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Unsolved Puzzle

August 29, 2010

impossible sudoku

I have a new article up at Mormon Matters today. The gist is this: there seems to be a great divide between theists and atheists. I mean, for me, talking about god is like talking about a piece of fiction. It is academic. It is literary analysis. But it is not talking about something real.

Obviously, for theists, this is not the case.

How can this be? It doesn’t seem appropriate to wave away the experience of the vast majority of humanity.

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  1. The vast majority of humanity can be wrong.

  2. This is entirely possible. I just don’t think it’s appropriate to dismiss things so quickly. I don’t think it’s appropriate, for example, to say, “You are all deluded,” and then say, “but I’m not~”

  3. Well you see I don’t believe that I’ve quickly dismissed it at all. I’ve spent the overwhelming majority of my life right in the middle of it as a believer. Taking into account all of my experience and investment in the church, as well as my deeply rooted belief in God and then tossing them out was not a light decision by any stretch of the imagination. It has likely been the heaviest and most carefully considered conclusion I’ve made in my life. There are serious consequences awaiting me for having come to it. I’ve tried to escape this conclusion, but there’s just no way out.

  4. can’t really address that. seems like either way, you’ll step on someone’s toes.

  5. I don’t say “But I’m not deluded.”

    I say “If you have the evidence, bring it here, and if it checks out, I’ll change my mind.” To date, no one has brought the goods. Until they do, I’ll be summarily dismissing the metaphysical views of the religious, and wearing my stompin’ boots.

  6. If you have the evidence, bring it here, and if it checks out, I’ll change my mind.

    Implication: “Since I’m just an objective and clear-headed, clear-thinking kind of guy, if you brought the evidence to me, I’d be able to rationally check it out. I’d be able to properly identify it for what it is.”

  7. If someone tried to bring evidence, I’d do my best to evaluate it in the way you’ve described.

    To date, no one’s tried. Instead, they’ve argued that I shouldn’t need evidence, and that asking for it is some kind of unreasonable demand.

    What have they brought you?

  8. Daniel, I trust we don’t really need to go into the difference between evidence and proof. For their sake, believers give too much evidence (e.g. Trees, babies being born, etc.,) the issue is there’s no proof.

    Additionally, there is disagreement on what even is evidence. If evidence is “things that can be empirically tested/retested using today’s science,” then that biases the entire discussion.

  9. You can’t call it evidence if it’s terrible evidence. The “trees and babies argument” can be dismissed because there are better explanations for them.

    From your comment, I’m actually less sure that you understand the distinction between evidence and proof.

  10. “You can’t call it evidence if it’s (snip) evidence.”


  11. The fact that appealing to a process specifically designed for the purpose of eliminating human bias would be considered to introduce too much bias is very telling.

  12. It’s more the case that it self-deludes about bias rather than introducing it.

  13. Based on your comments, Andrew, it seems to me that you have a few things to sort out on the science front. If you’re unclear on what constitutes evidence, or you minimise the value of the scientific method, or you think that a scientific view is just as biased as an unscientific view, then you’re going to be wandering around the same old terrain without knowing how to settle factual questions. That’s not worthy of a man with your talents.

  14. That’s pretty much the problem. You say “evidence” as if it’s something solely “out on the science front.”

  15. I’m saying some things aren’t as ambiguous as you’re trying to make them.

  16. Hebron permalink

    Andrew, not trying to jack your thread but this is a rare opportunity to address atheists who are willing to talk religion.


    The best evidence I have as a believer is something I can’t pull out of my soul and present to you so I won’t bore you with that. It is from your post that I wanted to offer you what I see as “faith” by science.

    “you minimise the value of the scientific method, or you think that a scientific view is just as biased as an unscientific view”

    I have a problem with many scientific theories because of the scientific method.

    A core principal of the scientific method is observation. Go past the written age of man that is a spec on the proposed geologic time scale and what has man actually observed that he could postulate on?
    I know that scientists believe that the geologic record is a layered consistently structured data sample to work from but who observed it to form in this way?

    Carbon 14 has a half life we can measure but who was there measuring the amount in the atmosphere when that particular object being tested was laid in the ground? Who observed it to be so?

    If the earth formed and has a history that was not over eons it breaks the tenants of all that uniformitarianism seeks to explain. But who observed it to be so either way? No one can provide that proof.

    If I am generous to give man 10,000 years of observation out of the 4.5 billion years of earth that comes to about %0.00022 of time given to observe the conduct of this planet.

    If I were to apply the scientific method to baking a cake and could magically freeze time and devote my study of the cakes behavior and composition during %0.00022 of the cakes life cycle, could I definitively quantify a cake by this method?

    Perhaps not the best analogy but I hope you see my point. These are where I see faith in science. What do you make of concepts like irreducible complexity?

  17. Anonymous permalink


    So what is your point? That we are puny little things when compared to the ages of time?

    Here’s a nice analogy that I’ve read before:
    During a session in courtroom, person A is testifying against person B who was involved in a brawl the night before. B is trialed for biting C’s ear.
    Then, the lawyer asked A, “Do you see B biting C’s ear during the brawl?”
    A answered, “No.”
    The lawyer asked again, “Then how do you know B bit C’s ear?”
    A calmly replied, “Because I see B spit out an ear piece during the fight”

    You see, we don’t need to actually be there fully observing the whole thing to land on a conclusion. We could deduce things from the results, the records, the remnants of things. Sometimes, we could create a model that represents it in a more timely manner (such as proofing evolution theory in bacterial resistance against drugs).

    You are so much deluded in your ‘faith’ that you see science through ‘faith’. There is no such a thing as ‘faith’ in science.

  18. Hebron permalink

    My point is not that we are puny little things compared to the ages of time. My point is explicitly that I have a problem with many points of science today because of the standards of the scientific method, namely observation.

    I can appreciate the logic behind your court room analogy but it is a gross oversimplification of what I am talking about. To draw a parallel to your analogy and carbon14 dating lets look at the analogy and ask different questions.

    A saw C spit out a piece of B’s ear: I do not deny the existence of carbon14 or that we can closely measure the levels of it.

    The lawyer then asks A, describe to me the shape and density of the portion of the ear that remained on C’s head based on the chunk that came out of B’s mouth. And there is one more catch, do it without ever seeing C because he died seven to ten thousand years ago.

    This is the problem I have with science such as carbon14. “C” wasn’t at the bar last night.

    If I were to propose that the carbon14 levels 10,000 years ago were ten times higher than the present levels how could you prove me wrong? If I were to propose that the levels at that time were ten times lower could I prove it? The answer to both questions is no. The idea that atmospheric fraction of 14C/CTotal has always been constant is an assumption.

    For carbon14 dating to be scientific the atmospheric fraction of 14C/CTotal would have to be documented at every period of time, but even then this would obviously destroy the dating method. You could no longer dig up an item and and “date” it based on its half-life because once the constant is removed the half-life is relative to the conditions of the atmosphere at any given time.

    So if you or I can’t prove this, what has it become? It could be called deduction or a theory but if you believe in something you can’t prove isn’t that called faith?

    “You see, we don’t need to actually be there fully observing the whole thing to land on a conclusion”

    I think Aristotle was a pretty smart guy. He and others though drew a number of conclusions not fully observing the whole thing. One result of that line of thinking: the geocentric model.

    When you stand on the earth and see the sun move across the sky you could deduce that the earth is standing still and that the celestial objects revolve around the earth. Deductions and reasoning aren’t necessarily truth.

    Science is supposed to be based on the cold hard facts that can be reproduced. Where there are theorys that can not be reproduced or ever measured yet someone still believes in them I say, that person has departed from provable facts, AKA science. Welcome to the world of faith.

  19. Are you by chance espousing the God of the gaps? Given that you think some scientists make too many assumptions and too much conjecture, it’s funny you should bring up irreducible complexity, as it is a pseudoscience.

    You seem to be quite confident in the precision of your definition of faith. You’re playing some sort of semantics game here with it, stretching it out so that it inevitably will encompass all of human thought. Your problem is that when you stretch it out so far like that, it becomes meaningless as a tool to attempt to put religion on the same epistemological level as science.

    Neither you nor I can prove that the universe wasn’t created 30 seconds ago with everything in place and all of our memories intact. Neither of us believe this is true, therefore must we call it faith? Humans cannot ultimately justify their reliance on induction, therefore must we declare this behavior of ours to be faith? You cannot ultimately prove that there are any objective facts whatsoever, or that anything actually exists at all, so therefore must we call everything faith? Does faith lie at the heart of all human action? Joseph Smith certainly thought so. This is a very broad definition of faith, and it makes sense to me if we want to call it that for the purposes of this discussion. However, with this all-encompassing definition of faith you have inadequately papered over the very real epistemological differences between religion and science. You have merely pointed out that both are inherently human concerns.

