Bill O’Reilly, Tides, and the God of the Gaps

The following link is a Bill O’Reilly interview with David Silverman, President of American Atheists:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XEgkViLbTk&t=1m40s

I love the look of shock on David’s face right after the “tides go in, tides go out, never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that.”. I think, however, David is completely ineffectual at conveying his point and looks like a jerk. As a followup, Bill responds to a letter in this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyHzhtARf8M

Here he concedes that the Moon causes the tides, but then adds a number of other questions:

  1. Where did the Moon come from?
  2. Where did the Sun come from?
  3. There is order in the universe. Where did we, in all of our intricacies come from?
  4. Why life on this planet and not on the other planets?

He states that, given this observed order in the universe, that it takes more faith to believe this was all luck, rather than in God.

Although many scientists would laugh at these questions, that is the wrong response. These are reasonable questions! They are ignorant and (because Bill should have done a bit of research before asking them), uninformed questions but they are reasonable first-questions one asks. If one is honest about getting answers (which I don’t think Bill is), there are ready answers to these direct questions but it seems to me that the intent of the questions is a bit different.

First he says we can’t explain the tides. So we explain the tides, with gravity and the Moon. Then he asks “where did the Moon come from?” He could have just as easily asked “where did gravity come from?”. It is clear from this line of questioning that there will never be a final answer to satisfy him. Each time we answer one, there will be concepts that that one builds on, etc…

This is classic God-of-the-Gaps, but it is something that I think needs to be dealt with in a more subtle way than David Silverman and many other atheists seem to do. I think most people, rightly, have a sense of wonder about the amazing order in the universe. I think most people immediately attach this order to a creator, the nearest cultural deity, because they don’t have any alternative: they are not informed. In order to dissuade them, I don’t think that insulting their deity is effective because they take that as insulting their sense of wonder, and then science seems like a sterile, arrogant, unimaginative bully.

We need to find a way to enhance their sense of wonder, and yet dismantle the notion that this requires some external deity. We need to keep the spirituality, as a secular notion espoused by Carl Sagan, Sam Harris and others, because that is what is really driving the issues for most people and we need to push the use of the deity farther and farther away from daily life. Science has to be seen as a creative endeavor, one which fully respects the wonder and awe we all see and feel as we ponder the universe.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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