Sunday, August 9, 2009

Here’s the thing about my biochemistry professor

I’m not gonna name names here, but if you have taken Biochemistry at CSU, you know who I’m talking about. If you haven’t it’s really not important anyway. Note: This is more long-winded than I prefer, but necessary if you want to get the whole picture. Second note: As you read this you will notice obvious bias on my part (and his), however, I try to represent our discussions as objectively as possible. If his arguments are misrepresented, it is purely unintentional.

So I’ll start from the beginning. My first day of summer Biochemistry (doesn’t that just break your heart? “Summer Biochemistry” – those words just do not go together) My prof announced to the class that he wanted everyone to know that he was a Christian, that he believed Jesus Christ died for our sins, yatta, yatta. He also said that he has ontological evidence, cosmological evidence, and scientific evidence to back up his claim, and he invited any student who doubted him or just wanted to discuss religion to speak to him about it.

This irked me a bit, but I was just going to let it go. However, after a few days the idea of discussing religion with this guy took root and was growing. Eventually, I got to the point where I had to know what his “evidence” was for his convictions. Was it going to be the same arguments I have heard a million times by theists? i.e. “Look at the complexity! It has to be designed”, “If there is no God, then why are people good?” and my favorite “Because the Bible says so.” Or was it going to be something fresh and new that I had not heard of yet? I had to know. So I stayed after class one day and asked him.

His argument right off the bat was First Cause. He said that something or someone had to set events in motion. "If we go back to the beginning of what we know as time or the universe we come to the big bang. We'll what started the big bang? What existed before the big bang? You can't have an infinite regression of events. You have to have a supernatural being outside of space and time to bring it into existence. I call that thing God."

I said, "Okay, one could make a reasonably intelligent argument to that end. I personally would not buy it, but it can be argued. However, it is a big stretch to go from a first cause to Jesus dying for our sins and resurrecting."

"True," he said, "it is a stretch, but I have reason to believe that as well. You first have to ask yourself if you believe in miracles, which I do. If you believe that miracles are possible, then you have to examine the bible and determine if it is an accurate account of history." I said that obviously couldn't be done because the bible's account of actual events was sketchy at best. He disagreed saying that if I believed that the works of Aristotle or Plato was an accurate account of what actually took place then I'd also have to take the bible with it. He said that because there have been so many manuscripts of the bible found (specifically the new testament) that scholars generally consider it to be an accurate representation of history, since, he said, the method they use for determining historical accuracy in the number of manuscripts available. I mentioned that at that time all copies would have had to be hand written. He said that the Jews back then used a painstakingly meticulous method of transcribing that was amazingly accurate, and that every account holds up.

I told him of an interview I heard on Fresh Air where Terry Gross interviews one of these scholars he speaks of, who says the exact opposite. He said that the bible is wildly inaccurate, due in part to the massive amount of human error in transcribing the texts. He said that some error was due to honest mistakes and others to the person transcribing writing in their own agenda. I also told him of something I heard on Radio Lab where it was discovered that the "666" in revelations that is supposed to be the mark of satan or “the beast" was actually a typo and the real number was 616. I also told him that I heard on a different Fresh Air interview another guy was interviewed who a bible scholar who read the old bible manuscripts in hebrew or greek (or whatever the oldest texts are in) and that the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are full of discrepancies and contradictions, and they are widely believed to have not been written anytime near the life of Jesus. Perhaps even 200 years after the fact. He said that he has heard about the gospels being questionable, but does not believe that to be the case.

So I asked if, since he seemed to believe in its historical accuracy, if he thought the bible to be literally true. He told me he did. "Even the resurrection, turning water into wine, Jesus walking on water, and all that?" He said that, yes, all that. So I asked, "Since you believe in miracles, do you believe in all of the miracles that the major religions profess, or do you just believe in the Calvinist miracles?" He skirted that question. I went on to ask him if he had ever witnessed miracles. He said no. I asked him how, as a man of science, he could possibly believe these things. He didn't really answer that question either, except to say that it was difficult.

It was at about this point when another student who had been observing our little back-and-forth so far went over to the teach, shook his hand, and congratulated him for keeping the faith and fighting the good fight.

Then his next point was the argument from design. He said that our existence was tantamount to hurling scrabble pieces into an open field and getting a Shakespearean play. The human body, biochemistry (his field), and DNA are very complex and certainly has the appearance of design. I said that, yes, it certainly does. I can see how one might come to that conclusion. However, there's a Darwinian explanation for this. That being that very complex organisms can come from very simple beginnings. Given very small changes over a large period of time you can produce a highly complex creature from a very simple one. He told me he was still skeptical about evolution, and that intelligent design sounded more likely to him. He said he would never mention or teach ID in class because he would be out of a job, but that was his personal belief.

He went on to say that even if evolution is true, that still doesn't explain how organic compounds ever came together to form DNA. He said the odds of that happening would be staggering and virtually impossible. I came back with perhaps it is improbable, but just because we don't know how it happened doesn't mean that god exists. What if, in the next 50 years, with more sophisticated scientific methods and techniques we discover (or at least have a very good idea of) how the first peptide chains formed? Where is god then? You would have to do more mental gymnastics to make a reasonable argument for his existence. Or just fall back on the hackneyed belief that science has no bearing on the matter and that his existence is based on faith.

Then he asked, "Aren't you hungry? Or do you have to be somewhere soon?" I looked at my watch and sure enough, it was after one. So I said I should be at work right now, but I enjoyed our little debate. It's more fun and stimulating to discuss these ideas intelligently rather than with someone who just regurgitates bible quotes ad nauseum. He agreed, and we parted on good terms. And that, in a nutshell, was our discussion.