  20. Hebron permalink

    Thanks for responding. “God in the gaps” is not a very compelling argument in my opinion and was not what I had intended in my comments. I am merely trying to address flaws that I see in science that I would have a problem with regardless of my personal faith.

    How is irreducible complexity pseudoscience? It is obviously not my idea and it has been proposed and considered by real scientists. It is interesting to me that the media disclaimer that Lehigh University has on its website for Behe encapsulates the point I was making earlier.

    “While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific.”

    Carbon14 levels in the past have not been tested experimentally and should not be regarded as scientific is my whole point. I don’t see anywhere where I extended an over reaching all encompassing argument that we can’t even take the air we breathe as real.

    Classifying my questions as hyperbole fails to address the questions I have asked. I am asking questions about specific theories in science, shouldn’t this litmus test of proof be applied to all of science and not just minority opinions?

    To try to be clear my definition of faith is stated pretty well by Wikipedia.

    “Faith is the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.”

    Because topics like carbon dating have problematic areas that can not be proven I call it faith when someone believes in that theory. I never said you must call anything faith, you can call it whatever you like. Maybe to some faith is a four letter word, it is not intended to be a gotcha. I am interested in discussion, I am not trying to win you to my side. You might have some answers to my questions, I might have some questions that you or someone else find compelling.

    I really like your embedded links. I had never heard of Hume before, I will be reading more from those links.

  21. Irreducible complexity is pseudoscience for all the reasons you are uncomfortable with carbon dating and much much more. It is intellectual surrender. It is an instantiation of the God of the gaps philosophy. It says, “I can’t possibly think of a way in which these parts could have evolved, because golly gee they work together so well and if you changed even one of them it wouldn’t work anymore. Therefore, it must have been designed by an infinitely more complex being (for which there is no explanation).” It’s an argument from ignorance. Behe has already been humiliated in court with this issue. It is religion pretending to be science. So many claims of irreducible complexity have been soundly refuted that it isn’t much more than a bad joke anymore. If you’ve got a better way to make an irreducible complexity claim other than “gee I can’t figure this out, so it must have been designed,” then I’m sure the scientists would love to hear your idea.

    I’m not a carbon dating expert, so if you truly want to zoom way in on that particular thing, I’m the wrong person to be talking to about your concerns there.
    All I know is that science is about going as far as you can on the best information you have. It sounds like you have a real problem with scientific theory. You say it requires “faith” to accept or utilize scientific theory as a means for understanding the universe. Sure, you can call it “faith”, but it is by no means the same thing as religious faith. Stephen Hawking describes it:

    A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

    Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis; you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory.

    It sounds like this carbon dating method is based on a theory, and a cursory googling of the subject suggests there have been efforts to test the theory and calibrate the measurements. It sounds to me like you don’t really have a problem with science, but that you think scientists are being unscientific by not questioning the carbon dating theory, or accepting it as cold hard fact and ignoring the uncertainties involved. That would certainly be unscientific, but I’m not convinced that is what is happening. It’s probably just a useful theory that has been accurate in its (testable) predictions so far. If you’ve got a better scientific theory that blows carbon dating out of the water, I actually think you will be praised by the scientific community rather than be tossed out as a heretic. That’s the lovely thing about science. It’s pretty good at self-correction that way.

  22. Hebron permalink

    Thank you for your insights into irreducible complexity. I asked about it to get a skeptics viewpoint and I feel you provided that. I of course don’t agree but I can see why you think it is bunk. I think the argument goes equally the other way though as the proof to how did this evolve this way. Behe’s theory isn’t provable but I haven’t seen anything provable to support the evolution of such complex functions either.

    “It sounds to me like you don’t really have a problem with science, but that you think scientists are being unscientific by not questioning the carbon dating theory”

    You hit the nail on the head, that is all I have been clamoring about. This inconsistency in science in many areas bothers me. I like the Hawking quote and feel that the greater the spectrum of even one of the arbitrary elements has for error the greater the skepticism of the theory should be.

    If you want to read more about carbon dating I found this to be informative.

    I was taught in science class growing up that scientific theory was just that, a theory. It is not on the same level as a law. No one this side of the loony bin challenges gravity. It seems over the last few decades that theories such as evolution and carbon14 are portrayed as if they are so concrete you could walk on them. There are those Hawking described arbitrary elements to the theory that if they are wrong make a monumental difference to the theory or disprove it all together.

