Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dinesh vs. the Giant Weasel God

This morning I came across an article describing a book called Life After Death: The Evidence.   When I saw that, I clicked on the link with considerably more eagerness than my pre-coffee state would normally allow.

It wasn't, honestly, that I was expecting anything like a fair and balanced (to borrow a phrase) treatment of the subject.  I doubt that anyone is really completely unbiased on the topic.  However, it wasn't until the end that I realized that the article, and the book, were written by conservative author and Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza, whose views certainly don't represent the skepticism I would hope to find in writing that claims in its title to be evidence-based.

The main claims of D'Souza's arguments seem to be based upon near-death experiences.  He emphasizes the commonality between different people's accounts of near-death experiences, and discounts the claims of psychologist Susan Blackmore, who first put forth the hypothesis that the similarity of NDEs (such as the well-known "tunnel of white light") come from the effects of brain shutdown as the person dies.

Now, before I proceed, let me state outright that I don't know whether there is life after death or not.  To me, the jury is still out on that one, and frankly, I expect it still to be out until the point when I take that final leap into the dark myself.  At that point I will know, or not (because there will no longer be any "me" left to know anything).  NDEs are intriguing (as are stories about ghosts and hauntings and so on), but at this point, as evidence they strike me as pretty thin.  Still, it's an interesting idea, and should good evidence come my way, I would certainly be willing to reconsider my position -- as befits the attitude of any true skeptic.

After that, however, D'Souza jumps right into the kind of pseudoscientific blather that is so often used to give apparent support to tenuous theories. To wit:
For the Christian conception of life after death to be viable, there have to be realms beyond the physical universe that are quite literally outside space and time. This is what the Christian concept of "eternity" means. God is eternal and heaven is His eternal realm. But in Newtonian physics these concepts made no sense, because time was presumed to extend indefinitely into the past and the future, and space was presumed to stretch unendingly in all directions.

Today, however, you just have to wander into an introductory college science class to see how 21st-century physics has greatly widened our horizons. Today scientists routinely speak of hidden dimensions, multiple realms, and even multiple universes. What do we know about multiple universes? Not a lot, but we know that if they do exist they would have laws radically different from those in our universe.

One of the direct implications of the Big Bang is that not only did the physical universe have a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. Space and time are properties of our universe. This means that in realms beyond our universe, if such realms exist, there might be no space and no time. Suddenly the Christian idea of eternity is rendered intelligible.
The first thing that is apparent to me from the preceding paragraphs is that D'Souza himself hasn't wandered into any introductory science classes himself lately.  To pick out only the most egregiously false statements from this passage:
  • Newtonian physics has nothing in particular to say about god one way or the other.  It doesn't claim that time or space was/is unending, it simply describes how objects in this space move and interact.
  • The "hidden dimensions" he refers to probably come from the concepts of string theory, which is based in mathematics of (at my last reading) up to eleven spatial dimensions.  Most string theorists believe that all but three of those spatial dimensions are "curled up" into a space far smaller than the volume of an atom; it's hard to see what those submicroscopic dimensions could affect on the macroscopic scale, far less what bearing they might have on life after death.
  • Ditto the "multiple universes."  Both string theory and the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics (which he seems to be referencing) are as yet unsupported by experimental evidence.  Plus, his final statement, that multiple universes, if they exist, are known to have radically different laws, is simply false.  The fact is, we neither know if multiple universes exist, nor if they exist, what kinds of physical laws they might have.  The book Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees explores the idea of what the universe would be like if the physical constants that shape it (such as the strength of gravity) were different.  But given that we don't know why the current universe has its constants set the way they are, it's hard to draw any conclusions about the likelihood of other universes having other laws.  And once again, I'm hard pressed to see what relevance it would have to an afterlife, in any case.
Last, he does a good bit of atheist-bashing, implying that atheists are either blundering about with blinders on, ignoring the "preponderance of evidence," or else are engaging in wishful thinking because they're afraid of being held accountable in the next life for their own misdeeds.  In his words:
I began by leveling the playing field between atheists and believers.  Sure, the believer hasn't been to the other side or questioned any dead people, but the atheist hasn't either.  So what information does the atheist have that the believer doesn't?  None.  The absence of proof is not proof of absence, so the atheist's denial of life after death, like the believer's affirmation of it, is ultimately a faith-based position.
Naturally, I take exception to this stance.  The only "faith-based" part of my own thinking is that I usually try to rely on hard evidence before adopting a stance one way or another; my "faith," if you can call it that, is that reasoning and evidence are the best way to understand the universe.  And while he is correct that "absence of proof is not proof of absence," that well-worn statement becomes a little specious when you apply it to particular situations. Let's try:
  • I believe that Bigfoot exists; you don't.  Because belief and disbelief are equivalent, "faith-based" positions, it's up to you to prove to me that Bigfoot doesn't exist.
  • There are thousands of first-hand accounts of UFOs, which amounts to a preponderance of evidence. If you can't prove that these people are lying, or deluded, UFOs exist.
And so on.  To me, whether belief and disbelief are equivalent depends entirely on what you're expecting me to believe in.  If you want me to believe that there is a Giant Weasel God who lives at the top of Mt. St. Helens and that He was directly responsible for the 1980 volcanic eruption, then I think that the burden of proof is on you.  On the other hand, if I disbelieve in the existence of the sun, then it's beholden upon me to find evidence to support my relatively non-intuitive viewpoint.  As always, Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.

Despite my criticisms of D'Souza's claims, no one would be more thrilled than me if there really was hard evidence of an afterlife.  I'm not really all that excited about the concept of Ceasing To Be.  However, to quote Carl Sagan, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying or reassuring."

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