About a week later I decided to dig a bit and find out who these scholars were on Fresh Air that I had quoted. I really found their points interesting and I had no doubt that I would be quoting them in future debates with biblical literalists, so it might behoove me to know their names. Turns out both interviews (that were a few years apart) were the same guy – Bart Ehrman - both times appearing on NPR to promote his most recent book. The first being Misquoting Jesus and the second Jesus: Interrupted. I ordered two copies of each from Amazon, and emailed him about getting together a second time to discuss his views. The main reason for this was because shortly after our convo I thought of really great things I should have said – as I do with most conversations I have – and wanted to bring those points up to see how he would address them.

Last Thursday, we finally got some time for round two. I started off by addressing his first cause theory. I told him that I disagreed with his position that there cannot be an infinite regression of events. Why couldn’t time be infinite? I heard the theory advanced somewhere (again, no real citations on my part – “I heard this theory from somewhere . . .” - but I don’t think it’s that important) that the universe might be continually expanding and contracting. Why must there be a prime mover?

“I’m not saying that I definitely know how the universe was created,” I said “But you can’t tell me that X cannot be a possibility. No one could know how the universe was created, and yet you are telling me that it was god.”

He said, “Well there has to be a beginning to time. It cannot be infinite. Space cannot be infinite, matter cannot be infinite. Infinity is a human construct. There has to be something that transcends space and time to create all this.”

To which I replied “Why the hell can’t time be infinite? Why couldn’t the universe be infinite? You say that infinity can’t exist, yet you are invoking the infinite power of an infinite being to bring about the universe.”

He said, “Imagine this: take an infinite amount of numbers, between zero and infinity. Then take all the odd numbers and subtract them from the original numbers. How many numbers do you have left? An infinite amount. So infinity minus infinity equals infinity. OK? Now take the numbers between zero and infinity and subtract all the numbers above four. How many is that? Four. So infinity minus infinity equals four.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that we cannot conceive of infinity.”

“I am confused,” I said.

“Alright, how about this: A man is counting to infinity. You go up to him and ask him what he is doing. He says he is counting to infinity. You ask him how far along he is and he says ‘I just finished.’ Think about that. Why did he just finish then? Why not 10,000 years ago? Why not farther into the future?”

“That’s ridiculous,” I say.

“Of course it is! That is why infinity cannot exist, therefore god exists.”

I was monumentally confused. I wanted to move on, so I conceded (again, when I shouldn’t have) that the idea of a deity that created the universe is not an entirely unreasonable position to hold. “But that,” I said pointing his bible sitting on his bookshelf “Is complete bullshit! You couldn’t possibly believe that book is a good and moral one, much less is historically or scientifically accurate.”

“Why not?”

“It contains incest, human sacrifice, genocide, genital mutilation, the stoning of disobedient children and adulterers . . . need I go on? All in the name of god and righteousness. Not to mention much of what is in there just doesn’t make any goddamn sense.”

“Now you’re just quoting Hitchens,” he said.

“No,” I replied. “Ever since I was really young I have had problems with that thing.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Let’s start at the beginning. It took god six days to create the world. If he is omnipotent, why not just create it instantly? Why is there no mention of dinosaurs? Why was Eve created from a rib? And if the entire human population is descended from Adam and Eve, how was procreation even possible? Did the sons fuck the daughters? Did the sons fuck their mother? How can you get human civilization from two people?”

“Well Seth, it all depends on how you interpret it.”

“But you told me earlier that you take the bible quite literally. How can you believe some of the claims made in the bible? How can you reconcile talking snakes and water into wine and resurrection with everything that you know about science?”

“God is just, but we are fallible people trying to conceive of something so great. I just don’t think humans can really understand what god is trying to tell us.” What a cop-out. I wanted to press that thought further, but I knew I would get nowhere. “But what I do know is that, if nothing else, the story of Jesus, especially from the letters of Paul, is unimpeachable.”

“I thought you might say that, so I got you these.” I pulled out the books I bought him. “You probably won’t even read them, but perhaps one day you’ll pick them up. In these books Ehrman discussing the abundance of mistakes - intentional and unintentional – especially regarding Jesus and the new testament.” He seemed grateful for the gifts, if not grateful for their implications.

Anyway, in the interest of not dragging on even further and because I’m just tired of writing I’ll condense the rest of the discussion. So we went back and forth on a number of topics for the next twenty minutes. I asked him about the age of earth and he said he wasn’t sure if he was in the New Earth or Old Earth camp. Need I remind you that he also said he wasn’t sure about evolution either. And this is a DOCTOR we are talking about. PhD in biochemistry from Colorado State. I asked him why he is so sure that his religion is the one true one and all others are lies (he specifically mentioned Buddhism). His reply was that it is by far the most popular; billions of people can’t be wrong. Plus, there were so many people willing to die for Christianity early on and it is illogical to think that they would give their life for a lie.

He argued from experience: “I have talked to god and he talks to me. He has proven to me that he is real.” To which my reply was that when I was four Satan spoke to me in a language I did not understand while my living room expanded exponentially. And just a few years ago I witnessed trees dance, curtains breathe, and the flesh on my arm quite literally boil. Doesn’t mean it was real. In fact I know it was all hallucination. The first case was that of extreme fever. The second of LSD.

It was about that time that the both of us realized that neither could be swayed even a little bit, and that going on this way was futile. So I bid him adieu. Although, the whole enterprise wasn’t a waste of time on my part because I became familiar with some arguments I had not heard (as absurd as they may have been) and I gained a new appreciation for the power of denial and the mental gymnastics one is willing to do to hold fast to their convictions.