Living with imperfection

This is a cloud of stuff swirling around in my head that I’m trying to pin down on paper, so sorry if it comes out wonky.

The thing that prompted me to blog was a thought-provoking article in Salon on What’s Wrong With Science As Religion?. I can reconcile science and a religious faith – not always easily, but for me it’s the best explanation of life. Given that have a foot in the science / reason / logic camp, I get extremely frustrated at the arrogance and bigotry of the New Atheists (see the article), just like I get frustrated at similar arrogance and bigotry in the name of religion.

Here’s an little thought experiment – take a militant rationalist and apply a 5 year old child using standard rhetorical techniques i.e. asking “But why?” repeatedly (I’ve embroidered it slightly to make it more interesting).

There is no need for religion. Science is all you need.
But why do you say that?
Science can explain everything.
But why do you say that?
Because we can explain stars, computers, volcanoes, birds – lots of things.
Yes, but science hasn’t explained everything yet, has it?
No, but it will eventually.
Why do you say that?
We’re confident that it will.
But confidence isn’t the same as proof, is it?
No, but it will get there.
Why do you say that?
Because, err…

There is nothing in science that proves that science is true. A chain of logic reasoning always starts with axioms i.e. things you assume to be true or take on faith. You just have to accept on faith that science is a good way of explaining the world – this is an axiom of science. Militant rationalists seem to ignore the element of faith required in their world view. I’m happy to take science and Christianity on faith, because they seem to make sense.

Another thing that militant rationalists seem to ignore is that the core engine of rationalism – logic – misfires in some circumstances and no amount of going back to basics will fix it. Kurt Gödel showed via his Incompleteness Theorem (which I have no hope of understanding, but take on err… faith) that paradoxes such as “Am I telling the truth when I say I am lying?” aren’t just the result of sloppy thinking but are inevitable in logic.

So, you need to accept it on faith and paradox is unavoidable – sounds a bit like religion? The article speculates what the world would be like if militant rationalism held sway, and suggests that bad things would happen. This new religion would be a new excuse for atrocities and other bad things – the fault seems to be an underlying problem with human nature, rather than whether people believe X rather than Y.

This then led me to wander elsewhere. I flicked through The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook last night and it has a whole chapter on what the author calls fifth columnists. Something like home education, that could be great, can be diverted to be a tool for other things such as making money, religious dogma and anarchy.

Similarly Esperanto. As far as I understand, the idea is to have a single language so that we can all understand each other. If you look at a widespread language such as English, French or German, there are regional dialects and variations. I can’t see how if it were used around the world, there wouldn’t be local dialects and variations in Esperanto too. That is, it would be a victim of its own success.

It’s all messy, and I think that the fact that life is imperfect is a key lesson you learn when growing up.

UPDATED: I’ve thought a bit about this since posting it (maybe I should have thought more before I posted) and wanted to make a few things clearer than they might be. If you have a religious faith and don’t believe science explains important things like creation, that’s fine by me. If you have atheist or agnostic and think that science explains everything then that’s also fine by me. (If you think science and religion both explain things, that’s also fine by me and is my general position.) What I’m ranting about is people of whatever persuasion thinking they are completely right and those of different persuasions are completely wrong, evil, superstitious, weak-minded etc.

I’m sorry if I have got in the way of you believing in whatever you hold dear as that is not my intention. If you think I’m un-Christian to hold the position I do, then I would point to Isaiah 55:9 and 1 Corinthians 12:13. I know that you could use the Bible to justify almost anything; I’m just saying that my position is no exception ;-).

7 thoughts on “Living with imperfection”

  1. I do wonder if religious (or non religious) beliefs are one of those things that you have to have complete and unshakeable faith in your personal belief being right and everyone else’s being wrong though? Because if you concede that others could be right are you not by definition conceding that you could therefore be wrong and in doing so questionning your own faith?
    I’d love to chat to you about this some time if you’re up for it; I am fascinated in people’s stances on things like this but suspect it needs to be a RL conversation.

  2. I can see at least 3 options here:
    1. I believe X and if you believe anything other than X you are wrong.
    How you express your belief that someone else is wrong can vary – trying to kill them through to completely accepting them but not liking their belief.

    2. I think X is right for me, and I can see that Y is equally right for you.
    There is no absolute truth, it’s all relative to the individual.

    3. I think X is right as far as I can see, but maybe when I understand things more I will think that Y is right.
    I think this is how science should be – you never prove anything is right, you only prove other things are wrong and this thing is the best explanation so far but when new evidence comes along you might need to change again.

