11 Oct 2009

Science vs. Religion: Doug Casey Edition

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I clicked on this recent LRC article because–as an academic in the front lines of the climate change debate–I am particularly sensitive when fans of the free market dismiss global warming as “a hoax.” That phrase could mean many different things:

(1) The best science tells us that human activities are increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere, and this is partly responsible for the rise in global temperatures since 1750, but government efforts to punish CO2 emissions etc. will cause more harm than good. (I would definitely agree with this.)

(2) There is no conclusive evidence that human activities have anything to do with the increase in global temperatures since 1750. (I have read credentialed natural scientists making this type of claim, but I can’t say who’s right. I would need to be an expert myself in order to say NASA expert A is definitively wrong while MIT expert B is definitively right.)

(3) CO2 concentrations haven’t been rising; this is a lie by the environmentalists.

(4) Global temperatures haven’t been rising; this is a lie by the environmentalists.

I am comfortable saying that (3) and (4) are not supported by “the science.” Even people at the Heartland conference–premiere “skeptics” or “deniers” like Lindzen, Christy, et al.–agree with the basic premise of the IPCC theory, namely that human activities release carbon and–other things equal–this would lead to higher global temperatures. The primary debate is over feedback effects, and thus how much of a temperature increase results from a certain amount of economic activity. (And even then, the economists come in and wonder how much of an impact a given temperature change will have, and then the political economists come in and wonder if Barney Frank is really going to lower global emissions with tax policy.)

In any event, it is Sunday so I am allowed to talk about religious things as well. (That is my deal with atheist readers of Free Advice.) So here were two passages from the article that struck me as funny. (Note that technically Casey isn’t the author of this, so perhaps Louis James, his editor, is inaccurately reproducing what Casey actually said.)

So here’s the first statement:

The world will come to an end, of course, maybe even before the sun dies in about five billion years. But these people have no perspective at all. They don’t realize that the earth is just an insignificant ball of dirt, in a nothing/nowhere star system, in a nothing/nowhere galaxy – of which there are billions, each containing billions and billions of stars. And that’s just in this universe. There’s reason to believe that there’s an almost infinite number of universes like ours, with new ones being created virtually every second.

Casey (if quoted correctly) is talking as if these are self-evident facts. Science can demonstrate that the earth is a ball of dirt, but not that it is insignificant. Science can demonstrate that our sun is a star among billions of others, but not that our solar system is nothing/nowhere. Even if it’s true that every living thing on earth today, shares a common single-celled ancestor, that brute fact by itself doesn’t mean that humans have no higher purpose.

Also, as an aside, just how much “reason to believe” is there that there are an infinite number of parallel universes? Many years ago I dabbled in that sort of speculation, but if I recall correctly, wasn’t the primary reason for such a view that you need it to make sense of why life evolved in this universe? By definition, we can’t observe things in other universes, so there’s certainly no empirical evidence (unless I am missing some subtlety). And is it really true that these new universes are being created every second–rather than every nanosecond, every minute, every hour, or every fortnight?

My point here isn’t to jump up and down on Casey’s musings, but rather to underscore that the “hard scientists” are prone to flights of fancy that are as whimsical as wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Let’s check out another quotation:

[Doug Casey:] …I have to say I’m not sure I care if mankind is going to survive –I’m not sure why anyone should care, since most of us aren’t going to live more than three score and ten years anyway. Perhaps the world ends when we end… Mankind’s future seems beyond any individual’s concern, at least beyond the lifespan of your immediate friends and family. Too much worrying about things beyond your control can turn you into a busybody.

[LJ:] You’re speaking as one with no children. Having children, I have a different view on that.

Doug: How about your great-great-grandchildren, whom you’ll probably never meet?

L: I’m not so sure about that. Life is already longer than it has ever been in history, and medical technology keeps advancing. And that’s not even getting into nanotechnology. I believe my generation may live for centuries, aside from violent death and acute, fatal illnesses.

Doug: Well, I’m sympathetic to that view. But the morality of caring for one’s posterity is a philosophical issue we can perhaps discuss another day. For now, I’ll say that I don’t like to think of myself as a survival machine for my genes – so I don’t give a damn what happens to my genes. I have my own plans. The consideration I would have for my children, if I did have any, would be reserved for those who earned it as individuals, not just because they’re my children.

I think anyone who actually has kids will agree with me that the last sentence (which I’ve put in bold) is almost laugh-out-loud funny. It’s like when some extreme libertarians tell me, “If I had a kid, I would reason with him, and explain that he shouldn’t run into the street, but ultimately it would be his decision.” Right, and that’s probably why you don’t have a kid.

Casey’s (quoted) statement is all the more ironic for me, because my pastor actually uses that angle quite a bit to get people to stop feeling so awful about their sins. He will say something like, “God loves us unconditionally. We don’t have to earn it. It’s not like your girlfriend or boyfriend, where you love them so long as they meet your standards. For those of you with kids, think of it that way. Do you love your kids because they’ve met your objective criteria for being worthy of your love? Of course not–you love them because they’re your kids. And that’s how God loves us.”

Also, I should clarify that–contrary to Casey’s implication–you don’t love your kids because you think, “Heh heh, half of those genes are mine. The planet is mine!” It’s because you have known them from birth (in the standard case) and have watched them develop, etc. To the extent you “see yourself” in them, a lot of it is because they copy you. (Although Bryan Caplan might disagree.)

Finally, let me acknowledge that Casey could easily say, if he read this blog post, “Well we’re just different. I don’t need some fictitious Daddy in the sky to shower me with undeserved love. If you need that as an emotional crutch, so be it.”

To that type of view, I have two answers: First, I actually doubt the rugged atheist individualist is as happy as s/he maintains. To take an extreme example, Ayn Rand’s personal life was not one I would wish on her followers. (And of course, there are televangelists who demonstrate that belief in Jesus isn’t sufficient for a stable personal life.) When I was an atheist, I actually ended up going down a pretty bleak road psychologically, a topic I may someday return to. But of course I can’t speak for everyone. I don’t know what’s in somebody else’s head.

Second, and more definitively: I do NOT believe in God because it makes me feel good, or because “I don’t want to live in a world with no meaning.” Say what you will about my Sunday posts, I hope you will admit that I am not making feel-good arguments. I have been trying to show that the Christian worldview is not irrational, in the sense that atheists think it is.

I believe that there is an omnipotent Being who created all the universe, including each of us. And thank God He considers us His children and loves us more than we can possibly imagine!

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