Saturday, April 02, 2011

Is God Necessary for Us to be Moral

Last night I listened to a 2008 debate between Christopher Hitchins and Frank Turek on the existence of God. ( I enjoyed the lively exchanges between the two intelligent, well-spoken men. After the formal presentations, the moderator allowed each to question the other. Hitchins, actually, preferred to let the audience throw the questions, but Turek had one that he repeated many times because Hitchins appeared to miss the point or dodge the question.

(I say "appeared" because a response was made, but not recognized by Turek (and, me, at the time.) Certainly, Turek, and some people who posted to the website, thought Hutchins was ignoring the point. Turek kept repeating the question.

The question was, "Since you [Christopher] are a materialist, explain to me how carbon atoms and benzene molecules can bring about notions of truth, love, empathy, and justice. You can't. Those concepts require a higher entity to instil them in us, a judge of what is moral."

Repeatedly, Hitchins took issue--took offence, really--with the notion that religious people feel that they have to subjugate and enslave themselves to a deity who tells them that they are wicked and need to be cleansed, who demands obedience and worship, and so on. It's humiliating to feel that humans aren't capable of coming up with an appreciation of doing the right thing without a God having to demand it on penalty of eternal torture or human sacrifice.

Turek kept firing the carbon atoms and benzene molecules, to no avail. Hitchins wouldn't bite. (That's not exactly true. He did say that it's up to Turek to establish the insufficiency of the materialist position, but this was lost in the exchange.)

I'd like to respond. Turek's basic point is that God is the source of all goodness (and, presumably Satan is the source of all that isn't good) so that knowledge of good and bad has to be imposed from above. (He went so far as to say the existence of mathematics, information, and the DNA molecule required a deity, but let's keep it simple.) His point is that a bunch of carbon atoms and benzene molecules can't, without divine help, generate sensations of empathy.

There are two answers I could give.

One is "I don't know." The problem with that answer, unfortunately, is that deists jump on it triumphantly and say, "Right. Only God can do it." Their response is nonsense, of course. The existence of God does not depend on whether I or anyone else "knows" the answer or has a theoretical explanation. The existence of God does not depend on how far along in our thinking of science we are.

Going deeper, we could say that the deist's answer was just as inadequate. The deist could have said, "Gzort does it" or "Shublefumph does it" or "Satan does it" for that matter. When the deist says, "You don't know the answer, but I do. It was God." the deists isn't advancing toward knowledge. He's just putting a name to the cause of the phenomenon.

A problem with answering "I don't know" in a debate is that you always have to get sidetracked to explain that "I don't know" does not weaken the intellectual position.

(Hitchins responded a couple of times that had Turek asked the question a couple of thousand years ago, he wouldn't have been using the terms "molecule" and "DNA". Turek became exasperated, saying (in effect), "So what? Just answer the question.")

The second answer to how the accumulation of atoms that composes us instils in us ethics and morality appears, at first, to reverse the issue. An atheist could say, "evidently the laws of chemistry and physics do allow for it, and even if you deists don't know how, that doesn't shake my satisfaction that notions of morality are innate to humans (and to primates, and possibly to other organisms, too.)

An atheist shouldn't want to say this in a debate, because it's really putting the "I don't know" in the deist's mouth and taking unfair advantage.

So let's take this a little farther, but examine something simpler (but just as intellectually significant.) Consider the action of moving your finger. You think, "I'm going to move my finger." Then you move it. How does the thought trigger the actual, physical action? This is a deep mystery. A scientist could respond, "When I think, some electrochemical exchange happens somewhere in my brain which causes an electrical signal to go down the nerve and move the muscle." But the mystery still exists. How did the desire to move the finger cause the electrochemical exchange? We could get into an infinite regress here. But that's no reason to insist that God is in the details.

Consider the Big Bang (which Turek mentioned often.) "How did the universe start from nothing?" the deists scream. We could respond, "Well, not from nothing. Some mass was there." or "Well, not from nothing, some energy was there." or "Well, negative mass-energy went one way and positive mass-energy went the other way, so it still adds to zero." But we always have a "what started it" issue: how did the initial mass, the initial energy, the initial impetus to change things get there?

Infinite regress. There will always be an infinite regress. That does not mean there is a deity.

