Saturday, February 11, 2017

More on Ricky Gervais Interview

The interview with Ricky Gervais, which I had linked to and discussed in an earlier post, raises more interesting points that are worth commenting on. About ¾ way into the video the following exchanges take place between Ricky and Stephen:

Ricky: We want to make sense of nature and science, and it is too unfathomable. Everything in the universe was once crunched in some small atom.

Stephen: But you don’t know that. You are just believing Stephen Hawking and that’s a matter of faith in his abilities. You don’t know it yourself. You are accepting that because someone told you.

Ricky: But science is proved all the time. You see, if we take something like any fiction, and any holy book, and any other fiction, and destroyed it, okay. In a 1,000 years time, that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in a 1,000 years they’d all be back because all the same tests would give the same result.

There are several issues with those remarks. Firstly, his equating the Bible (and other “holy books”) with “fiction” is part of his belief system. That doesn’t make it true. There is no scientific “proof” that the Bible is fiction. It is part of his belief system. He presents his belief system as though it were established fact. There is no “science” that can prove that the story of Moses, or the story of Jesus to be fiction. Just because he thinks it is, doesn’t make it so. He wants to tell us that his belief system is superior to other people’s; or that his belief system is “fact,” while everybody else’s is “fiction”. It is a bit arrogant of him to do that. There is no proof that his belief system is superior to anybody else’s; or that his is “fact,” while other people’s is “fiction”.

Secondly, his claim that if the Bible and all other holy books were destroyed, they would never come back, is equally questionable. If there is a God who gave them to us in the first place, the same God could give them back to us again—or reveal his will to us again through other prophets in the same way that he has done in the Bible. The assumption that they wouldn’t come back, or that the same God would not or could not reveal his will to us again as he had done before in the Bible, is again part of his belief system. It doesn’t make it true. He keeps presenting to us his belief system as though it were some kind of objective fact, when it isn’t.

Thirdly, his assumption that all of the “science” would come back is also questionable. He fails to distinguish between scientific fact and scientific theory. Scientific facts would come back, but not scientific theories. It is a scientific fact that the earth is round and not flat. That would come back. But the Big Bang is not a scientific fact. It is a scientific theory, which may or may not be true, in which case it may not come back. Evolution is likewise a scientific theory, not a scientific fact. If it is true it would come back, but not if it is false. Just because a lot of people believe in it doesn’t make it true.

In that interview he makes other comments which can be challenged. At some point earlier he makes the following statements:

Stephen: Is there a prime mover [God]? Is there a demiurge that started everything?

Ricky: Well, outside of science and nature I don’t believe so … that’s the thing, I’m an agnostic atheist technically. Agnostic means no one knows if there is a God. So everyone is technically an agnostic because we don’t know. An agnostic atheist is someone who doesn’t know there is a God or not, as no one does, …

Stephen: So you are not convicted of your atheism—you are not sure.

Ricky: Well I am because atheism is only rejecting the claim that there is a God. Atheism isn’t a belief system. … this is atheism in a nutshell: you say “There is a God”. I say, “Can you prove that?” You say, “No.” I say, “I don’t believe you then.”

There are quite a lot of false assumptions, incorrect statements, and logical inconsistencies in those comments. Firstly, an agnostic is someone who takes the position that no one knows (including himself), and is therefore neutral on the issue. That does not translate into saying that no one really knows whether there is a God or not; or that anybody who doesn’t know is therefore an agnostic. There are many who do know, or at least claim to know that there is a God; and there are many more who don’t know, or don’t claim to know, but believe. A believer is not an agnostic by definition. Secondly, I can turn his interrogation round to him. It goes like this: “… you say, ‘There is no God’. I say, ‘Can you prove that?’ You say, ‘No.’ I say, ‘I don’t believe you then.’ Atheism is not as clever as he thinks it is. If I can’t “prove” to him that there is a God, neither can he “prove” to me that there isn’t; and I have a lot more “witnesses” on my side than he does.

The meaning and definition of the word “knowledge” also becomes important here. What do we mean when we say we “know” something? When does “belief” becomes “knowledge”? I have never been to Eiffel Tower or to the great wall of China, but I can confidently say that I “know” that they exist, because of the abundance and credibility of the witnesses. I could still be wrong of course. It could still all be a great hoax. But I think I can trust my judgement enough to be able to say confidently that I “know” that they exist. Do I really “know,” or am I just “believing?” At what point does “believing” become “knowing”? The witnesses for the miraculous events described in the Bible may not be as numerous or as recent, but it doesn’t make them any less credible. Whether I decide to believe in them or not is largely a matter of personal choice, and how much credibility I am willing to give them. The assumption that they are all “fiction” is entirely his choice. There is no “science” that can prove it either way. It is part of his belief system. It doesn’t make it true.

The other problem with his remarks is that he can’t make up his mind whether he wants to be an atheist or agnostic. He wants to be both at the same time. He wants to have his cake and eat it. He wants to play both sides of the table at the same time. He wants to be an agnostic when it suits him, and an atheist when that suits him. He can’t, unless he changes the meaning of those words completely. “Agnostic atheist” is a self-contradictory statement. It is like saying “Christian atheist” or “Muslim atheist”. “Agnostic atheist” is a contradiction in terms. You can’t be both at the same time—unless hypocritically. You can be an atheist, and falsely pretend to be a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or an agnostic. That is possible. But you can’t literally be a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, or agnostic—and an atheist at the same time. That is a self-contradictory claim. It is like being six foot tall and a midget at the same time, or like being a baby and a grandpa at the same time, or like being a vegetarian and a meat eater at the same time. You can’t—except hypocritically. You can pretend to be a vegetarian, while secretly eating meat without telling anybody. That is quite possible. But you can’t literally be a vegetarian and a meat eater at the same time, because that is a contradiction in terms. There is no such thing as “agnostic atheist” unless you change the meaning of those words, or unless it is meant to be taken hypocritically.

The discussion then continues as follows:

Ricky: … So you believe in one God I assume.

Stephen: … in three persons, but go ahead.

Ricky: Okay, … but there are 3,000 to choose from, …

Stephen: I have done some reading, yeah.

Ricky: Okay, so basically you … deny one less god than I do. You don’t believe in 2,999 Gods, and I don’t believe in just one more.

Stephen: Right.

That comes from the following quote by Richard Dawkins:

The implication of that is that just because there are 3,000 false Gods, there can’t be a true one. Where is the logic in that? The ultimate question is not how many Gods there are, but whether the universe has a creator, or whether it was a cosmic accident. Did we come from nothing, and disappear again into nothing; or do we live on, and will be held accountable for our actions in this life? That is the real question everyone faces. If we came from nowhere and disappear into nothing, then life is meaningless and we might as well commit mass suicide; or commit any crime we like provided we don’t get caught. But if life continues and has meaning, then how we live our lives in this world matters, and we need to be more careful about it.

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