Why I’m a scientist and a skeptic

guestThe most common question I am asked about the Brights is, “What does a non-religious club do?” This is a response, formed from group work and discussion with friends, the Brights, Secular Society and Carl Sagan:

Life is important. Everyone wants to make the best decisions and try to understand why and how we are here. We all know there are bad people out to take advantage of our gullible selves, like textbook publishers and Scientologists. Our minds are so powerful we can believe impossible things and be completely tricked by illusions. We are familiar with being wrong. We should always be skeptical when making important decisions in life.

Consider shopping for a used car for college. You checked the maintenance log, oil quantity and quality, odometer and tire wear. If you weren’t comfortable doing this yourself, you asked qualified skeptics like your parents. It is not enough to think about how happy you will be to have car, or how nice the salesman is. It matters that the car works. All this for a temporary and cheap car. Picking an entire world view to guide our lives certainly deserves careful selection!

These past centuries have seen exponential growth in our standards of living, technology and understanding of our reality. We have climbed high and seen the surrounding vast vistas entirely by implementing the scientific method. The listing of our achievements through science swamp any other source of knowledge. New observations always trump incorrect hypotheses over time by a self-improving feedback loop of transparent peer-review and repeated experimentation. We can design solutions to our troubles through engineering the application of scientific knowledge. Most importantly, all the solutions are not truths, but temporary models which may be falsified at the next, more detailed observation. It may be the best process of humility and progress, but that could be wrong too.

We live in a beautiful universe on a wonderful water planet. It is not perfect and could be any other way, infinitely better or infinitely worse. Science has opened our eyes to evidence of who we are and how we came to be. Our Kepler mission is our first space telescope with the sensitivity to find dozens of terrestrial water worlds, hardly distinguishable from our Earth. Our Planck mission will provide the clearest data yet on the creation of our universe in an evidence-backed history where about 13.7 billion years passed before part of the universe changed into a form which can understand the cosmos and by that I mean us. This is worthy of respect.

I am a scientist because I care about finding what is true, and not just what makes me feel happy or comfortable. I am an engineer to design sustainable solutions so that the intelligence which began here may continue as long as possible. I am a skeptic to protect myself and fellow humans from bad people. I am a humanist to do no evil to others; an ethical code based on the dignity and worth of all people and not based on a mandate from authority to do good. I am an atheist by using the same thresholds of evidence needed to demonstrate the existence of Zeus and Santa Claus and applying these to the Biblical God. Once we understand the standard we apply to doubt every other possible deity that humans have created, we can understand why I doubt even the most popular deity.

Our actions are directed by our beliefs, so believe well. Take interest that others believe well, too. I encourage everyone to skeptically question reality, especially when instructed not to question reality. Remember that life is the trip. I am open to new observations so I may falsify incorrect models— please contact me with repeatable evidence and falsifiable hypotheses.

Nicholas Utschig is a computer engineering senior, a member of the Cal Poly Brights chapter and a Mustang Daily guest columnist.

  • Robert G

    Thank you, Mr. Utschig, for a well-reasoned, articulate and inoffensive explanation of your choice to be skeptical of religion. As a devout Christian; I take offense at the noisy athiests who see themselves as on a crusade to “cure” us all of the “drug” of religion and spread their message with vitriolic slogans. Your column, Mr. Utschig, is respectful, thoughtful and mellow, and puts the focus on your own reasoning rather than on the rest of us who would disagree with you. It is a certainly refreshing change of pace, and I appeciate it.

    • Nicholas Utschig

      Thank you Mr. G, I understand but have displeasure at the noisy Christians who see themselves on a Crusade to “cure” us all of the “drug” of “sin” and spread their emotional blackmail mythical message with vitriolic slogans.

      • Nicholas Utschig

        I made a mistake replying in this fashion. My point was to demonstrate the backhanded nature of complementing by negating a negative thing. I missed my point.

        When complementing, I should say all the good things, and not a negative of the bad things.

  • Ceranna

    I read this article and all the view points expressed within completely agree with my own. In fact I’d appreciate more information about the Cal Poly Brights chapter. Honestly, this is probably one of the best articles I’ve read from in the Mustang Daily.

  • Jeff M

    Nicely done, Nicholas. Well written, and thoughtfully expressed.