So, back to Turek's question: How do we humans have concepts of right and wrong? Evolution could help in the discussion. We could propose that organisms without such understanding did not, in the long run, survive. Natural selection among sentient beings could select for cooperation, for adherence to (or, at least, contemplation of) the Golden Rule.

I'm interested in the question. Recent studies with apes, monkeys, dogs, cows, and cats suggest that non-human animals have concepts of morality. Who's side of the debate does that help? The deist just says, "God gave them morality, too." Case closed.

Are molecules and the laws of physics and chemistry sufficient for the appearance of morals in people. Evidently yes, Hitchins says.

I agree.


P.S. Hitchins did point out, quite eloquently, that the religious authorities have another problem. Even if one were to accept that there were and entity to get it started, there is no way for them to link that to their conclusion that this same entity interacts with us daily, hears our thoughts when we are sleeping or awake, judges our thoughts and actions, demands that we worship it, and so on.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A friend returned from a fascinating visit to the SNO lab, the slow neutron observatory in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. He described the long ride down into the depths of the mine on the rickety, open elevator, and the remarkable equipment he observed. He made one statement, though, that bears examining, because it's a popular misconception.

He said, "You could feel yourself getting heavier."

Because he was progressing toward the centre of the Earth, he expected to weigh more.

This is a fallacy, though. He would weigh less. In fact, although weight follows the familiar inverse-square law outside, weight is proportional to the radius inside. It drops linearly.

Here's why. (It's a standard university calculus question, but you don't need calculus to see.)

First, the quick, intuitive answer. How much would you weigh at the centre? Zero, of course, because the mass is pulling you in all directions, each molecule on one side being cancelled by one on the other.

Since you weigh more than zero at the surface, and zero at the middle, either it decreases as you go down, or increases for a while before decreasing. Where is the logical turnaround point? (The surface, of course.) Also, it doesn't make sense to say that the force of gravity keeps increasing all the way to the centre, then instantly becomes zero when you travel that last nanometre to the absolute centre.

OK, so now that we expect a decreasing graph of weight versus distance from centre (radius), why is it linear.

The answer is easiest to understand if you consider the force inside a shell. Pretend the Earth is a perfectly spherical egg. You're inside. How much do you weigh? Then answer: zero everywhere. Pretend you are a two-thirds down to the centre. The mass below your feet is twice as far away as the mass above your head, so pulls a quarter strength (inverse-square law). But there is four times as much of the shell below you than above. Four times as much pulling at one-quarter the force…cancels out. Same with side-to-side, of course.

(This is analogous to the electric field inside a charged sphere--zero everywhere.)

So, now you're down a mineshaft. All the shells above you are cancelled out by mass below you, farther out than your radius. What's left is only the ground beneath your feet, acting as if it's all at the centre. Mass goes as volume, radius cubed. So as you go down, the mass of the sphere beneath your feet is decreasing by radius cubed, but acting stronger on you by radius squared.

Result, the force of gravity is decreasing by the radius to the first power. You feel lighter down a mine shaft.

Monday, January 31, 2011

What if Tests Don't Test What You Want to Test?

When my daughter was in elementary school, she came home with a couple of quizzes on which she'd scored zero or one out of ten. The topic was "greater than / less than". There were two columns of numbers and she had to draw a greater than or less than sign between them. (e.g. 5 less than 9).

I created similar quiz sheets. I cut out a bunch of little squares with the mathematical signs on them, and gave her a glue stick. Instead of drawing the sign, she could glue it in. She put in all the signs correctly, every time. Ten out of ten.

So my daughter's dismal marks on the quizzes did not indicate whether she knew the difference between less than and greater than. They did not indicate whether she knew which sign to use. They indicated whether she had the capability of drawing the sign.

As you might guess, my daughter has a learning disability. But the lesson here goes beyond that. Teachers of all grades should be aware that many times the questions on quizzes and exams are testing something other than what the examiner intended to test.

I remembered the episode with my daughter when I made a summative exam for my Workplace Math class last week. (I had taken over the class from a teacher midway through the course.) The exam consisted of 30 questions down the left of a large sheet of paper with answer boxes on the right. I gave the students all the answers on slips of paper, and a glue stick. They were to arrange the slips in the proper places and glue them into the boxes. (Students could write the answers if they wanted.) The student with the lowest mark in the course to that point (38%), scored a 70%, the class average on the exam.

I wonder what the earlier evaluations, the ones that rated him dead last, were actually testing.