Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Grace Alive Meeting

Grace Alive is one of the Christian groups on campus. In the interest of an intelligent discussion, AgASA (UCD Atheist group, which I'm essentially a member of) attended a talk given tonight (and obnoxiously publicized through signs every meter (really) around the quad) titled "Reasonable Christianity, Unbelievable Atheism" by Richard Spencer, a leading electrical engineer at UCD. Our turnout was quite good, as we managed to fill the front five rows as a group. He presented five of life's biggest questions and compared the answers an Atheist and a Christian would give.

To be frank, this lecture was little more than frustrating. Where Dan Barker stood in front of us for an hour and gave a very entertaining examination of faith and how its meaning changed to him, Richard Spencer used powerpoint to slam us with page upon page of 12 point vague quotes from random sources and used Christian rhetoric to sidestep what felt likes holes in his argument (This is a generalization from a tired and frustrated Atheist).

I took two pages of notes at Dan's lecture. What he said was very focused and reducible to key points. I spent two hours furiously writing tonight, and I'd rate my concept capture at maybe 25%, and that's generous. You can see my physical fatigue through my writing. By the 5th question, I had all but given up, and that shows in what I'm able to write about, let alone recall.

The Introduction
Before discussing the questions, Richard laid out a very reasonable framework to make sure we understood the implications of terms he was using throughout the talk. This was quite reasonable and very helpful for not getting hung up in details that would otherwise not make sense.
  • Faith: This is nothing more than believing something without proof. This is to be contrasted with the Biblical definition of faith, which is believing in God, which is less useful in a discussion between an Atheist and a Christian.
  • Proof: A collection of arguments that a reasonable person has no choice but to agree with.
  • Reason: The ability to apply formal rules of logic to analyze a proof.
Very useful definitions of the terms, considering, and not what many would intuitively assume. I became a bit nervous that he would begin building these long ladders of logic to prove stuff with, since any more than this would become unruly.

I also enjoyed his introduction to Gödel's first incompleteness theorem, which states that any system of logic is either incomplete, or contradictory, which makes sense. Every formal proof is based on some set of Axioms, which are left unproven, since they are obvious. To prove one of them would require more axioms, which aren't proven yet. Large systems of logic can be reduced to an incredibly small number of axioms (ie Mathematics), yet there will always be a set of axioms which are assumed.

Question 1: Is the Universe a closed system?
An Atheist would say yes. God doesn't exist, so there is no external force to act on the system. RS then pointed out that a closed system must be eternal, and contain all of the information required to produce any subsection of the system. He then so cleverly pointed out that we all must agree that information can only be produced by something that is intelligent, because otherwise it would just be noise. Therefore, since we all agree that humans did not exist from the beginning (which is also impossible), God must be real to have created us, since that information didn't exist beforehand.

It was at this point I developed a sinking feeling in my gut which never went away.

RS also made sure to point out that the Atheistic argument of multiverses is irrelevant, since that is just pushing the question of endlessness out one layer. He will not tolerate an argument based on recursion. Unfortunately, multiverses don't not fit the requirements for a closed system (See how I was tricky there with the double negative? Welcome to hell). A widely agreed theory is that our universe began with a big bang, and will end with a heat death, but we've made no observations about the multiverse, and cannot make any arguments about it not fitting any requirements.

Question 2: What is man?
Atheist: We are nothing more than an animal. We evolved from other animals, and are nothing more than a wet computer. God is a construction of man.
Christian: We are completely different from animals. God created us with both a body and soul.

RS believes in evolution. It is visible every day in organisms such as germs and parasites. What he does not believe in is Darwinism, which argues that all diversity came from evolution. You can see a creek carve a ravine out of the side of a hill, which leads you to find the Grand Canyon not unbelievable. It's simply a matter of scale. But on a qualitative level, the ravine and a canyon look generally the same. Evolution is the same way. Qualitative changes such as beak shape and color are possible through evolution. What isn't possible is entirely new appendages. Wings can't just sprout out of an animal so they can fly. Evolution doesn't work like that.

The next argument used the phrase about monkeys on typewriters generating Shakespeare. He showed that generating 39 random characters time and time again statistically precluded every find the phrase "TO BE OR NOT TO BE THAT IS THE QUESTION" since 2739 > 1055. Concerns later raised about the lack of any kind of selection process were shot down with how this is obviously an over simplification and any more meaningful examples would be far too complicated to present in two hours.

