Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Geek-Atheism Corollary

Is there a relationship between being a geek and being an atheist? An article at Shuzak/ has looked at this. First, I want to appropriate their definition of "geek" which I found good except for one large problem:
They are the people that collect information almost compulsively and nurture deep understandings of very obscure branches of knowledge. .... They find great joy in learning a new thing, to extending our knowledge and sharing knowledge with another that can appreciate it.
Yes, I believe geeks are compulsive information fiends. The joy geeks find in knowledge is undeniable. But it does not necessarily mean they are intelligent. I love crossword puzzles, even though I'm horrible at them. The joy I get from these puzzles doesn't guarantee me the ability to solve them. In the same way, a love to learn does not guarantee the tools to use the gained information intelligently or the have the deep understandings the article refers to.

Unfortunately, I found the rest of the article to be just as hit-and-miss as this definition. The article makes 5 points:

  1. Geeks are different and tend to look beyond mainstream ideas, including religion.
  2. Geeks do not need religion as a social interaction.
  3. Geeks are awed by the complexity of the universe and dismiss the idea of a creator as overly simplistic.
  4. Geeks think logically, which leads to a bias towards logical conclusions instead of faith-based conclusions.
  5. Higher intelligence leads to a desire to disprove ideas they cannot make sense of.
This starts out well but starts to misfire quickly. The first two points I agree with and will not comment on. But I find the last three points full of flawed reasoning, flawed assumptions, and flawed observations.

I should point out that I do agree with the premise that for many people a strong geekiness can lead to atheism. I think this is simply due to the use of the same analytical thinking used to absorb (successfully or otherwise) large amounts of information. That said, I definitely have problems with this articles arguments:

The Complexity of the Universe:
One of the claims from Intelligent Design proponents is that "irreducible complexity" is a sign that a designer was necessary. Typical examples that IDers point to are the mammalian eye and the bacterial flagellum. They are such complex interactions of many elements, say the IDers, that intermediary steps with some of these elements only partially developed are not possible. Therefore a designer must have taken control. ID opponents point out that the mysteries of the eye and flagellum development have already been unwound, and that a series of simple evolutionary steps is easily accountable. Compare this to what the article says:

From the delicate and intricate dance of subatomic particles to the raging of stars thousands of times larger than our earth, the complexity and beauty of the universe awe many of those geeks who have looked deeply into physics. It might make sense to think that many such geeks simply find something as simple as a creator an overly simplistic explanation for something so elegant.
It almost sounds like they're defending Intelligent Design, doesn't it? Scientists aim for the simple, not the complex -- such as the grand unified theory. The beauty of E=mc2 and F=ma are not ones of complexity, but of simplicity. Scientists believe that the simpler the answer, the more likely it is to be correct. Hence the success of evolution! I believe the author of the above statement is confusing complexity with scale. The universe is huge, but scientists believe that it runs on simple laws and interactions with simple particles.

On the other hand, I don't find the idea of a creator to be a simple one. An omnipotent, omniscient, eternal god that was able to create the universe and everything in it in six days must be more complicated than anything he or she has created. Just because theists don't try to explain the existence of their god doesn't mean that their creator is simple.

Logical Conclusions and Bias:
While it is true, as the article states, that scientists and geeks rely (or, at least, tend to rely) on logic rather than faith, I have trouble with its conclusion. Here is what the article says:

Because they are intelligent, they believe that their approach to problems is right. Religion has no place in science. Most of what we know is gathered from reading, watching and hearing various mediums. Since we choose what to read, watch, or hear, all three of these faculties are fundamentally biased. Since geeks have a strong bias towards logic, the end result is a disbelief in a higher power, which relies on faith.
I don't think atheism has anything to do with being biased. The author's argument is that logic leads to bias against illogical thought, which leads to atheism. I do think logic and critical thinking can lead to atheism, by not by way of a bias. The critical thinking leads directly to the conclusion that there is not enough evidence to support a god. This is almost like saying that a mathematician produces correct answers because he is biased against answers that are not produced by a problem's solution. It's not a bias, it's a conclusion.

Contentious Intelligence:
This argument claimed that being more intelligent leads to a greater desire to argue with those around you. There are two goals when arguing a topic. One is to prove the other person wrong, the other is to play devil's advocate in order to more fully investigate an idea. Coming from a college where I got to hear a lot of brilliant people debate, I can say from experience that intelligence does in fact lead to argument, usually of the second variety. But this article seems to adhere to the first variety: proving others wrong. From this article, it sounds like the act of proving someone wrong is akin to feeding your intelligence, which leads to geeks debating theists about their established beliefs. I have two problems with this.

The quickest and most reliable way to be rewarded for intelligence is to prove someone else wrong (critical thinking). Such a strategy gives you an immediate result and also establishes a sense of superior intelligence. Being constructive is much less rewarding. .... This leads many intelligent people to spend time attempting to disprove many established ideas that do not make sense to them.
The idea that critical thinking is only more satisfying when used to disprove other ideas rather than constructively build new ones is a nothing more than schadenfreudian snobbery. There are the occasional scientific revolution now and then, but most of the time scientists are happy expounding on others ideas, not destroying them. Isaac Newton famously said, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

But the more problematic claim is that it is an atheist's goal is to disprove established ideas. The purpose of an atheist's logic is not to disprove a higher power -- it's to reveal that there isn't any evidence supporting a higher power. You can't prove the nonexistance of anything. As Dawkins says, you can't prove beyond a doubt that there aren't fairies in the bottom of the garden. I can't prove beyond a doubt that a 6,000 year old invisible dragon isn't sitting right next to me. Bertrand Russell's famous case for this was that you can't prove without a doubt that a teapot isn't orbiting Mars right now. There is no proof supporting it, but you can't disprove it either. (The authors' article does mention this later in the argument -- but why didn't they realize the fault in this claim I don't know.)

This is the position atheists must take with theists. Fantastic claims require fantastic evidence, and we all need to remember that atheism is the default, neutral position. The belief in a higher power is the fantastic claim, and that is what requires fantastic evidence. It is not on our shoulders to disprove anything, but it is on theirs to prove it.


Pastbyer said...

"Because they are intelligent, they believe that their approach to problems is right."

No, being a geek myself, I can safely say that being intelligent often means you're the first to know when you're wrong.


Naomi said...

I must be a geek!

Too bad I'm not a computer-geek--I sure could use some more savvy...


Naomi said...

David, I still can't find an email addy for you, so I can't forward the email I received about a new Carnival of the Godless that would be perfect for you. It's for positive and uplifting secular humanist posts. You can even offer to host one of them in the next months!

So please email me: