Drop the ‘Straight’

I used to think the column “The Straight Dope” was pretty good, and well researched. I was first introduced to it about twenty years ago, when it was carried in the local independent newspaper called, for some unknown reason, The Independent (this is a local publication, not the British one.) Many years later, I found it online, and made a habit of stopping by semi-regularly to see what was new, and even reading past columns. Still do. The no-nonsense style of the column tended to succinctly skewer some of the weirder claims left untouched by mainstream media, and be a voice of reason among ads proclaiming the wondrous properties of Vitamin B complexes for stress reduction (remember those?)

But it seems the head honcho, Cecil Adams (which may be a pseudonym) has been slipping from such standards recently. I’ve already briefly dealt with his take on nuclear power, which completely dodged the largest issues and made some claims worthy of industry shills (look for the third highlighted link in that rather long post, if it helps.) Just a few days back, he gave his indications of wishing to rejoin lame-duck mainstream media with his slippery answer to the question, “Does god exist?”

For someone who claims to do research, Adams somehow never mentioned that his potential “proof” of god’s existence is widely known under another name, the Cosmological Argument (which I’ve also dealt with.) This is a shame, because anyone wanting to know more would find a wealth of information using that term in a search engine, most of it showing the Cosmological Argument to be the sophomoric failure that it is. Adams’ entire reason to trot this trope out is that, if we assume ‘first’ cause to mean ‘underlying’ cause, then there certainly could be something like that for the universe as we know it, and if you want to call that god, then you’re all set. As the message repeated from so many religious folk goes: stop there and don’t ask any more questions!

Because, of course, in the guise of an underlying cause, such a force is indistinguishable from the four fundamental forces, or ‘interactions’ if you prefer, that we already know and deal with constantly, two of which being gravity and electromagnetism (the other two deal with the binding of atoms.) Now, please note that Adams is not saying that something akin to gravity is created by god – he’s saying that it is god. Or could be considered that, if we found it, and we might, because there must be something.

Not a mention of how this really doesn’t represent any god that anyone invokes, ever, and even stretching like a child’s toy to elevate the mystery to supernatural status, still only constitutes a weak form of deism, unlike the monotheism that is sought in its place. Not a word about how theology is simply a method of finding a reason for an answer already decided upon. No exploiting of the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how learning, and science itself, really works, by bringing up the idea of using facts to lead towards a conclusion, and the actual existence of something (like electromagnetism) to lead into the investigations of the cause. No consideration that ‘proof’ is interchangeable with ‘preponderance of evidence,’ and doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy. Not even the simple analogy of Santa Claus and the Sandman, cultural concepts that are rampant yet, curiously enough, not supported in any way* – the reader may draw their own parallels.

I’ll be fair: Adams might have shied away (or been chased away by his editor) from simply saying, “No.” Even most atheists have been far too accommodating in allowing how a definitive statement of god’s non-existence is logically impossible, though we have no trouble whatsoever with saying the exact same thing about Santa and the Easter Bunny. We do this because the lack of evidence, and the historical sources of such stories, is enough to make the simple statement that they do not exist, and fretting about this being a definitive absolute truth statement is what we get to see instead of a decent argument for actual existence (much less evidence.) Most of the people on the planet do the exact same thing with god – just not the god they believe in, but each and every one of the other gods throughout history and cultures which they examined just as closely as their own (which is, “not at all.”)

But let’s be real, Adams’ answer is not dodging the issue; it’s actually paying lip-service to a puerile concept that is logically, rationally, and scientifically corrupt. It not only has absolutely no reason to be invoked, it doesn’t even work as intended. And in an age when fundamentalists are trying every trick in the book to get accepted, and with elections rolling around, what we really need is some straight-forward, hard-hitting commentary, and even just a simple demonstration that critical thinking is a good thing. Instead, we get Cecil Adams’ featherbrained sellout. And he gets paid for it, too.

* Yes, I know there is historical evidence for Saint Nicholas. That’s not who children think is supposed to be coming down the chimney, is it? Plus, I’m sure we can all agree that he’s gone now, right?