    I think this is also my approach to my faith – I believe what I believe, but I know I’m limited and believe that God is infinite so my current understanding is a poor approximation to the truth. The only trouble is I don’t know where what I know now falls short. So, I need to be humble when dealing with people of other faiths and none, because through them I could grow to a better understanding of God.

    As ever, I’m probably not putting this well, particularly as I’m half paying attention to something else (ahem).

  3. I really enjoyed this article. I’ve felt for quite a while now that belief systems claiming to be founded entirely on rational thought and verifiable experience, with no basis in faith, in fact do require a certain amount of faith. I have on more than one occasion mused to myself, “If only held itself up to the same high standards it requires of religious faith”.

    I have to admit, what drew me here was your comment about Esperanto. Your conclusion that Esperanto should fragment into dialects is soundly reasoned. However, as you say, a chain of logic reasoning always starts with axioms. I believe one of your axioms to be in error; if I am mistaken in that regard, please correct me. Although Esperanto could conceivably become the world’s only language, the vast majority of Esperantists feel it would serve better as everyone’s *second* language, an easy-to-learn bridging language between people who have no language in common. Languages fragment into dialects when they are spoken by groups in relative (linguistic) isolation; features arise in one group that are not shared with other groups, resulting in long-term cleavage. If used as intended, Esperanto would not be spoken by isolated groups, but would be spoken by the world as a single (Esperanto) community. Any local features arising in one part of the globe would either spread internationally as other speakers become aware of them through the disseminated network, or would die out just as quickly as the global community rejects them. Languages used internationally tend to standardize and simplify, at least in their international sphere of application; Esperanto, in its 120 years of existence, is a case in point.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking article!

  4. Hi –

    may I second your comments? There are two things in the science-religion area that bug me:

    1) scientist-atheists who claim that religion is just about blindly accepting a list of things you have to believe

    2) religious people who claim that religion is just about blindly accepting a list of things you have to believe (if I was feeling provocative I could point out that university Christian Unions seem to come into this category).

    I often think some non-religious people miss the point when they talk about blind faith because religion IS about questioning, doubt and development, but then I look at some religious people and I quite understand how the non-religious could have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

    Or rather, the end of the stick which is not appropriate for me at this stage in my journey (NB this last bit is tongue in cheek, because it implies what (to me :-)) is too individualistic an approach to religion (another thing we (western) Christians are often tempted to have (this is getting as bad as maths, what with all these brackets))).

    Often scientist-atheists seem to point out how bad the Bible is as a science book. But I tend to be impressed at how good it is, *given the cultural background and the times in which it was written*. Linguistics is my thing, and the Tower of Babel story is quite a good myth of how language variation arose. I’m impressed because it shows an awareness of the link between geographical separation and linguistic separation. I wouldn’t expect the Bible to give me a cut and dry account of social network theories, or whatever. And I’m impressed that accent variation is noticed and dealt with in the Bible, even though “say thou ‘shibboleth'” doesn’t speculate on the precise place of articulation of groove fricatives in varieties of a language.

    So I can accept the cosmological myths at that level too. They’re myths in the sense that they tell some truth without necessarily being tied to what modern humans understand as factual, scientific truth. To expect them to be a modern scientific account is extraordinarily anachronistic (and that’s a criticism both of militant atheists and of militant creationists).

    Oh, and I tend towards Bob’s expectation of dialectal splits in Esperanto. English is currently used by large populations in the world as a second language lingua franca, and Singapore English is quite different from Indian English, for example…

  5. There are two modern misconceptions about Esperanto, which I hope to allay.

    Firstly Esperanto aims to be a common language, not a single language. There is a big difference. This new language should not replace ethnic languages, but should be a second, auxiliary language for all.

    Secondly Esperanto is a living language. It has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Pope used it in his Easter address from the Vatican, and the Beijing Olympics have appointed an Esperanto translator. This would not have happened if Esperanto was NOT a living language.

    You can confirm these facts on htttp://

  6. It is a fascinating subject. Nic and Bob, feel free to have further discussions about it at our house next week, but make sure I’m there to listen in. 🙂

  7. Bob, as a person who is in camp 2 or 3, and I wasn’t at all affronted by your post! however, half of me thinks that perhaps i am rather wishy washy here! beardie, i agree with CU’s! I didn’t use to be a probable atheist, but was rather vaccinated against religion by the CU at our medical school. It was a virulent strain, and ‘religion’ or ‘beliefs’ can only ever be on a personal level here without any whiff of external influence or discussion!

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