power of mathematics seems to point to a transcendent reality beyond the physical.”

Please show that one must embrace the resurrection of Jesus to make that claim.  Or show that anyone who accepts that claim will be compelled to embrace the resurrection of Jesus.


Mike Gene - #35004

October 17th 2010

Hi Dave R,

To put this another way, Giberson and his supporters are confusing a feeling of awe over mathematics—a feeling of gee whiz—with “the religious impulse”—the impulse to pick a religion and load one’s mind with a set of specific claims.

In order to be confused like this, Giberson would have to define the “religious impulse” as picking a particular religion and loading one’s mind with a set of specific claims.

Where did he define it like this?


Barry - #35006

October 17th 2010

Mike gene - #34979

“Barry, who champions New Atheism, calls Dr. Giberson “Gildo” and then asks, “Where is the insult Mike?”  New Atheists are so accustomed to smearing other people with their mocking and insults that they don’t even see themselves as doing it.”

You are just repeating the same nonsense Mike. Answer the specific question I asked.


Barry - #35007

October 17th 2010

Mike Gene - #34985

“I checked, and the dictionary’s lead definition is “going beyond ordinary limits; surpassing; exceeding”

And what did the other definitions say Mike? You know, the ones that referenced “mystical and supernatural”, or are you omiting those deliberately?


Barry - #35008

October 17th 2010

Mike Gene - #34986

“In response, the New Atheists, who purport to champion reason and science, have rationalized the misrepresentation and turned up the scorn and mocking.”

The rationalizing is all yours Mike. But at least you’ve added “scorn” to your vocabulary after you must have looked up what “unsulting” meant in the dictionary and realized it didn’t apply. I’m OK though with “mocking”. Coming from you I wear it as a badge of honor.


Mike Gene - #35009

October 17th 2010

Hi Deepak,

To ensure that we understand you

“the mysterious explanatory power of mathematics seems to point to a transcendent reality beyond the physical.”

If you dont mean *God* then what do you mean? There is something beyond the physical reality which is not God, and is, what exactly?

Giberson answered this on his most recent blog entry:

Consider also the reality of mathematics. Even agnostic mathematicians like Sir Roger Penrose have argued that there needs to be some kind of “platonic” world beyond the physical where the truths of mathematics reside. Penrose, who I had the privilege of interviewing when I was at Oxford, is as deep a thinker as we have on the planet today. And he is absolutely convinced that a purely physicalist worldview simply cannot account for our experiences. The mathematics that describes the physical world where we live is separate from this world.


Mike Gene - #35010

October 17th 2010

Think about this logically.  Just because God would be part of a transcendent reality does not mean a transcendent reality must contain God. 

The logical way to address Giberson’s argument is not to think like a conspiracy theorist and look for “code words” to validate one’s preconceptions that Giberson is being sneaky or disingenuous.  The logical way would be to

a.) Demonstrate that it is unreasonable to suspect a transcendent reality because of the reality of mathematics.

b). Point out that even if we grant a transcendent reality on this basis of math, this does not get us to the belief in the Christian God.

And Giberson would clearly agree with point b).


Barry - #35011

October 17th 2010

Mike Gene - #35002

“What I see is misrepresentation,  rationalizing misrepresentation, and mocking. I know you want to sweep that under the rug, but if someone replies to the arguments you perceive, given that pattern and trend, we can predict further rounds of misrepresentation and mocking on the part of the Gnus.  It would seem to me that we would need to deal with the problem of misrepresentation and mocking before any productive discussion could occur.”

And what I see in you Mike is someone who continually denigrates oppponents with personal smears regarding their cognition, reading ability and general understanding of issues that you have misrepresented. Your projection of personal aloofness has few limits. Your supercilious and pompous statements, evasive comments and failure to address questions that are asked, all have to be balanced against my comments (and one or two others) referring to Giberson as Gilbo or Gibo. So let’s not sweep that under the rug either. And I agree with your last comment Mike - your disgraceful behaviour needs dealing with before any productive discussion could occur.


Mike Gene - #35012

October 17th 2010

Barry,

Your projection of personal aloofness has few limits. Your supercilious and pompous statements, evasive comments and failure to address questions that are asked, all have to be balanced against my comments (and one or two others) referring to Giberson as Gilbo or Gibo.

Can you please go to Giberson’s HuffPo piece and quote the portions of the argument that contained a “seamless transition from ignorance to God” and a seamless “transition to the Christian God, complete with Jesus, virgin birth, Resurrection, and all the accoutrements?”


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