Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Physics vs. Prayer

I have always been quite surprised at how kind and considerate emergency response personnel (police, fire fighters, paramedics) can be. I do not think I have ever met one who struck me as an individual who was just doing his job and collecting a paycheck. They have always provided a level of kindness and concern that could never be motivated by “just collecting a paycheck.”

Yesterday evening, the bus that my wife was riding home stopped at the stop before hers, when a fairly large vehicle hit the back of the bus at full force. This was at the stop before that which my wife Lesley typically gets off at. She called me from the bus (cell phones are a wonderful invention) and I walked over to meet her. Seven or eight people were going to the hospital. Lesley’s injuries were minor. We spent about 4 hours in the hospital, then walked home.

The driver of the other vehicle left the scene, but was arrested a short while later. Or, at least, a person was arrested who was alleged to have been the same person who left the scene of the accident.

The laws of physics being what they are, the impact imparted energy into the bus, causing the bus to suddenly accelerate forward. However, the impact did not impart the same energy onto the passengers of the bus (inertial dampeners not yet being standard equipment for RTD busses). So, the passengers, being at rest, tended to stay at rest until acted upon by another force. That force was typically some other part of the bus.

The laws of physics being what they are . . .

This is one of the nice things about having people understand the laws of physics. The laws of physics being what they are, it is possible to make reasonable predictions about what would happen to the bodies on a bus, when the bus is struck from behind by a fairly massive vehicle going appreciably faster than the bus (relatively speaking).

Knowing these things, it becomes possible to determine explain and predict what will likely happen to a bus under such circumstances, and to make design changes to reduce the amount of damage that people are likely to suffer.

Using these tools, it is possible to preserve and protect human life.

In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that a better understanding of physics and an application of those principles to events such as rear-ending a bus will do far more to prevent injury and death to humans than ‘praying for a safe trip’ ever will. Even if society’s investment in ‘praying for a safe trip’ (in terms of the hours that people spend and the institutions established that cater to the practice of praying for a safe trip) were a million times that invested in understanding the laws of physics and applying that understanding to the design of busses, the physics option will still save more lives and prevent more injury than the prayer option.

In fact, I hold that the prayer option does not save any lives or prevent any injury – that the only practical tool we have for this end is the application of physics to the problem of bodies in a bus when rear-ended by trucks.

Another aspect of the case that I mentioned above is that the driver of the vehicle that hit the bus left the scene of the accident. The police apprehended a person whom they believe was driving the vehicle that hit the bus. I understand that they have strong reason for believing this – that they caught the person in the vehicle as he was leaving the scene.

The laws of physics being what they are, it seems most reasonable to believe that the person who was apprehended was the same person who was driving the vehicle that struck the bus and who left the scene of the accident.

The point that I want to stress here is that the decision that the person arrested and the person who fled the scene of the accident are the same person is a conclusion that we tend to insist be based on evidence. If we were to discover that the person was arrested because some detective, used an Ouija Board that spelled out the name of the accused, this would not be considered good enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

What if the detective, instead of using an Ouija Board, reported that he prayed and asked God to identify the culprit? If there is a God, then He should know who the person is, right? So, it seems, we would have to consider this to be a very reliable source. If God said that the accused is guilty, then the accused is guilty. He might as well confess.

Of course, we do not accept this type of evidence in a court of law either. In fact, we consider it highly suspect. Though, I am curious as to why those people who will not accept religious testimonial in a court of law where the fate of a single person is at stake, have no problems hearing that President Bush used the same type of evidence to determine matters of national policy – that he prays for guidance, and does whatever he thinks God tells him to do. We will not send an accused criminal to jail on the basis of this type of evidence, but we will condemn millions of people to war (as soldiers, or as potential ‘collateral damage’) based on this type of evidence.

I am not saying that legislation requires the same standards of proof that is required in criminal courts – proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

[Okay, sometimes I argue that legislation requires this type of evidence. A right means that there is a presumption in favor of a particular view, and that this presumption must be outweighed by the evidence against it. A right to freedom of speech means that freedom of speech is the default position. However, freedom of speech is not an absolute right – people cannot say whatever they want to say whenever they want to say it. The proverbial case of (falsely) yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater is an example. However, the right to freedom of speech means that the judges should start with a presumption in favor of the speaker, and side with those who would silence him only upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt. However, this does not apply to all legislation, only to legislation that is stood up against a right.]

What I am saying is that the same types of evidence permissible in a trial are the only types of evidence that are legitimate to deciding how to vote on legislation.

Along these lines, there is another question that I would like to make a standard part of the political process. I will add this to the list of questions that I want to see become a standard part of the political process. “Candidate A, this question is for you. In deciding on how to vote for a policy, will you base your decision only on the types of evidence that would be acceptable in a court of law? Or will you go outside that list to include evidence considered sufficiently unreliable to justify sending even one person to jail – evidence such as divine revelation, astrological calculations, or favors for those who contribute to your campaign?”

We are accustomed to hearing of the big ticket items where religion has been a source of harm. Yet, we can find our examples even in something more mundane, like a traffic accident. Here is an excellent opportunity to take the time to ask which option would save the most lives and prevent the most injury; prayer, or physics? If we add up all of the small gains that we could make in human well-being with a population that devoted a fraction of the time they now spend studying scripture to studying science, it may reduce the big-ticket items to insignificance.

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