My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 123 Damien Broderick “Beyond Faith and Opinion”
Damien does not claim to have anything more than an average person’s grip on logic and reasoning. Thank God. I am getting tired of the technical essays. If you are planning on seriously engaging anyone on a topic like this one, logic is one discipline you might want to get familiar with. You can Google “logical fallacies” and get several hits on sites that discuss it. It is sort of a combination of speech and math. But this essay is not that. He says he will present a “meta-argument”.
He starts off telling the story of Ludwig Wittgenstein, an early 20th century philosopher. The famous anecdote goes that he once asked a colleague,
“Why did people believe the Sun went around the Earth?”
“Well,” the colleague mused, “I imagine it was because it looks as if it does.”
“Ah,” said jesting Wittgenstein, “What should it look like if the Earth went round the Sun?”
I assume this story was made up to some extent, especially since the colleague has no come back. With regards to Sun and Earth movement, yes, the heliocentric model or earth centric model would look the same. But if the Earth were moving, how would birds keep up with it? Wouldn’t something tossed high into the air seem to move away as we on the moving Earth moved away from it? Wouldn’t we at least feel a little breeze? We are moving at 1,670 mph after all? Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac), around 1000 AD had a pretty good sense of the size of the Earth and asked similar questions.
People thought the Earth revolved around the Sun because Ptolemy had a model that said it did and it worked pretty well for hundreds of years. People did not study and attempt to refute the math beyond it, anymore than I would consider sitting down and having an argument with Stephen Hawking. Scientists working in the Vatican in the time of Copernicus were studying heliocentric models, but they did not predict as well as Ptolemy, so they were not adopted. When Galileo got a good look at other planets, they finally figured it out. But I digress…
Damien makes an interesting analogy to when it is a good idea to consider disbelief. Many people disbelieve that smoking tobacco conduces to lung cancer. Knowing that humans are fallible, he considers that actively accepting that might not be a good idea.
He then shifts to his personal history, raised pious Catholic, all the way through seminary. At the end of it, he told his family he wasn’t sure about the doctrines of his faith. He goes through a pretty standard list of problems with the miracles and clergy transgressions. But not a bad read overall, and he ends saying he can’t be “absolutely” sure.
His point that we need to be aware of how we process information and decide what to believe is an important one. There was a recent Dateline NBC program that showed people being taken in by 3 Card Monte in Central Park New York. They also reproduced the famous Milgram experiment, showing how an authority figure can override our reasoning ability. You can find it on MSNBC.com, but it has commercials and the usual overly repetitious format that Dateline uses. Here is a link to a synopsis of the Milgram experiment.