    To someone that has never had a “spiritual” experience that convinces them of deity and has just analyzed the world and found science to be the most plausible, I have nothing but love. If not for my experience I could be that person.

    I see too many though who belittle and discredit the merits and intellect of any one who opposes their institution. I don’t differentiate between someone like that and the self righteous Pharisee doucher Mormon that would just as soon spit on you as look at you. That kind of person is invested in their agenda and not open to new truths that would threaten their established motive.

    I agree about the self correction of science, all it takes to turn the world on its head is one Newton or Galileo. Unfortunately for me I am just a chump with an opinion and a keyboard.

  23. Sorry to interrupt the conversation, but there was one thing I wanted to address:

    I was taught in science class growing up that scientific theory was just that, a theory. It is not on the same level as a law.

    In science, theories are not “just” theories. The fact that “theories are not on the same level as laws” is because the two do not reside on a hierarchy — one doesn’t “graduate” to the other. So it’s not true that a law is a “theory with more oomph,” or whatever else.

    Laws describe what happens in nature, given certain conditions. Theories explain how nature works. Both are based on tested hypotheses, a large body of empirical data, and are supported by great numbers of scientists in particular fields. (see: )

    So, this is why there are both theories and laws of gravitation. Newton’s law of universal gravitation describes in a mathematical equation what happens between every particle, and this description is for the most part solid, but explanations of gravitation are a bit hairier (e.g., when you have incredibly fast objects…Newton’s explanation for things doesn’t work quite as well…thus we have a differing theory of general relativity. However, it’s not that Newton is far off…using Newtonian mechanics, we still get a great *approximation*)

    But it’s not the case that the “theory” of general relativity is “just a theory.” We are still observing phenomenon in the universe and are trying to explain it.

    In this way, whenever you have a theory, there is also a *fact*. This is the observed empirical reality that the theory attempts to explain. So, the “theory” of evolution tries to explain the *fact* of evolution. it’s trying to explain stuff that actually happens and has happened and continues to happen. Basically, to discount a theory, you then have to find some other explanation for the facts that have happened that predicts *at least as much* as the old theory did.

    OK, y’all can continue your conversation…

  24. Hebron permalink

    What bothers me is when theories are presented as if they are absolute. If there are holes in theories that fail to explain or still have room for arbitrary elements then I would think one would like to keep room in their minds for exceptions to those elements. To those that do, I say good for you.

    I wholly disagree with the structure of needing to have some other theory fully worked out and proved to disprove another theory. If a theory has untruth in it then the theory is untrue as a whole. Just because the real truth has not been explained should not be the cause to keep on sustaining an untrue theory.

    This only harbors complacency and to me is not truly scientific.

    Theory: I am cool
    Truth: I am a nerd

    In the case that I can not figure out what I am, going on with my life thinking I am cool does not make me cool.

    I know, you can’t measure coolness, that was just for fun.

  25. Hebron,

    the issue is that the wholeness (or hole-iness) of a theory must be driven by observed inconsistencies. (e.g., the scientific idea of falsification born through testing the predictions made of theories.)

    Scientific theories are so sweeping (you say “absolute”) because until we see the problems, that is our methodological assumption. So, to extent there ARE holes, and to the extent that science relies uponn falsifications (getting your name on a theory requires you to find holes in the last guy’s), science IS openminded. So, you are launching a criticism of science that is mostly unfounded.

    “If a theory has untruth in it, then the theory as a whole is untrue.”

    Wow, this is totally wrong. This reasoning would make Mormonism totally wrong too by its own reasoning…if you want to go there.

    You can have details incorrect while still getting the overall explanation correct. Remember, whether a theory is confirmed or disconfirmed, you still have a body of evidence that needs explanation. A theory that approximately explains the vast majority of data but fails under certain different conditions does not become invalid for the majority…if you want to assert this, the burden of proof is on you to show lurking variables that account for pervasive agreement.

    This seems to suggest you have a very different (and nonstandard) definition of what is or is not scientific.

    Take for example your “theory”. It doesn’t even follow basic science about theories. For example, where is the hypothesis that makes testable predictions? Where is the testing and retesting? Where is the empirical data?

    Science would require all of these for a theory. You do not, because your example quite simply is not scientific.

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