    Props on not pressing a militant atheistic agenda, as many see to be the only way to exploit the dangers of religious extremists and fundamentalists in this day and age.

    We can\’t expect religious folks to do a 180 and suddenly despise of the very thing that directed their lives the day before. That\’s completely unrealistic. Religious people have come a long way in understanding the importance of science and social progress. That\’s something to be thankful for.

    I, like Robert, appreciate the road you\’re taking with this. It\’s a much more appropriate way to share knowledge and encourage conversation. Again, thanks for taking steps to respectfully bridge the gap.

  • http://twitter.com/FrankieSB Frank S

    Hey Nick,

    Your column got featured in the latest Brights newsletter! Congrats!

    -Frank

  • Bob Burk

    Your argument sounds much like an argument about AGW Are you a skeptic about AGW?

    • Nicholas Utschig

      I am very much and overwhelmingly convinced that humans have released hundreds of millions of years of decomposed organic biomass into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, almost doubling pre-industrial concentrations. Such a sudden change has never happened so quickly in the last several hundred thousand years.

      These greenhouse gases absorb infrared wavelengths of light, holding Earth’s emitted energy from escaping to space. We have done something terrible in our management of our resources.

      The evidence which supports the above observations is repeatable and the models are falsifiable.

  • Aarmin Banaji

    Well articulated. Congratulations.

    By the way(should I have written, BTW?), what does AGW stand for?

  • Alvin Reyes

    I venture AGW refers to “anthropogenic global warming.” But there’s a distinction between general skepticism and AGW skepticism. [http://www.jennifermarohasy.com/blog/archives/001648.html]

    I enjoyed the penultimate paragraph, especially:

    “I am a skeptic to protect myself and fellow humans from bad people. I am a humanist to do no evil to others; an ethical code based on the dignity and worth of all people and not based on a mandate from authority to do good. I am an atheist by using the same thresholds of evidence needed to demonstrate the existence of Zeus and Santa Claus and applying these to the Biblical God.”

  • Oldfart

    I’m gonna steal that paragraph and use it as a signature on my emails.
    I will, of course, give you, Nicholas Utschig, full credit for it…..
    :)
    My current signature was stolen from the 1797 Treaty with the Barbary Pirates:

    ARTICLE 11.

    As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,
    -as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,
    -and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation,
    it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption
    of the harmony existing between the two countries.

    -The Barbary Treaty of 1797 – Ratified by the President of the United States and the Senate of the United States

  • ryan moriarty

    “Once we understand the standard we apply to doubt every other possible deity that humans have created, we can understand why I doubt even the most popular deity.”

    quick dickriding richard dawkins :)

    • Nicholas Utschig

      It is not once nor twice but times without number that the same ideas make their appearance in the world.

      - Aristotle in ‘On the Heavens’

      The Brights shortened/copy-edited a similar quote for our 2009-2010 club shirts.

      The car skepticism analogy is based on an argument I first saw from Carl Sagan.

  • Logan Tavelli

    Jesus is my homie. I think science and christianity, as well as any other religion, go hand in hand. Do you beleive in a God? It seems as though science points in that direction.

    • Todd Wilkinson

      Hi Logan,
      Members of The Brights do not believe in a god or anything beyond the natural world. Your position of science pointing to the direction of a god is one that I find extremely curious because I find the exact opposite to appear from science.

      One of the most important things to remember is that science has continually debunked religious myths over and over again and will likely continue to do so.

      If you aren’t talking about a god found within an Earth religion, just an ephemeral deity that is the source of the universe, I would ask that you consider removing that deity from the equation. If what you need to create the universe is a creator, what created the creator? Occam’s razor tells us that the presence of a creator for this reason is illogical.

      Feel free to contact me (you can find me on Facebook or look me up in the student directory) if you would like to chat about the what The Brights are all about and how we interpret the world around us.

      Todd Wilkinson
      CP Brights Vice President 2009-2010

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    I see the models of science disagree with most parts of most religious world views. Science points towards some overall rules, most importantly that energy is conserved and therefore, miracles don’t happen. Think Genesis, walking on water, turning water into wine, etc.

    I don’t yet believe in anything supernatural because I have not observed anything needing supernatural explanation nor any supernatural event. When I do, I’ll update my model.

  • http://thriftstorereligion.wordpress.com Liz

    Wonderful article and comments :)

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