Also (notice how he's just piling all these arguments on?), note the Malaria germ, which infects 254 million people per year (I may have miscopied this in hast), and each infection produces trillions of individual germs, there is such a possibility for evolution, why aren't Malaria germs sprouting wings already?

Finally, what about AI? If we're truly all just wet computers, then we're all completely deterministic, which implies no free will. That is completely preposterous. Of course we have free will, RS says. Except there is fundamental differences between a wet computer and a dry computer; that's why we've had so much difficulty simulating one in the other. On the other hand, why not? If you made two identical copies of me, and places them in identical situations, I would expect all of my reactions to be the same. We are deterministic. Our "will" is the deterministic feature. We can change what we want to do, but that changing of want is deterministic. I have no problem believing that, and see nothing wrong with it. This was really the first argument he made which really upset me due to its weakness. From here it was a painful hour long downhill slide to the end, with increasingly vague arguments based on more assumptions difficult to capture in real time.

Question 3: Why are we here?
The Atheist has to say that there is no reason for us to be here. It was random. Because of this, we have no moral values (He actually said this, no joke).
The Christian knows that God put us here from a reason, which only he knows, or can understand (This blanket excuse for everything illogical in the world was used extensively throughout the rest of the talk). God provides a absolute definition of moral values and what is right.

Note: In the question and answer session at the end, I asked his which channels God uses to convey this absolute moral truth to us. He first pointed out to the rest of the audience how strange it was I used the term channel. He then said that the Bible is how, as well as my conscience, although this can become scarred through sin (read: it only works if it agrees with the Bible, otherwise it's broken).


Question 4: Why is there evil?
Again, RS's Atheist has no choice but to say that there is no such thing as absolute evil, since there is no absolute truth, since no one is able to define it.

Only other thing I bothered writing down about this question was a note about a 10 line long quote (in a powerpoint, mind you, and not the only one by far) about how the line between good and evil only runs through each own's heart.

Question 5: What happens what we die?
Atheist says we die, Christian says we die and go to heaven or hell. First thing in at least half an hour I could agree with him on.

So why then, he asks, do Atheists all say things like "She's in a better place now" at funerals? This was the first time our entire group of Atheists audibly broke into laughter, which is commendable. He continued on with many more vague generalities which weren't true, but at this point I had had it and gave up on trying to keep up.

He closed the formal talk with the point that it is impossible for an Atheist to ever disprove God, because every Christian knows and sees God every day, and Atheists are unable to disprove that relationship any more than disprove that RS's mother is real.

Questions and Answers:
I was really hoping that our group would try and keep this civil. There was irritation after some quite nonsensical questions were asked at the Dan Barker talk, and I hoped that the questions asked would have more thought to them. However much I disagree with everything RS was saying, it was no excuse for how other Atheists were acting.

There was double edges questions about ridiculous hypothetical situations. Questioners were actively trying to paint his arguments into a corner with oversimplifications and slamming his simplifications throughout. I made an honest effort to ask an intelligent question about God's channels of communication, and I feel his response to it did much more to undermined his credibility than him arguing with some jerk in the front row over whether God would ask you to rape an eight year old girl or not.

Dan's talk on Friday allowed me to have respect for Theists and suggested that, even with different religious views, there is no reason we can't coexist. At one point, RS tonight literally compared gay marriage to seeing a blind man walking full stride off a cliff, and it's our obligation to not condone such sinful behavior, regardless of their beliefs. Besides everything else, I find RS repulsive based soley on his intolerance of others in the US based on religion.

Overall, both the speaker and the audience were a disappointment, and this was easily the most miserable two hours of this quarter.

4 comments:

  1. easily the most miserable?
    damn...either it was a lot worse than i thought after reading through this, or you totally had a better quarter than i did.

    funny how hearing about people like this is at times a more compelling reason to feel atheist, than hearing about actual atheists. bah.

    misandry ftw -_-

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  2. Yeah, it was miserable. But now I have a better understanding of that type of Christian's "world view." I may not agree (as in I DON'T) but to understand where they come is helpful in understanding them as a whole.

    Even though, atheists have no moral code and you know, people are just wet computers and the only way to find meaning and value in human life is Jesus Christ.

    He is not representative of all Christians. NO ONE can represent the whole spectrum of Christianity.

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  3. of course when i said "misandry" i really meant misanthropy. whoops.

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